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Slices from Life

Getting My Nemesis

By Erwin Coombs

You might be wondering how on earth Dusty, the cat, played such a huge role in my downfall. I suppose I should use the defence that the title of this piece is nothing more than literary license because for one thing, I have never had a downfall. Oh, I’ve had many falls and stumbles, but no major catastrophic tragedy that cast me into the pits of despair. I suppose rather than the pits of despair, I have just visited the suburbs of despair. And having lived in the suburbs, I don’t mind equating these two. That is one of the many wonderful things about life, that we can fall, but invariably we rise again, as it is said in a part of the Bible I can never remember, though I fall I shall rise. Confucius said it as well: that our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. The title of this book is misleading, to an extent. I never fell, absolutely, and Dusty had nothing to do with my stumbles. In fact, she was a factor in helping me to get up again and again. A cat? Yes, one might be amazed at the soothing companionship that pets offer generally. I don’t mean all pets. I can’t imagine a turtle, for example, offering solace at the end of a rotten day at work or after your partner has just told you that you are now a lone wolf and good luck with your future. But let me get back to when I finally decided to get a cat.

I was on my own and had rented a bachelor apartment. I was determined to have a pet, particularly a cat, as cats had been a big part of my life since I found the stray Dickens twenty years ago. It was the first of the month, moving day, and as I had not a lot to move for reasons to long to go into, I thought I wouldn’t go a day without company, so I asked my daughters to come with me to the Humane Society to pick one out. My eldest daughter was a little hesitant as she and her boyfriend had adopted a dog few months earlier and had to return it, for reasons once again too long to go into. As a result, she felt that she was blacklisted and that her picture was up on screens and walls and would somehow be subject to abuse at the hands of the workers there. I tried to explain that these people were very well intentioned and likely not wanting to seek revenge for the return of an animal. I mean, I asked her, what could they possibly do? Shame her in front of the other caged animals? Sick a wild pack of rabid pooches on her? But she was nervous enough that she left the choosing of my cat to me and Josie.

My other daughter and I went cruising through the rooms looking at the imprisoned beasts. Any visit to one of these places can be sad. They really do look like prisoners as they pace their small spaces and when you pass by a cage, they seem to do their best to be alluring, realizing on some level, that this stranger might just be their ticket out of Sing-Sing. They rub up against the bars and look at you with these pleading eyes that seem to say, “Please like me, take me home.” It’s every meathead’s dream of what a single’s bar should be like but isn’t for meatheads. My daughter finally found one that she connected with and told me to come over and have a look. It was an American Shorthair, grey and with lovely kind, green eyes. The assistant opened the cage for me and let me put my hand in to have a pet. It was a lovely meeting until the blood was drawn. Mine, I mean, not hers. She lashed out not too fiercely at my hand and I pulled back too late. Josie looked up at me and said,

“Dad, you moved too quickly!”

My argument was that the quick move was the result of having been assaulted and not the cause, but she was intent that this was the one for me and so, naturally, I agreed, as I held my hand up to prevent my life’s blood from escaping.

“There not used to being touched, poor things.” said the worker.

I looked at my gash and wondered if there would be any pity for me, or only another condemnation at having been doing jazz hands in a cat’s cage, but there was none. Nevertheless, I agreed to take this one home and started the paperwork. The woman across the desk took my particulars and my cheque and told me, quite casually.

“And we won’t charge you for the cream.”

“Cream?” I asked, “What cream?”

For a moment I thought that they were going to offer an antibacterial tube for my hand given that one of their inmates had attempted murder on me. But not even close.

“The cream for her backside” came the “as if you didn’t know” response.

“Why would I need cream for her backside?” I asked bracing myself for an answer I knew wouldn’t be pleasant. I mean, any conversation around creams and cat’s backsides is not going to work out well, and this one didn’t.

“As you probably noticed, the kitty is a little bit bigger than she should be.”

A little bit? This was one fat cat. Cats as a rule are about as sedentary a creature as you’ll find so being a little bit chunky is par for the course, but this one was two pars for the course. I didn’t mind as I thought I’ll get her slimmed down with a gym membership and controlled diet.

“And the cream on her anus will help her lose weight?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh no, it’s just that she is so big she can’t really reach her anus to clean it, so she has a wee bit of an infection. The cream will help clear it up. Twice a day, but I suggest you wear a glove as you do it.”

If there was one thing I didn’t need a suggestion about as to when to wear a glove it was that. I didn’t relish the idea with a glove anyway. We took her back to my sparsely furnished new apartment and put her down on the floor while I set up the all-important pooh box and, more important to her, the food and water bowl. She was still a nameless cat, so I asked the girls as I was busying myself rushing about, as much as one can in a bachelor apartment, setting up for my new roommate,

“Well girls, what should we name her?”

“Dusty.” Came the immediate response from Josie. And it made sense as she was a gray furred kitty with lovely white bits as well.

“Because she’s gray?” I called out from the bathroom as I scooped kitty litter into the target box.

“No.” said Josie. “Because she’s eating a fluff of dust.”

And that is my cat, Dusty. As if being so obese that you can’t clean your own backside wasn’t evidence enough, she has an eating compulsion that will not stop, even at dust. But we forged strong bonds and became good friends. As a matter of fact, there is a gay theatre in Toronto called Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Company, and they are quite good. So, from day one I would refer to Dusty and I as just that, buddies in bad times. Of course, the times weren’t bad exactly, but they were certainly getting better.

Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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Slices from Life

‘When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn?’

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) lamented about the futility of war, but he also imparted hope, says Ratnottama Sengupta, as she recalls her memorable meeting with folk legend Seeger, in a tete-a-tete with friends

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Last week, as people crowded the Kiev railway station to flee the Ukrainian capital, visuals started trending of the giant staircase inside the pedestrian bridge over the Yauza River to the Kiev Railway Station, the deepest station in the world. It reminded Sonia, my batchmate from Elphinstone College, of the hours she’d spent on the fabulous stairs that take you all the way down with her father who had an attack of trachycardia as they arrived in Kiev by a train from Moscow. “With great difficulty we made our way to the waiting hall from which you have to descend by this enormous staircase. I remember all the Ukrainians helped us, just as all the Russians would help us. And father kept taking Calmposes until I supported him down the stairs into a cab that took us from the station to the hotel.”

Only after that Sonia had called for an ambulance. But why not do that two hours ago? “Because father did not want me to engage with the local health authorities as we didn’t know whether they would have the drugs he used and had forgotten in India,” she explained. “And as soon as I made that call, within five minutes the ambulance was there – with that drug.” Only after that Sonia found out that Kiev has the fastest ambulance service in the world – “and the finest,” she added – “because of what they faced in WWII…” 

All through those few hours Sonia felt so supported by the local people. “I didn’t have to explain anything to the cab driver or the hotel staff – we were whisked into our room and then I went back to check in!” So today Sonia wonders how people in the bunkers are coping with small necessities such as brushing their teeth. Even as she sends Kiev her love and prayers, she feels that “peace keeping forces have to go in rather than arming Ukraine.”

“But who will stand in the line of fire?” quips Liz George, another college mate. “So, may God help the people who are facing such terrible times!” she echoes Sonia. “May god protect everyone in Kiev,” Bhamini Subramanian’s heart goes out to the innocent civilians who lost their lives and the countless families displaced, fleeing and seeking shelter to save their lives…

Watching images of the bizarre war at Kiev opens a floodgate of memories amongst us. “Yet, put aside politics and people anywhere in the world are ready to go out of their way to help people in dire situations,” Sonia sums up. And, like her, I have seen from my travels around the world that people are the same everywhere – they just want the humdrum of a normal, peaceful day to day life. But circumstances – “and policies,” Sonia adds deny a whole lot of them that. “Wish we could find a less harmful way to settle disputes,” we sigh.

