Categories
Slices from Life

A Tale of Two Flags in the South Pacific

Meredith Stephens visits an island that opted to adopt the ways of foreign settlers with her camera and narrates her experiences…

It was the fifth week of our New Caledonia sailing trip from Australia. We had just returned to the Noumea marina from the Loyalty Islands and were flying one of the flags of our host country, the indigenous Kanak flag. We were sitting down to a boat lunch of a baguette with delectable French cheeses, when we heard a gentle knock, so gentle that we thought it must have been for someone else. Then we heard the knock again. Alex went out onto the pontoon to see an immaculately dressed Caledoche[1]. He had something urgent to tell us.

“It’s absolutely fine to fly the Kanak flag, but we have had three referenda about independence from France, and we have decided to remain with France,” he said in impeccable English. “There was an American here recently who was flying a Kanak flag. I told him that was fine, but then I asked him why he didn’t fly the flags of native Americans as his home flag. As for you, you should consider flying the First Nations Australian flag on your boat,” he continued. “But as I said, it’s absolutely fine. It’s your choice.”

I could see that it was not fine. As they walked away back along the pontoon I called out.

“We love France!”

It was true. As guests in New Caledonia the last thing we wanted to do was to make political commentary. We had no idea how high feelings were running on this issue. Alex immediately restored a large French flag above the Kanak one.

The visitor didn’t appear to be from the marina so he must have found his way through the locked gates and walked along the pontoon, especially to speak to us. Only then did we realise how prominent our flag had been. We were berthed at the end of the pontoon and were visible from any point in the busy harbour.

The next morning a Caledoche skipper greeted me as they walked along the pontoon. Then they said to me in English, “It looks better with the French flag on top, doesn’t it?” Not wanting to draw attention to ourselves again, I clapped my hands in applause in their direction as they retreated down the pontoon. “You’ve won!” was my intended meaning, but they looked at me quizzically.

On our last day before the long voyage back to the east coast of Australia we provisioned the boat. Before going to the supermarket, I persuaded Alex to take me to my favorite boulangerie. I looked at the breakfast menu and ordered two cappuccinos and two pain au chocolat. This would be one of the last conversations I would have in French, and I was happy not to have attracted any strange looks in response to my accented French. I was also happy to start the long week of sailing with a pain au chocolat.

Once back at the marina, my final duty was to empty our rubbish in the bins beyond the gates to the pontoon. As I was emptying the last of the rubbish, I noticed two Kanak gentlemen outside the gates, calling to one of the boaties inside the gates in French.

“Do you speak English? I want to get a message to the boaties at the end of the pontoon.”

The boatie shrugged his shoulders and retreated to his boat.

I realised he was referring to us. Our flying of the flags must have identified us as outsiders. I addressed the Kanak gentlemen in French.

“I’m on that boat.”

One of them put his hand on his heart.

“We are so touched that you are flying our flag. Can we exchange contact details?”

I looked at them, silently taking in what had happened. They were not boaties. They must have seen the flag flying from the harbour and sought us out.

I saw Alex heading towards me along the pontoon. He must have been wondering what had become of me because we were about to depart. I hastily introduced the Kanak gentlemen to him, and we received their email address. I asked Alex to retrieve some of our coutume[2] gifts from the boat.

“We received wonderful hospitality in the Loyalty Islands. We enjoyed drinking fresh coconut juice, cakes, and yams.”

“Did you stay in one of the traditional homes?”

“No. Some locals invited us to share their picnic rugs and we enjoyed their local specialties.”

Alex returned with the coutume gift, and then we parted ways.

We left our berth and headed for the fuel dock. We needed diesel because we could not necessarily rely on wind to get us all the way back to Australia. Once at the fuel dock we threw out the fenders and tied the cleats to the dock. A young man put the diesel in for us.

“Why don’t you ask him about the flag?” urged Alex.

“Is our flag a problem?” I asked in French.

Oui ……. et non. C’est compliqué[3].”

I explained our predicament, “We are foreigners. We had no idea that our flag would elicit such strong reactions. We came here not for the politics but rather because Alex loves the sea.”

He nodded enthusiastically.

In fact, Alex had come here because the coral is world heritage.

“He loves the sea, and I love the language and culture.”

