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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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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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Musings

Harvest your Patches

By Aditi Jain

Gradual is the foundation of a bountiful harvest.

Pandemic? Lockdown? 2020… so immured? Must have run to New Year 2021 jubilation with a hope of cudgel of change? Sorry, not even a change, a ‘transformation’ !

A pandemic is not merely a biomedical phenomenon, but a social and cultural phenomenon as well. And healing from pandemic takes place gradually. It’s not the first time in history, that there has been an outbreak of pandemic, though agreed it has deeply ravaged the humanity and society. Black Death ( 1346-1353) and Spanish Flu (1918-1920) are some of the gruesome reminders when history had been attacked by pandemics. The end of 2020 saw goodbye notes with loathsome memes and cold messages that expected COVID 19 to disappear at the start of the New Year. Wearing the shroud of negativity and animosity, such an outlook impeded our spiritual development and realisation that nature has spirit!

Do you think if we can ‘patch’  the immured 2020 with warmness? Possibly yes. Since the vocation last year and even till date ( though it’s your exalted 2021), is mostly carried as WFH (Work from home), let’s configure the patches. 

An online meet opens in a gallery view where you are welcomed by the host with a coy or may be a wry smile. That gallery view reminds me of ‘patches’ …beautiful patches of a quilt; where each speaker/participant/patch presents his/her views or shares a story. 

In a journey of a beautifully crafted patchwork quilt, the nuance of stories and emotions communicated by each patch can be felt. Each patch communicates and adds to the composition, which can be a trope for ‘ topic of discussion ‘ of an online meet. 

Each patch of a quilt is sewn with a thread, whereas each speaker/patch of an online meet is sewn with internet connectivity. A patch loosely stitched in a quilt would blemish the entire composition. A technical glitch in connectivity also would blemish that online meet. 

Not all patches of the quilt are embellished. So are we shrewd enough to cater to our favourite ones and pin them up to adorn the whole quilt? Imagine, the various quilting patterns resonating with the conversation patterns of the online meet. Candid conversations in plain and corny mood, resonating with straight line quilting. While framed narratives with lots of “so yaa” resonating with log cabin or concentric patterns of quilting. At times, a particular patch is quilted heavily to accentuate the look, but often creates a ‘yuck’ factor in that design. This reminds me of a speaker/patch, who has the audacity to blabber ceaselessly, being a stimulus for a bored yawn. 

Quilting bee, a social event for learning new skills and techniques, were popularly known as ‘work parties’. But deep down, we may admit.. our ‘zoom bee’, ‘Teams bee’  or ‘ Meet bee’, have left us like zombies attending an online meet. 

A quilt stitched part by part, with isolated yet beautiful patches is a treasure to hold. It gives profuse warmth and love in our life. Since they are  sourced from different places, each patch or fragment carries a story of the place it belongs to. 

So why not cherish 2020 as a quilt, rather than discarding it as a rag. 2020 had been an opportunity for self-reflection,  self-acceptance , our communion with nature and the experience has played a critical role in nurturing our faculties. 

The notion of transformation from the pandemic to the post-pandemic realm with merely the onset of 2021 was a fallacy, but we preferred to believe in illusions beautifully crafted by designer media. Antithesis of illusion, ‘reality’ says, healing from pandemic and recovery from this digression will happen gradually. Growth and recovery are always gradual and should be made with more informed and prudent choices. 

So, let’s harvest our quilt!

The surface of the quilt is almost ready. Patches have been joined, each patch reminiscent of a new and different experience. Since every patch is reminiscent of a new and different experience, I sincerely hope and yearn, that the patches are not only cut in ‘squares’. Not only ‘squares’, as it might make your quilt a cold memory, or cast a sharp glare at you. I hope there will be ‘circles’ and ‘triangles’ too to inculcate warmness, flexibility, positivity and a path to subjective choices and emotions. Perhaps, you could be that ‘circle’ or ‘triangle’ in someone else’s quilt. 

Quilting patterns have been explored intensively (you may choose candid talks, framed narratives or introspection). This time, I wouldn’t hope but surely suggest, to select ‘introspection’ for the above. An introspective quilting pattern would contain a series of intertwined quilting lines, gleaming with the rays of optimism and self-reflection. In those intertwined quilted lines, some would be prominently embroidered with thick threads; as some reflections and thoughts are too deep to be mulled over and to be taken into consideration. The negative thoughts would be slightly visible, since some would be nuanced threads. In spite of being negative, it would be part of your intertwined quilting, because the quilting pattern needs to be balanced, so your thoughts and actions as well; which would otherwise be impetuous, if not pondered critically. 