*

The mention of the staircase made me think of the Potemkin Steps – the giant stairway in Odessa, another landmark habitation in Ukraine. Originally known as the Boulevard Steps, or the Giant Steps, these are considered the formal entrance into the city from the sea. Odessa, perched on a high steppe plateau, needed direct access to the harbour below which was, in days of yore, connected only by winding path and crude wooden stairs. A hundred years eroded ‘the monstrous stairs’ built with greenish grey sandstone shipped from Italy – and so in 1933, the sandstone was replaced by granite and the landings by asphalt. And in 1955, the Soviet government renamed it as the Potemkin Stairs to honour the 50th anniversary of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. After Ukraine gained independence it restored – as it did with many other streets and landmarks — the previous name of Primorsky Stairs.

But why did I recall this bit of history? Because of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin . “That silent 1925 film is a handbook for every editor!” –  Hrishikesh Mukherjee had said to me as he must have to hundreds of other students of cinema in India. And just seven years ago, in 2015, the European Film Academy put a commemorative plate on the stairs to indicate that the Potemkin staircase is a memorable place for European cinema.

*

Watching the news unfolding tirelessly on the idiot box my friend Shireen Elavia is reminded of the Hindi film Airlift (2016), which had dealt with the evacuation of the Indian expatriates stranded in that state bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia, at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, when the soldiers of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had walked into Kuwait and run over it… “In a massive rescue operation in which our friend Raji had also participated, Air India under its regional director Mascarenhas had airlifted 170000 people…” Sonia pitched in. “I was at that time posted in Moscow.”

“It is not a question of the negativity of war,” again Sonia recounted what a dear friend of hers – Polish by birth and Indian by marriage – has said. “Ukraine suffers because of its geopolitical position.” History repeatedly shows that “Countries suffer either because they have a certain geopolitical position or because they sit on earth filled with riches.” How very tragic! For, if they now forget they are all still in East Europe, we all forget that we are inmates of the same home – this planet.

Pete Seeger: Courtesy: Creative Commons

A profound truth that we often overlook – or render to oblivion. A truth that Pete Seeger (1919-2014) had driven home to me in Delhi sometime in 1996. “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it. And that is how suddenly a song about the greens becomes a song that takes a step forward. This is what I call the folk process.”

*

The human drama unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, the two countries that have been described by a cartoonist as ‘divorced spouses,’ led yet another of my university friends, Usha Kelkar Srivastava, to re-play Where have all the flowers gone (1955), that old Pete Seeger favourite “which turns out to be a Ukrainian folk song”. The poignant melody was a favourite of ours when we went to university – much like Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) and John Lenon’s Imagine (1964) – and for decades after he’d penned it, regardless of which country he was in, the guru of country singing would sing the peace songs and the audience would sing with him. “They would sing the songs in schools and in summer camps. Some of us sang in churches and unions, some sang in coffee houses and people would gather around us and sing with us old songs and new…” Pete had recounted in the course of the four days I was really fortunate to have spent in his company. The legend who sang in defence of humanity, had come to Delhi at the invitation of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) — and when he returned to America, he gifted me a set of CDs signed to me which are among my prized possessions. 

“Just as a river takes the shape of the land it flows through, a song can echo the raw emotions of a land and people,” said Usha culling from her background in Music History. “Rarely has any song touched the world like the simple Where have all the flowers gone…” It has the cyclic structure of another Hebrew folk song about violence that I’d heard in an Amos Gitai film. Pete, while travelling in air, had come across a few lines in Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don: “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.” 

The lines from a Caucasian folk song “are sung in the Ukrainian countryside as Tovchu tovchu mak and Koloda Duda,” Usha added. Pete had adapted these words, adding the refrain of ‘Long time passing and Long time ago’ almost as a chorus. At some point in time he combined it with the tune of a traditional Irish lumberjack song – “only, I slowed down the energetic and full of vigour rendition,” and thus was born the haunting song. The three verses were later expanded by other country singers who added two more verses that underscore the tragedy thus: ‘Where have all the soldiers gone? They’re in the graves, everyone of them…and Now the flowers have come back, on the graves…’

“My only complaint is that this song is not specific enough,” Pete once said at a live concert in Sweden. “It’s too easy just to say, ‘When will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?’ without saying what you want people to learn.” Yet, how potent this critique of war is can be gauged by the number of recordings, and the spread of languages in which it has been rewritten. 

The Kingston Trio first recorded it in 1961 not knowing it to be authored by Pete Seeger. In 1962 Marlene Dietrich performed it in English, French and German at a UNICEF concert – “and she sings it even better,” Seeger had said. On a tour of Israel, she rendered it in German, breaking the taboo of using that language publicly in that country. The song has versions in Dutch, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, Irish. It has been adapted to the piano, it exists in an instrumental version, and also as a parody! In 1964, Columbia Records released it in the Hall of Fame series and in 2002 Seeger was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in the Folk category. In 2010 New Statesman listed it among the Top 20 Political Songs worldwide.

I had the opportunity to hear the other American icon, Joan Baez, sing the contemporary folk song with operatic flourishes, in Manchester sometime in 1977. The activist songwriter had included the German version in her 1965 album, Farewell, Angelina. The very next year the much-loved voice of Harry Belafonte had recorded it in a Benefit concert in Stockholm. A Russian version was recorded in 1998 by Oleg Nesterov, who founded the Moscow based rock band Megapolis just before Perestroika. In the present century Olivia Newton-John recorded it in her 2004 album Indigo: Women of Song while Dolly Parton recorded it in 2005 for her album Those Were the Days. On August 9, 2009, it was sung at the funeral of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of WW1.

In Kolkata, where I now live, Anjan Dutt had covered “the old but always relevant song” in Rawng (Colour) Pencil, going on to remind us at the outset of the Gulf War, “Ekii chinta Bangla tey korechhe Lalon, Notun korey eki gaan geyechhe Lenon, Shei eki katha aaj gaichhe Suman, gaichhi aami shei eki gaan (The same thought had inspired the Baul Lalon Fakir; the American John Lenon, and Kolkata’s own Suman and me, to ask — When will they ever learn?)” As for Kabir Suman, who penned the Bengali version, Kothay gelo tara: he had himself rendered it on stage with Pete during that India tour of 1996.

Back then Pete was “very happy that the Berlin Wall came down so peacefully”. I distinctly recall asking the self-effacing giant if the wide reach of Where have all the flowers gone indicates that the world is finally learning about not going to war. The Times of India had carried his answer: “I don’t know whether songs really change things. All I do know is that throughout history, leaders have been particular about which songs they want sung!” And then the balladeer sang of a youth who was asked the same question, to say, ‘I don’t know if I can change the world… But I will make sure the world doesn’t change me…’ 

“That was a good song,” Pete had concluded. “When people around the world say that — that’s when the world will be changed.” 

Notes:
Shlokov received the Nobel prize for And Quiet Flows the Don in 1965. The book came out in four parts from 1928 to 1940.

Ratnottama Sengupta thanks the people mentioned here: Both Sonia Singh and Raji Sekhar are her batchmates from Elphinstone College, Bombay (now Mumbai). They worked in Air India. Usha Srivastava and Elizabeth George (then Vergese) were singers in Pranjyoti Choir. Usha Kelkar Srivastava, trained in Western classical music, later went on to give lessons in Music History at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. Bhamini Subramaniam is a designer while Shireen Elavia. Havewala, is a retired banker.

