Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) reflected the plight of Africans and the deep divides that created schisms between different groups in South Africa. The book won the author, Alan Paton, a Nobel prize. Another remarkable book that was published in the same year was a non-fiction written by a student of Tagore called Syed Mujtaba Ali. Mujtaba Ali wrote Deshe Bideshein Bengali. This has been translated in recent times by the former BBC editor, Nazes Afroz as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. It is an outstanding memoir that demystifies and explains what led to the issues that are being faced by a country repeatedly jostled by varied regimes, a country that seems to be so steeped in problems that worrying about the pandemic remains a far cry for the common inhabitants.
For many decades this book had been feted by only a small group of readers, though the book is no lesser than Paton’s in crying out against injustices, terrors of violence and starvation, because it was written in Bengali. It was so witty and flavourful that people were afraid to translate it for the fear of losing the nuances of the original. As Afroz tells us in this interview, he had similar reservations. A book written by a scholar, it peppers history and political issues with lucidity and humour, making it an enjoyable experience for the lay reader. The author has a way of turning the mundane or intellectual into an amusing anecdote. During a conversation at an embassy party, the author through the voice of a fellow professor, makes a hilarious observation – but also, one that does convey much about Afghanistan despite its attempts at liberalisation.
“Madame Vorvechievichi argued, ‘But there are mullahs in this country.’
“Dost Muhammad said reassuringly, ‘No need to worry, Madame. I know these mullahs very well. Their knowledge of religion is very little and I can teach you all of it in three days. However, a woman can’t be a mullah.’
“Madame Vorvechievichi said angrily, ‘Why not?’
“With a deep sigh Dost Muhammad said, ‘Because she can’t grow a beard.’”
The book is speckled with multiple such instances. Along with these witticisms, the pathos of the country, the plight of the people is well captured by poignant observations:
“The real history of the country was buried beneath the soil, much like the way that Indian history was hidden in its Puranas, Mahabharata-Ramayana. Afghanistan is a poor country; Afghans do not have the time or the resources for archaeological excavations to write their own history.”
The writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974) a polyglot, scholar, traveller and humanitarian did just that – he recorded the history of the time he spent in Afghanistan, a time when a swift takeover from the liberal king Amanullah (1892-1960) was staged by Bacha-ye-Saqao (1891-1929) during the Afghan Civil War (1928-29). Does this sound familiar, reminding one of the recent August 2021 takeover by Taliban?
A Humboldt scholar, Mujtaba Ali was conversant in fourteen languages, lived in five countries, including Afghanistan, where he had gone to teach. That his erudition never interfered but enhanced without marring the simplicity of rendition is what makes the book an attractive read for all lay persons. His astute observations are laced with wit and realism. The residue of the book lingers as the vibrant narrative flows — vicariously bringing to life, with humour and empathy, a culture that is distinct and yet warm in its uniqueness. His style is reflective of an in depth understanding of the situation and a sense of empathy for the common people with who he interacted daily – like his man Friday and the colleagues he mentions. For the author, everyone, from an uneducated villager to the crown prince (who invited him to play tennis), seemed to grow effortlessly into a rounded persona of a friend. All these have been transmitted by Afroz in the translation too. Translating two cultures across borders in a language that does not have all the words to capture the intimate nuances is not an easy feat, but it has fruited into an unusual and captivating read.
Afroz’s maiden venture at translation was shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award. Afroz himself has spent a long stretch of time in Afghanistan. He joined the BBC in London in 1998. He was a senior editor in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. In 2013, he moved back to India. A passionate photographer, he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines. In recent articles, he has been voicing his own concerns about developments in Afghanistan. In this interview, he reflects on what led him to translate the book, the situation as it was then and as it is now. He dwells not only on the historic civil war as captured in the book but also on current day politics and the Taliban takeover.
You are a journalist. What got you interested in translating a Bengali classic from the last century?
I became a journalist five years after I read Deshe Bideshe. I was still a teenager when I picked up the book from a library rack. Reading Mujtaba Ali at that age had a profound impact on me. The erudition, the smooth sailing between multitude of cultures and languages, the gripping storytelling in his writing mesmerised me. I had never read anything like that in Bangla. Every Bengali reader of Syed Mujtaba Ali had felt the same way as I did. As a child I had the uncontrollable urge for travels and seeing the world. In Mujtaba Ali I found a role model. Deshe Bideshe stayed with me since then. It was one book that I would read two to three times a year from my teenage. So, by the time I decided to translate Deshe Bideshe more than thirty years after I first laid my hands on the book, I had read it for more than a hundred times! I knew its each page, I knew its each story and Afghanistan had seeped inside me permanently as I could relate to all the characters of the book.
While working for the BBC World Service in London, I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the Taliban were dislodged from power in a short war towards the end of 2001. I visited the country a number of the times in the following few years. As I travelled more, I befriended my BBC colleagues there and met other journalists and people on various walks of life. Some of them became good friends as well. I used to refer to events from the times of King Amanullah while discussing Afghanistan. They were surprised to hear all the details that I mentioned from a time that they said, ‘Even we don’t know!’ So, I mentioned how a Bengali scholar came from Kolkata to Kabul in 1927 and taught here, was a participant of the modernisation project of Amanullah by teaching English and French, played tennis with the crown prince Inyatullah (1888-1946) became an eyewitness of the rebellion against the king, got caught in the anarchy in the winters of 1928-29, and nearly perished starving before managing to go back to India. Hearing my story, they asked if there was any English translation of the book as they were keen to read. I told them that there was none as it was untranslatable!
As years went by and more and more of my Afghan friends got to know about Deshe Bideshe, they demanded that I did the translation. But I had my doubts. Would I be able to capture Mujtaba Ali’s unique language? Would I be able to transpose his wicked sense of humour? Would I be able to convey his erudition?
Eventually in 2011, I had already made up my mind to quit the BBC and move back to India. At that point my day-to-day workload in the BBC was significantly reduced. As I had ample time in hand, I thought I would attempt the translation. At that point I didn’t think of any publication; I wanted to do it just for fun and for my Afghan and non-Afghan friends who knew about the book and were keen to read it. I thought I would give them a taste of Mujtaba Ali’s writing by doing a few chapters. So, I did the first few chapters and shared them with a few friends. After reading those chapters they wanted to read more. I felt encouraged and I carried on with the translation for the following few months. Eventually the whole book was complete in about a year. After completing the translation, I let it sit for a few months before picking it up again and reread it as new text without looking at the original text. That exercise went on several times over the following one year till the final manuscript shaped up.
How many countries have you worked from? You were also in Afghanistan for several years I believe. Can you share your experiences?
My work has taken me to a dozen country or so. But as an intrepid traveller, I have visited more than 40 countries so far across four continents. Apart from my regular visits to Afghanistan, I spent months at a stretch on several occasions. Working in Afghanistan was certainly a unique experience. It wasn’t a country where one could travel and roam around freely. There were always the security alerts. One needed to negotiate security barriers everywhere. The accommodations – hotels, guesthouses were guarded by armed men. In the early years – in 2002 to 2004, there weren’t so much security in the hotels or guesthouses we stayed in. But that started to change from 2010 onwards as the Taliban had at that time started to regroup, and they made their presence felt in the country and in Kabul. Even at that time, cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat were considered lot safer than Kabul. With increased and unpredictable attacks by the Taliban, the country became more and more edgy.
What was it about the book that drew you to it?
As I mentioned earlier, the uniqueness of Mujtaba Ali was that his erudition wasn’t frightening. He penned Deshe Bideshe almost twenty years after he left Kabul. By then, he had completed his PhD in comparative religion from Germany as a Humboldt scholar, did his post-doctoral research from al-Azhar university in Cairo, learned more than a dozen languages, and travelled extensively in Europe. So, even though his narrative of Afghanistan was drawn from what he had witnessed in his mid-twenties while teaching there, when he decided to write the book, he had acquired profound knowledge in philosophy, literature, culture and history of the world in many languages. The multilingual and multicultural references with an oblique yet gripping story-telling style infused with a wicked sense of humour that came in his writing, had been drawing ardent followers, including me, since 1948 when Deshe Bideshe was first published.
The book highlighted a growing divide between the minority with liberal education and the majority without education. Is that true still? Would you call the book relevant to the present-day crisis?
Yes, that divide between the educated and the not educated that Mujtaba Ali elicited in Deshe Bideshe is still there. But the gap has certainly reduced. The years between 1929 to 1978 had been relatively stable and peaceful in Afghanistan. Modern education had spread but without giving a jolt to the conservative society and keeping the clergy more or less content. In Kabul and other major cities, girls and women were getting more and more education; they were also seen in public life more. Following the coup through which the communists – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA came to power in 1978, there was a big push for universal education. This created a much bigger educated class. Women were the biggest beneficiary of that time in terms of acquiring knowledge and finding jobs. Women were joining the police and military as well. Following the capitulation of the PDPA government in 1992, the modern education system collapsed during the Mujahideen civil war years until 1996 and then after the takeover of virtually the whole of the country by the Taliban.
A large number of Afghans – almost a quarter of the population became refugees in neighbouring countries or elsewhere. When the American led international forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the population got a fresh chance to get education. Schools opened again. Both girls and boys went back to school. Internationally there were many programmes to give scholarships to Afghan women and men who were seeking higher education. As a country with a very young population (the average age of Afghanis is 18), a large number of students joined the public and private universities. So, tens of thousands of young women and men are now educated holding masters or even PhD degrees in the country. But the rural areas lagged behind. So, the gap is more of the city and rural areas.
Do you find similarities between the Afghanistan of then and of now?
The way the Afghan society works, based on its ethnic and tribal identities as witnessed by Mujtaba Ali, still exist. The stranglehold that the clergy had on the uneducated mass about a century ago has possibly changed; it’s been replaced with more political interpretation of their religion. The ethnic divisions have sharpened for multitude reasons – primarily due to the outside interference and the way ethnic groups have been used in the larger geo-political game of the world powers.
One of the issues that tussles through the book is that people were basically poor and lacked education. Syed Mustaba Ali spoke of the vicious cycles of poverty, how much has it changed from what he wrote and what you experienced? Please elaborate.
Mujtaba Ali talked about how poverty contributed to the cycle of unrest in Afghan history. Yes, that poverty still exists but with that, a toxic potion of religio-politics has been added to the cauldron. The conflict of the past four decades is more due to the global religio-political dynamics rather that its own poverty.
Did/ do you find parallels in the political situation where Amanullah and his brother escaped from the invading hardliner, Bacha-ye-Saqao? Would you see Bacha as a precursor of Taliban?
The only parallel that one can draw between 1929 when Amanullah and his brother Inayetullah fled and now in 2021 is that the suddenness of the events. Amanullah’s fall happened in months and Bacha took over Kabul in matter of days – almost the same way the Taliban took control of the country.
I don’t think Bacha-ye-Saqao or Habibullah Kalakani as he called himself, was a precursor of the Taliban. Bacha was more of an opportunist; he grabbed the opportunity that came his way. But the Taliban are more of an organised religio-political force what was the product of the geo-politics of the last decade of the Cold War. So, they two are not comparable.
Did the American or Russian intrusions into Afghanistan serve any purpose? Did they actually help the Afghans?
The short answer is no. Both the superpowers came to achieve their own strategic and foreign policy objectives. The Soviets came to expand their sphere of influence beyond their borders in Central Asia. In the process they were badly bruised and had to retreat. The Americans came to get hold of Osama-bin-Laden and dismantle the al-Qaeda infrastructure. It was never about helping a nation that had been devastated by decades of conflict in which they had no role. They just became pawns in the greater game of geopolitics.
By the descriptions in the book, Afghans seem to be fairly open as humans and yet, they have a distinct identity borne of their culture, their ethos — very different from any other. Was that undermined in any way by the attempts at modernisation?
Like many other rural, traditional and old societies, Afghans are hospitable and warm people. They are bound and governed by their age-old custom and codes of conduct.
Even when they are outside of their own land – in the West too, they extend their hospitality to strangers the same way they would in their own country and their behaviour would not differ much. It is not the question, if modernisation has or will undermine their tradition. They have had encounters with modernisation – the way modernisation is understood from the Western prism. Did that change the people who had experienced that modernisation in the time of Amanullah? Mujtaba Ali saw that the ‘so called’ modern people did not lose their Afghan-ness. The same can be said now. As a people they have largely remained unchanged despite connecting with the outside world like never before.
In the book, the international community was practically chased off Afghanistan. As the US troops left, one felt the same way. Do you feel intervention from the international community is necessary in Afghanistan? Why?
The backdrops of 1929 and the present are not identical. In 1929, the rebellion was against the king who had lost the support of the clergy. The king did not come to power with foreign intervention. So, the international community was not chased out in 1929. The Europeans left because of the chaos and the violence. The rebels didn’t fight with the foreigners. Yes, there was an armed opposition to the presence of the USA since the war in 2001, but that opposition wasn’t big enough to send the USA packing.
The USA left because they had achieved their goals in Afghanistan, and it was becoming hugely expensive for them to stay on. Many are also drawing parallels of the US’s departure from Afghanistan with their hasty retreat from Vietnam in 1975. But they were again not identical. In Vietnam, the USA visibly lost the war. But in Afghanistan they did not lose. They could have stayed on if they wanted but it made no sense to them to spend tens of billions of dollars each year. Hence, they left. They had been talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan since 2012, a year after they killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The intervention that the Afghans had been experiencing since 1979 – first by the Soviets, then Pakistan and finally the US led Western nations, devastated the country and the ordinary Afghans had been paying for it with all they had. No external intervention is beneficial for any country. It’s not desirable to have; certainly not the way the global powers had been intervening for the past 40 odd years in various corners of the world. But the question is, if unspeakable atrocities are committed on certain sections of a country or society, what does the international community do? Should the international community intervene? The world powers have unfortunately always used these as pretexts to intervene to further and achieve their own objectives not only in Afghanistan but in other countries too.
In the book, only foreigners with work seemed to be in Afghanistan. Is/ Was it possible for tourists to visit Afghanistan, even before the Taliban took over?
In the last twenty years, Afghanistan had been unstable. Violent incidents kept happening. So, it was not advisable for tourist to go there. But the country always issued tourist visa for short visits! For a few years, Japanese tourist used to come to visit the ancient Buddhist sites like Bamiyan. That too waned due to the escalating conflict.
Thank you for this wonderful interview and also for the flawless translation of a classic memoir.
She paints. She writes. And she has lived through history. She was born in a country that no longer exists. The borders changed with movements of history. In South Africa in the late 80’s, early 90’s she ran a Nursery School attached to the local Primary School for whites. She lived through Nelson Mandela’s movement. As laws changed she admitted the first black child into the school in 1993. She writes of celebrating the first democratic elections in South Africa: “I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid.” She lived through it all and soared out to explore more…
Sybil Pretious is a woman who has travelled through life with an élan for assimilating the best in all cultures she has lived in, and she has lived in many. She has lived in six countries and travelled to forty. I met her in China, where she was teaching in an international school. She was like a beam of sunshine. She retired and left. Then we met virtually in a world devoid of borders. While she wrote of her travels from China, the part of her life where she lived through incidents we only read of in history remained silent. That is what we set out to explore in this interview. At an age where others retire and complain of aches and pains, she is writing a biography of her mother and looks forward to traveling, painting, and writing more. Now, this traveller in time, with a heart full of compassion, calls herself a South African, lives in United Kingdom and unfolds for us the story of her life.
Tell us about your childhood in South Africa.
My childhood was never spent in South Africa. The first 23 years of my life were spent in Southern Rhodesia/ Rhodesia. Rhodesia joined Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as the Federation – 1953-1963). Rhodesia declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) from Britain in 1965. This lasted for 13 years and in 1980 after much conflict Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
Only now, when I look back do I realise how much of an influence my childhood had on my passage through life.
Rhodesia, part of the British empire, a land-locked country almost in the centre of Africa, was first colonised by the BSA Company (British South Africa Company) lead by Cecil Rhodes in 1890 when mineral rights were granted by the chief, Lobengula. The country was named after Rhodes. It had a perfect climate and was known as ‘The Breadbasket of Africa’ for the high-quality food crops the farmers produced. Sadly, now, there are many people who do not have enough to eat in the country.
My parents met and married in in 1934. My dad was born in Rhodesia in 1901. His father had been one of the early pioneers in the 1890’s. My mother travelled from Kimberley in South Africa where she was born, to Rhodesia in 1926.
My dad refused to go to university because his father would not allow him to study Mine Engineering. My mother had little education because she was so involved with helping her mother with her six siblings.
I was born in 1942. Fortunately, my father was too old to enlist for World War II. I arrived six years after my elder brother and sister and my arrival was greeted with joy. I was the centre of attention and loved it, generally revelling in the light shining on me and responding to it. From then on, I tried to please everyone. I was not enamoured when two-and-a-half years after my birth my younger sister made an appearance followed a year after that by my younger brother. Of necessity they became the focus of attention, and I became more of a loner and learnt to enjoy my own company.
My father had a great love of the outdoors, prospecting, and mining for gold. Mum grew to love the peace of the veld in his company. During my parents’ first few years of marriage, they moved often as gold reefs ran out. They also farmed during this period. Eventually when they settled in the capital, Salisbury, and made their money by purchasing land, building a house, living in it for a short while before selling it and moving on to the next project.
This made for a rather interrupted childhood where we changed homes and schools often. I attended four different schools in the first four years of my schooling. When I finally had some settled years in a Primary School, I did well. I was the star of the family, but it put a lot of pressure on me to perform.
As children we found it difficult to make and keep friends, but this constant change equipped us for adapting to many different situations. My elder sister insisted on going to Boarding School just so that she could make friends and I think get away from her three younger siblings.
