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Musings

 ‘You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live it’

By Shubha Apte

Life is never a straight line, and it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It always has ups and downs. By experience, we learn to navigate all the potholes and make the journey of life victorious. During this journey, we fall at times. But we pick ourselves up and continue to move forward. Confucius has said, “that our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time, we fall.”

 Looking through the rear-view mirror, we sometimes think of our choices and regret our decisions. But time does not standstill. It does not allow us to go back in time and change our decision. This is when the “what if” feeling grips us. We regret what we did, leading to a feeling of sadness.

As humans, we face millions of choices every day. Some of these choices can be good for us, but others can be damaging and significantly impact our lives.

When we make a wrong choice, we experience an overwhelming feeling of regret and know we cannot alter anything. We wish we could have done it differently. It can leave us stuck, always looking backwards and unable to move forward in our lives.

Trapped in this cycle of regret, we can become rigid, constantly blaming ourselves. But avoiding doing anything for fear of regretting it later is also not good as it tends to disengage us from relationships, opportunities and progress gets stalled. We cannot make all the correct decisions to make life perfect. A perfect life is more of an illusion. Accept that life is not perfect and start living.

“It is easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living. Easy to wish we’d developed other talents, said yes to different offers. Easy to wish we’d worked harder, loved better, handled our finances more astutely, been more popular, stayed in the band, gone to Australia, said yes to the coffee or done more bloody yoga.

 “It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn’t make and the work we didn’t do, the people we didn’t do and the people we didn’t marry, and the children we didn’t have. It is not difficult to see yourself through the lens of other people and to wish you were all the different kaleidoscopic versions of you they wanted you to be. It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out.

 “But it is not lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy.

 We can’t tell if any of those other versions would of been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.”

 ― Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

This quote about regrets made me start thinking about my own journey and the regrets holding me back. Some of the professional choices did not work out the way I had imagined. I decided to join a company based on its brand value but later realised that my personal core values conflicted with the values of the people that I was working with. When frustration set in, I decided to quit the job at the peak of my career. Looking back, I realised I had better choices and opportunities, and I had boarded the wrong bus. The disappointment I experienced from this haunted me for days. With a lot of determination, I did come out of this phase. I did not allow pain and despair to drag me into depression. It required me to look at life with a totally different lens and not allow the past to discolour my present.

I read the New York Times bestseller “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig around the same time when I was deeply entrenched in regrets, and the book resonated with me. This fictional story would resonate with anyone who has faced disappointment and regrets and wants to improve their life. The book is a gentle reminder to live life and find joy in the present moment. It is an affirmation of life’s many possibilities. We keep thinking of the days gone by and the opportunities that we may have missed, and in the process, ignoring the glories of the present.

Matt Haig is an English novelist and author. Through Nora Seed, the fictional character’s narrative, Haig encourages readers to let go of their past and make the most of their present. The central character, Nora Seed, has lost her job, her best friend, her brother and her cat, her relationships are a mess, and she decides to end her life. She ends it with an overdose of antidepressants, but she finds herself in the midnight library between life and death. Every book in the library offers her a chance to enter a life where she made a different decision and has regrets. By experiencing alternate versions of her own life, she realises there is nothing called a perfect life and prefers to live in her current state.

I loved the author’s idea of envisioning an infinite library between life and death.

The book compelled me to look at life from a totally different perspective. In life, you need to be strong from within, face the consequences of your choice and not get caught in the trap of regrets. We don’t need to understand life; we need to live it, and like Matt Haig said, “You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live.”

In the last few years, I have made many changes in my life. I have decided to use my potential to the best of my abilities and learn from my mistakes and the wrong choices that I had made and not to get caught up in regrets.

The past does not lead to happiness. The future is beyond our control, but it is the present that we are in complete control.

“It’s not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy”- Matt Haig.

Shubha Apte is an engineer, business leader, certified executive coach, speaker, trainer and a freelance writer based in Bangalore with focus on diversity initiatives and women leadership. Her articles have been published in online publications for LeadChangeGroup, Pratilipi, IndusWomenWriting, Unscreen.org, LinkedIn. She blogs at  https://www.shubhaapte.com/

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Musings

Ruleman Ngwenya and Johannesburg

By G Venkatesh

Johannesberg Skyline. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Johannesburg or Jozi. This was the first city I visited outside my country at the age of thirty-two. Quite late for someone to embark on a foreign trip. Of course, my parents had never been abroad, but I was comparing myself with coevals here. And what a sojourn that was! Quite like a debut test for a cricketer where he gets into his own and looks forward to more stints at the crease or more overs to bowl. And there are many names which stand out in my mind’s eye – Rhoda (Anglicised version of Radha), Richard, Ruleman…Interestingly, the people I interacted most with during my short stay in the city, have names beginning with the letter ’R’!  

Before I embarked on my journey, and even after I arrived there, I was told that Johannesburg was notorious for the rampancy of crime – car thefts, knifings, muggings, rapes, daylight robberies and what have you. I was told:

“Never take any valuables with you when you go out.”

“Well, man, even if you do that, they will put a knife on you and ask you to give them your short and trousers and the ordinary footwear you would be wearing…these are guys who need to sell things to get money for their drugs, you see.”

“Take care, friend, your first visit to our country should not leave behind bad impressions on your mind. We want you to take back good memories and share them with your folks and friends in India.”

The Westerners and Indians in the city were concerned. I would hear these words of advice from almost every South African and Indian I would meet during my stay there. They cared and never let me venture out alone anywhere. Many offered to drive me down wherever I wished to go. I felt protected…a kind of informal Z security, unasked for. But perhaps I felt safe, perhaps imprisoned and fettered. It is hard to say.

I arrived in the city with the intention of meeting a publisher who was keen to employ me if it would be possible to obtain a work permit for me from the Government of South Africa – a gargantuan task even now. I wanted to get away from India, experience different working cultures and live a fuller life – professionally. It was at this magazine-publishing office that I met Richard and Ruleman. Richard of Dutch and English parentage, working as the editor of a mining magazine, and Ruleman of Zimbabwean origin, was employed as the office-boy.

While every minute of my stay in Jozi was memorable, considering that this was my first sojourn outside India, the last two days left a lasting impact on my mind. The dreams of obtaining a work permit were shattered, and I started making plans to wend my way back to India. I had purchased a return ticket and would have travelled back in any case – of course to return in case the work permit was granted.  On the last day but one, I was working late in the office, in order to do full justice to the project which has been assigned to me, even though I knew I had no future in the outfit or the city.