Quilt batting would be consolidated layers of hopes, wishes and prayers. Backing could be our faith, our faith in gradual yet impactful recovery. 

Bind the quilt with optimism, a binding which is not solipsistic. A border which resonates with holistic sustainability and growth, seeking inspiration from our indigenous wisdom.

It is heartening that the vaccine drive is kicking off at a steady rate, hopefully the drive will be a success and gradually we will be emancipated from the realm of the pandemic. But that emancipation will be gradual, not each of us would be vaccinated at the initial stages. The drive would be delineated in gradual steps.

The vaccination plan released, has certain limitations, which would take time for complete acceptance and achievement of the target. No doubt, vaccination apps would be launched soon, but to augment them to their best potential and efficiency would be a gradual process. 

Assuming that you are that ‘lucky bee’ of our quilting bee, to be vaccinated, since you belong to those categories that will be catered at the initial stages; you would still have to take all the precautionary measures, till you get the second shot. Even after getting the second shot, you would be expected to adhere to social distancing  and masks would still be your mandatory accessory.

Let’s fast-forward a little. Let’s assume the vaccination plan succeeds and it is available ‘easily’ to the masses and we have renounced the reign of the pandemic. So now what’s the need to harvest the quilt? 

A quilt is used seasonally, so will be your ‘ ‘harvested quilt’, which would be stored in bed trunks and would be pulled out to protect from harsh chilly frosts. The ‘harvested quilt’ doesn’t resonate only to the pandemic, it’s a quilt of endurance , memories, experiences and an inspiring lesson for the future, if any such pandemic occurs again.

Basking in the sun, gather the quilt and snuggle in its warmness with faith and endurance. Store it in your trunks or bed storage with real happiness, real realisation, real endurance; you would be ‘real’ to yourself, if the ‘growth’ that has taken place in you is real. 

You may end up with an imperceptible nod as epiphany will sound only when the quilt is finally harvested! 

Aditi Jain is a Gurugram-based Textile designer and researcher, graduated from NIFT. She envisions textiles as media of expressions. The ‘expressions’ – that convey ideas and beliefs, imbibed in Indian cultural roots, with a contemporary blend to express them with a fresh and modern outlook. Currently, she is working on a research project on responsive fashion and sensory design.

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Categories
Musings

The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights

Reflections of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), translated by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Courtesy: Wikicommons

Chiching Phank! “Open Sesame!” Two cock-n-bull words. But the spell of these two magical words released the rocky gates of a secret cave hidden by thorny bushes in the folds of a mountain, in front of Alibaba’s dazed eyes… 

The hideout was as mysterious as it was cavernous. With a pounding heart the impoverished woodcutter entered the cave — and froze. Diamonds and rubies, gold and silver filled every corner of the cave; silk and velvet and Persian carpets and God knows what else were stored there! He had never set eyes on so much glitter nor had he heard about such riches. This was the secret locker for the goods ill-begotten by the forty dacoits who had just galloped away on horseback.

By this time even the youngest reader of 1001 Arabian Nights would be wonderstruck by the astounding description of diamonds, rubies and gold coins. “Will Alibaba succeed in loading all these riches on the back of his three donkeys he has left hidden in the bushes and safely take off for his home?”  the reader would wonder, afraid to even imagine the consequences in case Alibaba failed.

If he was captured alive by those dacoits, they would bury Alibaba alive in that very cave and not even a crow would get to know of it. Such anxious moments! Each moment would weigh down the breath of the reader, until Alibaba emerged out of that zone of enchantment — all goods intact — and reached his shelter at sundown.

The spell binding excitement about ‘What Happens Next?’ in the Arabian Nights was planted in us readers by unknown storytellers — and the unreal harvest of curiosity has continued to cast its magic over centuries and across continents. The identity of the original creator of these stories is lost in the womb of time. What lived on were the characters which the author fleshed with dexterous imagination. It has been only three hundred years since the West got a taste of these adventures and became curious about the romance that is the Orient. Truth is these tales come out of the Arabian Nights but why ‘Nights’? The adventures are happening in broad daylight too. Ask, and the answer will lead you to a chatur nari — a very clever woman — and her hoshiyari — her quick thinking, alert mind. 

