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Interview Review

Satyajit Ray – Was he really ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’?

In conversation with Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much

“[O]ne would like to remember Ray as one of the last truly great renaissance men of Bengal, moulded much in the tradition of Tagore, in the sense that his genius manifested itself in manifold directions: film-making, photography, writing, composing poetry, limericks, music, designing, drawing, developing new typefaces, you name it.

“For a long time, he was also our most distinguished cultural ambassador to the world.”

This perhaps is the one of the most apt descriptions of a man whose films were legendary in our lifetime and a part of the concluding chapter in The Man Who Knew Too Much by Barun Chanda. The book is an exhaustive account of Ray and his major films, how he made the films, what were the influences he had, how he directed the films and how versatile he was. Chanda is clearly impacted by this giant of Bengal renaissance, which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the eighteenth century and encompassed Tagore.

The book is as much a memoir by Chanda about Satyajit Ray as it is a narrative about his films. Structured unusually, this non-fiction has an introduction sandwiched between two sections, the first being Chanda’s own interaction with Ray as a hero of his award-winning film, Seemabadha[1](1971), and the making of the movie; the second being the narrative that covers the titular content (borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1956 thriller), The Man Who Knew Too Much, about the genius of Ray as a filmmaker. Chanda shows us how Ray was truly unique and very gifted. He would remember all the dialogues and be intent on being involved with every part of film making, from costumes to camera, lighting and makeup — which is probably why his films had a unique touch so much so that he has to date been the only Indian filmmaker to win an honorary Oscar which Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, collected for him as he lay sick in bed (1992) breathing his last, saying: “Dear Satyajit Ray, I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”

And this note has been quoted by Chanda to bring out the uniqueness of a man who counted luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Jean Renoir, de Sica, Kurusawa, Cartier-Bresson among his friends. He has unveiled the unique persona further. “As Ray was wont to say, everything that he had done earlier in his career, helped prepare him to be a complete filmmaker. His sense of framing stemmed from his knowledge of still photography. His deep love of Western and Indian classical music helped shape him as a music director. His sense of art direction came from his earlier stint at D.J. Keymer. His power of illustration helped him design the sets of Hirak Rajar Deshe[2]and Shatranj ke Khilari[3], both marvellous instances of art direction. And a combination of these two factors facilitated his making of some of the most original and impressive cinema posters ever.”

Chanda goes on to describe the full genius of Ray’s film making which even stretched to scripts, songs — both the lyrics and music often, and of course his ability to visualise the whole movie beforehand. Ray is quoted as having said: “I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film.”

Interspersed with anecdotes about the films, the text highlights the eternal relevance of some of the dialogues and lyrics that Ray wrote himself. For example, listening carefully to the lyrics of ‘Ore Baba Dekho Cheye[4]’ (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969), one could see it as a comment from a current pacifist in today’s war-torn world. This book actually seems like an eye opener not only to understand Ray’s films, but also to find out what the world needs from the media, an important comment in times of false news and sensationalism.

However, the book is not all adulation. It is also a critique of the persona of a visionary who could risk all for realising his vision. Chanda tells us how to attain perfection, Ray could risk necks: “There was an element in Ray bordering on ruthlessness. To get a certain effect on the screen he wasn’t averse to taking risks, at times to dangerous levels.”

New perspectives are brought in from unpublished interviews: “In an unpublished Bengali interview of Ray which is in the possession of Abhijit Dasgupta, one-time chief of Doordarshan, Kolkata, when asked about his film Sadgati[5], the maestro is quoted to have said: ‘One needed to make a film on this story immediately. As a Marxist, Mrinal Sen would have probably made it differently, more angry … Had this film been angrier I’m not sure it would have served the purpose any better. I don’t think display of anger alone can lead to much of an achievement. To my mind a truly politically angry film hasn’t been made so far. Until now what has been done is to shoot at safe targets. It hasn’t made any difference to establishments in any way. If one were to achieve this kind of a thing, I would sooner be a political worker than a filmmaker.’”

While looking at the maestro through an objective lens, Chanda finds it hard not to express his affection for the giant who impacted not just him but a whole generation of movie goers, film personnel and the world. His last sentence says it all:

“As far as I’m concerned, he [Ray] is always present. Not past. Not even past perfect.”

Chanda, a man who started his life working in the same advertising agency as Ray and dreaming of being an actor, with four books and multiple films under his belt, himself mesmerised audiences as a protagonist in Ray’s award-winning film and then suddenly withdrew from the industry for two decades. Why would he do that? Let us find out more about him and Ray in this interview.

Barun Chanda

First of all, let me tell you I am very honoured to be interviewing a Ray hero from a film I have watched multiple times. So, tell me, why did you act only in one Ray film, have a hiatus of twenty years and then go back to acting with Hirer Angti [6]  in 1992, the year Ray died. Did it have anything to do with Satyajit Ray’s presence or influence?

No. I’ll tell you what – after Seemabadha, I got a cluster of film offers, nine-ten offers and I did not accept anyone of them because they did not seem to be significant enough. I wasn’t interested in making money out of films or becoming a film star. I was interested in acting in good films. If they came my way, I would do. If they didn’t come my way, I wouldn’t. I would go back to my profession which is advertising. I was very happy there.

So, these offers that came didn’t quite satisfy me. And Manikda[7] did not call me back again for whatever reasons. The other significant filmmakers like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak – they did not call me. I suppose I was branded as a capitalist actor. Or Imperialistic actor! I suppose it became ingrained in their mind I was an executive and nothing else. They felt they could not bend me into the roles in their film. A pity!

Is this your first non- fiction? What led you to think of writing a book on Satyajit Ray?

Yes, it is my first non-fiction. I had harboured this thought for a long-long time but there is a natural reluctance about writing anything. I am, by and large, a lazy person and there were a whole lot of things that were pretty personal, and I thought, you know, let it be stored in my mind. Maybe, I could narrate to my close friends’ circle certain stories and certain things that happened between me and him. But not for everyone. Even in this book, I have not mentioned a whole lot of things that are too personal, which he confided to me in good understanding that I will not tell another. I won’t speak about it.

Then the centenary year came, and many asked me why I did not write my out my memories. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri was one of them. He said the time is right and you have such wonderful anecdotes and experience, put it down for posterity. When I did the first part, I realised it could not just be my experiences but also something larger – in the sense what kind of a man was he in real life.

I was also dissatisfied with the books I have been reading about Ray and his works — starting with Marie Seton[8], who was supposed to be a gospel on Ray. I found it was a narration of his films in chronological order and what she thought of them. It was film-based assessment, not of the man himself or his qualities separated from the films. So, I decided to explore his persona. This book is quite different from any written on him. I have sections on music, editing with a whole lot of films but not in a chronological order. That is passé. The second part started with what has not been done. As I progressed, newer sections dawned on me – a whole lot of sections I have not used. I wanted a chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Ray Empire” – but then thought I’d rather not finally. It would have been terrific, but I did not, perhaps want to spoil the public feeling about Ray. I did not want to criticise. I did do a chapter though — “Director or dictator”.

Absolutely. Your book is dispassionate but has no scandals or any unfair criticism. In fact, it seems to be based on not just your memories but also many interviews and lot of research. Can you tell us what went into the making of this book in this context? What kind of research and who all did you interview? How much time went into the making of the book?

I used Ray’s experiences with actors who are no longer alive – like Chabbi Biswas or Tulsi Chakraborty. I have used Aloknanda Roy who happened to work with Chabbi Babu in Kanchenjunga[9]. I used the living actors. I did not interview Soumitra Chatterjee – I know his feelings on Ray. So, I did not interview him separately. But there is a lot in the book about how Soumitra da perceived Ray or his equation with Ray.

The book worked well for me – I would have gone to a madhouse but for this book. You have to believe me. For it helped my sanity, writing this book during the Covid period[10]. The eighteen months—closer to two years. I could really concentrate on something as I am an outgoing person – not that I am a club person – but I would like to meet my friends, lead an active life. Suddenly, I felt imprisoned – it was like house imprisonment. So, I turned my attention to writing this book and whatever I could get out of YouTube, whole lot of other’s books, Ray’s interviews. One gentleman, Abhijit Dasgupta, who was the head of Kolkata Doordarshan, had conducted an interview. He gave me part of it which I found very intimate. You could do a book on Ray and Mrinal Sen dispassionately –Mrinal’s films would be of historical importance but not of relevance otherwise whereas Manikda’s films can be watched again and again because it touches your heart.

That is so true. Your book is structurally unusual with an introduction in the middle of two parts. Why did you follow such an unconventional format? Do you feel it helped your presentation in any way?

Yes. Because I was writing a different book. No one has written a biography in two parts. In a way it is not a biography, but it is trying to understand and appreciate Ray as a filmmaker. That’s what the book is.

I was in an advantageous position to write on Ray. Actually, Dhritiman Chatterjee could have done the same. I admire Dhriti for his thinking, but I guess there is an innate laziness. He did interview Manikda but I do not know where the tapes are.

I felt the way I did it was the right way. The book came naturally to me. For somethings, I went out of my way — like the titling.

To this date, no Indian director has made a film where the title is relevant to the film. The film follows from the title. The thought is not there. But it is there in the West. That is why you have people like Saul Bass. Ray wanted to do things himself – that might have been why he did the titling too. He would draw and present to the art director who would work further on it. I should have had a whole lot of drawings in this book, but it was not readily available.

I continue to feel I could embellish certain chapters, especially on music. Debojyoti Mishra, a film music director, has written a book in Bengali which actually traces from where Ray has borrowed what piece of Western Classical music. It is not unlike Tagore – there are analogies in the use of music between the two.

Ray spent a few years in Santiniketan when he was young, I think around 1940. Was he impacted by Tagore? Can you tell us about it? Did he meet Tagore or have any conversation with him as it was a year before Rabindranath passed on?

He did not actively seek out Rabi Thakur. He was a very shy person. There is no mention anywhere in his writings about seeking out Tagore, knowing very well Tagore held his father and grandfather in great esteem. His mom knew Tagore well. But he never sought him out. It is rather difficult to understand why he did not utilise the time speaking with Tagore. Maybe, Tagore was inaccessible. I could have asked him, but I never did. I do not know why I never asked.

Why would you borrow from Alfred Hitchcock to name probably one of the last of the Bengal renaissance men? Can you please elaborate?

I thought that the title was absolutely apt. As a director he knew more than any director did. It described him to perfection. He would draw, give music and work with his basic idea with the rest of the team.

What would you say is Ray’s most major contribution to the world?

The brilliance of Ray’s portrayal of the village was outstanding. You watch the film and think you cannot improve on it. And Ray knew it and has said it.

Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?

Ray was a classicist. The film making style has moved away from that. He would not move the camera unless it became imperative to his film. But now, cameras are handheld, and they have fast shooting. Film making has transformed with the emergence of the web series. Shooting has become so much easier and quick, though they work very hard. There is something more raw about web series. The feature film is more stately, more crafted. Films have enough time. You cannot get a good film if the actors are not brilliant. You cannot shoot a good film in ten or twelve days as they do for web series. That is not physically possible. In the West, they take eighty to ninety days to shoot a film.

Ray wrote many novels on Feluda and Professor Sonkhu. Yet made few films on them. He made films of others’ books rather than his own. Can you tell us why?

Maybe, the writing part started late in his life. It was propelled by his need to feed Sandesh[11] and he had to supply stories to Desh[12] — one per year, for the puja [13]special. His writing came as an offshoot – it was an accident. But the preparation was there – if you read his scripts or lyrics, they are fantastic. The scripts he wrote were brilliant. There is much to admire and respect about him. He was a writer too.

You are known to be a writer too. Are your books impacted by your association with Ray?

What I learnt from him was how to write dialogues. The publisher of my Bengali books, Tridib Chatterjee, said he found my dialogues “smart”. Ray’s writing was very tight. I tighten my descriptions. I do not expect the readers to read a book like Tom Jones[14].

Can you tell us about your other books? Coke (2011) interestingly, is available in both Bengali and English. So, which came first — the Bengali book or the English? Are they both your handiwork? Tell us a bit about your novels?

I wrote it in Bengali first and then wrote it in English later. Actually, it was not a direct translation. I write in both the languages. Another one which is in English is Murder in the Monastery. The second edition is being brought out by Rupa, should be available on Amazon soon hopefully. Post-Covid, people have gone into hibernation. So, many have complained they cannot get it.

I have two books in English, Coke and Murder in the Monastery. The others are in Bengali.

Which genre is preferable to you — murder, mystery thrillers or non-fiction like this one?

I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.

Are you giving us any new books in the near future?

Yes, a collection of short stories in Bengali, probably after the pujas. I have created a character called Avinash Roy. He is learned and intelligent but not overtly brilliant like Sherlock Holmes. My favourite character [fictional] among detectives is that of Inspector Morse – I have seen the TV series but not read the books. He was very human. Absolutely brilliant. But coming back to my current book, it is also facing delays, but I am hoping it will be out this October.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions


[1] Translates to ‘bound by limits’

[2] 1980 film by Ray, translates from Bengali as ‘In Hirak Raja’s Kingdom’

[3]1977 film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘The Chess Players’

[4] Translates from Bengali to ‘Oh dear look around’

[5] 1981 television film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘Deliverance’

[6] A film by Rituporno Ghosh, translates as ‘Diamond Ring’

[7] Satyajit Ray – he was often referred to as such by his friends

[8] Marie Seton: Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, 2003

[9] Ray film released in 1962

[10] Lockdown due to the Pandemic

[11] A magazine started by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray in 1913

[12] A Bengali magazine that was started in 1933

[13] Durga Puja, the main festival of Bengalis, where the Goddess is said to return to her parent’s home for five days

[14] The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding

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(This review and telephonic interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Interview

Where Cultures Connect beyond Borders

Jim Goodman, an American traveler, author, ethnologist and photographer who has spent the last half-century in Asia, converses with Keith Lyons.

Jim Goodman in Nepal at Dasain being blessed by King Birendra, October 1978.

Jim Goodman is something of a legend in Southeast Asia and Eastern South Asia. His definitive guide to southwest China’s Yunnan province was the most sought-after travel book for any intrepid backpacker wanting to get off-the-beaten-track in the ethnically-diverse province bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Tibet. That’s how I first came across Jim, through the well-thumbed pages of his The Exploration of Yunnan. Back then, I marvelled at his ability to venture into areas that were only just opening up to foreign travellers, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge of different ethnic minorities. It was almost 20 years later that I finally met Jim in person in a cafe inside the old city gates of northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where he has been based since 1988. Later, on a media trip to the Golden Triangle’s eastern Shan state hill-tribe villages, I saw how Jim’s interactions, appearance (and conversation in ethnic language) endeared him to local minorities. 

He has published books in Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, China and Vietnam, and also worked with ethnic minorities, including on textiles with Newars in Nepal and northern east Indian Mizos, and on traditional handicrafts with Akha in northern Thailand. “Besides acquiring new labour skills—I was the dyer and designer—the work gave me valuable insights into the different cultural norms and ways of thinking of traditional societies in this region,” he once wrote. “My writing, research and photography reflect my fascination with history, traditional cultures and ethnic minorities, not just in the ethnologies, cultural studies and histories I’ve published, but in my fiction and poetry as well.”

You were born in the US capital Washington D.C. and raised in the Midwest in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up in the US, what do you think contributed to your interest in different countries and cultures?

As a kid I was fascinated by American Indians, especially those from the western plains and the southeast. My father taught Latin American history at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He and my mother were members, later chairmen, of the Foreign Students Welcoming Committee. Every American holiday — 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc — we had foreign guests. They were from India, Nepal, Tunisia, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria. They aroused my natural curiosity. 

How were your first experiences of foreignnessin the US and then overseas?

I stopped believing in my parents’ Catholicism by the time I was in high school and for the next few years felt like a foreigner in my own family and neighbourhood. In later years, when I was living in Europe or Asia I was always conscious of being foreign, especially in things like double pricing, but I integrated socially enough not to let it bother me. Occasionally, that worked in my favour. In Korea in the 70s, males were forbidden by law to grow their hair over their ears or past the collar. Every four or five months the police carried out widely publicised roundups. But foreigners were exempt.

What was it like growing up in the 1960’s in the US?

It was very exciting. Thanks to the civil rights and anti-war movements it was easy to challenge the system intellectually and practically. The drugs and music, a very new kind of music, also contributed to this sense of the times are changing everywhere and lots of options were possible. It was an amazingly optimistic decade.

How did you come to be in the army, and what was your experience as a soldier in Germany and later South Korea?

I got my draft notice in the summer of 1967, at the peak of the Vietnam War, when 80% of those drafted were sent off to Vietnam after training.  So I took the enlistment option, signing up for an extra two years, with one year at the language school studying Arabic.  War might be over by the time I finish the course, I thought, and anyway they wouldn’t need an Arabic translator in Vietnam.  But the Army inserted a little clause in every contract, “subject to needs of the Army,” that let them do what they liked.  When I arrived at the language school, after basic training I was told my orders had been changed. I had to go back and wait for new ones. Eventually they put me in a tank training unit, but by the luck of the draw I was in the company sent after training to Germany, while the other three were dispatched to Vietnam.

In Germany, I served in an armoured unit which was very often in the field. However, this was 1968 and I managed to get a pass to go to Paris in early June and marched down the avenues with the students and workers singing L’internationale over and over. I still know the first stanza, in French. I also met Arab officers from Jordan and Libya and took a month’s leave in the autumn to have my 21st birthday in Beirut. On my first night in Beirut, a South Yemeni staying in the same hotel told me there were three good reasons to travel.  The first was to meet the different kinds of people living in this world.  Second, was to try the various local foods and drinks.  And third, was to appreciate the scenery and historical monuments. I never forgot the order in which he listed those attractions: people first.  Throughout my trip, I wore a button on my shirt that said Restore Palestine to the Arab People, which guaranteed a good reception everywhere in Lebanon and Jordan. I was very active politically by then and the following spring published the first anti-war newspaper by a soldier in Europe. That later got me transferred to Korea, the only place there was no organised anti-war soldier activity. In Korea, I was in charge of the Photo Lab, where I learned the basic principles of photography. Also joined rock bands as a singer, so I wasn’t very political in Korea, except for some of the song lyrics.

After your time in the army, how did you get back to Asia?

I was discharged in Seattle in January 1972, went to San Francisco to live and later got a clerk-typist job with General Services Administration. Then my boss recommended me for a low-ranking administrative position. I would have been in charge of the installation of furniture in the California offices of the state’s two senators. Not exactly exciting work, but anyway I had to get a security clearance, starting with answering a questionnaire with things like ‘are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party’ and ‘do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by force or violence’.

 I answered no to everything, but within 24 hours the office got back a disapproval of my application “for security reasons”. After that news got out, everybody in the building thought I was a terrorist, and that was before terrorist was a household word. It was doubtless my activity as an anti-war soldier but it meant I would really have no future in my country. I went to Korea that autumn on a one-way ticket without enough money for a round-trip. (I don’t think that’s even possible anymore.) I met other ex-GI’s in Seoul who gave private English lessons, so I did, too. In the second year, I got hired by Language Teaching Research Center, which didn’t use textbooks and so I made up my own lessons. I spent free time among soldiers on the army base and in off-base bars and would listen carefully to their conversations. Whatever they said that I thought my students wouldn’t understand, I wrote down and worked it into my lessons. It was a wonderfully creative job and made me especially conscious of my own language.  