Only Ruleman was waiting, sensing that I should not be left to work alone in the office – burglars had broken into this office as well, I was told, a few months ago, and taken away some of the computers. Ruleman came into my room and assured me that he was waiting downstairs and that I could call him if I needed anything. At around 5.00 pm (work normally was wound up in Jozi at around 3.30 pm…they started work at 7.30 am) – which by Johannesburgish standards was late, I wound up, and walked down the stairs. Ruleman nodded, smiled, went around running a last-minute check of the doors and the lights and fans, and then escorted me out of the office. I used to walk back home – it was a 20 minute walk. Ruleman’s house was on the way. As we walked down, he asked me how I liked my stay here and felt sad that I would be leaving. He asked about India, and said he had always considered India as the ‘Land of Mahatma Gandhi’. I recalled that the African cabbie who had driven me down from the Jan Smuts International Airport two months ago, also told me the same thing. We reached his house.  He told me that his parents would be delighted to meet me, if I could come over for tea the next day. I smiled and said that I would love to. I thought that he would bid goodbye for the evening.

He did not. ‘I shall drop you at your doorstep. You see, this is not a safe time to be walking around in this city…I do not want anything to happen to you just when you are about to leave Jozi.’ I was thankful, though I would not really have bothered about walking down alone. ‘My father talks a lot about India. He had a lot of good Indian friends when he was working in East Africa in his younger days. You should come over tomorrow. He would be very pleased, and so would I.’ Ruleman dropped me off at the gate of the house I stayed in as a tenant and bid me goodnight.

Next day, when it was time to leave, I remembered Ruleman’s invitation. However, till the day I had walked down with Ruleman back home, Richard used to drive me down to my place of residence before turning right and heading home. This being my last day, Richard wanted to drive me down at 4.00 pm, for one last time. Ruleman said that he wanted me to visit him, as decided on the previous day. I did not know what to say or do. If I had told Richard that I would visit Ruleman, perhaps, it would not have been appropriate. Turning down Ruleman’s invitation would also not have been a very nice thing to do. And clearly there was no via media.

Richard drove me down eventually. I rued my decision. I may possibly never see that ever-smiling, do-gooder Zimbabwean again. I sent Ruleman a card from India on my return and Richard wrote to me conveying Ruleman’s thanks for the same. Small consolation perhaps. Man often talks about looking for the via media – the middle path – the path or course of action which would leave none the worse for it. There are occasions where a middle path does not exist at all.  A take it or leave it situation stares one in the face…just to remind man that no matter how hard he tries, there are many things beyond his control.

On a different note, when one sees goodness around, and care and concern for strangers who one would possibly not see again, one’s faith in God’s kindness being expressed through human agents gets reinforced. Jozi taught me a lot of lessons, which changed my perspectives towards life immensely. I was a totally different person on my return to India – calmer, spiritually aware, more respectful towards my parents, and in a nutshell – ‘grown-up’!  I realised that deep down, we are all connected to the Super Soul….and a desire to do good and a willingness to help, resides in all human hearts.

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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A Writer’s Pickle

By Adnan Zaidi

I don’t remember when I started writing, or why I started writing. I don’t even remember my first poetry, or article, or any write up for that matter. It’s been an eternity. I just know I have been writing from the time when the children of my age were out in the garden playing games.

Writing runs in my blood. No, actually writing is my blood. It is my only escape from whatever exists outside into a magical world of inside. A world where I recline over ostrich cushions, cladded in a robe finely woven by the angels of beauty, wearing a bracelet made of stars, enjoying songs of cuckoo birds who gather to celebrate the baptism of newly born fairy.

Sorry.

I got lost. Now coming to the point.

I am a poet, or at least I think I am. And not a very good one, trust me. I mean no one has ever come to tell me that they enjoyed any specific piece of my poetry that I recited or shared on social media. No one reads my couplets to their lovers. No one texts me to tell me that they were touched by my recent ghazal or nazm.

None of those things happen you see.

But hey, hey, hey, no judging! I totally get it. I do understand. Even sometimes I too get this strong feeling that one of these days I am going to stop writing this stuff that I consider poetry. And I am not even lying.

But then there are two questions — could I really stop? And do I really have to?

And the answer to both of these questions is negative.

I mean whenever I pick up my pen to write, never ever I bother about what people want to read. I just write what my heart dictates ( like 90% of writers out there). It’s more like a revelation of my soul. And I can never stop listening to these revelations. Because I don’t know how to.

I mean, I wonder, if I stop writing then who will tell people about the old Neem tree which was there in my house, and which used to smell like heaven when the spring blooms came? Or those beautiful roses as red as the blood of Christ? Who will write about the lessons my grandmother taught me as a kid, or the lullabies that my mother sang to me?  Who is going to narrate to them my perspective of the Romeo and Juliet? Who is going to write the last verse of that incomplete poem on my desk?

I need to understand the fact that when a poet writes a poem — no matter what — it is something that he has created, and he celebrates it. He should celebrate it! Irrespective of that fact the no one joins him in this celebration.

Because no matter what people say, every story is worth telling.

As I do not remember my first write up, I so don’t want to know my last. I want to die writing it. Leaving a door to my story open for others to enter.

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Adnan Zaidi is pursuing his masters in law from Aligarh Muslim University, India. He has recited his poetry on various platforms and has also been published a couple of times by different magazines. He also writes his own blog, raising social and political issues.

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Great Work…Keep Going!

By G Venkatesh

It has been so since my boyhood days. Quite instinctively, I have had to learn to look for silver linings in dark clouds. By a mixture of choice and compulsion, more of the latter though. I missed the bus often. When this happened literally, the silver linings were the kilometres I aggregated on foot, and in retrospect, considered that a blessing in disguise – a predilection to walking became an obsession and stayed with me.

Metaphorically, the missed bus would make me think and convince myself that what passed me by was not destined for me…it forced me to think laterally and imagine a divine purpose in the delay, which often would fester into a denial and necessitate numbing introspection. I thought of myself as a batsman at the crease being peppered with bouncers and beamers all the time, and having to invent new ways of scoring runs off these…quite like someone once decided to move away and hook and nullify the potency of bouncers. Just when I thought I had fought away the worse, deadly toe-crushers were being hurled at me, and I had to learn not only to block them but also dexterously play them on the leg-side and score runs. Bouncers, beamers and toe-crushers kept coming and I had to counter them. I felt exhausted. Tired. Were the rewards just the runs I was scoring, during these testing times?

‘Great work, bro…keep going. You are an inspiration.’ Every non-striker who would come in to partner me would say. The same compliment. Repeatedly. ‘Okay, but I am tired of setting examples, which I really do not wish to,’ I would think to myself.

I would wait patiently for the calm after the storm. Perhaps, the captain of the fielding side would bring on a gentler seam-bowler who would just bowl a good length on or outside the off-stump and enable me to relax into my orthodoxy.

