Categories
Independence Day Musings

An Immigrant’s Story

By Candice Louisa Daquin

I have an English accent because I learned English in England. After nearly 20 years in the US this is an accent, I wish I could rid myself of, owing to the assumptions made. I’m neither English nor imperialistic and Independence Day has always been challenging with comments like: “Well your side lost!” shouted my way a few times. I want to say, we’re all universal now, we all come from a multitude of places, accents and skin color aren’t accurate reflections of anything so stop being small minded.

Despite this, Independence Day has grown on me. Why? If I didn’t grow up in America, why would it really relate to me? Neither English nor American, it was hard to relate to. But you know what helped? Getting naturalized. Granted. I didn’t grow up in American schools pledging allegiance to the flag. This does inculcate and cause a great deal of loyalty which has brought 50 states into relative harmony, which is more than the EU could ever achieve in Europe.

Binding together such a melting pot of differing cultures into one ‘American culture’ is what made America, American. This is no small thing. And when you are an immigrant, there is nothing more emotionally rewarding than gaining that foothold, that coveted opportunity, to be part of the American Dream. The only question is, does it still exist, the dream part?

I would argue it does. As much as economically I know we can’t go from cotton picking farmer to CEO quite as readily as once we did, and that there are striations and class divisions in this country, even as we deny them. Though racism and bigotry continues to deny swaths of society, and affirmative action, permits entry, it’s more complicated than a straight shot to success the way we might have once imagined it, in the 1950’s heyday.

As I wasn’t alive in those days, I can’t speak to whether they were mythologized but I can say, America was affluent after World War II in a way Europe couldn’t imagine, being decimated in every respect. As such, there were leaps and bounds made in America that weren’t mirrored in much of the rest of the world. Like anything, this didn’t last, and America is no longer the leader of the world, if ever it was. But the dream is still alive, maybe as much in our imaginations as reality. Maybe it’s the idea of it more than the actuality of it.

That said, people send their kids to American universities to help them succeed, almost against modern wisdom. There are better schools elsewhere but we are still somewhat spellbound by the lure of big recognizable names, just as Hollywood continues to thrive, despite larger industries like Bollywood. We are sentiment to the America of old, and as such, the modern America can benefit from this and it does.

Independence gave America more of her identity than she had when she was being bled dry by the English royalty. America exists because of immigration. Native Americans were slaughtered in droves in order to ‘make way’ for the hordes of then foreigners. Parts of Mexico (Texas, New Mexico, California) were essentially stolen (or rightfully won, if you read some history books) in unfair wars, the French stupidly sold Louisiana and the Russians sold Alaska. These pieces came slowly together, and when the British lost America, the idea of truly being unfettered came into being and painted the American psyche.

So aside the obvious connotations and a holiday for most American’s who might not consider the historical import of Independence Day, what else does it represent? For many immigrants such as myself, it represents a change from what was. I didn’t grow up patriotic to a country, that was a foreign concept, and yet, as I stood in the Naturalization ceremony and put my hand over my chest and sang the songs, and waved the flag, as absurd as it felt on one level, it also felt very meaningful. That surprised me and my friends ‘back home’ might laugh to read this, but that’s what happens when you immigrate, or what should happen, you become something new. To me that’s what Independence Day is all about, a way forward from who you were before. Most of us could learn something from that, as we tend to be stuck in our ways, unable to relate to change and new concepts. There still is something deeply alluring about America and it’s our ability to take in a great variety of different people from all around the world and still retain a sense of what being American is, including transmitting this feeling to those newcomers as they arrive.

For this reason alone, we should all be proud to be American. For all the negatives, such as continuing racism and oppression, poverty and sexism, there are so many positive things about being American and that’s why so many people try to immigrate to American every single year. It’s no coincidence we’re continue to be a highly sought country to live in, it’s not simply our perceived economic opportunities, it’s the whole enchilada and that includes this elusive concept of what ‘being’ American is.

Many of us even from other countries, grew up deeply influenced by Americana. That included the golden years and even what came afterward, because Americans are very self-confident and they really know how to put their best foot forward. Social media may have us believe all is negative because there are those who like to criticize and never say anything positive, but this doesn’t really change things as much as we think. People still envy our freedom throughout the world and it was a hard-won freedom that none of us should forget, no matter where we live and where we intend to live. Freedom is something to never take for granted, and in this sense, Independence Day is a universal theme, freedom from oppression and the right to self-expression.

I hope American’s remember how lucky they are and spend less time fighting and more time appreciating those things we tend to take for granted. I can have an opinion in this country that disagrees with everyone and nobody will come and arrest me and take me away. Even if people don’t like my differences, I am protected by law and allowed to be different. Those are liberties many people don’t have, and I am mindful of this when I think of traveling as a gay woman, or for that matter, as a woman!

That said, we should also be mindful that freedom can vanish almost overnight, unless we make the right decisions in how we vote, and be aware of plans to undermine freedoms. Those who believe immigration is wrong, often point to increased immigration leading to less jobs, more change and an erosion of The American Way. I don’t agree, because the American way is immigration, it always has been. Sometimes bad (killing Native Americans, taking African slaves). Sometimes good (growing a country from people from every part of the world). If it didn’t work to have immigrants, America as we know it, wouldn’t exist.

However, with population increases, come difficulties, not least a lack of jobs, economic opportunity. So, we cannot simply open the gates without due care to the realities of this. The answer lies in being merciful to those who need better lives, and realistic about what we can do versus what won’t work. Equally, we need to be mindful of those who live here now and meet their needs as much as we help others. I feel lucky I have had a chance for a better life but I also miss my culture and the nuances of where I came from. I want others to have the chance I had, and I believe if you work hard and you are an honest person, you should be given that chance. Where that may fall short is when a person from a different culture fails to realize part of immigration is accepting you are coming to a different country and you must respect that country. If say, you are a man who is used to disrespecting women because your home country condones that, you cannot bring those values to a new country and expect that to work. In this sense, immigrants must be as responsible as the host country in their success as an immigrant and respect the host countries values. I feel safer in America as a gay woman and as a woman than so many other countries throughout the world. I don’t want that to change, and I want women from countries that condone gender-based-abuse to feel they can come to America and be unmolested.

We all make America better, when we respect this delicate balance. I for one feel immigrants are the most likely to vote and be active in making change, because they are both grateful and excited to have the chance. When I was naturalized, I was asked if I would vote because it was part of my ‘duty’ as an immigrant to give my input. I have voted in every election and I try not to bury my head in the sand about anything that matters because I feel it’s my duty to have my eyes wide open, that’s how we keep our independence and our freedoms.

The Inscription reads as: GALVESTON WAS THE PORT OF ENTRY FOR THOUSANDS OF IMMIGRANTS WHO SETTLED IN TEXAS AND THE SOUTHWEST. FEDERAL LAYS ENACTED IN 1875 ENDED THE UNRESTRICTED ENTRY OF IMMIGRANTS INTO THE COUNTRY AND LED TO THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE AREA’S FIRST U.S. IMMIGRATION STATION AT GALVESTON’S PIER 29. THERE U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICIALS CONDUCTED MEDICAL EXAMS, BAGGAGE INSPECTIONS AND FORMAL PROCESSING OF IMMIGRANTS. THOSE FOUND TO BE DISEASED OR INCAPACITATED FACED DEPORTATION. THE U.S. CONGRESS CHOSE GLAVESTON OVER NEW ORLEANS AS THE SITE OF A MAJOR NEW FEDERAL IMMIGRATION STATION IN 1906. PLANS TO BUILD AN IMPRESSIVE IMMIGRANT LANDING STATION ON PELICAN ISLAND COMPARABLE TO NEW YORK’S ELLIS ISLAND FACILITY WERE NEVER FULLY REALIZED. THE SCALED DOWN STATION, FULLY OPERATIONAL BY 1913, WAS DAMAGED BY HURRICANE WINDS IN 1915 ABD CLOSED IN 1916. tHE IMMIGRATION OFFICES WERE SUBSEQUENTLY RELOCATED TO A BUILDING ON GALVESTONS’S 21ST STREET.
A NEW 3-STORY IMMIGRATION STATION CONTAINING IMMIGRATION OFFICES, DORMITORIES, MEDICAL FACILITIES, A KITCHEN, AND DINING AND RECREATIONAL AREAS WAS COMPLETED HERE AT 1700 STRAND IN 1933. IT WAS USED AS AN IMMIGRATION AND DEPORTEE-STAGING FACILITY UNTIL ABOUT 1940 WHEN IT WAS CONVERTED FOR USE AS A U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICE. Photo and inscription courtesy: Creative Commons

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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

Categories
Musings

I am a Jalebi

By Arjan Batth

Frying Jalebis

A jalebi, with a name as eccentric as its appearance, is made by a halwai (or a confectionery maker) with skillful etchings of concentric circular shapes of a paste of flour in hot bubbling ghee like a discerning painter with a brush. Oil simmers in unison with Lata Mangeshkar’s filmi voice, price bargaining, and noisy traffic — a distinctly South Asian symphony. The jalebi becomes fully congealed, eventually submerged in syrup and infused with its sweetened spirit. This delicate confection is then put in a basket on the side of a narrow street or in the midst of a chaotic bazaar, appearing as a platter of petite suns, seducing the occasional child like a syrupy siren. There are other mithai or sweets among it — barfis, ladoos, gulab jamun and more besan (gram flour) progenies. But the jalebi, like me, is markedly different from the rest. While it may be quite odd to describe oneself as a confection, I have inevitably come to the realization that I am, quite indubitably, a jalebi.