With the wonderful climate in Rhodesia, I spent much of my free time during childhood out of doors. We had one-acre gardens that were generally virgin veld. They provided many opportunities to explore, invent games, problem solve, and use our imaginations.
I loved going to the library in Salisbury and taking out many books, especially adventure stories and visualised myself in the roles of the characters. I created imaginary people and used the natural world to feature in my make-believe stories. Although we were always moving, there was no lack of childhood company as our cousins lived close by. But of course, they were not the same as friends.
Our holidays were spent mainly in Rhodesia, camping in the Eastern Highlands. I loved camping and still do even at my age. On occasion we travelled to Natal in South Africa or Beira in Mozambique for seaside holidays. In our teens we went in friend’s cars on wonderful picnics to dams where we swam and water-skied. We visited the beautiful outdoor places with names like ‘Mermaid’s Pool’ and Sinoia Caves with its mysterious bottomless pool. We scrambled over rocks and climbed hills and had parties on friends’ farms. It was generally a carefree existence in the open air.
My contact with Africans was mainly when we lived on farms. I enjoyed sitting in the dust with a few of the children and pretending to ‘teach’ them. I had a small blackboard, and I would write a word and say it and they had to repeat it and copy in the sand. I used fingers to indicate numbers and showed them how to count (though I am sure they could do that in their own language). They did not attend our schools and we rarely saw the children or mothers in towns. The African men worked as servants in our homes.
Did you often visit other countries during your childhood?
The only other countries I visited during childhood were South Africa and Mozambique for holidays. I loved reading about other countries and was always fascinated the by different peoples, climates, and lifestyles.
Can you recall a memorable event?
The most memorable day in the whole of my time in Africa must be the day of the first democratic elections in South Africa on 27th April 1994.
On that day I remember rising early, stowing a water bottle, some sandwiches and fruit in my backpack. The closest polling station was not far from where I lived so I walked. It was a beautiful day. Clear sky, warm sun (though that proved to be hot after many hours of standing). My husband had decided to go later. I was astonished at the long queues that had formed – some literally miles long. I approached and found myself standing behind two Africans and Indian lady. We all greeted each other warmly clasping two hands together and greeting in our own languages. Later as the time wore on in the heat I shared my water, fruit and sandwiches. Our discussions were general – the weather, our families, where we had come from and how glad we were to be there at this historic time. They had all travelled further than I had but there was no grumbling as we stood patiently.
There was an air of calm euphoria.
I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid. We could only treat the people in our employ with sympathy and fairness, but the rules of apartheid shackled our relationships. It was a day of hope for everyone chatting, showing kindness, laughter and waiting patiently to vote.
There was not one adverse incident throughout the country and foreign journalists were disappointed that violence had not broken out. This day was the greatest example of forgiveness and acceptance that I have ever witnessed. I feel privileged and blessed to have been there.
You are writing your mother’s memoirs tell us about it.
My mother was born in 1904 and lived until 2001. At sixteen, she was the eldest of seven siblings in Kimberly, South Africa, when her mother was tragically killed in a shooting accident which involved her brother. When her father remarried, she felt rejected and left to stay with a friend. With little knowledge except of cooking and shopping for her mother she took on the job of manageress of a bakery and improved her education by reading the newspaper to her friend’s blind father and writing letters for him.
Eventually she decided to relocate to the newly annexed colony of Southern Rhodesia. The story records her many personal challenges in this pioneering country – some sad, some hair raising, some very amusing and others poignant. When she married my father, their resourcefulness was tested to the limit with five children to raise. She is an example of courage, inventiveness, creativity, love and sheer grit in pioneering times. It encompasses family life in a fledgling country.
I want my children and grandchildren to know about their roots so that they may be as fearless and resourceful as my mother was in very testing circumstances.
Why did you write about your mother specifically?
I wrote about my mother because the first sixteen years of her life were very demanding as she helped her mother with her six siblings at home while missing school. The death of her mother left her without a purpose in life as the family was dispersed.
She is a shining example of getting on with life no matter the circumstances. Subsequently with her marriage the story includes my father. They have both been inspirational in different ways. My mother for her love, steely determination and creative thinking, my father for his quiet, never-ceasing support of her and us.
My mother, despite her poor schooling manged a bakery, worked in a department store, designed the houses they built, helped build them and was there for her children. She never hired any help to look after us. She was thrifty, made all our clothes and was a tower of strength in our family as well as being adored by her siblings.
She remains the most positive person I have ever known despite having no help with getting over the death of her mother. Her influence on my outlook in life is tremendous and while the story is mainly hers, it honours both of my parents.
How many countries have you lived in? Tell us a bit aboutwhy you moved.
I have lived in six countries but travelled to about forty. My home country is of course Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
I travelled to UK age 23 and lived here for a year working and travelling.
When I married in 1967 my husband was from Swaziland, so we lived this beautiful mountainous country for three years. Our first precious daughter was born there.
We moved to South Africa in 1971 and lived mainly in Durban and Johannesburg in the next 30 years. Our precious two younger daughters were born in Durban. This was during the apartheid years. In 1988, we bought a trading store in the rural cane farming area out of Durban and with no experience plunged into that way of life. Our customers were mainly Zulu farm workers. During that time, I started a Pre-School and admitted the first African child. These were the years leading up to the first democratic election and there were many tumultuous incidents during that time. Our venture failed and we returned to Johannesburg to recoup our losses.
While I was teaching, I studied for my BA by correspondence, and did a Remedial Teaching qualification.
In 2003, I obtained a teaching post at an International School in Maputo, Mozambique, commuting back to Durban during the holidays. After two years, I realised that I needed to be on my own and in 2005 our divorce went through.
In 2006, I secured a teaching post at an international school in Suzhou, China. I spent the next six years in this fascinating country. This was a really special time in my teaching career and life and fuelled my passion for travel. Precious people in a spectacular country, they will always remain dear to me. In 2012, I had no choice but to retire at age 70.
I have not taught since moving to the UK but have enjoyed the history, walking in gentle countryside, painting, singing in a choir, Circle Dancing and of course writing. This has been a beautiful retirement.
Which country has been the most memorable and why?
Many people ask me which is the best country I have ever been to or lived in. My answer is simple:
“The best country in the world is wherever I am.”
Of course, no one is satisfied with that answer even though it is perfectly true. I look for the best in each country I go to and tell the people I meet.
I generally find that it is then very easy to settle into a new place.
If I was forced to choose a country, my home country would be the one – wonderful people, perfect climate and terrain and a relaxed lifestyle.
What has been your learning from all your travels?
I have learnt that there is no substitute for my own very special daughters. While on my travels they and their families were so often in my thoughts, and I have learnt that sacrifices are made when you are away from your family.
I have learnt to welcome differences instead of looking for similarities in cultures.
I have learnt that you need not speak a language to communicate. Communication comes in many forms.
I have learnt to go with the unexpected as wonderful surprises often ensue.
I have learnt that the way in which you approach people is usually what will be returned to you.
I have learnt that this world of ours is infinitely beautiful in so many different ways.
I have learnt that we need to take better care of our precious planet.
I have learnt to take risks and not to fear the unknown.
And I have learnt to appreciate and understand differences and similarities in countries and peoples.
How did you get impacted by the pandemic? How did you tackle it?
I did not weather the pandemic very well during the first lockdown in 2020. In 2019, I had just moved into a new complex, gone through winter, then spent a month in South Africa with my family so had little time to meet people and settle in. I returned to UK the day that lockdown started. My youngest daughter and family lived fairly close, but I was unable to see much of them.
I am usually positive in most situations, but my mind appeared to lockdown during this time.
I gave up painting, playing the ukulele and at times writing during those months. I cleared out a lot of stuff that I didn’t really need so that was good, but it was a very frustrating time for me as I was considered too old to volunteer for anything. I didn’t consider myself vulnerable and resented being told what was supposedly ‘good for me’. By the time the second lock down came in 2021, I had inherited my granddaughter’s little dachshund called Hope. She has indeed brought hope and joy to my life. And now that we are almost back to normal, I seem to be re-igniting my creativity.
Do you see any commonality among people across different cultures and in different places?
People are people throughout the world. Unfortunately, borders are created by governments. Wherever I have travelled my reception has always been generous and helpful. People are curious and show exceptional interest in the differences between our cultures. Laughter often follows explanations. I have been asked to give a speech at a Chinese wedding and had toasts in my honour. I have slept on beds with bamboo pillows and climbed mountains with local people. I feel blessed for the acceptance I have experienced.
Travelling without expecting other cultures to mimic your own; expecting and experiencing exciting and interesting differences is the most gratifying point of travel. I have been privileged to be accepted into the homes of local people in many countries which is why I like to travel on my own or perhaps with one other. The real joy of travel and culture is to be found in local places with local people, not in hotels and on organised tours.
Santosh Bakaya interviews Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Bapu, after paying a brief tribute to the Mahatma
Before I begin the interview, I would like to pay a small tribute to the great Bapu, the unarmed fighter, the environmentalist, the vibrant economic philosopher, who talked of Swadeshi and self- dependence long before the modern world is slowly waking up to its benefits, who emphasized a people -centered economy rather than a technology centred one, where we find individuals stripped off their dignity, becoming insignificant cogs in the machine. The plight of the migrant labourers during the current pandemic is branded on our collective consciousness, all because of a flawed-topsy- turvy model of development. Only if we had heeded Bapu’s call of making the villages self- sufficient and self- reliant.
Right from the time he refused to ‘cheat’ to correct the spelling of kettle in a class test during the visit of the school inspector, to the time he abruptly called off the Non-cooperation movement, due to violence at Chauri Chaura, well-aware of the repercussions that would follow, he shunned mendacity and violence. Belying his physical fragility, he managed to emerge as a strong moral icon. In a world torn asunder by war and violence, he succeeded in teaching many a world leader lessons in the powerful weapon of non- violence and truth, pitting soul force against brute force. The vulnerable Mohan, full of complexes, foibles, fears and phobias, a boy who was afraid of snakes, ghosts, multiplication tables, metamorphosed into the valiant, venerable Mahatma, [a sobriquet he did not feel comfortable with]. Under the seemingly frail façade, was a man who could flex his moral muscles and shake a comatose nation out of its languor. This unarmed warrior, went on to exemplify self- introspection, self -analysis, self- mastery, and a humongous moral power. Denigrated as the half-naked fakir by Winston Churchill, he was the very epitome of minimalism, but well- clothed in the raiment of love, compassion, fearlessness and forgiveness.
During the Dandi March, women from all sections of society- women who had never been part of public gatherings, women who had not stepped out of the four walls of the house, unlettered village women, poured out on the streets because he had very intelligently linked salt, a common kitchen ingredient to an uncommon call for freedom. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay valiantly stalked into the High Court premises, and while a stunned magistrate gaped, hurled a question at him whether he would like to buy “the salt of freedom”, she had prepared. Songs of freedom rang in the streets, women metamorphosed into human shields blocking the paths of policemen, facing lathi blows and even landing in jails. What do you call such a man – an intelligent strategist? Quixotic? Charismatic? A maverick? Was this not a coup of sorts?
Bapu’s strategy paid off and the Indians realized that throwing off the foreign yoke was not difficult, if heads are held high and spines, straightened. Gurudev Tagore told the Manchester Guardian of 17 May, 1930, “Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia.” Louis Fischer wrote in the chapter, ‘Drama at the Seashore’, in his biography of Gandhi, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, “The British beat the Indians with batons and rifle butts. The Indians neither cringed, nor complained, nor retreated. That made England powerless and India invincible”– all because of a seemingly weak, five-foot five man, who sent quivers down the rulers’ backs by a handful of salt.
In this interview with his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi , author of a book called Let’s Kill Gandhi(2007), chronicling the last days of his great grandfather, we hear more on Bapu and Gandhi-ism in the current world.
It is with a feeling of immense awe for the descendant of a great moral icon that I am here with my questions for you, Tusharji. If you remember, this is not the first time I am talking to you. It was in the year 2015 that I not just met you, but presented you my poetic biography of Bapu, Ballad of Bapu, for which you had graciously written the foreword. I remember being awe-struck by your unassuming demeanour coupled with a self-derogatory sense of humour, which your great-grandfather was also known to have had. Please tell us something about yourself, which we don’t know already.
I am an ordinary, simple person of limited abilities who is very lucky to be born a descendant of very illustrious ancestors. Life has taught me that greatness is not an inheritable quality it must be earned. I remember when a celebrity TV presenter Richard Quest was doing a series for CNN called ‘Quest for Greatness‘, he shot the concluding episode at Sabarmati Ashram and invited me to talk to him. His precept was whether places associated with greatness were the source of that greatness. He talked about the greatness of Bapu and about how the place attracted so many leaders of the world to visit it and be inspired by the place and the legacy of the person with whom the place was associated. He asked me if the fountain of greatness was at Sabarmati Ashram and was that the reason leaders visited it to partake of that greatness. My answer was yes, absolutely, sometimes the place inspires great actions and sometimes the aura of the great person associated with the place lingers on to inspire future generations. That draws them to the place.
Yes, that is absolutely right. The lingering aura of a particular place cannot be shrugged off, and if it is a place associated with our beloved Bapu, it will always keep inspiring people. The fragrance that I inhaled on my visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, is something I can never forget. Its aura and extraordinary energy seems to cling to ordinary visitors.
Richard’s concluding question for the show was directed at me, he asked, “There is no doubt that Gandhi was great. Scientists believe that our nature and what we become is also hot-wired in one’s DNA, genes. Did Gandhi have the greatness gene? As his direct descendant have you, Tushar inherited that greatness gene?”
My answer was immediate and short, I told Richard, “Greatness cannot be inherited, it has to be earned.”
I am overweight, the result of an indulgent lifestyle. I am lazy, when you sent me these questions my first question was how long would you be willing to wait for my responses! I haven’t, as yet developed the courage to be absolutely truthful. I succumb to anger and passion. I am enslaved by the sense of taste, to delicious food. I am unable to reduce my requirements in life. I know Bapu would have disapproved of me.
So, I live within my limitations, aware of my short comings.
No one is perfect. We all have our fads, foibles, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. Yes, I remember, seeing some pictures, of your early teens, in one of which you are even holding on to your pet dog. What were your dreams then? Were you awareof your monumental legacy? Were you curious to know more and more about your great grandfather?
Yes, Zendy was more of a brother than a pet. I loved him, poor chap was a bit of a cripple, he had very limited abilities in his hind legs and so he would drag himself around or we carried him around. As a child I was inspired by my mother’s brother. He was a pilot in the Indian Air Force. So, from very early childhood I wanted to become a pilot. As I grew older, I wanted to join the Indian Air Force and become a fighter pilot. I even sat for the NDA entrance exam, unfortunately I could not qualify and so abandoned those plans. But my desire to become a pilot was obsessive and so I never considered doing anything else and when that dream crumbled, I was left adrift, not knowing what to do. Finally at my father’s suggestion I joined the Printing Institute to do a diploma in printing, I qualified as a printer, but my heart was never in that work and so after several halfhearted attempts, I gave it up as a career.
I don’t have any recollection of a moment or age in my life when I became aware of the legacy I had inherited. I feel I was always aware of the greatness of my ancestor, as I grew older, and my understanding increased the awareness about the greatness of Ba (Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife)and Bapu and my grandparents has grown and along with it my pride in the legacy they have bequeathed to me and with it the awareness of my limitations too.
I never had to request my elders about information about Bapu, I remember as a child my bedtime stories as told by my grandmother or by her sisters and cousins were almost always about their recollections of Ba and Bapu. As a child sometimes I would get fed up and throw a tantrum demanding to be told stories of kings and princes, fairies and princesses. But all I got were stories of Ashram experiences and anecdotes with Ba and Bapu. As I grew older, and my abilities of understanding evolved, I realised and understood the profound lessons those stories taught and the reason why my elders insisted on instilling those stories into my psyche.
My study of the ideals and the methods of Bapu continues. That is a lifelong never-ending quest.
We would love to know about your early life — your idols and heroes. Was Bapu also one of them? Are you also known for your candid, straightforward, hard-hitting words like your great- granddad?
My childhood, like me was very ordinary and unremarkable. I was a very average student someone who would have been diagnosed as being dyslexic, I am still spelling-challenged in all the languages I can write. If it wasn’t for the word processor software with their built-in spell checks I would never have been accepted as a writer, let alone a published author.
Were you a mischievous boy in school?
I was known to be a mischief maker and spent a record amount of time in detention. But it turned out to be a boon. In detention we were made to sit on a bench outside our principal’s office. The door of his curtain-less office always remained open, so he kept an eagle eye on all the benched ones.
The rule was that after we told him why we were on the detention bench, we had to go to the library, get a book and read it while sitting on the bench. I was so often on the bench that I got hooked to reading to such an extent that our school librarian when asked, why he was spending more than what was budgeted for library purchase, complained to our principal about how he had to keep buying new books because I had read all the books in the library.
This is hilarious! Your punishments turned you into a bibliophile!
The reading addiction grew so much that by my teenage years I was black listed by four libraries in our neighbourhood, because I had read through their collections of books!
In my childhood, shopkeepers used to keep paper bags made from pages of magazines and newspapers. I remember back home after the purchases had been put away, I would open up the bags and read whatever was printed on them, even though it was incomplete. My obsession with reading continues even today, now on laptops and smart phones, but I still prefer to read stuff printed on paper.
I had many idols during my childhood many still are, my ancestors, naturally. Revolutionaries too. Heroes from the folklore and history, sports icons, armed forces legends and martyrs. Those associates of my great grandfather I was fortunate to meet, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachary, Maniben Patel, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, once and several others. They all left an indelible impression on my mind.
Since I am well- aware of my limitations I am not as honestly outspoken or frank as Bapu, but I am not known to mince words. Brash, is how I am more often described. But, as we live in a world of increasing hypocrisy, I have realized the need for plain speaking, so I too am becoming more and more outspoken.
