He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara from Sanskrit to English and then imbibed them to create Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing in a similar vein. Meet the poet, Abhay K, who also juggles multiple hats of diplomat, editor and translator. He tells us how he tries to raise awareness and create bonds through poetry. He is the author of a dozen poetry books and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins India). He has received the SAARC Literature Award for 2013. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into more than 150 languages and performed by Kavita Krishnamurthy, a well-known Indian voice.
Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has 150 quartrains and is split into chapters. A passionate poem that yearns and sends love through the salubrious journey of the monsoon from its point of origin, Madagascar, to Kashmir, the verses caress various fauna, among them some endangered like indri indri, sifaka and more. Spanning the oceans, lands, nature and a large part of India, it reaches his beloved with his message from Madagascar.
Is it eco-poetry? Academia might be moving towards that decision. Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has been chosen by a Harvard University’s assistant professor, Sarah Dimick, for a book project on Climate and Literature. In this exclusive, Abhay K describes not only how his passion for beauty, turned him, a diplomat, into an award-winning poet and translator but his subsequent journey.
What made you opt to translate Kalidasa’s poetry?
It was during the Covid-19 pandemic that I read a poem by the British poet laureate, Simon Armitage, titled ‘Lockdown’ which made a reference to Meghaduta. At that time, I was posted as India’s 21st Ambassador to Madagascar and Comoros and I thought of writing a poem on the lines of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. This is when I decided to closely read Meghaduta and in the process I got inspired to translate it. However, later, I did write a book length poem titled Monsoon which was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2021.
Did you translate both, Meghaduta and Ritusamhara, one after another? These are both books that have been translated before. Did you draw from those? Or is it your own original transcreation of the texts?
Yes, first I translated Meghaduta and after its publication, I decided to translate Ritusamhara. There are over 100 translations of Meghaduta available, I have read some of them, but none had been translated by a poet. Therefore, I decided to translate Meghaduta myself to give it a poetic rendition in contemporary English. I had studied Sanskrit in my high school, and it came handy while translating both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara.
Your book, Monsoon, is based on Meghduta. Can you tell us a bit about it? Is it part autobiographical?
Monsoon is inspired from both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara. It begins near Madagascar where monsoon originates and travels along its path to Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Andaman, and the Indian subcontinent. It carries a message of love and longing from Madagascar to Kashmir valley. It is purely work of imagination.
Tell us a bit about Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, which is supposed to be especially relevant in the current context of climate change.
I have not come across any other poet who describes the lives of diverse plants and animals in such detail and with such empathy. In Ritusamhara, Kalidasa delights us with these vivid descriptions of plants, insects and flowers in the rainy season.
Like jade fragments, the green grass rises
spreading its blades to catch raindrops,
red Indragopaka insects perch on fresh
leaf-buds bursting forth from the Kandali plants
the earth smiles like an elegant lady
draped in nature’s colourful jewels. 2-5
Aroused by the sunrays at sunrise,
Pankaja opens up like glowing face
of a young woman, while the moon
turns pale, smile vanishes from Kumuda
like that of the young women,
after their lovers are gone far away. 3-23
The fields covered with ripened paddy
as far as eyes can see, their boundaries
full of herd of does, midlands filled with
sweet cries of graceful demoiselle cranes.
Ah! What passion they arouse in the heart! 4-8
Kalidasa’s genius lies in bringing together ecological and sensual to create sensual eco-poetry of everlasting relevance. Ritusamhara highlights this fundamental connection between seasons and sensuality. As we face the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution owing to our ever-growing greed and culture of consumerism, we face the challenge of losing what makes us human. It is in these unprecedented times, reading and re-reading Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara becomes essential.
True. Closer to our times Tagore also has written of the trends of which you speak. But there is a controversy about the authorship of Ritusamhara— it is supposed to have been written earlier. What is your opinion?
It is an early work of Kalidasa. There are many words from Ritusamhara that are used in Meghaduta.
What were the challenges you faced translating Kalidasa’s poetry, especially in mapping the gaps created by the time span that has passed and their culture and ethos to modern times.
I think Kalidasa’s works bear strong relevance to the modern times. He can easily be our contemporary eco-poet. In fact, Ritusamhara is a fine work of eco-poetry because of the sensitivity shown by Kalidasa in handling the plight of animals in scorching summer, treating rivers, mountains and clouds as personas among other things.
You have also translated Brazilian poets? Are these contemporary voices? Did these come before Kalidasa’s translation?
I translated poems of 60 contemporary Brazilian poets and compiled them in a poetry collection named New Brazilian Poems which was published in 2018 by Ibis Libris, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My translation of Meghaduta and Ritusamhara was published in 2022.
Your range of translations is wide. How many languages have you translated from? What has been the impact of translating both Kalidasa and other poets from various languages on your poetry?
I have mainly translated from Magahi, Hindi, Sanskrit, Russian, Portuguese, and Nepali. Translating the work of Kalidasa and other poets has enriched my own poetry writing. Translating poets whose works I love and admire, offers me the opportunity to read their work very closely and provided rich insights which in turn inspires my own poetic works.
How as a diplomat did you get into poetry? Or has this been a passion?
I started writing poetry in Moscow where I started my career as a diplomat. It was the beauty and grandeur of Moscow that turned me into a poet.
You are a polyglot. What made you pick up this many languages? Do you read poetry in all of them? You have already translated from Portuguese and Sanskrit. Do you want to translate from all these languages? What makes you pick a book for translation?
As a diplomat, I get posted to a new continent every three years and I have to pick up the local language to communicate more effectively. I try to translate from as many languages as possible as it helps in building literary bridges across continents. I translate books I truly love and admire.
Do you have any more translations or your own work in the offing? What are your future plans as a poet?
I have translated the first Magahi novel Foolbahadur and Magahi short stories, which is likely to come out in the near future.
My new love poem of 100 rhyming couplets titled Celestial, which takes one on a roller coaster ride to all the 88 constellations visible from the Earth, will be published by Mapin India in 2023. My new poetry collection, In Light of Africa, a book of light and learning and unlearning the myths and stereotypes about Africa. The narrative spans the continent of humanity’s birth through time and space—from the ancient Egyptian pharaohs to modern bustling cities…introducing you to Africa’s rich history, culture, cuisine, philosophy, monuments, personalities—and its remarkable contribution in shaping our modern world. This collection is likely to be published this year or in 2024.