Scheherazade, painted in the 19th century by Sophie Andersen: Courtesy: Wiki

So, there was this very powerful Persian Badshah who found out that his Begum was carrying on an illicit affair. He not only snuffed out her life, he developed such immense hatred for the gender that every night he would procure a beauty to warm his bed and send her off to be beheaded at the break of daylight.

This went on for a while. The ministers were at their wit’s end: Who knew when their daughters would be sent for? One night, of her own free will, the prime minister’s daughter, the clever Scheherazade stepped forward and entered the Badshah’s bedroom, despite being well aware that the night ends in the certainty of death. The trusted matronly nurse of ample years was entrusted with the job of waking her up in the wee hours of the night. Thus, in the fading darkness, Scheherazade started narrating a bewitching story to the Badshah. Spellbound he listened, until the first ray of the sun interrupted the action at such a critical point in the story that the curiosity to know what happens next compelled the Badshah to postpone the beheading by one night.

By the sheer genius of her sharp wit, that young lady with the sword of death hanging over her head, went on with her storytelling for one thousand and one nights. So what if he was a brutal devil? The pulsating heart of a flesh and blood human entrapped him too:  after birthing three adorable babies Scheherazade became his Begum. And her head stayed firmly between her shoulders.

Centuries have passed since thirst-driven caravans on sandy roads immersed themselves in these stories as they sat around shallow wells to gather their breath or to warm themselves around fires under chilly starlit skies. By word of mouth, from one caravan to another, from one town to another, from a port to another land, these literary gems counted centuries before they were stilled in sentences and paragraphs.  Some parts of this literature, penned down in Arabic script during the 1st century after Christ, have been unearthed in Cairo as recently as the 20th century. These appear to be attempts to recount and record those captivating tales.

Many interpolations must have happened in the process of their journey from one narrator to another. Doubtless these are ancient treasures of the East that were presented to the world at the onset of the 19th century by French archaeologist Antoine Galland. He translated the stories from the Arabic manuscript unearthed in Aleppo and from the stories recounted to him by a Syrian. Not one or two but in twelve volumes he published his version of the tales and stormed the bastion of literary West between 1704 and 1717. Subsequently, it is believed that his work exerted significant influence on later European literature and attitudes towards the Islamic world. 

Since French was widespread then, England and the rest of Europe too could savour the romance embedded in these tales of adventure. But more than another hundred years passed before they were transcreated in English. It was Edward William Lane’s English version, Arabian Nights Entertainment, that amazed English readers globally.

It is logical to ask, from where were such captivating tales strung together? These tales do not belong to any particular tribe, nor are they rooted in any one soil. They have grown out of multifarious dialects and a multitude of emotions. They have been watered by inventiveness and mysticism. Man’s creative soul springs from them like an unchequered waterfall. The essence of India, Persia, Israel and Greece enrich this lexicon of mankind. Hence they unhesitatingly bear the robustness of an archaic tongue and of obscenity too. To ease the pain of a long day’s journey through unrelenting desert, or the rigours of relentless chores, the wayfarers would let loose the fertility of their mind in unimagined colours. Their panache would sketch even impossibly enchanted worlds. Perhaps it did not happen exactly so — but surely it could too! And if by chance or deus ex machina it did? Oh, what thrill that would spell!

Thus the tales crossed the boundaries of nature and politics. Thus they were nourished by the traditions of alien lands. Thus they came to flow as one river, fed by streams brown and blue and white. Since its origin, the human mind has seen little change in its dreams and desires, hopes and heartbreaks, greed and ambition, jealousy and suspicion, envy and enmity, doubts and fears. These make him oscillate from peaks of delight to the depths of despondency. Consequently, these stories have not faced wear and tear.

Magic lamp from Aladdin

The worthless, good-for-nothing son of a poverty stricken tailor, Aladdin spends his days imagining the impossible. It so happens that a magician takes a shine to him, and he arrives at a garden where trees are laden with rubies and emeralds. There he picks up a rusty little lamp. He rubs it, and a genie materialises out of thin air to fulfill every command of his. With his services and generosity, Aladdin gets the world in his fist. Soon as he becomes wealthy, he finds the Sultan’s daughter to be his wife. Then one day, through the machinations of the evil magician, womanly wisdom prompts her to trade off the rusty old lamp for the radiance of a brand new brass lamp. And in a jiffy his luxurious world evaporates before his very eyes. His wife is imprisoned by the trickster and he is tossed into the throes of endless suffering – until the clever Aladdin uses his wit, destroys the magician and retrieves his magic lamp. And when his father-in-law passes away, Aladdin wears the crown of the Sultan! How many minds and men are inspired by this little story to dream of the impossible coming true in their lives!