To suit myself I have reinterpreted Bapu’s favourite three Monkeys from ancient Japanese and Buddhist lore who were actually four, Mizaru, who covers his eyes and sees no evil, Kikazaru who covers his ears and hears no evil, Iwazaru who covers his mouth and speaks no evil and the obscure fourth Sezaru who covers his lower abdomen and does no evil.
In today’s times I have reinterpreted them, feeling that they more appropriately convey the message: “Don’t shut your eyes and block out evil acts or crimes. Don’t close your ears so as not to hear a cry for help or to the bitter truth. Don’t shut your mouth and remain silent while evil is done, and hate is preached around you. And don’t remain indifferent against injustice, act against it decisively.”
I strongly believe Bapu would have adopted the fourth monkey too and reinterpreted all of them. It is no longer the time for polite and diplomatic talk, we need strong but honest words, not necessarily angry ones and most importantly, actions.
Very rightly said. In his very first public speech, on 4 February 1916, at the inaugural ceremony of Banaras Hindu University, because of his forthright words, Annie Besant had to plead, “Sit down Gandhi”, when he had ridiculed the highly bejeweled princes who were glibly talking about poverty. “Our salvation can only come through the farmer”. Don’t you think these words of Gandhi resonate today with a renewed vigour?
Yes, Bapu did fall foul of the organisers at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University where he was invited to speak, as the hero of South Africa. When he criticised the bejeweled and pompously attired princes and the elite gathered there, Annie Besant who presided over the function, requested him to stop on several occasions.
When he started talking about swaraj (self-rule), the dignitaries on the dais staged a walk out and Ms. Besant called the meeting to a halt, but the student body gathered, insisted on listening to Bapu and trooped out of the venue and held an impromptu meeting on the open ground where Bapu continued his very ‘hard hitting’ and what was then dismissed as, impertinent ravings.
Yes, the students had applauded his candid utterances, saying Hear Hear! much to the discomfiture of the organizers and the princes.
The students were very fascinated by Bapu’s thoughts. It was after this that Bapu forayed into the Champaran Satyagraha, registering a decisive triumph over the colonial power, and gradually taking hold of the reins of the freedom movement.
There is a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration in our country and much that needs to be set right. To begin the process, we need a leader with Bapu’s ability of calling a spade a spade and yet not speaking in an offensive, insulting manner. India today suffers from a very dangerous epidemic of hate, it mustn’t and can’t be countered by counter hate. We must revert to Bapu’s method, honest, truthful words, yet not the language of hate and abuse.
India is witnessing an ongoing protest by farmers from northern states now almost a year old, there is discontent and despair in the entire farm sector, but it is being compromised by a general apathy towards their plight, today it is the farmers, tomorrow it will be another group of us, we must wake up and fight together, united.
Indeed, we need to yank away our comatose stupor, before it is too late. Bapu is said to have had a great sense of humour. Do you recall having heard any incident of Bapu which had tickled your funny bone immensely, as a child?
Bapu is reported to have said that ‘If it wasn’t for his sense of humour he would have gone mad.’ and also that ‘ If he did not have a sense of humour, the ability to enjoy the funny side of everything he would have been driven to despair and committed suicide.’ This is how much Bapu appreciated and valued humour. His humor used to be laced with sarcasm. When an American journalist asked Bapu what he thought about Western Civilisation, Bapu replied “It is a good idea!”
Yes, that witticism by Bapu never fails to bring a smile to my lips.
I recall a personal anecdote told by my grandmother. This happened in Sevagram, Wardha. Bapu received a request from a group of women village sevaks (workers), who wished to greet him on his birthday and spend 2nd October at the Ashram. Bapu welcomed them but said that he was a poor man and so they would have to bring their own meals and not burden the Ashram.
On 2nd October, they came to the Ashram early morning and participated in the activities of the Ashram. At lunch time when everyone at the ashram assembled at the dining hall, Kasturba noticed that the visitors were sitting under a tree, opening the cloth bundles they were carrying. She called my father and asked him why the visitors were not eating along with all the other residents of the Ashram? My father told her of the condition Bapu had laid down to permit the visitors to spend the day at the ashram.
When Ba heard the story, she was very angry, she told my father to call the visitors to assemble in her kutir (hut), she would cook a meal and feed the guests. Unlike her husband, she refused to forget her dharma (duty) as a host. Ba hurriedly cooked Khichadi and fed them. This defiance of his order by Ba was reported to Bapu, everyone expected him to get annoyed and reprimand her. But he smiled, quipping, ‘At one time the British Queen listens to me, but my words hold no authority over Ba.’
A typical Bapu witticism! We have mutated into rodents, running the rodent derby in helter-skelter haste. How would Bapu have reacted to this rodent derby? Would he still have continued to walk alone – taking long strides towards self- discovery, advising\ rebuking people along the way?
Bapu would have warned us about our devolution into rodents. But he would not have just warned us about the evil, danger and unsuitability of our way of life, he would have presented humankind with an evolving alternative way of life and lived it himself. Walking alone was second nature to Bapu, he was so far ahead of his times that he had no option but walk alone, not intimidated by the unknown. Having said that, his belief in the omnipresence of God was so deeply entrenched that he never considered himself to ever be alone.
Please tell us something about yourself as a student, were you obedient and disciplined? How did your peers and teachers treat you? Did you have a rebellious streak in you?
I was a very average student. In our times we were expected to be obedient, and we too believed that we should be obedient, so I also obeyed my elders and teachers. I was only nominally disciplined, there was a rebellious streak in me, muted most of the time, but it did manifest itself from time to time.
Please tell us something about Bapu’s walking habits. He shunned physical classes in school, but later did a lot of physical labour, becoming a very agile walker. “The modern generation is delicate, weak and much pampered.” He said during the Dandi March and walking less than twelve miles a day, he considered, “child’s play”. How did he become such a sturdy walker?
Bapu acquired the habit of walking far and fast in South Africa. He used to compete with his friend Herman Kallenbach to see who walked the longer distance and who was faster than the other. This became a daily lifelong habit and when at the age of 61 he lead the Dandi March, others much younger than him had to run to keep pace with him. There is a very iconic photograph of a child holding on to Bapu’s walking stick and seemingly pulling Bapu along.
Yes, I have seen that iconic photograph.
The child is Bapu’s grandson Kanha, who lived with him when Bapu was briefly staying at Juhu in Bombay. Every evening Bapu would insist that Kanha accompany him on his walks on the beach. Kanha walked very slowly, so, to make him walk faster, Bapu used to push him ahead of him with his walking stick. Over the years some dexterous photo retouching artists touched up the photo to appear as if the child was pulling Bapu along. Bapu had a very long stride which also added to his speed of walking.
Bapu was a staunch supporter of women empowerment, but in the Dandi March, if I am not mistaken, among the 78 handpicked volunteers, who accompaniedBapu on the 240-mile march which lasted 24 days [12 March to 6 April 1930], only a few women joined the retinue from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, other women only joined him later. Did this issue not become a bone of contention among the women?I recall having read that powerful women like Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu and Perin Captain (the granddaughter of Dada Bhai Naoroji) were displeased that they were not part of the handpicked retinue, strongly venting their ire, saying that they would not be satisfied merely by picketing shops. But yes, I remember Sarojini Naidu becoming a part of the March during the last stretch to Dandi, and raising a fistful of salt on 6 April,1930, and saying, “Hail Deliverer”.
There was a reason why Bapu refused to allow women to accompany him on the Dandi March. His objective was to provoke the Colonial Government to deal harshly with him. Threats were also made against the Satyagrahis, news was leaked that the Government would unleash a regiment of Pathan Sepoys to beat them and disrupt the march, not even sparing Bapu. Sardar Patel was arrested a week before the March was to begin and locked up in Sabarmati Prison. This was a warning to Bapu. Bapu wanted such harsh responses. He knew that if women accompanied him the Colonial Government would claim that Gandhi had taken women along as protection.
He knew that the ‘gentlemanly’ colonial government would not harm women and so he had insulated himself from reprisals by hiding behind a protective shield of women. So Bapu decided that women would not accompany the marchers, hence they were not allowed to accompany him and his handpicked companions on the March from Sabarmati to Dandi.
There was a lot of discontent among the leading women Satyagrahis of that time, and they protested against Bapu, but they obeyed him too.
After he picked up salt at Dandi and broke the law on 6th April 1930 they demanded that now they must be allowed an equal opportunity to participate in Satyagraha in the front lines of Satyagrahis. Sarojini Naidu and Mithuben Petiet welcomed Bapu at Dandi. Eventually a Women’s Conference was held at Dandi and addressing the attendees, Bapu ordered the women to participate in the Satyagraha from then on.
Bapu used symbols very powerfully. Symbols such as minimal clothes, charkha(spinning wheel), salt, khadi were very effectively used by him for mass mobilisation. We would like to know something from you about his strategic use of symbols.
Bapu was a master communicator throughout his campaigns, first in South Africa and later in India, he utilised the power of symbolism to a great advantage. Bapu’s use of symbols and gestures was unlike the very artificial and dramatic use of symbolism, by the ‘leaders’ of today. He used them in a much more honest, sincere and believable manner. After deciding to embrace poverty when he was one of the most prosperous Indian lawyers in South Africa, Bapu chose to live simply to identify with the poor Indians he was leading and living amongst at the Phoenix Settlement. Yet he continued to wear the western attire of a gentleman.
It was only towards the end of his struggle in South Africa after a few Satyagrahis died during the Satyagraha and as a result of the brutal incarceration they were subjected to, that Bapu discarded the western attire and appeared in public dressed as what was then contemptuously described as the dress of a ‘Coolie’. When he arrived in India in 1915, he had started dressing in an elaborate costume of a Kathiyavadi gent. The dress of his home region in India.
In Champaran and before that during his year and half long travels to discover India, Bapu came face to face with the abject poverty of its populace and it was then that he began dressing less. Finally, it was when he saw the farmers of Madurai toiling in the fields, dressed merely in a brief loin cloth, that he discarded the kurti that he wore and adopted the attire of a mere loincloth to identify with the people he wanted to lead.
Yes, that is what riled Winston Churchill and he commented adversely on his attire.
Yes, it was this that bugged Winston Churchill and when Bapu visited Buckingham Palace to have tea with the royalty dressed similarly, Churchill called him ‘the half-naked Faqeer’. When Bapu was questioned by a reporter as to whether he would be dressed as he always did if he was invited to meet the Emperor he had replied that if he dressed up in any other manner he would be dishonest and disrespectful towards the Emperor.
The charkha to him was not just a symbol but a tool for the rejuvenation of India’s traditional crafts and village industries, he used it as a symbol of his idea of the ideal ‘industrial’ revolution in India’s villages he wished to usher in.
Salt was one of his most brilliant and evocative symbolisms, which he turned into a symbol of the British oppression of the masses of India. Their suffering and their aspirations for freedom, dignity and existence. It caught the fancy of the people of India and the attention of the entire humanity.
It goes without saying that through the powerful use of symbols and symbolic language, he was able to drive many a point home. Could you throw some light on his relationship with Kasturba? Both were married at the age of thirteen, and both grew together, and all of us know that Ba’s death devastated him completely. Obviously, with his obstinate ways, he was definitely not an easy man to carry along with. Yet, she was the moral strength behind him.
Ba was Bapu’s anchor. Throughout his evolution he has acknowledged her as his teacher of several important lessons, one of them being Passive Resistance.
Ba had the unenviable task of living with him as he transformed and surviving each of his catharsis. She not only survived but carried the family with her- immediate family initially, her growing sons and then the extended ashram family as she learnt to accept all of them and started feeling responsible for them.
Initially tumultuous, at times it was difficult to believe that their relationship would survive. But what Bapu wrote to the Viceroy and Lady Wavell replying to their message of condolences on Ba’s death, illustrates the depth of their relationship, showing how much Bapu relied on Ba. I quote:
‘I send you and Lady Wavell my thanks for your kind condolences on the death of my wife. Though for her sake I have welcomed her death as bringing freedom from living agony, I feel the loss more than I thought I should.
‘We were a couple outside the ordinary. It was in 1906 that after mutual consent and after unconscious trials we definitely adopted self-restrain as a rule of life. To my great joy this knit us together as never before. We ceased to be two different entities. Without me wishing it, she chose to lose herself in me. The result was she became truly my better half. She was a woman always of very strong will which, in our early days, I used to mistake for obstinacy. But that strong will enabled her to become quite unwittingly my teacher in the art and practice of nonviolent non-co-operation.’
One does not require to say any more.
Do you not find it a daunting task to carry forward the legacy of Bapu?
It is daunting but I have always lived within my limitations, and I don’t bother to live up to the expectations of others, this has made it easier to live with such a ‘heavy’ legacy. I have always considered the legacy I have inherited as a boon and so I have never felt it a burden.
It was Martin Luther King Jr who had said, “Gandhi was perhaps the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale”, which is indeed the truth. There is no denying the fact that it is a dystopian world that we are living in, where all are caught between the harsh tones of hatred and the insidious currents of revenge and rancor. How can non-violence again be revived as an effective social force?
Even in the past, we have lived in the age of hate, prejudice and strife; family relationships too have become fragile due to this but it’s not entirely a new phenomenon. When Bapu arrived in India, one of the first things he realised was the disunity between Hindus and Muslims due to distrust and hostility. He concluded that to effectively fight the colonial power he had to unite the two religious groups, and he set about working diligently towards it by igniting the passion for freedom in every heart.
He achieved his objective, but the glue was tenuous, and as independence became a reality, it rapidly deteriorated and the traditional distrust and hostility resurfaced. Hate and violence took center stage in 1946. Bapu realised that he had lost his dream in his hour of triumph. In 1946-47 and the first month of 1948 , insanity prevailed in India and the newly-created Pakistan.
It was only Bapu’s murder which shocked Indians and restored sanity for the time being. That sanity lasted for the first fifty years of its existence because of compassionate leadership and the memory of the sacrifice of Bapu. But then opportunist ‘leaders’ stepped into the forefront and unleashed a campaign of untruths and communal hate. The venom has now permeated to our cells and altered our very DNA, and we see its manifestation in every aspect of our existence. Unfortunately, now there is no Gandhi to jolt us back to sanity by sacrificing himself. Even if one was to emerge, I don’t think we collectively deserve such a deliverer.
Yes, we indeed need Bapu to remerge, and pull us back to sanity. Tell me, can walks for peace change mindsets? What triggered the idea of the re-enactment of the Dandi March? I remember, it was the year 2005, the 75th anniversary of the March I was in my MPhil class, and the news of the reenactment of Dandi March was very much in the air, and my students were hurling questions after questions at me – most of them laced with cynicism. Can you tell us something about your experience during these marches? I remember seeing pics of the March where one man was dressed like Bapu. How did this image of Gandhi impact the people?
My reenactment of the Dandi March in 2005, in its 75th anniversary year, was a personal challenge and a token gesture of response to the violence of 2002 the state had endured. That is why I went out of my way to invite the participation of a group of Pakhtoon Khudai Khidmatgaar, descendants of the legacy of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. It was a privilege to walk alongside the almost 100 Red Shirts from Pukhtoon Khwa in Pakistan and watch the people of Gujarat warmly embrace them and invite them into their homes.
The personal challenge was that three of my ancestors had walked the entire route in 1930: my great grandfather, Bapu, my grandfather, Manilal and my uncle, Kantilal. It always felt challenging to me. I wanted to test if I had it in me to walk the distance. I was always the proverbial ‘Couch Potato’, so, it was an intimidating task. After putting it off several times, I decided to take the plunge. None who knew me, believed I would complete the journey. On several occasions during the March, I wanted to give up mid-stride, the agony too excruciating. Then I visualized walking with Bapu, imagining his walking stick pushing me along and it gave me the strength to complete the walk-first that day’s walk and then the entire 241 miles.
There were several people who dressed as Bapu during the March, but one had a remarkable resemblance to Bapu, and it was very inspiring, walking the entire distance, barefeet!
That was indeed a commendable feat. Gurudev Tagore, who was deeply revered by Bapu, happened to be in the vicinity of Sabarmati Ashram on 18 January, 1930, and paid him a visit. When asked what plans he had for his country in 1930, Bapu remarked, “I am furiously thinking night and day, and I do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.” But then the Inner Voice spoke to him, and light came in the form of the iniquities of the Salt Tax, and he decided to embark on the path of Civil Disobedience. What exactly was the nature of this Inner voice, for him?
For Bapu his inner voice was his conscience keeper. He acquired the ability to hear it after much effort. Once he began hearing the ‘still faint voice’ it became his search light, it guided him, showed him the direction and illuminated his objective.
Bapu was not against technology as such, but he was staunchly convinced that our education system bred mediocrity. What would he say about the education system of today?
Bapu had rejected the western education system outright as unsuitable for Indian needs. He believed it till his end, begging with his sons in South Africa and then in his Ashrams in South Africa and India he developed a new system of basic education that he believed would cater to the varied needs of India. It was based on the principle of Enlightening the mind, Awakening theheart and Empowering the hands. He named his model of Basic Education Buniyadi Talim and then Naee Talim.
True to his brutally honest utterances, he would have termed the education system in India today as a curse on India and Indians and would have crusaded to destroy it completely, at the same time, offering a more suitable sustainable alternative.
We are witnessing that our basic education model has completely failed and only churns out substandard students, worth next to nothing. Same is the case with the higher University education system. Upon graduation, students realise that their ‘qualifications’ are worthless, they are not able to get jobs which their parents were able to secure upon graduation. Even with professional degrees, it is the same. Engineers acquire a degree in Management even after specialising in a field of engineering, even after a masters. Doctors study for super specialisation after specializing to enhance their earning ability. Education from being a medium of enlightenment has been reduced to merely being a means of earning. That is the resounding failure of education system the world over, but starkly so in India.