Of course, Alex likes speaking the language too, even if not exactly fluently. He settled the bill and was chuffed that the attendant had spoken to him in French, unlike most others, who switched to English as soon as they detected our accent.

Then we noticed that the Kanak gentlemen had walked over to join us at the fuel dock. They asked if they could take a photo with us. We stood on the boat, and they stood on the dock. A passerby took the photo for us. Then they took their leave.

We started to exit the marina. I stood at the stern, as always when leaving a harbour, taking in the unique scenery as it receded. The attendant gave us a hearty wave, which we returned. As we rounded the seawall, we looked back we noticed the Kanak gentlemen positioned at the end of the breakwater. They waved at us with their arms extended above their heads, and we did the same, until the marina faded into the distance, and we could no longer see them.


[1] A New Caledonian person of European origin.

[2] Customary gifts

[3] “Yes… and no. It is complicated.”

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Moonland

Photographs and text by Rupali Gupta Mukherjee

‘The journey matters more than the destination’, this quote came to my mind innumerable times, as our creamy white Xylo sped up from Kargil, crossed the majestic Fotu La pass on the Srinagar Leh highway. My eyes were glued to the splendour that Mother Nature had bestowed copiously all around us. Our driver, a calm, composed friendly person was fairly careful during the sharp turns, twists and terrifying bends. We were headed towards Leh, capital of Ladakh. On our way, roughly hundred kilometres before Leh, we found ourselves in the land of what seemed like strange, supernatural mountains made of rocks that shimmered and changed hues. 

The colours shifted from grey to chocolate brown, crimson to mauve and azure. It was divine. I sat with my camera, filled with awe and wonder of the breathtaking peaks that lay before me and left me mystified.  I was totally smitten. More surprise along the way held me spellbound.  

After the barren desert that stretched before us, at the next hairpin bend, was an amazing ancient Tibetan Buddhist Monastery peeping out from the hideout of the world’s most imposing mountain ranges. It was a dreamland, a land of fantasy. I pinched and asked myself, ‘Is this a reverie?’ But no. It was real.

The lunar landscape that greeted my camera on this Earth was synonymous to the legendary ‘Moonland’.  The primeval Lamayuru monastery towered in the unreal moonscape. It dates back to the 11th century. According to myths, a scholar named, Mahasiddhacharya Naropa, had laid the keystone of this mesmeric building. It was said due to his mantras the water in this region retreated and the vicinity took the shape of moonlike alcove and craters.

The setting bears a semblance to the lunar highlands. The profound darker part of the mighty hills is said to be the replica of ‘Maria’, a common panorama found on the surface of the gorgeous silver disc, the shiny crescent in the cobalt diamond studded night sky.

I found the landscape hypnotic and ethereal; its exceptionally outlandish ecological structure made Lamayuru monastery unique and idiosyncratic. 

A drive through this moonscape imprints an incredible chronicle in the mindscape of the traveller. This journey stretched like an implausible odyssey beyond my imagination. It was as if I was watching a documentary on National Geographic.

Almost a month after returning from the trip, I still feel mesmerised by the ghostly ‘gompas[1]’, the atypical topography, unknown terrain, unfamiliar cold weather. They beckon me to go back and explore further. No wonder, several voyagers fondly portray Lamayuru’s ‘lunar’ landscape as the ‘Mecca of an adventurous soul’. I promised myself to be back in this magnetic landscape once again, this time on a full-moon night, when the silvery ribbon of moon beams scatter over the baffling purple structures of Lamayuru, bathing the compelling peaks in shimmering platinum dust. Undeniably its startling tinge would be the marvel of art if some artists managed to capture the hues.


[1] Buddhist structures

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee has a passion for reading, writing and reciting poetry.   She is a nature enthusiast, loves to travel and has a zeal for photography.

.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

The Loyal Dog in the Loyalty Islands

Photographs and Narrative by Meredith Stephens

Alex and I sailed into the marina in the township of , on Lifou Island, the largest of the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia. We walked along the main street and took in the houses painted in bright orange and green, alongside traditional huts with conical grass roofs. Smiling children called out Bonjour! Women donned generous calf-length floral frocks in pinks, purple and orange, with bibs in white lace. There were roadside stands offering bunches of green bananas, and pastries. Dogs were not restrained behind fences, nor did they wear collars. Rather they trotted along the footpaths freely, occasionally crossing the road after checking for oncoming traffic. I was fearful of untethered dogs after having once been threatened by an assertive lurcher, over twenty-five years ago. Despite my fears, one dog in this main street insisted on accompanying us all the way back to the marina.

