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Interview Review

The Oldest Love Story – In Conversation with Editor Rinki Roy

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

‘Antara 1’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for taking our work seriously.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering the questions

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

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

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Interview

Instilling Hope: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

Achingliu Kamei in conversation with Naga writer, Veio Pou

Veio Pou. Photo provided by Achinglu Kamei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Interview

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: A Seeker of Serendipity

In conversation with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us what moves your muse for poetry and prose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read poems by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

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

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

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Interview

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

In Conversation with Amit Ranjan

Amit Ranjan. Photo Courtesy: Shailaja

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alice book – definitely, whenever Alice wills it!

Thank you for the interview. 

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


[1] Golden Gate (1986)

[2] Thousand and One Nights

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

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

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

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Interview

A Voice from Kharkiv : A Refugee in her Own Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamala’s song — the 2016 Eurovision winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lesya Bakun at the Polish border

A special message from Lesya Bakun:

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

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

“Together, we will win!” — Lesya Bakun

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

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

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

BENEFICIARY

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

IBAN:
UA273052990262046400929572634

ACCOUNT

5169 3600 1722 8341

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

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT

0011000080

INTERMEDIARY BANK

JP MORGAN CHASE BANK
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASUS33

Card currency:
USD

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

IBAN:
UA513052990262016400929572635

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

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

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

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

Валюта карти:
EUR

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

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

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

Categories
Interview

 When a Hobo in a Fedora Hat Breathes Tolkien…

In Conversation with Strider Marcus Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE HEAD IN HIS FEDORA HAT

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

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

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

a storyteller
that hobo fella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does any kind of music impact your writing?

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

VISIGOTH ROVER

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

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

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

LIFE IS FLAMENCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REJECTING OVID

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

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

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

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

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



OLD CAFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to a shamed flower
with supernatural power
come the hour.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOTHLORIEN

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

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

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

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

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


IN THE TALK OF MY TOBACCO SMOKE

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

Thanks for your lovely poetry and time.

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

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

Categories
Interview

Why We Need Stories?

Keith Lyons in conversation with Ivy Ngeow, author and editor of a recent anthology of Asian writing

Ivy Ngeow

Ivy Ngeow has interesting perspectives on writing which would resonate with many. She started writing at a young age. With a novel in circulation, this is her first attempt to create an anthology which would unite writers and the English language variously interpreted. She has collected stories with a variety of dialects in English, retaining the differences with each telling. Her editorial experiment is unusual. She tells us, “The Asian words in the anthology are similarly seamless threads sewn into the prose. It would be oppressive to correct the patois and italicise words which are not even foreign to the characters and the narrative. Instead, they are made part of the author’s tongue and means of communication. It is how I’d develop writers writing in English.” And she is bold enough to admit, “Anyway, all writers are outsiders. That is why we write.” Keith Lyons had a candid and interesting conversation with her.

What’s your background, and writing career?

I have an MA in Writing from Middlesex University and my first novel, which won the International Proverse Prize, was published in 2017. I have been in the industry of architecture and interior design for almost 30 years, but I have been writing since I could hold a pencil. I’ve always had that sense of a writing urge which came and went depending on what I was going in my life at the time. I always wrote, whenever I could, on the plane, in hotel rooms, at home in bed. From the time I won my first commendation as a teenager in a Straits Times national competition, I felt that writing was something real, and not imaginary.

Where is home for you, how do you identify, and where’s home for you now?

I live in London. Most of the time I identify as a regular working suburban Asian mum. The long days and short-term challenges I face are just like any other family woman’s.

How did you get the idea for producing an anthology of Asian writing?

The idea was to welcome more books which I loved to read but felt were lacking: beautiful, diverse and eclectic books by the culturally underrepresented. These are the kinds of books that I was raised with — international stories with imaginative storytelling on multiple themes such as the diaspora, culture and identity, and not even necessarily Asian. It is in our collective interest, as readers and writers, to hear more diverse voices.

What was the process for seeking submissions and then selecting the featured stories for Asian Anthology: New Writing Vol. 1: Stories by Writers from Around the World?

I put out a call for submissions in October with a closing date in December.  We received more than a hundred entries.  Apart from the requirement for the writing to be set in Asia, writers of any nationality or gender were eligible to submit for this publication, in keeping with Leopard Print’s inclusion and diversity policy.  The contributors in this book have come from Malaysia, Singapore, India, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Serbia, Austria, France, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.  Although it was my first attempt at doing selection and curation, I could tell the strength of the piece from the first line or first paragraph. This is a good tip for writers. Nail that first line, then sculpt that first paragraph, so that the hook is sharp.

So was this the first time you’ve done something like this, or have you had experience in editing and publishing?

This was my first time doing a large-ish body of work. I have written and edited single stories and non-fiction pieces, newsletters, articles, blogs etc.

What’s been the response from the authors featured in the first volume?

The authors are thrilled to have a book out in the UK. They understand that getting a book out means endorsement by their readership and by the editorial team. They also appreciate that they will be receiving a share of royalties.

How do you think the book explores issues of culture and conflict, as well as insider and outsider views?

The cultural insights and conflicts are depicted through the exploration of ideas and storytelling. Only through stories and characterisation do we make sense of reality. Through the microcosms of scenarios, the viewpoints of characters are at the heart of emotional conflict and tension, whether or not it’s viewed by an outsider.  Anyway, all writers are outsiders. That is why we write.

Tell us about why you decided to have a reasonably hands-off editorial stance, allowing both American and UK English, as well as use of local non-English words?