Yes, it is indeed pathetic. If you happen to meet him again, what would your first question to him be? Any niggling doubt that you would want to clarify?
If I were to have an opportunity to meet Bapu now, my question to him, even though I know what his answer would be is, “Bapu, how may I seek revenge for your murder?” My biggest regret is that I did not get to learn from him and so the rest of the time I would sit patiently and absorb whatever he thought I needed to learn. I would not waste my time in asking questions.
In this era of Instant gratification, truth and honesty have become outdated. How would Bapu react to the WhatsApp forwards, short cuts, cutting corners, passing the buck and the inhumane behaviour of the human beings that have become so much a part of the present socio- political- psychological ethos?
Bapu would have rejected it all and made a bonfire of all of it.
Do you think Bapu was a disillusioned man in the last days of his life? On 14\ 15 August 1947 midnight, when the thrilling words of Nehru’s epochal “Tryst with Destiny” speech rang through a free India, sheathed in a celebratory fervor, a frail but morally strong man, lay on a frayed mat in Beliaghata in Calcutta praying, fasting and relentlessly spinning, considering the partition ‘a spiritual tragedy’, ruing the vacuity of such a freedom, but still not losing faith in humanity. Mulling over many things– if he had erred somewhere, maybe he could set it right, somehow? What do you think were the issues that were going on in his mind that day?
The last years of his life were tragic for Bapu, as he had faced betrayal, he felt abandoned, cast away by those he had trusted. He saw the true nature of his people, his countrymen and women, whom he had assumed he had transformed. But his personal grief would have been enhanced because for all the things he saw going wrong with his people and in the nation, he had helped liberate, he would have blamed some weakness of his own character some flaw in his actions and he would have been harsh on himself. That was the greatest agony he had to endure.
On the first Independence Day, he pondered over his anxieties but continued to work to set things right and guide his people back on the right path and to do penance for everything wrong, that he blamed himself for.
After India won freedom, in a message to the cabinet of ministers of West Bengal, he wrote, “From today, you have to wear the crown of thorns. Strive ceaselessly to cultivate truth and non-violence. Be humble. Be forbearing… Do not let yourself be entrapped by its pomp and pageantry. Remember, you are in office to serve poor in India’s villages.” Humility is needed like never before. Is the India that we see today the India of his dreams? Are the poor in India’s villages being served?
India became Independent on August 15, 1947. But it never achieved ‘Purna Swaraj’ that Bapu had aspired for, 75 years later it still hasn’t.
I quote Bapu to show what he believed ‘Purna Swaraj’ was. In 1925, in the issue of Young India of 29th January he wrote. ‘Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition –of authority by the few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’
Then again writing in the April 16, 1931 issue of Young India, Bapu said, ‘ Let there be no mistake what Purna Swaraj means. It is full economic freedom for all the toiling millions it means no unholy alliance with any interest for their exploitation. Any alliance must mean their deliverance.’
One does not need to illustrate how far India has diverged from Bapu’s concept of Purna Swaraj for his people. Today those he commanded to become servants of the people have become their Overlords.
Martin Luther King Jr. had pointed out, “He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.” Ever thought of recreating a New India based on Bapu’s principles, with you heading it?
I am not capable of the task. I have admitted my short comings right in the beginning and once again let me remind you ‘Greatness cannot be inherited it has to be earned’.
It was an absolute honour interacting with you and getting to know a lot more about you and Bapu. Immensely grateful for this enriching and enlightening discussion. Thanks for your precious time.
The pleasure and privilege are mine. Thank you.
Dr. Santosh Bakaya is an academician, poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, Ted Speaker and creative writing mentor. She has been critically acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi [Ballad of Bapu]. She has more than ten books to her credit , her latest books are a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Only in Darkness can you see the Stars) and Songs of Belligerence (poetry). She runs a very popular column Morning meanderings in Learning And Creativity.com.
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Unfolding a linguist’s tryst with the Great Andamanese tribe and lost languages
Time moves fast and we move with it, partly carrying the past with us and partly shedding it. Languages evolve. Sometimes, they get left behind. People forget them and with that where they came from. Why would familiarity with our roots or a moribund language be so important? Perhaps, Professor Anvita Abbi, a Padma Shri from India who has done amazing work with the Andamanese uncovering their fast ebbing language and culture, has some answers. She is a linguist who stretches beyond universities to uncover the roots from which mankind evolved and to exhibit to us the need to be in touch with what our ancestors knew. She urges us to accept the varied colours of mankind for a more humane and tolerant outlook.
Abbi has written a number of books on her experiences in Andaman. Reading Voices from the Lost Horizon (2021, Niyogi Books), her recent publication with videos embedded in both the hardcopy and softcopy versions, has been an adventure that transports one back to a civilisation that has its roots in Neolithic times. Unique in form and content, her book not only talks of her trips to Andaman and meeting the indigenous people but also shows how the lores of this culture can teach the civilised a number of things including, basic survival skills. She has summed this up in a recent interview, “When the tsunami came on December 26, 2004, tribes of the Andaman, Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese saved themselves as their knowledge about the tsunami was intact in their language. They interpreted the patterns of waves and sea churning and ran to a safe place.” Shuttling between different continents and time zones, Abbi is as unconventional as is her book. She unfolds her journey towards integrating the past into the present.
You are from a literary family. What made you opt to become a linguist? Did your environment impact you in some way? What kindled your interest in ancient and moribund languages?
Yes, my background exposed me to different writers of my time, and I started writing short stories in Hindi and earned a name for myself very early. My first book of collection of short stories Muthhi Bhar Pahachan (Hindi, A Handful of Recognition) was published on my 20th birthday. I was pursuing my interest in literature along with my first love for Economics. However, my father, the famous poet of Hindi, Shri Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, thought that I was pursuing a wrong profession and forced me (yes, absolutely against my wishes) to join Linguistics at Delhi University at the cost of quitting Delhi School of Economics. Once I started studying Linguistics, I realised I was made for this subject and never looked back. Subsequently, after receiving Ph.D from Cornell University, USA I started teaching Linguistics at the Kansas State University, Manhattan. While there, I realised that a large number of Indian languages especially those spoken by the marginalised communities are under-researched. The question ‘how different or similar are these languages to the known languages of the country’ motivated me to take the major decision of quitting the regular job at the KSU and move to India. I joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1976 and was instrumental in designing and developing the course of Field Methods that took me and my students to remotest corners of India from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar. My experience in India has been very enriching as I have worked on more than 95 languages of India so far and experienced India at the grass roots. At present, I am working on two languages of the Nicobar Islands.
How long have you been researching on Andaman?
Since late 2000. I wish I was there earlier!
Tell us why you chose Andaman as your arena rather than any other?
There were several reasons that drew me towards working on this language intensively. The topography of the area, the unexplored terrain, its people, and their antiquity and above all scant availability of published material on their language coupled with the fact that my observation in 2003 after conducting a pilot survey of the languages of the Great and Little Andaman that this language seemed to be a class apart from the other two languages of the region — Onge and Jarawa. Unlike Jarawa and Onge, Great Andamanese is a moribund language and breathing its last. I was encouraged by my linguist friends at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany to study and document the language widely, to unearth the vast knowledge base buried in the linguistic structure of Great Andamanese before it is lost to the world. Not only were my results of 2003 later corroborated by geneticists in 2005, but it also gave me assurance and proof beyond doubt that this group of languages forms the sixth language family of India. I was moved by the speedy process of erosion of scientific and cultural treasure that this ancient world had embedded into its language. I had to plunge myself into its structure come what may!
You said that this group of languages was almost pre-Neolithic in age — “a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe, the remnants of the first migration out of Africa 70,000 years ago.” Does it have any similarity to the clipping Khosian languages spoken in Africa or any other African languages?
Not that I know of. We must understand that any similarity, if it existed, would have completely evaporated in so many years especially in a contactless situation. Anyway, we know very little of what human language sounded like 70,000 years ago.
Now a new language has evolved — Great Andamanese — from four languages (Jeru, Khora, Bo, and Sare). How long has Great Andamanese been in use? How did all these languages merge into one?
It is named Great Andamanese because it is spoken in the Great Andaman Island. The original name of the island in the heritage language is marakele and was habited by ten different tribes speaking ten distinct but mutually intelligible languages. I named this language Present-day Great Andamanese (PGA) so as not to empower any one of the four North Great Andadamanese languages of which it is a mixture. Present form of the language has been in use since all the four different tribes, Jeru, Khora, Sare and Bo were moved from the north and rehabited in the Strait Island, 56 nautical miles away from the capital city of Port Blair since early seventies by the government of India. However, the language is closest to Jeru in its grammatical structure.
Do people use Great Andamanese or Hindi? Which languages are commonly used by the local people and why? Is there a historic reason?
Most of them have forgotten their heritage language and speak only Andamanese Hindi. Some of them have a passive knowledge of Bangla. When I reached the island there were ten speakers of the PGA but now only three remain who can speak PGA but prefer not to. Colonisation by mainland Indians exposed the tribe to babu Hindi as well as to the lingua franca Andamanese Hindi existing in the Island. As of today, a few of them are hired by the government in Port Blair and some children go the local schools so that exposure to local Hindi is intensive.
One of the interesting things I noticed in your book was there was a lot of use of ‘potato’ in the stories. Potato was brought into India by the Portuguese. So, how old could these stories be? Or have the colonial invasions altered their myths?
Potatoes that we eat were perhaps imported by Portuguese, but roots of yam and potatoes always grew in our land as all Adivasis have been using their indigenous varieties of potatoes called by different names. Great Andamanese also have more than five varieties of potatoes that they have been consuming since their establishment in the island. These potatoes appear and taste very different from ours. English word ‘potato’ may be considered a generic name for the tuber like products in the current work and bear no resemblance to the modern word ‘potato’.
The Andamanese sing: “O, God, Bilikhu! / We pray to you.” They have burial customs where they burn, bury, feed to the vultures, and throw into the sea. It is like an amalgamation of multiple religious customs. What is the religion the Andamanese actually follow?
This prayer that you quote seems to be a modern version created copying Hindu religious practices that the Andamanese see all around them. ‘Bilikhu’ means spider also and is considered sacred but not equivalent to our concept of ‘God’. They remember Bilikhu before going into the sea for any sea escapade like hunting for big animal such as turtle and dugong. Andamanese do not follow any religion. They believe in their protectors jurwachom who protect them in the sea and in the jungle. They give respect to and remember their ancestors believing that the ancestor’s spirits surround them all the time. What more, the tales in the book convey an intimate relationship between people and birds as a ‘family’. One story, ‘Jiro Mithe’, depicts the origin of birds from the Andamanese people.
As far as the cremation of the dead bodies is concerned, you may have read that I have explained how one of the stories ‘The Tale of Juro the Head Hunter’ informed me that there were four different ways of cremation depending upon the way a person dies. Quoting from the book, these were:
“1. When a person dies of a natural death or in illness, s/he is buried in the earth (‘boa-phong’ meaning ‘hole in the earth’).
“2. When a person dies while hunting/killing, then s/he is put on a platform made on a tree (‘machaan’ in Hindi) and burnt.
“3. When a person dies because of choking on a fishbone, their body is taken to a particular place near Mayabandar in the northern part of the Andaman Islands and left for a month on a tree for vultures to eat. The bones are collected after a month.
“4. When children pass away, they are not buried initially; they are left untouched for a few days, then they are cremated.”
Often the villains and the demons depicted in their stories are cannibalistic. Was cannibalism an aberration for them? Was cannibalism ever accepted by them?
They are not villains or demons. They are people with supernatural powers. The practice of cannibalism existed — so it seems through these stories. However, it was always deplored as being against the survival of humanity. The story mentioned above depicts it very clearly. Nao Jr the key narrator of these stories compared Juro with Hindu goddess Kali saying that both were involved in similar activities. The story and my elicitation process involved in it explains the whole phenomenon of cannibalism that existed in the Great Andamanese community.
How did the colonials and the independence of India impact these people, their culture and language?
The history of present Great Andamanese is a tale of many tales. Outsider-contact has brought diseases, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately decimation of the tribal culture, tribal life, and tribal language. It is not new to witness as voice of the most powerful of the land…colonizers, makers of empires, and policy makers silence the voices of the vanquished and marginalized whether by annihilation or assimilation.
For years, Jarawas maintained the isolation and now they regret the interaction with us.
These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their uses, sea life, weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing), nor cowardly, nor violent (they safeguard their folks both women and children from outside intervention) nor fools. They have known the wonders of isolation and that is what they want to maintain. However, we have lost Great Andamanese culture, language and worldview as the process of mainstreaming them started with colonisation first by Britishers and later by Indians. With the result they are nowhere now, neither connected to their roots nor connected to the world that the government offers. Cultural amnesia and loss of their heritage language has affected their cognitive and perceptive powers adversely. The modern generation neither feels connected to the forest and sea life nor to the city life. It’s a lost civilisation bewildered of their present. In this scenario stories and songs of this book may serve as the only priceless heritage of an ancient civilisation of India.
Tell us of about some of your more unique experiences in Andaman.
There are plenty. You have to read the ‘Introduction’ of this book and log on to www.andamanese.net where I describe my experiences and many aspects of Great Andamanese culture. Great Andamanese is a culture that believes in sharing of everything that one has in life yet gives individual freedom to choose. We have misunderstood that this trait of theirs as ‘begging’ since they always demanded to share whatever we eat. Gender equality is worth admiration starting from the prenatal stage as the name of a child is assigned before birth, and both boys and girls are trained in hunting.
While it was sad to read that very few speak the language of the past now and yet a few more cultures are getting eroded, it is also a movement towards integration with the mainstream. What would be the ideal way for this integration so that the languages and cultures do not get eroded and yet they blend with the mainstream? What would be the best way of balancing languages and cultures so that we do not lose our past while embracing the present and moving to the future?
The idea of mainstreaming and merging these tribes into our civilisation is nothing but usurping their rights to their land, forest, water, and way of life. “Development” may kill these tribes. These tribes have amalgamated their life with nature so well that they are aware of secrets of life. Any kind of interference will disturb this harmony. As I always say that Jarawa live a life of opulence where the supplies are in abundance in their forests — much more their demands. However, it is too late now in the context of the Great Andamanese. As I said earlier, they are a lost generation.
The best course to save their language and culture would be to introduce it in the primary schools in Port Blair so that the community feels motivated to retain this. Since the language has already been scripted by our team, reading and writing Great Andamanese is no problem. I have already produced the Grammar and the interactive pictorial talking Dictionary of the language that may make this task simple. One of the members of the tribe by the name of Noe who still remembers the language should be used as a resource before it is too late. Introducing these languages in the school will bring dignity and honour to our heritage language and will help the societies to overcome their inferiority complex.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)
Keith Lyons interviews Jessica Mudditt, who spent four years in Myanmar and wrote a book about it
Australian author and journalist Jessica Mudditt studied and worked in the UK, but it is the seven years she spent in Bangladesh and Myanmar which seems to have made the most significant impact on her professional career and personal life. Mainly covering business, technology and lifestyle, her articles have appeared in The Economist, BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian, CNN, GQ and Marie Claire.
She lived and worked in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon in the mid-2010s, and after returning to Australia, Our Home in Myanmar – Four Years in Yangon (Hembury Press, May 2021) was published with an Epilogue placing the book’s focus in the context of the military coup which stole back power in February this year following democratic elections.
From Sydney, Jessica reflected on her time in Myanmar, and the recent events which have curtailed hopes for democracy, freedom and economic growth.
Looking back on what happened this year, does it make your time in Myanmar seem more special?
In a way, it makes even my most happy and carefree memories bittersweet. When I was reading back over the book as part of the editing process, some of the situations I described became quite poignant, knowing what I know in hindsight. For example, after the 2015 elections, it was Senior General Min Aung Hlaing who was the first to come out and say that as the commander-in-chief, he would respect the election results and the will of the people in voting for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Five years later, it was he who staged this terrible coup and is holding the entire country hostage. What changed for him, I wonder, between then and now? It was like he tried the shoe on one day and decided that it didn’t fit.
If you were still in Myanmar at the time of the coup, would you get out or stay given the dangerous time for journalists right now?
I would leave. It is simply too unsafe. There are no newspapers left to write for at any rate, other than The Global New Light of Myanmar. Mizzima and Irrawaddy and others have been stripped of their operating licenses and as such, are illegal entities. If you go on The Myanmar Times website, it turns black, and then a pop-up notice announces that the newspaper has been suspended for three months. That was six months ago. There are very, very few foreign journalists left inside the country. Of course, every expat was heartbroken to leave and many have expressed that they feel guilty about the people they have left behind. Everyone is in an impossible situation right now.
You added to the book from 2015 with updates on where some of the key players are now: The Myanmar Times co-founder Ross Dunkley was pardoned after the coup and is now back in Australia, have you had any contact with him, and if so, how do you feel about how it all panned out for him?
When Ross got a 13-year sentence in 2019 on drugs charges, I worried that he may not survive such a long period in prison. He is not a young man anymore. However, Ross turned out to be a cat with nine lives. He was released shortly after the coup (he joked in an interview that he is the only person to have benefitted from the coup). What astounded me was that despite everything he has been through in Myanmar, he expressed a wish to return there. I suppose it is his home, after all the years he has spent there. But even so! I sent him a message on Facebook just saying I was glad and relieved for him. However, I don’t think he has logged onto it since his release.
Photos of jailed former advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Sean Turnell, being vaccinated were released recently; are you concerned about his fate and also that of journalist Danny Fenster from Frontier who is also in Insein?