I am a jalebi not because I am saccharine, nor because of my lingering unpalatable aftertaste, but rather, because I am different, with my intricately eccentric swirls and peculiar oddities — a disorderly collection of twists that spiral infinitely into oblivion. I remain a vibrant enigma that is overtly incongruous, out of place in the world around me, a spectacle that can’t quite be made sense of. Seeing myself as a jalebi seemed the only way to make sense of the various oddities I have exhibited from a young age. It finally offered an explanation for my differences which seemed to have no tangible cause or explicable origin. And while it was a peculiar explanation, it was an explanation nonetheless, one that temporarily ended a search for an answer and brought with it a certain equanimity. Although I may not be appealing in the way a jalebi is, I am indeed the confection — a twisted, swirly, and overly orange one.

It was self-evident from a young age that I was not like most others. It was this feeling of being different that later blossomed into a profound estrangement. Most people are products of their environment and are thus well adapted to their surroundings. However, I seem to be the product of some other, indefinable forces. I feel irrelevant, always having the urge to be somewhere else, where others are more similar to me in a place that would make me feel a little more relevant. I am under the impression that I was born into the wrong life, in the wrong circumstances or context, the subject of a divine blunder and ridiculed by probability. I should be this rather than that. There rather than here. I am frustrated by the immutability of it all, the permanence of the things you are born into — religion, culture, language, and time. While it may seem futile to be frustrated by such things, they didn’t seem to fit in with who I was.

Inevitably, I remain pierced by loneliness. It is a paradoxical loneliness, not one due to physical isolation, but one borne out of my ability to see the world differently than most and my inability to see the world conventionally. One of the most distressing things that I felt knew, or at least believed I knew, that there were others like me, but just that they weren’t where I was, as if they were deliberately staying hidden away from me. While I have had some relationships before, most lack the intimacy and closeness that comes with genuine friendship. Compared to others, my idiosyncrasies and differences seemed magnified to a microscopic level, making me feel that there was something wrong with me clinically. This estrangement created an opaque silence within me, when I could no longer make sense of what was happening around me. I felt completely different, the discomfort and incongruity in the air around me, almost seemingly tangible and graspable, as thick and viscous as sea water. It is this certain “off” feeling, a discomfort, a malaise of some sort, a feeling of deep irrelevance, that I often felt.

My condition seems to be mirrored by the big jalebi in the sky, the Sun, the suraj, who like me, exhibits much jalebi-ness. The Sun’s interstellar solitude reminds me of my own alienation. It is the only star of its kind in the solar system; the next nearest star is 4.25 light years (24.9 trillion miles) away. And quite significantly, both of us are seemingly encumbered by the weight of the universe.

While I may seem outwardly peaceful because of my superficial reticence, I actually remain quiet because of the turmoil within me. I am pensive while my thoughts attempt to make sense of the confusing world around me. My mind is a spiraling jalebi that tightens and tightens, swirls and swirls, twirls and twirls into neurotic rumination. I often feel disordered, like a faulty machine. I am anxious and apprehensive about some things, fastidious about minor aberrations, and often despondent.

Some days, everything seems to be tinged in a certain sadness. A certain understood, yet unspoken hopeless injustice. My melancholy springs from a fusillade of realisations about the world.  Being exposed to the world’s harshness and its lack of hope and reason, my reality seems to have a propensity, an innate tendency, to be brutal. I anachronistically experienced the Romantic ennui that French teenagers felt in the 19th century, trying to find meaning in our capitalistic, success driven world. Like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I am a ghost of sorts, a specter of vicarious and passive living. But beyond my nihilism, I am disturbed by the unfathomability of concepts that govern our universe: the concept of time, the size of the universe, death, the sun’s brightness, human consciousness. But as a single living organism, the universe has no obligation to make sense to me and holds no obligation of any other kind.

I am also a jalebi because of my South Asian background. Even though I have grown up thousands of miles away from India, it infuses itself into my life, an  every day, colouring of a distinct shade of Indianness. It is in the food I swallow. The thoughts I think. The genes that materialize my body. Yet, there is a disconnect to “my homeland” not only due to the seemingly interminable physical distance, but because I have spent my entire life in the West. As such, I perceive India and the world through a unique lens. I see it as a Westerner, yet also as an Indian, making sense of the world through a complicated, paradoxical mosaics. 

The boundaries of a culture are always delineated by an “us” and “them”. But I struggle to define the “us” and the “them”. In India, the borders between ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity all simultaneously converge and diverge. In the modern post-colonial era with the ancient civilization partitioned and shattered, the definition of Indian is constantly questioned and changing. As technically a minority in India’s extremely diverse cultural landscape, I feel like a decimal point, a fraction not a whole, in a country with over a billion people. And in the US, I am not just American, but an Indian American — another “doctor” trying to uphold the coveted model minority status.

I have long felt like an outsider, a conspicuous jalebi, in both places, perpetually stateless and displaced, like a refugee devoid of a nationality. As I don’t know what to think of my culture, I don’t know what to think of myself. There is no dictionary that contains my name as a word entry. No particular space to define me or explain who I am. It is absent. Unwritten. Blank. And so, in an attempt to define the indefinable, I define myself as a jalebi.

Rather than ponder upon my loneliness, I muse on the big jalebi in the sky, my constant companion. I try to find the sun in other things. The suraj meets me. Sometimes in the grass. In a busy city. Or near the ocean. On a windy day. Or on a walk. In my mind. In my dreams. Wherever really — sometimes among the surajmukhis (sunflowers)thatsprout out of the ground, with the grimming expression of the sun. The suraj is in the juicy, citrus fruits hanging off verdant trees. And of course, the sun is in every jalebi. I realize that because of the sun, all colours exist. Because of the sun, I am able to see. And while the sun does illuminate a brutal world, there are some things that my eyes can find worth looking at. I try not to think of the sadness that everything is tinged with, but rather the colours of our world. People wear sunglasses to dim the radiance of the sun, but I fully embrace its blinding light — I find solace in the sol. I sit there, a petite sun myself in the light of a large sun, wistfully wondering.   

And while I may feel quite alone right now, I think that other jalebis in other places are waiting for me. Somewhere on this spinning planet. Under the radiance of the big jalebi in the sky. Somewhere in this jalebi-shaped galaxy.

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Arjan Batth is a student from California. He has recently written a children’s book, ‘Dear Humans’, that tackles the issue of climate change. As a young South Asian-American, he is determined to represent Asians more in the writing field and has a passion for writing and literature. He can be reached at arjanbatth@gmail.com

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

Categories
Lockdown Musings

Navigating Borders

By Wendy Jones Nakanishi

It’s a commonplace that Covid-19 has shrunk our world. To limit the spread of the disease, the borders of many countries throughout the world were closed in March 2020 to all non-residents, and returning residents were required to spend two weeks on re-entry in supervised quarantine hotels.

Many nations have followed China’s lead in enforcing national lockdowns of varying degrees of stringency, with citizens urged to observe social distancing, avoid public transportation, and refrain from non-essential journeys. In the year and a half that has elapsed since reports of a deadly virus in Wuhan first made news around the world, global passenger air travel soon plunged 90% from pre-pandemic levels.

Mass gatherings have been banned and the use of face masks made mandatory. Meanwhile, as millions across the globe have been confined to their homes, with offices and businesses shut, many economies are on the verge of collapse. Only a few countries have rejected the imposition of lockdowns on its citizens, including Sweden, South Korea, and Tajikistan. The UK, where I have been living since late 2020, chose to adopt severe restrictions to contain the disease, including three lockdowns and the closure of schools, restaurants and bars and non-essential shops. Unfortunately, despite all these precautions and measures, it has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world.

I imagine many people share my longing for a return to the days when we were free: when we could travel where we liked, when we liked, and as we liked, whether by car or train or plane. The adage ‘What once were luxuries now have become necessities’ comes to mind. Perhaps we didn’t sufficiently appreciate our luck as inhabitants of the global society of the twenty-first century.

