Categories
Interview Review

In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar by Samaresh Bose

A conversation with Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar, brought out by Niyogi Books.

In 2017, the Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred pitcher) was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A Times of India report read: “The committee noted that as the largest harmonious conclave in the world, Kumbha Mela stands for values like magnanimity and patience that are very beneficial for the modern humanity. Moreover, the concept of Kumbha Mela goes well with the current international human rights tools because the festival welcomes people from all corners of the world without any differentiation.”

Five years down the line, Niyogi Books brought out a translation of Samaresh Bose’s[1] In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, an epic travelogue translated from Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee on the festival at the confluence of the three rivers, Ganga, Saraswati and Jamuna — in Allahabad. An eminent acknowledged writer, whose stories won not just literary acclaim like the Sahitya Akademi award but were translated to prize winning films, Bose’s solo voice stands alone in the translated version — as that of Kalkut, one of the pseudonyms he assumed.

In the early part of the book, Bose gives the reason for his journey into this crowded event which even in the middle of the pandemic (2021) had 3.5 million visitors: “Observing this great variety of humankind on the move is a thirst that is not easily quenched.” Bose’s exploration came long before the pandemic as his book was published in 1954. Then a Bengali film was made on it in 1982.

The writer claimed to have set out to look into the heart of the nation: “I would dive deep into that heart of India. I would identify my own face in this strange mirror of India. That face is my mind. My religion.” And he discovers, “the poor India was there like a faded cloth by the side of a muslin chunni.” While peeling layers of poverty and ‘respectability’, he introduces us to a bevy of characters which include not just Godmen, but also women, who evolved from wifehood to prostitution to godwomen, to young girls forced to marry polygamous octogenarians, to people in quest of lost family members, to men in search of the intangible — and all united together for a dip in the holy ‘sangam[2]’ of three rivers, the ultimate panacea for all ailments and ills for believers. That the author is not part of the believing crowds, but a sympathetic, humane commentator is obvious from his conversations with various people and his actions, which defy boundaries drawn by the respectable god minding devotees thronging the festival. He uses the event to pinpoint the flaws of socially accepted norms and to find compassion for the less fortunate. He laces his narrative with love and compassion for humanity.

The title itself both in Bengali and English conveys the quest for nectar or the divine amrita of immortality which led to a festival that washes away sins with a dip at the confluence. Legend has it that the gods and the rakshasas worked together to draw out the ambrosial drink at this sangam and then, the gods cheated and consumed all of it, judging the other party as too evil to be handed eternal life in a cup. The unbreachable walls had started and perhaps continue even to this date.

The real origin of the festival as Bose contended remains disputed like that of many other cultural lores, though people do continue to quest for miracles in the waters that were supposed to have thrown up the ambrosia. The narrative implies the educated and schooled rarely participated in this event. There is a mention of the prime minister at the festival, but that would be as a dignitary, and not as part of the crowd.

The crowd in its urgency to take a dip at the holy hour, results in a stampede and many deaths. It is a sad and philosophical ending which clearly takes us back to the questions raised at the start of the narrative. “If lakhs of people are blinded by faith, then why not search for the reason? What is that celestial blinker which can blind lakhs of eyes?”

While questioning faith, the narrative exposes the gaps in society with compassion — even between the educated and uneducated that has become a severe point of contention as more fissures into society and creating more boundaries. At the end of the book, one wonders have things really changed from the 1950s when Bose wrote the book to the current experience where the UNESCO, a modern-day construct and belief, has dubbed this festival as a juncture where all humanity congregates? Do they?  To enlighten us on this issue, we conversed with the eminent translator of this powerful book, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee.

Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee

What led you to translate Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar?

Samaresh Bose was a celebrated novelist. Social content of his novels can never be over-emphasized. But when he started writing travelogues under the pseudo -name Kalkut, he invented a new creative trajectory. Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, Kothay Pabo Tarey [4]are all classics in Bengali literature. I have been reading and rereading Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney for decades and always felt it should be presented on a national and international platform. Hence, when time and opportunity arose, I took up the translation work and the result in In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar.

There was a Bengali film (Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, 1982) made with the story of this book. Did you use this as a resource too for your translation? What do you think of the film? Did it capture the book well?

Yes, I have watched the film when it was released. I don’t remember the details now, but the impression remains that it was a reasonably well-made film. But I don’t think it has acted as a resource for my translation work. On the contrary whenever I tried to think of Shyama, the sophisticated face of Aparna Sen[5] would appear in my vision.

In 2017, UN declared the Kumbh-mela as an intangible cultural heritage. And yet, here Samaresh Bose mentioned a stampede within the Mela that killed many people. Do you think things have changed since he wrote this travelogue?

Definitely. Now, the Kumbh-mela is an extremely well-organised event. The way in which the administration handles the flow of lakhs of people is something to be seen to be believed. Even Harvard University researchers had undertaken a study to analyse how an ephemeral city comes up with all the civic, municipal and medical facilities for a temporary period of time. The stampede that Bose mentions are things of the past.

Have you ever been to a Kumbh-mela? Is it as he describes?

Yes, once; obviously inspired by the reading of the book. It was in early 70’s. I found it tallying with Bose’s description to a large extent. It was a lifetime experience for me, because I also went with an open mind, an agnostic as I am.

What in this book strikes you the most?

Two things struck me most in the book. One, unlike all other visitors, Bose’s was not a pilgrimage. He did not even take a dip at any of the auspicious dates and moments. He was in quest of understanding man’s urge for piety. It was as if an atheist’s search for the godhead. Secondly, the technique of writing was a unique blend of travelogue and fiction. His character sketches are something unparalleled in the history of travel writing anywhere in the world. I hope I am entitled to give this opinion, having a modest exposure to the world literature.

You are a felicitated translator. When you translate from Bengali to English, what strikes you as the biggest hurdle? And how do you get over it?

The biggest hurdle in translating from Bengali into English is the problem of culture specific transfer. Here one is not translating from an Indian language into another. Here translation is not just linguistic transfer, but culture transfer also. One has to be very careful where to valorise the source language and where to make some sacrifice for attaining compatibility to the idiom of the target language. I guess I have learnt to strike a balance between the two.

You have translated the Bengali portions fully in this book but not always the Sanskrit or Hindi? Why not?

The Sanskrit and Hindi portions in the text are very well-known quotes from Tulsidas and other celebrated poets. I thought they would communicate even without translation. More importantly, they are all in rhymed couplet or quartet. If the end rhyming is done away with, their linguistic impact will drastically reduce. And maintaining a semblance of rhyming in English was beyond me. So, I left them as they were. The case of the Bengali quotes is totally different. There I could confidently take some liberty and attain the desired impact.

Do you think a translation is better if it is closer to the text or if it captures the spirit of the piece and conveys it to the readers, though it departs from the text as in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat?

It depends on the motive of the translator. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak in her celebrated essay ‘Politics of Translation’ suggested that we should approach the text with love and empathy. If that is achieved, the translator remains as close to the text as possible; and yet he/she can take occasional liberty to capture the spirit of the original. But if the motive is to sanitise the text to cater to a particular reading community, as Tagore wrongly did or civilise the text from the point of view of master-slave attitude, as Fitzgerald did, then it is wrong. We now know how much of Tagore or Khayyam is lost in these English versions.

You have translated major writers from Bengal like Mahasweta Devi, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay and Samaresh Bose. Which has been your favourite author to translate and why?

Well, all the authors I translated so far are my favourite authors. I can not translate unless it is so. I greatly enjoy Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s young adult stories, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s romantic novels, Samaresh Bose’s dexterity in narration and characterisation, Mahasweta Devi’s socially conscious works. I have translated two novels of Tagore also for their universal appeal and extremely thought-provoking themes.

After translating this many novels, are you planning one of your own?

Oh no, I am not a creative person. I hopelessly lack imagination.

Do you have any advice for upcoming translators?

Well, I don’t feel entitled to give advice to anyone, I can only say that a wannabe translator should live with a book for some time before venturing into translation. You should not take up any translation work unless the book resonates with you or speaks to you, so to say.

Thank you for bringing the book to non-Bengali readers and also your time.

[1] Also known as Samaresh Basu (1924 to 1988)

[2] Confluence

[3] Translates to ‘ On the Golden Peak’, part of Kalkut Rachna Samagra (Kalkut’s collected writings), published in 1957 and made into a Bengali film in 1970

[4] Translates to ‘Where will I find Him?’, published as a part of his collected writings in 1957

[5] Aparna Sen, the legendary actress from Bengal, acted as a character in this film

(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Interview Review

The Storyteller of Singapore: Suchen Christine Lim

Singapore moved from being a little island to a trading port to an affluent glamorous city that bridges the East and the West. Spanning the spirit of the wide expanse of this movement within a century are some iconic writers. One of them is Suchen Christine Lim, an award-winning author who writes narratives embedded in history, lined with hope and love — two values that need to be nurtured in today’s war-torn world.

Dearest Intimate is her most recent novel that shuttles against the backdrop of Japanese invasion of not just China but of what was then Malaya and modern-day Singapore. The story revolves between the worlds of Chan Kam Foong and her granddaughter, Xiu Yin. A passion for Cantonese opera that spans across generations weaves all the threads together into a single multi-layered rich tapestry of life. That life is never about a single strand or a single facet is brought into play by her intricate craftsmanship.

Suchen has taken seven years to complete this novel creating a story that immerses the reader in different time periods. The time periods are congealed with a variety of techniques of narration. Both, the first-person narrative — the voice of Xiu Yin — and the third person — the diary which unravels her grandmother’s story — are seamlessly knit into a whole. Though to me, the diary is perhaps more compelling with its historic setting and its interludes of amazing passionate poetry, like these lines:

“Though hills and mountains, rivers and plains separate us,
nothing can separate our thoughts and dreams.
Though a thousand li separate our bodies, no mountains nor
rivers, not even the Four Mighty Oceans can separate our heart.”

As the book progresses, it unfolds Xiu Yin’s journey towards rediscovering her strength and love. She rises from the ashes of an abusive marriage which is in sharp contrast to the marriage of her grandmother, Kam Foong, arranged by the family in a traditional Chinese village in the early part of the twentieth century. That victimisation and abuse see no borders of education and can be born of a sense of frustration and an over-competitive outlook is skilfully reflected in the marriage of Xiu Yin, whose husband is from an educated Westernised Catholic background. She had been brought up on traditional lores among Chinese opera artists. Interesting observations on gender issues and local concerns — like the housing policies in Singapore — are wound into the narrative.

To me, one of the most enduring qualities of Suchen’s novels are that they deal with the common man against a historical backdrop. In an earlier interview, she had said: “I wanted to see the past from the perspective of coolies, the illiterate, who have largely been left out of history books. And yet without them, who would pick up the nightsoil?” In this novel too, she has dealt with the common man — farmers and opera singers only the historic setting and their responses have changes because of changed circumstances. We live, feel, emote with the common people before, during and after the second World War to the modern twenty first century Singapore. The author’s skilful characterisation enlivens her creations. The cruelty of Japanese invaders during 1940s is highlighted in the suffering of the people and their abuse. Published around the same time as Sumantra Bose’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics, which shows how the Indian leader thrown out of Congress took support from the Axis powers (German and Japanese), it gives a contrasting perspective. Though this is fiction, Singapore history does corroborate that the Japanese invaders were extremely brutal in their outlook, even among the colonials.  Suchen’s reiteration of their cruelty is heart rending.

She has through her characters reiterated on the need of art not just to express but to make people laugh, give them hope and cheer them in dark times. This is an interesting theme which in itself makes one wonder if it is a comment on the perspectives of writers depicting unmitigated darkness. We find this strand of hope in great fiction from the last century — like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. They all end with hope as do Suchen’s works.

Suchen’s oeuvre very often encompasses the story of migrants as it has done here. And the interesting progression in this novel is the migrants’ complete acceptance of their new homelands — Singapore and Malaysia. In an earlier interview, Suchen had said, “A man can rise and go beyond borders but the land that he leaves will always be in his bones and heart.” And some of her protagonists had headed back to China. But in this novel, one is left wondering if the characters from China have not transcended their national frontiers to embrace the Cantonese opera, declared an intangible cultural heritage, like Durga Puja, by UNESCO.  Art and love have overridden all kinds of borders — and perhaps, that is why the name of the novel Dearest Intimate, which is used by Kam Foong for her love and for Xiu Yin by her beloved justifies the title. At the end, it is a heartfelt love story between humans and even between humanity and an art form that evolved to embrace the common man. Like all good books — it touches hearts across all borders with its message of love and acceptance as do Suchen’s other novels. To discuss, her world view and her novel, we had a brief conversation with Suchen —

What made you write this novel, Dearest Intimate? What led you to it?

I had a strange dream while I was on the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) residency in the ancient city of Hoi An in Vietnam. I dreamt of a pale orange pillow embroidered with two mandarin ducks and two rows of Chinese characters. When I woke up, I wrote down the two sentences in English, which eventually became the opening paragraph of this novel. So, you can say it was an unexpected gift from the universe that led me to write this novel.