What happened for you to leave Korea and ending up almost dying and in jail in Nepal?

My last summer (1976) in Korea, I met travellers who had been to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. Later that year I got busted for a small amount of grass and, near the end of the year, was expelled from Korea. India and Nepal seemed a natural place to go next. It wasn’t easy in the beginning and once in Calcutta, I got robbed of everything and went over three weeks without eating. I was kind of resigned to dying by starvation but a Muslim street merchant recognised the situation, paid my bills and lent me enough money to get back to Kathmandu. Everything seemed fine but when I finally ate a meal I vomited it all a few minutes later. Body won’t take food, eh? Guess I’m going to die after all. He said don’t worry, wait a little and try again. He had witnessed the same thing with starving Bengali refugees during the break-up of Pakistan. He was right. The next meal was fine and ever since then, I’ve not worried about, for one reason or another, missing a meal or two. I missed meals three and a half weeks and got by. 

And you spent some time in jail, not just in Kathmandu but in Korea?

I was three weeks in Korean solitary confinement until my girlfriend bailed me out. Longer, about four months, in the holding centre in Kathmandu, where those arrested awaited trial. I was busted for a lot of hash but charged with both possession, 10,000 rupees fine, and exporting, 100,000 rupees fine (about 70 to a dollar then). I pleaded guilty to possession only. The judge dismissed the exporting charge because the hash was found in my home, not at any border. However, to save face, the prosecutor appealed the acquittal for exporting. The appeal had to go to the special court, which only met once a week, so cases piled up. In Nepal, you don’t bribe the judge. You bribe the clerk to put your case before a sympathetic judge. I wasn’t going to hurry up the case because then I would have to leave the country afterwards. The prosecutor wasn’t going to speed up the proceedings because he still would have no evidence and would lose again. Meanwhile, I was free to continue my Nepal life. For over a year the government’s attitude to me was like a joke. They thought I had figured out how to beat the system. The following year, I became an embarrassment and the year after that, with a new government, it became an issue and I finally got a new passport and left Nepal for a month’s holiday in Thailand.

What took you to Assam, and what made you later leave?

It was one of the few places in India I hadn’t visited yet. It had an interesting separate history from the rest of the country and was surrounded by many fascinating ethnic minorities. My first trip was in the autumn of 1979, when I was paid to take an American woman and her daughter, whose tutor I was, to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kaziranga, the rhinoceros park in Assam. The Assamese anti-immigrant demonstrations had already begun, so I kept up on news then and afterwards. In 1980, I made two trips to cover the movement for newspaper articles. I only got to visit hill people (Khasi) in Meghalaya, as the other states, and parts of Assam were closed to foreigners. I bought a lot of books about them, anticipating freer travel sometime soon. Instead, I got blamed on my third trip in May by the Delhi government for organising the Assam movement (as if they couldn’t organise themselves) and banned from re-entry.

After moving to Chiang Mai Thailand, what did you concentrate on?

Jim Goodman with a Akha girl in Thailand, 1988

The skills I learned in Nepal were those involving weaving and dyeing. I used natural dyes and designed the patterns for the looms. I had worked with both Mizos from Northeast India, who used a back-strap loom, and Newars, who used a stand-up frame loom, like that of the Thai. I began working with the Karen, who used back-strap looms. But after meeting the Akha, I conceived the idea of making Akha jackets, which were cut like Western jackets, using my colours from natural dyes and bigger to fit Western bodies. I soon dropped the work with the Karen and found enough customers for Akha jackets and shoulder bags to cover the expenses of a modest lifestyle and my research on them.

What made you decide to go to Yunnan and southwest China? When did you go, and what was the experience as the region just opened up to travel by foreigners?

One of the sub-groups I worked with in Thailand, the Pamee Akha, came directly down from Yunnan. I met a relative on one of my trips who was in Pamee to make money picking lychees for a season. He invited me to his village in Xishuangbanna, if I could ever come to China. Not long afterwards a flight opened from Chiang Mai to Kunming. I booked one for July 1992. After a few days around Kunming and Lunan County, I flew to Xishuangbanna and found out from Akha in Jinghong how to find my friend I met in Pamee. After some time there, I returned to Kunming and embarked for the northwest for a quick look that did include the Torch Festival in Ninglang. I couldn’t speak much Chinese then, but in Xishuangbanna, the Akha enjoyed the fact that the first foreigner they ever met could speak their language. People were friendly everywhere and once I started repeating visits for research, I got introduced to English-speaking locals who could assist me.  

When you first went to southwest China, did you feel you might be documenting some people whose culture would be wiped out by modernisation, and if so, has this happened?

From the very beginning I felt ethnic cultures were having a true revival but wondered how long that could last, not because of politics, as in the past, but because of the greater exposure to outside modern influences, including mass tourism. Certainly, that has happened, but not to the same extent everywhere. And mass tourism has been more disruptive. Lijiang and Lugu Lake are two obvious examples. I was lucky to have chosen those places to fully research before they completely transformed into tourist traps. In other places, like Ailaoshan, parts of Lincang and Pu’er prefectures and even much of Xishuangbanna, modernisation has been less noticeable and the traditional culture and lifestyles still strong.  

What have been some of your most memorable experiences in Yunnan?  

After watching two little Lisu girls at Lishadi cross the Nu River on the rope-bridge several times, for their own amusement, without adult supervision, I concluded:

1. It can’t be dangerous.

2. It must be fun.

Next trip to Nujiang I had a Lisu friend in Fugong get me the harness and cable hook. Made my first crossing, just for the fun of it, at Damedi south of Fugong and over the next few years carried my cable hook and rope harness to Nujiang for more rides at more locations.  

The other unique, to me anyway, research experience was my repeated visits to Lige village, Lugu Lake. Mosuo culture is matrilineal, the children belong to the mother, but also Tibetan Buddhist and each family has a resident monk. Women were definitely in charge of domestic affairs. At Lugu Lake, my friends, the folks I hung out with, got high and drunk with and had the most experiences with, were mainly women. Many of them introduced themselves to me. I only knew a few men. With every other minority, I only met women because they were my friend’s wives, daughters or sisters, whom he introduced to me. The Mosuo were really special.

From your experiences across Southeast Asia and eastern Southern Asia, what are some of the most interesting things youve learnt about hill tribes, their customs, societies, and beliefs?

They are very attuned to nature, with a cultural sense of ecological balance. Most of their festivals are concerned with important junctures in the agricultural work cycle. Their societies are very collective-oriented. Everyone has relationships with everyone else. No one ever has to feel alone.

How has learning languages and assisting local craftspeople enabled you to get inside like an anthropologist?

Learning an ethnic minority language is a clear indication of special interest in them. And they respond very favourably to that. Involving them in handicrafts production shows appreciation of their traditional arts and crafts, like a form of flattery. It also means getting to know them more personally and becoming an accepted part of their existence, making research easy.

Whats your personal approach to meeting new people, and why do you think it works?

As that pertains to my research work I always made clear to the people what my interest in them was and that I was going to write about them. Always had a positive response and when I indulged in their hospitality I followed four rules I set for myself: eat whatever they give me, drink whatever they give me, smoke whatever they give me, and sleep wherever they put me. As a result, I’ve had some really spicy food, very powerful liquor, pretty raunchy cigarettes and even opium and some pretty uncomfortable sleeping conditions. But I figured nothing can hurt me much for a day or so and the effect on them was that they thought I was a great guest. Everything they did for me seemed to work. They didn’t have to make any adjustments.  

Whats it like to be the first outsider or white personthat some groups have seen?

That happened mostly in Yunnan and was never a negative experience. I remember once about to enter a Yunnan village that was definitely off the beaten track and when children spotted me they ran back to the village shouting, “Weiguo pengyou lai!” (“Foreign friend comes.”) And then the adults came out to welcome me. I never found any animosity or impolite, intrusive curiosity anywhere I went. The local attitude seemed to be ‘here’s a chance to make a foreign friend’. Minorities were as curious about me as I was about them. And being American in China or Vietnam, in their context I was a fellow minority person.

For many of the groups youve studied and spent time with, they are spread across countries and borders. Are there differences on different sides of the borders, or does close contact mean the groups retain their traditions?

I made my first trip to Vietnam precisely to answer that question. I was researching the terrace builders in Honghe between the Red River and the Vietnam border. Many ethnic groups lived on both sides, so I travelled through the border areas in Vietnam to meet sub-groups I knew in Yunnan. Lifestyles and cultural traits were very similar. The minorities in Vietnam seemed more conservative, more resistant to modern influence, while the same minorities on the Yunnan side seemed better off economically. 

Your other interest is Vietnam. What fascinates you about Vietnam?

I was already familiar with Chinese culture when I first visited Vietnam, as well as Southeast Asian culture. It didn’t seem like such a strange place and I was able to discover what was unique about Vietnam, its separate cultural characteristics. The people were uniformly friendly, even though I came from a country that bombed the hell out of it. Yet the Vietnamese I met regarded all that as the past and now it’s different so no time for resentment. I made close friendships there easily (eventually married one) and found new topics to write books about—what was unique about Vietnamese culture, the special history of Hanoi, and how the country became one entity.

Why do you have a fascination and affinity with ethnic minorities, particularly hill tribes?

Hard to really say, but I suppose it was because I like their very different kind of living environment, the way they look and the way they act. Always felt comfortable with them.

How do you feel about the changes that have happened to minorities, such as becoming tourist attractions, or having to move to towns for economic opportunities?

It was probably inevitable. Traditional agriculture, the shifting cultivation type, was no longer sustainable due to population density growth. Roads are better and more numerous, too, so those who do move to cities can still maintain links with their villages. Becoming tourist attractions can be more of a lifestyle change. Everything cultural seems to become a commodity, something to be paid to do. In some places, the culture on display is not even their own. For example, in Sapa Vietnam, many Hmong girls dress up in fancy clothing of the Flowery Hmong because their own Black Hmong outfits are not as colourful or photogenic for tourists, who pay them to take photographs. 

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

When I first started reading world literature as an early teenager and started fantasizing about one day becoming one of the literary giants.

How do you go about your writing process?

I begin by thinking about it for many sessions, then, when it’s a book or a lengthy article, make an outline and start adding details before I actually write anything. When I do get going I often inspire myself by fantasising what a positive review might say, then add or revise something to justify the imaginary praise.

How has photography integrated with your writing?

Most of what I write requires illustration and some of it was because I had a set of photographs that sort of made a story. When doing cultural research, I photographed anything I thought might be relevant, whether it was photogenic or not, because then I would have a reference. I wouldn’t have to write down or have to remember what I saw. The photo was the record.

Is http://blackeagleflights.blogspot.com/ your main website? Where have you been published over the years?

Yes. It was set up by a young friend many years ago. I don’t make any money from it. It would have been nice to have sold all the site’s articles, but I continue it because it represents my self-image of contributing to the sum of human knowledge concerning the topics I write about. Regarding books, I have had publishers in several cities: Kathmandu, Bangkok, Singapore, Kunming, Hong Kong and Hanoi.

What projects do you have on the go currently?

This year’s project was Peoples of the Mekong River Basin: The Ethnic Minorities. It covers 23 ethnic minorities and over 100 photos, 90% mine. The publisher is World Scientific Press, Singapore and it should come out in or maybe before October. I would like to do one more book, on Lamphun and its first ruler Queen Chamadevi, the most interesting and accomplished woman in all of Thai history. But I have to find a publisher interested before I start work on it.

*Photographs provided by Jim Goodman

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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

Categories
Interview Review

The Making of Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

Aruna Chakravarti reveals how she wove a historic novel, The Mendicant Prince(Published by Picador India, 2022),  from a controversial court case that took place in the early twentieth century and created ripples through not just Bengal but the whole country and even England.

Aruna Chakravarti. Photo courtesy: Swati Bhattacharya

Perhaps we can call her the queen of historical fiction or an author inspired by history, but Aruna Chakravarti, an eminent award-winning Anglophone writer, evokes the past of a united Bengal – long before the Partition along religious lines in 1947 — repeatedly giving us a glimpse of an age where culture superseded beliefs. She recreates a period where we can see the seeds of the present sowed. In her last novel, Suralakshmi Villa (2020), she gave a purely fictitious account of a woman who pioneered changes in a timeframe that dates back to more than a century. Before that in the Jorasanko novels (2013, 2016), she brought to life the Tagore family history. By then, she had written her own family history set in the same period called The Inheritors (2004), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Award. Perhaps, her grounding comes from having translated Sunil Gangopadhyay’s First Light and Those Days, both novels set around the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She also won the Sahitya Akademi Award for translating Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, a novel again set in a similar timeframe. She started her journey as a writer translating Tagore songs for which she won the Vaitalik award. Perhaps, this grounding has made her what she is today – a powerful re-creator of history where the characters come to life. You emote and react to their statements and on their actions. Her narrative carries you with it.

Her novel based on the real story of the Bhawal Prince which was launched last month,  gives a clear glimpse of the event with historical accuracy. The Bhawal prince turned mendicant after losing his memory in 1909 in Darjeeling. He was recovering from a bout of syphilis. He fell prey to intrigue and might have been poisoned. The prince was abandoned as a corpse during his cremation and yet he survived …and then, twelve years later, he returned — having travelled through much of the country with a band of Naga sadhus — to claim his rightful place. Swapan Dasgupta, a journalist turned politician, wrote when he thought of the Bhawal case, the “Dreyfus affair in late 19th century France, the John F. Kennedy assassination in the US and the James Hanratty case in Britain are ones that come readily to mind.” He was reviewing an earlier historical narrative written by Partha Chatterjee(2002) called A Princely Imposter?, which Chakravarti tells us she has used as a resource.

Set against the independence movement and colonial era, she has painted a man, who though flawed, gains the sympathy and wins the heart of the reader. The writing is fluid and evocative. Given that the trial lasted for more than sixteen years, and his first wife and her family refused to acknowledge the prodigal prince, the story has been made into films multiple times, once Sanyasi Raja (Bengali, Mendicant Prince, 1975), the second time, a remake in Telugu Raja Ramesh (1977) and more recently somewhat anachronistic, a movie called,   Ek je Chhilo Raja (There was a King, 2018). The Mendicant Prince departs from the films in being a stickler for the period, the historicity and brings to fore events and nuances the author researched by interviewing surviving Bhawal family relatives. What is amazing is the way in which Chakravarti has fleshed out each character to make the persona real, to the point where, as in her earlier Jorasanko novels, the reader can visualise them. Aruna Chakravarti’s strength is definitely her mastery over the language and her ability to breathe life into the past.

In this interview, Aruna Chakravarti tells us how she has woven the novel into the timeframe and created a novel based on history – an excellent lesson for aspiring writers of historical fiction from the empress of the genre herself.

What moved you to write a novel on the Prince of Bhawal?

The controversial prince of Bhawal, Ramendra Narayan Roy. The top is a picture of the claimant and the bottom has the picture of the prince as a Naga sannyasi or mendicant.

I first heard of the Bhawal case in 1950 when I was about ten years old. The time was the aftermath of Indian Independence and Partition when many Hindus from Pakistan were relocating in India. A family from East Bengal came to live in the government quarter next to ours and became very friendly with us. One of its members, we called him Uncle, was an excellent story teller and regaled us with many tales.

One was about a legal case concerning a prince turned sannyasi [mendicant] then prince again. It had taken place in Bhawal, a principality in present day Bangladesh. The case was still fresh in his memory. The Privy Council verdict had been announced as recently as July 1946 and it was natural for him, still nostalgic for the land he had left behind, to wish to talk about it. I was so mesmerised by the tale that it stayed with me for decades afterwards.

I never thought of writing about it till recently, when some friends distantly related to the royal family urged me to. ‘You have already done two novels on the Tagores so why not the Bhawals?’ I didn’t take to the idea easily. It seemed too big and complex a project. Then, during the Covid years, in the state of incarceration we all found ourselves, I started thinking seriously about it. But I was constantly beset with anxiety. ‘Would I be able to pull off such a delicate operation?’ A meticulous adherence to the facts together with dates was called for since these were already out in the public domain. There was no way I could take liberties with them. A reconstruction of the life and times of the concerned people, within these limits, called for tremendous imaginative power and an equal amount of discipline and concentration. Covid worked in my favour. In the complete silence and absence of activity; in the total encapsulation of self by the mind; I found myself getting slowly entrenched in the world I was creating. A world of queens and mistresses, liaisons and stratagems, faith and betrayal and a desperate British imperialism slowly eroding under the pressure of an awakening nationalism.

It seems amazing to me now. But it worked.

What kind of research went into it? Did you travel to Jaidevpur?

No. That was one of the hurdles Covid put in my way. For all my other novels I have made it a point to do an extensive amount of field work. This time, travel being rendered impossible, I had to depend entirely on secondary sources. My chief source was Dr Partha Chatterjee’s book A Princely Imposter? It contained a treasure trove of information. Articles in Bangladeshi journals of which there was quite a significant number and other books, both English and Bengali, fiction and non-fiction, helped me to understand and visualise the context in which the drama had unfolded. The two films Sanyasi Raja and Ek je Chhilo Raja also offered a few glimmerings. These, however, were negligible. What came in truly useful was the first-hand research I had done for my earlier work such as my translations and other novels. As also the conversations I had with some distant relatives and family friends of the Bhawals.

How much of your story is fact and how much is fiction?

This question, invariably put to me in the context of my creative writing, is difficult to answer since it is impossible to put a quantum to either. All I can say is that the events the reader is taken through in The Mendicant Prince are historically accurate and documented. But the book is not history. It is a novel; an imaginative reconstruction of a prominent legal case fought in the dwindling twilight of British India. The fictional element travels beyond the case to the lives of the people it affected, particularly the women of the family. Nothing much is known about these women so I have had to give them backgrounds and contexts; personalities and distinguishing characteristics that are wholly imagined.

It is true that you have woven history and fiction meticulously and seamlessly in the book. In creating the ambience of the period, you have touched on prevalent myths such as the education of a woman results in her widowhood. You have also mentioned bedes and kheersapati mangoes. Were these actually part of what you found in the Bhawal story? Or is it something you introduced? If so, what was the intention?

No. They had nothing to do with the Bhawal case. These details were provided to intensify the ambience; to make the world of early twentieth century Bengal come dynamically alive. Reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore had advocated education for women. But the idea was fiercely resisted by the conservative section of Bengali society. Many clung to an age-old belief that educated women were liable to become widows. It was natural for Rani Bilasmoni [the prince’s mother], with her disdain for education even for her sons, to hold such a belief. In terms of the novel, this is a distinguishing trait of her character and brings into focus Bibhavati’s difficulties with her mother-in-law and her alienation in her husband’s home.

Pannalal Basu’s preference for kheersapati mangoes, along with other fictional details about his nature and tastes, takes him out of the realm of history and gives him a personality and voice. The presence of bedes at the river bank, just before the monsoon sets in, is a regular feature of the riverine culture of East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The addition of this detail enhances authenticity. In this case it provides a bit of dramatic irony as well. The band is travelling to Bhawal. Bhawal which has been the central focus of Pannalal Basu’s life for over six years…

You discussed the story with a relative of the royal family. What kind of interview did you have with him? Please share with us.