Perhaps, there would be slow spinners who would give me a little bit of respite…Perhaps…Perhaps… But what if I become so exhausted by having to deal with these bouncers and yorkers and beamers for the sake of my team, that I get out? Of course, my teammates coming in at the right time, and facing the right bowlers would reap the rewards. Good for the team, they say. Is that how it will always be?

‘No, bro. There will be other teams with bowlers who are not so hostile as these ones. And there, you will be able to bat without a care, in fact.’ A friend counselled me, and wanted me to pat myself on the back for doing what many others may not be able to. I wonder. Time is fleeting past. Where are these other teams?

If I am wont to just facing the metaphorical bouncers all the while, I may well end up forgetting everything else. And yes, most importantly, age catches up, while one waits and expects something well-deserved – rather richly deserved and long overdue sense of being divinely protected – to just appear out of thin air, you realise you have to bid adieu.

What is right, I think to myself? Is it just being at the right place at the right time interacting with the right person? But how do I make it happen? It happens, they say. If destined to, they add. It is this addition that I did not want to hear. ‘You have to trust and have faith, only then it will happen,’ a smart alec chips in. And then, I think, what if this faith is shaken momentarily, and the trust is eroded by merciless winds of ill-luck and misfortune? Do I then lose, and does all the faith I nursed in my heart till that moment of crisis, just evaporate into nothingness? Just as getting out on 99 is not equivalent to having scored a century?

The more bitter the struggle, much better is the reward, says a holy man. ‘Much better’. Now, that is a comparative form of the adjective ‘good’, right? Much better than what? What is the reference point? Much better than the reward obtained by one who did not have to go through as bitter a struggle as I did? And does God really know what would make me feel vindicated? For when I look around, ponder the past and introspect, nothing that comes to mind seems to have the ability to provide me with that vindication which will at once make all the pain and trauma, all the sleepless nights and nagging doubts go away. So, is there something which my mind is not in a position to imagine, that may be found in God’s Santa-sack of Christmas gifts?  

I make myself a cup of coffee, and pad up to face the bouncers of the day that has dawned. I am out there at the crease, waiting for my batting partner and the fielding side. The sun is smiling at me, sarcastically. There is a crow on the pitch…perhaps, a dear departed one has sent some message. It stays for a while, then flies away. 

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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Cycling for my Life

What can be more scary and life-threatening than the risk of getting Covid-19? Keith Lyons finds how his daily joy has menacing dangers

Cycling in New Zealand. Photo shared by Keith Lyons

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Arthur Conan Doyle

While out cycling recently with a friend on a weekend ride, I was reminded that the Covid-19 pandemic has been raging waning and morphing for the last two years. With Covid cases set to peak this week in my part of the world, optimistically we hope that we’ll be in a post-pandemic world by the time 2023 starts.

Many of us are wishing for a return to normal, to the good old days of 2019. But we know deep down that while enterprise and everyday life may resume again, there is no return to normal. We can’t turn back the clock. My parents in a retirement village and rest home are still shielded to ensure the virus doesn’t spread. I have people I’m close to who have died from Covid. On both hands I can count how many friends and acquaintances continue to live despite the pandemic.

Looking back on the last two- and a-bit years, one of the good things to come out of it was that I bought a bike and got into cycling. The first bicycle I found abandoned during my lockdown walks. The second one, an e-bike, I bought in mid-2020, and last year got its mountain-bike sibling, With public transport more inconvenient as well as slightly hazardous, biking would seem to be an ideal solution for commuting and recreation. I do like the freedom it gives me, though as I found out yesterday, cycling in the rain loses its romantic notions when your every item of clothing is sodden.

Cycling has been a great vehicle of joy for me, not just for the quick run to the greengrocer, or an outing to a beach, a cafe or the hills. So today when I met a buddy for an easy ride beside a meandering river to the sea, I couldn’t but feel happy to be freewheeling along, appreciating the clarity of the river, the trees turning into autumn colours, the pleasantness of it all.

However, for me, the joy of cycling has a flip side. Even in a flat city like the one I live in, which seems so well suited to cycling. Even with its network of cycle lanes and dedicated cycle paths. I’ll be honest with you, cycling scares me like nothing else in my life. What terrifies me is the vulnerability I feel when on my bike in traffic. I feel small, insignificant and sometimes invisible.

Cars, buses and trucks speed by at 50-80km/hr within touching distance away. Not only are they travelling three or fours times faster than me, but they also weigh 15 or so times my weight. If a driver is inattentive or distracted (for example, on the phone), and I get hit or clipped or rammed by a vehicle, I know that I will unlikely be able to walk away from the crash.

My rational mind fights with my fearfulness. After all, studies show that cycling is more likely to extend your life than to shorten it — physical inactivity contributes to 1-in-8 deaths. And cyclists can fall off bikes by themselves with no other vehicles around. Yet almost every time I venture out on my bike, I have a near-miss. It could be a motorist running a red light, making a turn cutting me off, opening a car door without checking, or exiting a driveway too fast.

It is not just cyclists who are vulnerable. Walkers, children, the elderly, and motorcyclists are all neglected in transport planning, where motorised vehicles are given priority over other users who aren’t shielded or protected from impact. Recent research estimates that an adult pedestrian has around 20% of dying if struck by a car at 60km/hr. The odds are worse if it is a truck. Have you ever heard of a cyclist crashing into a motorised vehicle and causing damage or injury? Probably not.

Yet, for health and fitness, for reducing emissions and for the good of the planet, getting on your bike is good for your being, your body and the world. I cycle cautiously, wishing that my fellow road users are exercising the same alertness and consideration.

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

Click here to read an excerpt from the anthology.

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Musings

Can Peace come Dropping by…

Candice Louisa Daquin explores war and peace pausing over the attack on Ukraine

Courtesy: Creative Commons

War is among the main stays in human history. Is anything more instinctive than to go to war? I’ve never been able to relate to this but perhaps that’s because I have the advantage of living in a society where we’re protected from the literalisms of war. Or perhaps it’s because I’m female, although I don’t think it is as simple as being a male prerogative (though we can never be sure until a history of women making decisions proves this). To the outsider, war always seems futile. But what we must always do in order to fully understand something is to understand the other side. Not our own opinions but those we do not comprehend. As French philosopher Albert Camus said: “We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realise that we know where it lives…inside ourselves.”

Why would anyone ever want to go to war?

Imagine the first reason war was enacted. Was it as simple as Cain and Abel? Or one village attacking another village? One child attacking another child?

War tends to be on a larger scale, but perhaps it begins on a smaller scale.

It is said murderers have ‘symptoms’ of evolving as killers as do rapists and predators. If this is true, then watching children and seeing them skinning a cat as a predictor to future violence, could also be applied to war-mongering behaviour. Or conversely, could we establish what experiences that child has that engenders him/her to favour war?