In your earlier novels like A Bit of Earth the protagonist always felt for part of their homelands. However, in Dearest Intimate, the protagonists dwelt on the theme of love and Cantonese opera, not so much on homeland. Has your world view changed since your first novel? How and why?

Well, I don’t think there is a quick easy answer to the how and why of change in worldview. The time gap between the publication of my first novel, Rice Bowl, and the latest, Dearest Intimate, is more than 30 years. Over that span of time my novels had examined issues of political /historical import, race and identity, moving from the past to the contemporaneous. Over the course of 30 years, it is natural for an author’s ideas and obsessions to change.  I would be very worried if I do not change, or my characters and themes do not change. For example, my sudden interest in the pipa led to the writing of The River’s Song, which in turn led me to Chinese music and Hong Kong Cantonese opera and the learning of Cantonese.

Tell us about why you took up the Cantonese opera in a major way in this novel?

It was the strange gift of a dream of two mandarin ducks embroidered on a pillowcase, which reminded me of the Cantonese operas I used to watch as a child with my grandmother and mother. Such pillowcases with embroidered mandarin ducks were symbols of love and fidelity and were sewn by young women in love in Chinese operas. Cantonese opera was a part of my childhood that was largely forgotten till this dream. Looking back, I think in writing Dearest Intimate I was reclaiming that forgotten part of my childhood.

Why did the novel take seven years to write? What kind of research went into the novel?

Partly because the research was such fun. I wasn’t concerned about deadlines. I had already flung away deadlines the moment I resigned from the Ministry of Education years ago. And I must admit I was fortunate that I didn’t have to write to fill my rice bowl. My research obsession began after I had watched a Hong Kong Cantonese opera troupe perform at the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, and later, other operas at the Esplanade during Moon Festival. Curious about the actors’ training, I went to the National Archives and listened to the many interviews with old opera actors and actresses of local Chinese opera troupes. Every year, I flew to Hong Kong to watch one or two Cantonese operas, and once I even met Chan Poh Chee and Bak Suet Xin, the icons of Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera. When I started writing the novel I would watch one Cantonese opera on YouTube every afternoon, even re-watching a few favourites. Unhappy that I could not understand the literary Cantonese used in the operas I joined a Cantonese class in Chinatown to deepen my understanding of Cantonese.

Why did the novel take seven years to write?  Well, one of the reasons is my troublesome health. I had several health issues to deal with. Very boring chronic issues which, naturally, gobbled up my time and distracted my attention. The most serious of these troublesomes was a minor stroke that affected my movement and speech for some months.

You have written many children’s stories, a play, short stories, non-fictions and novels. What is your favourite form of storytelling and why?

The novel. It is humanity’s greatest literary invention. Within the novel, raw messy lived experience is transformed into coherent narrative.

All your novels have a sense of hope and seem to reach out with the message of love and acceptance. Why is it you feel reiterating this is important?

I am glad you think my novels have a sense of hope. Hope is often the reason we live another day. Hope is what helps us to endure, to wait. To write, to make art is an act of hope.

What in your opinion is the purpose of art? You have repeatedly mentioned in your novel that people will respond better to hope or laughter in opera in dark times. Would you say this also applies to writing? Do you think people in dark times prefer books that give hope? Please elaborate.

I will quote Master Wu in the novel: “Play our music! Tell our stories! Sing our songs! Write our histories! Preserve our humanity! That is what the arts are for. Never, never for one moment forget who we are …”  in the age of robotics, story-generating AI and Twittering twitterati. 

Do you have any advice or message for budding writers?

Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy. 

Thank you for your wonderful answers and for giving us the time.

(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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

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Essay Interview Review

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

An exhaustive essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, one of the best film critics from India, an editor and writer along with an interview with the writers of the book, The Ultimate Biography, on the film legend and genius called Kishore Kumar

Kishore Kumar

Introducing the Genius of Kishore Kumar

Singer, composer, lyricist, director, writer, actor — Kishore Kumar was all this and more. Apart from Satyajit Ray, I can think of no other person in cinema whose talents ranged across so many departments. As a playback singer, he had no parallels – not Mohammad Rafi, not Hemant Kumar, no one came close. As an actor, he was almost surreal in comedies like Half Ticket and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi[1]. It is only because we do not view comedy as an artform at par with tragedy and melodrama that his contribution as an actor has not been acknowledged. As a director and writer, he balanced the almost surreal Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi [2] with the minimalist Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin[3]. It is immensely sad that he did not have more films and songs to his credit as a composer and lyricist.

Take a look at these dialogues —

Kya dekh rahe ho, Prashant?

(What are you seeing Prashant)

Uss raaste ko jo duur pahariyon ke beech kho gaya.

(I lost myself in that distant road among the hills)

Haan, musafir aur raaste ka gehra sambandh hai. Shayad uss raaste ko dekh kar tum apni naye safar ke shuruwat ke barey me soch rahe hogay.

(Yes, the traveller and the road has a deep relationship. Perhaps seeing that road, you are thinking of a new start for yourself)

Jindegi ek safar hai, Joseph sahab, aur uss raaste ka koi anth nahin. Har purani raah ek nayi raah ko janam deti hai aur manzilon ke silsile kabhi khatam nehi hote. Sirf uska saath denewale musafir badal jatein hai.

(Life is a journey, Joseph sahab, and that way has no ending. A new path is born of old roads and the stories never end. Only the traveller changes.)

Theek kaha tumney, Prashant. Saath denewala musafir hamesha badal jatey hain. Magar na jane kyon log phir bhi jazbaati ho jatein hai. Darasal zindagi ka maqsad hai zindagi ka saath nibhana, par tum in raston ka saath nibhakar chaltey ho. Aisa kyon?

(You are right, Prashant. The travelling companions always change. But people for some unknown reason become emotional. Actually, the goal of life is to be with life, but you walk along the paths. Why?)

Unhi raaston mein hi toh zindagi hai, Joseph sahab … kahin khushi, kahin ansoo, kahin dukh, kahin hahakar, kahin itni bhook aur lachari ki insaan par zindagi bhari hain, aur kahin itni khushiyan ki aadmi sambhal hi nahin sambhalta. Hamein in sab ka saath nibhatey chalna hai … uss anjaney andekhe path par … jiska koi anth nahin…

(Those paths is where you find your life, Joseph Sahab… Our Life is full of happiness, tears, sorrows, despair, sometimes it is full so much hunger and desperation that life becomes a burden and sometimes there is so much happiness that it spills over. That unknown, untrod path knows no end.)

– A sequence from Door Ka Rahi[4], 1971

So entrenched is his reputation as a comic star that it might come as a surprise that this exchange above was scripted, directed and acted by Kishore Kumar in one of his most atypical roles.

In the wake of his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961), and the sustained lunacy of Half Ticket (1962, where he plays Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand alias the child Munna, as also his own mother, in a performance that has no parallel in Hindi cinema), Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein [5](1964) was probably what audiences and critics of the era might have least expected from Kishore Kumar.

Why only audiences and critics? As film folklore has it, even elder brother Ashok Kumar was sceptical of his ability to deliver the emotion required for serious songs. Composer Chitragupt had reportedly composed the beautiful ‘Itni badi yeh duniya’ [6](Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan[7],1966) only with Kishore Kumar in mind and even recorded it. Only to have the star of the film, Ashok Kumar, on whom the song was to be picturized, veto it. Ashok Kumar felt that his younger sibling did not have it in him to give the song the pathos it required and that only Mohammed Rafi could do it justice. The song was recorded again, this time by Rafi who did a brilliant job.

And yet in his directorial ventures, Kishore Kumar time and again presented a facet of himself that other filmmakers never tapped and no other producer had the vision to explore. Which is why each of these films had the singer multitasking as producer, director, actor, writer and composer.

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein

Based on the 1958 Western The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is the story of a soldier, Shankar (Kishore Kumar), who returns from a war to find that his wife and father have perished in a fire that has destroyed his house. The trauma has robbed his ten-year-old son Ramu (Amit Kumar in his maiden film appearance) of his voice. Shankar sets out on a quest to treat his son and restore his voice. On the way, they are waylaid by a villainous Thakur (Raj Mehra) and his thuggish sons (played by Iftikhar and Sajjan). They are rescued by the kind-hearted Meera (Bengali superstar Supriya Devi), who shelters them and becomes a surrogate mother to Ramu.

It is unlike any film that Kishore Kumar had starred in (barring probably Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir[8]). And though the inspiration may have been James Edward Grant’s story directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the influence of Satyajit Ray that is apparent in the making. The singer-director had reportedly watched Ray’s Pather Panchali[9] thirteen times before embarking on his directorial debut. The setting is rural (barring one sequence set in the city) and the director gives us a close look at the landscape, the ramshackle hutments, the swaying fields, the water rippling in the ponds, even the dog that follows Ramu every step of the way.

The film is of course now part of Hindi film legend because of its songs. Kishore Kumar himself wrote that ultimate father-son anthem ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’, a sequence that in the bonding between the two recalls the final sequences of Ray’s Apur Sansar[10]. Shailendra penned the other classics, including Koi lauta de meray[11]and Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai[12]and two Asha Bhosle gems. But it is in the way that Kishore Kumar eschews all trappings of his comic persona to capture the little moments around the characters that the film stands out in the midst of the fluffy entertainers that characterised the era. Interestingly enough, Iftikhar, who plays the main villain, also designed and painted the film’s title cards.

The film was critically well-received, with even the impossible-to-please Baburao Patel of Filmindia calling it a film that “just misses out on being a classic”. Though not a big commercial success, the film did well enough, and Kishore Kumar had the last laugh vis-à-vis another film at the time which was expected to be a blockbuster. As Kishore Kumar narrated in his now-cult interview with Pritish Nandy, “It started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself … Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar for 8 weeks for his film April Fool[13], which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So, he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? … Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?”

Door Ka Rahi[14]

With Door Ka Rahi (1971), Kishore Kumar goes a step further with his character. Hindi cinema seldom has a drifter as the protagonist. As a people, we do not take to characters who do not have a definite goal in life – in the world of Hindi films that either means pursuing the girl you love or avenging the death of your family and loved ones. Prashant (Kishore Kumar) is unlike any hero in Hindi cinema. He does not have a love interest. He has no family of his own. He refuses to settle down at one place. Prashant reminds me of Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Razor Edge[15].

The film opens with a sequence of an old man trudging his way through the snow before collapsing. As he breathes his last, he reminisces about his life and the many people he has known and whose lives he has touched. There’s Karuna who wants to set up home with him, there’s a group of orphans he takes care of, there’s his friend Vimal (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his family that includes his wife and her brother Jeetu (Amit Kumar) who are being exploited by their local zamindar and moneylender. In the final episode of the film, he comes across a widow Monica (Tanuja) and her father-in-law Joseph (Ashok Kumar). He reminds them of George, Joseph’s son and Monica’s husband. Even as Joseph proposes that he stay back and make a life with Monica, Prashant has to take a decision on the larger calling that beckons him.

If one thought that Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein would be a hard act to follow musically, Door Ka Rahi goes one better with what are possibly the finest philosophical numbers in any Hindi film ever. No other Hindi film in my view has songs that so evocatively capture the essence of a film. If Shailendra’s ‘Chalti chali jaaye[16]’, rendered by Hemanta Kumar in a splendid baritone, echoes the eternal journey that is life, Irshad’s words in ‘Panthi hoon main’, ‘Khushi do ghadi ki’ and the ephemeral ‘Beqarar dil tu gaaye ja’ evoke a spirit that few lyricists in Hindi cinema have managed. There’s also Manna Dey’s ‘Ek din aur gaya’ and the Kishore songlet ‘Mujhe kho jaane do’.

Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin

While Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Ka Rahi marked a break from the standard film fare of the times and Kishore Kumar’s image as an actor, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin (1980) demonstrated his penchant for experimentation – one that earned the filmmaker plaudits from none other than Satyajit Ray himself.

He not only did away with songs – in itself a huge creative decision given his stature as a singer – he decided to shun music altogether in the film. Thus, you have that rare Hindi film that does not have a background score. Instead, there is a remarkable array of natural sounds filling in – the crunch of feet on snow, the rustle of leaves, the soughing of the breeze, and silences which accentuate the bleak and forlorn ambience of the film. 

The film begins with an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes watching a bird in flight against the vast expanse of the sky, accompanied by the azaan[17] on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal a man holding on to the bars of a prison window. Aslam (Kishore Kumar) is serving a term in this jail set in the middle of inhospitable mountainous terrain. He talks to the warden (Raza Murad – who is nameless in the film and is always addressed as ‘Inspector Sahab’) about how suffocating imprisonment can be for a man, and how envious he is of birds. At the first opportunity he gets, Aslam makes a run for it with his prison mate Ghulam Ali.