Thank you for giving us your time.
(The interview has been conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)
I went to Kerala for Christmas, travelling from Bangalore on the night bus. It wasn’t the first time I had taken a night bus in India. The first time was when I went to Madikeri, high in the hills of Coorg. That bus was one with berths that one can lie completely flat on. In fact, you have no choice but to lie flat because there are no seats. It should be more comfortable than sitting upright all night, and I am sure many passengers find it so, but the vibrations of the engine made my body vibrate in sympathy and every bend in the road made me slide around the berth uncontrollably and when the bus climbed a slope all the blood rushed to my head, which was oriented towards the rear of the vehicle. I decided never to use this restful method of travel again.
This is why I chose a more old-fashioned style of bus in order to journey to Kerala. I understand seats. Your head is always up and your feet always down, and if this happens not to be the case then it quickly becomes obvious that some disaster has happened. Head up, feet down, seems to me the natural order of the universe when travelling a great distance. It was a twelve-hour journey. In India that might not be so remarkable, but I come from a small country where twelve hours on a bus is sufficient time to drive right across the land and a fair way out to sea. “Captain, there seems to be a bus overtaking us!” “Have you been at the rum again, bosun?” The immensity of India is something I doubt I will ever get used to. It is big even in terms of bigness.
Not that the bus with seats was completely free of problems. The seats had a lever by the side of them, and if this lever was pulled, the seats reclined. I was expecting something of this nature, but I was completely taken by surprise at the extreme angle they adopted. They reclined to an excessive degree. All was fine for the first fifty kilometres or so, then the young lady in the seat in front of me decided it was bedtime. She reclined the seat so precipitously that it whacked on my knees, and I was given no choice but to stare directly at the top of her head which was almost touching my chin. The only solution was to recline my own seat. I did so and heard a yowl from behind. I had taken my turn to crush some other innocent knees. And so I lay in this absurd position, sandwiched between two sleepers as the hours slowly passed.
The bus was soon filled with snorers and all of them were out of time with each other. I am a jazz aficionado, I love music with complex rhythms, and I also love polyrhythms, but the point of such intricate music is that there is resolution at some point along the melody lines. The contrasting rhythms ought to come together at least sometimes, in order to provide structure, but the snoring was far too avant garde for that. It was atonal and without time signatures. A man in a forest of lumberjack gnomes probably feels the same way I did, as the sawing takes place and the trees topple with a crash. There was no crash for me during that night, thank goodness, but plenty of jolting as the bus ran over potholes in the highway or swerved around unseen obstacles or accelerated to overtake rival night buses also full of snoring passengers.
Well, all this is a nuisance but one that is necessary for travellers to endure. I reached my destination safely and that’s what really counts. It was morning in Kerala and the heat was already intense. Bangalore is at altitude and altitude is a restrainer of temperature. The landscape shimmered and the port city of Kochi pulsated under the sun. No matter! Time to find my hotel and rest for a while in order to catch up on all the sleep I had missed on the night bus, whose motto is ‘sleep like a baby’, which turned out to be accurate, for I slept not at all and felt like wailing for hours. I went to the correct address and found that the hotel had been closed for the past two years. Ah well!
We are always advised to expect the unexpected, and we do this well, but I don’t think we are ever prepared for the types of unexpectedness we encounter. I was ready for the bus to break down, or for me to lose my way in the narrow entangled city streets, or for crows to swoop and peck my head. I wasn’t ready for a hotel to not exist. I soon found another and it was a better establishment with two ceiling fans instead of one, a balcony, even a fridge that was on the verge of working. That fridge later held two bottles of beer and cooled them from hot to lukewarm, and I drank them one evening and regretted it because I have no stomach for beer. Because of that warm beery incident, I missed out on sampling the palm wine that Kerala is so famous for.
The old part of Kochi is picturesque and labyrinthine. I wandered where I would and ended up somewhere, but I’m still not sure where. Christmas lights were strung between the buildings, large glowing stars had been erected on the summits of walls, on roofs, or dangled from gables. One church I passed had a façade in the form of a gigantic angel. This was really quite surreal. We tend to think of angels as radiant beings with a human form, perfect men and women, but if you read the Bible you will soon see that most angels have an appearance that is not human at all. The highest rank of angels, the Ophanim, resemble sets of interlocking gold wheels with each wheel’s rim covered with eyes. They float through the air without needing wings. A church façade based on one of these angels would be an example of experimental architecture. But the church in the shape of a personable angel was endearing.
I walked past another church and saw a fleet of Santa Clauses mounted on bicycles about to set off. Is ‘Clauses’ the plural of ‘Claus’? I have no idea, for it has never occurred to me that there might be more than one of them. This fleet consisted of children in costume and I have no notion of where they were going or what they would do when they arrived. I strolled onwards and they rode past me, guided by two men on a scooter, one steering and the other holding in his arms a loudspeaker and facing backwards, like a Pied Piper who has entered the Electronic Age. One by the one, the Santa Clauses pedalled past, laughing, waving, generally enjoying themselves.
This was Christmas at its most gentle, innocent and benevolent, a far cry from the Christmas ritual I witnessed exactly thirty years ago in Prague, where the tradition involves a saint, an angel and a devil chained together who stalk pedestrians in order to give them lumps of coal that represent the sins of the year. Prague was freezing, Kochi was broiling, and I know which I prefer, but the beer in Prague is certainly better. I reached the waterfront and sat under a tree and wondered if the mass migration of Santa Clauses I had seen was truly a fleet. Maybe it was an armada instead, or a division? Is there a collective noun for Father Christmas? A Splurge of Santas?
Kochi is riddled with waterways, and it feels like an excellent location for a port, which it is. No wonder it was established at that spot. I felt a small connection to the ancient mariners who had sailed here from the West long ago, from Europe and around the tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. One day I will travel from this very place to the islands of Lakshadweep. This has been a dream of mine for a long time, since I was eight or nine years old. I had entered a competition run by the Twinings tea company and I won. A map of the Indian Ocean was given with the names of islands removed and the entrants had to fill in those missing names. I consulted an atlas to do this, as I imagine every other entrant did, but I had an unknown advantage.