Actually I spoke to several members of the family. None of them are directly connected to the royal line. The person with whom I interacted most closely is the grand-nephew of the bara rani [the eldest queen], Sarajubala Debi. It was not a structured interview. Some family gossip and reminiscences, were shared, from time to time. That, too, mainly in connection with the bara rani. Among the bits of information I gathered, was the bricked over Bhawal vaults, filled with gold vessels, which ran across one entire wall of a room in the palace. Another was the conversation in which Bibhavati tells Sarajubala about the aridity of her sex life. I also came to know that the mejo kumar’s [second prince’s] second marriage was arranged by Sarajubala and that she had initial doubts about its suitability since Dhara Debi was small and slight and the mejo kumar very tall and hefty.

Your characters, each one are very well drawn, and the narrative makes readers travel back in time. How do you manage this? How do you gauge the reactions of the characters?

It is difficult to answer this. It has, I suppose, to do with instinct and the ability to internalise. In a historical novel, characters are conceived within a factual framework to begin with, then internalised and allowed to evolve through the course of the novel. The process is not planned. There is no strategy involved. It flows naturally and spontaneously. Not only the characters… the world that the author is recreating expands and grows in depth and richness as one goes along. Gradually it pervades one’s whole consciousness. So much so that sometimes one is not even aware of where fact ended and the imagination took over. I find myself in this state of confusion quite often. Did I read or hear about this somewhere, I’m often caught wondering, or did I imagine it?

Some women in your Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa are path breakers. But in The Mendicant Prince, they are more within the stream of history. Was this a conscious call or was it the circumstances? Please elaborate.

Suralakshmi Villa was pure fiction and I wanted to project a certain kind of woman as the central character. A woman who is far ahead of the times in which she lives; who breaks stereotypes and lives on her own terms; who dismisses societal expectations without giving it a second thought. A complex, enigmatic character whom people find difficult to understand, even a century later.

In Jorasanko, some of the characters were indeed path breakers. Digambari forbade her husband entry into his own home because, in her opinion he had strayed from the moral path. Jogmaya refused to obey her brother-in-law’s diktat that his entire family embrace the Brahmo faith, resulting in the rift that divided the Tagores into the Hindu branch and the Brahmo branch. Tripurasundari refused to give up her husband’s property. Jnanadanandini introduced many changes in the way the women of the household lived. These were real people and their actions are documented facts. There were no such progressive women in the Bhawal family. So how could I present them as path breakers?

The Bhawal case had been a mystery for a long time and no one knew why the prince’s first wife, Bibhavati, refused to recognise him. Have you figured that one out? Do you have an opinion on it?

No one knows the truth. Bibhavati’s insistence that the sanyasi was not her husband has left people baffled to this day. The case was fought many years after the alleged death and cremation of the prince and the verdicts given were based mostly on circumstantial evidence. I have tried to rationalise her stance and find a cause for it.  This is where the fictional element comes in. It lies in the kind of person Bibhavati is and her relationship with her brother. In terms of the novel, I mean. Nothing has been made very explicit. But there are hints. I’m hoping readers will be able to figure it out for themselves.

You have written historical novels before this one. You have dealt with the Tagore family ancestry and your own. How different was working on this novel?

The difference was that this one dealt with a court case the details of which were already out in the public domain. There was very little known about the Tagore women and my own family of course. For the latter, I had to depend on what I had heard from family members, which was very little. For the Tagore women project I gleaned titbits of information from their own writing, biographies of Rabindranath, and Rabindranath’s autobiographical writing. The facts being few and far between the imagination was allowed full play.  

Writing The Mendicant Prince was a different proposition altogether. The facts were well known. What could I add to them to justify a new work? And then an idea came to me. How would it be if I were to bring to the fore the women of the family who were strongly affected by what was happening but about whom nothing is known? They were only names in the drama that was unfolding around them. I could flesh out these women, give them thoughts, emotions, aspirations and distinguishing characteristics. This component would be pure fiction. As a result, the book came to be structured on two levels. It is an authentic record of the Bhawal case supported by  documents like letters, diary entries, newspaper cuttings, legal papers and case histories. But the account is interspersed with the personal revelations of the women of the family. Gradually the musings of a few other characters were added. The District Judge and some of the subjects were also given a voice.

Do you have another book on the cards? What should we look forward from you next?

 A collection of stories titled Through a looking glass: Stories is scheduled for publication by Om International. It should be in the market in a few months. There are nine stories showcasing women from across the spectrum of Indian society. Though coming from diverse religions and provincial cultures, they are all trapped in the tradition of silence which is the woman’s lot. Each has a secret space within her with a hidden story.

Thank you for giving us your time.

The Prince of Bhawal before he became a mendicant, early 1900s.

Click here to read the book excerpt

(This online interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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

Categories
Interview

Carr is Driven to Write Fast

Short-story writer, publisher and writing advocate, Steve Carr, has helped many writers around the globe get published for the first time. The author speaks to Keith Lyons about his prolific output and the best way to conquer writer’s block by being abundantly productive and creative.

Steve Carr is on the quest to write the perfect short story. But perfectionism isn’t putting him off the challenge. Since his first short story was published half a dozen years ago, he’s had over 600 short stories published internationally.

The native of Cincinnati, Ohio has travelled extensively outside the United States, serving as a military journalist in the Army and Navy before switching to fiction. As well as his work appearing in print and online in magazines, literary journals, and anthologies, eight collections of his short stories have been published, including ‘A Map of Humanity’ in 2022. He’s even released a paranormal/horror novel ‘Redbird’.

He was editor of literary magazine ‘Short Story Town’ and is the founder and publisher of Sweetycat Press whose goal is to support emerging writers by providing opportunities to getting published, primarily in anthologies.

When did you first discover your talent for writing?

From the earliest grades in school, I excelled in writing and English. By the time I reached high school the word had gotten around with the English Composition teachers that I had talent as a writer. In my senior year I had an English teacher, Mrs. Katz, who went out of her way and far beyond the curriculum to challenge my writing abilities. She encouraged me to pursue a writing career after I completed high school. Thanks to her support, and my own curiosity about what was happening in Vietnam (during the war), instead of going to college I enlisted in the Army to become a military journalist.

What encouraged you along the way to express yourself through writing?

My teachers in school and I took to writing the way fish take to water.

Tell us about your career as a military journalist? What did that involve? What kind of writing did you do in the army and navy?

I attended the prestigious joint military school, The Defense Information School, where I learned journalism and photojournalism. My intention was to go to Vietnam to see and report first-hand on what was happening over there. Fate intervened, and I was sent to the District Recruiting Command in Jacksonville, Florida as an Information Specialist, which involved me travelling around Florida and Georgia writing articles about the war about the war, as conveyed to me by military channels and returning soldiers, for local newspapers. I spent three years in that position and decided to end my enlistment to begin my college education in Cincinnati, where I’m from. Being the restless sort, I got bored after my Freshman year and enlisted in the Navy, and following the path of my favourite writer, W. Somerset Maugham, who had trained as a doctor, I enrolled in the Hospital Corps School, to become a Navy medic (a Hospital Corpsman). Because I did well during that training, I was offered the opportunity to attend the Neuropsychiatric Technician Program in San Antonio, Texas. Completing that, I was sent to the Portsmouth Virginia Naval Hospital where I quickly advanced to the position of the only enlisted instructor for the Psychiatric Technician School, Phase II, and for the next three years I worked with psychiatric patients while also teaching. During that time my writing was entirely medical/ psychiatric-based. That proved as beneficial to my writing as the skills I learned in the Army as a journalist.

Where in the world did your early career take you?

It took me first to the Army and then to the Navy. I traveled to a number of states and saw things and experienced life in ways I never thought possible or imaginable as I grew up.

How did you get into fiction writing?

My path as a writer, leading me to writing fiction, zigzags all over the place. If writing plays can be considered writing fiction (which it is), it wasn’t until after college where I double-majored in English and Theater, completed after my enlistment in the Navy, that I turned to writing plays, resulting in a few of them being produced in several states. During the next few years while writing plays I also wrote grants for non-profit health care providers, another unexpected benefit to my eventual path to writing fiction, which didn’t begin in earnest until years later, after I retired from owning my own theatrical production company. Writing fiction didn’t happen until I was mentoring a college student interested in learning to write fiction, and wanting to show him how it was done, I wrote a short story and then submitted it to a publication that quickly accepted and published it. Thinking that was really easy, the same thing happened with my second story. That was where my fiction writing career began.

What’s one of your first success stories in getting published? How did you feel seeing your name in print?

In June, 2016, the online publication, Literally Stories, accepted my first story “Eleanor” about the life of a modern-day reclusive woman who lived on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands. To tell you the truth, I don’t recall how I felt, other than being surprised that getting my first fiction story was so easy. I must have also felt encouraged because I quickly followed that with a second story. 600-plus stories – new and reprints – published since then tells me that from the beginning I must have liked the experience of being published because as evident, I haven’t stopped.

What’s your motivation for writing, given that rewards are scarce in a monetary sense?

I’ve been asked that question a lot, and honestly, I have no idea what motivates me to write. I don’t need the money, so that wasn’t a motivator from the very beginning. Maybe what motivates me is the challenge of writing good fiction. Now, I’m on the conquest to write the perfect short story. Someone told me that I may have already done that and don’t realise it. I have my doubts about that, so I continue to write short story fiction.

Does writing fiction involve a different part of your brain or different process than non-fiction writing such as journalism? If so, how?

The process of journalistic writing and writing fiction is somewhat similar. The best in both forms of writing involves making the individuals (characters) in the work, engaging, compelling and relatable, and bringing the events in the piece to life. For me, writing begins with observation and intellectual curiosity. Both journalistic writing and fiction almost demands that. I have no idea which parts of my brain I’m using, but I think I was wired to observe and give thought to the world and people around me from a very early age.

If writing is a creative process, how does the aspiring writer manage the creative side with the more mundane, organised side, such as having a schedule for writing and submitting, and meeting deadlines?

That’s a hard question to answer since every individual has their own methods and abilities to be organized in anything they do. I have a guidebook, Getting Your Short Stories Published, published by Clarendon House Publications, that is available on Amazon, that provides the method I use for organising my writing and submissions. Even in that I caution the reader that it is my method, and it may not work for everyone. If I can be conceited about the guidebook, it has some very useful information in it, including the importance of knowing grammar and punctuation, why reading the submission guidelines is essential, and understanding how editors evaluate submissions.

How do you get motivated to write?

Motivation has never been a problem for me. What helps is that I set goals and quotas: how many stories do I want to write in a given month? How many words do I want to write on any given day? Am I on track for my yearly quota of published stories?

Where do you get your ideas, and how do they form into a story?

I begin with a title that has popped into my head, not always inspired by anything in particular, but sometimes a result of reading a news article or seeing something happening while outside. I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel, to meet lots of interesting people, and I have a very fertile imagination born of a love of art, music and movies, so those things are always stirring around in my head. Once a title has been formed, I then think about how the story will begin and end. In that way I am a “plotter,” (someone that plots out the entire story). I fill in the middle as I write. In that way I am also a “pantser.”(someone who flies by the seat of their pants all the way through their pants).

What’s your actual writing process – and is it fuelled by anything?

I don’t really have a process. I tend to write in shifts throughout the day or night, mostly when I feel like it. I have goals, as I said, but I don’t allow myself to become stressed if I lag behind or don’t meet them. I enjoy the process of writing, of seeing the words, sentences and paragraphs appear on the blank page.

How do you find out about opportunities for submissions, for example for literary journals and anthologies?

I have a subscription to Duotrope which is a publication search site. Their fee for use is either $5.00 per month or $50.00 per year. The great thing about them that is unlike any other search site is that they send out a weekly email that lists publications looking for submissions. I get about 80-90% of my submission opportunities from Duotrope. They can be found at https://duotrope.com/search/catalog.aspx. I also subscribe to Authors Publish https://authorspublish.com/ and to a number of publications that send out monthly newsletters and calls for submissions. I also find opportunities for submissions on social media, both in the large number of Facebook writing groups I belong to, and on Twitter. There are a number of editors who like my work and ask for stories from me.

What do you attribute to your incredible success in having over 600 short stories published?

This is going to sound like bragging, but I’m a good writer. I have a thorough understanding of short story structure and I write stories that have a broad appeal. I was told by another editor that I’m a “commercial writer,” meaning I write what readers want. I also write stories based on what publications are looking for. I found out early it was a waste of time and energy to write a story and then try to find a home for it. I use what the publications are seeking as prompts, and then I write a story from the prompt. I also write a lot of stories, so it’s a simple law of averages that the more stories I submit, the more of them get accepted – of course if only they are well-written. I also write in every genre which is extremely helpful in being able to adjust my themes, plots and characters to match a genre. 

Tell us about your efforts to support emerging writers through Short Story Town and publishing anthologies with Sweetycat Press?

Short Story Town is a Sweetycat Press online literary magazine that paid emerging for their stories and narrative poems. It will be closing down on June 1 after a year of operations to allow me to focus on the anthologies. Under the Sweetycat Press publishing imprint over 1,000 prose writers and poets worldwide have had their works published. The anthologies are varied and each one has a theme. So far Sweetycat Press has published an episodic crime anthology titled The Whole Wide World, an anthology titled Landscapes & Cityscapes, followed by A Love Letter (Or Poem) To . . ., Stories and Poems in the Song of Life, Beautiful: In the Eye of the Beholder, and Movement: Our Bodies in Action. On July, I will be giving out $900 in combined cash awards in the Jewels in the Queen’s Crown contest to 20 writers poets who have had a prose work or poem published in one of the anthologies judged by a small panel to be the best of the best.

What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

Never take advice about writing from anyone who has less experience with writing than you do. Readers are important but being told what a reader likes or dislikes about what they read is a lot different than being told how to write. Also, don’t get freaked out about a rejection. Everyone gets them. Shrug it off and move on. A rejection will never cause you physical harm.

And your next projects?

An anthology will be published from the Jewels in the Queen’s Crown contest and then two anthologies are planned for later in the year. Anyone interested in writing a story or poem for inclusion in an anthology should check in regularly with the Sweetycat Press website https://www.sweetycatpress.com/ Unfortunately, I don’t pay the writers/poets whose works are accepted, but the anthologies do provide platforms for showcasing a writer or poet’s talent and skill.

Steve Carr’s Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/ He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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

Categories
Interview Review

The Oldest Love Story – In Conversation with Editor Rinki Roy

The Oldest Love Story, edited and curated by Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao published by Om Books International, 2022, carries multiple voices across cultures on a most ancient bond and nurtures pertinent questions and observation, which hope to redefine the role.

‘Antara 1’

Antara rising from primordial waters
As the first sun, forever new, forever old,
You made me the universe.
History and prehistory filed through me hand in hand 
In gradual evolution.
Antara, because of you
I have earned the right to enter
The tenfold halls of my foremothers.
Clutching your baby hands in my fist,
I have made the future a debtor to me
Antara, in an instant you have filled all time
By your grace I am coeval with the Earth today.

-- Nabanita Dev Sen, The Oldest Love Story(2022)

The Oldest Love Story, curated by two eminent authors and journalists, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao, is an anthology that not only describes a human’s first love, their mother, and their lives, but also explores the social and psychological outcomes and ramifications of motherhood with powerful narratives from multiple writers. They range from eminent names like the late Nabanita Dev Sen, Shashi Deshpande, Kamala Das to Bollywood personalities like Shabana Azmi and Saeed Mirza and contemporary names like Amit Chaudhuri or Maithili Rao herself.

The anthology has narratives clubbed into three sections: ‘Being a Mother: Rewards and Regrets’, ‘Outliers’, ‘Our Mothers: Love, Empathy and Ambivalence’. The headings are descriptive of the content of each section. These real-life narratives, some of which include translations by editors Roy and Rao among others, make for interesting and fresh perspectives of the age-old story that is as natural as water or air. More than two dozen diverse voices as well as Roy’s powerful “Preface” and Rao’s exhaustive “Introduction” paint motherhood in new colours, giving it an iridescence that glitters with varied shades. Stories of what mothers faced — bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome, a child who drove his roommate to suicide and yet another daughter who marries a man old enough to be her father — bring us close to issues we face in today’s world.

One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of this book is at the end of each essay is a takeaway from the narrative where the writers write about themselves. This is not a biography but a description of the writers’ perception about their mother or what they learnt from their experience of motherhood. The most interesting takeaway is given by Shabana Azmi, who wrote of her dynamic mother Shaukat Kaifi (1926-2019).

“I am cut from the same cloth as her. But who am I?

“I would say I’m a woman, an Indian, a wife, an actress, a Muslim, an activist, etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity but today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, at the absence of all other aspects. This is not the truth about India. India’s greatest truth is her composite culture.

“The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other because of their ‘Kashmiriyat’ than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu in spite of them sharing a common religion. To me, my cultural identity is much stronger than my religious identity.”

And she concludes: “My mother taught me that identity must not be a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. It should be a beautiful mosaic in which each part contributes to a larger whole.”

Major social issues are taken up in multiple narratives. Mirza used the epistolary technique to describe how his mother discarded her burqa forever in Pre-Partition India.

“You were emerging from the hall of the Eros theatre and were about to wear your burqa in the foyer when Baba popped the question to you.

“‘Begum, do you really want to wear it?’

“You told me you paused for a moment, and then you shook your head. And that was that. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I am trying to imagine that moment. The year was 1938 and you had been wearing a burqa ever since you were thirteen years old.”

Mannu Bhandari’s spine-chilling narrative of her mother, a child bride around the time when Mirza’s mother shed her burqa, shows a young girl punished and abused for accidentally tearing her sari. It showcases a conservative, abusive culture where women turn on women. An extreme contrast to the bold maternal outlook described by Mirza or Azmi, the narrative highlights the reason why women need to protest against accepting familial abuse bordering on criminality. That these three mothers lived around the same time period in different cultures and regions of India only goes to enhance the large diaspora of beliefs, customs and cultures within one country.

Dalit writer, Urmila Pawar’s reasserts her mother’s belief, “A woman is a wife for only a while/ She is a mother all her life.” “Screams Buried in the Walls” by Sudha Arora dwells on the abuse borne by women to pander to societal norms. Narratives of abuse of women who could not stand up to social malpractices seem to have turned into lessons on what not to do for daughters who condemn patriarchal norms for the suffering their mothers faced.

On the other hand, Shashi Deshpande tells us: “Motherhood becomes a monster that devours both her and her young; or, when the children go away, there is an emptiness which is filled with frustration and despair. I have been saved from this because of my work. My children no longer need me, but my life does not seem empty.” While Shashi Deshpande found her catharsis by writing her stories, Deepa Gahlot, justifies her stance of remaining unmarried and childless by espousing a voice against motherhood.  She contends that the only reason to perceive motherhood as a viable alternative would be propagation of the species. But concludes with an interesting PS: “Does it even make sense to bring a child into such an ugly, nasty, brutal world?” As one hears of senseless violence, wars and mass shootings in the news, Gahlot’s words strike a chord. She has actually researched into the subject to draw her conclusions. But one would wonder how would humankind propagate then — out of test tubes in a bleak scenario like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? Would humans really want such an inhuman existence?

I would rather go with Dev Sen’s outlook. While she emoted on motherhood in her poems on her daughter Antara, she has given a powerful prose narrative elucidating her own perspective. Antara, the daughter to who these poems are addressed, has given a beautiful takeaway on her mother at the end of Dev Sen’s narrative. Despite being abandoned by her husband, Amartya Sen, who later became a Nobel laureate, Dev Sen not only fulfilled herself as a woman and a mother but threw out an inspiring statement that well sums up motherhood for some: “[C]ould I do anything to make this planet worthy for my kids?”

Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, one of the editors of this sparkling collection and author of a number of books, especially on the legendary film maker, her father, Bimal Roy (1909-1966), had published an earlier collection on a similar theme called, Janani (Mother, 2006). She agreed to tell us more about the making of this meaty and gripping anthology, The Oldest Love Story.

Editor Rinki Roy Bhattacharya at the book launch in Mumbai. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

Motherhood as a concept that is ancient, natural, and yet, not fully understood nor explored. What made you think of coming up with this collection that highlights not only stories of mothers and how it influenced women but also discusses the process of being a mother?

The present collection, titled “The Oldest love Story” goes back several decades. This is mentioned in my preface. It began when I woke up to the fact that I was redundant as a mother. By the time the children had grown up one-by-one and left home. I began to explore the situation with other women to understand, why we give so much importance to motherhood? Foolishly, I felt. Motherhood as a concept is indeed natural but taken for granted. I have a problem with that. My maid, Laxmi, is a classic example of a mother who is exploited to the hilt by her children. She is blind to their exploitation and refuses any change that will help her live with comfort or dignity. As if women are just mothers and nothing else?

Was it a personal need or one that you felt had to be explored given the current trend towards the issue where women are protesting the fact that looking after children saps them of individuality? Can you please explain?

I answered this issue as have others in this book. The deep resentment that follows after raising kids who then go away to find greener pastures, is an extremely common, and collective experience for most parents. Particularly in the Indian context. Parents cannot let go. The main reason, I think is, the parent’s fear. The fear of who will light the funeral pyre if not the son? In the event of not having a son,  a close male relative takes over. Do you see the gender bias, the patriarchal assumption? Daughters are not considered legitimate enough to light the pyre?! Yet it is daughters who care for elderly parents in most cases.

This is not the case in Europe, nor the West, where children are expected to become independent very early. In fact, European teenagers seize their independence at the earliest opportunity. It is the expected thing, and no one resents that inevitable shift.

You had an earlier collection called Janani (Mother). Did that have an impact on this book?

I am glad you referred to Janani, published by Sage books in 2006. That collection is the cornerstone of our new book. In this collection, we have included eight extraordinary essays from Janani. We have retained, for example, Kamala Das and Shashi Deshpande to name two. And guess what we discovered out of the blue? In the oldest love story, we have several Sahitya Akademi winners amongst our writers, including these stalwarts. This raises our book to a huge literary stature.

How was it to work jointly on a book with Maithili Rao? Did you both have the same vision for the book?

Working with Maithili was fantastic, and it was great fun. She is the most generous of people and shares without fuss. Ours was a good partnership. I could not have produced this book without Maithili. She has been and continues to be a rock.

You have done many translations for the book. Why is it we did not find an essay from you as we did from Maithili Rao?

Yes, I did. I helped fine-tune Mannu Bhandari’s story It ranks as one of my personal favourites. Her narrative is beautifully visual. I find it cinematic. I also translated Sudha Arora’s poignant essay. Sudha is a noted Hindi writer. It was, however, difficult for me to write my personal story. But the hope is, our next reprint will carry a story I wrote on my son Aditya’s birthday in 2021. In this I have given graphic details of how childbirth robs women of their dignity in the so-called natural process of birthing children. My essay is entertaining and somewhat satirical in style.

You have written a beautiful preface to the book, reflecting your own experience with your children. Were you, like the other writers, impacted by your mother?

I take that as a compliment. Yes, I wrote a heartfelt preface. My relationship with my mother, admittedly, was a strained one. Our age difference was just eighteen years…whatever the reason, I have not been able to fathom or pinpoint it. So, I thought it was best to refrain from the troubled territory.

Would you say that Bollywood had some bearing on the book as a number of writers are from within the industry? Also, your father, the eminent Bimal Roy, made a movie called Maa in 1952. If so how. Please explain.

I do not see any bearing from Bollywood. The fact we have eminent personalities from the world of cinema, for example, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, and Lalita Lazmi do not make it a Bollywood-driven work. My father, Bimal Roy’s Bombay debut was with a film called Maa. Apparently, Maa was inspired by a Hollywood film titled Over the Hills. The main protagonist was an elderly mother of two sons. Maa bared a socially relevant issue, elder abuse, that has been globally recognised and is prevalent. My father’s empathy for the elderly is well documented in this fictional account. In day-to-day life, my father supported the elderly. His widowed aunt in Benaras was maintained by him. His brothers were educated and helped by his generosity. Compassion was his second nature. From him, I learned that a silent, discreet way to support others is the best way to reach out.

There are so many women in the anthology who reiterated the huge impact their mothers had on them, and they were quite critical of their ‘patriarchal’ fathers. Do you think this is true for all women? At a personal level, did your father or mother have a similar impact on you?

I am glad to hear that these woman are critical of their patriarchal fathers…while most women tend to overlook the patriarchal aspect. In general, women tend to ignore or even neglect, their mothers. In my case, it was distinct. My cultural upbringing was instilled by my father’s secular and inclusive vision and social values. These played a decisive part. Much more than my mother, who was a gifted photographer. My parents, by the way, were a made for each other couple. Rarest of rare in the movie industry. My father is my mentor. If you contemplate his well-loved films, let us take Sujata [1959], for one. I have yet to see another film that speaks so eloquently of social boycott. It is not just the caste issue of Sujata, which doubtless is the main thrust. It is the combined forces of class, caste, and gender that play havoc with human relationships as portrayed compassionately in this work.

Yes, Sujata is indeed a beautiful film and your book has taken up many of the issues shown in the movie through the voice of mothers, whether it is caste or religion. Was this intentional or was it something that just happened?

The voices of our contributors in the book are of individuals who write with exemplary honesty and spontaneously. Nothing is contrived in their writings. We did not brief our writers to take up any specific issue. They wrote from the heart.

One of the trends that emerged from my reading of the book was that educated and affluent mothers through the ages had it easier than child brides and less educated mothers, whose children also reacted with more vehemence, looking for a better world for themselves. Do you feel my observation has some credence? Please comment on it.

I do not agree entirely. Bearing children, and raising them in our complex, the confusing socio-economic culture is a challenging matter for all mothers. For all parents in fact. Child brides are subjected to it more intensely than others. There are no shortcuts, nor ready-made answers.

There is an essay against motherhood in this anthology. Do you agree with the author that it is a redundant institution and can be replaced by test-tube babies? Do you not think that could lead to a re-enactment of what Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World

I think, you mean Deepa Gahlot’s essay. This was from the earlier collection. Deepa is entitled to her views. As are others. I think many younger women would agree with Deepa. Balancing motherhood with one’s professional life is a knotty business. I know women who have opted for one or the other to do full justice to it.

Yes, it was Deepa Gahlot’s essay. As you have rightly pointed out in your preface, motherhood can be interpreted variously. What do you see as the future of motherhood in India, and in the world?

Motherhood, remains subjective. Interpreted differently in each case. Every childbirth is a different experience. It may be life-threatening. A case to note is my dear friend Smita Patil’s. She died giving birth. But, I doubt women will stop being mothers, or abandon stereotypical mothering options that live up to that Deewar [Wall, 1975] dialogue: “Mere paas maa hain [I do not have a mother]”. There is a change, a shift, nonetheless, it is slow. Women are afraid to rock this entrenched image of motherhood. At least in India. I know successful women filled with guilt that they failed to be good mothers.

Well, that is certainly a perspective that needs thought.What books and music impact your work?

I read both Bangla and English. After leaving Calcutta where I read the children’s Ramayana, Raj Kahini, or stories by Tagore and Sukumar Ray. But there was an interruption when I got into an English medium school. Culturally I moved out of Bengal. During that phase, my mother introduced me to Agatha Christie. I was 12 years perhaps…I devoured her works. And I still do. Christie fascinates me.

I fell in love with the piano and began to learn it. As a result, Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt were my musical inspirations. I also learned Rabindra sangeet and Manipuri dance in Calcutta…. there was no dearth of cultural grooming. We are especially fortunate that our parents enjoyed the best in performing arts. Pandit Sivakumar Sharma, the great santoor maestro who just passed away, played at home. Sitara Devi danced for private programs. We were wrapped in a rich tapestry of culture.

What is your next project? Are you writing/ curating something new?

I am a compulsive writer, always itching to write.  I believe that writers do not age…they mature and get better. Currently, I am compiling non-fiction episodes about some of the most celebrated artists from Indian cinema who I was privileged to meet…the collection may be titled, Brief Encounters. Writing keeps me creatively busy. Before I sign off, we have to thank our editor Shantanuray Chaudhuri for his unconditional support to make this book a reality. He has been marvellous.

Thank you for taking our work seriously.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering the questions

From Left to Right: Rinki Roy, Maithili Rao and Shabana Azmi at the Mumbai book Launch in June 2022. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Interview

Instilling Hope: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

Achingliu Kamei in conversation with Naga writer, Veio Pou

Veio Pou. Photo provided by Achinglu Kamei

Veio Pou is the author of Waiting for the Dust to Settle (2020) and Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015). Published widely in multiple journals, his writings reflect contemporary concerns that relate to society, culture, and faith. This interview by writer and academic, Achingliu Kamei, focuses on his novel, Waiting for the Dust to Settle,  which was recently awarded The Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature 2021.[1].

First of all, let me congratulate you on winning The Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature 2021 for your debut novel Waiting for the Dust to Settle. How do you feel about winning this award?

Thank you! I’m very excited, of course! This is such a great morale booster considering that I almost gave up the novel midway! But more importantly, I really appreciate the Kohima Educational Trust/Kohima Educational Society for instituting the Prize to encourage writings by Nagas.

Can you share a bit about writing the story and the choice of the title?

Yes, it certainly was worth the wait. It took many years for the book to see the light of day. It’s been quite a journey. When I first wrote the first draft, I didn’t gauge it would be such a long road to publishing. Part of this was because many publishing houses rarely take the risk to publish a debutant. But I’m thankful that Speaking Tiger Books decided to take me on board!

As for the title, it’s very much drawn from the protracted Indo-Naga political problem and the wait for an amicable solution that never seems to happen. Unfortunately, in the process of waiting many other issues have cropped up along the way for the Nagas that peace is such an illusion at the moment. The title is also partly inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For quite some years, in my family circle, we’ve funnily referred to the novel as Godot because it was never coming. Fortunately, in our case, the Godot showed up. But bigger issues that the novel deals with are still evading, the wait is getting longer.

What provoked your interest to write the story of your protagonist, Rokovei? At what point did you have the inkling that you might have stumbled on a character or a story you’re going to commit to?

Well, many have also asked me if Rokovei is me! I always say it’s both “yes” and “no”. “Yes”, because many of my experiences of growing up in a small town are imprinted in the protagonist. I suppose every piece of literary work tends to have some components of autobiography to it. But “no” also because I’ve also drawn the experiences of many people I know into the person. For instance, I relived playing around the highway with friends but I never dreamt of becoming an army officer while few of my friends did. For me, the character too developed with the story.

I appreciated the way that your novel undertakes an examination of how people cope with the trauma during the difficult decades of the last century because of the Indo-Naga movement. Can you shed more light on this, especially contextualising against recent events?

The Indo-Naga political imbroglio is considered one of the longest unresolved conflicts in South Asia. Needless to say, for generations, the Nagas have waited for peace to dawn in their land. Growing up in one of the most militarised regions of the world, I’ve seen how intimidating the armed forces can be, especially when you hear so much of atrocities committed by them on civilians. The recent killing at Oting in Mon district of Nagaland is just one of the many high-handed atrocities. Thankfully, we have more alert media to cover the event and our people are more informed now. But as long as AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958) stays, the Indian armed forces will continue their reign of terror. The Act has only caused more injury than building trust among the public and the custodians of security.

Was there anything, in particular, you were reading or thinking about regarding the events when you wrote the novel?

I was reading though not quite about what I was contemplating to write about. But there were many fragmented stories in my head that I wanted to piece together. And so, one summer break, I wrote down a skeletal framework for the novel. I’ve always felt the necessity of writing our stories because we are going through lots of changes and many things are swiftly lost as the past recedes. For instance, the Senapati town of the 1980s is only faintly visible now. The transformation of its landscape and the people is quite astounding. I think documenting the past helps us remember the place with affection.

Why do you think it is important to know a place through its stories?

I think, as human beings, we all have a sense of belonging, not necessarily to one place alone but it could be many places. And situating a story in a place, helps us find the connection with the people and their culture. Sometimes, it can be quite fascinating to learn about new things and ideas through the stories that help us discover the place, people, and culture.

There are so many realities woven into the novel, making it an interesting read. Would you like to take us through your journey as a writer while sharing the research that went into creating this book? You had mentioned that you relied on the book The Judgement that Never Came: Army Rule in North East India by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray for the factual events.

You’re right in pointing out the realities that are woven into the novel. In fact, that was one of my intentions. I didn’t want to write about only one character who would dominate the whole narrative. I wanted multiple stories to emerge. In that sense, I am interested in “writing community memory”. I’ve been to different places talking about this idea. Simply put, “writing” is the way of telling where “community” is the subject and “memory” is the resource. This is nothing new for a communitarian society like the Nagas. This is what makes our oral culture too. So, when I talk about my interest in the community memory, I wanted to see how a community memorialises certain events that impacted them in general. This is where I focused on the impact of the three month-long Operation Bluebird of 1987, the counter-insurgency operation launched by the Assam Rifles following the Oinam incident. The large-scale human rights violation of killings, rape, molestations, and torture continue to mar the memories of the people of about thirty villages affected by it. Even today, 9th July is still marked by the people as a black day. Many of the pains and sufferings remain undocumented even today. The book The Judgment that Never Came was helpful in some historical details. But though the Oinam incident forms a focal point of the novel, it’s not entirely about it. I decided to remove the narrative from where the thick of action was occurring because I wanted other issues to emerge too. For instance, the late 80s and early 90s saw many unfortunate turns of events. There was the break-up of NSCN into Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions which brought so much bloodshed to the Nagas themselves. Then came the ethnic conflict between Nagas and Kukis, the wounds of which are yet to be healed completely! Most of the stories in the novel are a construct of stories I’ve heard at different points in time and there are not much of interviews involved.

Can you reflect more on the importance, perils, and/or rewards of writing contemporary work that takes up political issues? In writing political fiction, is there a risk of having your characters seem like mere mouthpieces for ideas? How important is the personal story or family history in your writings?

Well, I tend to be a bit sceptical of categorisation because it limits the book from being read otherwise. But, of course, the readers have the freedom to view it from different angles. At the same time, there are indeed a lot of political issues in my novel. It can be risky because it is often difficult to walk the fine line of being politically correct all the time. For me, however, I wanted to write a story like this because there are a lot of things that you can’t speak directly but the form of fiction gives me the liberty to talk of issues implicitly. Sometimes, some truths are better told as fiction. Perhaps, that’s why parables or allegories speak powerfully even today! I think personal or family histories are wonderful story plots because our lives are stories. And who can relate your own saga or the one about your family better than you yourself?

You have written a book on English literature that comes from the Northeast region. Tell us about your research experiences in writing that book.

I suppose you meant Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015). That book was partly a result of my PhD thesis submitted at Jawaharlal Nehru University. When first got interested in exploring writings from the region, particularly Naga writings, it was hard to find stuff. I remember visiting Kohima, hunting for literary works by Nagas, and up ending frustrated because bookstores don’t have them! But it’s astounding how things change in the last 10-15 years! Now we have a vibrant body of works by writers from the region on various subjects, and many academic works to supplement with. The region has certainly become a hotspot of academic discourses of late!

As you said, writings in English from Northeast India are beginning to draw attention from the rest of the country and from around the world. As one of the writers from the region, how do you assess the future of this trend?

I cannot predict what the future will be. All I can say is that this new interest of reading the region through literary productions is certainly a good exercise because for too long there have been multiple misunderstandings about the people of the region and their cultures. Unfortunately, India is too big a country with too many diverse cultures that stereotypes become easy. And for a region that’s so little read, the people from the Northeast tend to fall prey to prejudices so often. Hopefully, this new attention will help re-imagine the region.

Are there other writers whose work feels important to you, both in terms of literary lineage and inspiration in writing?

Well, there are so many actually. But since our discussion is more on writings from the Northeast, I would like to limit my answer to that. As for literary lineage, I’m much indebted to my own culture of storytelling. Being from an oral culture, I understand that stories are embedded with history and cultural anecdotes that they become indispensable to understanding the people. As far as writings in English is concerned, I’m certainly indebted to forerunners like Easterine Kire, Temsula Ao, Mamang Dai, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, and a host of others who showed new possibilities with our literary heritage.

Were you always a reader? What kind of books did you read, growing up? Tell us a little more about your growing-up years, education, and family, and how they have shaped your life and writing?

I was not actually. Books were scarce. But the advantage of growing up in an oral society is that we get to hear stories and that keeps our imagination alive. My early formative years were spent mostly in the small but growing town of Senapati. Then I went to Shillong for pre-university years, after which I moved to Delhi for graduation and I’ve been in the capital city ever since. I must say, my real initiation to reading more rigorously started during my college years, having being exposed to cheap used books easily available by the roadsides. But my enduring love for reading and writing springs largely from the literature classrooms as a student and now I teach the same. I’m drawn particularly to the genre of realism from the nineteenth century and the power that literature has to shape the intellectual life of society.

What encouragement would you offer to writers, especially young people who wish to write? Could you take us through some of the processes you went through in your writing?

I’m more of a moderate reader and writer. In the sense, my job and other responsibilities keep me occupied most of the time, and I like it that. As I see it, writing also comes with its responsibility and so, I don’t want to just write for the sake of writing. I also write occasionally in newspapers and other public forums on different issues. Now, of course, writing a non-fictional piece can be quite another challenge. Unlike many writers, I didn’t have an A-Z plan of the novel when I first started. Yes, I did have a rough plot and why I wanted to write the story. But many sub-plots popped up along the way. So, the story grew as I wrote. Like I mentioned above, “memory” was chiefly my resource bank. I did cross-check on some factual stuff. And like all writings, there were lots of personal editing – deletion, addition, etc. But few tips that I can offer young aspiring writers are:

  • First, be willing to learn. Being teachable is one of the humblest virtues to imbibe. Sometimes, your attitudes can come in the way of bettering yourself. And I think this is becoming an impediment for young people today, perhaps it has to do with our educational system too. The truth is, however, we don’t know everything.
  • Secondly, seek help. This can be sought in two ways. One way is to reach out to friends and family who can offer feedback on your manuscript. I’ve improved a good deal in this aspect, even adding some sub-plots to my novel. And the other way is to seek professional editorial help. No matter how good you are at the language, you’ll realise that editors always have different eyes and offer good suggestions. Also, when it comes to one’s own writing, we always overlook some mistakes. Perhaps, that’s because sometimes we read with our mind and not with our eyes!
  • Thirdly, be patient. To be patient is to persevere, not just in writing but also in looking forward to the final product. Anything done in a rush seldom produces quality. For me too, writing this novel also tested my patience to a certain limit. As I mentioned above, I almost gave up midway. But it’s certainly worth the wait. And more patience may be required in an initial project because people are yet to see your work.

Thank you so much for indulging my questions, which I think will benefit, especially young Nagas wanting to foray into the world of writing. What is your perception of the role of a writer from the North-eastern region or a writer of the world?

You’re welcome! I must thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts! I only hope what I shared will be of some help to a few. I think writers, wherever you may be from, leave a legacy behind that is not easily forgotten. The fact that we continue to read many ancient pieces of literatures attest to this truth.