I feel sick when I think about them. I don’t know Danny personally, but Sean was a source for a few stories, and I met him in Sydney. I have so much respect for him, and he was always so kind and helpful. I am friends with his wife, Ha Vu, on Facebook, and her anguished posts are deeply upsetting. Yesterday was her birthday and she wrote that it was the first time in a decade that her husband hadn’t been able to wish her a happy birthday. She knew it would upset him. Sean has done nothing wrong – nor has Danny, of course – and I just wish that the military would let them go – along with the other 6,000 innocent people they have arrested.
Do you think you were lucky to have been in the country during its opening up and transformation?
I was incredibly lucky. The pace of change was so fast that I often had the sensation that I was watching history unfold in front of me. That may never happen again in my life. The liberalisation of the media was incredible. As a freelance journalist, when I had an idea for a story, I would google the topic to see what had been previously written. There were many instances when there was virtually nothing at all because it had never been possible to write of such topics under the draconian censorship laws (most of these laws were lifted not long after I arrived). I wrote the first stories on Myanmar’s human hair trade, cobras being found inside peoples’ homes in Yangon, children with cancer and elderly care. Journalism was challenging in Myanmar because there was a dearth of reliable data and finding sources could be tricky, as people were not always willing to speak as they still mistrusted the military (with good reason, it turned out). But it was also rewarding because it gave people the chance to tell their stories for the first time, and to provide information to readers that had perhaps not been in the public domain before.
What do you think attracted others from overseas to witness, take part or benefit from the changes?
One of the reasons I loved living in Yangon was because the ex-pat community was very interesting. At a party, for example, I could walk up to someone and ask, “What brought you to Myanmar?” or “What are you doing in Myanmar” and the answer would just about always be fascinating. Myanmar is a beautiful country with wonderful people, but it isn’t an easy place to live and many of the things associated with the ‘good life’ are unavailable. I think that if you moved to Myanmar, you wanted something different out of life, or to do things in a different way.
I’m pretty sure that there were a host of motivations though, and I’m sure that a few were motivated partially by greed. Myanmar was an untapped market with a large population, although spending power is comparatively low. There were also few laws regulating business dealings, so it was a bit of a wild west and that attracted a few shandy operators. But I think, for the most part, people’s intentions were good. They were there because they wanted to make a difference as well as to witness something really historic, in a political sense.
As a woman in Myanmar how safe did you feel, and do you think that helped or hindered your work?
I felt safe in Myanmar, as it has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia. I remember reading in Lonely Planet that muggings and pickpocketing are rare, and that if you accidentally drop money on the ground in a big city like Yangon, it’s more likely that someone will come chasing after you to return it. That actually happened to me. I would sit at a beer station in the evening with my bag slung behind my chair or on the ground or whatnot, and I never gave it a second thought. I wouldn’t do that in Sydney.
Sexual harassment is nowhere near as prevalent as it is in places such as India. In saying that, I am referring to sexual harassment against expat women. There were frequent reports of Burmese women being groped on crowded buses, for example.
Someone in Yangon told me last week that even though the current situation is desperate, and millions of people are starving and displaced, there is a huge amount of cooperation among the people, who help each other in any way they can. Sadly, we all know that the criminals in Myanmar are the military. The reams of razor wire that sit atop six-foot fences around people’s homes are there not because there are a lot of burglaries, but because the military comes for people in the night. They were doing it for decades before I arrived, and they are doing it again now.
What misconceptions about Myanmar do you think are held outside the country?
I’m not sure if it’s a misconception, but Myanmar’s political history is so complex that it can be difficult for people to get their head around it, and difficult to explain. The first thing most people say to me when the subject of Myanmar comes up is “What is the deal with Aung San Suu Kyi? I thought she was a good person – why did she fall from grace?” Or they will say they have heard of the terrible situation with the Rohingya, but they don’t understand how the genocide came about, or why they are still living in refugee camps. Most people outside Myanmar assume that Buddhism is a religion of peace, so they don’t understand why so much violence has taken place, or that Buddhism can turn militant and be infected with extreme nationalism.
Were you more surprised about the frosty reception you got from fellow ex-pats at your first newspaper job, or the treatment you got working for a newspaper once considered a mouthpiece for the military and government?
I was more surprised by the frosty reception I got at The Myanmar Times. I was wildly excited to be working there and went through a lot of difficulties to get my first visa (I brush over it in the book, but Sherpa and I initially applied from Bangladesh and were denied visas, so in the end we had to apply from Thailand). My colleagues at newspapers in Bangladesh had always been fantastically friendly, so it just never crossed my mind that my expat colleagues in Myanmar wouldn’t be friendly. My expectations were way too high, but I was pretty crushed, I have to say. Over time though, things improved, and I ended up with a terrific group of friends at work. We had a lot of fun nights out too.
My colleagues at The Global New Light of Myanmar were really kind and wonderful. I learnt so much about Myanmar from them, both on the job and during the casual conversations we’d have while smoking cigarettes or drinking whisky together after work. Myanmar people are so kind –so it wasn’t my colleagues’ kindness that surprised me. It was how strongly opposed to the military they were. I had not expected them to be staunch supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or even to themselves be former political prisoners. Many worked at the state-run newspaper because it was one of the few opportunities to use English in a professional context. To me, it showed just how pervasive the desire is for democracy and human rights among the people of Myanmar.
When did you get the idea for writing a book about your time in Myanmar?
I got the idea after I returned from Myanmar to Australia. Funnily enough, while I was living in Myanmar, I had been writing a book about Bangladesh. When I got back to Australia, I had no luck getting a publishing deal for the memoir on Bangladesh, so I decided to put it aside and start one on Myanmar. I started it in 2018 and finished it in April 2021. I’m glad that I decided to do that, because it would be hard to write the same book knowing that a coup would take place after I left. I am sure I would write it differently — with less optimism. As I mention in the epilogue, I thought I was simply writing about the ‘new Myanmar’ and that many books would follow in the same vein. I had no idea that I was inadvertently writing a history book.
In light of the events of 2021 with the military coup and Covid, do you see any hope for Myanmar, or is it a failed state?
There has possibly never been a darker time in Myanmar’s history, with the twin crises of COVID-19 and the military takeover to endure. But I don’t believe that this is how the story ends for Myanmar. It is evident that the people are unwilling to give up their democratic freedoms and human rights – I get the sense that they will fight until there is no one left standing.
However, the country is on the brink of becoming a failed state, if it isn’t already, and the suffering has already been immense. I know from my time in Myanmar that building back after half a century of dictatorship and a mismanaged economy was already difficult enough – I worry about how much this puts the country back on the path to progress. I take a long-term view of things though, and I believe that democracy will be restored, and the military will be booted out of all aspects of civilian life, including their 25% quota of parliamentary seats. I have no idea when this may occur, but I do believe that it will.
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@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Goutam Ghose is a well-known award-winning film director, scriptwriter and even actor. He has been the only Indian to have received the Vittorio Di Sica Award from Italy in 1997 and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in July 2006. Ghose has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival.
But did you know he has also authored a number of books? Just as he bridges borders with his poetic films that touch the human heart with a range of emotions, he does the same with his books. He takes up burning issues with artistry, never inciting with rage or hatred but conveying by his skill with the camera and words. He has created a world without borders with his transcontinental outlook and approach.
His reaction to the Ram Janmabhoomi riots was Moner Manush(2010), a film based on Lalon Fakir’s life, knitting together the best in Muslim and Hindu traditions instead of filming the clashes and the violence. Published in English as The Quest (2013), the book is a powerful dramatisation with pictures from the film. The book, like the film, is also an emotional lesson in humanism. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel on Lalon Fakir’s life, the film is beautiful. But the book allowed me to mull over the words, which have been translated by Sankar Sen. It is a book that needs to be read when casteism and religious divides take precedence over humanitarian values. By bringing these songs into translation to readers unfamiliar with Bengali, both Ghose and Sen have opened a world of love and tolerance to new readers, who will hopefully find the time to mull over the wisdom of these songs.
‘What was your caste when you came here,
What caste did you take on arrival, dear,
What would be your caste when it’s time to go --
Ponder and tell me if you know.’
-- Translated by Sankar Sen, from The Quest
His other book that traverses the silk route and journeys through China, Beyond the Himalayas(2019), transcends boundaries and fills the reader with a sense of exhilaration. It is based on his documentary of the same name. Both these recordings of their journey along the silk route are worth viewing and reading. They show humans are the same across all borders. The book, interspersed with lovely pictures of the landscape and mature writing pauses on history at the right junctures. The narration is poetic in both the book and the documentary.
Though Ghose claims that these texts and photographs capture memories of the film, both his books transported me to a different time and space. I saw the films after reading the books, but both were energising, emotionally charged and entertaining. It takes one through different parts of the world and gives a new perspective to a 4000-year-old route. Initiated and organised by Major Hari SinghAhluwalia and Deng Xiaoping’s son, the travels in Beyond the Himalayas took me across borders to areas I have never visited and now, I hope to visit post pandemic. It acquainted me with cultures that excite. And The Quest reinforced the belief, through the depiction of Lalon’s life, that humanism exists despite the degradations of history. That riots can be calmed with the soothing notes of Lalon’s lyrics, rich in wisdom, would be a win for the human spirit.
Like all great artistes, Ghose speaks in beautiful poetic sentences about concepts that touch the human heart and imagination. In this exclusive, he speaks not just about his film-books, but about the real journey and issues he is facing through the pandemic, including the delay of his film with an Italian male lead and his new short film on the current times, Covid-worn and waiting…
You are a very well-known film director, cinematographer, and music director. You have directed award winning Bollywood and Tollywood movies. Normally books come before films but from two of these films, you have made books. Why did you go in for making books of the films?
I have loved books since my childhood. The shape and form of it, the touch and smell of a book fascinate me. They will never die even if we read on the screen rather than by turning pages of a physical object. A certain sense of the sacred has surrounded books from civilisations’ inception. In cinema, be it fiction or non-fiction, we write a script at the pre-production stage. A film-book is all about times gone by — a book of memories, of both cyclic and linear time. My producer from Bangladesh, Habibur Rehman Khan, had liked the idea of film books and had published three wonderful books on Padma Nodir Majhi(Boatman of the Padma River, filmed in 1993), Moner Manush (filmed in 2010 ) and Shankhachil (Unbound, filmed in 2016) in Bengali. Niyogi books of India has published a beautiful pictorial English version of Moner Manush as The Quest and also Beyond the Himalayas, my journey along the Silk Road. Another lovely film book is Pratikshan’s bilingual centenary tribute to Bismillah Khan (Bismillah in Banaras the film Goutam Ghosh made, 2017).
Is dubbing or subtitling the film not an easier option than doing a film-book?
Well, dubbing or subtitling is for watching a language film, but a film book is meant for reading. It becomes a part of your book collections. I have some wonderful film books published from Europe and United States.
Moner Manush is based on Lalon Fakir’s life and on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Why did you feel there was a need for a separate book after you made a very powerful film on it?
Lalon Fakir is an eternal savant. Scholars have been doing research on Lalon’s life and philosophy since long. It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and the implied significance, it seems as if he was an erudite scholar tutored in an age-old system of education. His faith was not guided by any particular religion, rather it could be said to be comprised of the mysticism of Sufi and the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberalism of the tantric sect of Buddhism. My film on Lalon fakir is research on this great man aswell. The Bengali film book contains important articles by scholars besides the script, reviews and memoirs.
Do you feel that the message of Moner Manush is relevant in a world beset by not just divides but even a pandemic? Is there something we can learn from the story?
Yes, of course the message of Moner Manush is even more relevant in today’s intolerant world, a world of greed and opportunism. The pandemic has victimised the togetherness of the human race but how can we survive without empathy? I don’t know how good the film is, but Moner Manush will serve as a gospel to those who revere humanity.
Lalon says as his own introduction “I am a human.” How important is that for humankind to see themselves as humans over titles of caste, profession, and economics?
The baul (minstrels in Bengal) community had renounced all recognised institutions of religion and revolted against long established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith, they had found a large expanse under the sky which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Under that open sky, Lalon had found the truth in Humanism.
Lalon dreamt of a borderless world. Do you think adopting his outlook can change the outlook of nations which draw borders between the species? Do you think it is implementable at a personal, national or international level?
I think all mystics believe in borderless space of Earth where all centennial beings live in peace and harmony. But the wheel of time had moved in the direction of Divide and Rule. John Lennon’s Imagine has become the iconic song on the dream of a borderless world. It may have been a failed dream, but I confess it might have been one I shared growing up in India and will cherish till the last breath of my life. Let it be a dream and a wonderful utopia.
Beyond The Himalayas was first a documentary film. How long was it and when was it screened? How many episodes is the film?
Beyond the Himalayas was made as a documentary film during our expedition through the Silk Road in 1994. The final edited version is four-and-a-half hour long. It was shown in Discovery Channel in five parts in the late nineties. A shorter version was screened in BBC as well. The Indian national TV had screened a Hindi version of all five episodes.
The book seems to cover lesser than the documentary. Is that true or do the visuals/ music just seem to impact us more? Why did you leave out Pakistan?
Well watching the film with arresting visuals and absorbing the soundtracks of the trail is a linear viewing of our journey along the fabled Silk Road. It is very, very exciting indeed. But the film is also a journey back in time with many references and anecdotes from history. For instance, while showing the travel through the deadly Taklamakan desert, I referred to Sven Hedin’s(1865-1952) expedition of the region. I quote: ‘The first European to map this desolate region was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. His first expedition in 1895 was very nearly his last. The local guide supplied enough water for four days in the desert instead of ten requested. When the caravan lost its way, the guide was the first to die. The others became insane with thirst, drinking anything — even Sheep’s blood and camel’s urine. By the fifth day, the men, camels and other livestocks were all dead except for Sven Hedin and one other man. Hedin writes in Through Asia, “If I was doomed to die in the sand, I wanted to be properly attired. I wanted my burial clothes to be both white and clean.” But fate was on its side. Spying the dark green side of an oasis, he dragged himself to safety. “I stood on the brink of a pool with fresh cool water, beautiful water. I drank, drank, drank time after time. Every blood vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge.”’
Here the film-book helps the readers. One can refer back to the time past and time present more deeply to understand time as a metaphor of history.
How many days were you on the road? What was the experience like?
We were out for almost ten weeks covering a distance of 14,000 kms. The journey was fascinating for the entire team. There can be no journey more enchanting than the route we took. The collective trove of memories has made the Silk Road so memorable. We had to negotiate extreme weather conditions in Central Asia and Tibet. In a single day, we experienced two extremes. While negotiating the desert, temperatures rose to 48 degrees Celsius, and by nightfall when we pitched camp at Tianshan mountains, the temperature fell to 2 degrees. The situation is almost like the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — desert to snow in the blink of an eye.
Did you travel through the part of the route Marco Polo used? Did you find it much different from what you had imagined?
Well, the travels of Marco Polo described the wonders of the silk road, cities far greater than his own and a world more significant than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The silk road was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling along for 4,000 years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the East and the West. It ran from Xian in China to all the way to the Mediterranean. There were many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia. We could not follow the planned route through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia via Khyber Pass because of the civil war. The government of India did not want us to take such risks. All the members of the expedition, including the jeeps and equipment, were flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on 18th May, 1994.
With the silk route being revived, do you think this film has significance?
Yes, the film is still significant because it carries the memories of time. We were the first group of travellers after many, many years to cross three new republics after the collapse of Soviet Union and a vast territory of China. Now, the route is open to tourists, and I was told that many travel packages are available all along the mighty river and its tributaries. I would like to revisit the cauldron once again to understand how those multi-ethnic republics have survived the onslaught of modern times with its regional rivalries, new mafias, and consumerist pressures. I wish the new silk route trade brings peace and harmony in this intolerant world. Travellers today can choose from many trails as we did during our expedition. My favourite was Xuanzang’s (602-664 AD) trail. I quote from my book. “At 27, he set out his pilgrimage until he was 43. Unconvinced by the translations available in China, he sought the true teachings of Buddha in the holy lands of India. He walked alone into the great unknown, crossing the world’s greatest deserts and its highest mountain ranges. He faced death many times and his courage and equanimity impressed kings, bandits and barbarians alike. He lectured at monasteries and debated with learned monks and by the time he reached his destination, his reputation as a great sage had already preceded him. Xuan Zhang was not the only Chinese pilgrim to visit the homeland of Buddhism, but he was the most important. Like a death star that keeps releasing energy for thousands of years, he continues to be a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.”
You are making a new film I believe rooted in the present pandemic. What is it about? Will you be making that too into a book?
My 2019 film Rahagir or Wayfarer, starring Adil Hussain, Tillotama Som, Neeraj Kabir, had travelled to many festivals and received awards and appreciations but unfortunately, we could not release it in public theatres due to the pandemic. Another multilingual film is also stuck for obvious reasons. I could finish the Italian shoot in January 2020, but the Indian shoot did not happen till date. It is so frustrating.
Meanwhile, I have finished a short film Memories of Time on pandemic days. It is about a happy, cultured couple living in the heart of Kolkata. Like everyone else, they are caught in the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The film travels back and forth in time as they try to navigate through these hard times and search for fresh air and sanity. The film is an exploration of their fears, realisation and going back to nature. It’s from my own experience — how I have navigated 2020 and moving through the course of this pandemic. I think one can really publish a film-book because it has so many elements, the fear of people and the inhuman approach of the human race and then the migrant labours — their terrible conditions, the psychological problem of people confined inside their home and the most importantly, the problem of the children. They are confined as if in a prison. They can’t go to school. They can’t really meet their friends. I think this could be a very, very interesting material for a film-book.
we are known globally
as a nation of multi-cultures
but we are united as one people.
not an easy goal to realise
knowing how differences divide
and make unity problematic.