It’s hands-on, not hands off, as I feel I assimilated worlds within those literary worlds. Each story required editorial decision based on the cultural stance of the author.  The language they have written in reflects their education, their origins and their own decisions. It would have been wrong to choose one English over another. The “Englishes”, colloquialism and vernacular are a reflection of our times and the modern movement. During my MA in Writing, my subject matter was patois and post-colonial literature. I have a whole story written in dialect which won the Middlesex University Literary Prize. Middlesex made me the writer that I am, because I learned that foreign is actually a very loose and relative term. What is foreign to someone is not foreign to another.  The true English language is an assimilative one. It is Saxon, French and German. Later it has Portuguese, Indian, Chinese and Malay words too. Where the British sailed through, words sailed through.  Are kowtow, verandah, bungalow, croissant and spaghetti still foreign? At which point did they become non-italicised? The Asian words in the anthology are similarly seamless threads sewn into the prose. It would be oppressive to correct the patois and italicise words which are not even foreign to the characters and the narrative. Instead, they are made part of the author’s tongue and means of communication. It is how I’d develop writers writing in English.

One story appears in both Malay and with its English translation – why did you decide to do that?

Most readers in Asia are bilingual if not trilingual. I feel that for the intended audience, there would be scope for a bilingual story because it is one that is about a young Muslim girl’s glimpse of her oppressors. Her language was fluid and poetic, bleeding into the English translation naturally.

One of the themes throughout the book is the conflict over tradition and duty to family, do you think this is more evident throughout Asia as it modernises and opens up?

I think so. Family and tradition create natural tension and conflict in any form of literature.  Part of introducing this anthology is that Asia is modern. But. It is a modern that holds onto a traditional world that is in part dying, like dialects, foods of poverty, too much or too little education, breakdown of families. These will always be the recurrent themes in modern Asian literature.

Do you think the first volume achieved its aim to showcase new and established writers from across Asia as well as non-Asians writing about Asia?

Some have never been published or have not written for ten years. Some are published and/or award-winning. We are giving them this platform and opportunity. Reading and writing is a community, a two-way street. By giving writers online and in-person presence to raise their profiles, and readers a channel through which they not only discover and read, they can also hear, see and watch the authors.

The connection is further strengthened by organising online events, real “live” performance readings and book-signings by four of the authors in London, and distribution in real physical bookshops like Daunt in the UK and Silverfish Books in KL, and online print distribution on Waterstones, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and online digital distribution on Scribd, Googleplay Apple Books, Barnes and Noble Nook, Kobo and Apple Books.

Social media posts which increase visibility for the authors and their audience engagement. More engagement will encourage the writers to write more and secure the notion that we as readers and writers, are not alone.

These ways of connections and relationships are long term. Our mission was to showcase and be showcased and we have done that.

What’s reception to the book been so far, with it only just appearing in hard copy and available in Malaysia and soon the UK?

From the Goodreads reviews, it has been well-received. It is unique in the sense that the strong original voices and the different “Englishes” of the writers have been retained, with foreign words not italicised. It is a true reflection of society and of our cultural diversity. The paperback version sold out within a weekend at Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur. Now it is on its second print run. Print copies are now available worldwide in both paperback and in ebook versions.

Do you have any plans to produce more volumes, and if so, when will you open submissions?

We will look at the profits and losses, whether it would be viable, but it is likely that we will go ahead with Vol. 2 despite global uncertainties and crises. In autumn we may put out the call for submissions for release in spring. We are also considering focusing on fiction only for Vol. 2 to further “niche down”. (I made that up but I hope it is a verb.) However, we know the economic challenges are vast. With the world only just recovering from the blight of 2020-21, now we are also seeing the consequences of the war in Europe, with purse strings being tightened.  As readers and writers, we are conflicted by these factors, because more than ever, people need stories. Stories of escape, frustration, humour, darkness, love, hope. All stories are about our humanity.

Click here to read the book excerpt.

Click here to read the review.

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).

Click here to read an excerpt from the anthology.

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

Categories
Interview

From the Himalayas to the Banks of Thames

In Conversation with Sangita Swechcha, a writer from Nepal

Dr Sangita Swechcha

Nepal conjures up images of Himalayas, Mount Everest, Kathmandu and unique cultures. From Nepal, a writer called Sangita Swechcha, moved to United Kingdom. With her she took the flavour of the hills, the stories, the breeze, coloured them with Western veneer to create more literature that mingles the two lores.

Swechha has published a novel, Pakhalieko Siundo (Washed Vermillion), authored Gulafsanga ko Prem (The Rose: An Unusual Love Story),  and co-authored Asahamatika Pailaharu (Hoofmark of Discord) – both collections of short stories. Her short stories, poems, and articles have appeared in various international journals and online portals. She was the guest editor for the ‘Nepali Literature Month – Nov 2019’ held at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI), a US-based organisation working towards the visibility of world literature. Two of Sangita’s latest literary works are The Himalayan Sunrise: Exploring Nepal’s Literary Horizon and A Glimpse Into My Country, published by Bookhill International in London. Swechcha, who is now located in London, has been working in the international development sector for more than fifteen years as a Communications Expert outside of her literary commitments.

In her interview, she tells us about her life in the UK and introduces us to the newly-fledged Nepali literature.

Since when have you been writing?

I started writing when I was in school and used to be quite active during college days as well. However, I could not keep pace with everything. Juggling between family life, studies as well as career, I slowly left creative writing. At some point, I stopped. Then it took several years to get back to writing again. Now, I am here to follow my passion once again.