Lastly, but not the least, could you please let your fans know what you are writing at present if you are, and when can they expect to see another story from you?  

That’s the question I have been trying to duck at the moment but I guess it can’t be averted. Honestly, I’m not writing anything at the moment. Partly because I’m not under pressure to write one and I don’t depend on that for a living. But I’ve some ideas and plots in my head. I hope to pen them down at the appropriate time. I like to let the idea first find a certain formation in my mind before letting it out. That’s what I did with my novel too. For now, I can just say that I hope to find an opportunity to write one soon.


[1] This award was instituted ‘to promote good writing and raise the profile of Naga writers’ in 2018.

Click here to read our review of Waiting for the Dust to Settle

Dr. Achingliu Kamei is a  short story writer, poet, and an ultra-runner, She teaches Literature at Delhi University. She is currently residing in Delhi with her family and Haru, the cat. She has authored Songs of Raengdailu, a poetry book (2021).

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Interview

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: A Seeker of Serendipity

In conversation with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee presents the Swarna Kamal Award to Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri at the 60th National Film Awards ceremony in New Delhi in 2013. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Sandman, the mythical dream maker from Scandinavia, is said to sprinkle magical sand on sleeping children’s eyes to inspire beautiful dreams. What could Sandman have in common with a much-fêted editor who has worked with many celluloid stars and writers?

They both vend dreams – one makes dreams for children and the other is tries to fulfil dreams of writers attempting to create a beautiful book. Meet one such seeker of serendipity Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent award-winning editor, who has brought out books on and by film personalities of India as well as assisted less-known writers find a footing in the tough world of traditional publishing. His magical sand is impeccable editing and an open outlook that stretches beyond the superficial glitter of fame and delves deep to look for that hidden well from which he draws out the best in a writer.

Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has worked with famed writers like Gulzar and Arun Shourie as well as Bollywood stars like Rishi Kapoor and with the prestigious Satyajit Ray Archives. He has a book called Icons from Bollywood (2005) with Penguin on films, a set of fifteen essays. And he writes wonderful pieces on films for various sites like Cinemaazi, an archival film website,  and Free Press Journal regularly.

But, Ray Chaudhuri is not just a film buff as he tells the world. He has a well-kept secret like ABBA’s ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, who would wear dancing shoes after work and turn into a phenomenon. He emotes beautiful poetry but hesitates to publish…He does have a book of verses though called Whims brought out by the Writers’ Workshop. In this exclusive, Ray Chaudhuri, who has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and now is the Editor-in-Chief of Om Books International, tells us how he turned from a dry accountant to a seeker of serendipity and what it takes to publish with traditional publishers.

Please tell us what started you out on your journey as an editor and writer.

I have always loved the word serendipity. It accounts for whatever good I have experienced. I loved reading of course but went on to become an accidental editor. I started very early – loved books. Went through the age-specific lists – Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, and Tintin (which I love still), then slowly to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, Satyajit Ray, Feluda and Shonku, Somerset Maugham, Camus and others.

In fact, I remember, during summer vacations, my mashis [aunts] would often ask to pluck grey hair from their heads and would pay me at Re 1 per hair. So, if I managed 25, I would have money to buy a Tintin. Or novels that were sold in second-hand shops at Rs 10-15. I wanted to study literature and humanities but at the time the stream was looked down upon. People whose opinions we respected kept saying, ‘Will you be a schoolteacher after studying humanities?’ I wish I had said yes at the time.

Anyway… Science I was sure I wouldn’t take. And humanities I wasn’t allowed to. So, I took up commerce, graduated, did my M.Com, studied for chartered accountancy and cost accountancy. Then for years worked in accounts and finance. And hated it. I would leave jobs and go off quite regularly.

Meanwhile, I had started writing poems and on films (as a means of escaping the drudgery of accounts and finance). These were published in magazines regularly. In fact, I won the Filmfare Best Review Award that they had every month a few times. Then, Writers Workshop published my first book of poems. And by this time, nearing thirty, I had had enough of accounts. I realised that any creativity in accounts would lead to jail! And I was damned if I could put up with another day of matching debits and credits. I enrolled for a mass communication course at XIC Mumbai, then started a magazine on cinema on my own, and subsequently moved to publishing and editorial.

What pushed you into publishing others over writing yourself for we can see you are an excellent writer too?

I have often asked myself: do I have anything to say that will make a difference to someone reading? Can I ever write an opening sentence as eloquent as Camus’s The Outsider? Or create a character like Larry Darrel in Maugham’s Razor’s Edge? Or one line like Rilke’s ‘For the Sake of a Single Poem’. Or, in fact, a draft of an unpublished novel a young friend of mine, Ramona Sen, asked me to read recently to comment on editorially – it is so good … could well be the next big thing in publishing. And the answer has always been ‘no’.

I look at what goes for writing today. It dismays me that books have become all about posting your picture with the cover and getting likes – it has to be more than getting FB likes, more than announcing your book as bestseller on social media. I would be mortified about unleashing anything as mediocre as these on anyone.

And then there’s also the question of what being a ‘writer’ means for you as an individual. Some of these authors and poets I meet are so conceited … I have doubts about myself as a person … you know, as Matthew 16:26 says: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? These doubts about whether my writing amounts to anything, whether it says anything about me as a person have kept me from writing and more importantly publishing my writing – barring of course my columns and features on cinema.

Editing and publishing other people’s work is more impersonal – I can keep myself out of the equation. Though when you really like a book, you do tend to get emotionally involved.

You have authored a book of poems, Whims, and Icons from Bollywood. Tell us about these.

I guess both came off just like that – I wonder if there was a case of wanting to show off at the time I had published them. Today, I would think twice. The book of poems, Whims, was published by Writers Workshop, and I was rather proud at one time that Professor Lal deemed it worthy of being published. I often told myself that some of the best Indian poets began with Writers Workshop. I just sent it off to him on a whim.

Icons from Bollywood was a more organised affair. I was working at Penguin at the time. Its children division was doing a series of books on icons – the arts, science, music, etc. Since everyone knew my interest in cinema, I had even met a few of the icons, the publisher, Sayoni Basu, asked me and I agreed. Eventually as no two people could agree on the ten names for the book – all the books in the series had ten icons – this ended up having fifteen names, the only book in the series with fifteen essays. It did rather well, got some good reviews in Dawn and Guardian and a few others.

Is authoring a book more challenging than editing and publishing for another? Or is it the other way? Please elucidate.

Of course, writing a book is more challenging. When you edit, you are working on adding some value to what a writer has already put down. You are not creating the world. At best, you help the author develop his work. It is challenging because often you are the first reader outside the author’s circle and your opinion also shapes the book. But writing is way more difficult. You are literally creating something out of nothing. Even writing a single line of good poetry is tougher than editing.

Tell us what moves your muse for poetry and prose?

That’s tough. It could be anything. For instance, in my college days DTC buses used to have a single passenger seat right at the front. I would often look at it and imagine how lonely it might feel. I eventually wrote a poem on that. Or when my folks narrated the story of Gulzar’s film Lekin to me, I was moved enough to write a poem. The sight of a battered old man, dead-drunk, lying by the roadside led to a story – what if that man had a past when there was hope and love in his life. Being in love has been a muse: I once wrote 21 poems for a beloved friend’s twenty-first birthday. The sight of my son’s sleeping face, his soft breathing, when I wake up at night and look at him. Even hate inspires you. The sense of disillusionment I felt about a ‘great’ poet’s pettiness and hypocrisy led to one of my best poems. My own frailties. The light at dusk, a tired day going to sleep. Lost friends … lost ideals. A good film. A bad film. Anything really.

We have read a lot of film pieces by you. When did your interest in writing for cinema start and how did it take off? Did it ever stray to film industries in other countries?

I think the love for cinema developed once I started studying commerce. The subjects bored me. Films offered me an escape. It helped that there were 4-5 cinema halls within walking distance of both my home and my college. I would often get away from college and make my way to a theatre. In the three years of graduation, I watched 169 films in halls. I watched the first-day-first-show, 12-3, and then would make my way to the evening one 6-9. I used to make a list and write down synopsis of what I felt. This was the 1980s, theatres were in awful shape, a really bad time for films and so most of what I watched were utter crap. But that was a lesson in itself. And I really enjoyed the escape to another world, even if a trashy one.

Slowly, with the coming of cable TV, there were more options. The VCR had come in and with that a few more options. Pirated prints from Palika Bazar. I had meanwhile written a few reviews for Filmfare and won a series of best review awards. That boosted my confidence in both my writing and my understanding of cinema. I also did a course in film and TV from the XIC, Mumbai. I started contributing to journals. I ran and wrote for the journal I started in Bombay, Lights Camera Action. But things took off after I started writing on Bengali cinema for Film Companion. And then with my association with Cinemaazi. I must thank Anupama Chopra and Sumant Batra for this. Couldn’t have happened without them.

I publish primarily on Bengali and Hindi cinema but write on a lot of international films for my own self. It’s tough finding time to watch, write, while keeping to the demands of a regular job and other freelancing assignments that one needs to do to keep the home fires burning. I envy the people who have money to spare, don’t have to worry about a job, and can keep churning out books.

Please tell us a bit about Cinemaazi – is it a website founded by you? It seems to be an archive, there is mention of an encyclopaedia?

Cinemaazi is the kind of serendipity I have been looking for as editor and film lover. It’s an initiative to document the history of Indian cinema across languages under the umbrella project Indian Cinema Heritage Foundation, a public charitable trust. The Foundation is also creating a freely accessible digital archive and encyclopaedia of Indian cinema and its people. No, I am not the founder. It’s entirely the brainchild and vision of Sumant and Asha Batra. Sumant is the kind of collector you can only be in awe of. I met him first at the Kumaon Lit Fest that he runs. And we shared a common love of cinema. In 2019, he started talking of a site to document the history of Hindi films, using his huge collection of film memorabilia. My only contribution, if you could call it that, was suggesting we make it a site on pan-Indian cinema, not just Hindi. He agreed and I worked on getting some material on Bengali and some other languages. Also kept contributing to it with articles and some video essays – we did a six-hour-long oral history project with Dhritiman Chatterjee. Cinemaazi got off to a very good start in January 2020. But by March 2020 we were all locking down. And it affected an endeavour taking its first steps. But it kept on working thanks to a small dedicated team. And now it’s poised to take off in a big way. I would have been very happy to engage in a bigger way with Cinemaazi, but as Sumant says, ‘he can’t afford me’, whatever that might mean. Sigh! I guess one ceases to be useful after a time. I am happy to have been a part of it in a small way in its first years.

You have worked with many icons of the Indian film industry like Rishi Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, Gulzar. Please share with us a few of your more interesting experiences.

The big names I worked with like Gulzar and Rishi Kapoor and Arun Shourie were like perks of the job. Yes, they were FB like/share moments except that I seldom shared those days. I miss Rishi-ji a lot … and often go through the WhatsApp messages he sent me… With Gulzar-ji, it was all about poetry and translations. Never worked on a book of films with him, though I did commission a series of monographs on three of his films that came out after I had left the publishing house.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri in conversation with Gulzar and Meghna (Gulzar’s daughter) in Jaipur Literary Festival

The Satyajit Ray association was immensely satisfying. We ended up publishing five very rare books that I think not many editors would have dared to – imagine doing a book on Satyajit Ray’s unmade film on Ravi Shankar! The ones I really enjoyed were the first-time authors I was privileged to publish, people like Balaji Vittal, Anirudh Bhattacharya, Akshay Manwani, Rakesh Bakshi, Parthajit Baruah … and so many. They had no reason to trust me as editor and publisher. I have never been a big-name editor. But to have had them trust me with their books, books that did well, was quite humbling.

I was privileged to have someone like Vishal Bhardwaj trust me with his first book of poems in English. And through Vishal, I came to know Rekha and worked on a series of festival appearances with her – she has so many stories that she should do a book. With Sharmila Tagore, I worked on a book on Mansur Pataudi that did very well. Authors like Krishna Shastri, Sathya Saran and Gajra Kottary became close friends. Rakhshanda Jalil … whom I love and admire – she did a wonderful book on Shahryar with me and a couple of other translations of Gulzar and Kaifi Azmi. There was Nasreen Munni Kabir and her book on Zakir Hussain…

The more interesting encounters are the ones that ended badly. An author, who again published first with me and went on to publish 4 more, turned on me because I took on his rabid right-wing wife on the CAA and their obnoxious reference to ‘urban naxals’ … I was abused and received a lot of threatening messages and calls … I lost a friend and an author, but I am glad I could take a stand on a matter on which many of our ‘liberal’ friends and authors remain silent. Another ‘great’ poet, someone I considered God, turned out to have feet of clay and whose behaviour I find traumatic even today. But those are for my memoir! They taught me a better lesson than anything else could.

You have worked with big multinational names like Penguin and HarperCollins and even brought out collection of books on films. And now you have moved to working with one of the oldest and most iconic publishers from India. Is the experience any different?

Well, the best thing about not being with an MNC is that one is not part of the toxic environment they breed. It was killing after a point. And often they wouldn’t take on an idea just to spite you, even though some of the books that got commissioned were unbelievably bad, had me scratching my head, wondering what I had missed. And they can be very demeaning to authors. And short-sighted too. I remember signing up Rahul Rawail’s memoir of Raj Kapoor. And the publishing house actually reneged on its commitment after sending him an offer. It put me in such a bad place with him. Thankfully, I could get him another MNC publisher. And the book is now getting such rave reviews.

Yes, it’s challenging working in a smaller space. You have nothing going for marketing –  not that the biggies do anything much on this either, unless you are already a big name which makes it easy to market. Then you don’t have budgets for advances and for marketing. So, immediately your commissioning acquires a different take. But that also makes you look for good young talent. I am glad I have found quite a few, thanks to agents like Suhail Mathur and some goodwill I might have built up in the last few years. Authors I am sure I wouldn’t have been allowed to publish in the MNCs. Now, whether they sell and work in the market is a gamble.

Writers find it challenging to use traditional publishing. In an attempt to make their writing visible, many are turning to self-publishing and publishing with independent small publishers. What do you think of this trend?

I think it does take a little more time in going the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing is quicker. But then authors also need to be patient. Traditional publishing can give them benefits of a good editor. Give them more time to polish their text. However, it seems more and more authors are in too much of a rush to publish. Getting FB likes and shares is more important than working on your text. Authors don’t feel like they need good editorial intervention. Publishing is all that matters, whatever be the quality of writing.

Unfortunately, traditional publishing too has failed to give good editorial inputs. Some of the stuff I read by the MNC publishers are atrocious. I think everyone wants a book out too quick. When I started out as an editor, we had months to work on a book. These days, authors tend to ask for a marketing plan even before they have completed the first draft of the text. And publishers are only too willing to get on the treadmill. And the post-publication efforts of MNCs also operate on the 90-10 principle: 90 per cent of marketing budget is spent on 10 per cent of the biggies. So, I guess self-publishing works. Some of the most successful mass-market writers we have today started with vanity or self-publishing, then were picked up by the traditional publishers. And the writing continues to be as bad.

Can you tell us as a publisher, what do you look for when you accept or reject a piece of writing?

I don’t think any publisher has figured out what makes a book work. Most of them go by herd mentality: mythologicals are selling, let’s do them, in trilogies, since it’s fashionable these days. Short stories don’t work. Fitness/self-help, yes, let’s do. 

Basically, one looks for (i) is the content engaging (ii) is the writing interesting. Take, Akshay’s book on Sahir … I found the content wonderful. And so well done. Or Balaji-Anirudh’s book on RD Burman … the research was impeccable. And though people were sceptical, saying these people had been dead for decades, one felt that these books had that special something. Or more recently, the anthology on motherhood that Om is publishing. I was immediately interested in the theme and the variety of essays on offer – to have Kamala Das and Mannu Bhandari, Shashi Deshpande and Shabana Azmi between the same covers is…. There’s a collection of essays on the pandemic that I have commissioned, coming out soon – again, from Shashi Tharoor and Vidya Balan to an anonymous gravedigger and migrant worker – the range is incredible. The book that we are doing with Borderless Journal, for example. What a wide variety of international writing! Or the book on cybersecurity. Or for that matter, Suman Ghosh’s Soumitra Chatterjee book, which gave some fascinating insights to the director-actor relationship. I knew people would think it niche, but what if we could make it big? It has the potential.

Thank you for that. What is your vision as a publisher and writer of the future of publishing and writing?

I am too small fry to talk of the future of publishing. It’s a tough time for publishers. At the end of the day, all those 500 likes on FB won’t help if those liking don’t buy books. Social media reach is no guarantee of either good writing or good sales.

The way Westland folded says a lot about how untenable big advances are. Authors must realise that. While publishers must make efforts to sell more of the books they publish so that even if advances are small, the royalty on sales works out.

I think there’s also a lot of snobbery around English-language publishing in India. On the part of publishers, authors, translators, agents, literary festivals. I know an agent, one of India’s most successful, who doesn’t deign to pitch books to me because I am not with the top MNC publishers. Though apart from a hefty advance, there is nothing I cannot deliver that the biggies can. One of the most popular cover designers, who worked closely with me when I was at Penguin and Harper, just put me out to dry when I approached him for a cover on the Soumitra Chatterjee book. He couldn’t be bothered even to respond given that I was with a smaller publisher now. The most popular translator won’t give me time of day, though I edited his/her first book. There’s this author couple I published after both their individual books had been rejected at other publishers. But once they realised that prosperity lay in ingratiating themselves with what they perceived were other more popular and powerful editors … though none of their books have worked in terms of sales so far in the last ten years.

Most editors I have come across give off vibes like they are god’s gift to the language. I mean, not even two per cent of the population engages with the work you do. What are we so uppity about? The local cobbler attends to more people than what your average book gets as readers.

And this snobbery impacts the kind of publishing we do. We are suckers for big names, big advances. We have to move out of that. And out of this herd mentality of publishing. Give new writers, new themes a chance. At the same time, new young authors need to reflect on their work and not rush into becoming a ‘published’ author. It’s not instant noodles or coffee. Books and authors take time to develop. We need to give books that time.

Thank you for giving us your time and also taking on our anthology.

Click here to read poems by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Interview

A Wonderer Who Wanders Between Waves and Graveyards and Digs Up Ancient Tales

In Conversation with Amit Ranjan

Amit Ranjan. Photo Courtesy: Shailaja

A stranger than fiction book that starts with a limerick and ends with a rhyme, supposed to be a scholarly and playful work on perhaps the first Australian novelist-cum-lawyer-cum-journalist who sold cheap paperbacks for women readers traveling by train in India in the nineteenth century — probably British readership — fought a case for Rani of Jhansi – wrote for Charles Dickens’s Household Words – This can be the description of Amit Ranjan’s John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee (Niyogi Books). Why would one do a book on a maverick like this Australian journalist-cum-writer of the nineteenth century who opposed the British? What led to such a book? The quest for a ghostly ‘Alice Richman’ who lived in Pune in the 1800s, says Ranjan. And the author’s quest continues…spanning the shores of Australia, ‘Hindoostan’ and America…

The other most interesting thing about this book is the way the story is told – Ranjan says he is deeply influenced by the genre of magic realism and this, perhaps, reflects in his writing. While the research input is awesome, the style is non-academic and even flamboyant at times. It is a book that brings a smile to your face with its obvious cheekiness. But this is also the kind of book you keep on your bookshelf and pull out when you have time to mull over a discussion on historic links and syncretism – for that is the sap that flows through the book concealed behind a laid-back narrative style of a nineteenth-century writer. Who is this Ranjan who has tried to re-invent pedantry and scholarship, treat the serious business of research and academia with such friskiness?