-- Reaching Out... Kirpal Singh, 2021
Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar whose core research areas include post-colonial literature, Singapore and Southeast Asian, literature and technology, and creativity thinking, Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. In 2004, he became the first Asian and non-American to be made a director on the American Creativity Association’s board. He retired dean of Singapore Management University.
Singh was born as a part of Malaya in 1949 to a father of Sikh descent and a Jewish-Scottish mother. He lived through three regimes in this part of the world: colonial, Malayan and Singaporean. His poetry is perhaps what best tells us about his faith in the little island state that came to its own in 1965. In this interview, he shares his life story with us, the last being a huge donation of books that he is making to the National Library of Singapore – a donation of 3,000 books collected over decades.
You are an academic, critic and writer who stretches out across SE Asia. When did your ancestors move to Singapore from India and why?
My paternal grandparents moved to Singapore from Punjab in 1901. They came to the then Federation of Malaya in search of a better life.
You have never lived in India but shuttled between Singapore and Malaysia. Probably at that time it was all part of Malaya. Can you recall Singapore/Malaya during your childhood?
Yes, though born in Singapore in March 1949, I was taken back to be with my dadiji (paternal grandma) in Malaya when I was two months old. However, I was brought back to Singapore when I was seven to begin school. My grandparents thought Singapore was a better place to receive an English education.
Your mother was Scottish and father, an Indian. What languages did you grow up speaking? What language is most comfortable for you to write in?
I grew up speaking bits of Punjabi, Malay and, of course, English. In my teenage years I also picked up some Chinese dialects. Though I did study Mandarin in school, I am not too good at it. I can only speak a smattering of it. I am most comfortable writing in English.
You have seen Singapore move from infancy to its current state. Can you tell us what this journey has been like?
It has been an astonishing journey. When I was young-preschool age — Singapore was a British colony. In 1963, Singapore joined Malaya to become part of a new entity then known as Malaysia. However due to basic differences, Singapore pulled out of Malaysia and became an independent, sovereign nation in August 1965.
You are an academic who retired dean of Singapore’s major management institute. And yet, you write poetry. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
At the then newly established Singapore Management University which I was invited to join as Founding Faculty in 1999, I was told to introduce Creative Thinking as a new mandatory module for all undergraduates. I helmed this exciting and new programme for ten years. SMU was the first University in the world to make Creative Thinking a compulsory course for all undergraduates. Sadly in 2010 this was made optional.
You have a huge collection of books —25,000. How long has it taken you to collect these books?
It has taken me more than 50 years.
Tell us a bit about your book collection. What are your favourite books?
My collection is eclectic. Most of my books, however, belong to the humanities, and within this, most belong to the literary genre. I loved reading from a very young age (being alone at home, reading brought me solace and also knowledge). Among my favourite books, the tragedies of Shakespeare and Sophocles feature prominently. Some 20th century books (those of D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley in particular), I value tremendously. I should also add that I have been very blessed to have met many of the more well-known/established writers of the 20th century and blessed to have been given signed copies by these wonderful authors: among them Doris Lessing, William Golding, Brian Aldiss, and numerous others.
Did your reading impact your writing?
Quite naturally, yes. I think it’s hard not to be affected by what one reads when it comes to one’s own writing. Even with writers who consciously try to ensure that no clear influences obtain, critics have frequently found far too many disguised references not to infer which authors influenced those writers.
Recently, you made an announcement that you will donate 3,000 books to promote love of reading in Singapore. Do you think donating these books will be enough to make book lovers of non-readers?
I doubt if the mere act of donating will create readers. However, I feel that having a few thousand additional books in a library will, hopefully, draw at least the attention of a few readers and maybe among these will be new readers.
Most people read bestsellers. What do you think will attract more to appreciate literature like EM Foster, DH Lawrence, and Coleridge?
Yes, in the age of commercialisation, classic writers may not obtain immediate readership– hence schools and colleges/universities play a vital (and necessary) role to ensure that our graduates are educated– at least minimally– in the works of writers who helped change and shape new sensibilities.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Ode to a Grecian Urn, John Keats, 1819
It was a challenge to interview a poet who does not want to talk of his work or of himself. And yet, here was a person whose poetry moved me and from who, I was sure, we had much to learn. I am talking of an acclaimed poet from America, Jared Carter. He permitted me to introduce him with this: “Jared Carter is an American poet who has published seven books of poetry. His volume of new and selected poems, Darkened Rooms of Summer, was issued in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.” If you are more curious about him, his achievements, education and awards, visit his Wiki Page.
Carter’s poetry is remarkable in giving us glimpses of American life and thoughts, especially as he talks of the wind, the snow and cicadas, as he wrenches poignancy in the hearts of readers bringing out the cruelty in the slaughter of cattle. He draws from the life of common people and their work. At times, he could write of changing a lightbulb and yet create a sense of wonder with his crafting. Despite his obvious Western outlook, he has written of the elusive Yeti – a most beautiful composition. He does tell us in the interview how he wrote it. One would also wonder why he selected to represent ephemerality with such a mythical creature from the East when most of his poems reflect life in America. The poem strangely captures the quality of elusiveness perfectly with extensive crafting.
For him, poetry is more than the first part of the Wordsworthian concept , “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. It is about working on the concept further “in tranquillity” and making it exquisite, like an artifact. We started this interview by reflecting on artifacts that impacted him. Despite his reluctance to speak of himself, Carter does tell us much about his Victorian upbringing and the impact it has had in making him who he is and writing as beautifully as he does. And perhaps, we can also get a glimpse of why he wrote of the “Yeti”. Let us now step into the world of Jared Carter.
You are fascinated by certain artifacts from India and China. Tell us the story around those. Why do they move you?
I mentioned those two heirlooms — a chess set made of ivory, from China, and a carved wooden box, from India — because they provided my first introduction to those two great cultures, when I was a boy growing up in a small town in Indiana, a state near the center of the United States.
My father had purchased the chess set in September of 1945, in a pawnshop in Chicago, when he was on the last leg of his journey home from serving three years in the war in the Pacific. It was a set of delicate white and red figures, in elaborate costumes, the white side in Victorian dress, the red side in traditional Chinese robes, and on both sides, horses rearing and elephants carrying castles.
If my memory is correct, the attire of the pieces was the very embodiment of colonialism. I was told much later that the set was among several that had been made for the export trade in the nineteenth century.
As a child, of course, I had heard the word “China” and the country was mentioned in school, which I was just beginning at the age of six. But in those days, I had no strong impression of China, nor even much interest in it. In contrast, my father’s ivory chess set was a tangible object that I could look at and admire, and sometimes even be allowed to touch. It had traveled many thousands of miles, from the other side of the world, to be in our home, and was held in great esteem by my father and my older brother, who were both avid chess players.
Once a year, on my father’s birthday, as I recall, they would take down the set from the glass case they had built to display it and play a game of chess with those fantastic pieces. This was always a solemn occasion in our household, and a memorable one. In my young mind, it was an almost ceremonial way of being in touch with a mysterious land that lay far across the seas.
If today, almost eighty years later, I try to think back to my first awareness of China — what it was, where it is, what it might be like — I return to my memory of that chess set. I return to the sight of those delicately carved pieces, in their remarkable formality and fragility, arranged in rows on a chequered board. That image is suspended now, and outside of time, and yet in my mind’s eye, the figures are still waiting to be moved, in ways that will begin once more that most ancient and traditional of games. In this way I was first introduced to the very idea of China’s existence.
By our best estimates, chess was originally invented in India, although I did not know this at the time. In a way, as I look back now, perhaps my memory of the ivory chess set puts me in touch, even now, with something great and lasting about the contributions of both of those cultures.
The elaborately carved box from India had a similar effect on my young imagination. It was a box in which my father’s mother kept her few items of simple jewelry. Sometimes she would let me and my two cousins take it down from her dresser and examine it more closely. There were already a few books in my grandfather’s library about India. We were familiar with the name of that country, and we knew it was quite distant. But the box was an actual object that had come all the way from India, we were told, and that made it special.
The box had been given to my grandmother by her only brother, who was an artist, and who had purchased it sometime in the 1930s, along with a great many other art objects and artifacts with which I would become familiar as I grew older. But this box — again, something made in the nineteenth century — spurred my first awareness of India. I could peer into its carvings of elephants and monkeys and exotic plants and imagine that I was seeing into the heart of that mysterious, far-off place.
India and China of course constitute much, much more than what was suggested by those two objects. But we are speaking of first impressions here, which are precious to a child, and which, in my case, have proved to be lasting.
You had an interesting story about your aunt being in India. Can you tell us about that?
The artist mentioned, my grandmother’s only brother, took as his second wife, in the 1930s, after the death of his first wife, a teacher of English literature, who taught for the Baltimore school system. She had been brought up in India and was evidently the child of missionary parents.
She may actually have been born in India, and most likely left it in about 1923, to attend an American university. She lived until 1959, and I was taken to visit her on several occasions, and when I was old enough to drive, I would ferry my grandmother down to visit her, in a summer studio located in southern Indiana. She spoke with a British accent — perhaps the first I had ever heard — and preferred tea rather than coffee. After the artist’s death, in 1946, she would speak knowingly of his own works of art, and of the various items and artifacts he had collected during his lifetime.
Those things were from many cultures, many eras — a handsome 15th-century refectory table from Italy, a pair of large, nineteenth-century ceramic jars from China, an unglazed wine vessel that may have been Etruscan, a variety of pieces in English pewter, and so on. The spacious, high-ceilinged, two-story building had been a lodge hall before it was converted into the artist’s studio by my father and grandfather. It was utterly chock-a-block with beautiful objects and gorgeous paintings.
On a number of occasions I was allowed to wander through those rooms on my own, and to consider those different objects. There was no teacher, no guidebook, except for the widow’s occasional comment about where this or that artifact had come from, or when he had acquired it. I simply looked at what was there. This was a part of my informal introduction to art, and exotic places, a tutelage that had begun with the chess set and the carved box. If nothing else, the experience may have made me into a lifelong museum goer, especially when museums of art are available.
But you asked about my Aunt Carolyn, as we called her, and her origins in India. She sometimes referred to that Indian childhood, although unfortunately I remember little of what she said. I do recall her speaking of a time in the early 1920s when she witnessed a crowd of Indian nationalists demonstrating in a non-violent manner. Raj policemen carrying lead-weighted wooden cudgels waded into the crowd, shattering the kneecaps of the demonstrators with their clubs. The authorities knew, she said, that a broken kneecap was not a mortal injury, but that it would render a demonstrator unable to walk for months on end, thus preventing that person, for a time, from joining future demonstrations. To say nothing of discouraging him from joining any demonstrations at all. Aunt Carolyn seemed to have a very low opinion of the British.
Are you familiar with Indian and Chinese literature?
Only as a reader and an amateur. In about 1961 a younger sister brought home from college, as a houseguest, an Indian student she had met. He was very polite and serious, and generously gave me a copy of a translation of the Gita, which I still have, and which was my first introduction to the classic literature of India. I’ve been sampling that literature ever since, reading essays and an occasional book, attending a lecture or two, taking in a traveling exhibition. So, I have a layman’s understanding of subcontinent history and culture, but it is no more than that, and I am far from being well-versed.
My introduction to the history, art, and culture of China came slightly earlier and has been a bit more extensive. As an undergraduate at Yale, I studied history of art with the scholar Nelson Ikon Wu. It was an introductory course, but he placed special emphasis on landscape paintings of the Southern Song, and with that influence, in later years, I seem to have gone on to develop an interest in many things Chinese, especially art of the T’ang dynasty.
Also while an upperclassman at Yale, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a young graduate student from Clare College, Cambridge, named Jonathan Spence, who subsequently became a well-known scholar of Chinese history and culture. Over the years, my conversations with Jonathan, and my having read his numerous books, have formed an important part of my informal education.
For two semesters in the 1980s I served as a visiting writer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I met and talked with Professor Sanford Goldstein, the eminent Japanese scholar and specialist in tanka, who for many years now, following his retirement, has resided in Japan. Thanks to Professor Goldstein, and one of his students with whom I am still in touch, and not immediately, but gradually, my awareness of Japanese literature in translation has increased, along with my curiosity about haiku and tanka in English. I have published a few haiku and tanka, and have corresponded with other scholars in that field, such as Professor Bryce Christensen, who is only recently back from a year of lecturing in Taiwan. By virtue of my acquaintance with these talented individuals, I hope I have developed a better understanding of both Japanese and Chinese literature — especially the poetry of the T’ang dynasty, in translation, for which I have a great liking.
Do you read translations? What is your opinion on the role of translations?
Without translators and translations, we would be utterly lost. For example, whatever I am privileged to know about the poetry of Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770, also spelt as Tu Fu) and all of their marvelous contemporaries, I know their poetry only because they reach me through various translations. So, I have accumulated a small library of translated works by the major world poets — Sophocles through Dante, Basho to Neruda. Every serious poet does this. I would like to think we are perhaps the wiser for it.
Any poet writing in English is immeasurably indebted to Arthur Waley for his masterful translations. Another translator I might mention is the American, Kenneth Rexroth, who happens to have been a fellow Hoosier — which means he was born in the state of Indiana. Rexroth emigrated eventually to California, where after World War Two he became an eminent poet, scholar, and translator of poetry from both the Chinese and Japanese traditions.
I possess a number of Rexroth’s books, and thanks to them, and to other translations by many different hands, I have come to have a great admiration for the T’ang poet Du Fu. He is my favourite, perhaps the poet that I return to, most frequently, in my own reading. In the following quotes, Rexroth, in a book published in 1971, employs a transliteration of the poet’s name different from the one in general use today. Rexroth alleges that Du Fu is
in my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of those qualified to speak, the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language. Sappho, for instance, can hardly be said to have survived. He shares with her, Catullus, and Baudelaire, his only possible competitors, a sensibility acute past belief.
I agree with that, except the part about his competitors, since there are a few more who might be mentioned. But the remark about Du Fu having “sensibility acute past belief” — surely that is apt. And for me, as for Rexroth, there is even more to Du Fu. It is something almost personal. Rexroth attempts to sum it up:
Tu Fu comes from a saner, older, more secular culture than Homer and it is not a new discovery with him that the gods, the abstractions and forces of nature, are frivolous, lewd, vicious, quarrelsome, and cruel, and only man's steadfastness, love, magnanimity, calm, and compassion redeem the night bound world. It is not a discovery, culturally or historically, but it is the essence of his being as a poet.
Rexroth goes on to say how Du Fu’s writing has affected him as a person, an admission with which I happen to agree, and have found to be true in my own life:
I am sure he has made me a better man, as a moral agent and as a perceiving organism. I say that because I feel that . . . the greatest poetry answers out of hand the problems of the critic and the esthetician. Poetry like Tu Fu's is the answer to the question, "What is the purpose of Art?"
What writers do you read? Why?
As a young person, in university and later, dreaming of becoming a writer, I read a great many novels and short stories, and was initially drawn to the work of the American novelist, William Faulkner.. The world he created seemed recognizable to me, and authentic. I hoped to create a similar world. Other American authors I have admired, and tried to learn from, have been Sara Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Sherwood Anderson. But there are dozens more, and dozens more European and world writers whom I admire.
I have been fortunate, too, in having known Joseph Love, a prominent historian of Brazilian history, and author of a splendid study of a remarkable moment in Brazilian history, The Revolt of the Whip. He and I were undergraduates together (he was at Harvard), and I have known him ever since, and through his many gifts and thoughtful recommendations, I have been introduced to a great deal of the literature and culture of Central and South America.
In the last few years most of my reading has been in history. I am a great admirer of the British historian Richard J. Evans, whose history of the Third Reich is unrivaled. Another of my favorites is John Julius Norwich and his history of the Byzantine Empire. I am extremely fond of Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War. And at the moment I am reading the late Tony Judt’s Postwar, a history of Europe from 1945 to the near present and am finding out how little I knew about that period, even though I lived through it.
These days I spend much more time reading history than either fiction or poetry. I have a large bookcase full of nothing but books about classic Egyptian history and art, and I have a smaller group of books about Meso-American prehistory and culture, and particularly Mayan art. I am simply curious about such matters.
Which are your favourite poets? Why?
I would have difficulty naming even a few. I have attempted to read them all, which of course is impossible, since new ones appear every day, and one is constantly discovering earlier ones. It has never seemed acceptable to me to list the names of poets who “influenced” me or the way I write. There are a few poets whose work I keep at my bedside, and whose books I still read. Two in particular are poets writing primarily in German, Rilke and Hölderlin. Among Americans, Frost. Among the English, Hardy and Larkin.
What do you learn from these writers? Do they impact you in any way?
I really don’t know. They’re just writers that I particularly like, and find myself re-reading, over the years. Kafka is another. So is Flaubert. I continue to read Henry James and Turgenev — all of those persons on whom, as James pointed out, “nothing is lost.”
Why is it you are reticent to talk of your work and poetic sensibilities?
I seem to be naturally reticent, even introverted. As a child I spent a certain amount of time with my grandmother and with a great-great aunt, both of whom were born in the 1870s. Both were thoroughgoing Victorians who exemplified the traditional virtues — thrift, honesty, industry, steadfastness. And perish the thought of anything vainglorious. I think a bit of that rubbed off on me.
I’ve done a little talking about myself in this interview, but only because you asked. My parents, too, taught me that one should avoid talking about oneself to others. It is also a professional attribute — physicians and attorneys traditionally do not advertise or promote themselves — and although I do not consider myself a professional in that sense, I can understand the reasoning. Professionalism in any undertaking is not a matter of office, title, or entitlement; it is a standard to be lived up to.
At university, it was explained to me that in polite society one does not discuss politics, religion, or how one earns a living. Ezra Pound says somewhere that you can always spot the bad critic if he focuses on the poet and not the poems. Add all of that up, and I seem to have little to say about myself or what I do.