If children who become violent often witness violence, then it stands to reason children who support wars or encourage wars, may witness something that in their minds is pro-war. What could it be? If you grow up in a war-torn country, surely you are more likely to seek peace and an end to violence, than to crave it? The fifth century famed military strategist Sun Tzu is quoted as saying: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Is war about the appearance of bravery or perceptions of strength? Ironically, Sun Tzu also said: “The wise warrior avoids the battle.” But do we follow this wisdom?

Studies show wars are committed by groups who are cohesive and decide (on invasion) and groups who defend. In essence, there is an aggressor and a protector. Sometimes wars start with two aggressors, but rarely with two protectors (this would cancel the desire for war out). Therefore, the thing everyone has in common who enters a war, is they are either seeking to invade or protect.

If people did not seek to protect, the invader would arrive and receive no resistance, and thus there would be no war. Sadly, it wouldn’t stop the invaders from say, raping and pillaging, so laying down arms and hoping for fairness, may lead to slaughter and oppression.

If people did not seek to invade, there would be no need to go to war.

What are the main reasons historically people have warred? Over land. Religion is a close second. The historic wars were over disputes of land or religion or other reasons related to both of these. The seizure of assets is related to greed/wealth/power, same as seeking to enslave people or promote an agenda (social control – another form of power). Essentially then all invasions can be reduced to one sentence: Seeking power.

One group believes they should have (more) power over another group. They invade. The other group defends or capitulates. This is the essence of war.

If we assume then most wars are enacted over a need to gain power of one sort or another, the next question becomes; Are all humans as likely to war? Or do certain societies promote war more than others? Throughout history there have been wars, many times one group did not want to go to war but were forced to in order to defend themselves. It implies there are those who are (warmongers) and there are those who are not (peacemakers or pacifists) and possibly while the latter may not seek war, they get involved if there is no alternative.

War then is to some extent – a luxury. Odd that if this is so, it’s often during the hardest times in human experience that a war begins. Wouldn’t you think if war is a luxury (by being a choice, as no war is enacted because the invaders have no choice), they’d choose not to go to war during hard times? Yet, the reverse is true.

We’re still in the struggling with the pandemic, but instead of seeking reconciliation and safety, Vladimir Putin has started the invasion into Ukraine. On the face of things this makes no sense because Russia must be hurting economically post the pandemic. To go to war when you are struggling seems madness.

Yet if this is often the case, maybe it’s like when everything is hard, people are less balanced and considerate than when things are easier? People are more charitable when they feel they can be, versus when it’s an emergency. That’s when they start looting and trampling over others. There is an inherent selfishness to humanity where they feel. “If I am alright I might be charitable but if I’m not alright you’re on your own’. It takes a really truly charitable person to stay behind and help others. Most people flee.

If we use this ‘typical’ personality trait and then apply it to a megalomaniac leader, it becomes less surprising they would choose an inopportune moment to strike. Perhaps it’s as inconvenient for everyone else as it is for Putin, therefore they have the element of surprise and inconvenience. They strike when the iron is hot, so to speak. The other impact of war is misdirection. If everyone believes something won’t happen (the invasion of Poland by Germany 1939 in WW2) when it does happen, everyone’s so surprised that they have a delayed reaction (which adds to the invader’s strengthen).

War strategy aside, do some people actually relish war ‘games’ and enjoy the enactment and planning of war? Boys are taught culturally to play with guns, war-gaming, mock-battles etc. If they were not, I suspect they would be no more inclined to go to war than a woman. Then again since we cannot prove or disprove this, we can only guess what is nature and what is nurture. Without doubt, the machinations of the war ‘machine’ promote an ideology of war – not unlike the machinations of a religion to promote an ideology. It’s a form of brain washing. Perhaps, one can agree that “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

When countries encourage a percentage of their population to join the military and have a robust army, they tend to be primarily pro-war – in that – they may not wish to die fighting nor encourage a war, but if one happens, they’re ready and, perhaps, they want it to happen because that’s what they have trained for. If you spend billions on war machines, would you wish them never to be used? Or would you see them as more than deterrents? Would you want to manufacture all this impressive battalion equipment only to see it do nothing? The problem with the creation of tools of war is then someone wants to use them. It is much like the debate raging in America over whether the ownership of guns perpetuates violence. On the one hand some believe if we didn’t have (access to) guns we’d have less violence or gun-deaths. They point to countries with lower rates of gun-ownership to ratify their beliefs. On the other hand, people say it’s not the gun but the person who wields the gun; if they don’t use a gun, they will use something else. They point to the rates of stabbing deaths and other forms of violence endemic in countries with low gun-ownership and to countries with high gun ownership (Switzerland/Canada) who have low gun crime.

There is no easy answer here. Guns have caused countless futile deaths, and gun ownership is a hot topic not likely to be resolved. But if we had less machines of war, would we be less inclined to go to war? Critics point to this as a reason to scale back the US military, whilst others say without such deterrents there would be more attacks on America (or any country without a robust military) because peace is actually wrought by both sides having enough machines of war (and nuclear weapons) that neither side feels they can strike without the other side striking back – and this is what enables us to avoid war. It’s a pretty twisted scenario that makes sense until someone in power decides – I’m not going to play by those rules. In non-interventionist theory, there was a drive to establish international courts to adjudicate disputes between nations and an emphasis on war contributing to moral decline and brutalisation of society in general. Whether true or not, it hasn’t stopped millions signing up for war.

In considering whether being anti-war is realistic, we must analyse the history of war, why humans go to war, what war means to us and what provokes it, as well as whether we can realistically avoid it? It’s one thing to wish for no war, I think a great many of us would share that perspective. But there is an old joke about this: A woman meets a genii and she gets one wish, she wishes for world peace. The world grinds to a halt. Why would the world grind to a halt? Do we depend on war so much? Personally, I don’t think war keeps us ticking over but if we consider our history, much of what we have done revolved around war of some kind (or the prevention of) and thus, we’d have a very different planet earth today if we had world peace. Classics like  All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, have become part of a canon of anti-war media, that enduringly influences the pacifist movement. Perhaps without knowing war, we cannot know why war is such a terrible price to pay.

I am utopian in that I would like to see world peace. Imagine a world where people received funding for healthcare and food rather than bullets and violence? But is that like wishing human nature should have been different? Can we ever hope to become enlightened enough to actually stop wars from occurring? In 2022 as with history thus far, humanity as a whole has not been enlightened sufficiently to stop war from occurring. America, as a developed nation, is the only country to have used nuclear bombs on another country in our entire history. A less developed country that has historically been a trigger for war, may have more growing pains and therefore more wars. But let us not believe in ‘developed’ versus ‘developing’ to judge the pacifist intent of one country over another. Historically, we’re all guilty.