Perhaps the dog was hungry? Alex prepared a bowl of leftover rice, drizzled with olive oil and an egg. Rather than devouring it greedily, the dog took his time gingerly licking up the rice first and finally the egg. I gradually tried to overcome my fear and stretched out my hand to pat him.

Alex and I had been on a ten kilometre walk up the main street of Wé, and back along the adjacent beach. The white sands were soft and fine grained and the water a clear turquoise. After resting back at the boat Alex suggested we walk back to the beach to have a swim. We donned our swimsuits under our clothes and walked back along the road to the beach. The dog trotted alongside us all the way. Once at the beach we took off our clothes and shoes and entered the gently lapping waves. We called for the dog to come and swim with us but he hesitated. Instead, he waited for us on the shore next to our possessions, guarding them.

“What shall we call him Alex?” I asked.

Alex wanted to call him Buddy, but I wanted to call him Lifou, after the island.

After our brief swim we walked back along the footpath to the marina, all the while accompanied by Buddy, or was it Lifou? I crooned to him and he crooned back. He had probably never heard English before but he understood the music of the human voice. Once back at the marina we poked our head into the Capitainerie and asked the manager about the owner.

“I think he belongs to the local electrician,” he informed us.

We retreated to the boat, and Lifou sat just outside the gate. When we emerged later that evening to walk to the restaurant Lifou was still there. We decided to dine at the Thai restaurant a few hundred metres away. Lifou followed us and we chose a table outside. Lifou sat respectfully near the table. A female sausage dog appeared under the table and Lifou was unperturbed. A male black dog appeared and bared his teeth at Lifou. The dogs were about to start fighting but Alex reprimanded them in a forceful tone and they abandoned their fight. After the meal, we put the leftover rice into a plastic bag and took it back to the boat. Lifou trotted back alongside us. Once back at the boat, we upturned the rice into a bowl and fed Lifou a second dinner.

We spent the night on the boat and I half expected Lifou to still be there in the morning. My expectations were confirmed. Lifou was waiting just outside the gate for us to appear. Every time fellow inhabitants of the marina went to the shower block, he accompanied them back and forth. When I had my shower, he waited for me outside the shower block. When I went to complete some paperwork at the Capitainerie, Lifou lay down on the grass just outside the door.

“I want to take him on the boat back to Australia,” I quipped to the officer.

“You should do that!” he affirmed.

‘It’s just that quarantine is so strict in Australia.”

He nodded.

We were ready to leave the marina for our onward travels. I squatted down and hugged Lifou. By now I had learnt to trust him, and I rubbed his neck. When he rolled over, I rubbed his tummy. He offered me a doggie smile.

We returned to the boat ready to untie the ropes from the cleats and throw the fenders aboard ready for departure. Lifou was no longer with us. He had followed our tracks everywhere during the previous twenty-four hours, but now he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it was better this way. Maybe he sensed that we were leaving. I had grown attached to Lifou and was reluctant to bid him farewell. Our boat left the marina and as we looked back to the Capitainerie receding behind us we could see the officer waving both hands above his head in a farewell gesture. I think I spotted Lifou next to him.

Once we had left the marina, I sent my daughter Annlie photos of Lifou.

“Is he okay?” she messaged me, worried that I had abandoned a creature who had become dependent upon me.

I wish I could answer that question. Lifou looked healthy and had trotted happily alongside us for kilometres. He was not scrawny and hadn’t eaten our offerings too quickly. Even though he had adopted us for twenty-four hours, I sensed his real home was a happy and content one with the electrician.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

King Lear & Kathakali?

By P.G.Thomas

With guttural grunts as from an alpha male on a testosterone high, King Lear in the opening scene strutted and swaggered as the drums and cymbals emphasised his every gesture and expression, in an act of supreme braggadocio.  His fool’s theatrical gestures of servility only enhanced King Lear’s demonstration of his character and of his mindset, which wonderfully set the stage for his actions and eventual downfall.

This was long ago in another time, in 2018 when the performance finally came home to India. It was being staged in Trivandrum, Kerala, finally.  Interesting and controversial, this opera had done its rounds in Europe, including the Globe Theatre in the 1970s, and had now come home to the land that had given birth to the dance form. 

