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Review

Tales of conflict along the MacMahon Line

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Gone Away — An Indian Journal

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

When a travelogue resurfaces sixty years after it was first printed, that ought to be meaningful. “Gone Away – An Indian Journal” by Dom Moraes was originally published in the UK by William Heinemann. Republished as a paperback edition by Speaking Tiger Books (New Delhi) in 2020, the travelogue carries the same magic for the reader as it was then.

Dom Moraes, a poet, novelist and columnist, is perceived to be a foundational figure in Indian English Literature who published thirty books in his lifetime. In 1958, at the age of twenty, he won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 1994, Moraes passed away in 2004.

Son of the Editor of the Times of India, Dom had grown up in well-off and generous circumstances. After traveling with his father through Australia to New Zealand and Malaya to the borders of Red China, he watched and wrote poetry. Moraes met Stephen Spender in India, showed him his poems and had some published in “Encounter.” The combined efforts of Spender and his father had gained him admission to Jesus College, Oxford.

Reads the blurb: “One of the most unconventional travelogues ever written, Gone Away covers three months of Dom Moraes’ life spent in the subcontinent at the time of the Chinese incursions on the Tibetan border in 1959. In that short time, a remarkable number of memorable things happened to him, some of them the sort of fantastic situations that could only enmesh a poet, perhaps only a young poet – a visit to a speak-easy in Bombay; an interview with Nehru and an hour spent closeted with the Dalai Lama in Delhi; and a meeting with the great Nepalese poet, Devkota, whom he found already laid out to die by the side of the holy river Basumati.”

After a short stay in Calcutta, where he tried, with limited success, to investigate the lives of prostitutes, he went up to Sikkim, the north-eastern border state into which no visiting writer had been allowed for almost a year. Having made his way by jeep right up to the frontier, he ran into a Chinese detachment and was shot at, but escaped to safety.


Full of comicality, felicity of phrase and oddity of behavior, Gone Away communicates the special excitement of the traveler on every page. Example: Unforgettably funny is the account of the Sikkimese soccer match played in an impenetrable mist and involving the loss of several footballs kicked over an adjoining cliff. Though wit and impertinence prevail through the pages, this is a book which catches and holds the mood of modern India and illuminates as much as it amuses.

This is both a political and a personal voyage of discovery, told simply. Moraes’ travelogue is also significant because it gives us the poet’s eye view: providing details from the Indian cityscape and draws our attention to the zeitgeist of the early decades after Independence.

This memoir is a delightful read and is both modest and polished. Moraes’ account of India’s friction with China and India’s relationship with Nepal at the end of 1950s is convincing, especially in the context of the new tensions on the borders. Recording public disquiet over China’s infractions in 1959, Moraes mentions that General Thimayya had asked that the Indian troops on the NEFA border should be supplied with automatic weapons, as they were inadequately armed in case of Chinese attacks. Krishna Menon is said to have refused the request. Then came Longju, when inadequately equipped and outnumbered Indians were put to flight by the Chinese. Indian foot soldiers, caught in the cross locks of war, continue to be ill equipped, even to date.

There are many more accounts in the book of Dom Moraes meeting prominent diplomats, politicians, writers and artists such as Malcolm MacDonald, Jayaprakash Narayan, Han Suyin, M F Hussain, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kishen Khanna, Buddhadeva Bose, Jamini Roy and many more. Moraes also managed to reach Sikkim when the Chinese were closing in on the border. There is so much of the subcontinent’s socio-cultural history to exude. The historical incidents and famous people are easily recalled from textbooks but reading this firsthand experience is something exceptional.

Moraes travels continue to Calcutta, Gangtok and Sikkim, where the Chinese army’s presence is strongly indicated and the Indian state does not provide enough information. Reporting a readable narrative about independent India’s first decade, Moraes’ love for India anticipates his eventual homecoming.

He captures the occasion with candour, his narrative provides a perspective that tells the whole truth, with little sentimentality or precision, and is peppered with humor that is situational and occasionally self-deprecatory.

With an introduction by Jerry Pinto, “Gone Away” is part of the trilogy of autobiographies written by Moraes. It is a fabulous testimony to India and many of its rarities.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Review

A Story from Manipur

Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

Author: Veio Pou

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

In his debut novel, Veio Pou weaves fiction to chronicle the forgotten history of Naga people, a past whose dust, even after three long decades, is yet to settle. Waiting for the Dust to Settle is set against the backdrop of Indo-Naga conflict in Northeastern India.

The story of this novel follows the life of a ten-year-old Rokovei from Senapati district in Manipur from late 1980s onward. He lives a peaceful life with his parents. Fascinated by the convoy of army trucks passing daily in front of his home, he secretly wishes to become an army officer. Once, while visiting his native village of Phyamaichi, he witnesses atrocities committed by the soldiers on the villagers. His disenchantment with the army comes to the fore when he becomes aware of his people’s sufferings as a consequence of confrontation between Naga undergrounds and the Indian Army. At the center of this novel is the Operation Bluebird, carried out in the state in 1987.

In September 1958, the Government of India enacted Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the North-Eastern states to quell Naga resistance. In July 1987, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attacked an Assam Rifles post at Oinam village, in Manipur’s Senapati district. The Naga undergrounds of NSCN looted large arms and ammunition from the post. The Assam Rifles launched a counter-insurgency operation code-named “Operation Bluebird” to recover the looted arms and ammunition. This intense search operation, which was carried for three months in nearly thirty villages, was a torturous period for the residents of those villages. The Rifles committed large-scale human rights violation, including forcing two pregnant women to give birth to their babies in full view of the soldiers.

By spinning the narrative around the operation, the author attempts to give voice to the otherwise erased account of a people’s history from the consciousness of a country. The final erasure came when in 2019 the Manipur High Court disposed case against the Assam Rifles, filed by Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), after twenty eight years citing dislocation of entire record of the case. Nandita Haksar, who was the lawyer who filed the case on behalf of NPMHR, wrote in an essay that the entire record consisted of twelve volumes of evidence and ran into thousands of pages.

Through account of Rokovei and his family’s life after Operation Bluebird, Veio Pou brings to notice the physical as well as mental sufferings endured by the victims of army brutality.  Disillusionment of natives with respect to Naga undergrounds and their cause, the splitting of NSCN and rivalry between Naga factions, increased awareness among natives for better education, the issue of racism that people from North East face in Mainland India, are the themes dealt prominently within this novel.

Rokovei, while studying in Imphal, witnesses the hostility between Kuki and Naga factions after their conflict in the 1990s. When he moves to University of Delhi few years later, he comes in contact with Lalboi – a Kuki, but does make friends with him because he is the only other boy from the state in his class. After coming to Delhi, he realises the difference of living in a place where no ASFPA is enacted, an experience which should have come as a breather but is marred by racism which he confronts and leaves him astounded. The prejudice that he faces makes him wonder about his identity. Rokovei wishes to find answers. His conversations with his cousin Joyson, with whom he lives in Delhi, gives him a clearer perspective on the history, issues and realities of his people and state. 

Finally, keeping in mind better prospects for the future, he settles down in Delhi. It is the year 2008, five years after the leaders of NSCN visited Delhi to meet PM Vajpayee and yet a solution to the political question his people face is nowhere near. Rokovei ponders over the relevance of Naga resistance which had once started with the dream of a sovereign state but was subsequently made weaker by the split in the party. He reflects upon the corollaries of a struggle which had left the natives disappointed because at stake was a peaceful existence that has long been denied them. For him the dust hasn’t settled yet and his hopes are tinged with despair. 