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

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

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Slices from Life

It’s Amazing the Things We can Do

By Erwin Coombs

That’s the title of a narrative that needs explaining. I have to start off by being quite honest: I was raised in a cloud of cynicism and despair. As I’ve already hinted — my upbringing was classically dysfunctional with a broken home at age six and all kinds of attendant problems. Poverty was one. Actually, poverty is never one problem because it has a ricochet effect like shooting a gun in a metal room as it leads to a whole bagful of treats that make life that much more difficult. Apart from the outward signs of misery, there were all kinds of internalised ones.

I am a huge optimist by nature and why I don’t know. It might have to do with a faulty IQ or some brain injury suffered in youth that I can’t recall, for obvious reasons. Mind you, I did fall out of my highchair when I was a toddler in Cairo, Egypt. I don’t know if the highchairs at that time were substandard or perhaps my mother didn’t bother to do up my safety belt, but I went down like a ton of bricks to the non-carpeted floor. I’m sure there was no permanent damage, except for the fact that there is an indent in the middle of the top of my head.

When I was young and had hair, I remember occasionally coming across that indent and thinking “Thank God I have hair to cover THAT thing up with!” But God has a delicious sense of irony and between Him and gravity, or rather with gravity working as his foot soldier, time chipped, or rather pulled away at my hair. And as my hairline receded like a Maple Leaf fan’s playoff hopes, that deformity became a feature of mine. I’m not a vain man, by any stretch, but this was a bit to deal with. Over time, I got used to it.

I recall one day I was helping out in one of my daughter’s grade two classrooms. I was sitting reading a story to several cute little kids when one of the girls asked, in a completely good-natured way, “What’s that big lump on your head?” I wanted to explain that rather than a big lump it was actually a crevice which gave the appearance of a big lump, but how lame would that have sounded? Instead, I did more of that thinking on my feet thing and said, “You see, Ariana, I have so many smart thoughts that I don’t have room for them in my brain. So, I store them there.”

She looked wide-eyed at this new marvel she had never heard of before and I could tell she was impressed. I had turned what could have been a potentially embarrassing deformity for my daughter into a point of admiration. I had new cache as the really smart guy. Score one for Dad.

Thinking back on that highchair fall, there was another potentially brain damaging incident that took place in Cairo. Given that there were two such events it’s amazing I can even remember them. But I guess the damage was fairly minimal, though I’m sure several former teachers of mine would claim otherwise. We had just arrived in Cairo as my father was posted at the Canadian embassy, but our house wasn’t ready yet. That meant a two week stay at the Cairo Hilton on the public coin. Being a toddler, I couldn’t entirely appreciate how cool this was, but my family did and when Dad was at work we spent a lot of time at the pool. I couldn’t walk then but neither could a lot of the guests who made good use of the pool-side bar. My Mum no doubt did, and my siblings were busy playing childish games. I was plopped on the steps of the shallow end of the pool to bake in the sun and hopefully not teeter into the water. Hope is a fine thing, but you don’t want to risk a toddler’s life on it. And sure, as shooting I did the teetering and as with the highchair, toppled to the bottom. The landing wasn’t so bad, it’s just that there was no resurfacing to go with it and so I sat comically at the bottom, no doubt waving my arms and looking wide eyed.

Meanwhile, on terra firma, someone thought to look for me.

“Has anyone seen Erwin?’

If I had a toddler that was missing poolside, I would have phrased it a little more urgently. But the whole family circled the pool until my brother Eddy spotted me at the bottom, now fairly blue through lack of oxygen and called out.

“There he is!” I believe he said it like a child finding a hidden Easter egg in a hunt instead of a drowning sibling. But for all that they did pull me out, dry me off and I was not much the worse for wear. Here’s a funny follow up lest you think that our childhood experiences don’t have some kind of resonance in our adult years. I was never told of this almost drowning incident until I was well into my teens, for some reason. Yet my whole life I had been, and am still, subject to a recurring nightmare where, you guessed it, I am at the bottom of a pool, gasping for breath and I wake up panting. As the song says, take good care of your children. If you don’t they might end up with misshapen heads and poor sleeping habits.

There was a third incident in Cairo involving a camel and the pyramids. My God, but it sounds like I’ve had this exciting life but really most of it has been spent holding onto a channel changer and dreaming of better days. While in Cairo the family decided to take a tour around the pyramids riding camels because, hey, that’s the thing to do there. And it would have been a grand idea except that my Mum had just strapped the baby me onto the camel before she got on when the camel decided that one passenger was enough, and it bolted. Camels are ornery beasts and when they get a mind to something they do it and apparently kidnapping the blonde baby was a bee in its bonnet so off it went. Soon one of the camel instructors leapt onto another camel and chased me down in the Sahara after a few minutes. Had he not, I might well have wound up as a Bedouin being raised in the desert as some sort of a poor man’s Lawrence of Arabia. Looking back on my time in Egypt, it seems clear that my parents had decided to do away with me but lacked the foresight for a proper plan or the energy to keep at it. But I hold no grudge. They did have three other mouths to feed, after all.

Despite all those damages to my brain at an early age I have managed to negotiate this old world with some degree of success. And one of the points I want to make in this narrative is that people are extraordinarily able to do things they think they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, if that doesn’t sound too convoluted a sentence. In other words, we can accomplish things under the most enormous pressure and under terrible conditions that we think we might not be able to do even under ideal circumstances. What this says about human beings is that we are to be marveled at and not despaired over, as we so often do. We look down on our species and God knows we look down on ourselves countless times a day.

The old ‘pop’ psychology of examining the self is not just a cutesy way of filling up self-help books with advice. Self-help books are generally, a dark alley to visit. They are great at momentary inspiration but generally don’t last beyond the initial reading. That’s why people keep poring over them again and again. And here is one of the problems with self-help books; they tell us what we already know to be true and what should be done. The advice is common-sensical. But following advice is much more difficult than just seeking it out and so we repeat the patterns of dumb behavior. And as long as we are seeking advice from a friend or a book, we get the feeling we are doing something. It calls to mind the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who said, “No longer talk about what a good man should be. Be one.” Or in the words of my father, “shit or get off the pot.” I’ve always thought a good title to reveal this problem with self-help books would be Breaking the Self-Help Dependency Cycle: Volume 8.

Returning to my narrative highlighting the amazing things people can do and not even realise they can do it. I have a life and death example from World War II. I knew an old woman whose life had been a series of tragedies. Sure, she had had some joy. She was born in the First World, had children she loved and grandchildren, had friends and all manner of hobbies from knitting to crocheting and everything in between. Mind you knitting and crocheting are close so there might not seem a great deal in between, but there is, and she pursued them, getting a joy out of the little things in life. This despite the fact that she was raised in Nazi occupied Holland, had a brother who died in a Nazi work camp, one of her children was killed in a traffic accident while just a boy, her husband had died of cancer, she had defeated cancer, well, the list goes on. But despite the list of reasons to give up and surrender to despair she found joy where she could, displaying a strength of character that people who have suffered much less and whined much more would do well to learn from.