I was watching an unusual intercultural presentation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, choreographed by French dancer Annette Leday and adapted for the occasion by Australian playwright David McRuvie.  It was being presented through the medium of Kathakali, the classical dance of Kerala.  The production seemed to have run the gauntlet of risks such intercultural attempts are prone to.  Besides much appreciation, the word ‘baffling’ had been used to describe it in the UK, and it was reported that informed Kathakali enthusiasts were left unmoved, for it seemed to be neither here nor there.  But for me it was a worthwhile experience, and I feel that if a viewer were to approach this opera without preconceived expectations, his would enjoy it better. 

Annette Leday, a Kathakali dancer herself, has choreographed this opera with aplomb.  David McRuvie has made the play suitable for Kathakali by drastically thinning the text and retaining only the story of King Lear and his daughters.  Much would have been lost here, but its suitability for this performance cannot be denied.  The role of King Lear is performed well by the Kathakali exponent Peesappilly Rajiv and the endearing fool brilliantly portrayed by Manoj Kumar.            

 A young tradition in comparison to other Kerala dance forms, Kathakali has retained a greater degree of innovation and improvisation, and this malleability has been tapped well by Annette.  Kathakali performances traditionally draw their subject from Hindu mythology, and portray archetypal characters and situations.  And King Lear’s story of kingship, inheritance, family disputes and dowry are all themes that an Indian audience would understand.

The elaborate costumes and face makeup are typical to characters portrayed.  And thus Goneril and Regan are presented with the black faces of demons, the radiant goodness of Cordelia is conveyed through minukku (shining) face makeup, and King Lear wears the garb of the anti hero.  But it is when the opera starts that one realises Kathakali’s gift for sheer theatre.  As the rippling drums and cymbals enliven the dance, the chanting tells the story, emotions flow from structured facial expressions and demonstrative gestures, and meaning flows from hand gestures called mudras.  It is a very structured art form, but with a wonderful ability to convey — through lively choreography and vibrant rhythmic percussion music — archetypal human situations and emotions.

Whatever the purists may say, this performance was hugely enjoyable and made unique with the intermingling of different cultural lores.

.

P.G.Thomas, hailing from Kerala, India; has been intrigued by the changing phases of his land, its people and their way of life.  He draws on a lifetime of actual experience to write about it.   

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Olympic Game Farm: Meeting and Greeting Animals from Disney Movies

By Hema Ravi

We had an incredible weekend at one of the most scenic spots in the Western coast of the United States, which boasts of diverse ecosystems — endless stretches of alpine meadows and forests, large temperate rainforests, rugged Pacific coastline, snow-capped hills, meandering rivers, glacial-carved lakes and more. A fun-filled weekend sojourn that brought along experiences ranging from invigorating to introspective.

Before I continue, let me tell you that it is not a mere recording of places visited at the Olympic National Park. Well, we visited several fascinating places that include Hurricane Ridge, Crescent Lake, Mary mere Falls, Dungeness Spit among others.

I would like to highlight our visit to the Animals Farm. Other places were already in the itinerary; this place came up during a chance meet with a friend. He strongly recommended that we visit this farm, where animals that once acted in Disney films are housed. On their website, I read that for about 28 years, the Olympic Game Farm worked exclusively for Walt Disney Studios. Sadly, after the death of Walt and Roy Disney, Disney studios moved away from such films. Consequently, after securing the right permissions, the founding members of the Olympic Game Farm opened it to the public, and concentrated on offering ‘in need’ services to captive-bred animals.

The hour long drive-through experience at Olympic Game Farm was exhilarating, surreal and fascinating. We drove through rugged pathways with car windows shut, occasionally opening a chink to feed llamas, elk or any other young animal that we thought would not ‘charge’. 

The smell of fresh bread (bought at the farm, outside food is a no-no!) attracted the animals to us.  While we were throwing slices to the young llamas, small groups of older llamas came up and that was rather intimidating; at times, we were surrounded, rather imprisoned in the car for several minutes until another passing vehicle caught their attention. Llamas, Tibetan yaks and elks daringly peeped from outside, smeared the glass windows abundantly with their saliva, especially when we did not open them to offer food.