The history of a place is essentially the history of its people. To recapitulate it, especially when it is complex and painful to remember, must be an arduous task for the people who have witnessed harrowing times and have lived every subsequent day of their lives watching the repercussions unfold. To pen a fictional account of such history therefore requires conviction and also courage to endure the trauma all over again.

This book is not only an attempt at chronicling the events which led to the political question that kept haunting the lives of the Naga people but is also an effort to bring their predicament to the attention of people who have little idea about their sufferings and about the gravity of denial of justice to them.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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Review

Unraveling Odisha

Book Review by Bijaya Kumar Mohanty

Title: No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha

Author: Bhaskar Parichha

In No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha, Bhaskar Parichha brings together some of his earlier published essays, primarily written for The Political and Business Daily and other newspapers. The well-known journalist and author begins with a preface in which he quotes Oscar Wilde: “Journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.” I would rather begin by inserting a slight modification to Wilde’s quotation, ‘Journalism is certainly readable and literature is not widely read’. I have inserted this modification, keeping Philip L. Graham’s quote in mind. He states: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history”.

Parichcha’s book ably presents the author’s long bilingual career in the field of journalism. He primarily writes in Odia and English. The wide variety of essays in the book is intended to create a yearning to know more on the subject. This book would attract all those who are interested in a brief understanding of modern Odisha in general and post-millennial political narratives in particular. It fills a void in the field of political economy of contemporary Odisha.

The book is divided into four parts: ‘Portraits’, ‘Politics and Beyond’, ‘Conflict Zone’ and ‘Odds and Ends’. And concludes with a postscript on “what to expect from Naveen Patnaik’s fifth term as Odisha Chief Minister”.

‘Portraits’ consists of six essays. It starts with Madhusudan das aka Madhubabu, the architect of modern Odisha as ‘the global Indian’.  In Odisha, when children are first introduced to the world of education, they get to learn a widely popular Odia rhyme:

Patha Padhibi, Okila Hebi,

Kalia Ghoda re Chadhibi,

Madhu Babu sange Ladhibi…

A rough translation of the popular memory is: ‘I will study with all the commitment, will achieve all the success and will fight for the nation like Madhubabu’. Madhubabu was one of the earlier institutional builders in the context of colonial inter-region specific cultural and economic conflicts. As rightly concluded by the author, Madhubabu “had a practical sense of realism and fought fearlessly against the ‘mental’ darkness of early twentieth century Odisha”. 

The other five essays are on the maverick Biju Patnaik; the legendary Harish Chandra Bakshipatra; the arrival of astute Naveen Patniak along with two cultural icons of post-colonial Odisha, Pandit Raghunath Panigrahi and the noted film scholar/maker Nirad Mohapatra and his world of Maya Miriga.

This section concluded with Nirad Mohaptra’s Maya Miriga (The Mirage). This was one of the few new wave regional films ever produced in India, as observed by C.S. Venkiteswaran, the noted Kerala based film critic, academic, documentary film-maker, who contended: “There are two kinds of film-makers — those who create an oeuvre of their own and leave a personal imprint on their field, and those who not only want to explore the medium and create a body of work, but also want to communicate and connect with society of their time”. Nirad Mohapatra belonged to the latter kind, by quoting Mohapatra’s words, the author argues that “the making of Maya Miriga was an exciting experience of improvisation within the broad framework of a written story”.

The beauty of Maya Miriga lay in shooting almost the entire film in a single house, which was renovated beforehand by the filmmaker to portray the characters as realistically as possible. To Parichha, Nirad Mohapatra’s kind of cinema truly “sought after truth, didn’t obey convention, and certainly didn’t become subservient to common notions of what was good and palatable”.

The second part, is called ‘Politics and Beyond’. This part accommodates sixteen essays written on issues related to the rise of BJD ( Biju Janata Dal). The strength of these essays revolves around the BJD’s immediate rivalry with parties in context of everyday governance and its electoral prospects in the state.

The third part of the book has some exciting pieces on the issues titled under the sub-section name: ‘Conflict Zone’. Essays written in the context of ‘Polavaram Tangle’ and ‘Make in Odisha Conclave 2016’ are impressive. These have comparative analysis with neighbouring states, like Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, or with richer states, like Gujarat, for attracting foreign direct investments. They even address issues of rehabilitating displaced people as a result of Andhra Pradesh’s unilateral actions with regard to Polavaram Project.

Finally, the last part of the book, has 16 essays titled ‘Odds and Ends’. This section hosts governance issues that range from chit fund scams to a news item on the terror attack in the state capital, Puri; safety issues in the world of Odisha’s industrial corridors; the big confusion around the so-called – India’s single-largest foreign direct investment by the POSCO (Korea) and the aftermath issues of Phailin (a book on Odisha without touching the issues of natural disasters is indeed an incomplete one).

 In ‘Is Odisha a litigant State’, Parichha justifiably contends: “It is high time the Odisha government comes up with a litigation policy on the lines of the Haryana government in order to bring about a visible, qualitative and quantitative improvement in the manner in which litigations are pursued and managed by the state.” ‘How healthy is Odisha?’ brings out the dismal state of public health care as well as private health sector. He urges for an increase in the outlay for public health expenditure from the annual budget.

In ‘Baina, Itishree and Nirbhayas’, Parichha highlights the issues of widespread domestic violence, discrimination against women at the workplace etc. Towards end of the essay, he mentions the introduction of Gender Inequality index (GII) in 2010 as a result of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) report. The quality of having such an index, according to the author, can be put to use by the public sectors to address the existing anomalies of “poor distribution of resources and opportunities amongst male and female”. He rightly says, “Acknowledging the presence of a problem will lead to solutions sooner or later”.

Parichha’s book is an open ended one. The author’s wide array of interest on the issues related to Odisha would be of interest to both lay persons and researchers.

 

Mr. Bijaya Kumar Mohanty, teaches Development Process and Social Movements. He is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Ramjas College, University of Delhi. Email Id: bijaya@ramjas.du.ac.in

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The Brass Notebook

 A recently penned autobiography by eminent economist Devaki Jain, written based on a suggestion made by Doris Lessings in 1958, with a forward by Amartya Sen and reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha.

Title: The Brass Notebook – A memoir

Author: Devaki Jain

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

This is an unusual memoir. Unusual because it isn’t archetypal, not old-fashioned nor even written in a sequential order. The autobiography is set apart into personal and professional years, covering all that happened in a long and distinguished career.

The Brass Notebook by the celebrated economist-writer, Devaki Jain, is structured in such a way that it is no-holds-barred and edifying. In the brilliant life account, she recounts her own story and also that of an entire generation and a nation coming into its own.

Born in 1933, in Mysore, Karnataka, Devaki Jain was the daughter of the Dewan (prime minister) in the Princely States of Mysore and Gwalior. A student of Mysore University, where she studied Mathematics and Economics, she furthered her education in St Anne’s College, Oxford University and graduated in Economics and Philosophy, where she is now an Honorary Fellow.


Devaki Jain made significant contributions to feminist economics, social justice, and women’s empowerment in India. From 1963 to 69, she was a lecturer in economics at Miranda House, Delhi University. She moved on from teaching to full-time research and publication as the director of the Institute of Social Studies Trust.