My atlas was very old, a green battered thing, and the Lakshadweep islands were marked by that very name. In other atlases the island chain was apparently named as the Laccadives. The administrators were looking for Lakshadweep and that is how I won a year’s supply of tea. It came regularly via the postman in an endless series of little tubs, Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong, Peach Oolong. But in the end, this endless series finally ended, and my tea luck turned out only to feel inexhaustible rather than to be so. I have never won a competition since or even come close. But I have had a fondness for tea and Lakshadweep ever since, so it is imperative that I sail to those islands one day.
During my time in Kochi, I travelled on a boat only once, from Fort Kochi to Vypin Island. A battered rusty ferry crammed with foot passengers, cars and motorcycles. Cost of ticket? The equivalent of three British pennies. This is far cheaper than the cost of any ferry I have ever been on, with the exception of the occasional free ferries that I have encountered around the world, such as the one that takes passengers across the Suez Canal from one side of Port Said to the other, or the ferry that travels back and forth between Mombasa, which is on an island, and the African mainland. Sea travel is something special and I have done too little of it in my life. If I could have sailed back to Bangalore, I would have. As it happens, I went back on another night bus, but this time the person in the seat in front of me only reclined their seat to a reasonable angle. My knees were not crushed, and in return I did not crush the knees of the person behind me. I like and admire reasonable angles. They make geometry sweet.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
The ship hauled anchor then glid smoothly over the placid, thick black waters. Overhead, thousands of stars studded the midnight sky. Most of the passengers chose to sleep but not Reuven, who at starboard, leaning heavily on the railing, inhaled and exhaled that nocturnal air of sea lust he nurtured, yearned and desired. Reuven had walked the decks of so many ships at night. He slept restlessly during the day. For it was at night that the treasures of the sea beckoned him with their illuminating allure, whose phosphorescent radiance touched and tugged at his heart as he attempted to pry open the lid of that still undiscovered treasure hidden unfathomed within him.
The ship rocked ever so gently as he peered into the inky depths. Deeper and deeper Reuven sought to probe, to sound, to err amongst the phantoms. But as night advanced, and the air grew cooler and he had to stop. His lungs were at the point of bursting. He gasped for air. He had failed once again, panting breathlessly. It was only the first white ray of the morning that he returned to the surface, throbbing with anguish, shivering with cold, smelling of brine.
He would have to exercise himself more strenuously, discipline his breathing rhythms, purify his heart further in order to attain … to attain what ? The un-pried trove ? The entrance to the azure cave whose lithic cavities and chambers would deliver him to the heart of his ‘Quest’ ? “But all three are One !” he murmured to the morning light. “All three are decidedly One, I’m sure of it.” He concluded.
But was he absolutely sure ? Since the nineteen-seventies how many years, how many vessels, how many dives into the oceans and seas of the world had he waited, ridden out, taken in in search of the seemingly unattainable? How many nights aboard the rocking and rolling bridges, under the brilliant or luminous less skies had he held his breath and made the vital plunge ? At times, he felt that he had ‘touched’ something : shoals of darting fish, a school of breaching dolphins, curious at this interloper, a lone blue or white whale ready to swallow him up like Jonas, yet hesitant due to the urgency of the diver’s dive downwards, and perhaps also to the oddity of such a ‘mouthful’. Once a soft, silken squid touched him with its suction-cupped tentacles. This touch sent icy chills through his body. Other odd phantoms that wiggled through the depths eyed him with their bulging, bulbous eyes rolling in their protruding orbits as they rubbed noses with him. Alas, this was the furthest he had sounded: the crushing coldness of the sea enveloped his body, and his lungs, aching, failed him once again. His lungs and his will ! This lack of intestinal fortitude and energy in overcoming the frigid deep would bring tears to his red, fatigued eyes …
“How many plunges would it then take ? How many crossings and trials ? Confrontations with the phantoms of the deep ? Were these uncanny and oftentimes terrifying creatures the guardians of the cherished trove ? Were they responsible for my lack of will … my shortage of breath … my fear of limits ? But is not the tracing of a limit a means of surmounting it ?
“I class these plunges as voyages. They are extraordinary. Extraordinary because beyond what I may call ordinary reality. For this extraordinary reason I believe my will retracts, my lungs fail, my fear reaches an acme of indescribable terror. Yet, I persevere. No treasure chest is easily discovered and its lid pried open. This knowledge I acknowledge, and in doing so, have hurried half the way by overcoming the consensus of a sole vision of reality. For I have come to understand that the treasure I have so desperately sought lies not in an ordinary vision of things, but within them, through them, over and under them. There lies the treasure I am speaking about. There in a land or space of the ‘Other Reality’,” wrote the dauntless diver in his logbook.
“And this space exists ! I have plunged into it, but have been thwarted in my attempts to reach ‘the bottom’, if that is all possible. The ‘bottom’ where lies the treasure …”
And so many years passed. Many decks paced. Many plunges plunged. Many expectancies sunk …
“It was on this particular cargo vessel as we left Southhampton for Cape Town that my efforts would prevail …or I believed would prevail. At the equator, one very still and humid night, the waters of the Atlantic were as thick as molasses, as calm as a pond in a wooded glen, as black as pitch. I leaned at the railing, quite alone at late hours of the night. I peered down into this uncanny oceanic instant and a sentiment of great excitement crept up upon me …
“It was the instant expected : I plunged anew …
“As I slowly descended the stillness of the cool waters, the titillating sensation of my kindling blood awakened a contrast that my mind found difficult to organise. It were as if my subjective make-up, my ‘personal space’ lay exposed to the various living entities that either obstructed my way, obliging me to circumvent them, or rushed towards me as if to scrutinise this alien interloper that had trespassed their ‘personal space’. It was not an uncomfortable feeling at all, but the collision of the two ‘personal spaces’ seemed to meld into an ‘impersonal one’, drawing me now out of my self now drawing them into me. Beautiful crimson corals provided the backdrop of this alternating movement, aglow with bulbous branch tips that undulated at my approach ; its branches were aswarm with sponges, molluscs, star fish, sea urchins and sea spiders. The coral quivered and quaked under their continual agitation, a silent and stunning quavering as I passed them by, several detaching themselves to examine the diver! Yet, they kept at a reasonable distance, hardly inhospitable, even friendly, my ‘human aura’ perhaps attracting them as they slid through the myriad incandescent branches …
“I felt so relieved that these fellow creatures welcomed my presence amongst them, and I thanked them for not upsetting my rhythmic breathing as I descended. I broke through layers of soft, silent, swishy beds of seagrass of the most viridian green. Nothing stirred within them; only the strong current of waters tossed them to and fro — like the sea vessel that I had long since abandoned — or so it seemed. Here at these depths ,Time had lost its tick-tock humdrum. It had become Space.