“Just war theory has been converted into a form of apologetics for whatever atrocities your favoured state is carrying out,” says Noam Chomsky in his book What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World. It’s not ethnicity, income or development that causes war. It’s human beings. Within us is a penchant for going to war, that cannot easily be explained but clearly has existed since the beginning of (human) time. Until we can come up with alternatives to war, this destructive cycle shows no hope of ending. We can reason ourselves to death, but it only takes one unpredictable leader, the right speech, and we’re at war again. What we know if nothing else is, humans go to war. What we don’t yet know, is how to remove that impulse.

Is it an impulse like sexual attraction or hunger? Something as intrinsic and hard-wired or more of a defense mechanism for men? Again, I think without proof of this, it makes more sense to assume this is a human predilection and not a gender-driven one. Would women go to war as gladly as men? We may not have enough historical precedence to substantiate this issue. It could be argued they were working with a masculine model, but we have no proof either way. Rather than entering the ‘blame game’ what would be a way to avoid war altogether?

Negotiations only go so far. What one country may wish another country to do, doesn’t mean they will. If that country feels that is a deal breaker, then war is on. How can you ever alter that outcome when it’s as common place as two people disagreeing? This will always occur and if those two people are world leaders, then war may be the result. Is it unavoidable even if so many of us wish for peace? What are the ‘necessities’ of peace? German philosopher, Immanuel Kant was one of the earliest exponents of the idea that “perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation.” Democracy isn’t a save-all and has severe down-sides, making ideas in reality, less like their philosophical ideal. Novelist Victor Hugo contended, “Peace is the virtue of civilisation. War is its crime.”

I feel fortunate I did not grow up in war-torn countries, but even in my lifetime, I have heard of so many wars. All wars are a huge waste of money. Even the World Wars, where nearly every country entered in order to fight off the invading fascists. Whether anti-imperialism, an end to totalitarianism or nuclear disarmament, are the answers for enduring peace, they’re complicated and don’t explain the enduring penchant for violence and war within humanity.

One thing I noticed when I immigrated to America was how many people believed being pro military meant being pro war. People would say things like; ‘they are defending our freedom’ and I would ask; ‘how are they defending our freedom if our freedom was never in jeopardy?’ I felt most of the wars in America since WW2 were completely unnecessary. Not a single one of them was really justified (in terms of it being necessary to defend America against a true threat). Most were born out of paranoia and a need for control (anti-communism) or greed and a need for control (Afghanistan and beyond). They were not ‘as advertised’ meaning the average American thought America invaded countries for one reason but it was often a completely different reason.

When 9/11 happened, the entire world was shocked. America did not have a history of being attacked on their soil since the Civil War (and that, by their own populous). The outrage with a staggering death toll of about 3000 was so stunning that a need for vengeance or rectitude was experienced. The result was the longest drawn war in American history which led to billions being spent and weapons getting into the hands of ‘the enemy’ which so often has been the case. How can this be a good thing? Anymore than creating a generation of young men who seek vengeance for what was done to their countries in the name of ‘freedom.’

The polarisation of religion, culture, politics and ethos seems more acute than ever before. There is no universal agreement and those who sue for peace, must realise that just wishing for it, isn’t going to resolve those long-standing fractions. Maybe it’s simply not in our nature to want to all get along, to avoid war and seek peace. Maybe humans are warmongers and we’ve replaced the hunt of big game with fighting each other. Maybe the veneer of our so-called civilisation is very thin and waiting for any excuse to implode. That said, I’m an optimist. As such I believe there are ways to gain peace and avoid war. I don’t think it’s as simple as putting our weapons down, because someone will always cheat. Trust must be earned and even then. But if we seek the same goal, that’s a start. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it is my hope with every generation we come closer to a rejection of war. There are quite simply, too many other needs and just imagine — if we poured our collective funds into helping those in need, we could live in a paradise instead of buying bullets that erase life. Ultimately every single one of us is responsible for what happens going forward, collectively.

Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.”

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 is called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Categories
Musings

An Existential Dilemma

By G Venkatesh

Thermodynamics’ – the word itself evokes images of entropy and chaos (heat and disorderly motion). However, it is a science which looks for the elusive order in the chaos its name evokes. There is classical thermodynamics – the macroscopic sister to statistical thermodynamics which is the bottom-up approach to understanding the behaviour of systems (studying the parts with the expectation of understanding the whole). While the classical is a mere approximation (better than not able to describe at all), the statistical is a mere prediction (something close, but not exactly).

During a period of intense and painful introspection in a coffee shop in Karlstad, Sweden, an idea perhaps floating around in the realm above the astral, settled on yours sincerely.

Picture a closed cylinder filled with ‘ideal’ gas. Students of thermodynamics often befriend the ‘ideal’ gas ideally, even though this friend is just an illusion. The gas is composed of numerous molecules, which are moving around at random, colliding with each other and with the walls of the cylinder. Indeed, over any period of time, all the molecules do not suffer the same number of collisions with others, or for that matter, do not ‘bang’ into the inner wall of the cylinder to be ricocheted back into the pack, at identical frequencies.

If the cylinder is opened for a short period of time, and then closed, some gas would leak out. Of course, while all molecules may look alike, what they experience within the cylinder is never the same for all of them. Some molecules would leak out into ‘freedom’. That seamlessly brings us to our analogy with souls on Earth.

Now, replace the small cylinder with our planet Earth. And the gas molecules with individual human souls. Pause for a minute and you would perhaps be able to visualise. Souls trapped in human bodies wander about on Earth, interacting with others (analogous to the collisions among molecules), supposedly reaping the rewards of their  karma, repeatedly. Let us assume that the law of action and reaction holds good, indisputably, the reaction in this case being from the universe or God. Just as one defines the quality of energy as ‘exergy’, if one conceives a property which represents the qualities (degrees) of good deeds, bad deeds, rewards and punishments, and labels the same as ‘exergy’ then, it must follow that:

  1. Exergy (Good deeds) = Exergy (Rewards)
  2. Exergy (Bad deeds) = Exergy (Punishments).

In other words, the higher the quality of a good deed, the better the reward, and the graver the bad deed, the more serious the punishment. Now, does this apply to every individual soul during its sojourn on earth in a specific bodily envelope? Does one find a perfect correlation? Definitely not. After all, the equations used to understand the state and behaviour of gases, do not apply to every single molecule, do they? We tend to easily tide over this impasse, just as we do in thermodynamics, by theorising that:

3. Σ Exergy (Good deeds) = Σ Exergy (Rewards)

4. Σ Exergy (Bad deeds) = Σ Exergy (Punishments)

If someone wishes to know the time period over which these summations apply, one will say that this would be the entire length of time humankind will walk on Terra Firma, and for all the reincarnations of all the souls.