While Ghulam Ali dies during the escape, Aslam finds himself in a farm inhabited by a mother-daughter duo, Olivia (Bindu, in quite a turn with her grating voice, in one of her rare starring roles) and Jennifer (Shyamalee). His presence sets off a chain of events involving the women, both of whom take a fancy to this man from nowhere. Interestingly, if in Door Ka Rahi, Prashant is a free spirit refusing to be tied down to one place or any human attachment, in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin, Aslam seeks to break free but fails. The escape from the prison only leads him to another one in the form of Olivia and Jennifer’s house. As he tells the inspector at the end, the world, life itself, is a prison. The only difference with his erstwhile prison is in scale. And the only escape lies in death.

Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein[18]

The last of these atypical films that he directed was his final outing too – Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein (1989). Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar passed away while the film was in production and it was Amit Kumar who completed it. Unlike the others in this list, Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein is not a very distinguished piece of filmmaking with a dated story celebrating the greatness of motherhood that belongs more to the hoary 1950s. It is surprising that Kishore, who broke away from established mores in the other films, zeroed in on this hackneyed theme for his swansong, which looks more like a love-letter to wife, Leena Chandavarkar.

The film tells the story of Gauri (Leena Chandavarkar) who brings up her son Niranjan (Amit Kumar) single-handedly. She nurses a secret about Niranjan’s father which forms the crux of the film. Niranjan grows up with the question about his father haunting him all his life. He travels to the nearby town for his higher studies, and it is here that he comes in contact with a man (Raj Babbar) who claims to know Gauri and gives Niranjan an unsavoury take on her past. Niranjan confronts his mother, but she refuses to divulge her secret, leading to the two falling out. The rest of the film deals with the story of Gauri’s past and Niranjan’s realization that he has been unfair to his mother.

It’s a poor film in every respect but it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic about a film that recreates one of Kishore’s cult crazy songs, ‘Allah Allah … Bhagwan bhagwan’ (Hum Do Daku[19], 1967). Or one that has what is probably Kishore’s last playback for Rajesh Khanna (who has a cameo in the film), aptly titled ‘Mera geet adhoora hai’[20]. It was reported in the media at the time that the director had wanted Amitabh Bachchan in the role. However, the star was not forthcoming and that affected the relationship between the two. Kishore in fact hinted at this in an interview at the time and named Manmohan Desai as the one responsible for the rift between him and the star whose voice he was.

Then there is the music of course. A standout album, this has some of Kishore’s most lovingly crafted songs. He himself sings two gems while Amit Kumar has four numbers which count among his best, including ‘Main ik panchhi matwala re[21](which he had earlier rendered in Door Ka Rahi) and the life-affirming ‘Beeti jaaye[22](the mukhda[23] of which harks back to the antara[24] of one of his hits from Jhumroo, ‘Ge ge ge geli jara Timbuktoo’[25]. The composer in Kishore Kumar could not have asked for a better album to bid adieu.

The Call of the Distant Horizon

There are certain aspects that one finds in common across these films. An old man looking back on life. A loner as the protagonist – a man with a love for the road as well as the road less taken. A man with a unique philosophy of life. Time and again in these films you have the protagonist articulating that he does not know who he is, nor where he comes from or is bound for. As the character in Door Ka Rahi says – door ko apne qareeb bula leta hoon aur khud ko apne se door kar leta hoon (I embrace that which is faraway while I distance myself from me). There’s a lingering sense of the fleeting nature of life, a longing for a lost past. These lines from the film that Kishore hums hold true for almost all the protagonists across these films:

Mujhe kho jaane do duniya ki nigahon se parey

Jahan na dhoond sakey koi nazar mera nishaan

Koi awaaz na pahunche, koi aansoo na bahey

Kisi tinke, kisi zarre ko na ho mera ghuman

Meri laash par rakhde kudrat hi ek safed kafan

Rooh ko meri nazaron mein hi kho jaane do

Dastaan meri hawaon ko hi dohrane do[26]

There’s an affinity for birds and the freedom they epitomize, for animals roaming in the wilderness, and for people at the margins, for example, the madman who befriends Ramu in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. And a genuine feel for harmony. It says something that the protagonist in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a Muslim (the climax has a beautifully understated sequence where Aslam offers namaz while the police officer waits to arrest him) while Christians are pivotal characters in two of these films.

None of these films is set in a city. The cinematography (Aloke Dasgupta in the first two and Nando Bhattacharya in the rest) captures the everyday sight and sound of the countryside. There’s a song in a bullock cart in each of these films (barring Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin) which articulate a philosophy of life and that of the film – Door Ka Rahi and Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein begin with such a song. There’s a feel for the topography that is very ‘Western’ in its look. Parts of Door Ka Rahi evoke Shane [27]as the man rides from one destination to the next (Shane was probably a favourite of the singer as his unfinished film Neela Aasmaan[28]has a song, ‘Akela hoon main is jahan mein[29]’, inspired by Shane’s theme). Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is of course based on a Western and Kishore invokes the look of the original at many places. Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin stands out for some breath-taking shots of the barren snowy terrain against which the drama plays out.

These film of Kishore Kumar may not have been great commercial successes. And his craft as a filmmaker may not secure him a rank among the best. There is however no denying his desire to go out on a limb and give us films that leave you with something to reflect on. He was seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the films wouldn’t run. As he told Pritish Nandy, “I tell my distributors to avoid my films. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most … Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made.”

And yet he made them. Why? “Because,” as he said, “the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say.”

On the evidence of these films, despite their flaws, the spirit behind them has the power to move the viewer too.

Book Review of The Ultimate Biography

Given the range of his contribution and the eccentricities that defined his personal life, a biography of Kishore Kumar that adequately covers his life and times is a tall ask. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Parthiv Dhar’s exhaustive biography of the legend, audaciously titled The Ultimate Biography, pulls it off – well, almost.

For one, it is a pleasure to come across a biography of a legend like Kishore Kumar that does not seem like an armchair hack job (refer to, say, Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor, Yaseer Usman’s on Guru Dutt, Rajeev Vijaykar’s atrocious ones on Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Dharmendra and the many banalities that go for biographies these days). At close to 600 pages, this one is a painstakingly researched tome. And it does not even talk about his repertoire as a singer in that great a detail. As co-author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells me, “If I were to make a selection of even a hundred of his songs – an impossible task – and talk about them, this book would have gone beyond 2000 pages.”

Despite that, what the book covers by way of the trajectory of Kishore’s life is commendable. The authors have gone to great lengths to get first-person accounts, supplementing that with a great eye for trivia and other obscure facts. They incorporate all of this in bite-sized chapters, most of them three to four pages long, so that the reading never gets tedious. It also gives the book that essential quality in an era of short attention spans: you can open to any page and start reading. Though it does come at the cost of a detailed analysis of any one aspect.

And it is a delight to have such detailed indexes – a general one and a song index – in a book. Most publishers have abandoned the index to cut costs.

If I say the authors ‘almost’ pull it off, it is because the language leaves something to be desired. It could have done with a more rigorous copy-edit. The book gets off to an unfortunate start with the preface whose first paragraph had me scratching my head. And the inelegancies continue to haunt the careful, close reader off and on, with erroneous words, wrong sentence construction, often the syntax at odds. The authors seem to get carried away with the information they have to share, and some passages are a trifle overblown.

One would also have loved to see the authors playing it a little less safe, assessing Kishore Kumar vis-à-vis his contemporaries, or providing a more comprehensive reading of his directorial ventures. Or for that matter talking of what accounts for his popularity in the years after his death. During my growing years, I distinctly remember reading about him being dismissed offhand – Naushad’s comments are part of cinematic folklore (he in fact left the jury when it was decided to honour Kishore with the Tansen Samman). I grew up with people who swore by Rafi and Manna Dey, Naushad and Madan Mohan. And Kishore, despite his popularity, was someone who always came off second best in these conversations. Something shifted in the last thirty years. It would have been fascinating to understand what did. In response to my question on this, Parthiv Dhar says, “Nothing changed. Naushad was an aberration.” He goes on to mention the crowds at Kishore’s funeral. Which is not the issue here. Something in the way we consume music has led to a Kishore and RD [30] fandom like it probably never existed during their lifetimes. Why is it that with the opening of the airwaves, so to say, Kishore and RD have ruled almost all channels broadcasting music? None of their contemporaries – not Rafi, not Laxmikant-Pyarelal, definitely not Naushad or Mukesh – have enjoyed the kind of revival they have. 

The authors do not leave anything out – but the text often tends to become a chronological litany of facts. Fascinating, no doubt. And invaluable. But I could never shrug off the feeling that a book that has so much history and offers such delights, with authors who know the subject so well and don’t stint on research, should have been a little more.

Interview

Tell us something about the process of writing the book. Given that all the dramatis personae are long gone, how difficult was it to put information together.

Parthiv Dhar: Anirudha-da and I go a long way. In fact, around 2004-05, we started a campaign for the Bharat Ratna for Kishore Kumar, and did quite a fair bit of work. Probably it was at that time that writing a book on Kishore Kumar crossed our minds. I remember, we were clueless on the structure of the book owing to the multidimensional persona that Kishore was. My visit to Khandwa in 2010 and Anirudha-da’s book on R.D. Burman (with Balaji Vittal) winning the national award provided the much-needed impetus. Graduating to Kishore was a natural progression.

The visit to Khandwa made me realise that it would be a crime not to write a book on him, given the paucity of knowledge. Kishore himself did not help matters much by being extremely economical with the press. The Khandwa and Indore visits brought me close to his friends and their families, his caretaker at the Ganguly House, his college professors who went out of their way in sharing with us breath-taking anecdotes and documents. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Khandwa. Apart from that we had a fantastic time at Bhagalpur, interacting with his relatives like Ratna-di, daughter of his cousin Arun Kumar, getting a treasure trove of unknown events related to his maternal side. Meeting his secretary Abdul was also a high point in the making of the book.

The decision to structure the narrative by ragas and their times: dawn, afternoon, evening. You slot Aradhana[31] in the evening. I found that interesting.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The structure with ragas developed organically given the enormous amount of material we had. The first draft was over a 1000 pages long. Giving it the structure enabled us to get clarity. As for Aradhana appearing under an evening raga … Madhubala passed away in 1969. That was probably a setback. His mother too passed away after a year. Kishore’s tenure as a hero had almost come to an end. He was forty. If we go back in time, K.L. Saigal passed away at the age of forty-two. Critics were urging Lata to stop singing in the late 1960s. She withdrew from the Filmfare awards after 1969. Hence, we equated the time with the evening of their lives. And extrapolated it to Kishore Kumar’s as well. Kishore had great strength of character and turned the tide … but that’s another story.

Would you say that Kishore was the one true maverick genius of Hindi cinema, maybe even Indian cinema? The only other person who comes to mind is Satyajit Ray.

Parthiv Dhar: Kishore Kumar was a phenomenon, the likes of whom you rarely encounter. He was perhaps the only person in showbiz whose reel and real lives were mirror images of each other. Precisely why there was no reason for him to ‘act’. You never knew whether he was acting on screen or being his own self. That held true even for his real life. His ratio of hits to total songs composed must be one of the highest in the world. He tried everything that the camera and the studios offered but unfortunately there were occupational hazards that clipped his wings. Had some of his unreleased songs and movies seen the light of day, he would have been unassailable. That he did all these only by pure observations and without any formal training made him a genius. As Rama Varma told us in a chat, he had the ability to identify shortcomings in a particular guitar string in the midst of a session without even looking at the guitar or the guitarist. Genius would be too small a word for him. However, we have not assumed much in the book and left the readers to judge for themselves.

What in your view is his greatest contribution to the art of playback singing in India? The one thing that sets him apart from all the rest.

Parthiv Dhar: Definitely the fact that he made singing appear so easy that emulation became an everyday affair. The clones would, of course, realise that the songs were after all not everybody’s cup of tea. But everyone would attempt a Kishore song. The very fact that he was an actor made him think like one when he would playback. Also, he was perhaps the only one to develop his texture and baritone with infrastructural progress each decade after independence. This led to him being probably the only one to realize that tragic songs need to make the audience cry, not the singer.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: All our male singers except Bhupinder and too some extent Yesudas have been tenors. Maybe the timber has varied, but they are tenors, nevertheless. In my opinion, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Mullick were tenors who had a unique quality in their voice: ‘dhaar’ and ‘bhaar’ (sharpness and weight). This they used to great advantage. For other singers, it was a case of either/or. Hence, Kishore could playback for Dev Anand using his ‘dhaar’ (Hum hain rahi pyaar ke[32]), complement it with some ‘bhaar’ and ‘mizaaz[33]’ when he sang for Rajesh Khanna (Kuch toh log kahenge[34]), and use his ‘bhaar’ when he sang for Amitabh Bachchan (O saathi re[35]). He also had a strong swarranth[36], which gave the songs resonance. Plus, his flux density was unique. Even with such a heavy voice, it would remain steady when negotiating long notes, something very difficult to achieve. I know from experience as I sing.