“Gradually the waters became terribly cold. My heart was palpitating. At these inky depths, no ray of the sun penetrated. No sound, human or other, pervaded. Now the queerest of creatures swam in the wake of my vertical drop, glaring at me either through tubular eyes that swivelled or through telescopic ones with lenses. They appeared amiable, in spite of the fact that I had disturbed their environment. They meant me no harm, even a giant squid, terrifying creature, who had made a bee-line towards me, stopped a short distance away. The creature began to feel my body with the many suction cups that padded its lengthy tentacles. I imagine it was verifying whether I were friend or foe. After several minutes, it let me pass, its beady eyes encrusted in its bulbous mantle fixed on me as I drifted deeper into colder waters, waters that were compressing my body and soul more and more.
“The darkness became truly frightening. My drop slowed down as if the waters were solidifying, gripping me in some viscid, glutinous substance. An image from the past darted through my mind : it was in the Pacific, I had encountered the terrible phantom of the abyss and had skirted that danger, miraculously. All of a sudden I was shaken out of my reminiscence by many spots of soft ochre-yellow light that sluggishly trudged their way towards me : I believe they were lantern fish flashing upon their prey. They swarmed around me, training their luminous photophore organs into my face. What an unusual prey they had stumbled upon! So huge. So unappetising. So unlike their daily diet. I think I was dealing with a viperfish, whose enormous dagger-like teeth shone under the softness of its lantern organ. And there, to the left, swimming as speedily as the thickness would allow it, a humpback angelfish, an ugly beast indeed with its deadly spiked teeth ready to devour me. Both of them eyed me, until at length turned against themselves. The turbulence of the waters blurred my vision, thousands and thousands of bubbles jolted and jostled me from left to right, dragged me downwards, helplessly caught in the vortex of this bellicose maelstrom. When the tempest had abated, peace and darkness reigned once again. Regaining my composure, I ventured a peek upwards: nothing …
“Heavier and heavier my body weighed, lighter and lighter my head as I plummeted to deeper depths, quite unknown to me. I became estranged from my Self … from my human identity. I had never experienced such uncanny emotions in my former marine voyages. It were as if my body had blended into the environment, had become one with it, whereas my mind, quite lucid, refused to yield to this inhuman ‘It’. Was my body detaching itself away from my mind ? How could that be ? They are inextricably connected … or so I thought … How many hours now beneath the ocean ? How many days ? Would I have both the physical and mental strength to weather the fathomless Deep … the soundless ‘It’ ? To overcome the abyss ? To reach the treasured Depth ? Yes, I must advance wither : Had I any other chance ? It was too late to turn back … Yet I had to surface at some time …
“Ah ! Now what is this ? I’ve seen that bugger before in picture-books – the black swallower. This phantom of the deep can be a deadly adversary with its bloated, distensible belly that even swallows small whales. It’s coming straight at me and I have nothing to defend myself, only prayers, only a thought of the Absolute One whom I seek with firm resolution. And there, a blazing light burns through the thickness. Either it too is headed for me or for the charging black swallower. It’s the pelican eel that was going into battle against the other, brandishing a large photophore at the end of its tail to attract the terrible black swallower away from me. Its enormous mouth has dropped open and in a jiffy the unprepared black swallower existed no longer, gobbled up within the grinding cavity. The spot lights of the eel flashed on and off as it struggled to digest such a crude repast. All this emotion caused my heart to beat faster and faster … my chest ached and swelled. My breathing became more and more erratic, almost uncontrollable. As I witnessed these turbulent events a rather metaphysical thought crossed my mind : Are all these creatures not traces, imprints, vestiges of His Presence ? Are they not, in the chilliest depths of the deep, enigmatic signs, obscure indeed, even frightening, of my communication … no, of my communion with Him, however ugly, gruesome or hostile their appearance be to me ? They are the true signs that I am on the right road : the Royal Road …
“My eyelids no longer obeyed their nerve commands to remain on the alert. I wished to sleep. To lay down and doze off for a while … a long while. I’ve had enough. I’ve come too far and my quest has come to nothing. I long to see the light of day, to savour earthly creatures, to breathe an unsalty air. I yearned to return to humankind. To the colours and sounds of life … Yet, I’m still alive, or at least I believe I am alive, albeit everything I touch has no feeling. A numbness has settled into my drifting body ; so light, so weary, so empty … a floating debris from an embattled, erring vessel …
“The debris floats into the crevice of a sponge-like lithic palisade. I am penetrating some sort of grotto, drifting in an airless, soundless world, tugged along horizontally as if a strong current were tossing and rocking me gently from one wall to the other. The haze that had veiled my eyes slowly lifts, and I discern a phosphorescent glow of myriad colours. The colours played upon my sensations without disturbing the numbness that had seized my body. At last, the ‘Separate Reality’? The twilight of gleams and glimpses ? Of undulating figures or phantoms that emerge in my mind when I feel myself entwined within the fumes of sleep ?
“But I am fully awake to my novel surroundings: A purple haze has crept into this grotto, chandelier-like stalactites hang in series of threes, all perfectly symmetric in their sponge-like textures and forms. I reach out to touch them but I felt nothing, my arm balancing heavily in some sort airless vacuum. Gigantic stalagmites studded with bulging, knotty boles and prominent tumours soared high into empty chambers like frothy fairy chimneys, dripping colours of blue and green, fading fast as they penetrate the darkened upper cavities. And away I drift, billows of silken lithic walls roll by. I serpentine like a snake through this intestinal gallery, chamber to chamber, passageway to passageway, the air or water current conducting me deeper into intermittent contrasts of sapphire flush, ultramarine malachite and pall blackness. Air or water current ? My body breathes ‘normally’, although I cannot ‘feel’ the air through my nostrils or throat. Have I transcended the conditioned reality ? Have I identified myself with this unknown alienness … reached the ‘Separate Reality of the Divine One’? The Absolute One is indeed known to us naturally, but will I be able to recognise him ?