The most interesting field was the enclosure that had over a dozen brown-bears.  For over five minutes, we watched and took pictures of one of them drinking water, simultaneously enjoying a shower.   Beckoning the ranger, the playful bear opened its mouth wide and let out its tongue, gesturing him to place the pipe over its open mouth…..through gestures, it signalled that it wanted water over its body. The spectators watched through their car windows in childlike glee.

This awesome and unforgettable scene urged me to share my thoughts. I strongly believe these wild creatures have a heart and mind; they enjoy company as much as we do. The lanky ranger was enjoying this act as much as the bears were; yet another bear held its paws open to drink water. Another large one was pacing anxiously, possibly waiting for its turn.

Rangers were constantly circling around on vehicles and speaking through loudspeakers telling visitors not to stop near the American bisons and the bull elks. They could turn aggressive, if provoked.  We did, as we were directed. We quickly drove past the cages where the Siberian tigers, lynx and a few other animals were housed.

As we made a reluctant exit (More sightseeing!), the high-pitched calls of the beautiful peacocks, whistling sound of a passing eagle, the shriek of the gulls and a raven’s caw continued to echo in the vast space.

I had witnessed one such scene earlier in a zoo in India, when I watched an Australian cassowary following a staff as he swept the cage; the large colourful bird followed him meekly until he cleaned the cage and sat down to spend some cuddly moments with it; however, at this point of time, the adorable brown bear is a favourite for my pen.

.

Hema Ravi describes herself as a part-time language trainer by profession, writer by passion. She is a poet, author, reviewer, editor (Efflorescence), event organiser, independent researcher,  and resource person for language development courses

.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Pizzas En Route to Paradise

There is the import and export of desires in one of the oldest cities in the world, beside one of the most revered rivers, as Keith Lyons discovers in Varanasi.

A sadhu watching over the early morning activity on the banks of the Ganges at Assi ghat. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

Most who come to Varanasi, deep down, are seeking peace. The ancient city formerly known as Kashi and Benares is the holy site for three religions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. For Hindus who flock to India’s spiritual capital from all over the country, bathing in the sacred Ganges is said to wash away all sins.

For me, as a non-religious outsider, I was also seeking inner peace, and perhaps a deeper understanding of the questions of life and death. But amid the surrealness of the labyrinthine old city, with its wandering bulls, revered shrines, marauding monkeys, and burning bodies, one thing I found was a place to satisfy my earthly material needs. 

“It’s to die for,” exclaimed an American bohemian I’d met a few weeks earlier in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. I ran into him strolling along the ghats — steps down to the Ganges that line the western bank of the curve in the wide river. Despite the 1256-page heavy Lonely Planet India, TripAdvisor and social media, there is nothing like word-of-mouth recommendations from fellow travellers. “So you are already at that party,” said Brad, impressed that I too had made it that far along the waterfront almost 2km from where I was staying. “Well, you can’t miss it, can you,” I replied. “It’s probably the only place of its kind right at the water’s edge, and if you don’t see it, you probably smell it.”

For many travellers who don’t want to be seen as sightseeing tourists but are in search of the authentic and the local, Varanasi seems to offer quite an array of experiences, some beyond the comfort level of leisure tourists who keep to the beaten path. Of the 88 ghats of Varanasi which are used for bathing, washing and ceremonial worship, there are two which are synonymous with the spiritual centre. Those two are exclusively used for cremations. 

The same reason for bathing in the sacred waters to obtain forgiveness for transgressions applies, but for the recently deceased, it is believed that if their ashes are scattered into the purifying Ganga, their reincarnation cycle will end — and they will reach nirvana.

As the one of the ‘seven sacred cities’, the place supreme deity Shiva (known as ‘The Destroyer’) brought into being by meditation, Varanasi and its cremation ghats represent the ultimate ‘geographical cure’. There are rest homes and ashrams where the elderly and terminally ill wait to die, believing that if they die in the old city, they will be redeemed of all their sins by Lord Shiva on the cremation pyre. 

Varanasi straddles the known world and the hidden, with the Ganges a crossing point between earth and heaven. For tens of thousands of foreigners who have Varanasi on their itinerary routes, it is fair to say many are seeking peace, but definitely not of the kind that involves the death of their current material existence. Instead, there is a curiosity about the openness of death and its rituals, and the chance to bear witness to the process which can be at the same time sad and soul-destroying yet also joyous and life-affirming. 