He sang Saigal’s ‘Dil jalta hai[37]in reverse, set the Malthusian theory to tune, introduced scatting, yodelling, nonsense/gibberish words (bam chik chik) to music in India … where would you place these innovations in his output? Do you think his comic genius came in the way of him being taken seriously as a singer for the longest time?

Parthiv Dhar: He was born to innovate, and his childhood is testimony to that. Lateral thinking and he went hand in hand. Domesticating jackals, singing in reverse, giving nicknames to almost every friend, composer … the list is endless. How he handled the goof-up in Baap re Baap [38]is a terrific example of his innovation. Similarly, making a wardrobe malfunction in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi the reason for executing anything and everything as a director’s prerogative could be another.

However, it is probably not true that his comic persona had anything to do with his singing. He started his career with several serious songs while simultaneously making people laugh in his movies. He gained recognition as a serious actor courtesy his roles in Bandi[39] and Naukri and was known as a sufficiently good actor. He sang for all the top music directors till as late as 1958. That he had a long gap after that could be attributed to his preoccupation with Madhubala’s health.

Let’s talk about him as an actor … would you agree that as a comic he had no parallels in India? It is only because comedy is not regarded as a genuine art form in India that there has been little recognition of him as an actor.

Parthiv Dhar: A very difficult question and not proper to say that he had no parallels. It should not be forgotten that he was a hero in almost 99 per cent of his films, a fact renowned actors would be proud of. While reviewing Bandi, critics had placed him above his more famous brother (in those days). As mentioned earlier, he did not enact comedy, it was in his DNA although by nature he was an equally serious person. His comedy was a mix of slapstick, mimicry, antics. Very few would enact comic role as a hero for the entire length of time without appearing stale. Kishore Kumar had that quality.

Where would you rank him as a filmmaker? Do you think he tended to overcompensate for his madcap image with his own films which were ‘serious’? Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a rather daring experimentation, even if the execution is amateurish. Even Ray commended its sound design. Your comments.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: As a filmmaker, he was a lateral thinker. He tried unique subjects. But the issue is that he got entangled in too many activities at the same time and could never devote himself properly to making films. Had he concentrated only on filmmaking, he might have made some great films. Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin could have been classics.

You devote an entire chapter to Laxmikant Pyarelal. His songs with LP are not spoken of as much. You correct that, though you focus on their early collaborations…

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: We focused on Mr X in Bombay[40], Sreemaan Funtoosh [41]and Hum Sab Ustaad Hain[42] primarily because these films gave him the dimension of a singer first and a hero later. Till then Kishore was viewed as an actor who also used to sing. People forgot Mr X in Bombay (it was a bad film) but remembered ‘Mere mehboob qayamat hogi[43]. Ditto for Sreemaan Funtoosh and Hum Sab Ustaad hain. Most did not even see these films. But ‘Yeh dard bhara afsana[44]’ and ‘Ajnabee tum jaane pehchane se lagte ho[45] became classics. So, on one side, Kishore emerged as a singer, while the actor gradually faded into the background. LP had a key role in this transformation.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).


[1] 1958 movie produced by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[2] 1974 movie directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[3] In the Distant Valleys, 1980 film directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[4] The Distant Wayfarer, 1971 film

[5] Under the Shelter of the Sky

[6] Such a Large World

[7] Is there Love in Stormy Weather

[8] Traveler, 1957 film where Kishore Kumar played the lead

[9] Song of the Little Road, 1955 Satyajit Ray film

[10] The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray film 1959

[11] Someone return my… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[12]  Where nights do not have a dawn… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[13] 1964 film

[14] The Distant Traveler, 1971 film written, directed by Kishore Kumar who acted in the lead role.

[15] 1984 book with a title based on the Upanishads

[16] Let’s go on… lyrics of a song

[17] Prayers calls of the Muezzin

[18] In the Shadow of a Mother’s Love

[19] We, Two Bandits

[20] My song is half sung

[21] I am an intoxicated bird

[22] Past goes

[23] Middle of the song

[24] Start of the song

[25] Those who go to Timbuktoo

[26] Translation of the lines:

Let me loose myself from the sight of the world
Where no one can find me:
No voices reach me, no tears be shed for me, 
No straw, no inklings trace my thoughts.
Drape my body in a white shroud.
Even spirits should lose sight of me --
My being should only waft in the breeze…

[27] 1953 American film

[28] Blue Skies, 1961 film

[29] ‘I am alone in this world’

[30] RD Burman (1939-1994), Indian music director who composed film scores for more than 300 movies.

[31] Worship, a 1969 film

[32] ‘We are wayfarers of love’

[33] Mood of the song

[34] People will say somethings…

[35] O Companions…

[36] Ending of the song

[37] ‘The heart burns’ sung by legenedary singer KL Saigal(1904-1947)

[38] My God!, 1955 film starring Kishore Kumar

[39] Slave, 1957 film starring Kishore Kumar

[40] 1964 film starring Kishore Kumar

[41] Mr Funtoosh, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[42] We are all Experts, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[43] ‘My Sweetheart will be a astounding’

[44] ‘This moment filled with pain’

[45] ‘Stranger you look familiar’

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

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Categories
Interview

Modern-day Marco Polo

Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons.

Chris Winnan in Shangri La. Photo courtesy: Chris Winnan

Christopher Winnan is a man of many hats. He has travelled widely throughout Asia, seeking out the latest breakthroughs and emerging technologies; with an uncanny ability to pick and forecast trends. As a travel writer and location scout, he’s explored off-the-beaten-track places; contributing to National Geographic and Frommers. When not consulting or publishing about Asia’s newest frontiers, he has an on-going fascination with past exploration, from the karst landscapes of south China’s opium trails to the ancient tea-horse trading routes across the Tibetan borderlands and eastern Himalayas. He writes on a wide range of subjects, both non-fiction and fiction, transporting guests to worlds old and new. Keith Lyons introduces us to the multi-faceted persona of Christopher Winnan, his past, present and future…

Tell us about growing up in the UK. When did you first get into writing?

The first paid writing gigs that I had in the UK were for top shelf men’s magazines, titles like Mayfair, Knave and Men Only. I was still too young to write the Readers Wives’ Real Stories, and so instead, I would pitch them bizarre subjects that they used as factual fillers. One I remember doing was a deep dive on the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane, and another was about the Sultan’s harem in Constantinople. I used to find obscure books at the library on strange subjects and then compress them into articles.  I may not have been Pulitzer Prize work, but the pay was good, and the work was steady.

Before you moved to Asia, what things did you do?

In the UK, I worked as a manager in a pet food warehouse, and I was one of the first casualties in the steady move to logistics automation.  Just about everybody I worked with has since been replaced by AI and robots. I was not all that cut up because I had been working almost every hour that God sent, and the great boss that had originally hired me had since moved on a replaced by someone I could not get along with.  I was happy to go, just to get away from him. Fortunately, I got a nice redundancy settlement, and decided to spend it on one of those round-the-world air tickets.  I always thought that I would be back in twelve months and find another job. I would not have believed that I was never going back.

What first brought you to visit Asia, and where did you go? What was your first impression?

I heard about a big military parade in Seoul, and so I decided to make that my first stop. I was only planning to stay a couple of days before moving onto Tokyo, but an Australian at my guesthouse persuaded me to go for an interview at a local English school. I had never done a days’ teaching in my life, but they did not seem to care, and I was hired on the spot. I started work two days later. The school was a massive Hagwon[1], a cram school right in the middle of downtown. There were at least 300 foreign teachers, and about two-thirds of us were illegals, working on three-month tourist visas.  Back in those days, the authorities did not care. South Korea was an Asian Tiger economy and everybody and their dog wanted to learn English. The Korean won was really strong against the dollar, and so we were all making bank. We would do three months on and three months off. During the down time, we would go off and explore other parts of Asia, and party like animals. Then we would come back and work like dogs for three months.  I can remember that it was not long that I knew all the textbooks by heart and was teaching 14 contact hours a day, starting at 6am and finishing at 10pm. I had taught just about every class at least a dozen time so my prep time was minimal, and honestly, I loved every minute of it.  The entire country was on a massive growth streak, and everybody had high hopes for the future. It was an amazing time. Eventually, I started dating one of the Korean teachers at my school. Unfortunately, she was not an ordinary local. He father had been an ambassador, she had studied at Oxford, and Papa was now the mayor in Korea’s second largest city. When he found out that his precious daughter was with a dirty foreigner, he hit the roof. The following Monday six immigration officers turned up at the office of my Director of Studies. They were all wearing long black trench coats and dark glasses and looked like the Gestapo.

“Tell us which classroom Chris Winnan is in. If you do not tell us we will arrest every teacher you have and close down the entire school.” Clearly, he did not have a lot of choice.  I spent a couple of nights in an out-of-town jail and was then on a plane back to the UK.  I was not too cut up about it, because at the time, Kim Il-sung[2] in North Korea, was jumping up and down threatening to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire”. A lot of the other teachers were desperate to leave but could not get out of their contracts.  Anyway, it had been a good run. I had only planned to be in Seoul for three days, but I ended up staying for nearly three years. 

And China, what was your first encounter like, and what made you decide to live and work there?

Like I said, we were doing three months on and three months off in Seoul, which gave us plenty of chance to explore the rest of Asia. Some places were just starting to open-up in those days. We went wreck diving in the largest WWII warship graveyard in the Philippines and ancient coin hunting in Cambodia. Cambodia, for example, was still a scary place in those days. The Khmer Rouge had only recently been ousted from power, and there were still UN peacekeepers everywhere.  The markets were full of weapons, and much of the country was still off limits. We went down to Sihanoukville because we heard about an intrepid Frenchman was setting up the country’s first dive centre down there. When we went back three months later, he had been murdered by Khmer Rouge militants.  We took the once-a-week train back to Phnom Penh and then just a week later, Khmer Rouge bandits kidnapped a dozen westerners and twenty odd locals off the very same train.  Every one of them was executed and ended up in a shallow cave.  That was a very close shave.  If we had been travelling just one week later, we too would have been on this train, and I would not be talking to you now. Unsurprisingly, there were not a lot of other travellers at the time. Back in the capital, we met a Swiss who was smuggling looted artefacts out of places like Angkor back to Europe. Then there was the young Belgium kid who was trying to buy authentic Khmer Rouge uniforms. He was heading off to Battambang, which was the militants last remaining stronghold. We never saw or heard from him again.  

It was dangerous but incredibly cheap. We met an American who had rented a massive nine-bedroom villa out of town for just a hundred dollars a month. It turned out he was a bit of an idiot though. He was petrified of being abducted and so he went to the Russian market and bought a load of land mines. He buried them all around the perimeter of his place, and then that night the monsoons rains came, and washed them all away.

When I was deported from Korea, I was still quite flush with cash and I had really enjoyed my teaching experience, so I decided to do a year-long intensive TEFL[3] course back at university in the UK. The course itself was a waste of time, far too academic to be of any real practical use in the real world, but I was one of the only native speakers, on the course so I had a wonderful time partying with teachers in training from all over the world. Even in those days, the universities were corporate money-making machines. My course had about thirty students and nearly all of them were non-EU residents, which meant that they were paying around four or five times as much we UK residents. 

This was long before the influx of mainland Chinese students, but there were at least half a dozen Koreans and Japanese in my class. They could barely speak a word of English between them, but the professors were instructed to give them every possible assistance, in order that they would come back and sign on for even more lucrative Masters and PhD courses. The faculty would bend over backwards to help them and practically wrote their essays for them, while we English students were generally ignored.  I can only imagine that universities are far, far worse now that they are full of rich tuhao[4] Mainlanders. At my university, there were only two Mainlanders in the whole place out of about 6,000 students in total, and they both looked as though they had stepped right out of the Cultural Revolution.  They were more like a pair of North Koreans than the Chinese students you see today.

Their English was excellent, but they both wore Mao caps, and they talked as if they had come out of a time warp. They wanted to exchange stamps and discuss Marxism, while everybody else wanted to go down to the student union and get drunk.  They must have had a tough time of it.  Talking to them I realised that mainland China was about the only place in Asia I had not yet visited and so once I finished my course, that was where I decided to go.

What was China like when you first went, and how has it changed?

I initially went to Shanghai and worked at the very first English First language school.  I soon saw what cowboys they were at that company, but fortunately, there was an abundance of work in Shanghai at the time, so I quickly jumped ship and went to work as a ‘Training Manager’ at a local five-star hotel. There were only a handful[5] of luxury foreign hotels in Shanghai, and so I was really lucky to have landed such a plum job. I got my own room and ate like a king at the restaurants along with the other executives.  My hours were few, especially when compared to that of the interns who had come out from the UK and who had to share rooms and eat in the staff canteen.