Ranjan is a Visiting Fellow at UNSW [University of New South Wales], Sydney; and a Fulbright Scholar-in- Residence at Miami, an assistant Professor at NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training, India] — with eye to the sky, and ear to the ocean. His poetry collection, Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty, came out two years ago, and his biography of Dara Shukoh is due out soon. His poetry collection came out 4 years ago, and a new collection of poems The Knot of Juggernaut was just released in Miami in March. Without more ado, as John Lang would have it, we present to you Amit Ranjan –

What was it that made you map your journey of unearthing Lang in the form of his writings instead of writing about his life directly? You have used the forms of limerick, poetry and the epistolary technique along with essays and Lang’s own writing to build your case. An amazing amalgam — Why? It is rather an unusual form of storytelling.

This is an interesting question, or a set of questions. I think poetry is a powerful medium. At a certain time, it was supposed to regale and break tedium; now it seems to create tedium – the trajectory of human taste is interesting indeed. So, unable to write a book in verse (Vikram Seth debuted with a novel[1] in verse a little more than three decades ago, with elan), the least I could do (and generally do with prose) is having poetic invocations at the beginning and the end. I’ve also tried to maintain a certain poeticity through the book – it does add some funk and spunk, I believe.

About the form of writing – what was available to me was writings about Lang, and writings by Lang. Lang’s own voice is richer and wittier than his contemporaries and commentators, and therefore it came naturally to speak about his voice, rather than speak about what has been spoken about his voice. Unfortunately, the personal papers and artefacts of Lang have all been lost – it would certainly have been a riot to peruse his letters. And since letters by him are missing, I decided to write a letter to him (which is the first chapter) much in the way he’d have liked to write or receive a letter.

Also, about the form of writing – history writing and academic writing is caught in its self-referential niche writing – and needs to be freed from that cage, or that page in the history of stylistics of writing. Much influenced by the Latin American novelists, as also the frame narratives like Bocaccio’s Decameron and Alif Laila[2] – I thought it would be an interesting to approach non-fiction and/or history like a novel of the “lo real maravilloso[3]” genre (well, almost). So one could call it creative non-fiction (this work is completely and heavily annotated, so there’s nothing ‘fictitious’ in the work – just to add that disclaimer). I think these experiments are exciting, much like ficto-criticism as a foil of this form.

You have an interesting tone of narration which is half flippant, but it delves deep into research. Tell us a bit about your research.

The tone is what one makes of it. It is also very Victorian in its language, to keep in sync with Lang’s age. The alleged flippancy is a deliberate device I guess – as a tribute to Lang’s own voice that is playful and yet serious, as also to demonstrate that playful writing can be effective and serious.

Telling a “bit” about this research will occupy a bit of space, for dwelling in the haunt of 19th century is a bit of a habit with me now. Those puns aside, the road of this research has been thrilling across space and time. On the home turf, it took me to Meerut, Mussoorie, Agra and Calcutta. We, being good recyclers of papers, the works by or about Lang barely survive here. The copies of his newspaper, The Mofussilite, published from the above-mentioned cities (minus Mussoorie) weren’t available anywhere except London, Canberra, Chicago – and interestingly Islamabad. And so, I went to UNSW at Sydney for my PhD research, courtesy of Endeavour and Inlaks fellowships. There I met a very interesting 86-year-old gentleman, Mr Victor Crittenden, who was a retired librarian, and who had a very keen interest in John Lang. He had republished a lot of Lang’s work, and it was amazing to have conversations with him. The only little problem was that he was such a hopeless Romantic that he had ascribed several anonymous or pseudonymous works to Lang. This, then, became a daunting task, to research about each of these works and see if they could actually be Lang’s. And of course, it also resulted in funny arguments. Meanwhile, I relaxed the scope and the methodology, made it broad and unorthodox, to see where I could get. I met descendants of Lang’s half-brothers; a rabbi in Melbourne who believed Lang was Jewish; a member of Italian nobility in Paris, bitter about the politics in that family, and so on. At one point I emailed one Motee Persaud in hope that he’s a descendant of Jotee Persaud – only to cause him anxiety, for there was some court against him, and he thought my email was a subterfuge for a bigger design! When I returned from Sydney, I lost a pen drive with scans of Lang’s newspaper, for it was in a pretty UNSW backpack that someone took fancy to. I think I met the purloiner for a fleeting minute a few months later! The bit can go on, but I think this bit should be contained before I write a short story about it here.

Was the journey of discovery as interesting as your discovery of Lang?

Oh yes indeed! I think some of that has been revealed in the previous answer. It’s still an open book, an ongoing journey, I am still working with The Mofussilite. In my three fellowships to Miami (none about Lang), I purloined time to peruse Lang’s journal. The journey has been a thriller all through, I would like to believe – including my not being able to find Lang’s grave ever. Once, my friends and I rolled down Mussoorie hills into Camel’s Back Cemetery and the eight of us hunted for Lang at the haunted forest on a rainy afternoon. No luck, and never after in my subsequent visits, though the directions are fairly easy.

One of the most fun discoveries was that a picture of Lala Jotee Persaud, a client of Lang’s, was printed in The Illustrated London News as Nana Sahib’s! I was thrilled to receive that picture from ILN.

Ruskin Bond, a writer many of us deeply admire, found Lang in the Camel Back cemetery in Mussoorie in 1964. Then an Australian scholar investigated him. Lang finally found a way to instigate your pen to take up his cause. What moved you to research and write on him?

I met Mr Bond in 2009 I think, and my friends and I had a great fan moment. His father had some Lang novels, and that is what interested in him. Almost simultaneous, John Earnshaw was interested Lang’s life in Australia, and he wrote a short 30-page account detailing his timeline. And then the interest was lost for 40 years, when Victor Crittenden and Rory Medcalf of Australian High Commission reinvigorated interest in the matter.

All this, unbeknown to me, I was hunting for Alice’s history. Alice Richman, a girl who died at 26 in 1882, is buried in Alice Garden, Pune University, surrounded by a forest and many urban legends. Not knowing how to go about finding anything about her – I followed the Hanuman methodology – pick up the whole mountain if you can’t identify the herb. In reading about Australians in India in 19th century, I stumbled upon Lang, and since then, there’s been no looking back.

So, Alice the ghost sparked your interest in him from her very presence in Pune, what was it about Lang that attracted you to take a decade long journey into his adventures? Tell us a bit about how Alice pushed you to it.

In the pursuit of Alice, I read about the interesting Australian women missionaries in India (they were brought to India to be ‘tamed’); camels and camel drivers that went from India; and several such fascinating stories. The pursuit of Alice prepared my reading list, and that is how I found Lang. A white man fighting a white empire, with a nuanced understanding of India, and with an infective invective – seemed like a natural resonance to me. It is beyond the scope of this interview to get into the thrilling details of discovering things about Alice’s life too throughout this decade you’ve mentioned. Suffice it to say that it is actually the pursuit of Alice I have been on, and she keeps rewarding with some Lang legend and legacy every now and then.

Did you feel there was a need to bring out Lang to the fore? Is he relevant for our times? 

Absolutely so. He was the man who took on Lord Hardinge in his newspaper on a daily basis, to the point where the Governor General summoned him. Lang merely said that he made more profit by writing against him, than he could ever by singing paeans to him. He was a rebel, and witty. Today’s journalists across the world from the age of democracy can take a lesson or two from a man from the time of the Empire.

To understand where we are, we need to look at where we come from. The tedious legal system; the workings and trappings of army; racism; casteism; evolution of sciences and belief in pseudosciences – are explained in detail with wit, rigour and humour in Lang’s writings. To understand our postcolonial ontology, it is very important to understand how deeply colonialism affects us.

Please introduce the most interesting fact about the ‘Wanderer of Hindoostan’ to our readers. Tell us a bit about him concisely, especially as we are told in your preface: “Suddenly, there was an interesting piece of news doing rounds: that the Indian PM gifted his Australian counterpart with John Lang documents to demonstrate how far back the relations between the two countries went. I was not acknowledged. However, it was also a backhanded compliment. Lang had finally found an afterlife.”

Lang died in 1864; his name and works survived until. About 1910. For the afterlife of a writer, critics are important. Shakespeare, for example, was resurrected by the Romantics in the 19th century. After 19th century, Lang was lost until John Earnshaw’s minor interest in the 1960s; and then Victor – as already stated. My research was awarded as a PhD thesis in 2012. Interestingly, in 2014 he was showcased in this prime ministerial meeting. The rest you have told in your question – sometimes one has to take backhanded compliments with high spirits! Of course, it was an anxious time for me, for the cat was out of the bag, and I had to hunt for a publisher fast. However, as stated in the book – Stories forgotten or lying in the cold, find their own time to be told – and therefore finally a book, half in size of the original, in 2021. The advantage of including Lang is of course pushing India-Australia ties to mid-19th century, an idea which has never really been thought of.

Was the John Charnock you mentioned in your book related to Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta? Was Lang related to him and did that impact his choices? Job Charnock was after all a rebel too in a manner of speaking.

That’s a difficult connection to figure out, which I will try to, on some idle day when curiosity gets the better of me. Job Charnock, the alleged founder of Calcutta, died in 1693; and the reference in the Lang book about John Charnock is from 1843 (p362).  Lucy, wife of John Lang, had a sister, Mary, a poet who was married to John Henry Charnock. Mary’s book Legendary Rhymes (1843) was published posthumously, and her husband wrote a preface to this book. This Charnock was Lang’s brother-in-law, so they would have known each other well. John Charnock himself was an agriculturalist and a drainage expert and wrote books on this matter. To answer the last part of the question, in my opinion, Job Charnock and John Lang are as different as chalk and cheese – the former being a thorough imperialist and the latter, the opposite.

In the start of a chapter, you have said: “Lang had foreseen Google.” Elucidate.

Oh, that’s a joke to complement and compliment one of Lang jokes.  The novel Ex-Wife revolves around the predicament of a Eva Merrydale, divorced by her husband for “criminal familiarity with another man.” (p370) Eva’s brother tells that this case has been mentioned 114,227 times in the media, with 107 times in the Times alone. These kind of figures are something one would see in a google search result – 114,227 results for “Eva Merrydale divorce” 

That is Lang lampooning the British media for its obsessing over a poor divorcee through the exaggerated figures. However, one wonders, if there were people employed to keep track of a particular news appearing in the media.

As a digression to this essay, Lang indeed was looking into the future of journalism – sensational headlines, scandals and so on. In one lead article about the Gorham case, which had been talked about to death, Lang just wrote –‘Damn the Gorham Case!’ – and captured the public sentiment!

What was the purpose of this book? What kind of readership did you expect?

I guess the purpose of a prose book, fiction or non-fiction, is to tell a good story. However, my purpose was to fulfil a calling – I had at hand, the figure of a character lost for a century. It then becomes one’s responsibility to resurrect the figure as one has been entrusted by destiny, too. And of the course, the more general idea holds – the keys to the present lie in the past, as has already been discussed.

In terms of readership, I was looking at anyone who is interested in an interesting story of a maverick figure. This is why the language is jargon free, the stylistics are that of a novel. However, of course, one is also looking at the countries Lang is lost to – India, Australia and UK – and to have them remember an important critic and figure of their past. I expect students of literature and colonial/ postcolonial histories to pick this work up; but I’d love it much more that it appeals to the general reader of fiction and non-fiction.

John Lang had encounters with Dickens, Rani of Jhansi — a very wide range of historic personalities and influenced, you have claimed even George Bernard Shaw. Yet, all these personalities lived on while he faded to obscurity. Why do you think that happened?

Lang fought the British imperial sword with his pen, was declared a “hospital bed novelist” by the critics and buried to the British posterity. He wrote in Australia with convicts as heroes, which of course, didn’t go down well with the convict settlement. For Indians, who he had so much adulation for, he still got lost to history. Probably his interest in wine and women did not go down well with Indian historians too; or he was difficult to slot, being an interloper.

One of the things that does come across is Lang faded to obscurity as no one knew of him. Do you feel the role of historians and critics critical to the survival of an author? Or do you feel the colonials he often wrote against were happy to bury his writings?

Both aspects are at work. As already pointed out, the colonial press gave him bad reviews all the time. Subsequent critics were not kind either. This goes on to suggest how deeply ideological and long drawn out the colonial project was.

How was Lang a rebel in his times? Do you feel your own journey has been a rebellion against pedagogical practices of the current times? After all, can a book based on this much research start with a limerick and end with a tongue-in-cheek rhyme?

Two leitmotifs would suffice to settle the matter about being a rebel. It is said, in Lang’s multiple novels, about the white British protagonists – “India he loved, England he despised.” The second motif is strong women characters, some of them very deliberately parodying Victorian women and Victorian novels.

If my writing is considered rebellious to the current conventions, I would take it as a compliment, and not a back handed one. I wish I wrote the entire book in verse. I hope to pull off that trick successfully someday.

Maybe you will – an upcoming one – Alice’s story…Do you have an upcoming book? What about a novel on the ghostly Alice?

A new poetry book titled The Knot of Juggernaut, Or The Mystery of (Miami Mambo) Vexuality was just released, a day before I left Miami to come back to Delhi. It will be out here soon, too, in a month. This collection has poems written about journeys between the Bay of Bengal and the Bay of Biscayne. The title was suggested by The Right Honourable KB Con, Ducktor Albatross.

A biography of Dara Shukoh is scheduled for the year end.

The Alice book – definitely, whenever Alice wills it!

Thank you for the interview. 

Thank you so much.  It was a real fun interview.


[1] Golden Gate (1986)

[2] Thousand and One Nights

[3] Magic realism. As facts are less known or blurry, the content seems magical. Normally applied to Latin American fiction.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

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Interview

A Voice from Kharkiv : A Refugee in her Own Country

Lesya Bakun, a poet and writer, tells her story of escape from war-torn Ukraine. Her narrative maps the past and the present.

“I woke up around 4 am with the sound of a loud explosion. And I heard all around me people running. They were leaving as they knew it (war) had started,” said Lesya Bakun, an applied linguist who worked as a youth worker and Non-Formal Education trainer in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This was on 24th February 2022. The offensive that is devastating a huge country with a population of 43,273,062 had started.

Lesya faced bombs as she tried to get food to her mother from her home as supermarkets were not functioning. She went live on Facebook while the shelling continued, using the footage as a defence mechanism. She elucidates: “I have documented my trip to bring my mother some food. It was scary because I heard explosions all the time. I was partly doing that as a security measure so that if anything happened to me it would be caught live on video. I had told my friends, if anything happened to me, they had my permission to disclose it. I had been sharing the overall story of the war. Many followed me on FB live from different countries because I was involved in European Commission’s Erasmus Programme for nine years and I knew people from pretty much all around Europe. I had connections also because I was a moderator for Virtual Poetry Readings. I had friends from every continent. People were following my story. It is one thing to watch the events in news but another to watch someone live through it. Eventually, people started recommending me to journalists in other countries. I gave five interviews to Canada, USA, Lithuania, Georgia and Italy. I became a bit famous. Weird though, not on the basis of who I am but on the basis of where I was and what I experienced. Like I am doing right now.”

Born five years before the USSR was dissolved, Lesya lived the first part of her life in the city that has been ground to pulp with the bombing, Mariupol. She moved to Kharkiv when she was twelve. She has memories of her past growing up in a Ukranian-speaking home, she was exposed to Russian and English together at kindergarten.  

She unfolds the story of the current aggression bit by bit. The war this time was anticipated, she tells us. “This (attack) was anticipated because pretty much the whole world warned us that this would happen. And I had been warned by my friends from Lithuania and Latvia. My friend from Lithuania warned me three days before the attack and my friend from Latvia, three weeks before the attack. Russia and Belarus had prepared troops nearby, but a lot of people did not believe it would happen as they believed the Russian propaganda for dozens of years. I could have left earlier but my mum was really ill. She had COVID and pneumonia in January. She was in hospital. Then we brought her home with the oxygen machine.”

She had been going through family crises when the war started. She tells us: “Even though I was warned, I had not packed at all. In December, my grandmother died of a long illness. Then in January, my mum got ill with COVID. I had formalities of the funeral and all that. I was definitely not mentally prepared for war. How can you ever be prepared? I think even Putin was not prepared though he knew Russia’s plan. But he definitely did not understand how the Ukranians would meet him and his troops. Because for some reason, he was sure Ukranians would be happy to meet them. But Ukranians were not happy at all. He anticipated welcome like in Crimea (2014) where people did not fight. Unfortunately, eight years ago, lot of Ukranian troops and Crimea just gave up and changed the flag just like that. So, they have broken their promise to the Ukranian nation.”

She spells out clearly that Ukranians want their identity respected and not annihilated. “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.”

The sense of resentment runs strong. The feeling of being let down is evident. She talks of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994, which led to the denuclearisation of Ukraine, here as she did in her poem. “Budapest Memorandum is an agreement between Russia, USA and UK. It says these three countries will protect us if we are attacked. When Russia took away Crimea eight years ago, no one came to protect us. There was a war with people dying in the East of Ukraine. Now as Russia attacks us, will Russia protect us? The United States and United Kingdom did not protect us from Russia. Thank you for all the help, help to refugees, for weapons. But the world would not need to face millions of refugees if they had respected the Budapest Memorandum eight years ago.”

Lesya gives a backgrounder to elucidate the need to withstand the Russian forces: “Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country, we have ethnic Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Belarusians, Poles, Jews, Tartars, many others — not only Ukrainians and Russians, so it was never about ‘evil Ukrainians want to forbid Russian language and oppress Russian-speakers’ as they said in propaganda for years. Ukrainian Constitution protects the right for every nation and language to exist — but for Russia, just the existence of the Ukrainian language is an insult and a ‘threat to their existence’ (that they apparently need to protect by bombing Russian-speaking cities among others).

“For centuries, massive anti-Ukraine politics have been lead, targeted to wipe out Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, in the Tsarist Russia, in the USSR, and even after the Ukrainian independence. People have been brainwashed, and even our own TV shows often made fun of Ukrainians. A lot of common people (in some regions, up to 50%) believed the Russian propaganda. Films and media were still in Russian despite our breaking away, for years, which made me — a Ukrainian speaker — feel like an unwanted element in my own country. Only Yushchenko — our third President – introduced the law that all movies had to be dubbed in Ukrainian. Poroshenko — our fifth President — introduced Ukrainian-speaking quotas on the Radio — and a lot of business owners opposed that, and from that point, rumours of ‘Ukrainians suppressing Russians’ intensified. Russia wanted Russian to be the sole ‘inhabiter’ of our narrative and media, and the mere existence of Ukrainian media in Ukraine was perceived aggressively as ‘Ukrainian Nazism’ and ‘Ukrainians hating Russians’, ‘oppression of Russian-speakers’ and ‘Russian language needing protection in Ukraine’ (by destroying kindergartens and maternity hospitals, apparently).”

She gives an example of a woman who believed the ‘Russian narrative’ just before the war started. Lesya had gone for a lung check up to the hospital as she was coughing. This is what she says she encountered. “Two days before (the war started), I went to the hospital. I went for a fluoroscopy of my lungs. Then I could not take my results because the war began. But I still went to see the doctor before the war. A patient waiting with me asked, ‘If you do not have the results of the flouroscopy, why are you waiting to see the doctor?’ And I told her, ‘What if tomorrow the war starts?’ And this woman was too scared to believe.”