When I compare the present-day to life in the sixties, seventies and eighties, I think it is as though technological advances have made us like gods. Computers are largely responsible, and the invention of the internet. We have grown accustomed to being able to find any information we might seek or to buy any item we might want just by tapping a few keys on a laptop or by scrolling the screen of a mobile phone. Should I nurture curiosity about the Russian Revolution— seeking its causes, wondering when it began and when it ended, keen for details of the figures who played a significant role in this historic event— I can ‘Google’ the topic and possess all this knowledge literally in a matter of minutes. Should I require furniture, caviar, or a plane ticket to Bali coupled with hotel accommodation, I can buy any of these with ease and speed. Modern-day technology means that the acquisition of information and the means to gratify desires are now literally at our fingertips. Our lives are easy and luxurious in ways I could scarcely have dreamt of when I was young.

I spent my childhood in a tiny town in the American Midwest. The population of Rolling Prairie, Indiana, numbered less than five hundred in the late 1950s—and it isn’t much larger now.

Downtown Rolling Prairie, Indiana Buildings and Architecture. Photograph provided by author

The main street was two blocks long and, ironically, a dead-end, terminating in the entrance to a grain elevator by railway tracks. The town was tiny, yet it held all that we needed. There were two churches and two bars, a post office, a hardware store, a five-and-dime, a barber’s shop, a grocery, a tiny restaurant, and a small clinic. Best of all was a general goods store called Bozek’s. It had a soda fountain, a pinball machine, booths with juke boxes, and a long counter where the town’s farmers congregated to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. We children loved Bozek’s. It’s where we lingered on weekends and met our friends. Walking home from school, we could stop to buy ice cream or candy.

I both loved and hated Rolling Prairie as a child. On the plus side were the long idyllic summer holidays lasting from the end of May till the end of August. One hot bright morning would dawn after another, and we would be free to play outside all day, every day, without supervision or constraint. There were tall trees everywhere, and my friends and I would dare each other to climb those with low-hanging branches. We’d have games of badminton in my front yard and play baseball in a vacant lot next door. I could ride my bike up and down streets so deserted I never needed worry about traffic. Rolling Prairie was a quiet, peaceful place bounded by flat cornfields stretching to a horizon dotted by farmhouses, barns, and silos.

 On the minus side was the fact that our town was so small everyone knew everyone else’s business. Gossiping was a popular pastime. My parents quarreled and divorced, and suddenly I was a child in the only single-parent household in town. I had to get used to being looked at and talked about.

I was also surprised that nobody seemed to share my boredom, my restlessness: feelings that grew stronger as I got older. My friends at school and their parents who were, by and large employed as farmers and factory workers or as the proprietors of the small shops in town, were apparently content to stay put while I dreamed of escape. The tales of adventure I borrowed from the tiny library next to the grocery store— books like Treasure Island and The Count of Monte— fueled an urge to see the wider world. 

Borders in the sense of spaces marked out and enclosed can be geographical and political, but they can also be metaphysical and psychological. That a sense of confinement can be a matter of perspective rather than actual physical limits became apparent to me when I went to university. I enrolled at a campus of Indiana University that was two hundred miles from my hometown and, with its student body of over thirty thousand, was a far more cosmopolitan and diverse environment than anything I had encountered before. I thought I’d left Rolling Prairie but, in retrospect, I realized I carried it with me, that I was confined by my background. I felt intimidated by my new friends. I was the small-town girl consorting with big city types. I was suddenly confronted by the depths of my ignorance of the wider world.

I had a good knowledge of history and geography and especially of American and English literature, but I didn’t know which cutlery to use at a formal dinner or how to pronounce words I’d come across in books but never heard uttered. I lacked the assurance to summon a waiter at a restaurant. I lacked my friends’ confidence and easy fluency in social situations. I’ve struggled ever since to overcome this handicap and, admittedly, whenever I feel weak or vulnerable, I can still be overwhelmed by that old sense of inferiority. I continue to address shop staff as a supplicant rather than as a customer and, even now, can be crushed by a sudden rush of shyness when I find myself in a large group of strangers.

On graduating from Indiana University, I had to decide what to do with my life. Two paths presented themselves: studying to become a lawyer or venturing to Paris to spend a year working as an au pair. I’d taken pre-law classes and enjoyed and excelled at them. On the other hand, I longed for adventure. It was the proverbial fork in the roads. The first was the sensible option, but I decided to take the road less traveled. 

This is where I lived as an au pair in France: L’Etang-la-Ville outside Paris.

I got a job with a wealthy family living in a charming village on the outskirts of Paris. I learned to speak conversational French. My au pair Madame taught me, on our daily morning shopping excursions, how to ‘faire les courses’ – how to choose a perfectly ripe Camembert or the freshest of fruit and vegetables – while Monsieur, from an aristocratic family, owner of his own vineyard, instructed me in how to appreciate the finest of wines. I was required to take French classes every morning at a nearby city and, in the process, acquired the knack of navigating a moped through crowded French city streets.

I was often terrified, sometimes confused, occasionally perplexed. I was both laughed at and encouraged. It wasn’t easy, but I was delighted my horizons were expanding. Growing up in the States meant that I knew life only as an American. The States is so vast, so sufficient unto itself as well as self-regarding that, although it borders Mexico and Canada and is a nation of immigrants, life there can be sheltered, even provincial. I’ve always found, for example, that people living in the American Midwest tend to have little knowledge of and less interest in the outside world.

Groningen, in northern Holland. Photograph by author

In France, on the other hand, I had access to a much wider view of life’s possibilities. The other European countries as well as the UK were within easy striking distance. I tried to take advantage of every opportunity for adventure. I lived in a squat in Holland, hitchhiked through Germany and France, enjoyed a very alcoholic cheese fondue in Zurich, ate pizza on the Spanish steps in Rome, rode on a gondola in Venice, and camped on the pure white sandy beaches of Spain’s Balearic Islands.

I subsequently spent four years doing postgraduate study in the UK. On earning my doctorate in eighteenth-century English literature, I was hired as an English professor by a newly opened university in a sleepy fishing village in western Japan. Shido, in Kagawa prefecture, was reminiscent somehow of Rolling Prairie, but instead of corn and soybean fields cultivated by farmers, it had fishermen cultivating the ocean. Shido faced Sanuki Bay, an inlet of the Seto Inland Sea. I remember my first sight of the sea stretching beyond the hill housing the university campus. Its calm surface was marked out in neat lines of sticks. I learned they demarcated beds for oyster farming: the sticks are used to suspend trays or cages of oysters just beneath the surface for two or even three years as the oysters mature and become fat and tasty. Shido is also a producer of amberjack fish and laver seaweed.

I had intended to stay in Japan for two or three years. I ended up living and working there for thirty-six, having met a Japanese farmer and married him, becoming the mother of three boys. My husband designed a log house that was put up by builders who came over from North Carolina accompanied by all the materials that would be used in its construction, sent from the States to a port in Kobe. Once the building was habitable, my husband went on to plant trees and flowers and bushes in our large yard, and so many I came to feel I was living in an idyllic garden.

Takamatsu, Japan. Photograph by author

It all seemed like home until I reached the mandatory retirement age at my university. With one of my sons in New York City, another in Vienna, the third living in his own apartment thirty miles from our home and my husband occupied with projects and hobbies, I felt I needed to embark on yet one more adventure. I knew I would be lonely and bored and depressed without the structure to my life—and sociable companionship— full-time employment had offered me since I first arrived in Japan in the spring of 1984.

I now live in Lancaster, in the northwest corner of England. I go back to Japan around twice a year to spend a month with family and friends and probably will eventually return there ‘for good’. The old saying goes that ‘a change is as good as a rest,’ and while life in England isn’t particularly restful, I’m glad of a new focus for my energy. I think constant challenges keep us on our toes, keep us young. While my professional life in Japan was devoted to mental activities— teaching university classes, conducting research, attending conferences, publishing academic papers and creative non-fiction— my life in the UK as a retiree is often surprisingly physical. As a volunteer at a nature reserve in Lancaster, I find myself weeding, digging, cutting hedges and planting trees, and I’ve even assisted in the construction of several fences. I swim twice a week and attend yoga classes on Sundays and Thursdays. Lancaster has a wonderful system of cycle paths and foot paths, and I go for long bike rides and long walks in stunning scenery. I also belong to a choir and to a speech club.

The limitations we set on ourselves, or that we unconsciously accept, can and should be challenged. Most borders are surprisingly unstable. This is even true at the most basic level. Most of us tend to think of ourselves as discrete beings, separated from others and from our environment in some significant fashion. Our skin forms the boundary of separation.

But a constant process of give and take exists between us and our environment. We humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. We eat and drink and then excrete. We shed cells and hair. We copulate and produce more human beings. We were born of the flesh and blood of our mothers and with a genetic imprint of both our biological parents. We cannot meaningfully maintain the idea of ourselves as entities independent of other humans or our surroundings.