Shanghai in those days felt much like it must have done in the twenties nearly a century earlier. In the clubs that we went to at the weekend, famous MTV VJs and Cantopop stars from Hong Kong would fly in to party. There were so few foreigners at that time, that we still had a kind of rock star status, which I fully took advantage of. I ended up dating the Prima Ballerina from the Shanghai Ballet, which gave me all kinds of incredible introductions to the local movers and shakers.  For a year or so, I felt like I was living a charmed life.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Shanghai was growing so fast that scores of new five-star hotels were being built.  The one where I worked was one of the first, and therefore one of the oldest.  Occupancy rates dropped as other more exciting options came online. They had to make cuts and having a full time English teacher on the management roster seemed to be rather extravagant and so I was one of the first to be let go.

I decided to take a job in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Foreign Language University. I went for that option because I had heard that university jobs were becoming more prestigious, even if they were not as well paid.  The salary back then was 1,100 RMB per month which was about US$100. Fortunately, I had been earning ten times that at the hotel, and as it was full board, I had been able to save most of it.   

I can still remember the staff of the foreign affairs office picking me up at the Railway Station and how we drove though the downtown of Guangzhou. We passed a couple of big five-star hotels, and I immediately felt more comfortable, thinking that this will not be so bad after all.  We then continued to drive for another hour, and I found out to my dismay, that I was going to be working out in a secondary campus way out in the sticks. 

The teacher apartments had definitely seen better days and the student canteen was like something out of the Cultural Revolution. This time, I was in for a major culture shock. Fortunately, the students were all very keen and enthusiastic.  They were mainly from poor second and third tier cities out in the hinterland. Most of them had been delighted to be accepted into this particular big city university, but like me, hit the ground with a bump when they realised that were going to be at an out of town, secondary campus.

Immediately, corruption reared its ugly head.  The waiban (the foreign affairs office) had a nice little earner going where they would hire out their teachers to the local joint ventures at the weekend for inordinate corporate rates. I was immediately placed at Coca Cola in a nearby industrial city.  The money was good, but it was two hours travel either way and really ate into my weekend.

The other big problem that I was one of only two qualified teachers.  All the other foreigners were undercover Christian missionaries from some American church organisation, who actually paid the University to hire them.  Most of them were far more interested in preaching than teaching.

After a couple of months of extreme boredom, stuck out in the middle of the Chinese countryside, I started to take the long bus trip downtown to explore Guangzhou.  The city itself was amazing and far more interesting than Shanghai, as it really was the Workshop of the World in those days. It was filled with every kind of wholesale market you could imagine.  If it was a ‘Made-in-China’ product that ended in the west, it was guaranteed that it had gone through the markets in Guangzhou first. And they were huge sprawling places, as big as any shopping mall back home, and each one focussed on just one range of products.  There were vast buildings filled with suppliers of tools, toys, Tupperware and textiles.  Every time I ventured downtown, I would visit a new one and it would usually take me the whole day to explore the entire place.

I remember the day I first went to the Toy Market.  There was a peasant woman outside with a bunch of plastic Star Trek figures on a piece of battered plastic tarp.  Upon closer inspection, I found that they were all stamped with serial numbers on the feet, and most of them were very low numbers indeed. There was a 0001 Captain Picard, a 0002 Commander Riker and a 0003 Mr Data. I quickly realised that these were probably the factory prototypes, the original production batch that had gone up to marketing for displays and presentations before the main quantity was shipped out. I made her an offer and bough the lot, some thirty or forty figures. This was in the days before Ebay, so I went on a few early Star Trek collectors’ forums and told them what I had found and offered them for sale. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling them where I had found these, and everybody immediately accused that the figurines were fakes.  China’s reputation was terrible even in those days. I could not give them away, let alone sell them, and so I sent them back to a friend in the UK as a gift.  I hear that many of them are now worth hundreds of dollars apiece. This experience got me very interested in export opportunities, and from then on, I bolstered my measly teaching income by buying all kinds of oddities that I would stumble across in my travels and sell them overseas.  One day I found the factory who made all the patches and insignia for the FBI and the Secret Service.  For many years, I exported vast quantities to collectors in the US.  I was buying them for pennies and selling them at high prices on eBay, with the help of a couple of partners in the US.

How was your experience in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai?

Guangzhou was an interesting place to be in the early days.  It really felt as though I had been taken back in a time machine.  In the decade before the handover, Hong Kong was at its most exciting and vibrant, and crossing the border back into the mainland after a visa run was like suddenly going back fifty years. Bicycles ruled the road, there was no such thing as the internet and there was not even any English language TV. I might as well have been on another planet. Guangzhou was the first city to open up to western business interests, and this had also been the case in the past, and so the people that were drawn there were curious about all things western and what was going on in the largely unknown outside world. The city had been hosting the world’s largest international Trade Fair for more than fifty years, and so twice a year I was able to make friends with intrepid entrepreneurs from the remotest corners of the earth. I remember developing a passion for Yemeni cuisine, partying with Senegalese ambassador and exploring the factory slums with a group of businessmen from Madagascar.

Living conditions were most definitely in the hardship category, but the opportunities were immense.  I left the university and went to work for an American corporate training company right in the heart of downtown, and fully immersed myself in what was, at the time, the most exciting city on earth.  I had always felt myself to be somewhat of an ugly duckling, but here I quickly transformed into a tall, handsome swan. While I was coaching the eager new managers at the world’s biggest multi-nationals, I had a nice little sideline in modelling gigs. One year, I played the role of visiting businessman in an advertisement for the first state-owned five-star hotel in the city, and suddenly, my face was on TV all over Guangdong and Hong Kong, twenty times a night. I could not walk down the street without people recognising me and wanting to talk to me.

It was ironic that I was so popular downtown because my name was mud back at the University that I had just left. I was talking to some of my old students, and they told me that one of the missionary teachers had been caught in bed with one of the students. Rather than fire and deport the missionary, they expelled the student. They then announced at a student assembly that it was me that had been caught en-flagrante, and that I had been fired for this indiscretion. This was of course a lie, but I was no longer there to defend myself, and it also meant that they got to keep a missionary teacher that they did not have to pay.

I later landed a short-term six-month contract at the brand new computing campus of BeiDa, Beijing’s most prestigious university, and I hated just about every minute of it. I had been looking forward to working with the crème de la crème of Chinese education, but the students turned out to be robotic study machines, superb exam takers, many with photographic memories, but barely a shred of imagination between the lot of them. Nobody ever asked any pointed questions, contradicted what I said or suggested interesting alternatives. All that they were capable of was rote-memorisation and mindless regurgitation of the textbook.

Obviously, any discussion of current affairs, geo-politics and domestic issues was completely off the table. Here I was, with what was supposed to be a few thousand of the brightest young minds in China, and not one of them wanted to discuss anything of consequence. To make things worse the climate was appalling, the freezing temperatures made worse by industrial smog that was so thick that you could cut it with a knife and spread on your toast for breakfast. I did a little bit of sightseeing on my days off, but everywhere had been so thoroughly transformed with revisionist propaganda that I soon gave up. Even the food was appalling. Chinese cuisine is disappointing at the best of times, especially if you have spent any length of time in any other Southeast Asian countries but coming directly from Guangzhou where Cantonese really bucks the national trend, being in Beijing was like being on prison rations.  After six months, I was going crazy and incredibly relieved to leave.

What has it been like to be in China at its peak in terms of energy, growth, dynamism?

I am not really sure I saw China at its peak, not by a long shot. You have to remember that China was way ahead of the rest of the world back in the days of Confucius and then again back in the Tang and Ming Dynasties. When I was there in the nineties, China was still reeling from a series of the worst man-made disasters that the world has ever seen, including the Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution. It was not surprising the Deng Xiaoping era was a period of rapid growth. They were after all starting from almost nothing and just about every other country on the planet was years ahead of them.  People talk about the Chinese economic miracle, but in hindsight, which other way could it have gone? They were already at rock bottom in terms of economy and technology. From there the only way was up.

I was very lucky that I was living there as a foreigner with all the advantages that entailed, but it was still pretty unpleasant to be a Chinese citizen, especially a female. For ordinary Chinese people, life was not much better than it is in Iran, Russia or even North Korea.  It was slightly better for a few years after Deng’s reforms, up until, say the Beijing Olympics, but it was not some Golden age of equality and mass prosperity.

As foreigners, we were somewhat isolated from the most unpleasant aspects.  In fact, many existed entirely inside an expat bubble of privilege and protection, not even wanting to know what was going on in the real China.  As an explorer, I saw with my own eyes what life was like in the mega-city slums, or back in the quasi-medieval villages of the hinterlands, and it was really grim. I can only imagine what it is like now, with the mass lock downs and large-scale crackdowns.

Most of the expats I knew enjoyed the exoticness of their existences, but it is not like we lived like the British colonials of the Raj. Yes, occasionally you met the kind of expat businessman who live in a gated villa and threw away a thousand dollars a night on karaoke whores, but most of us were teachers who lived in regular apartments and shopped at local wet markets. The fact was that life in China was so unpleasant that the really rich folks simply did not want to go there. I can remember briefly doing some consulting work for the heir to the VW[6] fortune, who was planning to invest millions, if not billions in green technology and environmentalism. Once he arrived, he found that he hated the place so much that he immediately flew back to Tokyo permanently and handed off all responsibility to his subordinates. Once his initial enthusiasm disappeared, so did the funds and the whole thing came to nothing.

I can also remember meeting an eighty-year-old who was backpacking his way around Yunnan, staying in hostels and guesthouses with youngsters that were around a quarter of his age. It turns out that he had been stationed in Shanghai as a Marine, just after the war when he was still in his twenties. For me, that would have been a much more interesting period to experience China, or maybe even earlier, in the days of Chiang Kai Skek and the gangsters that ruled the city.  

How did you get into researching and writing travel articles and guidebooks?

I was on a visa run in Hong Kong, browsing through the China travel books in a bookstores in Tsim Sha Tsui.  I was quite proud of the growing body of knowledge that I was slowly accumulating on the growing megalopolis of Guangzhou, and I wanted to see what the existing guidebooks said about the place.

I was very disappointed when I saw that the writer for Frommer’s claimed the entire city was a complete waste of time. He talked about a few lacklustre tourist sites, but this was completely unfair as Guangzhou was never a tourist city. It was an international business hub. He practically ignored all the wholesale markets, and the vibrant restaurant culture. I was very disappointed and wrote to the publisher telling them so, and that Guangzhou deserved much better. They agreed and asked me if I would contribute to their forthcoming edition, and could I cover another eight provinces at the same time. 

When did you venture into Southwest China and how did it contrast with other parts of coastal city China?

It was when I got that first commission that I really started venturing into the Hinterlands. Obviously, I was required to cover all the coastal cities, but honestly, most of them were just provincial versions of Guangzhou filled with pop up factories and very little else. Huizhou Hangzhou, Fuzhou, Wenzhou and every other bloody Zhou were almost all identical. A few fake temples to replace everything that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but otherwise all pretty similar and boring.  I was glad to get out into the sticks and explore the mountains and the countryside.  Of course, this also had its downsides. 

The second time I worked for Frommers’, I recommended a guy that I had met on the road who had been working for Rough Guides. They gave him Shanghai, Beijing and Xinjiang, all the places that I did not want and so it worked out really well. I had just had a meeting in Shenzhen with the new Director of PR for Shangri La hotels, who had been incredibly gracious and offered to comp me at any of her properties all over the country. I was grateful, but back in those days there were only about two Shangri Las in all the provinces that I was covering, so it was not really a big deal. Anyway, I told my friend Simon from Rough Guides to get in touch with her, and she quickly offered him the same deal.  There were so many Shangri Las in his patch that over the next twelve months he enjoyed more than 200 free room nights completely at her expense. She was so happy with all the free coverage that he gave the brand, that she put him and his entire family up for a two-week, all-expenses-paid vacation at the company’s flagship hotel in Hong Kong. All meals included, unlimited bar tab, limo, everything. It must have been the holiday of a lifetime. As for me, I can remember turning up at the Shangri La in Beihia, and it was a worn-out shell of a state-owned enterprise dump that had yet to be renovated. I took one look at the place and decided to pay for a guest house in town out of my own pocket instead.

Exploring an old town in China. Photo Courtesy: Chris Winnan

Whats your fascination with things like the ancient tea-horse routes or opium trails?

I was very lucky working for Frommers’, as the editor encouraged me to explore and find new places. She gave me a freedom that most other guidebook writers did not enjoy.  If you work for Lonely Planet, you have to cover the three must see sites, the three most popular eateries and three of the most well-known hotels. They cover so much that there simply is not room for anything else.

With Frommers, I had much more autonomy. For example, the first edition that I did they asked me to go and cover the up-and-coming destination of Hainan. It was so disappointing that I told them if they insisted that I go back, I would not be doing another edition for them. Fortunately, they agreed.