What languages do you write in? Why?

I love writing both in Nepali and English. Nepali, being a native language, I am emotionally connected to it. On the other hand, writing in English gives me wider audience and helps broaden literary landscape where my emotions and words traverse.

I have published a novel, a collection of short stories and several other literary articles and poetry in Nepali. Short stories and many literary write-ups in English have been published in various international portals and journals. I recently edited two anthologies in English and they have been published from London.

You live in England now. How long have you been living here? Does this impact your writing?

I have been living in England since 2007. Living in here has given me more exposure to different cultures and people of diverse backgrounds. It has helped me in my writing as I have learnt more about languages and cultures living outside my country.    

Is life different here from the life you led in Nepal? How?

It is not very different. I live with my family, work as I did in an international development organisation. My work is pretty much the same as it was in Nepal. Yes, I do miss my parents, close friends, family and being surrounded by beautiful mountains. That is something I find different here.

What are the themes you favour while writing? Why? Expand on that.

My writings flow in different directions, and I have written on various themes. My poetry, stories and novels focus on love, friendships, women, individualism, social identity, revenge, power imbalance and struggle, death and dying, family conflicts, trusts etc. In this sense, there is no specific theme I favour. I love exploring different themes and my writings try to capture various aspects of people’s lives.

There seems to be some amount of writing about women in Nepal, including your own. What kind of issues do women face when it comes to education, career as well as other areas?

I think women not just in Nepal but around the world have more responsibilities when they have family, mainly children. Time management becomes the main issue while one tries to balance between family life, career, and other interests. Therefore, prioritising things in life is a challenge.

What is the literary community like in Nepal? Tell us a bit about literature from Nepal.

There are many literary communities, groups, and societies in Nepal. They promote Nepali literature within the country through various programmes, publications, literary awards, workshops, conferences, etc. Some of these groups also host literary festivals where writers from other countries also participate. In today’s globalised world, Nepali writers are spread around the world and various literary circles have been formed in different countries too. In order to bring Nepali writers around the world onto one common platform, an institution like the International Nepali Literature Society (INLS) was established, which has chapters in over 80 countries.

Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana. First Nepali book published in 1887

Literary writing in the Nepali language only began in the 19th century. Prior to this period, Nepali literature was in Sanskrit. The first written literary work in Nepali was Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana (1887). As such, our literature has a history of more than a hundred years. During this time, literature from different genres has been published and proliferated rapidly. Since most of these are written in Nepali, the world outside of the country doesn’t know much about the richness of our literature, although through translation to other languages, we slowly hope to transmit our stories to the world and join the global community.

We see mainly translations in English from Nepal. Do you have major writers who write directly in English like we have English and anglophone writers in other countries?

Not only are the number of Nepali writers who write in English slowly growing, but the translation of literary works from Nepali to other languages is gaining momentum too. Yes, there are several writers in Nepal who directly write in English and contributed to publications of novels, collection of short stories, poetry books, travelogues etc. Especially, the past decade has also seen a significant rise in the number of writers outside Nepal too.

Perhaps the Last Kiss’ by Bhupeen, spoke of how Nepalis went to Chennai to study. Is it a norm that Nepalis go to another country to study? Or is that true only for some?

The trend of going abroad for studies is ever growing in Nepal. Just like people’s movement and migration for better employment opportunities around the world, for better education too, you can see Nepalis moving from villages to cities or to Kathmandu valley or from different parts of Nepal to other countries.

You have published two anthologies in English recently. Tell us a bit about these anthologies.

The Himalayan Sunrise: Exploring Nepal’s Literary Horizon co-edited with Karen Van Drie and A Glimpse Into My Country co-edited with Andrée Roby are my two recent publications.

The Himalayan Sunrise: Exploring Nepal’s Literary Horizon is a unique collection of interviews, book reviews, features on literary books, poetries and artworks that will take you on a virtual trip to Nepal’s literary landscape of indigenous flavours.

A Glimpse Into My Country is a collection of international short stories by writers from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, England, France, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Both the books have been brought out by Book Hill International.

What are your future projects?

I recently completed a novel. I am revising it to get it published this year or the next. A translated collection of poetry is getting ready too. Hopefully, I can get this printed too.   

Thank you for the time and the interview.    

Click here to read an excerpt from A Glimpse into my Country

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

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

Categories
Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

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

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

Categories
Interview Review

Sriniketan: Tagore’s “Life Work”

In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction published by Niyogi Books, 2022

Tagore (1861-1941) has been celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the world, a great philosopher, a writer, an artist, a polyglot but what did the maestro himself perceive as his greatest ‘life work’?

He wrote: “My path, as you know, lies in the domain of quiet integral action and thought, my units must be few and small, and I can but face human problems in relation to some basic village or cultural area. So, in the midst of worldwide anguish, and with the problems of over three hundred millions staring us in the face, I stick to my work in Santiniketan and Sriniketan hoping that my efforts will touch the heart of our village neighbours and help them in reasserting themselves in a new social order. If we can give a start to a few villages, they would perhaps be an inspiration to some others—and my life work will have been done.” This was in a letter in 1939 to an agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974), who helped him set up Sriniketan, a craft and agricultural development project for the villages which fell under the purview of the Tagore family zamindari.