At the other end, simpleton Alibaba reaches home with the three donkeys laden with sacks full of gold coins. But how will he quieten his hyper-excited wife, Hasina Bibi? The destitute family did not own even a weighing scale. There was no other way but to borrow one from the haughty wife of his brother Cassem living on the other side of their partition wall.

“The family scrapes together barely two meals a day – now what has he brought home that compels him to borrow a scale at midnight?” – Cassem’s wife is not only curious, she is quick witted enough to paste some soft dough on the underside of the scale. A shining gold coin sticks to that and arrives in Cassem’s house, to declare what Alibaba and Hasina had come to own.

Spurred by greed, Cassem discreetly follows his brother at daybreak and unravels the mystery of the cave. And as soon as Alibaba exits the cave, Cassem utters “Open Sesame!” and enters the treasure trove. Things go wrong once he sees the riches stored inside. He goes berserk stuffing sack after sack and in the process totally forgets the two magic words. When he senses that he ought to leave, he realises the enormity of that one little mistake. He tears his hair in despair and keeps uttering “Open Potatoes!” “Open Brinjal!” “Open Cinnamon!” “Open World!”  Alas! The stone wall does not sway a hair’s breadth.

Fear of losing one’s life is so overwhelming that Cassem lost all desire for an iota of the wealth he had so lustily filled in his bags. How desperate he was to see the stone wall budge! And when it actually creaked open, Cassem’s eyes shone at the thought that now he could live to see the world outside. But the shine in his eyes lasted a mere second: the very next moment he was lying in a heap, his body chopped to pieces by the dacoit’s sword. They hung the severed body parts outside the cave and set off again.

Is there a moral lesson to be learnt from this story? The non-confronting, peaceable Alibaba could leave the cave in good time as he did not lose his equanimity, while the wily Cassem was so overcome by greed that he forgot the two magic words ‘Open Sesame’, lost his sense of time and consequently, his life too.

The thrill plays on in the heart and mind of those who watched Alibaba (1937), directed by Modhu Bose and featuring his danseuse wife Sadhana Bose. One of the songs went thus:

Aay bandi tui Begum hobi khwaab dekhechhi

(Hey slave girl! You’ll be a queen, I know that from my dreams)

Aami Badshah banechhi

(I have become the Badshah)

Ami begum banechhi

(I have become your Begum)

Badshah Begum jham jhama jham bajiye chalechhi

(Badshah Begum creating the jingle of coins wherever we go)

Oh, who can forget that fun sequence of song and dance!

Herding camels and goats was the culture of Bedouins, the nomadic Arab tribes who historically inhabited the desert regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Upper Mesopotamia and Levant. They were neither burdened by heritage, nor did they boast a wealth of literature. Generation after generation, these startling stories became their oral co-travellers. That nomadic lot of humanity with behaviour and actions peculiar to their regions, their atheism and agnosticism, their songs and liturgy became one single flow. Almost 1250 years ago, when the cornerstone of Arab civilization was laid, gathering strength from the various languages, strifes and skills, these incomparable tales became a bulk of Arab literature — and effortlessly got dyed in the Islamic colours of the devotees of Allah. Friendship and affection, wisdom and respect for seniority, belief in destiny, surrender to Allah regardless of personal wealth or poverty — these are the keynotes of all the stories. The action could well be taking place in China or Persia, but the characters are all bound by the discipline of Prophet Muhammad. It is an astonishing harvest of Islam’s golden age.

However, Haroun Al Rashid, who is the protagonist of quite a few novellas, is not an imaginary character. Renowned in history as the fifth Abbasid Caliph who was the sole lord of every life and property in sweeping Mesopotamia — and owner of consequential wealth and splendid palaces, stately homes, chateaux and alquazar (al-qasr) – his rule between 786 and 809 AD saw Baghdad become Asia’s most chronicled trading post. 

The city would bustle with transactions in the most exquisite crafts. Gifted artistes and intuitive minds assembled here at a time when European civilization had yet to scale heights.  Haroun’s Baghdad can then verily be described as the poetic nursery of Arabian literature, a champion of architectural beauty, love, and other emotions of the human heart.

1001 Arabian Nights have gained recognition by learned critics as a truthful record of Islamic civilization at the turn of the 8th century. And not just that: Even today adventurers are amazed to find the wealth of traders being transported through the difficult terrain of the desert on the back of slow-moving camels — exactly as described in the Arabian Nights. It appears to be a breathtaking oral history whose contribution to the social science of the lettered world is immense.