I was fascinated by the real history of China, not the propaganda that the official guides had to memorise in tourism school. I knew that there were stories that were being suppressed, fascinating takes of history and adventure that deserved to be told. The Opium Trails was a great example. For hundreds of years opium has been the main cash crop in Southern China, and much of the North too. Not only was in popular domestically as a recreational drug, but it was also exported to feed the habits of all the coolies that worked in the Chinese enclaves that existed all over Southeast Asia and beyond. So much of it was grown by the greedy landlords that it often led to regional famines and conflict. When the Communists took over, they changed the names of most cities, but if you start looking at the old records, you soon see that opium was the key commodity of the domestic economy.  In Kunming alone, there were more than 120 opium distilleries.

How do you feel as a guidebook writer knowing later others will use your expertise to make it easier, but also that it might change a place?

Nowhere stays the same forever. Brigadoon is not real. Everywhere changes, whether I write about or not. In fact, it would be incredibly arrogant of me to assume that I can do anything alter the vector of a specific location. I agree that tourism can cause irreparable damage to pristine environments, but that is a problem that is caused by the many flaws of capitalism, not by me writing about it. To be honest, most of the very best places that I ever discovered are still relatively unknown even by the most adventurous travellers. For a while I did consider keeping them a secret, but I soon realised that was completely pointless. The real damage is caused by mass tourism, not by a few adventurous backpackers trying to get off the beaten path. From what I have seen, even the most remote locations were pillaged and plundered long before I was even born. Occasionally, I would find a remnant of what existed before, but it is usually just a brief glimpse of what was there previously.

How have you managed to stay at the cutting edge of ideas, new places, trends etc?

I love to read old guidebooks that have long been out of print. One time, I found an eighties paperback that had been compiled by a couple of overseas language students who wanted to explore the provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou during their summer vacation.  Much of what they had written was tips on how to avoid the local authorities and visit places that were usually off limits to foreigners.  Back in those days, nearly everywhere was forbidden and those two guys seemed to have spent half their holiday being escorted onto buses by local policemen who really did not want them to be there. Their explorations were long before the first Lonely Planet, and so their guidebook was filled with places that I never heard of before. This is the main problem with guidebooks. They establish well-travelled routes, which then receive so much traffic that everywhere else is usually ignored, even if the places recommended in the book have gone so far downhill that they are hardly worth considering any more.

I was always on the lookout for new places that I had never heard of. Whenever I arrived in a new town, the first place that I would check out was the local Xinhua bookstore. In the days before mobile phone and even owning a GPS device was completely illegal and likely to get you arrested as a spy, locally printed maps were always a treasure trove of information. Libraries are few and far between in rural China, but everywhere has a state-owned bookstore that disseminates all the government propaganda and school textbooks.

Sometimes I would really on local expertise. I remember one time I was travelling through Yunnan with a really glamorous Shanghai socialite. I think that she was slumming it with me, probably to enrage her parents. While we were in Kunming, she insisted on visiting one of the most expensive hairdressers in town for a suitably elegant coiffure. I asked her to quiz the head stylist on the trendiest new restaurants in town, and he gave us some amazing leads. One of the best was an amazingly innovative new place that had set up shop in what was previously a retail outlet for the local, state-owned Chinese medicine factory. It was full-on oriental apothecary in style, wall-to-wall with all those tiny wooden drawers that they used to store all the herbs and tinctures inside. The menu was a bamboo pot full of temple shaker sticks, the kind that are used by Chinese fortune tellers. You shake the sticks and depending on what falls out they tell you your future. In this case, we shook the sticks in order to decide what to order. All the food had medicinal ingredients like Lion’s Mane mushroom, gingko nuts and goji berries. It was a unique experience, that I would never have found by myself. Sometimes, insider information is essential.

How glamorous is being a travel writer and how does the reality compare with the perception?

As I explained before with regard to my friend from Rough Guides and all his free comps, it can be extremely glamorous. I imagine that if you are working for the New York Times and writing about the Caribbean, it must be a non-stop life of luxury. If, on the other hand you are out in the back of beyond in rural China, working for an English language guidebook in a place where absolutely zero percent of the population speaks any English, it is more of a challenge. In a place like China, in terms of finding interesting places, you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you ever meet any princes. Unfortunately, I can never be absolutely sure of that fact until I had actually been there and had a good look around for myself.

There again, some of the most spectacular discoveries come from the most uncomfortable conditions. The further you get away from civilisation, the more unspoiled the nature becomes, but the harder the travel becomes. I can remember spending endless hours in a horribly cramped minibus to reach a remote one-donkey mountain village that probably had barely changed in the last five hundred years. The accommodation would have been considered hardship conditions even by Mary and Joseph. There was no heating, the bed was carved into the bare rock and the toilet was a couple of planks over the adjoining pig sty. Despite all of this, the terrain was some of the most spectacular karst that I have ever seen, ancient stone staircases cut directly into the side of the mountains surrounded by vistas straight out of a Tolkien epic poem.

Whats the process of writing for you? How do you find topics or get ideas?

I try to keep abreast of interesting new developments by dipping into a wide as range of media as possible. Fortunately, this is easier than ever with the modern internet. I especially like websites that have very active comments sections, where people express a wide range of opinions and add valuable insights to the original article.

It is only when you dig into sites that have very active comments sections that you start to get some contrary opinions and interesting leads to follow up. Reddit is obviously one of the most useful resources, while Youtube videos have by far the most comments.

I recently watched a video about the future of resin 3D printers, and the presenter asked his viewers to share their thoughts on the way that that the industry was heading in the comments. The result was a selection a very knowledgeable individuals offering some very valuable insights that would have been difficult to find anywhere else. Good videos can often have thousands of individual comments and so in that case, I find that it is always good to sort them by the most replies received.  That way you can start with the most active conversations and avoid all the mundane monosyllabic comments.

I recently found an interesting website called Exploding Topics. They have a regular newsletter where they highlight the most searched for trending topics on Google. Most of them are quite obscure but it is still interesting what is going viral before it hits the mainstream.

With subjects that I am especially interested in, I will do a regular Youtube search every month or so and sort the results by date uploaded.  This way I can see all the latest content since I last searched and see for myself what is trending. For example, I regularly search for new 3D printing related videos, and recently discovered that the field of 3D musical instruments is suddenly taking off. Some wind instruments, such as clarinets can be extremely expensive, often requiring rare tropical hardwoods and craftsman engineering for all of the finger controls. Seeing and hearing some of the 3D printed versions showed me that the technology is rapidly catching up, and it probably will not be long before we see the very first entirely 3D printed orchestras. A 3D printed violin might not sound like a Stradivarius, but open-source designs are being improved on all the time and are vastly reducing the cost of entry for any aspiring musicians.

The general media is slowly being eviscerated and they simply have not got the resources to cover all the interesting stories out there.  Even with the field of 3D printing, there are so many new areas opening up. Mainstream media cannot be expected to cover niche topics such as 3D printed firearms, 3D printed clockwork mechanisms or 3D printed crossbows, but all of these are making very rapid advancements and are fascinating subjects to watch develop.

What satisfaction do you get from being an expert in your many fields, getting positive reviews, gaining acknowledgement?

I am not sure it is possible to really become an expert these days, especially when so many fields are advancing so rapidly. It is good to try and keep an overview over a broad range of topics. Anyway, that is where the most interesting breakthroughs come from. From people in different fields making imaginative connections between topics that would otherwise seem completely unrelated. Hopefully, one day I will be able to make one of those world-changing cross-fertilisations that nobody else had ever considered before.

How vital are language skills, contacts, connections and your own drive to help find the latest?

The world has become such a huge place that I am not sure that personal networks are really of all that much value as they were in the past. If anything, I would say that social media is a distinct disadvantage in this sense.  It is too much of distraction and too often becomes an echo chamber.  Look at Wechat in China for example. Everybody is separated out into their little special interest groups which really makes it difficult to get an accurate view of the bigger picture. It is for this reason that I choose not to have a phone, and I notice that slowly, more and more people are starting to see the advantages of this choice. Not many at the moment, admittedly, but I recently found out that both Alan Moore[7] and Andy Hamilton[8] both choose not to have mobiles.  These are two great examples of amazing writers, and so I am tempted to believe that I am following the right path.

How do you stay disciplined for your writing?

My last job in China was as the director of Marketing with a Chinese travel agency. The Chinese owner had very little clue of what was involved in the creation of quality content. Towards the end of my contract, she signed a contract that would have required me to write about 400,000 words in a matter of months. In the end, the project never came to fruition, but for a for weeks, I found myself under enormous pressure and realised that I was quite capable of writing 10,000 words per day, something that I would never have dreamed possible previously. I would not like to have to maintain that kind of output on a regular basis, but it is very useful to know that you can do it when push comes to shove.

These days, I like to get at least a thousand words out of the way first thing in the morning before I check my email or get sucked into Reddit. This gives me a sense of achievement early in the day and means that I can be more productive for the rest of the day.

How has the guidebook industry changed from the days of Lonely Planet/Frommers to now in the digital age?

On-line Travel Agencies such as Agoda, Tripadvisor and Booking.com killed the guidebook publishing industry stone dead.  I hear that there are still a few Lonely Planet guidebooks being published, but they do not really count, as that company never paid a decent living wage in the first place. I read that that the brand has been sold twice in the last couple of years and are now a major money sink.  Unfortunately, the OTAs are no better, and in many ways much worse. Having worked in the travel industry for such a long and having experienced all the tricks that hotels and travel agencies get up to, I would estimate that at least 90% of TripAdvisor reviews are fakes. They might not be paid for in cash, but are usually part of some quid pro quo deal, like a kind of insider trading within the hospitality industry. The remaining 10% that might be genuine are usually for the most popular, well-travelled places that everybody already knows about. The end result is that there are plenty of reviews of five-star business hotels that are paid for with points or exchanged air miles, but hardly anybody is going out finding new routes, and discovering new places.

The other main problem is the fact that the OTAs charge 20% or 30% per booking which has put huge financial pressure on a lot of the smaller accommodations. Admittedly, this was also partly true for Lonely Planet. In any location, the three places that got included in the book usually had more business than they could handle, while everybody else struggled to find customers. The OTAs have only made the situation far worse and have caused endless numbers of smaller operations to simply give in and shut up shop completely.

Still, what grates me most about about the OTAs is that they did away with one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Anybody that was paid to be a professional travel writer literally had their dream job. I am all for automating as many of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs out of existence as possible, but why do away with the most exciting jobs on the planet, just so that another Internet company can improve its bottom line by a few bucks?  The demise of the paid guidebook writer is the end of an era, amazing job opportunities that future generations will never even know existed. 

How different is factual writing from writing fiction?

Writing fiction is far more difficult because you need to be constantly creating an original storyline.  Either you need to be a natural born storyteller, or you need to do a lot of drugs. I have been working on a solar punk novel for many years now but it requires much more effort than non-fiction. Rather than repackaging facts, you have you come up with truly novel ideas and then back them up with believable facts anyway, which makes it at least twice the work of producing non-fiction. Some of the more prolific novelists seem to be able to channel stories from another dimension. I remember reading that Robert E Howard[9], for example, would just sit down at the typewriter and the character of Conan the Barbarian would just flow out of him, like he was possessed by some literary spirit.  Only very occasionally have I had that kind of experience, but I sure wish it was something that I could turn on and off at will. Now I understand why so many fiction writers struggle with writer’s block. At least when you are writing about real world facts for a work of non-fiction, you can always go out and do some more research. It is really frustrating when you are halfway through a fictional plot line and suddenly the inspiration just dries up and will not come back. 

What is travel like post-Covid? What have been the best places youve lived in, and where are you now?

Honestly, I have not yet done any post Covid travel.  It is still too much hassle to consider at the moment and anyway, I am lucky that I have spent the lock downs in a very pleasant Thai beach resort, and I could not have been more comfortable if I had tried.

As for the best places that I have lived, well I always found that tourist locations were a better bet than solely industrial or commercial centres.  Tourist towns are usually popular with good reason, and as long as you find one that is not too developed, then they are often quite affordable. Obviously, this does not apply to the Bahamas or Tahiti or Monte Carlo.  While I was living up in the Himalayas, I would often bump into fellow guidebook writers who were there on vacation, but who like me had chosen to live full time in one of their favourite discoveries. I met an Australian who had relocated to Thimphu in Bhutan, a Kiwi that was living up on the terraces of Ubud above Bali, and a couple who were enjoying the high life in Hong Kong. This was shortly after the handover but still long before the descent into despair, back when Hong Kong was still a world class city.

What was interesting was that most guidebook writers would choose to settle somewhere that had been a highlight in their travels, and that these places were often far more attractive than any of the places that you see in these entirely fabricated Top Ten Places to Retire articles.  The only exception was the Lonely Planet writer who was compiling the latest China edition.  It turned out that he lived in Ulan Bataar of all places, the capital of Inner Mongolia. It turned out that he had married a Mongolian girl and that is why he was stuck in Bataar.

These days, there are far fewer places to choose from than before. Most countries have clamped down on long term visas, and the end of the globalisation era will see far fewer long-term expats than I have experienced in my lifetime.  A worldwide wave of fear and xenophobia prevails all over and the only foreigners that are welcome are those with huge amounts of disposable cash, even though they often end up wrecking the housing market and the economy for the locals.