Here is her story of doing what you think you can’t when circumstances demand you step up and find a solution instead of an excuse. This lady, Gail, was living on a farm near some woods during the Nazi occupation of her country. One of her two brothers had died in that German work camp so the other one who was at the same camp, decided that he was not going to stay. He escaped from Germany and somehow made his way home to the farm. His family hid him, but he had to spend a lot of time living in the woods to avoid the SS (Shutzstaffel) who knew he was there but couldn’t catch him. One day he was at the farm splitting wood when word came that the SS were coming for him. He naturally ran to the woods. Here was the trouble. The Nazis arrived and demanded to know where he was. Gail was the only one home and denied that he had been there for over a year. The crafty head of the unit spied the partially split pile of wood and asked who had been doing this job. Gail calmly said she had, and as the Nazis had taken away the men, she had no choice, now did she? The head of the unit nodded calmly and in an equally calm manner took out his revolver.

“You are doing a very good job. You’re pretty skilled for a little farm girl, aren’t you?”

He looked at her smilingly and gestured to the pile of logs.

“Show me how it’s done. If you can prove it wasn’t your brother who did this, well, that will be fine. If you cannot, you die here and now at the hands of an officer that you’ve lied to.”

He stepped back, keeping the gun pointed at Gail. She told me she had never picked up an axe in her life, but she knew that if there was ever a time to do it and to learn how, this was it. She said that she was trembling inside but knew that that fear had to be kept hidden. She also knew that if she failed and was killed it would redouble the SS man’s commitment to track down her brother. Even when her life was hanging by the swing of an axe, she was concerned with the fate of someone else. And this also speaks to me about the true nature of humanity. Despite the fact that whatever selfish tendencies we have can be played upon to act in more selfish ways by people who make a profit out of selfishness, we are fundamentally a caring species with streaks of unselfishness that are not merely streaks but represent our true colours.

Gail stepped up to the pile, picked up the ax and said a silent prayer of desperation and hope while she put on a brave face,

“Dear God, please, just let me swing this axe true, just this once.”

She had seen others do it and tried to replicate their movements, placing a log on the stand, shifting her hands down the shaft and giving a mighty swing. The log split in two with the softest sound. She hid her own amazement and looked at the man holding his gun and her life in his hands with a bored “See?” sort of expression. The Nazi uncocked his gun and placed it back in the holster.

“Couldn’t have done better myself. Carry on,” and he and his men walked away to continue the search for the brother that I’m happy to say was never successful. That’s the brother whom I knew as a delightful old man who had given me those sharks teeth all those years ago. He, like his sister, was so full of life and happiness despite all they had gone through. Or perhaps not despite but because of all they had gone through. From the wonder of a hundred-year-old shark’s tooth to the smile of their babies in their arms, they loved all that life had to offer because they knew how precious and, surprisingly, readily available joy is in this world.

.

Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These narratives are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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

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Slices from Life

Messages through Space and Time

Meredith Stephens explores letter writing as an art that can stretch beyond a person’s lifetime and across borders of all kinds

I walked out to the end of the driveway of my Adelaide house, unlocked the letter box, and among the flyers and political brochures, I found a New Year’s card from a Japanese student called Mutsumi. It had been two years since the beginning of the pandemic, and I have been teaching on Zoom ever since. I have never met Mutsumi in person but have taught her for the two years online. When I taught in person in Japan, students would sometimes send a New Year’s card to my local Japanese address, but I had never received one at my Australian address.

New Year is just as important in Japan as Christmas is in my home country of Australia. In the pre-digital age we would send Christmas cards to friends and family destined to arrive on December 24th at the latest. They never arrived on Christmas Day because it was a public holiday. In contrast, in Japan, New Year’s cards are delivered on New Year’s Day and never any earlier. They may arrive later though, as receivers scramble to reply to those from whom they had not anticipated receiving a card. Although I had often received cards as late as the end of the first week in January, I had never received one in February. During the pandemic, international deliveries were experiencing considerable delays and some were even returned to the sender. I was grateful the New Year’s card had traversed the seven thousand kilometres to reach me at the southern coast of the southern Australian continent.

I looked at Mutsumi’s card and realized that the presentation of calligraphy was just as important as the message. Written Japanese is not just a means of relaying a message but also an art form. Primary school children must purchase a calligraphy set and are issued a calligraphy textbook to be used in their weekly calligraphy lesson. Fifteen years ago, when my daughter was in primary school, her homework was to create a piece of calligraphy which read Yama nobori, or ‘Climbing a Mountain’. The image below shows her doing her homework on the kitchen table, carefully pressing the calligraphy brush into the ink before she writes the characters on the rice paper.

English handwriting was also elegant in the writing of our forebears, although it wasn’t written with a brush. Here is a postcard written by my great great grandfather to my grandmother when she was about five, around 1907 when they cost only one penny to send. It reads, “Dear Emilie, Hope you had a good sleep last week and that you are feeling fit for school again next week. Love to all, From Grandfather.”

Although the writing is ornate the content is quotidian. The affection for his granddaughter is revealed not just in the message but also in the handwriting style.

A handwritten postcard, whether it is written in Japanese in 2022 or in English in 1907, may be considered an aesthetic work. Handwriting conveys both the literal meaning of the words and the feelings for the recipient. As Kathleen Parker reminds us[1], the pleasure of receiving a letter is that both the sender and the receiver have touched the same piece of paper. The postcard above has been touched by both my great great grandfather and me, at an interval of 115 years. I am sure that when he was writing to his granddaughter asking after her health in 1907, he never imagined that his great great granddaughter would be touching and reading it in 2022.

I rarely have a chance to put pen to paper these days, other than when writing a shopping list. My fingers fly across the keyboards almost as quickly as I can think, in a qwerty fingertip language. That’s why I appreciate those who take the time to select and purchase a postcard, and choose a fine pen or brush to produce an elegant written message that I may fondly linger over for years to come.

[1] Kathleen Parker, 2010, as cited in Baron, S. (2015). Words onscreen: The fate of reading in a digital world. Oxford University Press.

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Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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Eva Zu Beck & Marco Polo

San Lin Tun writes of how, in Yangon, he spends the lockdown watching a travel blog by Eva Zu Beck

Neither do I know Eva Zu Beck nor did I know Marco Polo, personally. But both of them are travellers who have impacted many. There is a difference between them because one is the traveller of 14th Century while the other is a contemporary 21st Century traveller.  Marco Polo had travelled through the kingdom of Myanmar but Eva zu Beck has not yet been to Yangon. 

One records his travel in a book or a diary while the other documents her travel by posting it on YouTube, Instagram, and other social media. I wonder who has got more followers, Marco Polo or Eva zu Beck? Or will it be a faux pas to compare like this?

Marco Polo, explorer and writer was a denizen of Venice as well as a Venetian merchant who travelled through Asia along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. His travels are recorded in The Travels of Marco Polo that is also known as Book of the Marvels of the World and Il Milione, c. 1300. 

It is a book that revealed to Europeans the mysterious culture and inner workings of the Eastern world, including the wealth and great size of the Mongol Empire and China in the Yuan Dynasty, while giving their first comprehensive look into China, Persia, India, Japan and other Asian cities and countries. 

He, in fact, dictated his stories to a cellmate named Rustichello da Pisa while in a Genoan prisoner of war. Notably and truly, his travel book inspired Christopher Columbus and many other travellers, ensuing after him.

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You might not know Eva Zu Beck or you might have already known her. But, I think her name can precipitate some interest in you. As for me, I like to watch her vlog on YouTube and so, I plan to subscribe her channel later.

In fact, she is a young girl from Poland and she has travelled a lot for her vlogs. She says that she is a professional traveller and that means that she lives on travelling. I wonder if someone lives on traveling or not. 

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Recently, I happened to buy a smart television, especially for my two children — for their education and entertainment. When the TV is available for me to watch, I switch channels one after another. 

These days, I like to watch new movies for getting rid of my boredom caused by stay-at-home measures of the pandemic. It is the only way to overcome that dilemma. If you lose your interest in life, imagine what living will be like. 