Lesya comes from a family of academics and intellectuals. She tells us about her mother, who despite the shelling continues to live in Kharkiv. A university lecturer, a Slavist and a dialectologist, her mother researched on language policies. Lesya explains:  “My mother researched the Habsburg dynasty language policy in Wien and saw the originals of documents and laws. The laws of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were issued in local languages — among them, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech. There were magazines and books published in Ukrainian — while in the part of Ukraine under Tsarist Russia it was impossible. The existence of Ukrainian press, theatre, education, independent thought was forbidden. While in the Tsarist Russia, there had been a sets of laws that gradually forbade the use of Ukrainian in all wakes of life. Under the Soviet occupation, the situation did not improve. While on paper you could use Ukrainian, but in reality, all ‘other-thinkers’ were executed, sent to Siberia or suppressed and mentally broken until they started writing only ‘Social realism’ and praise of the Soviet regime and Stalin.”

Lesya draws from the past to explain how long Ukranians have faced oppression and why they felt the need to stand up to Russia. “You could not tell the story of Ukranian oppression in USSR because then you would be killed. Both my grandparents’ families have lived through the genocide of Holdomor genocide of 1932-33. Food was taken from the children and sold to the West, creating an artificial famine. Millions of Ukranians died of hunger. My grandfather’s family survived that, but his aunts died of hunger. And my grandmother’s family went through that. Their whole life, they were together, but they only started speaking to each other about the Holodomor genocide and their families’ experiences after Ukraine got its independence in 1991. Speaking about all this was forbidden so that even within the family people were scared to discuss it.”

To explain the current crises, Lesya drew upon the past. “We wanted to exist. Ukranian history, culture and language had been destroyed for centuries. We wanted to exist as a nation. The weak and faulty Soviet economy was another reason why not just Ukraine, but most of the Soviet republics, wanted independence. That was very noticeable even to common citizens despite all the anti-West propaganda and the Iron Curtain. I only have faint memories of it as I was five when the USSR collapsed, but I heard and read a lot of stories, and saw photos of empty shells of Soviet shops — there was this huge deficit of even the most needed things. The ‘planned economy’ was a ‘disaster’. Like if you wanted to buy milk, you needed to wake up at 4 am and stand in queue for two hours. There was the Iron Curtain — citizens of Soviet Union were forbidden to go abroad, or Western products brought in. Only if you were thoroughly screened by the KGB, you would be allowed to go abroad, and that would mainly be to the ‘Socialist block’ countries, on a preliminary very thoroughly planned visit. The KGB would continue to follow each of your steps while you were on a visit abroad. Only several dozen people were allowed to leave USSR for a short period of time, on a route agreed by the KGB — mostly diplomats or huge cultural actors (like ballet dancers). No such thing as ‘travel’ outside of Soviet Union could even happen.

“Of course, we had notion of international friendships, India, African countries, Cuba. We were curious. One of my closest friends is Ukranian-speaking half-Cuban — one parent is Cuban and the other Ukranian. They fell in love when as a student, one of them came from Cuba to study in Ukraine. We have had international friendships but only with socialist countries.”

Lesya tells us more about the suffering within her family in the Soviet Union. “Individual businesses were forbidden in USSR. My grandmother’s uncle was executed for owning a windmill. Being an entrepreneur was impossible. In my family, we have lots of such stories. My grandfather from my father’s side (who I did not know because he died before my parents married) believed in the Soviet propaganda, and he crossed over from Poland across the border with Belarus on foot. My grandfather eventually got married and had a daughter. But he was convicted on false allegations that he was a Polish spy and sent for ten years to Siberia. When he returned, his family had forsaken him in order not to live under the black mark of a ‘family of an enemy of the state’.

“With time, my grandfather managed to create another family and have my father — I am carrying this grandfather’s surname. My father, despite being born in Belarus from a Polish person, was documented as a ‘Russian’ in order to save him from a similar fate. Now imagine how many people in the Soviet Union were written as ‘Russian’ despite not being such? When he met my mother and he told her the truth, but my mum was okay because she said her father was also ‘an enemy of the state’.”

Lesya’s pride in her heritage is strong. She talks of her city and grandfather, mingling it with the present. “My city of Mariupol is being ruined by the Orcs (as we call the Russians) so much so that now the city almost does not exist. The city is an important cultural, naval (port), technological and industrial centre. It is a city in which my grandfather, Nil Andriyovych Karnaushenko, was a professor of metallurgy. And he has 32 patents that have been used in the local metallurgical works.

You have heard about the tragedy of civilians and the military — sheltered and simultaneously trapped in the metallurgical factory Azovstal. One of them is my cousin, who has been captured by the Russians*. The metallurgical works of Illicha and Azovstal were working non-stop even during the WW2 and the four years it’s been fought on Ukrainian territory – my grandfather said if the blast furnace gets stopped, it takes a lot of efforts and days to start it again, with a risk you could not start it at all. So the furnaces were working even during the four years of war.

“And now – two months of war with Russia – the metallurgical works that used my grandfather’s 32 inventions, all of his life’s work – are being destroyed. The university in which he lectured until his last breath – has lost half if its personnel. The city almost ceased to exist. And this is a primarily Russian-speaking city (despite being created by Greeks and being surrounded by ethnic Greek villages).

“It is not just Mariupol, but multiple cities, towns, villages near the Azov and Black seas, were built by Greeks. We have many ethnic Greeks living in and around Mariupol, we have lot of villages that are mostly populated by ethnic Greeks — that are now either wiped out or seized (after being wiped out) by Russians. We used to have a Greek consulate in Mariupol. It was as important cultural city, and hopefully will be again — after we win and rebuild it. And each of the 24 regions and the temporarily occupied Republic of Crimea in Ukraine have their own centuries of history and their own distinct story to tell — which is not Russian at all.

“They came to ‘liberate the people of Donbas’. Apparently, by creating multiple mass graves, burning thousands of civilians in moving crematoriums and deporting tens of thousands to Siberia without documents and means of communication.”

She draws from the past and tells us, “I am not a historian but a linguist. But the stories that my family have lived through and passed to me are a work in history. The story of Ukraine has not started by breaking away from Russia in 1991. It has started much earlier than Keivan Rus’ (882-1240). Ukranian history began more than one million years ago when the first Ukranian settlers began to inhabit the terrain of Ukraine. Long ago, the first horse was domesticated in Ukraine along with wheels. The first metal was developed in Ukraine.”

Lesya explains from a linguist’s perspective. “We have many ethnoses living in Ukraine for centuries. Our Constitution has been protecting all of them since Independence. We have local minorities of Romanians, Hungarians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Karaims. We have a local minority of Crimean tartars (an ethnos native to Crimea). They had been deported by Stalin to Siberia — thousands of people dying in trains travelling to this cold place. Some survived and continued to live in Siberia. Imagine, for example, all people from Spain being sent to Greenland, with barely any clothes or food. Stalin banned the return of Crimean Tartars to their native, warm Crimea from Siberia — and only when Ukraine got its independence, we allowed them to come back. People returned home, after generations to see their homes taken by the Russian military or people exported from all over Soviet Union into their empty homes. This tragedy has been depicted in Jamala’s Eurovision-winning song “1944”. Ukraine had given Crimean Tartars the status of ‘nation local to Crimea’. While the Soviet Union and Russia as its heir had expelled them from their homes and deported them, without the right to return home, for three generations. This is why Crimean Tartars are so loyal to Ukraine as a country, and vocal in support of Ukraine after Crimea was forcefully taken. And this is one of the reasons why the tale ‘Crimea has always been Russian’ is a blatant lie.

Jamala’s song — the 2016 Eurovision winner

“We have many Jews. Belorussians. So, there are many more languages spoken in Ukraine other than Ukranian, Russian and English. Some people in Transcarpathia speak a mix of languages, you can see traces of Hungarian and sometimes Romanian — not pure Ukrainian. Ukraine is a huge country, geographically the biggest in Europe. Historically, unfortunately, our territory has been often split between different countries, each with their own policy about ethnic minority nations and languages. Russia had been very efficient trying to exterminate the Ukranian language, history and culture for centuries. And downgrading our sense of self-worth and installing in us a feeling we are not anything. Also installing a myth that Ukranian language and nation does not exist. In my part of Ukraine, Russian has been spoken widely just because they have a policy of destroying other languages. Also, sometimes people who speak Ukranian switch to Russian because they want to ‘fit in’ and be perceived as ‘higher rank’ or better educated — all because of centuries of conditioning that if a person speaks Ukrainian, they are an uneducated villager, and Russian is ‘high profile’ and overall better.

“When the Soviets came to the western part of Ukraine, they were very repressive. People were executed just for speaking Ukranian, or simply having the blue-and yellow (Ukrainian) flag. The place in which thousands of people were tortured and executed by the Soviets, is now Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum (the National Museum-Memorial of Victims of Occupation Regimes) in Lviv. And that is why people in the West of Ukraine fought against the Soviets during the  World War II and till 1956 when the Ukranian Rebel Army was totally destroyed — the rebels called ‘Nazists’ by the Soviet propaganda in Ukraine for the fact they were fighting against Soviet oppressors — a lie that had lived on for dozens of years and manifested in war now.”

Some of this may sound unreal or perhaps surreal to the world that continues entrenched in their everyday existence where the pandemic protocols continue a major concern along with having enough money to sustain oneself. Perhaps, the majority of people are most hit by the rise in oil and food prices, a threat of widespread hunger and stocks going awry. But for Lesya, it is her very existence as she recounts how she got out of Ukraine to the safety of Lithuania. Her choice was made because a friend from Lithuania warned her about the upcoming war and offered her a place to stay three days before the bombing. She adds: “Also, Lithuania has had a lot in common with Ukraine historically — the countries being together in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236-1795), old Ukrainian being one of the official languages there. Lithuania had also suffered under the Soviet occupation. When I finally reached Lithuania, I found that the country was very supportive of Ukrainians. Many Lithuanians were volunteering, gathering humanitarian help. There were lots of Ukrainian flags and messages of support everywhere.”

Her escape to Lithuania was an adventure that lasted for eight days. When asked if she could relate her experience, this is what she had to say: “I can disclose part of the escape — not all because it will put others at risk for no reason… Actually, for the first five days I was trying to convince my mum to leave, to pack. But it was almost impossible. One of the reasons is she is still connected to the Oxygen machine. She can stay only for some time without the machine, but a long time would not be a good idea. And then she could not find her documents. And she was definitely not in a psychological condition to pack and go somewhere. Neither was I — but she was in a worse condition than me. I had been trying to convince her for five days, but she did not budge.

“My mother was the first one who saw smoke really close to her home and she called her friends and acquaintances to find out if they knew anything about the source. That did not convince her to leave. But it convinced me. It was the day after the Kharkiv administrative building had been bombed. The next day the neighbourhood in which we lived, in the centre of the city, was bombed. That is when I started to blog and do Face Book live — something that I almost had never done before – to document my trip to carry some food to my mother from my home.”

She continued her narrative explaining how she got help to leave the country from a voluntary group formed by citizens to take people to safety out of Ukraine: “There are several organisations. In Kharkiv, I know of two. Probably there are more. They are helping people get out of Kharkiv. One organisation was taking people to Poland or wherever the person wants to go but it would have to be outside the city. There is also a group of volunteers who help people reach the train station to leave by the evacuation train because it is hard to reach the train station without public transportation. Public transport is no longer functioning. And the taxi drivers were asking for absurd prices — like a month’s salary where earlier it was a hundred now, they wanted 5000 or 7000 hryvnias. I did not know what to do, for it would take me about three hours to walk to the train station under normal circumstances. Now with my backpack and belongings under constant shelling, it seemed pretty much impossible.

“At that juncture, I got to know there is an organisation which I will not name till the war stops, that helps people out and I registered with them in a google form writing where I wanted to go. In the form, they asked us to fill the number of people who needed evacuation, the number of children, pets. Their priority was to get whole families out. I was just one person — that was one of the reasons why it took me so long to get to the border as families were a priority.

“One of the people affiliated to this organisation is a friend of mine. She is also a writer who used to document war crimes in the Donetsk region for eight years. So, that day she called me at 7 am and asked me if I could be ready in fifteen minutes, I said I could not be ready in fifteen minutes as I was at my mum’s. Then I rushed home and packed whatever I could. There was a chance that the cars with the fleeing residents would be bombed. The most important things needed to be in the backpack — money and documents and in my case, the laptop. Because even though I do not use it much, you can work anywhere if you have your laptop. I had thirty minutes to pack to leave.”

“One or two days before that, the electricity got cut for the evening. I was afraid the meat would be ruined. I did not know when the electricity would be back. So, I boiled all the meat from the fridge. Before leaving, I gave the two bowls of boiled meat to my neighbour who at that point had not planned to leave. I also gave her my massage cover that I had bought in December. In our tradition, leaving something behind is a sign you will return.

“At that point my neighbour did not want to leave as she had family near Kharkiv. But now, she is in Germany. When the war started, she was wondering when it would all end. I was looking at her and thinking how our grandparents faced war for four years during the Second World War. I bet they did not ask when will it all end! I knew that it will not be quick, that is not how wars are fought. At that point, it was the third day of full-scale war, and it was weird that she constantly asked, ‘When it will all end?’ and was eagerly waiting for the result of peace talks between our diplomats. I knew no peace talks were really possible: they would demand half of Ukrainian territory, we would not agree, end of discussion, the war continues. What peace talks? On the basis of what? Us surrendering? ‘Demilitarisation’? Why would we do that? There was no common ground for discussion. We want to be left alone, to continue being an independent country with a path towards NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the EU (European Union), and we want Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions back. They want Ukraine to cease existing (what they call ‘demilitarisation’), Ukrainians as a nation assimilated (what they call ‘de-Nazification’). These are their demands. There is no ground for discussion here.

“I took the dry food which would not go bad during the trip. I did not know how long the trip would take and what I would face. I took only the food that did not need to be cooked.

“I packed what I could and then I found my friend calling me. I had not heard the phone ring. I am really thankful she did not leave without me because people really need to leave the city very early as the bombing would start early, maybe at 9am, and then it repeats with pauses — every two hours, about five times a day. You hide in a self-created bomb shelter while the shelling continues. When it stops, you sit there for some time, trembling and unsure; and by the time you get your guts together to go buy some food or supplies (in my case, medicine or pulse oximeter batteries for mom), the shelling begins again, and you cannot leave. You just sit at home, frozen, in the constant state of crippling fear.

“My trip to Lithuania was nothing special. But I have never been not able to travel as I want. Also, I never had to travel with bombs and outside of curfews. I live fifteen minutes by bus from the airport. But the biggest airports of Ukraine were closed the night before the war started. That is why it took so long. Each city, each neighbourhood have their own curfews. You cannot be outside the curfew. 

“I started my journey as, first, an internally displaced person, and then, a refugee, on the sixth day of war. My friend picked me up. I got in the bus and put my luggage aside. All you needed was your money, documents and your smart phone.

“I thanked my friend for taking me, but she said, ‘My dear how would I leave you?’ And I whispered under my breath, ‘I love you.’ I felt relieved. We started driving. Within five minutes, I saw several bombed buildings. I saw with my own eyes how real it all was.

“After that we went to the house of my friend’s parents, outside Kharkiv. That had been converted to a refugee shelter. It was a point where you waited for the next part of the transport. More people were waiting there.

“We made plans for our trip. My friend also arrived. She apologised that she could not take me as the next two buses were loaded with families and they do not part families. So, I stopped there with her family. I waited two days for the next transfer. It was nerve racking as it was close to Kharkiv and we heard warplanes flying. The bombs were exploding in our part of the town.

“You made connections with the people in the house because you do not know how long you would have to wait. You do not know if the bus would be bombed, if the bus driver will be alive. You do not know. You are in the complete dark. I managed to make friends with the people there. I slept on the sofa in the same room. My friend’s mother cooked for us free of charge. The people in the village had to stand in a queue for one and a half hours to buy food. The good thing was that at least there was food in the shops.

“There were no sirens because we were not in the city. The city defence system did not actually cover us. And the city air raid warning system also did not cover us. If you hear the planes and the explosions, you know it is time to go inside as the bombs can hit your house. Sometimes, you take shelter in the cellars which is used to store vegetables. One of the children in the shelter was a special needs kid and therefore restless and would scream. My coat was ripped but I did not have the inner strength to sew it. I had two foreign passports. I used the part that was ripped to hide documents and money, in case I’d need to run with no luggage. It is legal in Ukraine to have two foreign passports. I had some money there which, unfortunately, I could not exchange after the war started.

“Finally, we left early in two buses. In Ukraine you travel between curfews. On the road, we had two stops in local kindergartens or schools on the borders of the region at night for the curfew. The bus driver had to monitor to navigate us safely — watching all the while where the road was destroyed, where the bridge was destroyed.

“We would start around six seven in the morning every day and then stop for shelter at 2 pm or 3 pm or 4 pm so as not to move outside the curfew. We were welcomed in kindergartens or schools. Sometimes we slept on the floor. We were not the first and we will not be the last. Lots of families with children waited. And we were brought to a refugee centre in the centre of Ukraine which is the office of the organisation that was helping us. In the city, I will not name till the end of the war and probably later, we stayed in a very old Soviet hotel with running water but no hot water. We had to hide in the bomb shelters three times a day just in case. It was a hotel full of people from Kharkiv. I have been in Lithuania now for almost a month. And this organisation is still helping people.

“We stayed in the centre of Ukraine. It was not modern, but it was a shelter, and they gave us food on a voluntary basis. So, some people decided this would be their final destination. Some refugees are now volunteering for arranging transportation, giving information, fund raising. They are trying to arrange buses but sometimes, there are buses but no driver, sometimes drivers but no buses, sometimes no petrol — it is war. So, we waited there two or three days. I cannot recall the number of days exactly. We waited for buses to take us to Warsaw as this organisation has an agreement with Poland. There is a hotel in which we could stay in Warsaw.

“They gave us food three times a day and we did not have to pay anything. I spoke to two young women, mother and a teenage daughter. Their home was destroyed near the Constitution Square and they were living in the hotel. They had bombed the Constitution Square and the Independence Square… Those two women have been left without a home and stay in the hotel. I had given interviews to Canada, Romania by then and I went around asking people if they would like to give interviews, but people did not want to. So, in that sense, I am unique.

“Every person deals with stress in different ways. They were not ready to talk of their trauma.  But for me it is natural to talk. So, this woman refused to talk about it. Their experience is their home did not exist anymore. The mother had to be dug out of the rubble when there was an explosion. The daughter was like the Terminator. The cupboard fell on her and she got up and put everything back to order and dug her mother out of the rubble in the bathroom. Her mother stayed in the hospital emergency care for one day as her face was covered with broken glass. Then the next day, their relatives came, helped dig out two suitcases and, mind you, it was February, and they had only two suitcases left. If you live in the centre of Kharkiv, it means your life is good. They lost everything.

“My friend from Lithuania was wondering if I were ready to go. When I told him I would probably have to go to Warsaw, he started searching for ways for me to get to Lithuania from Warsaw. Apparently, there are volunteers who are taking people from the border of Poland to Lithuania but not from Warsaw. So, he told me to go to the border of Poland and find this person and say that I need help.