Indeed, I or you will not be able to test this in any way, just as we would never be able to summarily and conclusively prove that there is life after death, while we are walking around on Earth. Further, how does one define the quality factor of good deeds and rewards, punishments and bad deeds? Who decides? So, that is that! We then turn to the Bible or the Gita or the Koran or the Zend Avesta or the Guru Granth Sahib or the Torah or any other religious text just as we refer to textbooks of thermodynamics for those equations.

For generalisations. To simplify and pretend that we understand everything, or to be humble enough to admit that we do not. To calm our minds and believe that our turn would come. We would never know where we are placed in the queue to receive rewards or accept punishments. After all, like those molecules inside the cylinder, we are tossed about here and there, and find ourselves at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong set of ‘molecules’ around us. ‘My turn would come’, implies being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. They give this a name – divine timing. Is it random? I do not know. Neither do you.

Which souls (molecules) would ‘leave deceitful knaves for the higher and better society of gods and goddesses’ (from a play referred to by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay called  ‘Heroism’ in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and when, none knows. Surely, the equations (1) and (2) will never hold true for you when the time comes for you to ascend to the astral realm. You may either have been very fortunate or extremely unfortunate; may have got a fair-enough deal, or may have been scapegoated ever and anon. You would need to return to help equations (3) and (4) to manifest themselves at the fag end of the human race – perhaps at the Big Crunch or much before that….again, just as the gas molecules which are ‘freed’ may be brought down by rain again to the terrestrial hydrosphere, to cycle back and forth.   

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G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia. 

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Musings

Breaking the Fast

By P Ravi Shankar

The dosa was perfect! Crisp, thin and a rich golden brown. A beautiful symphony of flavours with the green chilli and the red chilli chutneys and the spicy, aromatic sambar. I was enjoying the breakfast buffet at a hotel in Coimbatore, known as the Manchester of South India. A major manufacturing centre located at the foothills of the Western ghats, Coimbatore (also known as Kovai) is the second biggest city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.  

I enjoy a hearty breakfast. I admit I am partial toward South Indian fare. I absolutely love dosais, and upma. I enjoy crispy medu vadas. Appam and coconut stew is a duet made in heaven. Panizhayaram is Tamil delicacy along with Pongal. I am not very fond of idlis, however. The breakfast buffets in Kovai are superb. I believe and many agree that Kovai combines the best of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I also enjoy the wide variety of dishes in an American breakfast ranging from toast, eggs in different forms, porridge, cereal, hash browns, bacon, and sausage. All washed down with juices and coffee and tea. A variety of breads are available, especially in Europe. Pancakes are also delicious, especially with maple syrup. Many hotels in the United States do not serve a continental breakfast, however. A few hotels in Kovai offer you both South Indian and western breakfast choices.

As with most other beliefs created in today’s information overload, the role and status ofbreakfast has become confusing. The traditional advice was to never skip breakfast as it was the most important meal of the day. In today’s world, as prolonged periods of fasting and the requirement to have stretches of time with low blood sugar levels have gained footage, some began skipping breakfast and moved directly to lunch. Traditionally humans had their last meal of the day at sundown. A long period of fasting till breakfast, the next morning, was a natural outcome. With the advent of artificial lighting, the time of dinner was steadily pushed back.

In Nepal most people do not have a big breakfast. They usually have tea and biscuits and sit down for a big lunch at ten or even earlier in the morning. Different breakfast snacks are available in the Kathmandu valley. The trekking lodges in Nepal do offer breakfast on their menu to cater to western trekkers. The hotels in Kathmandu and other tourist towns also offer a variety of choices. In the plains bordering northern India, breakfast is usually north Indian fare. When I trek, my breakfast of choice is usually muesli with milk. This is filling and provides both instant and slow-release energy and keeps me going for a few hours. It is said to have been developed around 1900 by a Swiss physician, Maximilian Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital. The major problem with muesli is that it is dry and requires effort and copious amounts of milk to wash down. Cornbread and toast sometimes find their way into the menu. Nepalese cooks are ingenious and dishes like Swiss rosti are also available. In the Everest region, potato pancakes are dominant though they may not be available for breakfast as they take long to prepare.  

North India has a variety of filling breakfasts. Chana bhatura is filling though oily and most bus stations and train stations in the north will have breakfast stalls with such fare. Piping hot pooris are a perennial favorite. When I was working in Nepal, I sometimes used to travel through the eastern Uttar Pradesh town of Gorakhpur. The stuffed parathas are a delight to the palate and are filling. They can be made with aloo (potatoes), radish, cauliflower and even with finely minced meat. Having these piping hot with a dollop of clarified butter on a chilly winter morning is a pure joy. The lower canteen at PGI (Post Graduate Institute), Chandigarh, serves delicious aloo parathas. Kachoris are also eaten for breakfast along with jalebis. Samosas could make a hearty breakfast along with chole. Punjabi samosas are huge and filling and the stalls in the market at Punjab University in Sector 11 in Chandigarh has some of the best samosas I have eaten.

Many cultures may have independently discovered the nutritional benefits of combining cereals and pulses. Considering the lack of knowledge about nutrients and nutrient quality in those days, this was a significant achievement. The combination can be samosas and chickpeas, idlis/dosas and sambar, baked beans and bread, and so forth. Breakfast should provide immediate energy to get you going and slowly release sugars to continue to provide energy. Eggs provide high quality proteins and are an important part of the western breakfast. Meats are also eaten in many parts of the globe.

In Malaysia, noodles of different varieties are eaten for breakfast. Nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) is also a perennial favourite though I do struggle to eat rice early in the morning. Our breakfast habits are an acquired taste heavily influenced by our childhood. South Indian foods like thosai, idlis, upma, vada and Pongal are also available attesting to the multicultural diversity of the country. Breakfast can be creative in Kerala, God’s own country at the southern tip of India and considered one of the best breakfasts in the world. Among the highlights are appam with different vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries, puttu with black gram curry or puttu with small bananas. Puttu is made of steamed rice flour and grated coconut and can be dry hence requiring curry or bananas for lubrication.

Cultures globally have created a variety of rich and delicious foods for breakfast. There are similarities in the use of leavened or unleavened bread (in different forms and shapes), a combination of grains and pulses, eggs, fruits and tea or coffee. Many have fruit juices for breakfast. After the long overnight fast, getting your sugar levels up again and providing you with the energy resources to get through a long and challenging day is important. At Kuala Lumpur, I usually have my breakfast at the Shirdi Sai canteen at the university. I usually have dosas or upma and sometimes I have uthappams. They also make delicious pooris in the great Tamil tradition served with hot and filling yellow potato curry. Starting your day on a full stomach will surely make you happy, healthy, and wise and if you are lucky, even wealthy.            