What is true on the personal level is equally true on the national or international, where boundaries are tenuous and easily dissolved or redrawn. The maps of Europe and Africa needed continually to be updated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because new countries were formed while some old ones simply disappeared—swallowed up by their neighbors. It was a febrile, dangerous time. With colonial expansion, territorial wars, and the rise of nationalism, some countries had their borders altered or were simply obliterated— assimilated by their neighbors. Some new nations also were created. Modern Italy came into being in 1861, while Germany was only unified as a politically and administratively integrated nation state ten years later, in 1871.

National borders are, of course, artificial constructs. They are created rather than natural or pre-ordained; they are man-made for convenience and expediency. Astronauts viewing the Earth from space have remarked on its beauty and fragility, saying that it looks like a blue marble orb with white swirls that is ‘hanging in the void’ or, as Buzz Aldrin described it in July 1969, ‘a brilliant jewel in the black velvet sky’. There are no signs of the terrible warfare that scars our planet and that are only too visible from a nearer perspective: barbed wire and bunkers, battle-ravaged landscapes, cities reduced to smoking ruins, and unexploded ordnance.

The pandemic has made us keenly aware of the existence of borders national and physical. It is not only that many of us have been confined to our own countries with travel to others proscribed. It has also focused our minds on our own personal limitations, both psychological and physical. Being forced to stay in our homes for long periods of time, deprived of the usual distractions offered by the outside world and by other people, we have been unable to escape our own company. I imagine these unprecedented circumstances have led to many of us embarking, often reluctantly, on journeys of self-discovery.  

Britain’s first lockdown was mainly viewed in a positive light. It was a warm and pleasant spring. People were enchanted by the novelty of the situation, relieved not to have to commute to jobs, glad to be allowed to work from home. For many, it inspired a frenzy of creativity. Facebook and Twitter were deluged by individuals boasting of how they’d lost weight by following exercise classes on Zoom or how they’d begun learning German. There were countless postings of photographs of home-made loaves of sour dough bread and immaculately maintained gardens gleaming with flowers. With the weather unusually fine, the national mood was optimistic. When the cases decreased during the summer months, it seemed we had all turned a corner. We’d had an interesting experiment. Now the virus was in remission and normal life beckoned.

Our optimism was premature. There was a resurgence of Covid cases in the autumn. The weather worsened and, to general horror and consternation, a second and then a third lockdown were imposed in the UK. A lockdown became an ordeal to be endured rather than an experience that offered enjoyment. The good intentions we harbored during the first—to acquire a skill, to embark on attempts at self-improvement, to spend quality time with the family— by and large were abandoned. The national mood darkened. We increasingly came to realize that Covid had the Earth’s inhabitants in its tight grip and that we had to simply grin and bear it and hope for the best.

Fortunately, it seems human ingenuity knows no bounds. Contrary to expectations, several vaccinations were developed, and in record time and by various countries: America, Britain, China and Russia. As I write this, in May 2021, more than thirty-seven million people in the UK have received at least one jab of either the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. Despite the recent appearance of the so-called Indian variant of the disease, the number of Covid cases and deaths has plunged dramatically.

Life often has been compared to a journey. Some argue that it is the journey itself, not the destination, that matters. It’s been a rough ride for all Earth’s inhabitants since January 2020.

I consider it a mixed blessing that we can never recover our pre-pandemic innocence. On the one hand, it has made us acutely aware of borders and limitations personal and global. A certain insouciance about life’s possibilities has been lost, perhaps forever. We have been confronted by the stark fact of our mortality. We have also become aware of the power of governments to restrict our civil liberties.  On the other hand, perhaps we can take comfort in the opportunity we are granted to appreciate afresh and anew privileges once they are restored to us. It’s a chance for us to reassess our priorities and glory in whatever personal freedoms we are allowed in our post-Covid world.

I, for one, plan to spend the time remaining to me in urgent but joyous exploration both of my own self—through meditation and reflection—and the outside world, through travel. I hope I can preserve my keen sense of gratitude for having been spared Covid infection. I want to relish every opportunity, to jump at any adventure life might offer, knowing how everything can change, how quickly I can lose all the freedoms and pleasures I once thought my birthright.

Wendy Jones Nakanishi, an American by birth, spent thirty-six years in Japan, employed as a professor at a private Japanese university. She has published widely on Japanese and English literature.

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Musings

The Significance of Roll Numbers

By Shahriyer Hossain Shetu

“What is your roll number in the class?”

I was never able to answer this question. At a very young age, I realised that the importance of having a roll number is highly significant in our society. This significance includes three important aspects that reflect a student’s life: First, on a scale of balance, the weight of a roll number placed next to a grade is heavier than any other qualities of a student. Second, it adds an enormous impact on careers availing people to differentiate between the best and the worst. And third, it clarifies who deserve all the importance as well as compliments from everyone.

Back then, I was not familiar with the concept. Due to my unfamiliarity with the term, I ended up questioning my Abbu (father), “What exactly is this roll number thing, why does everyone keep on asking me this question?” His answer, being straightforward as always, was, “Ask your Ammu (mother).” His reply was very much expected considering how hasty he has always been because of his work as a journalist. Asking my Ammu would have been a waste because she too would give me a similar response to Abbu. The scenario was like a football match where I, like a football, was being passed between one player to the another from the same team, unable to determine where exactly I was going.

Before getting admitted to a school, I mostly spent my time watching television. CN (Cartoon Network) was my best mate with whom I had spent most of my childhood. I got so obsessed with the fictional characters of CN that I started to draw them on papers using pens of different colors. My obsession started to develop into a habit and gradually to an escape from reality. But my escape route had to be closed as I was told by my parents that it is religiously prohibited to draw human figures. Plus, there is no particular future in such an obsession. “The real talent only lies in books and knowledge.” And to have a bright future, the first step is to reach the top position in the classroom. Thus, I stopped drawing.

I did my schooling in an ordinary English Medium institution located in Dinajpur. Because of my father’s job as a district correspondent, I was lucky to spend my childhood in that beautiful region. One well-known place in Dinajpur is the Boromaath (literally, Large Field), a huge green field that can be considered as the heart of the district. My school was close to Boromaath and we would often bunk our classes to play cricket or football on the big field. Our school was the only English medium institution in that locality and the idea of O and A level was not much appreciated by people who lived outside the capital. Thus, very few students in our vicinity were English medium students because people were also suspicious of the system in such schools.

As we were fewer student, the idea of having roll numbers was futile. Although, instead of roll numbers, we had registration numbers that were not given based on any academic excellence, capability, or talent. These numbers were like a code that they had shared with us as evidence for being a part of that institution. One can say that the numbers were an unnecessary adjunct, occupying an extra space in our school identity cards right under our long names.

The idea of classifying students was visible, even though we had no discriminating term as the roll number next to our grades in school. This categorisation of students based on academic grades came with extraordinary packages that concerned only the top candidates — too much care from the teachers, applause from parents, and the privilege of having too many friends. Unfortunately, I was not among the good ones to receive such privileges as my marks were never satisfactory and the dream of achieving the “extraordinary package” was never a reality for me. Due to my incapability, I had to go through an extreme ordeal of taunts and insults from my surroundings. I was already declared as the “worst” kind.

The ordeal phase was mostly because of a particular distant relative who could’ve been a millionaire if criticising could be called his full-time vocation. I still can recall the face of that overly concerned person who loved to critique my every action like a war hawk. He assumed that I was too embarrassed to share my roll number with anyone because of my poor grades. I wasn’t sure of the reason for his fantastic assumption. His way of speaking seemed too absurd to me, and I ended up raising my voice to prove my point, wrecking all traditional beliefs. As a result, I received the title of a “discourteous” child in the family. He even informed my other relatives about my “rudeness” just to prove his point.

Being raised by a middle-class family that only follows ethics and traditions, I am not supposed to defend myself from elders (not even to save my dignity) as it is religiously as well as societally prohibited. Although, using the code of “seniority,” an elder can cut and split me into two with his sharp-edged words.

He still reprimands my parents for not raising me properly because of that particular reason. How can defending ourselves from senior citizens who are almost toxic, wicked, and torturous be wrong? What does it have to do anything with our parent’s nurturing method? I still couldn’t figure it out.

The importance of roll number is still high in our country. Is it necessary to analyze a child’s future just by seeing his academic grades and categorizing him/her in first to last numbers? I don’t know. But I do know that this idea is destroying lives before it even started.

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Shahriyer Hossain Shetu is a student in the Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. Some of his writing has appeared in Daily Star, Bangladesh.

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Musings

The Quiet Governance of Instinct

By Candice Louisa Daquin

I grew up in a rational household. With people who tried to be rational all the time and usually were not. Despite this, I cleaved to the notion, rationality above emotionality or any other kind of reasoning.

My grandmothers were ridiculed for their superstitions and their gut instincts and women whose hands flew to their chests as they felt deeply, were laughed at. The provable, science of reason was the raison d’etre that ruled the day.

In living this way, two things happened. Firstly, I neglected my other instincts entirely. Secondly, I was wrong many times.