Over the years, Devaki Jain founded a wide range of institutions such as the Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era (DAWN), a Third World network of women social scientists, and a research Centre in Delhi — Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST). She had been a member of several policy-making bodies in India and abroad, including the State Planning Board of Karnataka; the erstwhile South Commission, established in 1987 under the chairmanship of Dr Julius Nyerere; the Advisory Committee for UNDP Human Development Report on Poverty (1997), and the Eminent Persons Group associated with the Graca Machel Committee (UN) on the impact on children of armed conflict.

A recipient of the Padma Bhushan (2006) and an honorary doctorate from the University of Westville, Durban, South Africa, the eighty-seven-year-old wrote: “It was difficult to reveal my personal life, but because I felt that my story could be a source of strength for many women, I decided to share both my political engagements and my personal adventures.” Her earlier works include Close Encounters of Another Kind: Women and Development Economics and Harvesting Feminist Knowledge for Public Policy: Rebuilding Progress.

With a ‘Foreword’ by Amartya Sen, The Brass Notebook has been inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Not just the title, but the idea of the book itself was suggested by Lessing when Jain first met her in 1958. It took Jain 60 years to honour that advice.

In the memoir, Devaki Jain begins with her childhood in south India — a life of comfort and ease. But there were restrictions too, that come with growing up in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, and the rarely spoken about dangers of predatory male relatives. 

She writes in the autobiography, “While most of the other students, largely Anglo-Indian or Goan Christians, would walk or cycle from their nearby homes, my younger sister and I came to school every day, to our great embarrassment, in a coach drawn by a beautiful chestnut brown horse. There were no buses or any form of public transport from where we lived to the Cantonment. It was like two different cities. We wore the standard school uniform: a blue serge pleated skirt with a white shirt, tucked neatly in, and a brown-and-gold tie with diagonal stripes. We all sang the school anthem–‘Brown and Gold’–with great fervor, every morning at assembly.

I loved the various prayers and litanies that were part of the Roman Catholic tradition of the school. I would go to the chapel, make the sign of the cross, and sing all the hymns, ‘do’ the rosary (a friend gave me one to pray with). The rosary had to be hidden when I was at home, and my private devotions restricted to the bathroom. Like so many girls who feel the aesthetic appeal of Catholicism, I wanted more than anything to be a nun. Of course, I breathed nothing of these thoughts to my family at home, upper-caste Hindus who would have been shocked at one of their children abandoning both her family’s religion and hopes of a happy domestic life.

“As it was, we were not allowed to enter the house proper without first shedding our uniforms, bathing and changing in the bathroom which we were to enter by the back door. We had two very orthodox grandmothers living with us who regarded close proximity to Christians as polluting.”

Elsewhere in the memoir she writes about the Gandhian way of life at Wardha Ashram: “Another experience, which took me deeply into the ethos of India’s freedom movement, while I was still cocooned in the orthodox family, was a student seminar in Bangalore in 1953. This was convened by the Quakers, in this case the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Normally I would not be allowed to go to such workshops and conferences, but as I have mentioned earlier in this memoir, my brother Sreedhar had me invited. He was studying in the US and was drawn to the spirit and culture of the Quakers.

“At the seminar, I was gripped by the simple attire and eclectic ideas of two young men, aged twenty-one and nineteen, who had come all the way from Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha–one British, David Hoggett, and the other Indian, Vasant Palshikar. I was fascinated by their attitude, behaviour, clothing and ideas. They were living in Wardha at the Sarva Seva Sangh Ashram. They dressed like Gandhi–that is, dhotis made of khadi, tucked high up between their legs, a light sleeveless banyan, vest, also made of khadi, and coarse handmade leather chappals. They were very calm, friendly and totally at ease with the mixed bag of people that we were.”

Ruskin College, Oxford, gave Devaki Jain her first taste of freedom in 1955, at the age of twenty-two. Oxford brought her a degree in philosophy and economics — and hardship, as she washed dishes in a cafe to pay her fees. It was here, too, that she had her early encounters with the sensual life. With rare candor, she writes of her romantic liaisons in Oxford and Harvard and falling in love with her ‘unsuitable boy’– her husband, Lakshmi Chand Jain, whom she married against her father’s wishes. 

Devaki’s professional life saw her becoming deeply involved with the cause of ‘poor’ women — workers in the informal economy, for whom she strove to get a better deal. In the international arena, she joined cause with the concerns of the colonized nations of the south, as they fought to make their voices heard against the rich and powerful nations of the former colonizers. 

The book — divided into seven parts and running into a little over two hundred pages and with photographs from the album —  is as absorbing as thought-provoking. In all these encounters and anecdotes, what sparkles is Devaki Jain’s uprightness in telling the story. In the chronicle, there is a message for women across generations: one can experience the good, the bad and the ugly, and remain standing to tell the story. Honesty permeates the narrative in whatever challenges Devaki Jain has faced in her life.

An entrancing memoir, The Brass Notebook is a must-read for women who want to know how to survive and succeed in a patriarchal society, for men to know that women are not a weaker sex but just uninformed about their inherent strength, and for policymakers to know that even seven decades after Independence, the basic flaws in their policies on women’s empowerment have still not been addressed.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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What is the idea of India?

 

On the first anniversary of a movement that seems to be a reaffirmation of democratic processes in a nation torn with angst, Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India

Title: Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality

Editor: Seema Mustafa

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

Shaheen Bagh is a compendium of writings that document and comment on a watershed moment in India’s history, evoking memories of that other flashpoint in India’s history, the Partition. For Nayantara Sahgal, the nonagenarian writer, it is all too reminiscent of that other critical event in Indian history. Narrated and recounted by journalists, writers, social and political activists, it represents both the uniqueness of that moment when a movement propelled by one of the most dispossessed groups in Indian history took up cudgels on behalf of their communities, the men in their communities. It was a registering of both solidarity and political awareness, capturing moments of protest in a tone that was at times exhilarating, at times despairing.

The narrative incorporates the accounts of various women protestors who recount that significant moment when they were catapulted into assuming  unexpected and unlikely roles as torchbearers of democracy and custodians of democratic rights of citizenship. Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim neighbourhood in the capital city of Delhi in India became the epicentre of an unprecedented protest, an unbroken continuous sitting for over 70 days by citizens with Muslim women coming out in large numbers against the Citizenship Amendment Act adopted with a huge majority by the national parliament in December 2019 and also the National Register of Citizens, a notified national population register perceived rightly or wrongly to be hugely discriminatory against the Muslims and some marginalised groups. The CAA or the Citizenship Amendment Act is also perceived and presented by sections of the population as violating the spirit of the Indian Constitution adopted in 1950 as a sovereign democratic republic with the preamble adding the word ‘secular’, distinguishing it from a theocracy in 1976. The government however has refuted these claims and fears and with the counter claim that the CAA is only intended to grant citizenship to migrants, read as persecuted minorities, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and Parsi communities who came to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31st, 2014. Clearly the Muslims of all sects have been kept out of this particular dispensation. Just to remind us all, India has 11% of the world’s Muslim population around 16% of the Indian population , at least 226million of one billion population are Muslim. Interestingly the Supreme Court of India has refused to order a stay on its implementation which has been requested by about 144 petitioners and has granted the government time to come up with a response. It has also restrained other courts, the high courts for example from hearing please against the CAA till it arrives at a decision to take it forward.