I was very lucky to experience as much travel as I did, and it is sad to see that current generations will not have the same opportunities.  When I was young it was easy to travel and find work as an English teacher or in the tourist industry, but those days have rapidly come to a close, and in the future, I think that if you really want to travel to exotic climes, you will probably have to go with the military as part of an invasion force.

Untried paths. Photo courtesy: Chris Winnan

How about air travel in the age of climate change? Is it better to view documentaries?

Oh yes, definitely. I gave up flying in the early part of my writing career, but I was lucky in that I had plenty of time to travel, and so going everywhere by boat and train was an adventure that I could justify. These days the new cost of flying is so prohibitive that it is going to be restricted mainly to the very wealthy from now on. The good news is that you can explore many of the most amazing parts of the world through travel documentaries. When I was young, we were lucky to see the occasional show about the rain forest or the outback, but these days, there are amazing films of some of the most remote places on the planet. These guys that jet around the globe with the aim of visiting every single country on the planet, honestly make me sick. What utterly narcissistic excess, when you can now travel all the way around the globe from the comfort of your very own armchair!

What future travel plans do you have?

Not many at the moment.  Covid has put pay to just about everything and it looks like we are entering into a global recession that will make travel expensive and difficult for a long time to come. Still, there were not all that many places left on my bucket list anyway.  It is ironic that most of the places that I really wanted to tick off were locations that most people had either never heard of or would never dream of actually visiting.  For example, Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, has been at the very top of my list for a long time now, and yet the UK government only considers it a place to forcibly deport unwelcome refugees. In truth, Kigali was one of the fastest developing cities in Africa, attracting lots of high-tech investment and with a wonderfully cool climate and beautiful countryside. Admittedly, it was not ideal when it came to democracy and freedom of speech. I really wanted to experience the urban chaos and incredible opportunities of Lagos in Nigeria.

I always wanted to see the Tepuis of Venezuela, and I always fancied the idea of living in one of those medieval tower blocks in Sana’a in Yemen. Unfortunately, more and more of these places are now becoming off limits to even the most intrepid of travellers, and so maybe I will have to wait until my next life before I get chance to experience their charms.

The good news is that life in Thailand is really not so bad.

Whats your advice for aspiring writers?

There is good money to be made on Amazon, but only if you approach writing as a business. This means putting in long hours and hard work when you are getting started. It means having a wide selection of attractive products for your potential customers to choose from and making sure that they are up to date and relevant. I took all the unique experience that I built in Guangzhou and created the world’s only guidebook to the city and its hundreds of specialist wholesale markets. Unfortunately, as soon as the Chinese economic miracle began to grind to a halt, so did my sales.  Although I had recommendations from embassies, consulates and chambers of commerce, I could not get any official backing at all from the local government or tourist authorities. Then, on top of this I had to deal with assassination reviews from local tour guides and interpreters because my work was so thorough that it negatively impacted their business. Finally, Covid struck and by now, my book is probably completely out of date. 

Initially it took years of adventure and exploration to compile, and now I doubt that I could ever afford to update it, even if I could get back into the country in the first place. Therefore, my advice is to try and make sure that your writing has a long shelf life. If you want to create an evergreen title that provides you with a long-term passive income, then you will need to choose your subject matter very carefully. Find a good cover designer on Fiverr or develop the necessary skills yourself. A good cover sells your work and a bad cover will quickly consign it to Amazon oblivion. Find a fellow author who will help you with proof-reading and editing.  You will never catch every single spelling mistake by yourself, no matter how many times to go over your work, and this will be the first thing that readers will complain about in their reviews. Professional editors are very expensive, so find someone who you can share the task with.

Always be looking for new subjects to write about. Your breakthrough book will very likely be the title that you least expected to succeed, but the more you publish, the more you increase your chances of it happening.

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[1] Korean word for a for-profit private school

[2] Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994), politician and founder of North Korea

[3] Teach English as a Foreign Langauge

[4] A Chinese word for a person of wealth

[5] The first five-star hotel opened in Shanghai in the 1990s

[6] Volkswagon

[7] Alan Moore: British Writer born in 1953

[8] Andy Hamilton: British writer and comedian born in 1954

[9] Robert E Howard: American writer, 1906-1936

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

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

Categories
Interview Review

Born Free to Follow your Heart

Anthony Sattin, an award winning journalist and travel writer in conversation about Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, his recent book published by Hachette, India.

A breath-taking narrative that travels with the freedom of nomads, drawing from folklore, history and modern movements to give voice to an idea that might help move towards a more progressive and hopeful future — Anthony Sattin has achieved all this in a single book called Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, a non-fiction that touches the heart with the concept of unifying humanity beyond the borders of ‘isms’ drawn over time. It explores the history of people who often have not been chronicled in conventional texts.

We are living in times where floods, forest fires, wars and divides are ravaging humanity as it wakes up from the coils of a pandemic that had almost stilled all normal interactions and economic activities for more than two years. The unrests and the changes attributed to “climate change” call for “continued solidarity” and a united front from all humanity as indicated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres and global guru Harari. In times such as these, an attempt to revive the concept of asabiyya, or bonds based on felt interests, is laudable and a necessity for the world to move forward. And that is exactly what Sattin has done in his recent book.

He has travelled with nomads; folklores, starting with Cain and Abel, Gilgamesh and Enkidu; history, Gobelki Tepe or Potbelly Hill, the place where he locates what might have been Eden, Achaemenid kings, Persian nomads, Mongols, Mughals to global nomads — spanning 12, 000 years of history.

In his book, Sattin tells us: “We are living at a time when the world — our world — shaped by the age of Reason and Enlightenment, powered by industrial and technological revolutions is faltering.  Social contracts are fraying and communications are breaking down. The raw materials and natural resources are becoming scarce, and the consequence of our actions … are written large across landscapes, the climate, the fabric of our lives…Change is needed.”

Sattin “traces the shifting relationships between people who move and those who were settled” to find the concept of asabiyya or the sense of bonding popularised by an Arab philosopher called Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). Perhaps, this is an ideal that could benefit humankind if we were all to see ourselves as one tribe. He has mentioned modern attempts at asabiyya, like the call given by ‘Black Lives Matter’, to contextualise the concept for us and to show how a movement born from within the hearts of people could touch and change attitudes.

The book is divided into three parts after an initial introduction from Mount Zagros, where Sattin was rescued from a bout of sunstroke by nomads: the first part is called ‘The Balancing Act’, where he explores ancient folklore and history, Huns, Hyksos, Scythians, Xiongnu and more: the second part is called ‘The Imperial Act’, from  ‘The rise of the Arabs to the Fall of Mongols’ where kingdoms and world history is brought into play and the importance of asabiyya is introduced with historic instances and the last part is called ‘The Act of Recovery’, where changes towards redefining the world in terms of ideals aligned with asabiyya are explored.

The scope of the non-fiction is clarified at the start of the book from Mount Zagros. He starts the first section interestingly in a locale, termed by him as “Paradise” in 10,000 BC with a global population of ‘Perhaps 5 million’, of which he lists the nomad population as ‘Most of the number’. As he unfolds the history of mankind, from the past we find echoes of what could be called mobile or nomadic bonds that embrace to expand and heal civilisations. Sattin has been exploring such bonds for the last forty years.

Described as “a cross between Indiana Jones and a John Buchan hero” and “one of the key influences on travel writing today”, Sattin started his interactions with bedouins at age nineteen and found them nurturing. He elucidates: “After I left school, I went travelling in the Middle East. In the Sinai Peninsula, at that time, there were no hotels or other facilities outside of Sharm el Sheikh. So, I and the friend I was travelling with relied on the Bedouins for many things — they brought us fish and other food, they told us stories about the magical places in the desert mountains and although we had been told that they would rob us, they looked after us.”

Anthony Sattin. Photo Courtesy. John Murray/Hachette India. 

Sattin has several non-fictions under his belt and is an award-winning journalist, who writes in a number of well-known journals, like the Sunday Times, the Conde Nast Traveller and the Financial Times. An editorial advisor to the Geographical magazine, he is also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a founder-member of Travel Intelligence and ASTENE (the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East). He was the director of the Principal Film Company, has written, advised and presented on television and radio productions, including the BBC.

In this exclusive conversation, Sattin discusses Nomads, and tells us how the book came to be.

What made you think of writing a book on nomads, who — you have stated in your book — now constitute only 40 million in a world of 7.8 billion humans?

Every book has its moment, and this is the right time for Nomads. It came out of a lifelong interest in people who live on the move and on the problems of settled society, especially with cities – some of the first thoughts in Nomads occurred decades back when I read Lewis Mumford’s The City in History[1]. But I also have many ideas for books in my head at any one time and they don’t all get written! And some of them sit around for ages and then it seems to me to be the right moment to write. The way our world has changed in the past decade helped shape my sense that this is the moment to write about open borders and freedom of movement. I also wanted to write something that would stretch me more than anything else I had written. Twelve thousand years of history seemed like a big enough challenge…

How long did it take you to research and write the book? What kind of research did you do?

I began shaping the idea nine years ago, after I finished my previous book, Young Lawrence[2], about how the second son of an anonymous, middle class Oxford family became Lawrence of Arabia. The proposal took more than a year to get right – as my editor at WW Norton in New York pointed out, a subject this big can be about everything and nothing. Then there were years of research, particularly in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the London Library, which is a wonderful place, the largest private library in the world and which serves as my home from home. I had many conversations over the years with scholars, people in publishing, fellow writers, travellers and nomads. And then there was the travelling with nomads, the writing and rewriting.

You travelled and lived among nomads for some time? How many years? Were your travels affected by the pandemic? If so, how did you bypass that?

I have been meeting nomads for more than forty years, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, where I have travelled extensively. When I was 19, I was looked after by Bedouin in the Sinai Desert. In 2010, I was back there on a camel trek with a guide who impressed me because he knew every mountain, every watering place and every cave, including one which he pointed out as the place where he was born.

In Mali, I spent time with Touareg nomads, who came together each year at a place in the desert beyond Timbuktu – these tribes used to be at war with central government (and are again), but a treaty had been brokered and one of the terms was that tribal and government leaders would meet once a year to sort out grievances. They also played music, danced, raced camels… How could one not be swept away?

Specifically for Nomads, I went to Iran to spend some time with the Bakhtiari, a large nomad tribe who I had chosen in part because they claim lineage that goes back millennia, because they had played a part in the making of modern Iran but also because in the 1920s, a movie[3] was made of their annual migration into the Zagros Mountains, amazingly by the director and producer[4] whose next movie was the original King Kong! The Bakhtiari taught me much about the challenges facing nomads today.

Can you tell us of a few interesting experiences while moving with nomads which are not part of the book?

When I first went into the Zagros Mountains to meet the Bakhtiari, I was taken by a guide (being British, I had to have a guide for my entire stay in Iran) and he could not understand why I would waste my money and my time going into the mountains. He was from the city and exhibited age-old prejudices against people who lived on the move, whom he called ‘primitives”. But I am not a nomad and although I don’t find them primitive, I do find some aspects of their lives very challenging: years ago, on a camel trek in the Thar Desert, I caught what I now assume was sunstroke and thought I was going to pass out. My guide – there were just the two of us travelling – got me out of the desert. At the first village we reached, he had someone bring a bed out of a house and placed in the shade of a tree. I lay down and remember no more until about four hours later when I woke to find myself surrounded by the whole village. They had been angry with the guide for bringing me to them – think of all the trouble they would face if I died! When I woke, in the middle of this scene, the whole crowd burst into cheers like a scene out of a Bollywood movie.

You have spoken of ‘asabiyya’ taught by Ibn Khaldun. Can you explain the concept briefly and tell us if this can be of relevance in the current global situation?

Asabiyya is a sense of group feeling, something that binds people together. Ibn Khaldun thought it had shaped the world and found that it was most powerful among nomads and people who lived in the desert, in part because they must rely absolutely on each other. When this group feeling is channelled by a leader – the Prophet Muhammed, for instance – it can lead the group towards extraordinary achievements, as when the first Arabs overcame the might of the better-trained and armed Byzantine and Persian armies. It might all sound like something from long ago but I think there is a sense, in our own time, of someone like Greta Thurnberg having channelled that same feeling to force our leaders to pay attention to the climate emergency.

At a point you tell us that “…cities posed existentialist risks, and their temptations could overwhelm the asabiyya and nomads would lose their identity.” Why was maintaining their identity for the nomads so essential? Do you think this is something that needs revival in the present?

The existential risks I mention are the ones that rob nomads of their asabiyya and therefore of their power. Ibn Khaldun had seen this first hand: in North Africa, several small reformist movements had come out of the harsh desert or mountains to the south and overwhelmed the courts and kingdoms along the north coast. But each of those movements had fallen apart within a few generations as the pure people of the desert found themselves corrupted by living in cities. As for identity, it is important for all of us to know who we are and where we have come from — that was one reason to write the book, because very little is taught about nomads in western schools.