For those that don’t share the faith that propels people to this city, perhaps any visit to Varanasi could be described as macabre or dark tourism, fueled by the antagonism between testimony and voyeurism. The epitome of this is the quest by foreigners to get as close as possible to take photos of burning bodies. As if normal travel isn’t stressful enough, the macabre tourist seeks out encounters that have the potential to be emotional and even traumatic. 

I must admit, I did have a certain curiosity about witnessing wooden pyres where corpses were placed to be burned. And I did have a fear that I might identify a limb or hand being consumed by the fire, or even that somehow a writhing contorted face might emerge from the flames and snarl at me menacingly. 

That didn’t happen. What did happen is that I passed the cremation grounds numerous times during my walks up and down the riverbanks, occasionally pausing to observe from a distance, but the sight didn’t stir me as much as the reflection that this was how a culture and a religion farewell their dead. Having been an altar boy in the Catholic Church, I’d seen my fair share of embalmed bodies in coffins at teary sad funerals, but there was quite a different feeling at Varanasi. Anyway, I didn’t want to intrude as a gawking foreigner. 

I was just as interested in the negotiations for firewood between relatives and the lower-caste Doms. The price for 400 kg of wood can be around Rs 4,000 (around US$52), a visiting insurance broker from Mumbai tells me, as we stand on the steps beside towers of split logs from the Himalayas. “The better wood is more expensive, but the government is trying to encourage using things like coconut shells and cow dung cakes instead of cutting down more trees,” he says, before the discussion turns to cricket, and a New Zealand cricketer I’d never heard of who played for his beloved Mumbai Indians. Later that evening, to make up for my lack of patriotic sporting knowledge, I impress some local boys playing cricket on the uneven surface of a terrace by catching a whizzing ball with one hand. 

Wood merchant stack wood for cremations. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

I noticed that after the initial shock of seeing dead bodies, and after a few days, the constant exposure to these late rites meant that I could be sitting in the open-fronted government-approved 70-year-old Blue Lassi Shop and I wouldn’t even look up when a procession march along bearing a body destined for the Manikarnika ghat. Everyday hundreds of bodies are burned on the riverbank, with the no-frills natural gas crematorium operated 24/7. 

I had already taken on board — and possibly ignored through denial – the message of Varanasi: Death is unavoidable. One day, I will die. My body will be destroyed. Life on earth is finite. Make the most of it. 

I reflected on this as I stood sipping my tea at Dada ki Chai, or as I sought out the best kachori sabzi[1], or the sweet and sour channa1, dahi vada [2]on the crooked and crowded streets. 

So what else did I discover among the maze of alleyways, the crumbling palaces and the riverbank steps down to the river? Don’t dismiss me as a lousy traveller who can’t be without the comforts of home, but I have to admit one of the finds of my waterside wanderings was a red tent erected on the wide path, where a family had recently set up a low-key pizza eatery. 

Pizza? Yes, hand-made, wood-fired pizza. When I first visited, Sunil has only just started the venture. He was going to get some pizza boxes and a label for Euro Pizza and arrange a takeaway and delivery service. The only seating was a few plastic seats. 

Diners waited patiently in the cool evening, not so intent on breaking the cycle of death and rebirths but wanting respite from the hot spicy food served up in train stations and roadside dhabas.[3] 

In the distance, only a few minutes’ walk away, flames could be seen from the Maharaja Harishchandra ghat, Varanasi’s second, and smaller burning ground. Further along, sounds from the evening ceremony could be heard. But none of that mattered really. There was always a friendly grin from Sunil or a nod of recognition from his family members who cranked out the vegetarian pizzas. It was Rs.150 (US$2) for a ‘small’ pizza, but it was large enough to share. Which people did, with fellow travellers they’d just met, the whole of life made up of many triangle segments, their Varanasi stories to be told later about the burning corpses, the ashes scattered into the river, and the weirdest yet most wonderful thing: a pizzeria perched by a crematorium and a crossing to paradise.

Euro pizza’s humble red tent on the banks of the Ganges. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

[1] Savoury snacks

[2] A yoghurt-based snack

[3] Roadside eateries

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

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

Categories
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.

.

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

Categories
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.

.

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. 

.

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

Categories
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

Categories
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.

.

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.

.

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