It is impossible to classify this piece of literature as the product of sheer fantasy. The story of ace seafarer Sindbad is a hair-raising description of a new world that can be tallied with reality. None can doubt it as drug-induced hallucination.

During the glorious days of the Caliph, Arab seamen set out on courageous courses across the waters. The lush foliage and dense forests of the Far East repeatedly drew the desert dwellers — and they did not return empty handed. The heady fragrance of the tasty spices, the silk at South Indian ports, pearls — pink and purple, grey and milky; emeralds of the Lankan island and rubies of Burma along India’s east coast — they filled their bags with all this, and their memories with experiences galore. Had they not witnessed these with their very own eyes, the actions and gestures of cannibalistic tribes; the extraction of pearls from the shells wrested from the bottom of the ocean, and the enticing iridescence of gems– it would not be possible for sheer artistry to measure up to all these tasks.

Personable and prudent Sindbad had gone around the ocean full seven times. Then comes the mishap: monstrous roc birds attack and destroy his ship. When she sinks, Sindbad stays afloat by hanging on to a plank of wood and using it like a raft, he arrives at an island. Here, an emaciated old man perches on his shoulder and with his dangling skinny legs he grasps his neck in a pincer-like hold.  The exhausted Sindbad has no choice but to eat and sleep carrying on his back the old man (perhaps like the men who followed the African custom of riding on slaves).

This makes me think of the Indian Panchatantra Tales, which in 550 AD, are said to have been extremely popular in Persian translations. Did the Arabian storyteller adorn the Betaal Panchavimsati tales with further fictional details to create this particular old man of the sea?

A flying carpet

Metaphorically speaking, endless greed and lust can get the better of man and ride him, slave like. Men in those days had to walk for days to their destinations. The Arabian tales are woven from a zillion life situations, narratives and religious beliefs — an effortless journey undertaken on a daily basis. In the garb of fantasy many a historical fact has been jotted down by the fanciful chronicler — a timeless tapestry of fact and fiction. The experiences and realisations of everyman have orally arrived at the horizons of many an imaginary land and have been disbursed to untrod shores. Who on earth can suppress the desire to scour the globe and the heavens too, astride an Uran Khatola — a flying carpet? In practical terms it may not be possible but where is the harm in dreaming of the impossible?

Sir Richard Burton had visited Mecca to witness for himself the glory of the Haj. On this journey full of hardships, he heard the thousand and one incredible stories spun out by Scheherazade, just before dawn. He translated the tales word for word, and published them in English in the first half of Queen Victoria’s rule. The recording of experiences of human head and heart, unadulterated by any critical or moral judgment, opened possibilities of altering the prudish values then prevailing in England. That a vision stretching out into the horizon, the romance of adventure and the thrill of luxuriating in untold wealth can captivate all, is best exemplified by Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels — tales of adventure that have immortalised Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.

Literature of no land can ever become popular unless it correlates the head with the heart. Unbeknownst to himself Shahryar, that wrathful Sultan who hated every woman, has enshrined his Scheherazade. He may have got a scribe to put into script the tales he had heard in the melting darkness of his bedroom. It added a glorious chapter to the literature of the world. The opportunity to dive deep into the ocean of fantasy, and experience unadulterated joy and thrill became everlasting for generations of readers all over the world.

Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant.

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. 

(Published with permission of family)

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Categories
Musings

The Resolution

By Kritika Mehta

The world was dipped in swirling, glittering celebrations with friends, family and unknown to embrace a new year. And this time it seemed to be more about desire and dreams to turn into flowers and butterflies. Because everyone needed that more than ever. Is that why they were out? To conceal from themselves the reality this year unleashed upon us — as if, it wasn’t our own doing. Humans.

And here I was, at home rolled up in a black-feathered blanket reading Love Story by Erich Segal. The perfect woody-scented book I have had for years but never read. Maybe I wasn’t ready before. Somewhere I had this prenotion — though I never read about the book or the plot — that it would go to a place that was desolate. I checked the time, thirty-five minutes to midnight, to the new year and I already knew the ending would be sad. I am talking about the book.

I was already wafting into the next year and how I wanted it to be. People make new year’s resolutions. I never did that. But I do long for something more, something different. Not small routine alterations, or self-improvement goals. Something real, something solid. Because that is where it is tough, the unknown. That toughness, even if I don’t think about it, exists. All through the day and night. Something’s sticking in my heart from inside — every second of my life.