Shaheen Bagh captured the imagination of the youth in India and of women’s groups in particular. India is still a young country, 50% of its population is below the age of 25, 65% below 35 years of age. The people that converge here everyday in large numbers are young women. Shaheen Bagh evokes memories of earlier resistances that the world has witnessed or known. US campuses against the Vietnam war, Occupy Wall Street, Tiananmen Square, Ken State University, Tahrir Square, the student uprising in Paris in the 60’s closer home to the US Montgomery March and Nashville Tennessee. But this was all that and more as many women  in burkhas and  hijabs crossed several boundaries, broke several barriers and some even stepped out of conservative homes and conventional customs and taboos for the first time in a civil disobedience vigil to uphold the values of equality and freedoms enshrined in articles 15 and 19 of the Indian Constitution. Placards that these women used often said: ‘Don’t be silent but don’t be violent’.

As the Introduction to the book Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India pithily states: Shaheen Bagh became a “first in living memory. As the days passed, Shaheen Bagh acquired greater strength, for the women ,” brought no malice, no anger, no abuse into their protest, and countered every allegation hurled at them with a smile and an honest and forthright response. Moreover, “the idea of Shaheen Bagh ignited, and became, the idea of India for hundreds, because the women sitting in protest spoke a language that came from the compassion of the matriarch.   It was born of the love for children, and brought with it a smile and an embrace for the youth who spent the nights sitting and singing with the women.”

In the process, the protest empowered women. They played an agential role in the proceedings and the experience helped to develop their confidence in their own abilities, in their judgment and their decisions.  There was never any doubt that the women were in the lead. They were sitting on protest, they commanded the stage, they spoke to the media.

Shaheen Bagh became the site of a major exercise in the dance of democracy. It became a site which enabled and catalysed a kind of consciousness-raising for both the participants and the witnesses. While I would stop short of calling it a great leveller, it offered a kind of space for forging solidarities, of experiencing community and of practising democracy. Shaheen Bagh assumed a unique significance since it presented a vignette of inclusiveness from the start. “There was no religion or caste here. “

In a somewhat romanticised vein, a scholar who had spent a substantial chunk of time in Delhi , described it as a  “pilgrimage’’ for many Delhiites. A young professor from Delhi University  who spent time at the protest site said that “I come to Shaheen Bagh whenever the world outside depresses me. I find solace and peace here.” Whether to seek social salvation or rub shoulders with the Delhi literati, who were also here  from time to time, Shaheen Bagh represented an experience of democracy that few had imagined possible in the gloom and doom of our recent history. Many privileged youngsters also joined the milling groups around the protest site, preferring to savour this experience over their usual modes of entertainment. Some sat with the women as they collectively , and in solidarity, sang Faiz’s song, “Hum Dekhenge” ( “We shall see” in Urdu and Hindi) a stirring anthem raising a flag to unity and harmony .  All axes of identity — religion, castes, class — seemed to recede and fade in this space that helped  “Delhi find its conscience”. The moment seemed to resonate with other similar moments in the course of the freedom struggle. This laying claim to democracy and its variegated symbols by lower and lower middle class Muslim women, people  who were probably among the most dispossessed and marginalised groups, and among the most disaffiliated from the lineages of class and economic power, struck a chord. The question that had come up here was an enormously significant one: to whom does the nation belong?
The book captures the mood-defiant yet resolute-of the protest told in a racy journalistic idiom, conveying both its political implications and its historical significance. The mood of the nation — which was simmering with rabble — rousing hate speeches the order of the day and condoned and overlooked by the ruling dispensation, was brought to a boil by the unlikely protestors of Shaheen Bagh. Wearing their hijabs and burkhas in February 2020, the unlikely political actors of this moment were also making “history” or “herstory”. It was a unique moment of historical significance, as the women fought their numerous fears and limitations. It was also a moment of political and feminist assertion with women occupying the centre, not huddling on the margins or periphery.

The segment, ‘Timeline’ , covers the chronology and clarifies that it was the deliberately rigged  Delhi riots and then the lockdown in March 2020 that brought the gathering of crowds to a grinding halt. Seema Pasha’s chapter on ‘Women , Violence and Democracy’ presents witness and participant accounts as “Ground Reports from a Protest. “This engagement with people  and facts on the ground, the micro-histories of the protest constitutes one of the features which add to the readability of the book . Instead of an academic or theoretical approach, the book takes a lively “ankhon dekhi” (a vividly visual and engaging account, translated from Hindi) approach and this works well. In addition to this is the fact that the book brings in voices and narrative accounts  of some sane voices like that of Harsh Mander — of writers and activists– who represent a holistic and secular, democratic and not divisive, vision of Indian history and democracy. Collectively, these voices maybe said to articulate a vision which upholds an “idea of India” which is not idealised or utopic but reflects the vision of many of its founding fathers. It is in that vein that Seemi Pasha writes, that in spite of the terror unleashed in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly elections, “Shaheen Bagh endured, and continued to showcase the best of India’s tradition of secularism, liberalism and ethical, non-violent resistance.” It was a reminder that the idea of India was premised on a vision of democracy and freedom, which stands threatened  today. Shaheen Bagh was an attempt at reclaiming some of these affirmations which are in grave danger of erosion and violation.

Moving and poignant,the book is both a testimony and paean  to a beleaguered  idea  of India, as it is to the courage of  some of its marginalised citizens. It is also an interrogation of the protectors and ‘custodians’ of India and the idea of India.Till we all wake up to an awareness of our roles as active citizens, the idea of India continues to be a threatened and endangered  one.

Acknowledgements

The discussion of the CAA-NRC is drawn from Dr Meenakshi Gopinath’s observations as part of a feminist conversation on Shaheen Bagh and Citizenship, conducted under the aegis of the “International Feminist Journal of Politics.”

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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Of Journeying between Worlds

A Review of Nitoo Das’s Crowbite by Basudhara Roy

Title: Crowbite

Author: Nitoo Das

Publisher: Red River, 2020

In her essay, ‘Woman and Bird’ in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich describes her sudden sighting of a magnificent great blue heron, a bird she has never seen from close quarters before and this brief encounter leads her on to a dialogic exploration of  “all the times when people have summoned language into the activity of plotting connections between, and marking distinctions among, the elements presented to our senses”, of the potentiality of making such experiences the means of interpretation of poetry and life. Concluding the essay, Rich writes:

“Neither of us—woman or bird—is a symbol, despite efforts to make us that. […] I made no claim upon the heron as my personal instructor. But our trajectories crossed at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see. And poetry, too, begins in this way: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is revealed as if for the first time.”

One of the apparent reasons that this essay comes to my mind after reading Nitoo Das’s third collection of poetry, Crowbite, is of course the fact that both these writings are undeniably watermarked by the experience of birdwatching. Nitoo Das, professor, bird watcher, bird photographer, and poet with many anthologies under her belt,  profoundly echoes Rich’s idea of poetry here – “the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity” and its revelation of a piece of the universe that has been scarcely perceived in the same way before.