“Nothing moves: no fish, no reptiles. I myself cannot move, yet beyond the inertness of my corporality something enlightens me upon the marvels of this cavernous world. All beauty does have a sense of the physical. Alas, I am quite unable to participate ‘corporally’ in that sensation, for I possess at these very moments none. A tulle-like curtain is drawn before my eyes; but on each side of me what an enchanting view of so many enfiladed pillars, like ossified soldiers on guard duty. Are they real ? Am I dreaming them ? I must say, however, that in spite of my benumbed state, I do feel this polychromic beauty. A sort of conscious feeling of a penetration of colours and configurations that leaves trails and traces as I sail by them, or better put, as they engulf me then expel me further into the never-ending warren of passageways and chambers.
“Ah ! Wonders of wonders ! Here and there I discern mural drawings of the most exquisite artistic stamp : aurochs, bisons, horses, hands with thick thumbs, tiny ochre-coloured men shooting arrows … Perhaps these regions were inhabited by creatures like myself. Prehistoric or primitive artists carving out their visions of reality, real or imagined.
“Am I then dead to this forlorn world ? To mine ? Am I passing into the Other World ? Is this where the quest has brought me … to the end … or to the beginning ? The phosphorescence glows of melding colours: blues slipping into turquoise, greens into shades of violent. Slashing amber yellows drip into rushes of rusty reds, which in turn suddenly explode into large patches of black shutting out all until bursts of dulcet rose and bright orange bring tears to my half-closed eyes. This I sense but without a sense of being separate from it all.
“Yes, there is something eerie about this voyage, something uncommon. From one of the arched, vaulted chambers a shower of arrow-like sparks falls upon me ; yet I feel nothing. I speed through a maze of silver and gold. I circumvent a sulphurous gauze of stalagmites of the most confounding shapes: pillars whose capitals overflow with spongy tendrils and drooping pistils, sprouting mushrooms, swollen menhirs, frozen standing stones and other awesome monoliths coated with red damask, crustacean Moorish arches, spiky gold steeples and then the passage cleaves into opaque chambers, odourless, soundless, fraught with the feeling of hopelessness. From one of the greenish Moorish arches, I see a stone mouse hanging by its tail, or so it appeared, and from another, silken silvery threads of weird waning, waxing waterfalls.
“Here, afloat, I am spinning through a wondrous world quite impervious to its smells and touches, yet moved by it as if it were sheltered within me. Sheltered by the commotion of colours and the seductive shapes, the endless erring of the same patches of pitch black, exposed to the sudden bursts of iridescent colours, I turn and turn and turn in circles ever wider.
“The momentous moment has it arrived? The Great Encounter — I mean between myself and the Absolute. No, impossible, why all this turning and turning ? Why the intermittent snatches of blackness that smother the chromatic bursts of phosphorescent hope ? Why am I not able to voice or move within the vortex of the revelation ? And the sacred trove ? Am I not worthy of it ?
“My heart bursts with melancholic joy. Pangs of glee spill out … I sense the midst of mellow musings rising like a curtain; the lid has opened, and the image of the Invisible One has come upon me … I gasp in awesome delight: No more angry, reddening suns will henceforth set upon me…”
After several hours of searching the sailors finally found Reuven’s bloated body floating in the ocean. The crew and passengers had been searching for him since his disappearance on deck after midnight. The doctor aboard concluded that his lungs had burst. His body was filled with water and microscopic sea creatures.
When the cargo ship ported at Cape Town, the captain reported the incident to the police. A certain Reuven Whaler had apparently fallen overboard during their route, and not having been seen by either crew or passenger, had drowned. When the police enquired whether he might have committed suicide, the captain shrugged his shoulders. When asked about a possible murder, the good captain turned red and vehemently denied any possible attempt of murder, premeditated or not!
In spite of the captain’s affirmative disposition against any sort of mischief aboard his vessel, all the crew members and passengers were subject to long interrogations: No one was permitted to disembark for two or three days until the coroner’s inquest had been completed and delivered to the police aboard the ship. The inquest stated that the aforementioned passenger, Reuven Whaler, forty-nine years of age, had drowned by accident off the coast of Gabon. As he had no family or close relatives, no further enquiries were made.
Reuven’s death thus remained somewhat veiled in mystery. Whether his body was buried or thrown back into the sea is anyone’s guess …
Now the readers may be curious to know how is it that I have come to relate these incidents given the fact that Reuven vanished one balmy night off the coast of Africa quite alone. How is it that I can account with such precision and emotion his ‘plunge’. Fortunately I was Reuven’s cabin mate aboard that cargo vessel, and when his body was discovered, before the captain arrived to check his cabin belongings, I quickly recuperated the logbook that he had been keeping and hid it in my belongings. I do not consider it as a theft, but as a keepsake … a testimony to Reuven’s ardent quest for the Absolute.
Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNA
With Christmas at our heels and the world waking up slowly from a pandemic that will hopefully become an endemic as the Omicron seems to fizzle towards a common cold, we look forward to a new year and a new world. Perhaps, our society will evolve to become one where differences are accepted as variety just as we are fine with the fact that December can be warm or cold depending on the geography of the place. People will be welcomed even if of different colours and creed. The commonality of belonging to the same species will override all other disparities…
While we have had exciting developments this year and civilians have moved beyond the Earth — we do have a piece on that by Candice Louisa Daquin — within the planet, we have become more aware of the inequalities that exist. We are aware of the politics that seems to surround even a simple thing like a vaccine for the pandemic. However, these two years dominated by the virus has shown us one thing — if we do not rise above petty greed and create a world where healthcare and basic needs are met for all, we will suffer. As my nearly eighty-year-old aunt confided, even if one person has Covid in a remote corner of the world, it will spread to all of us. The virus sees no boundaries. This pandemic was just a start. There might be more outbreaks like this in the future as the rapacious continue to exploit deeper into the wilderness to accommodate our growing greed, not need. With the onset of warmer climates — global warming and climate change are realities — what can we look forward to as our future?