To Tagore, his ‘life work’ lay in the welfare of humankind and poetry was just one of the things he did, like breathing. He told a group of writers, musicians, and artists, who were visiting Sriniketan in 1936: “The picture of the helpless village which I saw each day as I sailed past on the river has remained with me and so I have come to make the great initiation here. It is not the work for one, it must involve all. I have invited you today not to discuss my literature nor listen to my poetry. I want you to see for yourself where our society’s real work lies. That is the reason why I am pointing to it over and over again. My reward will be if you can feel for yourself the value of this work.”

Uma Das Gupta

These are all incidents woven into a book called A History of Sriniketan by historian and Tagore biographer, Uma Das Gupta, who did her post-doctoral research on the maestro and the history of the educational institutions he founded at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. She moved out of Oxford and pursued her studies in Calcutta. She has highlighted Tagore uniquely as an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) operator and also an educator. Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) in her book Our Santiniketan, recently translated by Radha Chakravarty, focussed on his role mainly as an educator who sought to revive values, a love for nature along with rigorous academics to create thinkers and change makers like the author herself.

A History of Sriniketan is about his work among villagers to bridge gaps. Often, his poetry and writing expresses the empathy he felt for pain and suffering, his need to instil beauty and well-being into humankind so that they could evolve towards a better world — an ideal which he described to an extent in poems like ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ and India’s national anthem.

Dasgupta did this by not only delving into Tagore’s own writings but by devoting her life to unearth the depth of the maestro’s commitment and the hard work and money he invested in the project he described as his ‘Life’s work’. She even visited the villages and talked to the beneficiaries and workers. Her book is peppered with photographs of the Tagore in Sriniketan. It is amazing to see pictures of the poet with people from Sriniketan sitting on the ground or celebrating festivities.

Tagore, Das Gupta tells us, poured all his Nobel prize money, into the Sriniketan Bank project which was led by his son, Rathindranath. The project hoped to free the peasant from debt. How well were these experiments received by Tagore’s contemporaries? Das Gupta writes in her book: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rabindranath had to encounter all of those things, that is, to ‘overcome opposition’ and to ‘conquer space and time’, in no uncertain measure. In short, he had to drive hard to do anything good for a better village life. As a first step, he insisted that Indians should unite to provide nation-building services to the village and not look to the State for doing what was our own duty towards our people. For him, this had to be the more important function of the Swaraj being sought from alien rule.

“In Rabindranath’s view, what had misled society in our transition to modernity was the introduction of the Western concepts of private property and material progress. What this led to was that mankind, though never free from greed, now crossed the limits, within which it was useful rather than harmful. What came about as a result was that property became individualistic and led to the abandoning of hospitality to our people and loss of communication with them. As a consequence, there was an increasing divide between city and village. He found all that to be the reality, when trying to bring about changes, both in his family’s agricultural estates and in the villages surrounding Santiniketan-Sriniketan.”


Tagore, Nandalal Bose & Leonard Elmhirst are together in this picture taken in 1924. Lord Elmhirst, then Tagore’s secretary/assistant stands at the back with Nandalal Bose between him and Gurudev. Courtesy: Creative Commons

To bridge this divide, Sriniketan was created with the involvement of more of the Tagore family, agriculturists, scientists from all over the world, like Leonard Elmhirst whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work, and artists, like Nandalal Bose. It was a path breaking experiment which found fruition in the long run. They adapted from multiple cultures without any nationalistic biases. Rathindranath brought batik from Indonesia into the leather craft of Sriniketan. We are told, “One of the early influences was from Santiniketan’s association with a group of creative thinkers from Asia, who were spearheading a Pan-Asian Movement that questioned Western hegemony in art and artistic expression. A pioneer of the Pan-Asian Movement was Kakuzo Okakura (1863–1913, Japanese scholar and author of The Book of Tea). He came to Calcutta in 1904, when he met Rabindranath, and they became friends. Okakura admired and supported Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school. Nandalal’s Kala-Bhavana syllabus included Okakura’s artistic principles of giving importance to nature, tradition, and creativity, which were the same as Rabindranath’s artistic principles.”

That Tagore’s effort was unique and overlooked by the mainstream is well brought out through the narrative which does not critique but only evidences. For instance, Das Gupta contends: “He (Tagore) wrote the same to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, in a letter dated 28 February 1930, when appealing for a government grant towards agricultural research. ‘I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Lord Irwin had come for a visit to Sriniketan at the time and Rabindranath was told of his favourable impression of what he saw during his visit to Sriniketan. In his letter, Rabindranath wrote how he was doing the work ‘almost in isolation’, without any understanding from his people or from the government.” Does that often not continue to be the story of many NGOs?

Sriniketan by Dasgupta is a timely and very readable non-fiction which brings to light not just the humanitarian aspect of Tagore but the need for the world to wake up to the call of nature to unite as a species beyond borders created by humans and live in harmony with the Earth. It all adds up in the post-pandemic, climate-disaster threatened world. To survive, we could learn much from what is shared with us in this book. I would love to call it a survival manual towards a better future for mankind. Scholarship has found a way to connect with the needs of the real world. The book is reader friendly as Das Gupta writes fluently from the bottom of her heart of a felt need that is being voiced by modern thinkers and gurus like Harari — we need to bridge borders and unite to move forward.

Das Gupta retired as Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. She was Head of the United States Educational Foundation in India for the Eastern Region. Recently, she has become a National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IAAS), Shimla, and a Delegate of Oxford University Press. Her publications include Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography; The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Essays on Education and Nationalism; A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson, 1913–1940; Friendships of ‘largeness and freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi, An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940. In this interview, she focusses mainly on her new book, A History of Sriniketan, while touching on how Tagore differed from others like Gandhi in his approach, his vision and enlightens us about a man who created a revolution in ideological and practical world, and yet remained unacknowledged for that as in posterity he continues to be perceived mainly as an intellectual, a poet and a writer.