As powerful as they are beautiful, as experimental as they are traditional, and as astounding as they are soothing, the thirty poems in this collection will take the reader on a journey that begins concretely in place and culminates in an existential place-less-ness that haunts both without and within. Close attention to topography is an important feature of Das’s poetry and each poem in Crowbite is testimony to the poet’s intimate communication and engagement with the landscape of her hometown in the hills. While even a cursory glance at the titles in the book reveals an intense grounding of most of these poems in a physical locale – like Mawphlang, Laitkynsew, Tawang, NEHU, Ka Kshaid Lai Pateng Khohsiew — all poems here are undoubtedly contextualized in a well-defined geographical space. Arne Naess in Life’s Philosophy writes, “There is a telling German word, Merkwelt, for which the closest English equivalent is “everything that a definite being is aware of”. When it comes to landscape poetry, Das’s Merkwelt is profoundly rich and she can penetrate the ostensible and concrete in it to arrive at the unusual and remote. In the poem ‘Root Bridge, Mawlynnong’, for instance, roots find their being in a metaphor from the world of fiction:

These roots are words that many hands have looped into a tale

With dangling subplots, conflicts, an infinite resolution …

In ‘Spotting a Spotted Forktail’, the “yin-yang bird” acquires an unusually graphic description:

He sprints

like the scattered prints of a newspaper.

he is a chess game speckled

with dots. A zebra bird

with strategic fullstops.

A monochrome

forktrailing a contrast

where the Rhododendron drops.

There are many markers – geographical, cultural and linguistic – with the North-East manifesting a presence as a protagonist within this collection. The poems themselves take on the serenity and wonder of the landscape they describe. However, it won’t take the reader long to realise that Das’s poetry, though, it stems from a territorial response to being and belonging in physical space, enacts itself essentially in the mind. Her landscape, rich though it is, telescopes almost inevitably into her mindscape and it is from this that her images acquire their rich visceral quality.

Examine, for instance, the opening and closing poems of the collection. The opening poem, ‘Mawphlang’ begins with a physical forest that threatens constantly to slide inwards:

The forest is something indecisive

between twig and soil.

It is an old woman opening

her mouth. She has nothing to reveal.

The closing piece, ‘The Cat’s Daughters’, as surreptitious, as mysterious and as metaphysical as the cat itself, closes with a journey that is decidedly inwards, a call towards primordiality, a return to the womb:

We imagine
our mother aging. We worry about her. She tells us:
If the basil dies and the milk curdles, come
save me. And so,
the basil dies and the milk curdles
and we go off on our travels. No,
we marry neither the merchant
nor the river prince. We birth
neither pestles
nor pumpkins. We want to find
our mother, see her silver eyes, touch
her old fur,
kiss her fish-mouth again.

It is this essential spatial tension between the landscape and the mindscape that accounts for a very different sense of temporality in Das’s poems, a fact that strikes one quite early into Crowbite. Though these poems are nourished by a deep affinity towards the natural world, the temporal rhythm they owe their allegiance to is neither chronological nor geological but purely intellectual, something I would call, mind time. Whether, it is observing a forktail, a leaf, a waterfall, an elephant, the rhododendrons, a painting or even a bus, Das’s reflections follow their own trajectory, their unique ratiocinative beat and it is through the subconscious meeting of these trajectories that her powerful poetry is born.

Poems like ‘Leaf in My Room’ and ‘In Which Mawlynnong is a Fractal’ are brilliant poetic ratiocinations explored through questions and answers. While in the former, each answer leads to more questions and in the latter, the questions don’t stop for answers, in both the poems we are brought only and amply close to the understanding of language’s failure to ask or answer, and in turn, to know or mirror the world. And this overpowering awareness of the powerlessness of language to make sense of the world is perhaps what bestows its greatest strength to Nitoo Das’s poetry.

Devdutt Pattnaik, a mythologist, in his article ‘The Song of the Crow’ writes:

“The word ‘why’ is translated as ka in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. Ka is the first consonant of the Sanskrit language. It is both an interrogation as well as an exclamation. It is also one of the earliest names given to God in Hinduism. During funeral ceremonies, Hindus are encouraged to feed crows. The crow caws, ‘Ka?! Ka?!’ It is the voice of the ancestors who hope that the children they have left behind on earth spend adequate time on the most fundamental question of existence, ‘Why?! Why?!’ In mythology there is a crow called Kakabhusandi who sits on the branch of Kalpataru, the wish-fulfilling tree. The tree fulfills every wish but is unable to answer Kakabhusandi’s timeless and universal question, ‘Ka?! Ka?!’ “

Though the eponymous and incredibly moving poem ‘Crowbite’ in the book is engendered within a different cultural mythology and worldview, the crow remains here, as elsewhere, a “cawcawcaw of black” a cry connecting the soul to the Earth, a question-mark on civilization, a suspicion, a misgiving, a patch of darkness on the possibility of knowledge, an epistemological interrogation, a stark reminder of human vulnerability. In the closing lines of the poem, the crowbite that pursues Bhobai like both prophecy and legacy, becomes a metaphor not just for creative freedom but also existential freedom. It is freedom from civilization and its hierarchies of truth and knowledge, a crossing over of boundaries – from physical to metaphysical, and an affirmation of the ultimate embodiment of the world. Bhobai the man becoming Bhobai the crow acquires an in/sight that is terribly human and yet beyond the scope of the average, fallible person:

I went wherever I wanted to. I looked at people’s eyes and knew their secrets. I sang songs with the fishermen. I bathed in the sacred river and flew away from their temples before they could throw stones at me.

A word must be spoken for the publisher, Red River, whose superb designing of the book immensely succeeds in drawing attention to the tactile and visceral quality that inhabits these poems. Not to be missed are the remarkable illustrations by the poet that by bringing in another dimension of visuality and experience, lend a sinewy force to the overall interpretation of Crowbite – a collection that will as swiftly make a home in the readers’ hearts as it makes its way to their shelves.

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Basudhara Roy is Assistant Professor of English at Karim City College, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India. Sheis the author of two books, Migrations of Hope (Criticism; New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and Moon in My Teacup (Poetry; Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019). Her second poetry collection, Stitching a Home, is forthcoming in 2021.

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Review

Mistress of Melodies

Rakhi Dalal reviews translated short stories of Nabendu Ghosh, which not only bring to life history as cited in his Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Lifetime Achievement award but also highlights his ‘love for humanity

Title: Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women is acollection of six stories by Nabendu Ghosh in translation. It includes three translations by the editor Ratnottama Sengupta (Market Price, Dregs and Song of a Sarangi) and one each by Padmaja Punde (It Happened One Night) and Mitali Chakravarty (Anchor). The titular story was originally written in English by the author for a screenplay.

In the editorial note, Ratnottama Sengupta reflects upon the origin of the word prostitute from Latin word “prostitus” and asserts that its interpretation as “to expose publicly” or as “thing that is standing” does not have the abusive association usually identified with it. She refers to Rudyard Kipling’s short story, ‘On the City Wall’, for the denigrating connotation that the phrase “oldest profession”, a euphemism for the word prostitute, acquired later.   

Treated as courtesans, as connoisseurs of arts, the women engaged in this oldest profession enjoyed high social standing in Mughal and Pre-Mughal era. Immensely trained in the fields of classical singing and dancing, their mannerism set a hallmark of etiquettes in society. It was only with the arrival of British that their institution gradually collapsed. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 rang the death knell for courtesans’ art. With their wealth seized and places plundered, they were punished for their involvement in the rebellion. The coming of British crown further brought Victorian ideas of morality and women chastity, thereby pushing the courtesans to the lowest rungs of society.   