I really loved your poem “Yeti”. You had said that while writing “Yeti” you disposed of a number of lines and picked a few. Would it be possible to share this part of your poetic process with us?
Well, again, “poetic sensibilities,” “poetic process” — I am not a critic, scholar, or professor, and I have no insights to offer about such matters. It is not my business to do so. Instead, I make poems, and I have been privileged to have published a few of them. So that our readers will know what we’re referring to, here is my poem “Yeti,” which your journal kindly published, for the first time, in its May 2021 issue. The poem conjures up the mysterious creature of the Himalayas, whose existence has never been verified, but which continues to haunt the imagination:
Tell me again that nothing’s there,
that never was
At all, except in places where
things slip, or pause,
Yet register, on some high ridge
where something moves
And then is gone. As though a bridge
of snow should lose
Its grip, and drop away, but leave
a shadow where
Such vanishing might still deceive
in that thin air.
The first thing one notices about this poem, which is in a relatively new form called an Alexandroid, are its formal aspects — its lines end with rhymes, and it has repetitive stanzas and lines of a predictable length. A second thing one notices is its brevity — twelve lines in all, and a total number of syllables amounting to half of those in a typical sonnet in English. It is a small poem, then, in a range of length favoured by the American poet, Emily Dickinson. Longer than a haiku or tanka, but still very brief.
A third characteristic, perhaps not immediately apparent, is the way in which the “sh” sound in the closing lines — should, shadow, vanishing — suggests the texture of something slipping away. Or the sound of a bridge of snow suddenly collapsing into a crevasse. In certain cultures, it is the same sound we make when we put a forefinger to our lips to signal for silence — shhhh.
That sound is followed by the stark, icy i’s and e’s, at the poem’s very end, of might, deceive, thin, and air. The trail has gone cold, the Yeti has disappeared. That poetry can suggest strange moments like this, with such minimal input, is one reason why I like it so much.
In the making of such a poem there is, literally, no place to hide. Whoever reads it will be affected, consciously or not, by the smallest detail. It goes almost without saying that to make a poem within these parameters, the writer must, to borrow your phrase, “dispose of a number of lines and pick a few”. This is inescapable. There is simply no room in which to say whatever one likes, or to run on interminably. No room for the vainglorious.
Somewhere there may be a poet who can write a similar poem without hesitation, as though copying it out, not pausing to substitute or change a single word.
I suppose I do the opposite. I experiment and try out many different words, many lines, many drafts, in order to arrive at what I believe to be a poem. In doing this I don’t think I am any different from most other poets.
It has been pointed out that one interesting thing about poems is the way they can talk about one thing while implying something entirely different. “Yeti” is presumably about an elusive, folkloric creature, but at the same time it is talking about poetry, and how it disappears even while you are reading it, and sometimes you are not sure about what you have just read. Something still seems to be there, even while it vanishes into thin air.
What is it you look forward to?
I look forward to making more poems, and more books of poems. There’s an old American saying, from the days of vaudeville, which holds that “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
But clearly I am an old man of the forest now, and I think the best claim from an aging artist, about what can still be accomplished in the years ahead, is by the Japanese painter and printmaker, Hokusai. Since we’re discussing art and culture of the East, I’ll suggest that his marvelous statement, in his colophon to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, is a perfect way to end this interview:
From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.
In some translations, Hokusai adds, at the very end, with reference to what he has just affirmed, this invitation: “I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word.”
Hokusai lasted until he was 88. That final sentence has always seemed to me to be a blessing he is bestowing on readers and admirers — a wish, for whoever might be listening, that those persons too might have long and fruitful lives.
I would hope Hokusai’s spirit still lingers, and that I might join him in wishing that for you, Madame Chakravarty, and for all of your journal’s most admirable readers, there on the other side of the planet Earth. Thanks to all of you for allowing me to come into your world.
Thank you very much Mr Carter for your kind words.
Click hereto read the more from Jared Carter in Borderless Journal.
(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
Radha Chakravarty has, for many of us, been synonymous to translations that we read – excellent translations of Tagore, Bankim and Mahasweta Devi – major names from Bengal in Literature. A well-respected academic who specialises in translations, Tagore, Mahasweta Devi, Women’s Literature, South Asian Literature, Subaltern Writings and Comparative Literature, in this exclusive she talks to us of the multiple journeys in her development as a translator, critic and writer.
You are an eminent translator, editor, critic and writer. What started you out on this path?
These are separate yet interlinked roles, different journeys yet part of the same narrative of my involvement with the world of words. I started writing when I was a child, but came to think of publishing my creative work many years later, when journal editors began to solicit my poetry for publication. My poems have now appeared in many books and journals, in India and internationally. It was a wonderful collaborative experience to contribute to Pandemic: A Worldwide Community Poem (Muse Pie Press, USA), nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2020.
My work as a critic evolved through engagement with research. Feminism and Contemporary Women Writers(Routledge, 2008) for instance, emerged from my doctoral research, a cross cultural study of writers such as Mahasweta Devi, Anita Desai, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Buchi Emecheta. Novelist Tagore (Routledge, 2013) draws upon my research on gender and modernity in Tagore’s novels. My essays and reviews come from my areas of specialization, including Tagore Studies, women’s writing, South Asian Studies, Comparative Literature and Translation Studies.
As an editor, my work is inspired by the idea of sahitya, the Bengali word for “literature” that Tagore interprets as “being with” or “being together”. This idea of collaboration and dialogue across heterogeneities fascinates me. My edited volumes, such as Bodymaps (Zubaan, 2007), a collection of South Asian women’s stories on the body, Vermillion Clouds(Women Unlimited, 2010), an anthology showcasing a century of fiction by Bengali women and Writing Feminism (co-edited with Selina Hossain; UPL, 2010), containing selections of South Asian feminist writing, are inspired by this principle. My most exciting collaborative project as an editor, so far, was The Essential Tagore (Harvard and Visva-Bharati, 2011), where my co-editor Fakrul Alam and I worked with thirty reputed South Asian translators located in different countries, on the largest anthology of Tagore’s writings across ten genres. The volume, named the ‘Book of the Year’ 2011 by Martha Nussbaum, has since become a standard reference for Tagore scholars worldwide.
As for translation, I started dabbling in informal translations, across Bengali, English and Hindi, even as a child. My grandfather, who taught me advanced Bengali at home, often involved me in these linguistic experiments. My first published translation happened almost by accident, in the 1990s. A friend, an Israeli art historian, asked me to explain the lyrics of the Bollywood song daiya re daiya re charh gaye papi bichhwaa(the poisoned scorpion climbed on me), because she was researching the scorpion motif in the Khajuraho scultpures. I ended up translating the entire song into English, in verse! My friend was amazed. She included my translation of the song with due credit, in her essay on the scorpion, published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of India. As for my early books in translation, I must thank my friends, the editors and publishers who urged me to take up those projects. They saw in me a potential I had not fully recognised myself. Later, the overwhelming recognition that these books received transformed my self-image. I began to think of myself as a translator, among many other things.
You started by translating Mahasweta Devi. When and why did you start translating Tagore? What moved you from Mahasweta Devi to Tagore?
At the turn of the century, I was immersed in the challenge of translating into English the heterogeneities of contemporary Bengali fiction. Crossings: Stories from Bangladesh and India (2003), my first published book of translations, included the stories of twenty living writers. Alongside, I was working on In the Name of the Mother, my translations of some powerful, unusual stories about motherhood by Mahasweta Devi. The volume appeared soon after Crossings.
Meanwhile, I received a sudden call from Rani Ray—once my teacher, now a friend, mentor and figure of inspiration—urging me to translate Tagore’s Chokher Bali (A grain of Sand) an important but neglected text. I remember the shock and awe I felt at that moment. I protested that I was no Tagore expert, much as I loved and admired his work, but Rani di was adamant. “I think you are the right person to translate this novel,” she insisted. I found myself promising that I would try. And that was how my journey as a Tagore translator began. I read the novel, was struck by its boldness as a path-breaking modern text, and felt daunted but also tremendously excited at the challenge of trying to translate this hundred-year-old text that was at once so rooted in its context, and yet so far ahead of its time. Translating Chokher Bali was an immersive experience. It transformed me, drew me into a lifelong relationship with Tagore, and there has been no looking back.
Was translating Tagore different from translating Mahasweta Devi or Bankim? How was it similar/ different?
As I said, I first translated contemporary writing before turning my attention to Tagore. My translation of Bankim’s Kapalkundala came in 2005, after I had also translated Tagore’s Shesher Kabita as Farewell Song. So the transition from Mahasweta and other contemporary figures, to Tagore’s early twentieth century texts, and then to Bankim’s nineteenth century novel was like a journey back in time, delving further and further into the Bengali literary past. Of late, I have been translating parts of the Chandrabati Ramayana, a sixteenth century composition. Each step in this journey has been a process of exploration and rediscovery through translation, of familiar and much loved texts that I had read avidly in my early life, never dreaming that I might one day aspire to translate these literary jewels.
After working with living writers, the transition to Tagore was not easy. When translating Chokher Bali, I felt the need to evoke the flavour of a bygone age, even in a contemporary translation for the twenty-first century reader. This involved complex creative experiments with style and vocabulary that stretched my abilities as a translator. One felt the importance of bringing to life the cultural ethos of Bengal in the late nineteenth century, a world in many ways unfamiliar to readers of our time. Simultaneously, I recognized the modernity of Tagore’s novel, the new element of interiority that transformed the Bengali novel at his magic touch. That needed to be brought to life too.
Moving from Tagore to Bankim offered a fresh set of challenges. The lyrical, Sanskritised cadences of Kapalkundala are far removed from the more modern idiom of Tagore’s novels. Bankim’s text is set in the Mughal period. Hence the translator must actually negotiate the past at a double level, to bring to the modern reader the late medieval ethos as represented through Bankim’s nineteenth century sensibility. Crossing these temporal and cultural divides demanded daring experiments with language, as well as considerable research to contextualize the source text. It was a learning process for me.
Working with the ChandrabatiRamayana is a different experience altogether. A radical text for its times, and one that challenges the mainstream literary tradition, it remains a text worth returning to in our own context, because it destabilizes monolithic conceptions of our premodern religious and social traditions. Finding in English an idiom that will capture the poetry as well as the content is a hard task though.
These adventures in translation have compelled me to read the Bengali literary tradition from a different angle, from a writerly perspective, as it were. I have realized that translation involves a creative element, but also works as a form of interpretation. It has become clear to me why translation can be described as the most intimate act of reading.
In the Jaipur Literary Festival (2017), you made a very interesting observation that if one does not get into the skin of a writer, one cannot capture the essence of the writer in entirety. Are all good translations more of transcreations that literal translations?
Translation often appears to me a form of ventriloquism, the translator’s voice making itself heard through the voice of the source text. It produces a double-voiced text. My endeavour, when translating, is to bring to life the spirit rather than the literal vocabulary of the source text. One struggles to apprehend, interpret, and then, through one’s own creative ability in the target language, to approximate the impulse behind the original. A doubleness comes into play here, due to the gap in time, location, language, culture and context that separates the translation from the source text. In this tension resides the dynamic potential of translation to simultaneously recognize and displace the original. The success of a translation often depends on the translator’s creativity, as well as the author’s.
What is your opinion of Tagore’s own translation of his works? Can you expand on that?
Tagore’s English translations of his own work shot him to international fame and led to the Nobel Prize. Yet he was diffident about his own command of English, and unsure about the quality of his translations. Some of these translations resorted to archaisms and a rather stilted style that did not weather the test of time very well. They were partly responsible, I feel, for the fluctuations in Tagore’s international reputation after the initial flush of success. Certainly, they are not close copies of the original Bengali texts; rather, they are re-creations in a different language, for a different readership. While some readers may cavil at the gap between the source texts and their English versions, these translations, in my opinion, remain important instances of the ways in which translation can connect different cultures through dynamic border crossings. The Kabir translations for instance, drawing upon the work of Kshitimohan Sen, and produced by Tagore in collaboration with Evelyn Underhill, provide a fascinating instance of the translingual and transcultural border-crossings that were involved in this process.
Sometimes Tagore adopted unorthodox collaborative measures when working with translations.
We know about the English translations of course, but it is worth remembering that Tagore also translated numerous premodern poets into Bengali and English, from a range of different languages, often drawing upon eclectic sources and relying on the assistance of others more knowledgeable about the languages and literary cultures of the source texts. I have recently published an essay on Tagore’s translations of medieval poetry, where I argue that these should be read, not as literal, faithful renderings that seek to cling close to the source texts, but rather, as transcreations that resituate these early texts in new, unfamiliar contexts. What takes place in his translations of Bhakti poetry, for instance, is also a meeting of different faiths, across diverse histories and geographies.
Can a translation be done from a translated piece into the same language? Would such a revision be of value?
Intralingual translations can be found in many literary cultures. Sometimes, texts in formal or classical versions of a language get translated into a modern, colloquial idiom, to reach a wider audience in a different time period. Often, these can be read as democratizing moves, arising from dynamic historical shifts that bring about an interrogation of social and linguistic hierarchies. The bridging of gaps between “high” and “popular” cultures can be attempted through such processes. These translations imagine into being new readerships for older texts, giving them a new and altered “afterlife”. The market also dertermines some of these things, especially when it comes to promoting modern versions of enduring texts that are regarded as classics. Intralingual translation can blur the borderline between translation and adaptation.
Can a translation to another language be done from a translation say in English, and still have the authenticity of the original writer?
It is currently a widely prevalent practice to use English translations as source texts for re-translation of texts into other languages. English as the language of global currency provides a useful medium for such translingual, often transnational interchanges. In India, despite our multilingual culture, there is dearth of translators who can work across Indian languages without taking recourse to English as a via media. This is part of the colonial legacy, which transformed our premodern polyglot culture through the compartmentalization and codification of the “modern Indian languages”. Today, bilingual and multilingual Indian scholars and translators are scarce. Hence, traffic across Indian languages tends to take place via English. The need of the hour is to regenerate a culture where the true potential of our multilingualism can be acknowledged, through a revaluation of polyglot scholarship.
Collaborative translation also holds immense possibilities for South Asian cultures, where diverse forms of linguistic and literary expertise can be harnessed, to work directly across our many languages, without always using English as a crutch. We already possess a rich history of collaborative translations in our literary past. This can inspire us to develop models for translation that involve mutual relationships between translators working in different languages.
How do you deal with translating multiple languages used by a writer into English? How would you indicate the presence of dialects or another language in the text you are translating from Bengali to English?
This question is particularly pertinent to the writings of Mahasweta Devi, where we find extraordinary instances of heteroglossia and multilingualism, in ostensibly monolingual texts. In a single story, such as “Draupadi”, we find chaste and colloquial Bengali, Santhal song, Hindi words and phrases, and English expressions, as well as quotations from various sources. Such texts challenge the monolingual paradigm to indicate that our cultural ethos, and also our sensibility, is always already multilingual. The idea of “pure” language is destabilized, to dramatize, in the words of the text, the dynamic interaction of various languages and linguistic registers. The social and political hierarchies that underlie this interplay of languages come to the fore through the rhetoric of the text. In such instances, the translator faces a tremendous challenge, especially with English as a target language so far removed from South Asian linguistic cultures. This tests the translator’s imagination and creativity, and demands the ability to summon up suitable strategies to deal with the challenges posed by the source text.
In my own translations, I prefer to highlight the forms of otherness operational in the source text, instead of erasing these markers of difference in order to create a smooth and easy style that would comfort a reader unfamiliar with written Bengali or South Asian cultures. To a great extent, I try to retain “untranslatable” cultural elements such as kinship terms, or names of trees, flowers, food and clothing. The use of italics also needs to be rationalised, depending on the demands of the source text, as well as the context, purpose and target audience for the translation. I prefer to keep notes and glossaries to a minimum, wanting instead that the reader engage actively in making meaning of the translation. In other words, I like to foreground the “translatedness” of the translation, as a text from elsewhere. At the same time, though, I don’t carry the process of defamiliarization so far as to completely destroy the readability of the target text. After all, I translate in order to be read. And I translate for the general reader, because I want my translations to have as wide and eclectic a readership as possible. It is my mission to bring writers from our own culture to the rest of the world, not just for a select coterie of erudite scholars.
Has translating all these writers impacted your own writing and thought processes as a critic? How?
As a critic, one reads a book from the outside, as it were. It is the analytical faculty that comes to the fore, even in close reading. When translating, something different happens. Translation, like literary criticism, involves close reading, interpretation and contextualization. But the actual process of translating also involves other faculties beyond the rational and intellectual. A feel for language is required, an element of emotion, and a creative ability to find strategies that will make the text viable in a new language for a new audience. One gets drawn into the source text through the process of rewriting or reinventing it, instead of striving for critical distance. Elements of affect, and the pleasure of the text, bring the process of translation alive. Criticism treats the text as a stable entity to be interpreted and analysed, while translation destabilizes the fixity of the “original” and makes us aware of its potential mutability. As a practising translator, I think I have become more sensitive to the “writerly” aspect of the texts that I read as a critic. I have also become more sharply aware of the way canons are formed, and the ways in which translation can trigger transformations in prevalent literary and linguistic hierarchies..
How do you find the time to juggle between academics, translations and writing?
It can be a tightrope walk. But if something matters enough, one tries to make time for it. Always, one is up against the feeling of racing against time. So much to do, and so little time. A lifetime is too short.
What are your future plans? Do we have anything new in the offing?
I find myself immersed in many different adventures with words. Currently, I am working on The Tagore Phenomenon (Allen Lane, forthcoming), a giant anthology that showcases Tagore’s works as a polymath whose oeuvre covers an extraordinary range of subjects, including nationalism, internationalism, education, social issues, nature and environment, spritituality, science, literature and the arts, rural reconstruction, religion, philosophy and humanism, to name a few. A new translation of Char Adhyay (Four Quartets), Tagore’s last novel, is on the way.