Uma Das Gupta in the corridors of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla, where she was visiting as a  National Fellow (2012 – 2014) to advise on a permanent exhibit on Tagore’s life and work. The project was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture in celebration of Tagore’s 150th anniversary. This Institute is housed in the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge of imperial times. Photo provided by Uma Das Gupta

You are a well-known biographer of Tagore and have done extensive research on him. What made you put together A History of Sriniketan?

Grateful for your kind appreciation.

Writing a history of Sriniketan has been a priority for me. As a Tagore biographer, my dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. His work at Sriniketan is of prime importance in that perspective. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre, lyric, poetry, narratives, short stories, novels and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since I did not intend to write a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Tagore’s life, equally.  My choice was to explore his educational ideas and to examine how he implemented them at his Santiniketan and Sriniketan institutions. His work as an educator and rural reformer is even today hardly known because his genius as a poet and a song writer overshadowed his work as an educator, rural reformer, and institutional builder. That area of research was quite virgin when I started it as a post-doctoral project in the mid-1970s. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre I have drawn on the work of the scholars who know the subject better than I do.  

My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in Tagore’s writings and his actions. These were about the alienation in our own society between the elite and the masses, about race conflict and the absence of unity in our society, India’s history, nationalism, national self-respect, internationalism, an alternative education, religion, and humanism as elaborated by him in his collection of essays titled The Religion of Man (1931).

A History of Sriniketan is a detailed presentation about his ideas and his work on rural reconstruction. The idea of doing something to redeem neglected villages came to him when he first went to live in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal. His father sent him as manager in 1889. The decade that he spent there was his first exposure to the impoverished countryside. He was then thirty, already a poet of fame, and had lived only in the city till then. The experience played a seminal part in turning him into a humanist and a man of action. The closer he felt to the masses of his society the further he moved from his own class who were indifferent to the masses. His independent thinking gave him the courage of conviction to work alone with his ideas of ‘constructive swadeshi’. 

As a pragmatist he knew there was not a lot he could do given his meagre resources as an individual in relation to the enormity of the needs. But he was determined at least to make a beginning with the work. His goals were a revitalized peasantry, village self-reliance through small scale enterprises, cottage industries and cooperative values. He wrote, “If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”

Disillusioned with nationalist politics he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of his times. Tagore was convinced there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the Santiniketan-Sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He thus brought a different dimension to nationalism by arguing for universal humanity. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed on his country by colonial rule. He had the foresight to sense that the awakening of India was bound to be a part of the awakening of the world.  

What is the kind of research that went in into the making of this book? What got you interested in Tagore in the first place?

I am a historian by training. Historians have to back up every statement they make in their analysis by written documents. That is why the historian’s main source is the archives. Likewise, my research for this book has been mainly archival. I searched for written documentation from 1922 when the Sriniketan scheme of rural reconstruction work was officially launched. The documentation included the minutes of meetings, memoranda exchanged among the workers of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, official notes, and annual reports written and filed.

In addition, I used to visit the villages in which the scheme was implemented to get an understanding of the ground reality. The work was started with six villages in 1922, extended to twenty-two more villages in the first ten years, and to many more villages afterwards. When the work was being run on a small scale, the Institute tried to post a village worker to stay in the village itself and work along with the villagers to implement the Sriniketan scheme. Some of these villages actually kept notes and records of their work which I could use as part of my local level research. I also interviewed some of the workers who had retired but who were still living around Sriniketan in their old age though their number was small. I have used those oral interviews in my documentation. Some of the Village Workers had their own private correspondence to which they gave me access.

There is also extensive personal correspondence in the Rabindra-Bhavana Archives between the leaders of the Sriniketan work. Among them first and foremost are Rathindranath Tagore and the British agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst, whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work. Elmhirst had been to India earlier as a Wartime Volunteer during World War 1. When Tagore came to know of him through another British agriculturist working in Allahabad, Sam Higginbottom by name, he contacted Elmhirst with a request to come to Santiniketan and to lead the Sriniketan work. One of Tagore’s prime targets was to implement Scientific Agriculture in the villages. In fact, many years earlier, in 1906, he had sent his son Rathindranath and another student of the Santiniketan school, Santoshchandra Majumdar, who was Rathindranath’s classmate, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to study Agriculture with the view that they would bring back the expertise for the Sriniketan work at the completion of their studies.       

Leonard Elmhirst & his wife: Courtesy: Creative Commons

Elmhirst was in Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924 after which he returned to his work in England. He worked closely with the Sriniketan team even from far through the letters they exchanged. Rathindranath consulted Elmhirst regularly over Sriniketan’s work in progress and this correspondence is in the archives.

There is also a very charming body of personal letters between Tagore and Elmhirst. Tagore’s originals are among the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartinghall Hall Trust archives in Devonshire, UK, and Elmhirst’s original letters are in the Rabindra-Bhavana archives, Santiniketan. This correspondence has been published.  