Que sera sera — what will be, will be. Though a bit of that attitude is necessary, we have become more aware and connected. We can at least visualise changes towards a more egalitarian and just world, to prevent what happened in the past. It would be wonderful if we could act based on the truth learnt from history rather than to overlook or rewrite it from the perspective of the victor and use that experience to benefit our homes, planet and all living things, great and small. In tune with our quest towards a better world, we have an interview with an academic, Sanjay Kumar, founder of a group called Pandies, who use theatre to connect the world of haves with have-nots. What impressed me most was that they have actually put refugees and migrant workers on stage with their stories. They even managed to land in Kashmir and work with children from war-torn zones. They have travelled and travelled into different dimensions in quest of a better world. Travelling is what our other interviewee did too — with a cat who holds three passports. CJ Fentiman, author of The Cat with Three Passports, has been interviewed by Keith Lyons, who has reviewed her book too.
This time we have the eminent Aruna Chakravarti review Devika Khanna Narula’sBeyond the Veils, a retelling of the author’s family history. Perhaps, history has been the common thread in our reviews this time. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anirudh Kala’sTwo and a Half Rivers, a fiction that focusses on the Sikh issues in 1980s India from a Dalit perspective. It brought to my mind a family saga I had been recently re-reading, Alex Haley’s Roots, which showcased the whole American Revolution from the perspective of slaves brought over from Africa. Did the new laws change the fates of the slaves or Dalits? To an extent, it did but the rest as fact and fiction showcase were in the hands that belonged to the newly freed people. To enable people to step out of the cycle of poverty, the right attitudes towards growth and the ability to accept the subsequent changes is a felt need. That is perhaps where organisations like Pandies step in. Another non-fiction which highlights history around the same period and place as Kala’s novel is BP Pande’sIn the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, the book explores the darker nuances of human history filled with violence and intolerance.
That violence is intricately linked to power politics has been showcased often. But, what would be really amazing to see would be how we could get out of the cycle as a society. With gun violence being an accepted norm in one of the largest democracies of the world, perhaps we need to listen to the voice of wisdom found in the fiction by Steve Davidson who meets perhaps a ghost in Hong Kong. Musing over the ghost’s words, the past catches up in Sunil Sharma’s story, ‘Walls’. Sharma has also given us a slice from his life in Canada with its colours, vibrancy and photographs of the fall. As he emigrated to Canada, we read of immigrants in Marzia Rahman’s touching narrative. She has opted to go with the less privileged just as Lakshmi Kannan has opted to go with the privileged in her story.
Sharma observes, while we find the opulence of nature thrive in places people inhabit in Canada, it is not so in Asia. I wonder why? Why are Asian cities crowded and polluted? There was a time when Los Angeles and London suffered smogs. Has that shifted now as factories relocated to Asia, generating wealth in currency but taking away from nature’s opulence of fresh, clean air as more flock into crowded cities looking for sustenance?
Humour is introduced into the short story section with Sohana Manzoor’s hilarious rendering of her driving lessons in America, lessons given to foreigners by migrants. Rhys Hughes makes for more humour with a really hilarious rendition of men in tea cosies missing their…I think ‘TrouserHermit’ will tell you the rest. He has perhaps more sober poetry which though imaginative does not make you laugh as much as his prose. Michael Burch has shared some beautiful poetry perpetuating the calmer nuances of a deeply felt love and affection. George Freek, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Dibyajyoti Sarma have all given us wonderful poetry along with many others. One could write an essay on each poem – but as we are short shrift for time, we move on to travel sagas from hiking in Australia and hobnobbing with kangaroos to renovated palaces in Bengal.
While mostly we hear of sad stories related to marriages, we have a sunny one in which Alpana finds much in a marriage that runs well with wisdom learnt from Kung Fu Panda. Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us a philosophical piece with his characteristic touch of irony laced with humour on statues. If you are wondering what he could have to say, have a read.
In Nature’s Musings, Penny Wilkes has offered us prose and wonderful photographs of the last vestiges of autumn. As the season hovers between summer and winter, geographical boundaries too can get blurred at times. A nostalgic recap given by Ratnottama Sengupta along the borders of Bengal, which though still crossed by elephants freely in jungles (wild elephants do not need visas, I guess), gained an independence from the harshness of cultural hegemony on December 16th, 1971. Candice Louisa Daquin has also looked at grey zones that lie between sanity and insanity in her column. An essay which links East and West has been given to us by Rakibul Hasan about a poet who mingles the two in his poetry. A Bengali song by Tagore, Purano shei diner kotha, that is almost a perfect trans creation of Robert Burn’s Scottish Auld Lang Syne in the spirit of welcoming the New Year, has been transcreated to English. The similarity in the content of the two greats’ lyrics showcase the commonalities of love, friendship and warmth that unite all cultures into one humanity.
Our first translation from Uzbekistan – a story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad — gives a glimpse of a culture that might be new to many of us. Akbar Barakzai’s shorter poems, translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi and Ratnottama Sengupta’s transcreation of a Tagore song, Rangiye Die Jao, have added richness to our oeuvre along with one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Professor Fakrul Alam, who is well-known for his translation of poetry by Jibonanda Das, has started sharing his work on the Bengali poet with us. Pause by and take a look.
There is much more than what I can put down here as we have a bumper end of the year issue this December. There is a bit of something for all times, tastes and seasons.
I would like to thank my wonderful team for helping put together this issue. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious need double thanks for their lovely artwork that is showcased in our magazine. We are privileged to have committed readers, some of who have started contributing to our content too. A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers for being with us through our journey.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful transition into the New Year! May we open up to a fantastic brave, new world!
Unfolding a linguist’s tryst with the Great Andamanese tribe and lost languages
Time moves fast and we move with it, partly carrying the past with us and partly shedding it. Languages evolve. Sometimes, they get left behind. People forget them and with that where they came from. Why would familiarity with our roots or a moribund language be so important? Perhaps, Professor Anvita Abbi, a Padma Shri from India who has done amazing work with the Andamanese uncovering their fast ebbing language and culture, has some answers. She is a linguist who stretches beyond universities to uncover the roots from which mankind evolved and to exhibit to us the need to be in touch with what our ancestors knew. She urges us to accept the varied colours of mankind for a more humane and tolerant outlook.