My thoughts were interrupted by some party music outside. So, I returned back to the book. It was almost the end. With a tear resting on the top of my lower eyelid, I ended it at 10 minutes to midnight. Was this how I wanted to start new year, crying over a book I didn’t even bother to read in years, engulfed by deep sensation of unfair endings to great love? Then this thought came to my mind: If I don’t have to tell anyone about it, then yes. That was what I wanted to do. Dig deep into a story that was so perfect right from start that it had to be flawed, broken into pieces and spread all over my heart. I needed that rush of tears in my veins and the gushy feelings filling my being. But trust me, the tear didn’t flow.

There were ten minutes remaining. With my eyes closed, I let my thoughts, the uncomfortable ones return. I opened my heart and asked my soul: What is it that you want? And I don’t know exactly from where these words came flooding into my mind. I don’t know. No that’s true, I have really never known. And whatever it is that is outside is all fake. At least for me it is. And, I don’t get it. What do I think of those people partying outside?  In this pandemic year, what is it that this year leaves behind? People are bothered more about partying instead of caring more about their friends, family and keeping them safe at home. Is being at home, happy — talking with your people and starting a new year that bad? It isn’t, right? Or, is it?

In those last few minutes, it struck me. Like that sound of the rumbling thunder that drags me deep into a feeling of fear and engulfs me so tightly that my mind, body and soul all belong to it. Yes, it struck me like that.

I am not real.

The life of posts and updates and deep poetic lines to justify the perfection of one’s journey – it’s not mine. The job, the money, the responsibilities of the family, doing things the right way and following laid-out plans, all this is making me blind.

There is a twitch in my little finger at least once every night. Just when I am about to sleep, it gives me a sensation that it’s not comfortable. My little finger is not comfortable in this body of lies. Thirty-one years of my life, thirty-one years of thoughts and opportunities to understand but my mind has been so beautifully organised that I fail to see; I fail to see that for me this perfectly programmed life is not right.

Drop the charade and face the reality. What matters to me? What really matters to me?

I don’t know. Then figure it out. This life you are leading is not mine and its eating me inside. So, figure it out now. It’s time.

Why hide behind conventions? What will happen when I cease to be this person? Will I miss her? Will I want to return to being her? Can I walk away from her?

This is one life, and it is too important to let it all just slide as I try to convince other people on how it is similar it is to theirs because it’s not. And, I don’t want it to be.

So, that is what I’ll do starting this year. Find. Find that me who I really want to be. I’ll find her and I’ll let her flow in my blood with pride. Will that be easy?

No.

I don’t even know where to start or how to even try. It won’t be easy to change. But it will be worth all my life. Yes, worth all my life.

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Kritika Mehta is a Sr. Technical Analyst. Working in IT, her heart lies everywhere and her soul wants to write everything down. So, the bread-winner and writer parts are now locked in a struggle.

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Categories
Musings

Mango Trees and Mangoes, with a Pinch of Salt & Chillie

A nostalgic journey to a village in Assam, fragmented memories of childhood, presented by Pronoti Baglary

My grandparent’s house had a giant mango tree. It stood right next to the entrance gate, on the edge of the dirt road that led up to the house, breaking off from the bigger dirt road that ran through the heart of the village. The gate was made of bamboo, faded yellow with time and sun. Two bamboos were planted perpendicular at the two ends of the path, with three hollowed out holes in each, and three long bamboos slid horizontally through these holes, across the path. They could be slid away to make way for people to enter. Or if you are dexterous enough, you could just bend and slide your body in through the spaces between the perpendicular bamboos. The bamboos came from the backyard of my grandparent’s house, from the thick foliage of bamboos that ran on the edge and signaled where the compound of their home ended. My sister and I were convinced that spirits lived there. Our grandma believed that too.

The mango tree was very tall. If you asked me now how tall, I couldn’t tell you. It was enormous. All I remember is that when I would try to embrace its giant trunk, I felt its width as insurmountable: my childish arms could not contend with it even when stretched fully to its extreme limits. And when I would crane my neck to look up at its branches laden with yellow mangoes, I could never stretch long enough to be able to fully take it all in. How old was I then? 6 or 7? Or could be 8 years old?