Another very important source of documentation is available in the Diaries of Leonard Elmhirst which he wrote from the start of the Sriniketan work in 1922. Elmhirst’s Diaries were published by Visva-Bharati titled Poet and Plowman. There are some day-to-day accounts of how the work was being done on the ground by a group of senior students from Santiniketan who had chosen this field for training and of course by the Village Workers who had been appointed by the Institute. There were other leaders who helped with the work throughout like Kalimohan Ghose who later carried out the pioneering Surveys of the Villages. I have included some of these path breaking Surveys in the Appendices of A History of Sriniketan.   

Last but not the least important for my research were Tagore’s ideas of education and rural reconstruction about which he wrote several essays in two important collections, namely Palli-Prakriti (Countryside and Nature) and Sikshya (Education). Some of the essays were autobiographical as to how he started the rural work in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal where his father sent him in 1889. He stayed at Selidaha, the Estates’ headquarters, with his family till 1900 when he moved to Santiniketan in South Bengal’s Birbhum district where his father had founded an ashram and called it Santiniketan, the ‘Abode of Peace’. It was not a monastic ashram but one for householders to spend some days in prayer and meditation away from their household responsibilities. This is where Tagore and his young family moved in 1900-01 with his plans to start a school for children in the heart of nature. It was to be a school where the children could learn to creatively assimilate the knowledge imparted to them instead of in the classroom that characterised colonial education. This was how his Santiniketan school was founded in 1901.

Santiniketan was located within two miles of the Bolpur Railway Station on the East Indian Railway Line. It was situated on high ground, in the middle of a wide plain, open to the horizon on all sides. There, father and son had planted noble groves of mainly mango and sal trees. There, in the heart of nature not far from a big city, Tagore had the advantage of being able to draw upon both raw materials and cultural products in equal measure as it were. There was the influence of trees, open fields, and the seasons changing so starkly on the one hand; on the other hand, there was the inspiration of artists, science teachers, libraries, and hand-made, machine-made, equipment.        

You ask why I got interested in working on Tagore. There is a very personal story to share. When our son was born in Oxford where my husband and I were working with University Fellowships during 1972-73, we decided to move to Visva-Bharati on an invitation from the then Vice-Chancellor, the eminent historian Pratul Chandra Gupta. We were of course attracted to the possibility of being at Tagore’s institution and also to the prospect of raising our child in its pastoral environment. We did thus move to Visva-Bharati in 1973 leaving our Calcutta jobs at Presidency College, where my husband was Professor of History, and Jadavpur University, where I was teaching. Once we went Visva-Bharati, I began to explore the possibility of doing post-doctoral research on Tagore rather than on colonial history as was the area of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford.

What would be the purpose of such a book? Do you think Tagore’s model would work if multiple NGOs adopted his ideas?

As I have already mentioned I am a biographer of Tagore’s educational ideas and the history of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. To me writing this book on a history of Sriniketan was an integral part of my research. But at a personal level, I was concerned that the history of that practical and experimental work that Tagore did under the most difficult of circumstances might get completely forgotten if it were not documented. That was a genuine concern because of two reasons. Firstly, while Santiniketan has retained its charm as a popular tourist spot, and as Santiniketan’s oldest buildings of exceptional architecture had become heritage buildings, Sriniketan did not have anything to show or display for outsiders to connect with its one-time strident presence in bringing life and action to the villages. Secondly, Sriniketan never reinvented the wheel but just carried on from the 1950s as a unit of Visva-Bharati University to fill in for routine bureaucratic and funding purposes. Even its beautiful and thriving craft work that brought acclaim to Sriniketan from well beyond its precincts, would slowly but surely erode.  

Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to document a pioneering humanistic enterprise for posterity, and also for the next generations who were expected to be engaged in the field of rural development even though the original model was not necessarily practically and theoretically viable in today’s socio-economic scenario. The book is also for the scholar and for the generally interested person. When I was starting my work in the mid 1970s, there was no doubt in my mind that Sriniketan was becoming less visible.   

As for whether multiple NGOs could use the Tagore model is for the NGOs to tell us, but I do know that in its neighbourhood, Sriniketan remains an important inspiration for mobilizing villages non-politically.  There have been one or two such movements in the vicinity of Santiniketan-Sriniketan which are continuing to work actively at grassroots. One is Pannalal Das Gupta’s ‘Tagore Society for Rural Development’. Founded in 1969-70 as a registered society, the Tagore Society specialises in motivating villagers to take on environmental self-help projects. There is also the ‘Amar Kutir Society for Rural Develoment’ located very close to Sriniketan which was once a shelter for runaway political prisoners. Founded in 1923 by Susen Mukhopadhyaya, a young revolutionary freedom fighter then, who was attracted to Tagore’s work in rural reconstruction. We learn from his writing that he kept observing the work while coming in and out of jail himself.  ‘Amar Kutir’ developed the work of organising local crafts persons, upgrading their skills, training them in design, and in marketing their products for economic rehabilitation. The Birbhum district had several families of traditional weavers. Some of them had been engaged in trade by the East India Company.     

Another such non-governmental private initiative for rural development has come up more recently in 1984 in the outskirts of Sriniketan called the ‘Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies’, (EICS), whose members are working mainly in the areas of women and child development including family counselling, family adoption, de-addiction and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS education and intervention. They were started with substantial moral and financial support from Elmhirst who was interested in spreading Sriniketan’s pioneering enterprise and taking the ideas further to meet the needs of the later day.    