Your book touches upon number of issues — including faith. Given the fact that the great Khan had a Nestorian church, a mosque and a Buddhist temple in his capital city despite following the Shamanistic faith, would you say that an openness or tolerance in beliefs and faiths led to a more strongly tethered kingdom, as they did not really seem to have concepts of permanent national boundaries then? Is this not a dichotomy that you create a strongly tethered kingdom and yet are open to move on, leaving the old capital behind? And is it not wasteful?

I think there are two things going on here. On the one hand, a belief in freedom of conscience, the right to follow any or no religion. This was certainly something the great Mongol khans believed in. They were mostly animists, believing in the Sky Father and reliant on signs and omens, but they were not adverse to being prayed for and blessed by an imam or priest. Even the Ottomans, who came out of a nomadic tradition and were clearly Muslims, thought it important to allow freedom of conscience in their empire. What mattered was not who you prayed to, but whether you were prepared to acknowledge the sovereignty of the khan or the sultan. Some of the most successful periods in human history have flourished because of this idea.

A strongly tethered kingdom is another issue. For nomads, cities and capitals were not as important as lands, particularly hunting and grazing lands. The Mongol khans, like ancient Persian emperors and many other nomad leaders, recognised the need for a pivotal meeting place, a capital, but they were mostly more interested in spending time elsewhere and on the move. A leader such as Attila, the Hun ruler, had no interest in the cities he conquered.

You mention British author, Bruce Chatwin(1940-1989), as having said “we are born to move, that we must move or die.” Can you explain what that would mean? In the current context, people talk of roots and homeland. If they keep moving what happens to their firm conviction in homeland?

It depends what sort of ‘moving’ we are talking about. On a mundane and personal level, research now tells us that we are less likely to get ill and more likely to live longer if we walk 10,000 steps a day. On a national and global scale, we need interaction, we need to live lighter, we need to be nimble on our feet and in our thoughts.  

You have divided the world into two groups — nomads and settlers — and said we need a bit of both. Can you tell us how and why?

Humans began to settle and cultivate some 12,000 years ago and since then, like Cain and Abel, humans have broadly been divided into those who stay in one place, usually either cultivating the land or living in towns/cities, and those who live on the move. For most of history they have lived in a state of mutual dependence and often even in harmony. A world without nomads, with everyone fixed in one place – which seems to be where we are heading – is a smaller, less rich, less fertile world.

In a post-pandemic world, would the nomadic lifestyle you have written of be feasible, especially with all the governmental issues creeping in? 

The word nomad comes from a very old Indo-European word meaning pasture or a fixed area, which suggest the right to graze. But if you take a broad view of what it means to be a nomad in the 21st century, you might also include digital nomads and others who move to work or just because that is how they want to or have to live. That might not have been possible during the pandemic, when we were all locked down, but the number of people on the move now in many parts of the world is right back up and that can only be a good thing – we need to mix and meet, to exchange experiences and opinions.

If we opt for a mobile lifestyle, would we need to redefine borders as of old? Would that take us back to a pre-nationalistic era? Do you think we should be redefining our mindsets and our isms? Do you suggest we all go back to an intermittent nomadic lifestyle?

We should always be questioning mindsets and isms! Happily, we are living through a golden age of revisionist history shaped by a number of forces, decolonialism, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo among them. We also live in an age of misinformation on a massive scale. Nomads has come out of a need I had to shine some light on a way of life that is either entirely missing, or misrepresented in our histories.

Are you planning to write more on this issue or move on to something else? Would you share with us your next project?

There is much more to be written about this issue, but after spending most of the past eight years working on Nomads, it is time for me to look elsewhere. I hope I have stimulated a debate about nomads that will encourage others to look further. Meanwhile my thoughts are turning to Egypt — and to Italy, from where I am writing today.

Thanks for giving us your time during your travels.


[1] First published in 1961

[2] First published in 2014

[3] Grass (1925)

[4] Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973)

(This review and online interview is by Mitali Chakravarty)

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

Categories
Interview Review

The Fearful Trill of Freedom & Equality

A conversation with VR Devika, author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, Niyogi Books.

“Education, Freedom and Responsibility bring out the best from the individual and race. This will apply to all men and women irrespective of caste, creed or colour.”

—Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights

 Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights by VR Devika is a biography of a woman who shouted out to demand reforms among devdasis ( women who had been ‘married’ to lifelong service of a deity or a temple) and prostitutes in the nineteenth-twentieth century. The biographer, V R Devika, is a storyteller, educationist and Gandhi scholar.

Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was born to a devdasi mother and transcended the system that had deteriorated from when a devadasi was considered ‘auspicious’ as she would never be widowed or married, and she could maintain her status quo, the book informs, adding a historic perspective to this ‘norm’. By Reddy’s times, these women had been reduced to become mistresses to rich men. In ancient times, before malpractices set in, a princess is said to have opted to become a devdasi. The decline started in the sixteenth century when devdasis were transferred from temple to temple.

The narrative is simple and straightforward but what stands out is the value of the content, the strength of the woman who could speak up boldly and demand reforms — even have some of them instituted. She spoke out for reforms with searing words. The author quotes from many of her speeches.

“Muthulakshmi used strong language to explain her position on the Devadasi question. ‘Of all the laws, rules and regulations which down the centuries have helped to place women in a position of inferiority, none has been so very powerful in creating in the minds of men and people a sentiment of scorn and contempt for women as the degrading idea of the double standard of morals.’

“She thundered, ‘From this double standard that has sprung that worst attack on women’s dignity, that safety valve theory that a certain number of women should exist, should sacrifice their self-respect, their honour, their comforts, their health and happiness to satisfy the lust of the other sex. At the present day, the continuance of such a doctrine and of the laws which are founded on it, is a shameful anachronism unworthy of our civilisation. Both in the past and in the present, women have disproved their inferiority, and how then can we at the present day tolerate or connive at a system which transforms a woman of whichever caste or class she may be, into a mere chattel, a piece of tainted merchandise? The inequity of the system is too deep for me to give expression, and further under that inhuman and unjust system the innocent children of a certain caste or community are trained to become proficient in all the arts of solicitation that they become captives to vice.’”

That men and women perpetrate social norms to justify the existence of the so-called ‘world’s oldest profession’ is well brought out in the book. That women forced into the sex trade are not doing this out of choice is conveyed with conviction. Names of Reddy’s associates include Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) and the well-known singer whose mother was a devdasi too, MS Subbulakshmi (1930-1997).

Reddy was one of the first female medical graduates[1] in India, the first woman[2] to enter an Indian Legislature and the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly. A recipient of the Padmabhushan and more accolades, she, as a doctor founded the Addyar Cancer Institute in 1952 after her sister was caught with cancer, and, as a humanitarian, started the Avvai Home in 1931 for those rescued from brothels and streets. Her spirit is well captured by the author when she writes:

“In 1942, during the World War II, soldiers of the British Royal Airforce camping in tents on the banks of Adyar river had made some derogatory remarks about the girls and harassed them. Muthulakshmi stood vigil all night with a stick in her hand and dared any soldier to come near the Home. She even went up the ranks to the commander’s house near Fort St. George to complain to him about the conduct of the soldiers and curb their behaviour.”

VR Devika has extensively shown that Reddy was a force to be reckoned with but she has not given way completely to adulation. She has objectively shown how Reddy over ruled her son’s choices for the well-being of her own institutions. It brought to mind Gandhi’s attitude towards his own family. An established cultural activist, VR Devika has been associated with the inception of Chennai’s Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum and Tamil Nadu INTACH[3], has been visiting the Avvai Home and in this exclusive she tells us the story of how the book came about and why she visited this home and its impact on her.

VR Devika. Photo provided by Niyogi Books

Tell us why you felt that Muthulakshmi Reddy’s story needed to be told. What was the readership you had in mind when you wrote the biography?

The dance scholarship [donors] consisting of mainly outsiders who had a hypothesis, got a good grant, employed interpreters and cherry picked to denigrate her in a fashion that took dance academic world by storm after the 1980s. I had also bought into them when I began to learn Bharathanatyam. But when I joined INTACH Tamilnadu and Madras Craft Foundation in 1985 after having been a schoolteacher since 1974, I began a project of English language as a skilling programme and theatre as empowerment for Avvai Home. That is when I began to get the other side of the story that was really fascinating. I kept thinking I must reach this story out. Dr.V.Shanta, chairman of Cancer institute, said I must write her [Muthulakshmi Reddy’s] biography and I decided to work on it after she passed away. I had young people who were studying English but had no access to English other than their textbooks as the target audience but I am a story teller and I just began to tell the story in simple way as I always do.

You tell us in the authorial note that you went on ‘work’ to the Avvai home. Tell us about the home. Why were you there?

Geetha Dharmarajan and I lived near Avvai Home. I had no idea about the history of the home etc. But I knew very poor girls studied there. Geetha had spoken to them and I went along but Geetha relocated to New Delhi and started Katha[4] and I stayed on helping Avvai Home in many different ways. I have written a full story of Avvai Home in the book. It was volunteer work. Rajalakshmi of Avvai Home requested me to help them on a production on Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy. I interviewed Sarojini Varadappan, Dr.Shanta, and several others to write the script for the production. I am now on their school advisory committee.

For me, the most interesting aspect was how Muthulakshmi Reddy made the transition from being born a devadasi to empowering herself enough to outlaw the custom. Did her parents ever marry?

No there was no way they could marry as a girl born in the system was barred from ritualistic marriage according to Hindu custom. She was his companion.

Your narrative is direct and eulogistic of great names and associations of/ developed by Muthulakshmi Reddy and the lady herself. The personal is largely left out, except to emphasise her achievements. Why?

I cannot [describe that] as I never met her. I had to sketch a portrait from her writings, her achievements and her son’s writing.

Would you regard the devdasi system as a social ill that has been erased or is it an ongoing battle?

There is no social evil that has been erased completely. Nostalgists for devdasi system denigrate her [Reddy]. But there is the social evil of discrimination against Dalits still, but should Ambedkar be blamed for giving a legal handle for those who wanted to come out and achieve something of their own despite the caste hierarchy? Those who benefited from the abolition of dedication are in thousands while those who bemoan the loss of culture in the way they want it are in hundreds.

The devdasi system is a generic system in a number of states in India. Did Reddy’s reforms benefit all the states? Was the Avvai Home open to all devdasis or only from her state?

Avvai Home never claimed to be only for devdasis but for girls who needed protection and access to education. No reform benefits everyone. Her law was for the Madras Presidency of the time which consisted of parts of Andhra, Orissa and Karnataka too as part of it.

Muthulakshmi Reddy started a number of things, including the second oldest cancer hospital in India. But all these were reactions borne of personal experiences. Do you think if she had been born into a regular family, and her sister would not have had cancer, would she have striven for these institutions too?

I can’t answer a hypothetical question. How do we know what she would have done?

What was the driving force behind the reforms instituted by Muthulakshmi Reddy?

Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly.

Would you justify the “emotional blackmail” on her son to fulfil her own dream by giving up his own? Do you think that it is right of a parent to impose their will in this way?

I am not justifying it. It happened that way. Just telling the story. She did not force her elder son who went into Electrical Engineering. Her second son never resented the “emotional blackmail” He went along whole heartedly.

What for you was the most endearing quality of Dr Reddy?

I have many who worked with her telling me she was very kind, but she was also a tyrant and would not bend. Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly. She was a mother (Amma) was the unanimous opinion.

Thank you for giving us your time.


[1] Anandi Gopal Joshi(1865-1867) and Kadambini Bose Ganguly (1861 –1923) graduated and practiced as doctors in other parts of India.

[2]  Muthulakshmi Reddy joined the Madras Legislative assembly in 1930.

[3] Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage 

[4] Katha is a non-profit and non-governmental organisation that has established itself in the field of community development, child welfare, education and literature.

(This review and interview is by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Interview Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barun Chanda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.

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

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

Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions


[1] Translates to ‘bound by limits’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Ray film released in 1962

[10] Lockdown due to the Pandemic

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

[12] A Bengali magazine that was started in 1933

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

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

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

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

Categories
Interview

Where Cultures Connect beyond Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Goodman with a Akha girl in Thailand, 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. It can’t be dangerous.

2. It must be fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you go about your writing process?

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

How has photography integrated with your writing?

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

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

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

What projects do you have on the go currently?

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

*Photographs provided by Jim Goodman

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

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

Categories
Interview Review

The Making of Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

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

Aruna Chakravarti. Photo courtesy: Swati Bhattacharya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seems amazing to me now. But it worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for giving us your time.

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

Click here to read the book excerpt

(This online interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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

Categories
Interview

Carr is Driven to Write Fast

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

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

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

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

When did you first discover your talent for writing?

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

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

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

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

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

Where in the world did your early career take you?

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

How did you get into fiction writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you get motivated to write?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

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

And your next projects?

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

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

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

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