Reason cannot explain everything. It merely presupposes itself to be objective and thus, empirical. But as with any man-made presumption, it’s only as good as its maker, who of course, is anything but rational. Furthermore, there’s value in instinct — that gut instinct, someone has walked over my grave feeling your grandmothers had and you laughed at. Looking back, I cannot tell you how many times my gut instinct about a person or a situation was right and I ignored it because it wasn’t rational. For those of us who are non-believers, it’s very hard to believe in something less tangible than reason. But when we realise we have only believed reason is tangible, we can see all is fallacy and begin over.

Beginning over means being open to all possibilities including those that are not easily explained.When I get a feeling about something, I cannot point to its cause and explain it. So many times, I ignored it. More fool me, given it was nearly always right. It’s hard to explain to someone why you don’t want to get to know them, because your instincts say it’s not a good idea, so you go ahead and you ignore that, tamp it down, and later on realise, when they reveal themselves to be the unbalanced person you thought they were initially, how you should have had the courage to be honest. But how do you honestly explain to someone you don’t trust them just based on a feeling?

Instead, we do the socially approved norms and we neglect our instincts because how can we honestly get away with basing everything on feelings?

It is then, a huge irony that feelings, those initial thoughts we have upon meeting someone, are so often right. It may be as simple as an instinct like other animals have, and the accuracy of it is based upon the same natural instincts all animals share, that has just been forgotten by humans. We should make room for the validity of gut instincts and ‘senses’ given how accurate they are. They may not fit well with modern society, we may not be able to tout them as we do science, math, provable things. But when we realise so much of math and statistics is created by us, and thus, is only as empirical as we’ve made it, we can see everything is subjective and there is room for other modes of thinking and feeling.

I’m continually astounded by how accurate my gut instinct is. I met a woman once who I ended up working with extensively on a project. By all accounts she was a professional and a boon to the project. However, my first impression of her was she raised the hairs on the back of my neck. There was just something ‘wrong’ but I ignored this, feeing absurd for my feelings, and proceeded to work with her and have a friendship through that work. With time she revealed herself to be mentally unbalanced and worse, nothing of what she purported, and I found myself wishing I had known, when in reality I always had.

Rather than kicking ourselves we should applaud ourselves when we do have the courage to stand by our instincts. They have always been with us, they are not artificially imposed, they don’t worry about what others think and they’re not subject to whim as much ironically, as ‘facts’ can be, in this day of mutable truisms.

When something feels wrong, it’s probably wrong. When someone doesn’t seem right, they’re probably not. Don’t let their faux-shaming of your instincts, or your own, stop you from doing what you need to do to ward off potential calamity. We have instincts for a reason, and just as your cat knows when a predator is watching it, you know when one is watching you.

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Musings

Why I write?

By Basudhara Roy

Lest the title should endeavour to, and not illegitimately so, inspire grandiose expectations of an Orwellian figure articulating a significant thesis intended to shed historical light on a momentous body of work, its humble writer hastens, at the very outset, to clarify that the observations that follow amount to no pretentious authorial manifesto, constituting rather, humdrum, colloquial reflections on her overwhelming predilection for the written word.

Why I write, is a question I have often asked myself. And here, I refer to writing not merely in its grander and more serious manifestation as profession, passion or avocation but also in its immediate semantic sense of being exactly what it is, written communication. I would rather text, mail, or write in longhand to people depending, of course, on my level of familiarity with them and the kind of communication that is intended, rather than personally meet or call them. Neither voice nor physical presence succeeds in offering to me the warmth that a few written lines are able to evoke. Given that I can speak fluently, confidently, effectively, affectively, even attractively on a subject for that matter, why is it that I tend to gravitate towards writing, that universally acknowledged formal mode of expression?

To begin with, the choice, most inevitably, has to do with my fallacy that writing, somehow, is more personal than speech and, thereby, more articulate, more sincere, and more meaningful. It matters to me that written sentences are structured with more concern, written words carefully weighed and chosen, the act of writing itself more considered, less spontaneous, and requiring a degree of attention and premeditation that casual oral communication seems, sadly, to want. If speech is intended for quick communication, writing, I believe, makes way for more nuanced, more thoughtful and more pleasurable exchanges of meaning. Its texture ensures that empathy or irony or humour is not lost and that it is always rediscovered in every reading.

This brings me, secondly, to my faith in the relative endurance of the written word or at least the possibility of it, over its oral counterpart. While spoken words are obedient ghosts that, bidden, disappear into thin air, our written words are the unruly phantoms that inhere and haunt us as long as they please. This is not to say that writing, in its physical or virtual right, is immune to disasters. Note-carrying pigeons may fall exhausted in their journeys and fail to arrive; confessions may, Tess-like, be swept underneath carpets not to be found till it’s too late; poems may be lost to the winds; cards may be smudged and their greetings obliterated by spilled tea; letters may be delivered into wrong hands; newspapers may be used to line racks or dispose soiled diapers; and to top them all is the eternal threat by fire.

Technology has, thankfully, worked hard to ease one’s fears here but the threat to the written word still looms large. Recalcitrant CDs refuse to be read by unfamiliar drives; storage devices go corrupt; messages are absentmindedly deleted; mails may lie unopened for days at a time; and worse, network issues may inhibit the process of communication altogether. All this, notwithstanding, the fact remains that the spoken word, unless eminently memorable, is eminently forgettable. What is written is capable of being read as many times as one pleases and in tandem with its greater effect is its freedom to be paused at will and to be picked up, to no disadvantage, when one has regained the time or the appetite for it.

Thirdly, what excites me about the written word is that for it, the act of interpretation never ceases. Speech is lost eggresively with the breath and cannot be recalled or revisited for meaning in exactly the same context whatever one might do. Besides, intonation constitutes an important semantic factor in it so that words, often, are dressed in meanings not strictly their own. In contrast to this, the written word remains forever genuine, forever open, inviting one in the same way to linger, ponder, consider and re-consider.

But most of all, it seems to me, that my obsession with writing stems from the intimacy that is built into the verb, the intimacy of putting thought to word, pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. It matters to me that the word ‘writing’ etymologically traces its roots to verbs like ‘carving’ and ‘drawing’ and involves, thereby, a labour of love that seems absent in speech. To write is to pay attention; to carve a message thoughtfully in words that have been summoned exclusively for the act is to be personal. Again, writing is an act of survival in a bewildering world. It is an anchor to one’s sanity, an agent of existential signification, a promise of cathartic salvation. To write is to attempt to surface from the sea of anonymity and resignation. It is to protest against time’s transience, against life’s tyranny. It a world that losing all, one would rather win; a mirror in which one sees oneself as one is; a gift one bestows upon all those one chooses to write for.

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Basudhara Roy is Assistant Professor of English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. She is the author of a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and two collections of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019) and Stitching a Home (New Delhi: Red River, 2021). She writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

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Musings

The Source

Mike Smith drifts into nostalgia about mid-twentieth century while exploring a box of old postcards. What are the stories they tell?

In the days when I used to give live readings of short stories I was often asked where they came from. It’s a question writing buddies know better than to ask. Obviously, they already know that stories come from wherever you have found them. But to the non-writing reader it seems to be a mystery.

V.S.Pritchett said that they came from a ‘poetic impulse’, and life can and will prompt that impulse without warning. Even something as simple as looking at postcard can do the job. I was recently shown one such card, sent in the mid nineteen-thirties from Algiers. On the back it’s titled as number 12: Alger. Rue Bab-Azoun, and on the front of it carries a black and white photograph of a street scene. I’ve never been to Algiers, but the image evokes memories and associations with travellers’ tales, articles, TV shows and movies, and by no means all of them directly related to that city.

The image is full of life, locating itself at a precise moment in place and time by its buildings, its street furniture, its traffic, its advertising posters and its people, more than a dozen of them in several distinct groups. Each of those groups might imply a tale, and in combination a more complex one. That dead centre café with its two arches, ‘La Vieux Grenadier’ makes me think of Rick’s place in the film Casablanca. And could the ‘Au Grand Bon Marche’* up above it on the wall be an ironic comment? On the dapper man in the dark jacket and tie, his straw boater subtly tilted, his thumb stuck in his belt, say, as he strides towards us. Is he known to them, rejoining them perhaps after an assignation? And what about those two characters in white suits whom he has just passed? One of them is glancing across. Is it at him, and if so, why? Could be somebody’s brother, and the start of something. Or is his line of sight slightly ahead of the man, towards a couple partially obscured by the little knot of tourists nearer the foreground? Has something been done, or said? And who is the man standing on the back of the tram vanishing into the shadows? Has he just boarded at the stop? It is a stop, I’m sure, just close by that nearer group, because we can see the tracks reverting to single from double lines, that would form a passing loop for crossing vehicles. Further to the left there’s a mixed group: a man in robes reaching out, for what? Two men in solar topees: are they the police? Off duty soldiers? What sort of vehicle is it? Are they demanding to see papers? Is that luggage on the roof?