During this time, my taste in movies has noticeably changed. Now, I like to watch Russian, Iranian, Tamil movies among others. These films seem to be more artistic and better-developed than yesteryear’s movies to me. I feel that way because I had been a staunch fan of Hollywood, Bollywood and Kung Fu movies. I find new flavours in them and watch them again and again. Then, I like to watch documentaries and other interesting channels relating to travel, vacation, nature etc. 

During my surfs through the internet, I unintentionally found Eva Zu Beck’s vlog while I was on a lookout for engrossing channels to ward off my fatigue and weariness of the mind. Then, I found her vlog. I do not know what exactly attracted me to her vlog.

I watch one vlog and I have become hooked to her other vlogs one after another. She took me to new places I have not been before. Her charm and simplicity are part of her charism. She is not pompous, less of a show-off. The down-to-earth style nurtured by her is very well suited to travel blogs.

I like to follow her wherever she leads me to. She leads me on her cycling experiences across Poland to Germany for some days. It is a daunting task for her. Here in Myanmar, two years ago, the founder of Uncharted Horizon, a real lanky and strongly built man named Jochen Meissner went on a cycling venture from Yangon to Singapore in hope of raising funds for good causes. 

When I met him for an interview, he eagerly told me that it took them nearly a month to reach the destination. He briefed me that he would do the cycling to Nepal in the next year. He postponed it because of the outbreak of the pandemic. 

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In terms of cycling, I find that Eva is a daring cyclist. She stops at camp sites for resting and carried on her cycling tour until she reached her destination. Even, she cried bitterly when she faced real difficulties, I felt sorry for her.

She explained that she was inspired by her grandfather, also a great traveller. She read out some texts from her grandfather’s notebook in a tent. It was truly inspirational. When I watch her explanation of how she got a million subscribers, I felt she really deserved it.

In one of her interviews, she answered that she gave up everything including her previous job to travel fully and to become a full-time traveller. I learnt quite a lot from watching her vlogs. Her vlogs gave me new experiences and new dimension to life. 

Nowadays, if I want to travel, I just need to switch on the YouTube channel and watch Eva’s vlog I don’t need to have passport or visa for travelling. It is one of the best things in life. I just watch her vlog and she will be my travelling guide and companion who will take me to places which I have never been or experienced before.

I feel wonderful because I feel belonged to those places and feel like I have become a global nomad while I am just sitting in my small living room without spending anything thanks to Eva Zu Beck.

San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short story and novel in Myanmar and English. His publications have appeared in several magazines such as Asia Literary Review, Kitaab, NAW, PIX, Mad in Asia Pacific, Mekong Review, Ponder Savant and others. He is the author of a novel “An English Writer.”

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Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time when a language freed itself and a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day.

The window at Bardhaman House. Courtesy: Kamrul Mithon

All through the day Kamrul Mithon was standing in front of this window, waiting. He was waiting to be allotted a stall in Ekushey Book Fair 2022. This year the annual book fair in Dhaka is being hosted by the Bangla Academy from February 15 to 28. 

This window is a part of the Bardhaman House. The first boimela or book fair had started under the banyan tree facing this very window. Kamrul Mithon, who earns his bread and butter by the click of his camera, is a book publisher by passion. The freelancer for National Crafts Council of Bangladesh is the Associate Visual Editor at Nymphea Publication who have just published titles like Cannes Diary and When the Mango Tree Blossomed, in the ongoing book fair. The day he spent facing the window was the day the lottery was held – so the best way to while his time was by clicking away, capturing all that captivated his fancy. 

Later it occurred to him that he could post the pictures on Facebook to announce the forthcoming boimela. And when he did so, he captured my attention. “Is this a painting? A poster? A book cover?” My curiosity was piqued. “Neither,” Kamrul replied. He went on to give me a brief history of ‘Burdwan House’ – the architecture from the British Raj when Dhaka, the second biggest city of Bengal Presidency, housed estates of many erstwhile royalties including the Raja of Burdwan.

Maharajadhiraj Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab (1881-1941) was the first in the Burdwan family to obtain formal education qualification, tour England and Europe, write his memoirs. Adopted at the age of six, he was bestowed the title of Rajadhiraj at the coronation in the Delhi Durbar. Though only eighteen then, he had the savvy to build a Gothic style gate to welcome Lord Curzon when the Governor General visited Bardhaman. That gate continues to be a historical landmark in the Indian state of West Bengal. 

In 1908, when Bijoy Chand Mahtab risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser from a Nationalist bullet, Lord Minto elevated him to the title of Maharajadhiraj. He represented the Bengal zamindars in the Bengal Legislative Council and in the Imperial legislative Council for years. President of the British Indian Association, this philanthropist in education and health welfare was part of the committee that recommended replacement of Zamindari by the Ryotdari or tenancy system. After all this, though, he extended hospitality to Gandhi in 1925 and to Subhash Chandra Bose in 1928. Did he sense that the sun was soon to set on the British Empire?

The mansion in Dhaka was one of the many palaces of His Highness of Burdwan: the one in Darjeeling was his Summer Palace. Through the year he resided in the Burdwan House in Kolkata’s Alipore area. That stately home is now rented out for weddings and other occasions. So, I was especially happy to learn that Dhaka has transformed the classical architecture into a centre for research and preservation of Bangla. “Indeed this was where the Bangla Bhasha Andolan spread out from,” Mithon cues me in, “since this was where the instruction went out on the evening of February 21, to fire on the students of Dhaka University.”

Mithon further leads me through the various chapters of the Movement. “In 1952, being the residence of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Bardhaman House witnessed the escalation in our demand that Bengali be accorded equal status with Urdu as State Language of Pakistan.”

I remember hearing the backstory of the movement from my father, writer Nabendu Ghosh: he was forced to leave Kolkata, the home ground of Bengali literature, theatre, cinema, art – indeed, of Bengali culture – and live in Bombay after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Because? The readership of Bangla literature had been halved as had the viewership of Bengali films. Keen to build upon its Islamic genes, the government of the newly formed Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the state language. And to impose that decision even in East Pakistan, its eastern wing separated by 2000 miles of land and rivers, language and culture, it decreed that even Bengali, its lingua franca, must be written in the Arabic script!

Mithon encapsulates the story of rebellion against the firman – the decree — that took the masses unaware. 

“1947, December 5. The working Committee of the Muslim League was meeting in Bardhaman House. The students and teachers of Dhaka University were stunned by the unfair decision that would impact the lives of the 44 million Bangla-speaking citizens who formed roughly 2/3rd of the 69 million population. They took out a procession to demand that Bengali be made the language of education and administration in the state — and at the Centre, it should be accorded the same dignity as Urdu, adopted by the Western wing of the divided India that encompassed large part of Punjab and Sindh, where the lingua franca was Pubjabi and Sindhi.

“1948, January 8. Evening at Bardhaman House. Leaders of the Language Movement met Prime Minister Najimuddin. The purpose? To protest the arrest and torture of the Bhasha Andolan (language revolution) activists — under section 144 — for demanding that they be allowed to freely read write and speak Bangla.

“1948, March 15. On the eve of signing the State Language Agreement, the then Governor Khwaja Najimuddin met the students involved in the Andolan. The next day a procession set out for Bardhaman House to demand the cancelation of the draft agreement. The police were let loose on them, for disobeying the orders under section 144, and the students and teachers were severely wounded. 