‘Song of a Sarangi’, set in nineteenth century Calcutta some years subsequent to Sepoy Mutiny, effectively brings forth the world of ‘baijis’ (courtesans) who had set up their kothas (business cum residence) in some neighbourhoods and enjoyed patronage of rich seths and babus of the city. Theirs was a world brought to life every evening with thumris sung and dances performed on the thaap of tabla tuned to harmonium and sarangi. Though their art was appreciated during the times, their sustenance in society hanged by the delicate threads tugged in the hands of their patrons. Nabendu Ghosh, through the character of Hasina Bai of Chitpore, places to the forefront the struggle and subsequent misery of a mother after she auctions her adolescent daughter to the highest bidder and plunges straight into a nightmare which upturns her life.

The story ‘Market Price’ illustrates the misery of a young widow Chhaya, who is allured into a fake marriage and betrayed after she willingly gives away her fortune to the man she trusts. Her story against the backdrop of city of Kashi also symbolically represents the ordeal of being a widow in the society. In the story ‘It Happened One Night’, we witness Tagar, a woman forced into the profession, trying to make as much money as she can till she isn’t worn out. For, she cannot end up like ailing Radha who pushes herself to the edge of death to earn little that she could to feed herself. Through this story, the author also focuses on the issue of sleep deprivation and illness, which is a price the women engaged in prostitution pay for their living.

‘Dregs’, written in first person narrative, while chronicling the life of Basana who enters the profession due to hardships that she faced, also very convincingly portrays the detestation which women engaged in prostitution are subjected to in a social system. Set in the 1940s in Calcutta, the story navigates the life cycle of brave Basana who succumbs to the destitution she confronts when her paramour abandons her after she becomes a mother. On the other hand, it also takes the reader through the mind of narrator, revealing his revulsion for Basana which is not only due to her profession but also a result of his own sense of deprivation, originating from his poor circumstances. He desires her but cannot have her so he is repulsed by her presence. It is only towards the end when she appears wretched, that he feels pity for her. This conflict, as experienced by the narrator, is rendered with such subtlety that it allows for an effortless transition of the distinct emotions, leaving the reader spellbound by the sheer brilliance of author’s skill.

In the story ‘Anchor’, Fatima resorts to the profession in order to provide for her son but cannot bring herself to give in to a stranger. Her defiance springs from her strong sense of self respect which she guides with all her might after her husband’s death. Rustam, who comes to Fatima in desperation, lets her go when he notices her helplessness. Here in sketching his character, the author also brings to reader’s attention the sufferings endured by countless people in the aftermath of Bengal famine.

‘Mistress of Melodies’ is written on the life of famous Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta. The author wrote this in English as the first draft of a fuller screenplay. He was captivated by the larger than life persona of first Indian diva of Armenian origin, who was immortalised in the annals of history by being the first ever person to sing for a gramophone record in the country. A highly accomplished woman in the field of classical singing and dancing, Gauhar Jaan enjoyed a privileged life. The author writes about her celebrated life and about the love which left her aching, after the death of her beloved Nimai Sen, till the very end of her life. 

These stories of courtesans, of those engaged in prostitution as well as of those pushed to the verge in a society, are not merely the stories of their struggles, sufferings or helplessness but are also accounts of their faith in love and in the inherent goodness of people. It is love which compels Hasina Bai to start life anew with Uday Moinuddin and make Tagar dream of a new life with Shashi, his pimp. It lets Rustam, a wanderer, to finally attempt new beginnings with Fatima, their common grief the anchor which brings them closer.

Remembering Nabendu Ghosh, on his birthday i.e. on 27 March in 2019, renowned writer of Bengali Literature, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay said:

“I wish I had more Nabendu Ghosh novels back then, in 1940s, for he has written on almost every upheaval of that period: the Bengal Famine, the tram strike, the rationing of clothes, the Direct Action riots, rehabilitation of Partition victims… This was perhaps because he considered Literature to be a way of tackling all that is destructive in society, in life. He was writing out of love for humanity.”

And indeed the stories in this collection, emphatically proffer a testimony of his love for humanity.  A love which compelled him to write about the women engaged in the ‘oldest profession’. He wrote to address the many woes that afflicted not only forlorn prostituted women but also well-off Courtesans.  With his stories, he portrays the predicament of women dragged into the clutches of prostitution and also paints a world throbbing to the surs of ragas and taals of Kathak whose custodians were also the upholders of culture and its mores in the times bygone. Through these stories perhaps, their legacies and their contribution to culture will be remembered for times to come.  

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta (Speaking Tiger, 2018). As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and write books. Daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, she has written Krishna’s Cosmos, a biography of the pioneering printmaker Krishna Reddy, and also entries on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. In 2017, she directed And They Made Classics, a documentary about Nabendu Ghosh. She has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

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Review

A Plate of White Marble: A Woman’s Journey

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: A Plate of White Marble

Author: Bani Basu, translated from Bengali by Nandini Guha

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2020

“The house at Number 45 Shyambazar Street had its date of construction engraved right at the top of its façade. From this, it could be learnt that the house was not built in this century. If not a hundred, it was close to eighty-five years old. Thanks to the moist winds from the holy Ganges in its close proximity and the salty winds from the Bay of Bengal within 105 kilometers to the south, houses in Kolkata do not survive as long as the rich, traditional manor houses of England do. However, first-class materials from the British companies — marble, pillars, arches, tiles, original Burma-teak windows, doors, rafters, and the limestone-layered, twenty-inch-thick brickwork — continued to ostentatiously preserve the antique glory of these homes till today. This carefully polished old heritage, going by the name of ‘aristocracy’, may well be called stiff-necked orthodoxy, with all its evil fallout.” These are the opening lines of the novel A Plate of White Marble (Swet Patharer Thala) by Bani Basu. 

One of the most versatile contemporary writers in Bengali, academician, poet, novelist, essayist, critic, and translator of eminence, Basu writes on diverse topics ranging from history and mythology to society, psychology and gender. From Sri Aurobindo’s poems along with two volumes of Somerset Maugham’s stories to a volume of D.H Lawrence’s stories, there is a huge readership of her work. Janmabhumui-Matribhumi (Motherland), Antarghat (The Enemy Within), Maitreya Jatak (The Birth of Maitreya), Kharap Chhele (Dark Afternoons), Pancham Purush( Fifth Person ) are some of her other novels.

Translated into English by Nandini Guharetired Associate Professor of English at University of Delhi and a well-known translator of some seminal Bengali novels – A Plate of White Marbles brings to a wider audience the imperious social concerns.

First published in 1990 in the original Bengali, A Plate of White Marble tells the tale of the ‘new woman’ of an era that just witnessed the independence of a nation. Bandana, the protagonist, though grieves over her husband’s early death, never conforms to the social subtext and ideals of ‘widowhood’, thanks to her uncle. She dares to begin her life afresh in every possible sense. But, the road proves to be full of thorns as she gradually faces bitterness from many quarters of the society. The only thing she clings to is her son,  but once that anchor too is lost, she leaves behind the safe concrete walls of what she used to consider ‘home’, only to work for a far greater cause—she joins a children’s home to work for those who need her the most.

Post her husband’s demise, the Bhattacharjee family is left grappling with the aftershock of the loss and the new set of “rules and rituals of widowhood” that she has to follow — a life devoid of colors, sweetmeats and celebrations.

Savor these lines of Bandana’s mother-in-law and her appearance!  “Serving Atap-rice on the plate from a small saucepan, the middle-aged, heavily built mother-in-law suddenly broke into wails. One-fourth of her hair had turned grey. A broad streak of vermilion was visible in the broad parting of her hair. She was in an artistically woven, red-bordered sari, with three rows of the traditional temple pattern. She would wear nothing but these colorfully bordered saris. Her arms were full of loudly jangling gold bangles, wristlets, and the special wedding bangles of iron and conch shell.