“We arrived by bus to the border town of Lviv. My friend from Lithuania had a relative there whose wife worked in the school, which was used to house us. This relative’s wife helped me buy some cough medicine, as I was coughing, and a power bank…  We spend the night in the village and started our trip. It was a green corridor bus so I thought it would go faster. They would not check the documents so thoroughly. But there was a huge crowd of buses and people. We had to wait at the border for eight hours.  It was 1 am when we crossed the border. To get from the border to Lithuania was not easy. No one knew how long one has to wait at the border. Some people had been waiting two days at the border. Eight hours later, I got out and I felt my adventure had ended. But actually, it was just starting.”

Lesya Bakun at the Polish border

A special message from Lesya Bakun:

“If you want to help Ukraine in its hour of need, I urge you to donate to Ukrainian military — because if Ukraine loses, there will no longer be need for humanitarian help. You can support local humanitarian actions — things that are really needed in these specific locations in this specific time. You can donate to the fund “Come back alive/Povernys’ Zhyvym“. Please click here to donate. And you can help Ukrainian families, children, and pets get to safety by donating to the volunteers who bring people like me and all the people I met en route.

“I also urge you to support Ukraine by buying Ukrainian books, inviting Ukrainian artists to poetry, musical, and visual arts events – or offering residencies and shelter to Ukrainians fleeing from war, and learning more about the reach Ukrainian culture and the history of its fight for freedom.

“Together, we will win!” — Lesya Bakun

*Updated on 9th May, 2022, from an email message by sent by Lesya Bakun: “My cousin, the defender of Mariupol, has been captured by Russians.”

(This article is based on an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty from voice messages and written texts on the social media platform of Telegram.)

Lesya Bakun has given a list of some places where donations can be made.

BENEFICIARY

RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA273052990262046400929572634

ACCOUNT

5169 3600 1722 8341

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT

0011000080

INTERMEDIARY BANK

JP MORGAN CHASE BANK
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASUS33

Card currency:
USD

BENEFICIARY
Отримувач (П. І. Б. отримувача рахунку латиницею)
RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA513052990262016400929572635

ACCOUNT
Рахунок в банку одержувача (номер пластикової карти або поточний рахунок в Приватбанку)
5169 3600 1722 8358

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT
Рахунок банку одержувача в банку-кореспонденті
623-160-5145

INTERMEDIARY BANK
Банк-корреспондент
J.P.MORGAN AG, FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASDEFX

Валюта карти:
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Riabko Vasyl 095 555 06 58
papakarlowas@gmail.com
For Western Union or PayPal

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

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely that of the interviewee and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Interview

 When a Hobo in a Fedora Hat Breathes Tolkien…

In Conversation with Strider Marcus Jones

Strider Marcus Jones
i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien

Strider Marcus Jones wrote these lines about an idyllic utopia that was named Lothlorien by JRR Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Jones writes beautiful poetry that touches the heart with its music and lyricality and recreates a world that hums with peace, beauty, acceptance and tolerance – values that have become more precious than gems in the current world of war, strife and distress. He has created his own Lothlorien in the form of a journal which he has named after the elfin utopia of Tolkien. An avid reader and connoisseur of arts, for him all his appreciation congeals in the form of poetry which draws from music, art and he says, perhaps even his legal training! Let us stride into his poetic universe to uncover more about a man who seems to be reclusive and shy about facing fame and says he learns from not just greats but every poet he publishes.

What started you out as a writer? What got your muse going and when?

In my childhood, I sought ways to escape the poverty of the slums in Salford. My escape, while gathering floorboards from condemned houses every winter and carrying them through back entries in crunching snow to our flat, above two shops for my dad to chop up and burn on the fire was to live in my imagination. I was an explorer and archaeologist discovering lost civilisations and portals to new dimensions our mind’s had lost the ability to see and travel between since the time of the druids. Indoors I devoured books on ancient history, artists, and poetry from the library. I was fascinated by the works of Picasso, Gauguin, Bruegel and many others and sketched some of their paintings. Then one day, my pencil stopped sketching and started to compose words into lines that became “raw” poems.  My first mentor was Anne Ryan, who taught me English Literature at High School when I was fourteen. Before this, I had never told anyone I was writing poetry. My parents, siblings and friends only found out when I was in my twenties and comfortable in myself with being a ranger, a maverick in reality and imagination.

When I read your poetry, I am left wondering… Do you see yourself in the tradition of a gypsy/mendicant singing verses or more as a courtly troubadour or something else?

I don’t have the legs to be a courtly troubadour in tights and my voice sounds like a blacksmith pounding a lump of metal on his anvil.

I feel and relate to being gypsy and am proud of my Celtic roots passed down to me from my Irish Gypsy grandmother on my Father’s side who read the tea leaves, keys, rings, and other items telling people’s fortunes for years with scary accuracy. I seem to have inherited some of her seer abilities for premonition.

Like my evening single malt whiskey, age has matured the idealism of my youth and hardened my resolve to give something back to the world and society for giving me this longevity in it. The knocks from the rough and tumble of life have hardened my edges, but my inner core still glows like Aragorn’s calm courage and determination in the quest to bring about a more just and fairer world that protects its innocent people and polluted environment. Since Woody Guthrie, Tom Waits and Bukowski are influences I identify with deeply, I suppose I am a mendicant in some of my poetry but a romantic and revolutionary too, influenced by Neruda, Rumi, Byron, and Shelley shielded by The Tree of Life in Tolkien’s Lothlorien:

THE HEAD IN HIS FEDORA HAT

a lonely man,
cigarette,
rain
and music
in a strange wind blowing

moving,
not knowing,
a gypsy caravan
whose journey doesn't expect
to go back
and explain
why everyone's ruts have the same
blood and vein.

the head in his fedora hat
bows to no one's grip
brim tilted inwards
concealing his vineyards
of lyrical prose
in a chaos composed
to be exposed,
go, git
awed
and jawed
perfect and flawed,
songs from the borderless
plain
where no one has domain
and his outlaw wit
must confess
to remain

a storyteller
that hobo fella

a listening barfly
for a while,
the word-winged butterfly
whose style
they can't close the shutters on
or stop talking about
when he walks out
and is gone.

whiskey and tequila
with a woman who can feel ya
inside her, and know she's not Ophelia
as ya move as one,
to a closer and simplistic,
unmaterialistic
tribal Babylon,

becomes so,
when she stands, spread
all arms and legs
in her Eskimo
Galadriel glow,
sharing mithril breath,
no more suburban settlements
and tortured tenements
of death,
just a fenceless forest
and mountain quests
with a place to rest
on her suckled breasts,
hanging high, swinging slow.

war clouds HARP
through stripped leaves and bark,
where bodies sleeping in houseboat bones
reflect and creak in cobbled stones:
smokey sparks from smoked cigars
drop like meteorites from streetlight stars,
as cordons crush civil rights
under Faust's fascist Fahrenheit’s.
 
one more whiskey for the road.
another story lived and told

under that
fedora hat
inhaling smoke
as he sang and spoke
stranger fella
storyteller.

You seem to have a fascination for JRR Tolkien. You have a poem and a journal by the name of Lothlorien. Why this fascination? Do you think that JRR Tolkien is relevant in the current context? We are after all, reverting to a situation similar to a hundred years ago.

Yes, on all counts. Tolkien and his Lord of The Rings trilogy have been part of my life since I first read one summer when I was twelve years old.  My young mind, starved of adventure and elevenses in Salford’s slums, willingly absorbed the myths and magic, lore’s and legends beguiling me to enter the ‘Age of Man’. This living in a time of relative peace alongside other, more ancient races with musical-poetic languages reflected part of my own reality in living through the Cold War decades under the impending doom of nuclear annihilation where daily life often felt the shadows cast by the Cuban Missile Crisis, war in Vietnam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and famine in Biafra.

Sauron’s evil eye and invading armies echo an outgoing President Eisenhower’s ominous warning to curtail the influence and corruption of the banking-military-industrial-complex. Instead, Martin Luther King and President John F Kennedy were assassinated and a surveillance state and gilded slavery ideology is being imposed globally using artificial intelligence. Ancient civilisations in Iraq and Libya have been destroyed for control of oil and to maintain global Petro dollar power. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is just as relevant today in Ukraine, Yemen, and Syria and as it was through the slaughters of Verdun, the Somme and Flanders Fields. It is a warning that good must prevail over evil and this burden is borne by those with courage and conviction who cannot be corrupted.  

What is your Lothlorien? What does poetry mean to you and your existence?

My Lothlorien is a more peaceful world, with more tolerance of other individuals and cultures. Not perfect by any stretch but a place where people laugh, have their neighbours back and work with each other. A place of social justice and equality, music, poetry and art. It is no place for racism, sexism, ageism, corruption, or war. A kind of homestead with birdsong, forest, mountains and rivers, preferably in the French Pyrenees or Alaskan Bush. A place of words composed into poems and stories read and spoken, passed down and added to by each inspired generation in the Native American tradition. Poetry is all about communication and community in my existence. We are caretakers of our words and the world.

You have used Orwell, Gaugin and many more references in your poetry. Which are the writers and artists that influence you the most? What do you find fascinating about them?

Individuality of expression through fiction, poetry, art and music fascinates me. Now, at 62 years of age so many have influenced my poetry with or without me knowing or realising it. These include:

From the past – Chaucer, Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Auden, Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Sexton, Plath, Kerouac, Heaney, Lorca, Orwell, Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Tolkien, Steinbeck, Heller, Donaldson, P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Rilke, Rumi, E.E.Cummings, Neruda, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Thelonious  Monk, John Coltrane, Dylan, Tom Waits. So many.

From now – They know who they are. I have published their work in Lothlorien Poetry Journal.

You play instruments — saxophone and clarinet? Does that impact your poetry?

Saying I play instruments is a huge stretch of the imagination. I get strange notes out of my saxophone and clarinet that must sound like a hurricane blowing in anyone’s ears. My black Labrador, Mysty, covers her ears with her paws but I enjoy trying to play. I love jazz music, anything from the 1920s to early 70s, but Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, and Ornette Coleman took jazz music to a level that transcends mortality.

Jazz music continues to be a profound influence in my poetry. I will explain how.     

Does any kind of music impact your writing?

In some way, unbeknown to me, jazz music, particularly that of Davis, Monk and Coltrane runs parallel to and interweaves with the rhythms of how I think when I write poetry. It closes my mind to the distractions of the outside world. The sound of those perfect and imperfect notes opens a door in my mind, I close my eyes, float into this dark room and my senses fill with images and words, which hover in the air like musical notes where I conduct them into rhythms and phrases bonded to a theme. Some become poems, others disintegrate into specks of dust, the moment gone. Sometimes, the idea and train of thought sleeps in my subconscious for years. This happened with my poems “Visigoth Rover” and “Life is Flamenco” which come from   my sojourns randomly wandering through Spain but were born years later listening to Paco playing Spanish guitar and Flamenco music which is another key influence in my poetry.

VISIGOTH ROVER

i went on the bus to Cordoba,
and tried to find the Moor's
left over
in their excavated floors
and mosaic courtyards,
with hanging flowers brightly chameleon
against whitewashed walls
carrying calls
behind gated iron bars-
but they were gone
leaving mosque arches
and carved stories
to God's doors.

in those ancient streets
where everybody meets-
i saw the old successful men
with their younger women again,
sat in chrome slat chairs,
drinking coffee to cover
their vain love affairs-
and every breast,
was like the crest
of a soft ridge
as i peeped over
the castle wall and Roman bridge
like a Visigoth rover.

soft hand tapping on shoulder,
heavy hair
and beauty older,
the gypsy lady gave her clover
to borrowed breath, 
embroidering it for death,
adding more to less
like the colours fading in her dress.
time and tune are too planned
to understand
her Trevi fountain of prediction,
or the dirty Bernini hand
shaping its description.

LIFE IS FLAMENCO

why can't i walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
or play my Spanish guitar
like Paco,
putting rhythms and feelings
without old ceilings
you've never heard
before in a word.

life is flamenco,
to come and go
high and low
fast and slow-

she loves him,
he loves her
and their shades within
caress and spur
in a ride and dance
of tempestuous romance.

outback, in Andalucian ease,
i embrace you, like melted breeze
amongst ripe olive trees-
dark and different,
all manly scent
and mind unkempt.

like i do,
Picasso knew
everything about you
when he drew
your elongated arms and legs
around me, in this perpetual bed
of emotion
and motion
for these soft geometric angles
in my finger strokes
and exhaled smokes 
of rhythmic bangles
to circle colour your Celtic skin
with primitive phthalo blue
pigment in wiccan tattoo
before entering
vibrating wings
through thrumming strings
of wild lucid moments
in eternal components.

i can walk as far
and smoke more tobacco,
and play my Spanish guitar
like Paco.

Tell us about how music and language weaves into your poetry — “i’m come home again” — there is no effort at punctuation — and yet the poem is clear and lyrical. I really love this poem – Lothlorien. Can you tell me how you handle the basic tool of words and grammar in your poetry?

In my mind, music is poetry through sound instead of words. Like words, the combinations of notes and pauses have intricate rhythms and phrases. In many of my poems like “Lothlorien” and those above, I weave the rhythms and phrases of jazz music or Spanish guitar and words together with run on lines so there is no need for punctuation. This gives these poems, and many others a spontaneity and energy which feels more natural and real and has a potent, more immediate impact on the senses and emotions when combined with images and happenings. This whole process feels natural to me. It began in my early twenties, when I was listening to old Blues and the likes of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson alongside Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits and Neil Young. These are the raw underbelly notes of my pain and anger at the world. Jazz is the mellow top notes. I hope this makes sense. It is hard to explain something that is natural to and part of who I am, so forgive any lack of clarity.

Sometimes, I just like to add a moment of mischievous fun to a serious poem as in these two:

REJECTING OVID

the fabulous beauty of your face-
so esoteric,
not always in this place-
beguiles me.

it's late, mesmeric
smile is but a base,
a film to interface
with the movements of the mind behind it.

my smile, me-
like Thomas O'Malley
the alley
cat reclining on a tin bin lid
with fishy whiskers-

turns the ink in the valley
of your quills
into script,
while i sit
and sip

your syllables
with fresh red sepals of hibiscus,
rejecting Ovid
and his Amores
for your stories.



OLD CAFE

a rest, from swinging bar
and animals in the abattoir-
to smoke in mental thinks
spoken holding cooling drinks.

counting out old coppers to be fed
in the set squares of blue and red
plastic tablecloth-
just enough to break up bread in thick barley broth.

Jesus is late
after saying he was coming
back to share the wealth and real estate
of capitalist cunning.

maybe. just maybe.
put another song on the jukebox baby:
no more heroes anymore.
what are we fighting for --

he's hiding in hymns and chants,
in those Monty Python underpants,
from this coalition of new McCarthy's
and it's institutions of Moriarty's.

some shepherds’ sheep will do this dance
in hypothermic trance,
for one pound an hour
like a shamed flower,

watched by sinister sentinels-
while scratched tubular bells,
summon all to Sunday service
where invisible myths exist-

to a shamed flower
with supernatural power
come the hour.  

How do you compose a poem? Is it spontaneous or is it something you do? Do you hear the lines or voices or is it in some other way?

Most poems come from life’s experiences and observations of people, places, nature, and events. These can be from the past, or present and sometimes premonitions of the future which often overlap depending on the theme/s and where I want it to go.

When it comes to composing a poem, I am not robotic, and neither is my Muse. I have no set time and never write for the sake of writing something each day which I find disrupts my subconscious process. A poem can begin at any time of day or night, but my preferred time to think and write is mid-evening going through to witching hour and beyond. I put some music on low, pour myself a slow whiskey and sit down in my favourite chair with pen and folded paper. I never try to force a poem. The urge to write just occurs. I don’t know how, or why. It just happens. My subconscious finds the thread, thinks it through and the poem begins to unravel on the page. I care about the poems since they care about the world and the people in it. So, I often agonise for days and in some cases years, over lines and words and structure, crossing out words and whole lines until they feel right. Editing, and redrafting is a crucial part of the writing process and requires courage and discipline. Butchering your own work feels barbaric in the moment but enhances your poetic voice and strengthens the impact of a poem on the reader.

You are a lawyer and in the Civil Service in UK. How does law blend with poetry?

I am a law graduate and retired legal adviser to the magistrates’ courts/civil servant who retired early. I have never practiced as a lawyer.

I never think about law when I write, but I am sure the discipline brings organisation to the orderly chaos of Spinoza’s universe that resembles the space inside my head.

Tell us about your journal. When and how did you start it?

I started Lothlorien Poetry Journal in January 2021. I publish the online rolling blog of poetry and fiction and printed book volumes — currently standing at eight issues featuring established and emerging poets and fiction writers published on the LPJ blog.

We are a friendly literary journal featuring free verse/rhyming/experimental poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and occasional interviews with poets.

We love poems about enchantment, fantasy, fairy tale, folklore, dreams, dystopian, flora and fauna, magical realism, romance, and anything hiding deep in-between the cracks.

I publish Lothlorien Poetry Journal periodically, 4-6 issues every year. Contributors to each issue (selected from the best work published on the Journal’s Blog) are notified prior to publication and receive a free PDF copy of the issue that features their work.

We nominate for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

 What do you look for in a poet as a publisher?

I look for a poet or writer’s distinct voice, that spark of originality in their theme/s, the rhythm and musicality in their language and phrasing.  I have no boundaries as to style, form, or subject – prose, rhyming, free verse, sonnets, haiku, experimental or mavericks who break the rules and write about the darker underbelly of society – if it is good and not offensive, racist or sexist Lothlorien Poetry Journal could be the natural home for your work. The best way to find out is to come to Lothlorien, have a read, and decide to submit.

LOTHLORIEN

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
to marinate my mind
in your words,
and stand behind
good tribes grown blind,
trapped in old absurd
regressive reasons
and selfish treasons.

in this cast of strife
the Tree of Life
embraces innocent ghosts,
slain by Sauron's hosts-
and their falling cries
make us wise
enough to rise
up in a fellowship of friends
to oppose Mordor's ends
and smote this evil stronger
and longer
for each one of us that dies.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien,
persuading
yellow snapdragons
to take wing
and un-fang serpent krakens-
while i bring
all the races
to resume
their bloom
as equals in equal spaces
by removing
and muting
the chorus of crickets
who cheat them from chambered thickets,
hiding corruptions older than long grass
that still fag for favours asked.

i'm come home again
in your Lothlorien
where corporate warfare
and workfare
on health
and welfare
infests our tribal bodies
and separate self
in political lobbies
so conscience can't care
or share
worth and wealth-

to rally drones
of walking bones,
too tired
and uninspired
to think things through
and the powerless who see it true.
red unites, blue divides,
which one are you
and what will you do
when reason decides.


IN THE TALK OF MY TOBACCO SMOKE

i have disconnected self
from the wire of the world
retreated to this unmade croft
of wild grass and savage stone
moored mountains
set in sea
blue black green grey
dyed all the colours of my mood
and liquid language-
to climb rocks
instead of rungs
living with them
moving around their settlements
of revolutionary random place
for simple solitary glory.
i am reduced again
to elements and matter
that barter her body for food
teasing and turning
her flesh to take words and plough.
rapid rain
slaps the skin
on honest hands
strongly gentle
while sowing seeds
the way i touch my lover
in the talk of my tobacco smoke:
now she knows
she tastes
like all the drops
of my dreams
falling on the forest
of our Lothlorien.

Thanks for your lovely poetry and time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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