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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Categories
Musings

For the want of a cloth…

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Roti Kapda aur Makaan/ Maang raha hai Hindustan…

India is demanding food, clothing and shelter…

Sometime in 1949 writer-director-actor Manoj Kumar had heard a young man recite these lines in post-Partition Punjab. The simple line had stayed on in his mind and almost two decades later he came up with the film Roti Kapda aur Makaan (food, clothes and housing). By then India had its third prime minister Indira Gandhi who had swept into the office in 1967 winning with a huge popular mandate on the wings of the slogan Garibi Hatao (Do away with poverty). The three tenets of identifying poverty then outlined were – yes, lack of food, clothing, and roof over people’s head.

These, needless to add, were the prime concern of millions who had been uprooted, disowned by the nation they so far knew to be their own, driven out of their ancestral homes with barely a change of clothes, spending days and nights in refugee camp queues for one square meal and perhaps the vaguest hope of some employment.

In 1949 the Constituent Assembly was already meeting but had yet to formally adopt the Bharatiya Samvidhan – the Constitution of India that came into effect on 26th January 1950, the day that is gloriously celebrated every year with a gratifying display of our military might and cultural wealth on the Rajpath of the Capital. Full seven decades ago the Constitution  laid down a framework that delineates the fundamental code, the directive principles that would govern the political structure, powers, and duties of the government and its institutions – as much as it set out the fundamental rights and the duties of citizens.

We were perhaps receiving our first lessons in civics when Indira Gandhi stepped into the prime minister’s office. We learnt by rote the Preamble that asserts the solemn resolution of the People of India to Constitute the land into a Sovereign Democratic Republic that would secure every one of its citizens Justice – social, economic and political; Liberty – of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality – of status and opportunity; and Fraternity which would assure the dignity of individual and unity of the nation.

We were not, however, aware at that age that the two years before India gave itself the Samvidhan, nations of the world had united in declaring that recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. By the end of the barbaric World War II they had realised that disregard and contempt for human rights had resulted in the nightmarish acts that continue to outrage the conscience of mankind. By this time, universally, nations were keen to forge a world wherein humans would enjoy “freedom of speech and belief, freedom from fear and want.” These, it was proclaimed by one and all, were “the highest aspiration of the common man,” anywhere on the globe.

By the time the British left India to its destiny, the imperial power too had realised that, if man were not compelled to recourse to the last resort – rebellion against tyranny and oppression – then human rights ought to be protected by the rule of law.

So, in the Charter, the peoples of the United Nations reaffirmed their “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women.” The Human Rights Declaration was, then, meant “to promote social progress and better standards of life for larger freedom.”

By proclaiming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” member States of the United Nations had pledged the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights as fundamental to every freedom. Keeping the Declaration constantly in mind, they will “strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms, and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

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When I read this, I am astounded that Nabendu Ghosh, writing five years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was almost setting the charter for nations to follow once they lose the harness of imperialism and emerge out of the shadow of colonialism. “When, despite repeated pleas, a man is deprived of his basic needs, what else can he do?” – wonders the leader portrayed in the mould of a Gandhi in Bastrang Dehi (Give Me a Rag, Please). “Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him to cover his natural anatomy, today how can he forget that nudity is primitive and accept nudity as normal? How can age-old norms hold sway over dire needs?” the writer poses.

In the swiftly developing crisis that engulfs the entire community which is suffering the aftermath of rationing and subsequent profiteering in clothes, the village Brahmin Bhattachajji is not apologetic for wearing a lungi, the mark of a mullah: bhaagte bhoot ki langot bhali! – one could add the Hindi proverb to imply, when one is running to save one’s skin, even a loincloth is most acceptable (something is better than nothing). Profiteering, we realise before the end draws up, is the worst of crime against mankind, for it fishes in troubled waters.

The writer ends by describing two opposite reactions – one, of a leader; the other, of a common man. Nationalist Manish turns his face away from the howling surrounding the half-naked corpse of Harimati: the sight and sound was ridiculing his leadership, taunting the failure of his processions to procure more than false promises, mocking his manhood, he felt. But Teenkori, Harimati’s husband, does not cry. He is lynched, he is jailed, he becomes a thief in his attempt to procure a sari for his abused wife who eventually commits suicide – but no, he does not shed a drop of tear. He becomes vicious, a savage look descends in his eyes, his fingers tingle just as do soldiers’ when they confront enemies.

To me, representing a generation which has, since it started walking, celebrated Republic Day by singing paeans to the Hindustan better than the rest of the world, Bastrang Dehi brought home truths that no history book has ever taught. Yes, I knew about the Bengal Famine of 1943 that saw millions starved for the want of rice dying on the streets of Calcutta – the erstwhile capital of the jewel in the British crown. Yes, they were uprooted; they were compelled to leave their homes and hearth in the villages and flock to the city in search of a meal. Yes, I knew that they died of cholera and dysentery as they snatched food out of bins from the jaws of snarling dogs too. But did I know that clothes too were rationed, and sold in the black market, sending saris and dhotis beyond the reach of peasants? Once the ‘Quit India!’ slogan rang out, most Indians would not touch the clothes from the English mills while the British were sending everything — food and handloom clothings produced in the Province — to the Theatre of the War in the North East, where American GIs were joining British Tommies to beat back the Japs who were regularly bombing Bengal.

Nabendu Ghosh, a devotee of the Buddha, must have read this gospel. A disciple of the Enlightened One complained that one of his flock was indifferent to his sermons. He was sorely disappointed that Tathagata’s teachings were falling on deaf ears. One day the Buddha accompanied the disciple to the hut from where he had been shooed away. The Buddha offered the man a bowl of rice, then turned to his disciple and calmly said, “Could you see the man was starving? Truth can be served to him only in a bowl of rice.”

Ghosh derived the title of Bastrang Dehi from the popular invocation of Goddess Durga that rings through Bengal year after year after year, at the advent of the Autumnal Festival: Rupang Dehi, Jayang Dehi, Yasho Dehi Disho Jayee! ( grant me Beauty, grant me Victory, grant me Fame!) By adapting the prayer to seek something as mundane as a piece of cloth, the writer underscores that food, clothing and shelter may be basic individual needs, but if humans constitute society these must be enshrined as basic rights even before we enshrine political liberty, rule of law, equality of worship, freedom of expression… Else democracy and justice and other lofty ideals of human life will go for a toss.

Decades after the history books have changed the way we look at the past, why do I still cringe when I read Bastrang Dehi? Because I know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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I am certain Anshu Gupta has never read Bastrang Dehi. But ‘Give me cloth’ was the plea that had launched his journey with Goonj – and it has earned him the Magsaysay Award, World Bank’s Development Marketplace award, Mother Teresa award, NASA’S Game Changing Innovation, the prestigious Ashoka fellowship… they are still coming in.