And on the far right, a couple, casually dressed. She is just visible behind him. They are heading towards the ‘Parfumerie’, if I have read the lettering on the wall above them correctly. They are moving quickly, I think, and with no eyes for the others in the scene.

Every still photograph catches a moment in time and place and holds it motionless, which, almost word for word, is what the writer Arthur Miller told us short stories do. Each picture is a segment of the arc of some imagined or remembered story, and for the would-be writer the trick might be – I offer no certainties – to know which segment: beginning, middle or end? So that the whole arc might be created.

And every momentary image brought to our eyes, upon the street or in a building, or from a vehicle, every sight and every sound, each whiff of wind off the sea, or waft of coffee from a café, each faint smell of smoke or blood from an alleyway or open door, offers us the same potential. And so, the answer to that question, asked or unasked, must always be: stories? They come from everywhere!

12: Alger. Rue Bab-Azoun. Snapshot of the postcard by Mike Smith

Where to start?

For I know only the ending of the story. That lies in the box of old postcards and photographs, of dinner menus and an itinerary of the liner, The Laconia. It was a Cunard Line ship and came to an unwanted fame a few years later when, in 1942 it was sunk by a German U-boat. A flotilla of German and Italian submarines attempted to rescue survivors, but were later bombed and strafed by American warplanes, forcing them to dive, sweeping those survivors into the sea.

The Mediterranean cruise recorded in those old postcards took place in the mid-nineteen thirties and was a honeymoon trip. The postcards show Algiers, Jerusalem, Valetta, and unknown views. Petra, city of the rock is in there. Photographs show bustling streets. Western tourists in period costume to us now, smile, raise glasses, chin-chin, gaze from balconies and terraces. The menus show us what they dined on, the itinerary, where and when they made landfall. They are printed on a stiff card, Art Deco in design and near to what we might think of as A5 in size, but which in those days would have carried what seems now a more Imperial label: crown quarto, small demy octavo.

There’s even a folding diagram of the ship: printed on flimsy paper but still good, even along the eighty-year-old folds. It shows the steel hull, the cabin walls (Not walls, an old naval friend mine would have corrected. Those are bulwarks, matey!).

The young bride was my mother in law’s mother. Her husband was an English farmer, a cut above her in class. She was a Londoner, a nurse, he a Norfolk country landowner. But tragedy struck. Before even the Laconia sank, he had died.

And through the twists and turns of life she’d kept the box of postcards and old photographs, and the dinner menus, the itinerary of their trip, the folded diagram of the ship, their cabin black-inked and arrowed in someone’s hand; perhaps hers, perhaps his.

I never met the lady. She died the year I met my wife, but I could weep for her now, knowing the ending of their story.      

Glossary

Au Grand Bon Marche: Literal translation, a great bargain, French. Could also refer to a French Department store Le Bon Marche.      

Parfumerie: A place where perfumes are sold. French.

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Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Musings

Tied To Technology

By Naomi Nair

For a woman whose dad used to run an IT firm for the longest time of her life, I’m terribly wary of technology. I crave for those simple days of the past when phones were just a tool attached to a wire, helping people keep in touch, rather than these modern day devices that keep track of where I go, what I do, how I spend my time, and use my personal data only to tell me later in the form of “suggestions” and “recommendations” what I should be doing next. Smart phones they are called; a phone so smart that it makes me feel dumb. Our lives are governed by Siris and Alexas who are so adept at everything, it renders us incompetent and useless. Our thumbs are so used to tapping away on our phones, scheduling, texting, uploading, playing, recording, Googling and navigating a gazillion apps that it twitches and shivers like an addict waiting for his next high when the phones are away from its reach.

Gone are those days when families shared snippets of their day and chatted animatedly over dinner time conversations. Big arguments and seemingly minor disagreements were sorted out by engaging in an open dialogue. But all that has changed now thanks to the technology enabled cold war. Twitter has become the battleground for the ‘war of the words’. No more talking things out person to person. Feelings, thoughts, emotions and personal opinions are communicated openly for the whole world to savour via Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram posts that gets circulated for the thirsty minds waiting to catch the latest episode of ‘he said and she said!’. This practice is not just restricted to the rich and famous anymore.

Our generation is so dependent on technology that it relies on Whatsapp stories to communicate our feelings to the person we have an issue with. Powerfully moving quotes set on colourful backgrounds are used for this purpose. Nine times out of ten, the stories are pulled out as soon as the person for whom it was intended has seen and responded.

Can this not be done over a simple phone call? I guess not! It looks like we can’t thrive without the technology driven drama. On a personal note, I’m both amused and annoyed at the same time when I’m asked to like or comment on someone else’s (family and otherwise) post so that it gets maximum visibility, as if I was the one who was desperate for that post to be uploaded in the first place! When did likes and reach become a measure of personal success and a derivative of happiness? No doubt, more followers is an indication of rising popularity but does it bring greater fulfilment to one’s life?

I love my technology, when it delivers my favourite meals or the latest merchandise or captures beautiful moments through photos and videos in the flash of a second and it should stop there, but I see myself becoming a slave to my device too, voluntarily and involuntarily.

Just the other day, wanting to rescue myself from the general gloom and doom of a pandemic induced life, I happily entered a café that hung at its entrance, a large board with a quote advising us mortals against the use of smart phones and related devices. My happiness was short lived as I had to pull out my phone to use the QR code to access the menu and send my order across via an app to the kitchen. Oh, the irony!

Now once again on a self-imposed quarantine where my only source of consolation and relaxation is my phone, as I lay on my couch, venting out these thoughts in my head to no one in particular, not wanting to share them out loud in case it offends either or both Siri and Alexa waiting to pry in on my every word, (or worse, start sending me advertisements on how to protect my thoughts) I wonder, what will be the next shackle binding me further to the chains of technology! 


Naomi Nair is a bibliophile who finds salvation in writing and looks to words to help her make sense of the world. Her book reviews and poetry can be read at simplybookalicious.blog.

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Musings

Gliding down the Silk Road

By Ratnottama Sengupta

These contemplations have come out of Ruhaniyat-e-Aam, an online festival of migrating music. Hosted by Indus Band, its focal theme was ‘Reconstructing the Silk Route’.  A webinar was the finale of the concept that was put into practice long before ‘COVID’ entered the Oxford dictionary – in 2018 when Somali Panda, founding head of the Kolkata-based Band came up with the novel concept of connecting online with performers in Greece. They played their music, we joined them with my reading, Tamal Goswami’s painting, and Somali’s songs.

Subsequently, during the pandemic, “when the world was compelled to stay indoors, the importance of connecting with the rest of humanity forcefully struck us,” says Somali. She then went on to host this series of interactions with musicians, artists, filmmakers and academicians from Greece, Czech Republic, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan and India — all participating in a celebration of the Human Migration that established bonding amongst nations, cultures, civilizations, and created a global community long before the term had come into existence.

The prime purpose of reconstructing the Silk Route — philosophically, ideologically, conceptually – was to forge a measure of friendship. Friends they became – Labros Kantos, singer from Greece; Saimir Bajo from the Czech Republic; Mesbah Kamal, academician from Dhaka; Sharofat Ara Bova, filmmaker from Tajikistan; Arqavaneh Folklore Ensemble from Isfahan, Iran; Mohamed Abu Zid from Cairo, Egypt; Sarower Reza Jimi, playwright from Lisbon, Portugal… Because music connects people most readily since it overrides the barrier of language, “and it gives inner peace and solace,” Somali adds.

 By the time it ended, Ruhaniyat-e-Aam had traced the cultural exchange from the time of Alexander and helped to understand how Hellenic Culture became Hellenistic through synthesis. Most of us know that after Alexander conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria (339 BC). A little more detail: this was in the Fergana Valley of Neb – around modern-day Tajikistan. Leaving the wounded warriors behind Alexander moved on, and in time the Macedonians intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco Bactrian culture that flourished in the Seleucid Empire after his death.

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This festival of Migrant Music set me on a virtual journey down the Silk Road, the 6,400 km caravan tract that was actually an ancient network of trade routes. Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, it linked in commerce the regions from China to Mesopotamia – should I say modern day Iran? – through India, Asia Minor, Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome and Britain too — between 130 BC and 1453 AD. Originating in Xian – now famed for its Terracotta Army – it followed the Great Wall of China to its northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs, crossed Afghanistan, went on to the Levant region from where merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

What many of us don’t realize is that the Silk Route was not one single road. There were some that were longer and safer; some were shorter and more difficult. Some had been journeyed on much longer and thereby had witnessed more exchange than some of the shorter, more precarious roads and pockets like, say, Bhutan. And few travelled the entire length of the road: goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

The greatest value of the road lies in the exchange of culture it effected. Art, religion, technology, language, science, architecture — indeed, every other element of civilization was exchanged on these roads, along with the commercial goods that merchants traded from country to country

Marco Polo: Creative Copmmons

With the loss of Roman superiority and rise of Arabian power, the Silk Road became more and more unsafe. However, during the rule of the Mongols/ Mughals, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) travelled right up to China along the road that is now supposed to have been the main artery along which travelled the bubonic plague bacteria responsible for the pandemic of Black Death that decimated the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

The network was used regularly till about 1453 when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. By this time Europeans had become used to goods from the east, and so merchants set out to find new trade routes – over the oceans. That, as we know, led to the discovery of the New World and of new civilizations and forging of new cultures. In sum, we may say that laid the groundwork for the modern world.