“February 21, 1952, was Phalgun 8, 1358 on the Bengali calendar. Governor General Nurul Amin sent out the order that took the lives of Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, teenaged Aliullah, 17 other students, teachers, progressive intelligentsia and non-communal individuals, rickshawallahs and labourers… The tower that came up overnight in the University campus was not the only direct fallout of the inhuman firing: The symbol of Power, Bardhaman House became the target of people’s anger. 

“After the heinous bloodbath, the demand to turn it into a Centre for Language Studies gathered momentum. And four years later, in 1954 it gained formal sanction prior to the elections. The 21-point Charter of Demands put forth by the Jukta (United) Front spelled out that the Prime Minister move into a less luxurious residence, leaving the mansion to be used as a Student’s Hostel and, subsequently, to be turned into a Research Centre for the language.

“Eventually the Pakistan government had to bow to the unrest: On May 7, 1954, Bengali was adopted as one of the state languages in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. And on December 3, 1954, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Abu Hosain, inaugurated the Bangla Academy in the Burdwan House.” 

Quite naturally, along with research and nurturing of the language, Bangla Academy has taken care to perpetuate the memory of the Amar Ekush (eternal 21st) martyrs. The first floor of the Bardhaman House is home to the Bhasha Andolan Museum. Inaugurated on February 1, 2010, it preserves historical photographs, newspapers, memorial documents, cartoon, letters, publicity leaflets, manuscripts, book covers and memorabilia of the language martyrs. And in the ongoing Boimela, Nymphea has brought to the reading public volumes like Ekush: A Photographic History of the Language Movement (1947-1956) and Kaaler Kheya (The Boat of Time) about passing on Bangla from generation to generation. 

The events of February 21, 1952, shed a long shadow that culminated in the emergence of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh which sings, Moder garab moder asha – Aa mori Bangla bhasha (Our pride, our inspiration, O sonorous Bangla!)… The love for its language has seen the nation adopt Tagore’s creation as its national anthem, Aamar Sonar Bangla. And even before that, Renaissance personality Satyajit Ray saluted the language by penning Moder nijer bhasha bhinna aar bhasha jaana nai … O maharaja, we speak no language other than our own, and we celebrate through that very language, Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan

Indeed, the world salutes the struggle and sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh to be able to sing their songs. In November 1999, UNESCO paid tribute to Amar Ekush, the movement for safeguarding Bangla – with all its proverbs and poetry, myths and songs — by declaring February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

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

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Forsaking Distant Hemispheres for the Immediate Locale

Meredith Stephens introduces us to the varied fauna found in South Australia with vivid photographs clicked by her

We seize every opportunity to travel around our home state of South Australia, searching for unexplored towns and dramatic seascapes. These do not disappoint, but the highlights of our trips tend to be unanticipated, such as the flora and fauna that surprise us with their fleeting appearances en route.

We did not necessarily have to leave the house to be surprised by native fauna. Rosellas descended into the garden and perch on the roof to show off their crimson heads, yellow bellies and the blue plumes on their tails. Their visit is especially treasured as it is rare.

Our canine companions’ presence is anything but fleeting. They listen carefully to our instructions, judging our intentions through the direction of our gaze, and the intonation of our voice. If we want them to accompany us in the car, we call them to the garage, open the car door, and urge them to jump in. If we want them to stay in the house when we leave, we tell them so, and they sit with their eyes fixed on us as we go through the door. This eagerness to please is what makes them such easygoing travelling companions.

When we sail to Kangaroo Island, we are frequently accompanied by pods of dolphins. They are curious about the sound of the engine, and swim towards the bow. They swim back and forth in front of the boat, diving in and out of the water and keeping pace with the vessel in a performance for the sailors. They accompany us for about five minutes before disappearing. We hardly have time to feel bereft, because before long another pod approaches and provides the same performance.

Once on Kangaroo Island, we drive to the township of American River, named after American sealers who visited in 1802.  No sooner do we park at the wharf, than we spot seals on the rocks. We had thought that we would need to visit Seal Bay and pay an entrance fee to see seals, but here they are lazily resting in the bay in American River.

Once back on the mainland we decide to drive to the distant Eyre Peninsula in order to view the majestic seaside cliffs at Elliston. We enjoy strolling along the top of the cliffs and witness the ocean relentlessly pounding into the shoreline. We are just about satiated, but nevertheless decide to visit nearby Venus Bay. Here we are greeted by pelicans sunning themselves on the beach.

Driving back on the long dusty roads crisscrossing the peninsula we spot sleepy lizards slowly making their way across the roads. Every time we spot one we have to break and gently swerve to avoid them.

Then, as we approach the shore, a Rosenburg’s Monitor rustles in the grass. After detecting our presence, she makes a hasty retreat.

Finally, closer to home, in the undulating hills south of Adelaide, our attention is taken by a Clydesdale horse in a paddock. We stop the car so I can greet him. He walks towards me hoping to be rewarded by a carrot or an apple, but I am empty-handed. His forelock sweeps across one eye and is about the same length as my hair.

We have not had to visit a zoo or an aquarium. The tourist brochures have been helpful but none could have prepared us for the fleeting appearances of rosellas, dolphins, seals, pelicans, sleepy lizards, Rosenberg’s Monitors and a Clydesdale. As Alain de Botton reminds us in The Art of Travel. “Try, before taking off for distant hemispheres to notice what we have already seen.” Due to the pandemic, taking off for distant hemispheres is no longer straightforward. I am forced to pay attention to what I have already seen.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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Wooing Children to School

By Munaj Gul Muhammad

Shah Meer Sowali with the dog he wanted to sell. Photo Courtesy: Munaj Gul

Little Shah Meer Sowali got a dog with him to the bazaar in Turbat. He sold the dog for a small sum because he lives hand to mouth. His beloved and aged father is lame and they live in a broken room. Seeing the condition of little Shah Meer, members of an organisation called SFA (School for All) approached Shah Meer’s family and took the responsibility of the little boy and his little sister as before they both were out-of-school. The family had been unable to enroll the little children because of poverty.  Now, Shah Meer and his sister are enrolled in Bolan School.

The SFA is a non-profit organisation working for the promotion of education and reduction of student dropouts along with enrolling unschooled children into schools in Turbat since its establishment. It was established on October 1, 2020. Since its inception, the organisation has been successfully enrolling many orphans and disabled children along with financially weak children into different private and government educational institutions. The organisation is registered under Balochistan Charities Regulation Authority [BCRA] and is designed to serve the cause of education in the province. The organisation facilitates education of the enrolled students until they matriculate. These children are provided with books, shoes, bags, uniforms, stationery and fees along with other basic amenities.

Given that Pakistan is one of the most illiterate countries of the world, education for people is a daydream. Fahad Baloch, had to go to Quetta to get a basic education.  Unlike Fahad, his brother was not as fortunate. Despite wanting to go to school, he could not. A large chunk of children had no access to uneducated in his locality. But now this gap is being attempted to be bridged by the SFA.

The prime ambition of this organisation is to aid edifying the society where everyone acquires the opportunity to receive an education. They also hope to subsidise the costs. The organisation has successfully conducted three educational awareness programs in different areas of the region and received an affirmative response of the society to enrolling the out-of-school children into schools. The core drive of conducting such programmes was to impart a real sense or essence of education to the minds of the people in the region.

The SFA has been successful in enrolling 21 out-of-school children into private schools and 34 in government institutions. These enrolled children are registered by an agreement drawn up between the organisation and the parents of the children. They have even opened four bookstalls in the region to help get books to those who can read. “The benefits received by the SFA from the bookstalls go to these needy people,” said Kamran Gichki of the SFA. “Since the inception of the organisation, we approached many people, among them some were government officials from the concerned departments, and we shared our motives with them. We received affirmative and moral support from these officers but got financial support only from the middle-class residents in the region. The government is yet to support us in our efforts financially even though by Article 25A, they have made education a must for five to sixteen year olds.”