But for the young widow, the kind of stuff in the house were cruelly painful: “The prescribed meal of a widow’s broth of boiled rice, potato, and green banana — just would not go down Bandana’s throat today. Combined rage, mortification, and a sense of disgrace caused the food to turn into a coagulated lump in her throat.”

The novel has a riveting description of the Bengal countryside: “The early morning cacophony — the clangor from the local tube well as its handle rose and fell, the clang of utensils being scoured, the swish of brooms and the hoarse voices of housewives issuing orders and instructions — touches such a quarrelsome decibel that neither the Vedic hymns nor the tuneful Rabindrasangeet, in a grave baritone, or soft tenor, can find a way through, sadly beating a hasty retreat.”

As times go by, Bandana’s Kaka (uncle)visits her and unable to withstand her deteriorating health, he takes his neice and her son Roop to their maternal home, leaving House number 45 Shyambazar Street behind and shunning the absurd sacrificial rituals for women.

Through Bandana, the status of woman in an old-fashioned Bengali society comes to the fore. It also portrays how they’re rendered miserable and are arbitrated for their choices, when they try to break free from stereotypical shackles. Published thirty years ago, the novel hasn’t lost its appeal because the same old shenanigans   bring into being even today.

 A Plate of White Marble has several dimensions: how even an educated and modern woman is helpless when she is widowed at a tender age 0f twenty-seven; how she is forced to lead a life of austerity as a “virtuous widow“, by her in-laws and how she eventually comes out of the shackles and stops confirming to the conformist traditions that were forced upon her. Even when she begins to live a new life, she had to face difficulties, though she bravely fights the battle for a liberated life.

The plot of the novel is captivating and inspiring. The characters, the backdrop, and the portrayal are entrancing. The translation has impeccably captured the essence of Bandana’s numerous roles; a wife, a daughter-in-law, a widow, and a mother who is hell-bent on bringing up the child even if it meant sacrificing one’s own comforts.

Bani Basu’s original  novel  and the translation magnificently throws  light on the age-old  customs, the gender-based discrimination in a patriarchal society that  doesn’t allow women to come out of  the shadow of a man, the superstitions  within and outside the homes.

 A Plate of White Marble has a touching story to tell and it weaves the narrative fabulously.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 

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Review

Poetry from Korea: Offerings of Hope

Book Review by Dustin Pickering

Title: Prescriptions of Civilization

Author: Wansoo Kim

The increasingly complex world or society we live in today allows little room for reflection. Technology fuels growth and sophistication while the population increases exponentially. The old plagues are still with us: famine, disease, war, and poverty. These social ills overwhelm us and often make us feel powerless.

In Prescription of Civilization, Wansoo Kim, an academic in Korea, tackles these harsh truisms. He is willing to look at them both objectively and sympathetically. In the poem “Science” he writes:

Though you act big pretending to know everything

Always tapping on a calculator

And arranging numbers

Looking into a microscope or telescope,

Aren’t you a hardheaded rube

That doesn’t know or feel

what is love

That two souls meet to become one?

In these stanzas, Kim divorces himself of modern conceptions out of frustration with their lack of human desire and spirit. We are often told science can eliminate the worst of human problems. In all truth, it is working hard to improve the human condition. This, however, does not distance us from its over-rationalizations and lack of humanism. The poet here introduces us to an often-overlooked insight. The contemporary world is difficult precisely because the humanity we wish to save is lost in the very means we employ to save it.

Early verses in this collection serve as reminders of the worst of disasters humans have inflicted on their fellow humans. The poet’s broad range of experience helps him identify with suffering all over the globe. As a South Korean, he is sorely hurt by the suffering in neighboring North Korea.

Kim further writes:

Even though I often ruminate

It’s written in the legal document,

Why do I live as the servant of fear and anxiety

Bound up in fetters of doubt

Not dancing with the wings of joy?

There is a distinct sense reflected upon in this poem “An Adopted Son”. The poem is a Christian plea to fellow Christians. An exclamation of joy in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a cry of relief at the human condition. In an earlier poem, “Tears of the Moon”, the moon is personified as a woman who has lost her lover. The ultimate symbolism is how distant we are from approaching Creation as a work of art to be appreciated. In neglecting to live in awe of Creation and instead see her as an instrument of our devices, we banish the Creator and disappoint Him. Civilization then is our downfall if we refuse to understand its ultimate purpose.

Kim reminds his readers that the sound and the fury of life is necessary for our redemption—our despair turns us into children seeking a Father; we become again as babes. This is the meaning of resurrection for us. In this startling realisation, Kim is in league with admirable poets and mystics like Rumi.

The Abrahamic faiths are powerful for the fact that they open the mind to spiritual dimensions and truths that the wise can perceive. In Proverbs 9:10, Solomon writes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Yet fear is not the act of being afraid. It is the sense of being alone in dread and anxiety, the existential condition. It is in realizing that your salvation depends on acknowledging you are a creation, a being wisely framed and entrusted with a task. Reverence and awe are rooted in fear. The sacred sense is developed by learning to approach objects of veneration with calm resolution. When an object, whether of contemplation or being, is properly understood it is given its faith because the faith within it is realised.

In “House of a Poem”, the poet reflects on the meaning of art itself, especially the art of poetics:

I’ll build a house of a poem

Even tearing all the flesh of my soul to pieces

Because it doesn’t prevent all the things of life

From going into the tomb

But it can be a work of art to make alive forever

Brilliant moments of disappearing things.

Poetry is life and life is poetry. We cannot escape our mortality, but we can preserve the most uplifting of our sentiments and moments in history. Our struggles and dreams are kept within the glass of poetic sensibility like the objects of reverence previously mentioned. Poets can live in a state of awe, deep reflection, and mystery at once. John Keats called this state “negative capability”. Kim astonishes the reader with his ability to be entranced in this state in works such as “Tears of the Moon”. The poem is a cry for the lost humanity that becomes a victim in a long war against vulnerability and prayer. In a sense, the poem “House of a Poem” recognizes that civilization is humanity’s Nature. We are creating a world of our own through work and self-domestication. Yet something must relieve us of our fears and hopelessness. We must release tension from the bitter efforts of the day somehow. Kim gives us the reason for the arts — they relax us, reflect our deepest emotions, move the spirit, and keep us in touch with the reason we live. The arts are a prescription for civilization as well.

It seems as though Kim’s prescription for civilization is recognizing the reality of life’s purpose, of stepping away from the pragmatic capitalism that considers only use-value, distraction, entertainment, and profit. Did God condemn greed, gluttony, lust, and the like because these primal vices anchored us in materiality rather than the search for spiritual depth? As we remember the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity!” it is safe to say that this truth is understood but ignored. The world doesn’t seek God. The fundamental revelation in the Scriptures is that God alone is rest, shelter, and peace. Material comforts are short-lived and ephemeral. Too much obedience to the world and its will is a recipe for disaster—each person is created distinctly, given a purpose and pursuit of happiness, and faces a challenge to love fully. The enjoyment of the arts, the exercise of restraint and compassion, and strugglng against the dark principalities are the true wellsprings of life.