In other parts of India individual leaders were drawn to the work of building village self-reliance and a few had dedicated themselves to the cause in post-independence India. For his Ashrams at Sabarmati and Wardha, Gandhi himself kept closely in touch with Sriniketan which he visited several times even after Tagore’s passing and knew it well. Gandhi’s follower, Baba Amte, in Madhya Pradesh was a key worker in the field. More contemporarily one reads of the utopian commune ‘Timbaktu Collective’ in rural Andhra Pradesh where a husband-and-wife team, Bablu and Mary Ganguly, have organised the hapless farm labourers of Anantapur district to work for the regeneration of wasteland and start projects on organic farming, soil conservation, propagation of traditional food crops and have also taken steps for women’s and Dalit empowerment and rural health. Most of these ideas were at one time born and nurtured in the holistic laboratory for socio-economic development that Sriniketan was. Bablu Ganguly acknowledges Fukuoka as his mentor. Being Bengali by birth, it would not be surprising if he was aware of Tagore but perhaps only as a poet and songwriter.      

Tagore withdrew from the national movement to develop villages, which is where, he felt lived a large part of India. Gandhi had a similar outlook. So, where was the divide?

With his deepening sympathy for the suffering millions of his country, Tagore became increasingly critical of the changes that Britain had brought to India. But he also felt strongly for the West’s ideas of humanism and believed they were of benefit to Indian society. Revolutionary changes were inescapably entering into our thoughts and actions. This was evident in the proposition that those whom our society decreed to be ‘untouchables’ should be given the right to enter temples. The orthodox continued to justify their non-entry into temples on scriptural pretexts, but such advocacy was being challenged and resisted. The people’s ‘voice’ had put out the message that neither the scriptures nor tradition nor the force of personality could set a wrong right. Ethics alone could do so.   

There were important factors that led gradually to this new way of thinking. The impact of English literature was one such. Tagore pointed out that acquaintance with English Literature gave us not only a new wealth of emotion but also the will to break man’s tyranny over man. This was a novel point of view. The lowly in our society had taken it for granted that their birth and the fruits of their past actions could never be disowned; that their sufferings and the indignities of an inferior status had to be meekly accepted; that their lot could change only after a possible rebirth. Society’s patriarchs also held out no hope for the downtrodden. But contact with Europe became a wake-up call. It was no surprise that in his landmark essay Kalantar (Epoch’s End) Tagore recalled and endorsed the British poet Robert Burns’s unforgettable line, “A man’s a man for a’ that.

It was in that longing to bring hope to the deprived people that Tagore and Gandhi felt really close. They were both carrying out rural reconstruction work because they knew that the majority of Indians lived in villages and wanted to bring awakening and national consciousness to the villages as the prime goal to freedom. Both men focused their attention on the peasantry as the largest class within Indian society who were paralysed by anachronistic traditions and weighed down by poverty and the absence of education.

The major issues on which Tagore and Gandhi differed were debated nationally. Before discussing the specific issues in the controversy, it would be useful to examine their general positions on freedom and nationalism. In The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore developed the position that the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the “perfection of human relationship”. Gandhi applied the same principle to resolving India’s racial conflict. Tagore took the idea further and challenged the credo of nationalism. Tagore argued that the basis of the nation-state was a menace to the ideal of universal harmony or to the “perfection of human relationship”. But to the nationalist leadership all over the country, including Gandhi, political self-rule or swaraj came to be understood as a necessary phase of spiritual self-rule, or swarajya, and nationalism as the first step towards attaining free human fellowship.

Tagore alone spoke out against that trend. He argued that the crucial stumbling block in India’s future lay in the social problems of the country such as the absence of human rights for the masses and the alienation between the educated classes and the masses. He emphasised what the country needed most of all was constructive work coming from within herself and the building of an ethical society as the best way for rousing national consciousness. The rest would inevitably follow, even political freedom.

In his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), Tagore seemed critical of Gandhi’s call for Khadi and burning of mill cloth imported from England. Yet, Sriniketan was a handicraft forum for villagers to find a way to earn a living through agriculture and craft. So, why the dichotomy of perspectives as both were promoting local ware? Where was the clash between Gandhi’s interpretation of Khadi and Tagore’s interpretation of selling indigenous craft?

There was never any conflict in their perceptions or feelings for the poor, Gandhi’s and Tagore’s. Other issues were stirred in relation to the Khadi campaign and the burning of foreign cloth. For instance, the Congress in 1924 moved a resolution under Gandhi’s recommendation enlisting its members to spin a certain quantity of cloth on the charka (spinning wheel) as a monthly contribution. The idea was to give the movement country-wide publicity, and also, to make spinning a means of bonding between the masses and the politicians.

Tagore was wholly opposed to the idea of using the charka as a political strategy for swaraj and explained his position in his 1925 essay titled ‘The Cult of the Charka’. He argued that there was no short-cut to reason and hard work if anything was to succeed; that nothing worthwhile was possible by mass conversion to an idea; that our poverty was a complex phenomenon which could not be solved by one particular application such as spinning and weaving Khadi. Tagore raised the question if our poverty was due to the “lack of sufficient thread”, or due to “our lack of vitality, our lack of unity”?

On burning clothes Tagore’s position was that such a method hurt the poor by forcing them to sacrifice even what little they obtained from selling those clothes. He concluded that buying and selling foreign cloth should be delegated to the realm of economics. In his reply Gandhi wrote, that he did not draw “a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics”. He added that the economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation “are immoral and therefore sinful”.     

Is Sriniketan unique? Can it be seen as Tagore’s model for rural development?

To the best of my knowledge there is no parallel institution in India.

I am not aware if Tagore was ever talking of a ‘model’ that he expected others to follow. He was certainly hoping, as he wrote, that his work will help to establish an “ideal” [his word] for the rest of the country.