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What many of us don’t know: Part of the Silk Road still exists as a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur, an autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. It had given UN the impetus to plan a trans-Asian highway, and a railway counterpart of the road too had been proposed. The road had inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to found the Silk Road Project in 1999 in order to explore cultural traditions along its route and beyond, as a means for connecting arts worldwide, across cultures.

But why look back on the Road that has little to do with how it existed 2000 years ago? Forget the zeros – it is probably not like it was even two and half years ago! So what is its importance?

To my mind, the importance lies in the layers of history lining it. Glancing backward we realize that we stand on the shoulder of giants. Every visit into the past unearths stories of human civilization. And whenever I have done that – as I did in Kazakhstan as part of an ICCR effort in 2009 – I have got answers to questions like:

 A) Where was the Road going and why?

B) Why was it such a life transforming journey?

C) The road traversed through remote parts of the world, especially a huge part was ice covered desert. Then, why did the horse become such an important part of the journey on this road?

D) Horse was only one of the animals that were traded on the route. So, who named it Silk Road and why?

Arabian Nights

 It was so named by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 CE because silk was a treasured part of the trade – indeed it was the primary attraction that started off the trade but few travellers walked the entire length of the road. They came to different posts on the route, exchanged goods, food, plants, and ideas along with spices and tea. Stories of The Arabian Nights give us an idea about the exchanges that were taking place in city like Baghdad. And we realise that the flying carpet was not a mere figment of imagination, it became a metaphor for journeying from one world to another.

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Enough of history? Well then, let’s take note of the cultural exchanges closer to our life and times. Since Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was about Migrating Music, what we naturally traced was the commonality of instruments like sarod, santoor and violin… How come the last named string instrument most associated with Western Classical music gained such acceptance and became inseparable part of music in Iran and in South India’s Carnatic music? Was rabab, the folk accompaniment most widely associated with Afghanistan, the precursor of India’s sarod, internationalized by Ustads such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan? Indeed, it was from them that I learnt there have been several versions of the rustic musical instrument that was honed, refined, perfected and sophisticated until it became the sonorous voice of Indian classical music.

Again, our santoor has a close affinity with instruments in China, Persia, Greece, and so many other places. I remember my visit to China for the Festival of India under the aegis of the Ministry of Human Resources, then headed by Arjun Singh. As part of that government-to-government initiative, I visited some music schools and was amazed to see how much our santoor — once called shatatantri or hundred stringed veena — had in common with the Chinese hammered dulcimer, yangqin. There have been many versions of it – in Iran, Iraq, Greece, Armenia. I noticed that the music played on the Chinese instruments were a bit more staccato; in India I learnt from maestros closely identified with santoor — primarily Shiv Kumar Sharma and Bhajan Sopori – that strings have been added to get the murchhana or greater resonance so that the notes linger on…

If we go on to visual arts, the first name that comes to my mind is of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). The Russian lawyer-painter-archaeologist-philosopher born in St Petersberg had developed an abiding interest in Eastern religions, in Theosophy and Buddhism as much as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Tagore, Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. His spiritual leanings took him across the Himalayas and make his home in the Himachal town of Naggar where he breathed his last.

Of greater consequence to Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was the fact that in mid-1920s the Roerichs together with their son and six friends went on a five-year-long Asian Expedition that started – in Roerich’s words – “from Sikkim and went through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladah, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qarashar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, Oyrot regions of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam and Tibet…” A decade later he was to return to Mongolia and Manchuria to collect seeds of plants that prevent soil erosion.

In plainer words, because of these travels Roerich intimately knew not only the Himalayan range but a lot more of the Silk Road. This armed him with a scintillating palette of colours that painted mesmerizing mountains that are bold yet lyrical, rather mystical, even spiritual. I was absorbed by the tranquility that imbues the hypnotic series of 36 immersive images of the Himalayas preserved in the Roerich Gallery at the Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore.

Roerich’s journeys along the Road had also prompted him to talk of preventing the destruction of art and architecture and work toward preserving the cultural wealth of the world. This had led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.

Deb Mukharji, a retired member of India’s Foreign Services, has also travelled through its hardy folds – and extensively photographed the Abode of Snow. The keen photographer who has authored Kailash and Mansarovar and exhibited Tall Tales of the Himalayas — among many others — is concerned about the ecosystem of the rugged and culturally rich Himalayas. “It is threatened by the highways that are being built through the mountains, either to promote religious tourism or for other purposes, he says after treks that took him from Garhwal to Nepal and Kailash to Manas.”

Cinematographer-director Goutam Ghose has journeyed through the Silk Route to make the ten-part documentary, Beyond the Himalayas. His project had started in 1994 and initially he had travelled with only 5-6 members who drove in a jeep and through the countries. “Our purpose was to look back from here and now in order to connect all the yesterdays that have transformed life and made us what we are today,” the celebrated filmmaker had said to me then.

So many stories of the exchanges enrich our literature too. Saradindu Bandopadhyay, author of many Bengali classics, had penned a story titled Maru O Sangha – The Monastery in the Desert. This was turned into a film, Trishagni/ Sandstorm (1989) by Nabendu Ghosh, another celebrated Bengali writer who became a legend as screenwriter of Hindi films. His film revolved around a monastery in Central Asia, somewhere on the Silk Route.  It showed traders who came to the monastery with a ration of food, clothes and other essentials. Those were days when people could not fly in in a helicopter and drop supplies… it took months for these traders travelling in groups to reach from one stupa to another. There was a focus on the lifestyle of the times. Buddhism was the first organized religion, and monastery being the centre of Buddhism was thus the centre of such exchanges 2000 and more years ago. These monasteries subsequently became the prototype for Islamic Madrasas and before that, of Christian universities: they were built along the lines of the monasteries which dotted Central Asia. And it is believed that the Stupa also gave the concept of the gumbad, the round top of so many masjids and forts too.

Another important exchange that was happening came to light when Trishagni was screened in many international film festivals outside India – in Tehran, Cairo, Thailand… One of the questions that cropped up was this: “You are talking about Buddhism but why are the men (and women) dressed like they dress in Islamic countries? Islam wasn’t there then!” It had to be pointed out that philosophy – and religion is a part of that – and ideas travel but Geography moulds what we wear. Because of the weather, when there was no air conditioner or even fans around, people in some parts of Africa wore no garments and in some parts of the Asian desert men wore long robes to cover the body from head to toe from the hot flying sand particles. They started covering their heads and ears and part of the face, and that wisdom became a convention and then a tradition.

Thus, geographical reality moulded why people in certain parts of the world dress in certain ways. And with the journey of religion, these dress codes also journeyed. The Romans did not wear silk because they admired the style in which the Chinese wore it but because of the inherent quality of silk. Cotton was also much in demand on this route since it was hot in the desert. So was indigo – native to India, primarily, and sought in Mediterranean countries as pigment for dyeing, medicinal and cosmetic use.

These exchanges which are now history happened largely because of geography. Why? I got the answer in the course of a seminar where artistes and academics had come from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. I started realizing that people were travelling from China down to Northern tip of Africa or the Mediterranean country, certain lifestyle changes were taking place. These landlocked pockets that had no access to the sea, had little green and only animals to live off. Naturally, many turned their attention to what was going on the Silk Road. Two very interesting things happened:

1) Many became bandits who would rob these caravans.

2) Many did the opposite: they offered themselves as guards to protect the goods in the caravans from bandits.

So, the same problem generated two different approaches to life, two different lifestyles. Those who became guards would travel with the caravans and they became warriors. They became warriors because they were living in very tough terrains, and they became skilled warriors because they were fighting off bandits to protect the caravans. Before long these men turned aggressive. Wars between tribes became endemic – and many of the lands strived to find stability and prosperity for their people by going into the lands of other people. (Once again, geography and history came together to define lifestyle and culture.)

We find versions of this later when people set out from Europe and landed up in America, and a new culture and civilizational evolved. Another such change took place when people were forced to travel from the Queen’s England to Australia. All these migrations and journeys have influenced the arts, ideas, religion, food habit… Why is it that in India’s Northwest – Afghanistan, to be specific — people cook meat and roti in tandoor ovens while in Bengal well-being is synonymous with ‘maachh-bhaat’ – fish curry and rice? Once again the answer lies in the history of geography – that is, geography moulding tradition and shaping history.