Abbi has written a number of books on her experiences in Andaman. Reading Voices from the Lost Horizon (2021, Niyogi Books), her recent publication with videos embedded in both the hardcopy and softcopy versions, has been an adventure that transports one back to a civilisation that has its roots in Neolithic times. Unique in form and content, her book not only talks of her trips to Andaman and meeting the indigenous people but also shows how the lores of this culture can teach the civilised a number of things including, basic survival skills. She has summed this up in a recent interview, “When the tsunami came on December 26, 2004, tribes of the Andaman, Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese saved themselves as their knowledge about the tsunami was intact in their language. They interpreted the patterns of waves and sea churning and ran to a safe place.” Shuttling between different continents and time zones, Abbi is as unconventional as is her book. She unfolds her journey towards integrating the past into the present.
You are from a literary family. What made you opt to become a linguist? Did your environment impact you in some way? What kindled your interest in ancient and moribund languages?
Yes, my background exposed me to different writers of my time, and I started writing short stories in Hindi and earned a name for myself very early. My first book of collection of short stories Muthhi Bhar Pahachan (Hindi, A Handful of Recognition) was published on my 20th birthday. I was pursuing my interest in literature along with my first love for Economics. However, my father, the famous poet of Hindi, Shri Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, thought that I was pursuing a wrong profession and forced me (yes, absolutely against my wishes) to join Linguistics at Delhi University at the cost of quitting Delhi School of Economics. Once I started studying Linguistics, I realised I was made for this subject and never looked back. Subsequently, after receiving Ph.D from Cornell University, USA I started teaching Linguistics at the Kansas State University, Manhattan. While there, I realised that a large number of Indian languages especially those spoken by the marginalised communities are under-researched. The question ‘how different or similar are these languages to the known languages of the country’ motivated me to take the major decision of quitting the regular job at the KSU and move to India. I joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1976 and was instrumental in designing and developing the course of Field Methods that took me and my students to remotest corners of India from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar. My experience in India has been very enriching as I have worked on more than 95 languages of India so far and experienced India at the grass roots. At present, I am working on two languages of the Nicobar Islands.
How long have you been researching on Andaman?
Since late 2000. I wish I was there earlier!
Tell us why you chose Andaman as your arena rather than any other?
There were several reasons that drew me towards working on this language intensively. The topography of the area, the unexplored terrain, its people, and their antiquity and above all scant availability of published material on their language coupled with the fact that my observation in 2003 after conducting a pilot survey of the languages of the Great and Little Andaman that this language seemed to be a class apart from the other two languages of the region — Onge and Jarawa. Unlike Jarawa and Onge, Great Andamanese is a moribund language and breathing its last. I was encouraged by my linguist friends at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany to study and document the language widely, to unearth the vast knowledge base buried in the linguistic structure of Great Andamanese before it is lost to the world. Not only were my results of 2003 later corroborated by geneticists in 2005, but it also gave me assurance and proof beyond doubt that this group of languages forms the sixth language family of India. I was moved by the speedy process of erosion of scientific and cultural treasure that this ancient world had embedded into its language. I had to plunge myself into its structure come what may!
You said that this group of languages was almost pre-Neolithic in age — “a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe, the remnants of the first migration out of Africa 70,000 years ago.” Does it have any similarity to the clipping Khosian languages spoken in Africa or any other African languages?
Not that I know of. We must understand that any similarity, if it existed, would have completely evaporated in so many years especially in a contactless situation. Anyway, we know very little of what human language sounded like 70,000 years ago.
Now a new language has evolved — Great Andamanese — from four languages (Jeru, Khora, Bo, and Sare). How long has Great Andamanese been in use? How did all these languages merge into one?
It is named Great Andamanese because it is spoken in the Great Andaman Island. The original name of the island in the heritage language is marakele and was habited by ten different tribes speaking ten distinct but mutually intelligible languages. I named this language Present-day Great Andamanese (PGA) so as not to empower any one of the four North Great Andadamanese languages of which it is a mixture. Present form of the language has been in use since all the four different tribes, Jeru, Khora, Sare and Bo were moved from the north and rehabited in the Strait Island, 56 nautical miles away from the capital city of Port Blair since early seventies by the government of India. However, the language is closest to Jeru in its grammatical structure.
Do people use Great Andamanese or Hindi? Which languages are commonly used by the local people and why? Is there a historic reason?
Most of them have forgotten their heritage language and speak only Andamanese Hindi. Some of them have a passive knowledge of Bangla. When I reached the island there were ten speakers of the PGA but now only three remain who can speak PGA but prefer not to. Colonisation by mainland Indians exposed the tribe to babu Hindi as well as to the lingua franca Andamanese Hindi existing in the Island. As of today, a few of them are hired by the government in Port Blair and some children go the local schools so that exposure to local Hindi is intensive.
One of the interesting things I noticed in your book was there was a lot of use of ‘potato’ in the stories. Potato was brought into India by the Portuguese. So, how old could these stories be? Or have the colonial invasions altered their myths?
Potatoes that we eat were perhaps imported by Portuguese, but roots of yam and potatoes always grew in our land as all Adivasis have been using their indigenous varieties of potatoes called by different names. Great Andamanese also have more than five varieties of potatoes that they have been consuming since their establishment in the island. These potatoes appear and taste very different from ours. English word ‘potato’ may be considered a generic name for the tuber like products in the current work and bear no resemblance to the modern word ‘potato’.
The Andamanese sing: “O, God, Bilikhu! / We pray to you.” They have burial customs where they burn, bury, feed to the vultures, and throw into the sea. It is like an amalgamation of multiple religious customs. What is the religion the Andamanese actually follow?
This prayer that you quote seems to be a modern version created copying Hindu religious practices that the Andamanese see all around them. ‘Bilikhu’ means spider also and is considered sacred but not equivalent to our concept of ‘God’. They remember Bilikhu before going into the sea for any sea escapade like hunting for big animal such as turtle and dugong. Andamanese do not follow any religion. They believe in their protectors jurwachom who protect them in the sea and in the jungle. They give respect to and remember their ancestors believing that the ancestor’s spirits surround them all the time. What more, the tales in the book convey an intimate relationship between people and birds as a ‘family’. One story, ‘Jiro Mithe’, depicts the origin of birds from the Andamanese people.