My own sense is that an “ideal” has been established given that empowerment of the villages through the Panchayats has become a nationwide project. Of course, the government’s approach is not fully in character with Tagore’s holistic vision for the individual’s humanistic development. Today the individual hardly counts, politics and economics are what matter. All the same it has to be said that the villages are getting some attention and are not left to rot as had been the case in the earlier century.       

You have said that Tagore faced criticism for the way he used Nobel Prize money. Can you enlighten us on this issue? Tell us a bit about the controversy and Tagore’s responses.

As anyone would surmise the Nobel Prize money was very precious also to the Santiniketan community because the teachers and workers there had to struggle over the resources for the institution. But contrary to the community’s expectation, Tagore decided that the Prize money would be given to the cause of rural credit. He had started the Patisar Krishi (farmers’) Bank in 1906 followed by the Kaligram Krishi Bank. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Pal, the total investment in the rural banks in 1914 amounted to Rs 75,000 of which Rs 48,000 was invested in the Patisar Krishi Bank at 7% interest per annum and Rs 27,000 at the same rate of interest in the Kaligram Krishi Bank. Tagore decided that only the interest from those investments could be used to pay for the maintenance of the Santiniketan school. The actual purpose of the fund was to give loans to the poor peasants so as to relieve them from exploitation by moneylenders and some unethical landlords too. In order to repay their loans, the peasants had to sell their produce at a rate lower than the market price immediately after drawing the harvest. This phenomenon was causing them perpetual indebtedness. The Krishi Banks were to loan money to the peasantry at a lower rate than the money lenders and relieve them from the age-old exploitation.     

Tagore was firm that the primary beneficiary of his Nobel Prize money would be the poor peasantry of his family’s estates, and the Santiniketan school would be only the secondary beneficiary. He tried thus to balance his two main concerns when settling the future of his Nobel Prize money.  

It cannot be said there was a ‘controversy’ over this as Gurudev (which was how the community addressed Tagore) was too revered for a controversy to be raised about a decision that he had taken. But there was disappointment.  It seemed strangely that even his inner circle had not realised his deep emotional attachment and ideological commitment to the cause of the impoverished peasantry. Perhaps, my response to your earlier question may explain why. 

Tagore had noticed the gaps between the different strata of Indian society. Sriniketan was an attempt to bridge the gap. How far did his ideals succeed?

There was tremendous societal gap between the different strata of Indian society.  With all of Tagore’s will and effort, it cannot be said that the Sriniketan ideals could bridge the gap. Even today, a perceptive visitor, who visits Santiniketan and Sriniketan, located only within two miles of each other, can tell the difference between the two. Santiniketan looks bright and thriving, but Sriniketan looks neglected.    

Community life in the Indian villages was seen to break for the first time with the emergence of professional classes among the English-educated Indians. The city began to attract them away from the villages. Those Indians were happy to let the government take over guardianship of the people and relinquish to it their own traditional duties to society. The result was a widening gap between town and country, city and village.  Tagore knew from his life’s direct experience that none of those who dominated the political scene in his time felt that the villagers ‘belonged’. The political leadership apprehended that recognising this vast multitude as their own people would force them to begin the real work of ‘constructive swadeshi’. They were not even interested to try. That was where the Sriniketan effort was invaluable to Tagore. He saw that the endeavour built at least a relationship with the village, if nothing else.

The Sriniketan scheme sought to bridge the gap by bringing to the village a combination of tradition and experiment. Tagore knew that a civilisation that comprises of only village life could not be sustained. “Rustic” was a synonym for the “mind’s narrowness”, he wrote. In modern times, the city had become the repository of knowledge. It was essential therefore for the village to cooperate with the city in accessing the new knowledge.  One such vital area of expertise was in agriculture. His study of “other agricultural countries” had shown that land in those countries was made to yield twice or thrice by the use of science. A motor tractor was bought for Sriniketan in 1927 because he believed that the machine must find its way to the Indian village. He wrote,If we can possess the science that gives power to this age, we may yet win, we may yet live.”

Your book tells us that Sugata Dasgupta’s publication, A Poet & A Plan (1962) showed that Sriniketan had benefitted the villages it adopted decades after Tagore’s death. Has there been further development of these communities or is it status quo?

No, it cannot be said that it is status quo from the 1960s. There have been changes for sure. There have been benefits to the villages from the Government’s projects. Indeed, the government had adopted some of their early projects from Sriniketan’s original work.

More interventions are needed of course but it has to be said something is being done. Of course, the changes I can mention that have benefitted the condition of the villages and therefore the villagers’ lives came well after Sugata Dasgupta’s publication. The three that I can mention are communications, roads, and electricity. Today there are more long-distance buses than ever before transporting people to and from the villages. Totos and cycle rickshaw-vans take passengers from the bus stands to the interior villages. Roads are another major development.  Besides the highways, the mud paths in the villages are now being converted to metalled roads. There is electricity in the villages.

I should mention one other significant change which is that secondary education is now fairly common to the present-day rural populace. College education has also come within their reach.

What is the current state of the present day Sriniketan? What do you see as the future of Sriniketan?

Presently, Sriniketan runs as a department or unit of Visva-Bharati University and works according to the University’s requirements. I am not acquainted with the requirements. I continue to be a regular user of the University’s Rabindra-Bhavana archives even now. But I have not been connected with the University in any official capacity after the 1980s which is a long time ago.

Thank you for your time.

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

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