What had spurred the young man and his wife to start Goonj with merely 67 items of clothings? The realisation that clothing was overlooked as a basic human right. Today the NGO registered under Societies Act and for exemption under several sections and for foreign contributions etc, deals with more than 3500 tonnes of material every year. 

A real life incidence had prompted Gupta to start this arduous journey. One night, going home in Delhi’s winter, he met a three-wheeler scooter rickshaw driver, Habib. His rickshaw had this inscribed on its side: Laawarish laash uthaane wala (I pick up unclaimed dead bodies). Talking to him Gupta learnt that for every dead body Habib carried to the crematorium, he got twenty rupees and two metres of cloth. That, workload in winter was more than in summer. That, many underprivileged families don’t have enough clothes to stave off the cold. So much so that Habib’s little daughter Bano told Anshu, “When I feel cold, I hug a dead body to sleep. It does not turn around, it does not trouble me…”

Anshu Gupta deserves every single award that has come his way. For, unlike nationalist Manish of Bastrang Dehi, he did not turn his face away. That one meeting ignited in him the impulse to address the sufferings of millions due to shortage of clothing. He started collecting under-utilised used material, to maintain human dignity rather than to give them as charity. In the process he has triggered development with dignity across the land.

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Saare jahaan se achha... I still sing on Republic Day, and I still sing Sakal desher shera amaar janma bhoomi Independence Day. But when I run into Anshu Gupta at a conference perhaps in Budapest, I hang my head in shame. I am elated that Goonj has clothed millions. But even today, if a Tsunami, an Amphan or a Yaas sweeps the shores of Midnapur or Sundarbans, a Kendrapada or Bhadrak, in Bengal or Odisha – even today, I hear the cries of women and men cry out, ‘Give me a rag, please!”

It is a cry to save their dignity.

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Glossary:

Saare jahaan se achha… A song written by Iqbal in 1904 and adapted as a song for marching by the Indian army. Literally, translated to mean, the best in the world.

Sakal desher shera amaar janma bhoomi A song written by  Dwijendralal Ray (1863-1913). Literally translated to mean, the best country is my land of birth.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly 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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Categories
Musings Tagore Translations

Two Birds: Musings on Tagore

Ratnottama Sengupta muses as she translates Tagore’s song, Khachar Pakhi Chilo (1892, The caged bird was)

TWO BIRDS

In a coop of gold, lived Cage Bird,
In the forest dwelt Free Bird --
How did the twain meet on a dawn?
What had Fate ordained?

"Dear One in cage," Free Bird called out,
"Come, let's fly into the wood."
"You come inside," chirped Cage Bird,
"The enclosure can be our home!"
"No!" Free Bird cried, "the chains are not for me!"
"Alas!" Cage Bird sighed, 
"How can I live in the holt!"

Free Bird sat outside and sang
All the forest songs he loved.
Cage Bird parroted all 
The tricks it had been taught -
'Twas as if they spoke two tongues!
Free Bird pleaded, "Dear one!
For me sing one Forest song!""
Cage Bird said, "You better rote
Songs of the cage, loved one!"
"No!" Free Bird wailed, 
"I do not parrot cliches!"
"Alas," sobbed Cage Bird,
"How do I sing what I've never heard!"

The Free Bird chimed, "Deep is the blue 
Of the sky above,
There's no bar in its expanse!"
"See!" Cage Bird twittered,
"How well-netted is the aviary
on all its four sides!"
"Let go of yourself!" Free Bird whistled,
"In the clouds above, just once!"
"This cosy corner is so very tranquil!"
Cage Bird chirped, "Why not 
Submit to its peace?"
"No! Where will I then fly?"
"Alas! Where in the clouds 
Will I find a perch?"

Thus the two birds loved each other
But could not unite.
Through the gaps their beaks would kiss
Their eyes bespoke their longing
But neither could understand
Nor express to the other
Their biding constraints.
They flapped their wings
They stretched their arms
"Come to me dear, let me
Hold you to my heart!"
"No!" the Free Bird feared,
"The door might snap shut!"
"Alas!" lamented the Caged Bird
"I have no might to fly!"
Birds in a large cage in Saratchandra’s home. Photo Courtesy: Ratnottama Sengupta

Growing up in a Vaishnav family where kirtan was a part of daily life, I had always loved this song Rabindranath Tagore composed in the kirtan style. In my later years I thought the Universal Poet had penned the Natya Geeti — song drama — in the context of the Freedom Struggle. No, I learnt in an essay by the poet: it was penned in 1892 to put into words a more universal philosophy — the duality that is part of every human existence. 
Difficult to comprehend? Perhaps not, once we obliterate the sameness of the two birds and attribute gender markers to them. Tagore himself thought of the caged bird as the woman in every man, and the free bird as the man in every woman. Perhaps that is why it is structured along the lines of the traditional Shuk Shari samvad — a conversational song between between two birds (parrots perhaps?) — wherein Shuk is a follower of the masculine, Purushottam Krishna, and Shari of Radha, the essence of femininity. However, I was prompted to look up the poem recently when I saw a large birdcage in a corner of Saratchandra Chatterjee’s house in Deulti some 60 km from Kolkata. It was pretty routine, apparently, for households then to have aviaries ‘domesticating’ finches, canaries, parakeets, cockatiels, lovebirds and other feathered pets — much like today’s people with pet dogs and cats. But I was struck by a different thought: Did the two birds represent the two stalwarts of Bengali Literature who lived at the same time? Did one look inside homes and scan woes besetting the happiness of their human relationships? And did the other take off from his perch on a branch of the tree rooted in terra firma, to swim in the boundless ocean above? Even today, one draws you out into the vast expanse while the other pulls you homeward. Together? They give us a  universe…

Notes:

Kirtan is devotional music.

Tagore (1861 to 1941) and Saratchandra (1876-1938) were contemporaries. While Saratchandra wrote stories based on real life to expose and reform social ills, Tagore’s work was more philosophically inclined, though he has written of such societal issues too.

In 1894, Rabindranath wrote in Aadhunik Saahitya while commenting on the works of the poet Biharilal Chakraborty –

“… There is an independently moving masculine entity within our nature, which is intolerant to bondage alongside a feminine one which preffers to be enclosed and secured within the walls of the home. Both of them remain united in an inseparable fashion. One is eager to develop significantly his undying strength in a diverse way by savouring ever-new tastes of life, exploring ever-new realms and manifestations and the other remains encircled within innumerable prejudices and traditional practices, enthralled with her habitual deliberations. One takes you out into the vast expanse and the other seems to pull towards home. One is a forest bird (or the free bird of the translation by Ratnottama Sengupta) and the other is a caged bird. This forest bird is the one that sings much. Although, its song expresses with its diverse melodies the whimper and its craving for unrestricted freedom.”

Rabindranath Tagore was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly 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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