My sister and I loved summers. The school vacation meant we would visit the village and have the kind of unbridled freedom that only a village could provide for children. We had so many friends in the village, who we met every summer vacation. With them, we would be free to run from one end of the village to another. At the end of summer, we would depart with no way of knowing if we would see each other again. It was the kind of friendships only children can have: to be present so completely in those moments and enjoy them without feeling the need for the assurance of some form of continuance. In fact, they were special precisely because of their fleeting nature. I don’t remember their names anymore. In fact, I don’t even know if I knew their names then.

We would sit flat on the grass underneath the mango tree on summer afternoons and wait for the periodic “thuds” on the ground, of falling mangoes from the giant mango tree. There were afternoons of incessant thud-thud-thuds, and then there were long afternoons when we would sit and wait for something, anything to fall. You see, the mango tree was so tall that it was easier for us to wait for falling mangoes than to try and pluck them ourselves. We would gather below the tree, and splay under its shade, to talk and play or just doze. There were mangoes in all stages of development. The ripe ones could be eaten as they were. The ones which were unripe or at the initial stages of ripening, would need a little more help.

“I want it with some salt and a pinch of chillie.” Someone would exclaim. “It’s good only with salt and chillies.”

And then as if by magic, salt and chillies plied on wild leaves would be conjured out of thin air. Short stout country knives would be used. Once sliced we would eat the mangoes. The fastest food in the shortest time. Between mouthfuls of salt and spice and sourness, we would listen to our friends’ gossip: who was the dumbest at school, and who gave the slickest answers to the teachers; how the headmaster, who was also my grandparent’s neighbour, would sometimes doze off in the middle of teaching during harvest season; which theatre company would be performing in the neighbouring village or when we could go eat sugarcanes in the fields. Since my sister and I were from town, our friends always took it upon themselves to show us the best of whatever exciting was happening in the village at that time. Sometimes these conversations could go on till the depths of dusk when the conversations would naturally transition to the realm of country ghosts and demons. It had been firmly attested by many present that there was a lazy ghost in the thicket of bamboo behind my grandma’s house. Lazy, because it didn’t make an appearance often enough to be deemed active. Apparently, one only needed to piss out of fear for the ghost to be so disgusted that it would leave the living alone.

After summer storms, the ground below the tree would be dotted with mangoes. The whole village would pay a visit to take their share of the mangoes. It was not just a tree, but it also formed a nucleus where the villagers gathered.

One year, my sister and I spent our last glorious summer in the village and left — not to return for a long time. The next year, we didn’t come back. And then we didn’t come the year after and the one after that. There was no precise reason I can think of for not returning, except for the usual ones that most people would have: we grew out of it perhaps, got busy with school or perhaps my parents decided to not visit. And when I went back many years later, the tree was gone and so were my grandparents, the thicket of bamboos behind the house was gone too.

I wish I could recall the last summer in the village. I can’t. I did not even know it would be my last summer and what “last summers” entail till more than two decades later. We can never know when we would be doing something for the very last time. If we knew, would we be doing it any different?

My family and I moved around a bit from one rented house to another, till my parents built a house of our own in a small quiet town with a river running through it. In time, I left it too for the big city. I would return home every summer and sometimes in the winters, if it was a good year.

Coming back home this summer was different: it was the year of the pandemic. There was the time to reflect in the months I spent alone: like the world paused and all I had was this ringing in my ear like blank noise. It was borne of silence perhaps. Once I could fly back home, my usual three-hour journey from the airport to my home was intercepted by a variety of events which arose due to the new normal of the pandemic. I had to spend time in a quarantine facility, then get admitted to a hospital isolation ward. After a week at the hospital, I was sent home to self-isolate. Sequestered on the first floor of my home, the first afternoon after my hospital visit, I had the unfamiliar experience of being a stranger in my own house, the one I grew up in. I was home and yet I met no one.

For lunch, my mother left me a whole assortment of food outside the door: mutton with potatoes the way I like, a small piece of fish with mustard, a side of sticky rice that smelled like heaven, a crispy brinjal, lentils and lemon. And then a bit disjointed from the overall theme of the meal, was a bowl of raw mangoes grated fine and tempered with salt and chillies. Was it in lieu of dessert? It smelled of childhood memories.

“Did you like the mangoes?”, she asked me on the phone. She, on the ground floor and me, alone on the first floor of my house. “This year, there are a lot of monkeys coming. They eat everything. Your dad has to stand outside every morning when they come to drive them away. There are also insects this year. God knows how. And all the morning walkers steal the mangoes towards the road. There is nothing left on that side.” The tiny mango tree in my parent’s house was planted a couple of year ago. It was hugely popular with the neighbouring children, their tiny frames tried to extend themselves to reach out to the mangoes: so near, yet so far. Even the adults would place their yearly request to be sent mangoes — even the ones who would pick off mangoes during their morning walks: two birds with one stone. But there was always too much, much more than we could eat.