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Munaj Gul Muhammed is a journalist and a LLB student at Faculty of Law, University of Turbat. He tweets at @MunajGul

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Historical Accuracy

By Ravibala Shenoy

 “He was badly beaten in lockup, denied medicine, and died soon after,” my cousin writes in his article on our Uncle Anand in a local Indian publication.

 “Uncle A. died of dysentery,” I respond via WhatsApp. “He was only eleven or twelve. Not fourteen as you state. And my father was eight at the time. It says so in my father’s writings.” Later in life, my father had kept notes on his brother’s death.

My cousin hesitated. “I have it on the evidence of Aunt S.,” Aunt S. is our only surviving relative from that generation. “She told me that the police warned our grandfather, that they were watching Uncle A. They finally arrested him. They threatened our grandfather into silence.”

 “With all due deference,” I say, because my cousin is nine years older than me, “Aunt S. was just a few weeks old in August 1930. She hardly counts as an eyewitness. And neither you nor I were alive then.”

1930 was the year of Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. Mahatma Gandhi led the fight for independence from the British Empire by nonviolent means. Even in the small coastal town of Karwar, men and women joined in the struggle. Uncle A. with a natural flair for leadership organised the monkey brigade” that was made up of youngsters. Townspeople hinted to my grandfather that his son, who was leading boys and girls every morning in the dawn marches, was perhaps neglecting his studies. To which my grandfather replied that his son was very smart and secured the first rank in class.

These dawn marches were accompanied by stirring patriotic songs, punctuated by lusty salutations to Mother India, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Boys and girls accompanied Uncle Anand to the sea to produce salt out of seawater in defiance of the law. Making salt was a government monopoly. The spirit of swadeshi, of boycotting foreign goods for domestic ones, was in the air and Uncle A. learned how to make soap and taught it to others. He acquired a spinning wheel and showed his family how to spin cotton into yarn on a spindle. The finished yarn was mailed by Uncle A. in a parcel to the handlooms of Nandangadda.

The movement slackened a bit with the advent of the monsoons, and then in August 1930, Karwar was struck for the first time by an epidemic of dysentery.

I write to my cousin, “Uncle A. was not arrested or beaten. He was the first one to contract dysentery. Would you like to see my father’s writings?”

Dysentery was still an unfamiliar disease for the doctors in Karwar. The family doctor was very competent, and he gave Uncle A. the best treatment he knew. There were no antibiotics then. The family doctor believed that another doctor had the penicillin that could save Uncle A. He asked our grandfather to approach him, but the second doctor did not oblige. It was alleged that he was saving it for his own patients. (Our grandfather never forgave this second doctor.) Perhaps he never had any penicillin in the first place.

In the night of the fourth day of the attack, Uncle Anand died. Unexpectedly, the cloth made of yarn that he had spun arrived from Nandangadda on the morning of the funeral. It covered his body like a shroud as he was led to the cremation ground. The town held a large public meeting to mourn the death of Uncle A.

Several people died in the epidemic. My father also had a long brush with the disease, but he survived because this time the family doctor was able to acquire the penicillin.

I wonder why my cousin wants to falsify facts and revise history because that often results in making people believe none of it. This is how myths are born. Was dying from police brutality more tragic or glamorous than dying of dysentery? To me this was like an important intervention between historiography and the “woke” debate.

My cousin resents my contradicting him. Did I, a girl, albeit a grandmother now, younger than him, dare impugn his credibility? I was the unpatriotic one, removed from her heritage, a U.S. citizen who lived in the West with a westernized preciosity that downplayed the brave deeds of Indian patriots. How could I know better?

 My beef with my cousin is that he doesn’t check his facts and seeks out the sensational. My cousin’s “facts” came via an aunt whose information was based on hearsay because my grandparents never spoke of the tragedy that had befallen them.

In my cousin’s defense, I must admit that I have my biases too: I hero-worship my father and regard him as the custodian of historical truth; could he have overlooked the arrest and police brutality in recording his brother’s short but heroic life? My father’s memory could just as easily have been distorted.

I also had a grievance. On my ninth birthday, my cousin had snatched my new water colour set before I even had a chance to open it and mixed up the coral with the ultramarine and the white with the green. Maybe I found it hard to believe him.

We are in agreement on one point: that my grandparents could never bear to utter Uncle A.’s name again. His name “Anand” meant “joy”—and after his death the word was forevermore excised from their vocabulary.

Once, during one of my subsequent visits to Karwar, I came across a concrete till. It stood in the shadow of the road, at some distance from my grandparents’ house. The till had a slit for coins, and a sign asking for donations for the oil needed to light the lamp for the Brahma. The Brahma was believed to be the spirit of an unmarried Brahmin youth who haunted peepul trees and coconut palms. I suspect this was a ghost that predated Uncle A.

Then it struck me. The reason for the lamp for the Brahma was to memorialise the dead so that they were not forgotten. It was a way of bearing witness to their lives and the unrealised potential of their lives. Similarly, my cousin’s write-up on Uncle Anand was like a lamp that had been lit to rescue his memory from the jaws of oblivion. If some facts had been embellished for a “good story,” it was all part of the homage.

Ravibala Shenoy has published award-winning short stories, short stories, flash fiction, memoir, and op-ed pieces. She was a former librarian and book reviewer, who lives in Chicago.

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Nostalgia Slices from Life

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a culture

“Joy Bangla!”

I was startled by the greeting.  I was sixteen-going-on-seventeen and — en route to Darjeeling — I was visiting Malda, my ‘Mamabari’ where my mother lived until she was married at sixteen-just-turned-seventeen. I had just finished my school finals in ‘Bombai’ and was enjoying the long summer break with my school friend Swapna, my paternal didi, Tandra, and my maternal didi, Nanda. My Mama’s son, Shyamal, and his friend, Subhash, had graciously taken upon them the onus of taking us around Gaur, Pandua and Adina. All these are relics of the historical capitals that hark back to a glorious Bengal long past and — for most Indians – lost in oblivion. And here, in the 12-gate mosque of Baroduari, they were singing paeans to the Shahs and Sens and Pals of a medieval Bengal!

I was soon to face history-in-the-making. For, the rectangular brick and stone structure with three aisles, eleven arched openings, and so-many-times-that domes, built sometime in the 16th century and now in the care of Archeological Survey of India, was teeming with barely-clad men women and kids who were fleeing on a daily(or hourly?)-basis the gola-barood of the Razakars – the paramilitary force General Tikka Khan had unleashed in the eastern wing of Pakistan. This was May of 1971 and, even in the apolitical clime of the tinsel town in Bombay, we knew that the Pakistani President Yahya Khan was hounding supporters of the Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

I was therefore thrilled to hear the boom-boom-boom periodically rupturing the hazy horizon in the distant. Was it the spiteful army goons or was it the guerrillas fighting back? “How wonderful it would be to meet some of them!” the romantic in me spoke aloud to the red-eyed men and women who had greeted me with ‘Joy Bangla!’

“Don’t!” Shyamal Da and Subhash drew me aside. “Don’t get close to them – don’t you see they have all got ‘joy bangla’?”

“So what?!” I retaliated, “They are all infected with the love for their country – that’s why they are saying ‘Joy Bangla’! Isn’t that good!”