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In 1892 Rabindranath Tagore wrote Kabuliwala, a story that touches the heart of humans everywhere in the world even today. It pivots on a peddler from Kabul who comes to Calcutta each year to sell dry fruits, and befriends a child, Mini. Circumstances force him to go to prison on charges of stabbing a debtor. On his release he goes to meet Mini and finds she is getting married. Rahman realizes that his daughter, now grown up, will also not have any recollection of her father – and he starts on his return journey, towards home.

This story has been filmed in India in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (1957), in Hindi by Hemen Gupta (1961), by Kazi Hayat of Bangladesh (2006), by Anurag Basu for a television channel (2015), by Deb Medhekar in 2018. It has been reimagined in totally different contexts.  Bioscopewala, set in 1990s, had Minnie going to Afghanistan where her father has died in a plane crash. In another script French Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi sets the story after the destruction of the Balmiyan Buddhas. This man from Kabul spells another exchange of ideas: he comes because this part of the world believes in reincarnation — and he is seeking his little girl who died during the destruction of the Buddhas!

Taking her cue from this same story, Sharofat Imam Arabova of Tajikistan made a lilting film where an Indian vendor selling things in that land strikes a friendship with a little girl. Desirous of paying a tribute to the author, the FTII-trained director approached Somali Panda to incorporate Tagore’s music in the script. “And when we did that using a santoor, it was so strikingly in sync!” says the music-maker from Kolkata who extensively used Raag Bhairavi. “That is the power of music – and also the bonding of migrant music,” she adds. And even as she spoke, I was reminded of Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Neechey/ Under the Blue Sky (1959) wherein a Chinese hawker, Wang Lu, sold silk on the streets of Calcutta of 1930s, when India was under British rule. His life changed forever when he met Basanti, a housewife who gets arrested for her involvement in politics.

So what’s common between these stories? What connects the diverse players? Human situation where a man has travelled for work and struck friendship, an equation with a child – the most basic, most innocent form of humanity.

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This is the importance of revisiting the Silk Route and renewing acquaintance with migrant music: that human beings everywhere in the world have been migrating. Individually too we have migrated. My grandfather migrated from East Bengal – Dhaka – to Patna, then a part of Bengal Presidency. Now Dhaka is a different country, and Patna is part of Bihar, a different state from West Bengal. My father ‘migrated’ from Patna to Calcutta to Bombay Presidency which became two states – Maharashtra and Gujarat. I was born in Bombay, which has become Mumbai, lived in Delhi which was earlier a Union Territory and now has become a state. At present, I live in West Bengal. My brother who was born in Patna studied in Pune, graduated in Medicine from Calcutta, lived in UK and worked in Germany, Brunei, Cyprus, Bosnia… So many migrations!

Today technology has opened new highways, new vistas of connecting with the world. And even as we speak (or read, as in this case) we are crossing boundaries almost every minute of our day. Within families to, a child goes out to study in London or New York, makes Singapore or Sidney his workplace, his family perhaps lives in Delhi, and he travels to Johannesburg to  Rio, Texas to Tokyo, Moscow to Hong Kong, Sweden to Israel. So many outposts of civilization – just as people on the Silk Road once did, for their trade.

The crux of it? Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere. They are all born of their soil – geography. And geography moulds our history. Because we are creatures of these two forces, periodically we need to look back and trace our commonalities in order to transcend the schisms in society.

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Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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

Categories
Musings

Lost in the Forest

By John Drew

Philosophers and theologians warn us about the danger of becoming distracted and misled by images. In the age of the selfies, with photography being used to sell us so many things we do not want or need and convincing us that smiling celebrities are gods and goddesses, we have reason to take their warning seriously.

But what of images that warn us of the same danger, even while they enchant us? I ask this question while looking at a beautiful wall-hanging of the gopis seeking out Krishna in the forest of Brindaban. 

The wall-hanging is composed of 38 episodes, each framed by a woodland glade, laid out in six horizontal lines of 7,6,5,7,7 and 6 frames. At the top, Radha and seven other gopis leave the city, pots of curds on their heads, and wave farewell to their husbands as they enter the forest of Brindaban. After their many encounters with Krishna, the story concludes with Radha and Krishna haloed and seated together in a pandal beside a lotus-filled River Yamuna. 

The trouble is, when you try to follow the story of their search for love’s fulfilment line by line, top-to-bottom on the wall-hanging, the frames don’t follow one another in any recognizable sequence. Almost all the frames show three gopis confronting Krishna, apparently arguing with him and either turning away or being turned away but in no particular order.

The gopis emerge from the city in the third frame of the top line. Amid scenes otherwise always sylvan, the towers and rocks of the city are seen in the first frame of the third line and the rocks alone in the fourth frame of the final line. This phased departure from the city suggests these may be the first three frames of the story. Yet the gopis, who accompany the protagonists in each are in different-coloured saris and, apart from this glimpse, don’t appear again. We are left without a clue as to what might be the fourth frame in the sequence.

It seems it might be easier working backwards. The last frame of the last line is so obviously the culminating frame and the one before it has Krishna and Radha, both haloed, walking through the forest. But then the only other frame with the pair haloed is fully a line before this and they are seated on a rather different pandal decorated as if for a wedding and with a more ornate base. Something is not quite in order.

The colour of the saris is one obvious determinant.  Most prominently, there’s Radha in her green-and-red sari and her friend Lalita (let’s call her that) in green-and-yellow, often with a third gopi in blue-and-red  behind.  But sometimes there are suddenly gopis in brown-and-yellow and black-and-yellow instead and once or twice gopis in blue-and-yellow and  black-and-red. Sometimes the figures obscure one another and we have a glimpse of just one colour of a sari and this may belong to the eighth (otherwise missing) gopi. And why, if the colour of the saris is indicative, does Radha once appear twice in the same frame? And why, when the gopis emerge from the city, are seven of the eight figures wearing Radha’s colours? 

These concerns may appear rather silly: after all, the painter’s palette may account for such occasional discrepancies. However, the larger picture may suggest we are being deliberately misled by an artistic representation of the magic of the Ras lila. We try to make sense of what is going on in the pursuit of love’s goal and we simply get lost in the forest?

It is not totally baffling. There is some downward and, less obviously, left-to-right movement in the development of the story. Right in the very centre of the wall-hanging there is a frame where Radha steps out to engage with Krishna. This is in the third frame of the five-frame third line and given that the story culminates in the sixth frame of the sixth line, it is tempting to construct a diagonal across the matrix: Radha in the first frame of the first line engaged in a conflicting hand-to-hand pull-and-push with Krishna; in the second of the second, Lalita approaching Krishna, hand on curd pot, whether as confidante of Radha or as rival – or both – is unclear; in the fourth of the fourth, three gopis, two in Radha’s colours, turn away from Krishna; and, in the fifth of the fifth, Radha, now potless, submits herself to Krishna. This diagonal might serve as a plot for the whole story, however jumbled the frames all around.

Radha and her two main friends figure most prominently in the frames of the first line but there is no easily discernible order to the frames. The first four frames of the second line foreground different gopis and it may be that the particular story of each in turn is to be tracked, however tentatively, zig-zag down the wall-hanging before we return to the next frame as a starting-point?

The last two lines of the wall-hanging are distinct from those before in that all their frames (bar those of Radha-Krishna haloed) show a gopi approaching Krishna with a pot no longer on her head. The fifth line starts with a frame where Krishna is himself removing the pot from (if not replacing the pot on) Radha’s head (presumably as a token of his choice); in the next frame he is fanning a potless Lalita; and in the others receiving gopis who have discarded their pots.  Should we take this to be an act of collective submission following Krishna’s choice of Radha or are they the final frames of individual stories that have threaded their way down through the thickets further up the wall-hanging?

Images from nature are also tricky. Initially monkeys, one springing in from the left and another from the right, promise to show us a sequence:  in the end they at best indicate only mood. This may also be true, given their place in Indian iconography, of trees and flowers. Perhaps like the ever-shifting designs on the saris, changing from dots to dashes to crosses to ovals, they too are decorative, deceptive only in a suggestiveness that ultimately reveals nothing?

We do not know whether or not the painter is following the poet he has placed seated on the rocks in the top right-hand corner of the painting, he has wrought cunningly. Looking to piece together individual stories of the search for love, we have been baffled by their erratic course. But, however erratic, the course is perhaps common to all the gopis, however much or little we can see of each. The advantage of a closer look, however bewildering, reminds us that, instead of being distracted by a surface that leads us to a merry dance, we should discover the common pattern that underlies all and is concentrated in the composite figure of Radha, one that is ultimately subsumed in that of Radhakrishna. 

We may then tell ourselves that, even though we cannot say how we got here, we are no longer lost in the forest.

Glossary

Ras Lila: Dance of Radha, Krishna and Gopis

Gopi: Handmaidens of Radha

Pandal: An ornate tent

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John Drew, author of India and the Romantic Imagination, was married in India, has worked in Singapore and now lives in Cambridge with his wife Rani. 

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