Once my quarantine was over, I re-emerged from my exile, into society. Sitting on the floor of my mother’s bedroom, my sister and I reminisced over our childhood over a plate of steaming lucchi (Bengali fried bread) and mango chutney. Sour and sweet, with ten different spices tempering the sucrose from the molasses; sticky with the aftertaste of the cinnamon and bay leaves. Both of us were in our thirties. We talked a lot about our childhoods now. Often these conversations were tinged with the self-realisation that retrospection sometimes brings. We could see ourselves completely as a person with detachment. I feared I would forget it all soon. Already I found gaping holes in stories, entire years missing from my childhood. I tried to string the missing details from photographs. My sister would fill in the gaps in my memory sometimes, but then, we never knew what we might be leaving out.

I wanted to talk about the mango tree.

“Do you remember the benches? And the rice mill in grandma’s house?” My sister asked.

Indeed, I forgot about the benches laid below the mango tree. I did not want to admit it. So, I said, “Yes. But they took apart the mill and put in somewhere else.”

When we talked of those times, it was always “we”, our identities melded into each other and so did our memories. That was my unchallenged version of our history for a long time. But lately we have been having more conversations about the rifts within these shared histories too: that sometimes we live the same events, but within, they live and occupy space in such different ways.

I call over my mother and ask her, “The giant mango tree in grandma’s house — the one next to the gate. It was so huge right!”

“It wasn’t that big,” my mother says, “It was still young. Hardly planted a couple of years before your sister was born.”

“But wasn’t it so tall? So tall that none of us could reach for its mangoes ourselves?”

“It was not so big. It wasn’t even that old. It was quite young. When I was pregnant with your sister, I couldn’t eat anything so I would just eat the mangoes, salted with a pinch of chillies. That’s all I could eat with rice”.

“But we couldn’t reach them by ourselves. It was so tall”.

“No, you don’t just eat mangoes falling on the ground. They are too ripe to eat by then and they get bruised.”

“I remember it being so big!”. I have this flashback of a giant mango falling from high up on the tree with an enormous thud on the ground. The yellow ripe mango splits open, right next to my feet. “But the mangoes were huge right? I remember them being so big.”

“Yes, they were like your usual mangoes. Not too sweet, not too sour. But it wasn’t so big. The one in your other grandma’s house though. We had one on the back of the house, next to the well. It was many decades old, with a stump so big.” She stretches her arms and shoulders to visibly demonstrate the girth of the tree as being larger than her outstretched arms. “Both of you were very young. You must not remember but when….”

“But when was the mango tree from grandma’s house cut then? Why?” Impatient with my mother’s digression to her own childhood’s mango tree, I swiftly interject to make her stay on course with the history of mine.

“I don’t remember why. Perhaps it was too much of a nuisance for them to have people gather for mangoes all the time.” She leaves mumbling something about milk boiling on the stove.

“But I used to think it’s the largest tree ever!” I turn to my sister and exclaim.

“It was huge. I remember it. It was so big. But we were so young. Who knows anyway?”

The rain lashed on. It was monsoon in all its glory. That was what I missed the most: the sound of rain. With my bowl of raw mangoes, I sat on the balcony chair and looked out at the tiny mango tree in my parent’s house. I took a bite out of my bowl of salty and spicy mangoes. As I watched the mango tree in my house, it dawned on me for the first time in many years: like searching for a piece of important paper for hours only to find it on the coffee table. There it stood: short and strong, with its strong branches laden with mangoes, right next to the entrance gate of my parent’s home. I see it clearly for the first time in years. I take a mouthful: the sweet and salty and sour mangoes tasted like childhood.

Things stay the same and we change. Sometimes if we are lucky, we can find the things we thought we lost within the things we didn’t realise we had. Or maybe it’s merely a consolation, a getting older thing, something about forgetting and misremembering maybe. Maybe it’s the mind teaching us to contend with loss and regret, to lay memories and losses and gains on top of each other until these become a pastiche of a million loves and losses. Lately, every time I try to unpeel a layer, I seem to affect the whole arrangement of the composite and how it lay in my mind. But this has to do I guess, there is no other way to memorise memories.

 Pronoti Baglary is a lifelong student of Sociology, and interested in identity, technology and culture. She is currently based in Paris.

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