“No, they are all infected with conjunctivitis – it is highly infectious and spreading rapidly in the camps. So now, not only in Malda but all through West Bengal, ‘joy bangla’ is the name for conjunctivitis.”

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Mangoes. Raw, green, going yellow-orange-red. Stretch out your hand, pluck them off the tree, hit hard on them with your fist and bite into the sour-sweet flesh… But we girls failed to emulate what Shyamal and Subhash could do with such ease on our way to Singhabad, the last stop for our trains this side of the border in that part of Bengal. Nevertheless, the fragrances of Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli remain fresh in my memory years after Shyamal, Nandadi, Swapna, Tandradi have all followed Bangobandhu to a borderless land beyond the clouds.

Singhabad is where my mother Kanaklata owned some 27 bighas of cultivable land inherited from her father: Chandrakanta Ghosh had, in 1940s, apportioned plots to his city dwelling daughters, Malati and Ranjita too, worried that they might face difficulties if their ‘job-dependent’ husbands lost their all to the Partition! He had reasons to worry. He had exchanged most of his land in Dinajpur but the daughters were married into families that had their base in Dhaka, Munshigunj and Kustia. Before you turn to your Google Guru let me tell you – all these were part of East Bengal and are now in Bangladesh.

Much later, in 2001, I would understand my grandfather’s angst when centurion Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal told me in Delhi: “This part of the subcontinent has seen three partitions – in 1905, 1947 and 1971.” The doyen of modernism in Indian painting, who had moved from Calcutta to Lahore in his youth and from Lahore to Delhi in 1947, had brought alive another chapter of history that most of us in India or Bangladesh don’t often recall. Yes, in 1905 the ‘territorial reorganisation’ of the Bengal Presidency by Lord Curzon was said to be for “better administration” since Bengal, for centuries, was spread right up to Burma in the East and well into Assam and Tripura in the North-East, into Bihar and Jharkhand in the West and in the South to Odissa. Noted: but why did it have to be along religious lines, separating the ‘Muslim-dominated’ areas from the ‘Hindu-majority’ ones? Because together the Hindus and Muslims had taken up arms against the goras in 1857, and starting from Barrackpore the mutiny had spread to Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, Meerut, Delhi… After 1857, the last Mughal Badshah, 82-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar, had to be exiled in Rangoon while in 1885 the last emperor of Burma, Thibaw Min, was forced to live in exile at Ratnagiri…

If it were not so tragic, it would have been ludicrous, this ‘exchange’ of emperors.

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Nandadi’s brother, Nirjhar, now 79, vividly recalls crossing the newly defined boundary to come away for good from Meherpur, in Dinajpur of East Bengal, to Malda with his mother — my aunt — Pramila, his three-year-old sister, Nanda, and a just-born brother, Nirmal. “We were coming in three bullock carts: the first one driven by a certain Mongra carried our eldest Mama, his wife Charulata and youngest son Subrata; and the last had our younger Mama’s wife Gayatri, son Suvendu and daughter Maitreyi. Many people were coming just like us, there was no knowledge of the word ‘Passport’ and no concept of ‘Visa’. Since our Dadu – maternal grandfather Chandra Kanta – had to stay back to wind up things after us, he took us to a dear friend of his, a Muslim named Sukardi Chowdhury, in Anarpur and asked him to accompany us since he had a gun.

“He was to reach us to Jagannathpur where Dadu had built a house on the newly exchanged land just six kilometers away from Meherpur. Sukardi Chowdhury lived two kilometers from the border but we had to cross river Punarbhaba on a boat and then we followed the road along the railway line. All of a sudden, we were startled by a piercing cry in a female voice. ‘Who is this? Who goes there?’ demanded Sukardi Chowdhury. He climbed on to the railway track and witnessed some miscreants harassing a woman. He fired his gun in the air and the rascals fled. He walked up to the woman and found that the malefactors had bitten off the nipples of the woman who was bleeding and writhing in pain.

“Sukardi Chowdhury had a gamchha tied around his head like a bandana. He took it off and wound it around the chest of the victim. He advised her companions to go along the railway track straight to Singhabad station, take a train to Malda and seek medical aid there. ‘That will save your life,’ he assured her. I will never forget.” Incidentally Nirjhar’s father, Makhan Chandra Ghosh, did not cross the border until 1980. Along with his ageing mother he had stayed back to care for his widowed sister since their land further inside Dinajpur could not be exchanged.

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This 27-acre land in Singhabad adjacent to the No-Man’s Land on the Bangladesh border was so dear to Kanaklata that she would not hear a word about selling it off although she lived far away with her husband, Nabendu, who was busy scripting films. “One should never forget one’s roots,” she told me in 1971 when she went around with a donation-book raising chanda for the Bangla refugees. She was delighted when – later – the government of India issued Refugee Relief stamps that had to be affixed to every letter, be it a postcard, an envelope, or an inland letter. Was it because deep within she identified with the uprooted people who were forced by history to cross borders?

Ma’s love for her land had, perhaps, infected us. When she passed on in 1999, we dispersed her ashes in the pond on this land. In 2007, before my son, Devottam, was to depart for higher studies abroad, he visited this innermost corner of his land. In 2017, when Ma would have turned ninety, my husband, Debasis, celebrated by planting mango trees around the pond and released fish, the sales of which now pays for a Durga Puja on the land. Yet, just last December, we severed our formal ties by selling off the ‘two-acre land.’ But no, Kanaklata is not forgotten by the men and women – many of whom studied in the school she helped set up long before government aid came their way. They are setting up a temple in her memory…

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But hang on friends, that’s not the end of my story, “picture abhi baaki hai!”

On December 13, 1971, Tandra’s elder sister Chhanda got married. She came from Patna where Nabendu’s brother lived; the groom, Animesh, came from Delhi. But Kanaklata had organised everything in Bombay, in the same house in Malad where our family has lived since 1951. This Goan-style bungalow had a garden surrounding it and this tiny ‘lawn’ was to be the wedding venue. However, ten days before the event when the invitations had gone out and the baratis had already booked their tickets, aerial strikes on Indian air stations led to an all-out war with Pakistan.

This was ominous for many reasons. Six years before this, during another war with Pakistan, my grandfather had passed away in August 1965. This time around, the mighty Seventh Fleet of the USA had entered the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan in the war. Sirens were being sounded at regular intervals and we joked that – since both the bride and the groom were trained musicians – these sirens were ‘replacing’ shehnai by Bismillah and party. Why? Because the police showed up to warn us that no conch shells or ululations that mark traditional revelry at Bengali weddings were to be sounded — and not even a single ray of light should evade the black-cloth-wrapped pandal that had to be erected to cover the house!

Ill omens? Never mind. You can’t stop a wedding because a war was on! All the Bengali families of Bollywood united that evening to celebrate with bated breath. And on December 16, when the bride was being formally inducted into the groom’s family in Delhi over the sumptuous meal of Boubhat, news came that General Niazi of Pakistan had surrendered to General Jagjit Singh Arora of India.

So Vijay Diwas is one day that unites India and Bangladesh in celebrating its actual secession from Pakistan. “Joy Bangla!” – we all said as Chhanda and Animesh led a chorus that sang,

 Aamar Sonar Bangla, aami tomay bhalobashi!*

Oh my glittering Bengal, I love you…

Glossary

Didi – elder sister

Mama – mother’s brother

golaa-barood — ammunition

Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli – Varities of mango

bighas – acres

goras – whites

Badshah — Emperor

chanda – donations

picture abhi baaki hai – The movie is still not over

Boubhat – wedding reception, traditionally

*Song by Tagore that became the national anthem of a free Bangladesh

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

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