Suffering is something we cannot eliminate entirely. We try to reduce it and often it takes us when we least expect it. Civilization is cause for a curse, but it makes individual lives more fulfilling and challenging. Christians believe that Jesus Christ suffers with them and they are not alone. This is the meaning of the Crucifixion. With Christ’s resurrection, we are granted immortality. Through death and resurrection, Jesus saves our souls.

The prescription for civilization, then, is a holy devotion to Christian principles. The fact we need a prescription shows us what sort of malady causes our suffering. While other humans are not to be trusted, God Himself was willing to lay his own life down to testify to His mercy. Living within civilization is stress and life is a disappointment, but a reminder that Love is universal, and we are all deserving of it is a positive message. Kim writes this collection not for moral instruction or harsh denunciation, but for the purpose of offering hope in a bleak world of continuous conflict and misery.

In the poems, we see a man who is raised from the death of his fears and desires into the proper understanding of living. Forgiveness is a release from debt. Christ’s Passion was a forgiveness of all debts. His final moments on the Cross tell us that he wanted the redemption of sinners—even in their last moments. He knew human nature because he was human and divine. In his understanding, he too wrote a prescription for human suffering. The forgiveness of sins, unbridled compassion, pity for those unfortunate, and strong faith in God and His plan are Jesus’ living legacies.

Kim realises the need the world has for such a message and explores it in Prescription for Civilization creatively and fondly. His anger, sadness, fear, and doubt are all on display to remind us of our humanity. This is a task only a poet accepts.

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Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

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

Categories
Review

Fighting Fascism with Poetry

Review by Candice Louisa Daquin

Title: Lastbench, North American protest edition,

Editor: Tanvir Ratul

Publisher: AntiVirus Publication www.lastbench.org, November 2020

Lastbench is an anthology written in the time of Trump and Covid-19, acting as a voice for those who are frustrated with the news cycle, wishing for something more visceral. It is unapologetically against Trump and considers his Presidency to be the terror that began the downfall. Whether true or not, this is the slant of this publication and it will appeal to those who feel similarly and are frustrated by the current office. That said, it’s aware things will not change simply because a President changes. Many of the issues brought up, are systemic.

If you are looking to read a collection of poets who explore the myriad ways of frustration against the current administration and the over-all ineffectiveness of politics en mass, you may find a lot here to sink your teeth into. Irrespective of which political hat you wear, you cannot fail to appreciate the solid authorship of the writers involved in this inaugural issue. Clearly the editor has gone out of his way to ensure those who were featured were the very best writers he had, and the writing is impressive.

I particularly appreciated the IMMEDIACY of this publication, you feel as if you are reading in ‘real time’ – this highlighted in Jennifer Lagier’s piece, ‘A New War’, that begins with a quote from Michael Cohen, “I fear if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Let’s hope the prophecy isn’t true, but either way, we’re in the moment, the writing is now, the authors are current, this is why we have technology, and this is how Lastbench is relevant and interesting.

With such publications, poetry needs to have that edited, clear, precision that speaks to the point immediately and cuts to the chase. If it goes on too much, we lose focus, because this is all about the punchline, the bottom line, the key points, the overview of what is occurring. We don’t want massive detail; we want provocative thoughts, and this is how this publication reads.

Personally, it doesn’t matter whether I agree with the politics or not, I can appreciate the voice and what is being described through poetry, as well as the humor and horror behind it. This is a writ of 2020 and it’s deeply relevant because of its collective moment.

On a purely poetic appreciation level, I really liked Mary Ellen Talley’s piece, ‘Fools Like Me’ for its simplicity, and jarring vernacular, it’s a classic resistance poem that could have been written in WW2 as easily as now, but has the edge of today, and the sorrow of loss etched all over it. I must really like Talley’s work because her second piece, ‘Veering from a Villanelle’ was equally haunting to me. The line: “Come again, USA, nation of truce, nation of trust” was chilling.

‘Love Letter to the President’, by John Milkereit, was another modern horror/humor mixture that I appreciated for its sardonic wit and deft amusement with reality. So many memorable lines like: “I can’t love you as much as I love a stranger, / or Joseph Stalin’s ghost might be watching.” It’s hard to go wrong with writing like that, veering on the classic.

Some pieces didn’t do anything for me, but I’m sure others could find a lot in them, it’s all about what you’re feeling as you read them and how they relate to your own ideas at the time, as much as how stellar they are literally. For example, I could see what Tom Montgomery was trying to do with ‘untitled’, but I felt ultimately it just read like a dull version of a children’s rhyme and it didn’t catch me beyond that. Compared to this, Marianne Weltman’s ‘Make America Great Again Songbook’ was incredibly clever and very funny, she really took the genre of a children’s rhyme and made it work with the idea of Trump’s campaign slogan as key theme. The lines I found most compelling; “This Land is Your land, This Land is My land / In a prison van to Riker’s Island / Ave Maria, Holy Mother take pity / On asylum seekers lost in this city.” A very, very smart blend of reality and children’s song, leaving you wondering and slightly horrified by the depiction. The core question Dustin Pickering begs in Snake/Shutdown “why did we nourish him? / why did our nation bend?” Lines like these will resonate with those seeking comrades in arms, or just an alternative voice to the mainstream narrative.

‘Summer in Trump’s America’ by Marianne Szlyk, is a haunting version of today’s emptied streets and whether you argue in favor of Trump being culpable in some way for Covid-19 or not, you can appreciate Szlyk’s portrayal of those abandoned streets – as we have all seen them. In Jim Cox’s poem, ‘Earth Day’, we see the other ways writers blame Trump for global-warming and his responses thus, and whilst I am not a huge fan of rhyming, Cox does a terrific job, making something awful, humorous and then reframing it and begging the question, when will it end? Leszek Chudziński’s beautiful poem, ‘Refills Are Free’, really struck a deep chord, it’s a classic poem you’ll think of long after you’ve finished reading with lines like: “Where food is good / And suffering discernible.”

Equally, any survivor will find much in Kelli Russell Agodon’s brave piece, ‘When I Look Into The Face Of The President Of The United States, What I See Is My Trauma Walking Around’. I won’t spoil everything by detailing what I appreciated in each, but there is a little bit for everyone and some enormously talented writers therein. Often when you read a collection of poetry by different poets, you wonder why half of them were included, not so here. The editor(s) have done a superb job of collating the very best, the very now of writing and if poems like Thomas Brush’s “Legacy, don’t stay in your head for hours afterward, percolating and querying at the deepest levels, I don’t know what would.”

I won’t go through all the poems, although I could, and I’d enjoy doing so, which in of itself proves the readability and relevance of this publication. Suffice to say, there are gems here that any vantage point will get something from, and stellar writers with sound awareness of what it takes to write a good poem, irrespective almost, of what you are writing about. Margaret Shafer Paul Shafer, in ‘January 1st’, give a voice to those who do not fit the label of ‘minority’ but feel as disenfranchised by recent events, Cheryl Latif in her blazing poem, ‘Searching for America’, really stunned me with an anthem of these times, so many Americans will relate to, I don’t want to say more, just read and you’ll see. If nothing else, this is half or more of America and what they are thinking, feeling, saying and it’s wise for everyone to listen, because to do less is to miss half of this country’s voices.

There’s even a manifesto at the end, I’ll leave that for you to find. I stand with Rose Drew on this salient last word; “Can’t watch the news but I’m not defeated.”

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Sephardi immigrant from France who lives in the American Southwest. Formerly in publishing, Daquin is now a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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