Our Santiniketan, to be soon published by Seagull, is my English translation of Mahasweta Devi’s recollections of her days in Santiniketan as a little schoolgirl. An entire ethos, a bygone era, comes to life in these memoirs, invoking the world of Santiniketan in the living presence of Rabindranath Tagore, during the 1930s. Mahasweta Devi: Writer, Activist, Visionary, an edited volume, will bring together scholarly essays and translations showcasing the writer’s life, work and critical reception across cultures. I am also translating selected essays by Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose prose deserves far more attention than it has so far received.
Alongside, my poetry continues to appear in print, in diverse forums. Translations of my poems have also been published. Drawing my poems together in a collected volume is a long overdue project, waiting to happen …
Thank you for giving us your time Professor Radha Chakravarty.
Click here to read Tagore’s prose translations by Radha Chakravarty.
Click here to read Tagore’s poetry translations by Radha Chakravarty.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Fakrul Alam, an eminent translator, critic and academic, has been impacted by major voices in both scholarship and history. Edward Said, who is known for his work on orientalism and postcolonial studies, and the ‘father of Bangladesh’, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were the major influencers in his life. We can see the impact of Said in Alam’s critical viewpoints perhaps when we look at his latest venture, an upcoming publication, Reading Literature in English and English studies in Bangladesh Postcolonial perspectives (2021), a sequel to an earlier book of essays, Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English (2007). He has more books on the pipeline, both on criticism and another translation of nearly three hundred Tagore songs.
A recipient of the Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) and SAARC literary award (2012), Alam, born in 1951, has lived through history. This interview with him takes us on an adventure in time — mulling over different phases of South Asian struggles to gear up as individualistic, independent entities based on the concept imported from Britain, nationalism. It is an interesting journey moving with him through Pakistan dominated East Pakistan to modern Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina where he not only translated Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography but also the nineteenth century Bengali epic Bishad Sindhu and the poems of Jibanananda Das. Without more ado, we are privileged to present to you Professor Fakrul Alam —
What got you interested in translations?
In Dhaka’s St. Joseph’s High School where I did my “O” levels, we had a Bengali teacher who was a great fan of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay. Sir would ask us students to translate passages from his novels fairly regularly. Since he was the only Bengali teacher we had for four years, I ended up translating quite a few pages of the novelist’s work in school! But our teacher taught us almost nothing and just graded our papers after skimming through our work without saying much about the work we had submitted. Then in 1992, when I was hard up for money, a friend working in the World Bank said I could make some by translating government documents for them. This I did for more than a year. But I hated the work and gave it up. Once again, it was work that taught me nothing much and interested me only marginally. In other words, my initial ventures into translating once again did not really get me interested in translation.
I really became interested in doing translation in the mid-1990s when I started reading Jibanananda Das’s poems. They possessed me and I read them again and again. Without thinking about what I was doing, I began translating lines from his signature poem, “Banalata Sen” into English. Once I had started, I went on and on. After I had finished this poem, I took up another of his poems. I showed my work to a few people I was close to. Encouraged by what they said, I published them. Readers seemed to appreciate them as well. That encouraged me a lot. And that is how I really got interested in translating literary works. Looking back, I realize that there was something obsessive about my Jibanananda translations. But I guess I also wanted to come close to the poems and find out why they were so beautiful, haunting and overwhelming. You could certainly say this was translation as possession!
You are bringing out a book of translated Tagore songs in Bangladesh. How many songs have you picked and what was the basis of selection?
Yes, I hope to have a book of my translations of Rabindranath’s song-lyrics out in a few months’ time. I haven’t really counted, but I think I’ll have over 300 of them collected in the book.
What was the basis of my selections? Most important was my love of them. I listen to Rabindra Sangeet, that is to say, the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, every day without fail, unless I am travelling outside Bangladesh. Over the years, some songs by a few singers became so much a part of me that I began translating them. As was the case with my Jibanananda Das translations, you could say that translation was an act of homage as well as a way of coming really close to what you love. It strikes me also that many of the songs I ended up translating are by my favourite Tagore song singers — artistes like Debabrata Biswas and Kanika Bandhopadhyay for instance. Once again, translation as an act of possession!
As I contended in an essay I wrote some years ago which is now part of my collection, Once More into the Past, I grew up with Rabindranath’s songs, for my father loved them immensely. Whenever he was home and Rabindranath’s songs were being played on the radio, he would increase the volume so that we could all listen to them with him. My sisters learnt the songs formally from music teachers at home. I even accompanied one of my sisters on the tabla for a few years as she learnt Rabindra Sangeet or the songs of the poet. And the songs were very much part of the resistance movement against Pakistan — the nationalist movement that led to the birth of Bangladesh. The songs that I end up translating are very much influenced by my experience and love of them.
Recently in an article in Daily Star based on a lecture that you gave in Berkley, you quoted Tagore who had said : “Sometimes the meaning of a poem is better understood in a translation, not necessarily because it is more beautiful than the original, but as in the new setting the poem has to undergo a trial; it shines more brilliantly if it comes out triumphant.” What exactly did you mean by using this quotation? Would this be applicable to Tagore’s own songs?
I wanted actually to say that when we hear someone singing a song, it is the melody that primarily grips the listener; the lyrics tend to be secondary for most of us. The tune will stay in memory for a long time with the best songs; but their words won’t. At best, and unless you have an exceptional memory, you will remember only the opening lines after a while. But it is only when you translate a song that you can savour the way the composer has blended words with the music throughout to make an organic composition. The sound echoes the sense and the way the poet-musician strings words with music is what is most compelling. I think only the translator and the singer who has given thought to what the song is about can get to understand the song in its fullness and grasp the essence of the composer’s work. And just as a singer feels triumphant when she or he has captured the essence of the song through his or her rendering, the dedicated translator can get the satisfaction of catching a lot of what is intrinsically elusive through her or his work.
Of course, most of the music is inevitably lost in translation, but it is at least something if translators can come somewhat close to the original by making use of their auditory imaginations as well as their ability to interpret the words on the page. I had used as an epigraph to my Berkeley lecture the opening line of a Rabindranath song-lyric where the poet expresses his delight at catching “uncatchable loveliness in rhyme’s bids”; that is exactly how a translator feels when she or he has captured the essence of a Rabindranath song-lyric, although, and of course, I’m always aware that there is a lot lost —after all, the original composition’s melodic elements can’t be captured fully in translation. But if the best of the original can be approximated surely the translated poem will shine in a new context.
You have translated both Jibanananda Das and Tagore. What made you opt for two Brahmo poets?
First of all, and as far as I can tell, Jibanananda’s Brahmo family background has had little or no impact on his work. To me, he became more and more of a modernist with every passing decade of his life. With Rabindranath, however, his religious background is central to many phases and aspects of his creativity. Indeed, there was a period when he was completely immersed in Brahmo religious thinking and deeply influenced by its practices. But to me, also a student and admirer of Emerson and the Transcendentalists of mid-19th century America, this was something to contemplate and admire but it did not become a part of me except when I listened intensely. To present my position somewhat differently, though I am captivated by the religious poems of Rabindranath, the non-religious poems where Brahmo beliefs don’t matter are equally appealing to me. Rabindranath surely does not have to be restricted to his Brahmo origin and beliefs. I opted for poets affiliated to the Brahmo Samaj by birth or inclination, but they speak to me because of their poetic/lyric qualities and of feelings that go way beyond religion.
Did you find a lot of cultural difference while translating the above two poets as technically, they live on the other side of the border? Do you feel Bangladesh is culturally closer to West Bengal or Pakistan? Why?
You forget that Jibanananda spent most of his life in East Bengal. He spent only a few years in Kolkata. He did higher studies there for a few years and spent only the last decade of his life in the city. His Ruposhi Bangla poems are all about the flora and fauna of our part of the world. Indeed, has anyone represented our part of Bengal as feelingly as him? As for Rabindranath, let me remind you that coming to Shelaidaha and getting exposed to the Padma and the lush, green landscape of riverine Bengal was decisive for a lot of the poems, songs and short fiction he wrote. And of course, the bulk of the superb letters of Chinnopotra originate in East Bengal. Indeed, I have never felt that Rabindranath and Jibanananda are writers from the other side of the Bengal. I can’t resist saying to you in this context that the first time I went to Jorasanko during my second visit to Kolkata, once I got down from the taxi and asked people the exact location of the Tagore family home, I came across some who seemed not to be able to speak Bengali or could do so only using a non-Bengali accent! In Central Kolkata, you may even get the impression you are not in Bengal. And of course, we have a shared culture with West Bengal, the key here being not only language but also geography and proximity. The border is a divide, but only up to an extent!
Bangladesh uses Bengali a little differently from West Bengal. Would this be a true statement? Does that make translating from the other side of the border more difficult?
I don’t find this to be the case for educated people writing in Bengali. We may have different or distinctive accents, depending on the level of our education and the part of Bangladesh we are from, and a few words that we use of the language here and there may be unique and unfamiliar to people in West Bengal, but I have rarely found myself misunderstood or out of place when I speak to people in my visits to, let’s say, Kolkata or Santiniketan. This means that my use of Bengali is at best marginally different from a West Bengali’s use of the language.
How many dialects of Bengali are in use in Bangladesh? How is it there are so many dialects of Bengali?
The reason why we have so many dialects in Bangladesh, however, has to do with geography. We are a land of rivers and some of them are huge. It is almost always the case that in a big river like the Padma or Jamuna, people on either side have different dialects because of the physical separation. After all, in the past communication was difficult and economic exchanges were limited. In Sylhet and Chittagong, the hills have played their part in the formation of distinctive dialects. And in the heart of Dhaka, the Mughal heritage has meant that we have the distinctive Dhakaia dialect, uniquely favoured by Urdu/ Persian diction. In other words, there are all sorts of reasons why we have so many different dialects in Bangladesh. I don’t know exactly how many dialects, but the wiki entry lists seven.
What are the hurdles of translating from Bengali to English?
In my own case, the first hurdle is my limited Bengali vocabulary. When I was translating the late nineteenth-century Bengali novel, Bishad Sindhu (Ocean of Sorrow in my translation), I had to consult at least two Bengali-to-English dictionaries all the time as well as look for archaic/obsolete words in a Bengali-to-Bengali dictionary. When I am translating Rabindranath’s song-lyrics, quite often I come across words no longer used in everyday speech or even contemporary written prose that send me to the dictionary repeatedly. The problem is not only that these words are no longer in use but that before I took up translating Jibanananda, my exposure to the Bengali language was somewhat limited by an English medium education in an “O” level school in the Pakistani period where only “easy” Bengali was taught, and where literature was scanted except for the Sarat Chandra novels I mentioned earlier. Indeed, I sat for an “Easy” Bengali examination for my “O” levels. And as I indicated above, our teacher taught us almost nothing there.
The other hurdle, and this is true for all translators, is translating the musical elements of a song-lyric. Bengali is a language that to me is intrinsically melodious. Rhymes come naturally when you speak in Bengali and soft and musical cadences abound. It is more difficult to rhyme in English and if you try to do so consciously, you sound artificial, especially in our time when rhyme is no longer in fashion. And yet in translating song-lyrics from Bengali, one must retain at least some of the music. This, however, is an almost impossible task. Not poetry but it is melody that is lost in the translation of Bengali song-lyrics into English!
You had written an interesting piece on Shakespeare bringing in Tagore’s poem on Shakespeare. Did Shakespeare influence Tagore or have an impact on Bengali literature?
The influence is no doubt indirect. But we know that Rabindranath translated parts of the Macbeth at an early age. And it is well known that Shakespeare was very popular in the late nineteenth Kolkata where he grew up. The English Bard clearly had an impact on the stage then as we know from the translations done at that time. But any influence must have been indirect and limited. Tagore’s dramaturgy is completely different from that of Shakespeare.
You have translated Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography, Oshampto Atmojibani (The Unfinished Memoirs). Can you please tell us a bit about it?
Sometime in late 2006, I was invited by a very good friend whose family is closely connected to that of the man we called Bangabandhu—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—to meet Sheikh Hasina, then the Leader of the Opposition, and for a long time now the Prime Minister of our country. She had obviously heard of my Jibanananda Das translations and knew perhaps as well that I was beginning to translate Rabindranath’s poems and song-lyrics. She wanted me to translate the work that we now know as Oshomapto Atnojibani from the manuscript left behind by Bangabandhu that she and others had managed to first retrieve and then copyedit. I was delighted at the opportunity and began work. But because she was imprisoned by the caretaker government that usurped power in Bangladesh, the work stopped for a while. I had received only part of the manuscript by then. In the end, work resumed after Sheikh Hasina settled down as our Prime Minister and resumed supervising the translation project. The translated book was eventually published in 2012. I should add that I subsequently translated two other manuscripts that were also rescued from oblivion by our present Prime Minister and her sister. These are The Prison Diaries (2019) and New China—1952 (2021). The Unfinished Memoirs was published jointly by UPL in Bangladesh, Penguin India and Oxford UP, Pakistan and has by now been translated into several other languages. The two other volumes have been published by Bangla Academy but have not yet reached the international market.
We had heard of Mujibur Rahman as a national hero of Pakistan when we were kids, right after the 1971 war. Did you meet Mujibur Rahman in person ever? What was the impact he had on you?
Sheikh Kamal, Bangabandhu’s older son, was my batch mate at the university of Dhaka. He was friendly, unassuming and full of life and ideas. Soon after we met in the campus in late 1969, he took me to his house on at least a couple of occasions, along with a few other friends. On one of these occasions, he introduced us to his father. On another occasion, when the election campaign that would soon lead to an overwhelming majority for his party was on, Sheikh Kamal took me and a few other friends one day to attend at least two public meetings where Bangabandhu would be speaking. I missed the most important public speech that he gave, which was on March 7, 1971 (I have, however, translated it and it is available in websites) but I was there to listen to his second most important speech, which is the one that he gave on his return to Bangladesh from a Pakistani prison on January 10.
Of course, he impacted me. In fact, he is unforgettable. He is for us not only “Bangabandhu” or the “friend of Bengal” but also “jatir pita” or “father of the nation”. If you are a Bangladeshi at heart, you will have to acknowledge him in that manner. The more you know about him, the more you will be overwhelmed by his love for Bangladesh and its people, his courage, indomitable spirit, and self-sacrifices.
Having worked intensively on Rahman’s autobiography, do you feel, looking at the course of history, the Partition based on religious differences was a necessity?
In retrospect, Partition was perhaps not necessary, but surely it was inevitable the way things had been going. I have written about this a bit elsewhere but let us remember that there were three partitions– “Bongobhongo” (the breaking of Bengal) — or the short-lived partition of Bengal in 1905; the partition of the subcontinent in 1947; and the parting of ways for us in East Pakistan from the people of West Pakistan in 1971. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it is also easy to see now that in 1905 most educated East Bengali Muslims welcomed a split that would give their backward region not only autonomy but also economic and political empowerment. This partition was of course revoked in 1911 but it did give East Bengali Muslims a feeling of the kind of empowerment they had been denied previously. The 1947 Partition looks decisive now, but that it was not the last word is testified by 1971, when Pakistan split into two and we departed permanently from Pakistan. I should add that I am totally secular and regret that religion-based politics has made a comeback all over the world. I keep hoping we will have something like the European Union in the subcontinent — where though there are borders, we can move freely and connect with each other easily —border or no border — whenever we want to — and travel with only an ID cards and/or our passports and sans visas.
While writing of the founding of Dhaka university, you wrote of the Muslims keeping away from institutions of higher learning in pre-Partition India. Why was that the case? Was it because they did not want to be part of the British babu syndrome or was it some other reason?
There are two things to keep in mind. The fall of the Mughals and Siraj ud-Daulah’s defeat meant that the Muslim aristocrats would no longer be in power. They also either fell out of favour with the British or were steadily deprived of the culturally rich/lavish lifestyles they had been used to. Upper class Hindus in and around Kolkata, however, not only came closer to the British but also embraced English education and prospered in every way. This meant that Muslims on the whole would be late to realize the benefits of higher education in English. It took a while for Bengali Muslims to realize that though they constituted the majority in East Bengal, they were in the minority as far as jobs and upward economic mobility were concerned and would stay that way unit they resorted to higher education.
You are an established critic too. I read something about an upcoming book of essays. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Actually, translation is only a part of what I do and it is something I came to only mid-way in my academic career. By training I am a literary critic. I specialized in 18th century British literature and the American Renaissance writers. Back home after graduate work in Canada in the mid-1980s I became a postcolonial critic. That led me to South Asian writing in English and eventually Jibanananda Das. I am saying all this because I initially published a book on Daniel Defoe and then one on Bharati Mukherjee. I edited a big book on South Asian writers in English for the Dictionary of Literary Biography series in 2006. And in 2007, I brought out a fairly substantial collection of postcolonial critical essays and reviews on south Asian writing in English titled Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English. The book of essays that you mentioned is another large collection of critical essays I have assembled on postcolonial and South Asian literature in English. I have titled it English, the Language of Power, and the Power of Language: Essays and Reviews. It should come out as soon as the pandemic is on its way out.
Bangladesh and West Bengal seem to share much in common, including the three great poets Tagore, Nazrul and Jibanananda. You have translated two of them. What about Nazrul? Any plans afoot to translate him?
Actually, I have translated at least a dozen Nazrul poems, a couple of songs and one short story. Perhaps I will translate a few more. But Rabindra Sangeet will always make me do more and more translations of his songs. And I do plan to go back to Jibanananda Das’s poems, since so many of them came out after I had published my selections of translations of his poems in 1999.
But as I end, let me say: “Thank you” and all good wishes for you and the journal.
Thank you very much for your time and your lovely responses.