As far as the cremation of the dead bodies is concerned, you may have read that I have explained how one of the stories ‘The Tale of Juro the Head Hunter’ informed me that there were four different ways of cremation depending upon the way a person dies. Quoting from the book, these were:
“1. When a person dies of a natural death or in illness, s/he is buried in the earth (‘boa-phong’ meaning ‘hole in the earth’).
“2. When a person dies while hunting/killing, then s/he is put on a platform made on a tree (‘machaan’ in Hindi) and burnt.
“3. When a person dies because of choking on a fishbone, their body is taken to a particular place near Mayabandar in the northern part of the Andaman Islands and left for a month on a tree for vultures to eat. The bones are collected after a month.
“4. When children pass away, they are not buried initially; they are left untouched for a few days, then they are cremated.”
Often the villains and the demons depicted in their stories are cannibalistic. Was cannibalism an aberration for them? Was cannibalism ever accepted by them?
They are not villains or demons. They are people with supernatural powers. The practice of cannibalism existed — so it seems through these stories. However, it was always deplored as being against the survival of humanity. The story mentioned above depicts it very clearly. Nao Jr the key narrator of these stories compared Juro with Hindu goddess Kali saying that both were involved in similar activities. The story and my elicitation process involved in it explains the whole phenomenon of cannibalism that existed in the Great Andamanese community.
How did the colonials and the independence of India impact these people, their culture and language?
The history of present Great Andamanese is a tale of many tales. Outsider-contact has brought diseases, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately decimation of the tribal culture, tribal life, and tribal language. It is not new to witness as voice of the most powerful of the land…colonizers, makers of empires, and policy makers silence the voices of the vanquished and marginalized whether by annihilation or assimilation.
For years, Jarawas maintained the isolation and now they regret the interaction with us.
These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their uses, sea life, weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing), nor cowardly, nor violent (they safeguard their folks both women and children from outside intervention) nor fools. They have known the wonders of isolation and that is what they want to maintain. However, we have lost Great Andamanese culture, language and worldview as the process of mainstreaming them started with colonisation first by Britishers and later by Indians. With the result they are nowhere now, neither connected to their roots nor connected to the world that the government offers. Cultural amnesia and loss of their heritage language has affected their cognitive and perceptive powers adversely. The modern generation neither feels connected to the forest and sea life nor to the city life. It’s a lost civilisation bewildered of their present. In this scenario stories and songs of this book may serve as the only priceless heritage of an ancient civilisation of India.
Tell us of about some of your more unique experiences in Andaman.
There are plenty. You have to read the ‘Introduction’ of this book and log on to www.andamanese.net where I describe my experiences and many aspects of Great Andamanese culture. Great Andamanese is a culture that believes in sharing of everything that one has in life yet gives individual freedom to choose. We have misunderstood that this trait of theirs as ‘begging’ since they always demanded to share whatever we eat. Gender equality is worth admiration starting from the prenatal stage as the name of a child is assigned before birth, and both boys and girls are trained in hunting.
While it was sad to read that very few speak the language of the past now and yet a few more cultures are getting eroded, it is also a movement towards integration with the mainstream. What would be the ideal way for this integration so that the languages and cultures do not get eroded and yet they blend with the mainstream? What would be the best way of balancing languages and cultures so that we do not lose our past while embracing the present and moving to the future?
The idea of mainstreaming and merging these tribes into our civilisation is nothing but usurping their rights to their land, forest, water, and way of life. “Development” may kill these tribes. These tribes have amalgamated their life with nature so well that they are aware of secrets of life. Any kind of interference will disturb this harmony. As I always say that Jarawa live a life of opulence where the supplies are in abundance in their forests — much more their demands. However, it is too late now in the context of the Great Andamanese. As I said earlier, they are a lost generation.
The best course to save their language and culture would be to introduce it in the primary schools in Port Blair so that the community feels motivated to retain this. Since the language has already been scripted by our team, reading and writing Great Andamanese is no problem. I have already produced the Grammar and the interactive pictorial talking Dictionary of the language that may make this task simple. One of the members of the tribe by the name of Noe who still remembers the language should be used as a resource before it is too late. Introducing these languages in the school will bring dignity and honour to our heritage language and will help the societies to overcome their inferiority complex.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)
Title: Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese
Author: Anvita Abbi
Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021
Professor Anvita Abbi is a distinguished researcher on minority languages and perhaps the only one in the Indian subcontinent who has done first-hand field study on all the six language families from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She taught linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for 38 years, was the President of the Linguistic Society of India, and has been invited as a visiting professor and researcher at prestigious institutions in the USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia. She served long as an expert from the UNESCO on issues concerning languages.
During her studies in 2003–2004, she identified a new language family of India—the Great Andamanese, which was corroborated in 2005 by population geneticists. Her pioneering work was recognized by the Government of India and she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013. In 2015, she received the Kenneth Hale Award, most prestigious in the field of linguistics, for her outstanding contribution to the documentation and description of Indian languages, from the Linguistic Society of America, where she was also elected as an honorary member. She has 22 books to her credit, including the Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language. English-Great Andamanese-Hindi (2011) and A Grammar of the Great Andamanese Language: An Ethnolinguistic Study (2013).
A 2018 analysis of a census says that more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues whilst only 122 of them are major languages. After the 1971 census, Indian Government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people in India need not be included in the official list of languages. According to UNESCO, any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people is potentially endangered. When a language dies, it’s not only the history, beliefs, customs of people that wither but also a distinct worldview that vanishes forever; a view, that could possibly have added to a greater understanding of ways of living of a people. Disappearance of a language may come for many different reasons like migration, urbanization, threat from external sources or language domination and when that happens, unique livelihood patterns, knowledge and skills may also disappear.
In the preface, Anvita Abbi writes that when she visited Andaman Islands in 2005, there were only eight surviving speakers of Great Andamanese, a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe which had migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago. The language was already on the brink of extinction. And none of the speakers were proficient enough to tell any tales, either in Great Andamanese or Andamanese Hindi. The fact that she still compiled 10 stories and 46 songs that make this unique collection is a testament of her will, hard work and dedication to the cause of retaining some remnants of a dying language and thereby preserving and contributing to the rich heritage of the Islands.
The Andaman Islands i.e. the Great Andaman, Little Andaman and North Sentinel Islands have been home to mainly four tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese whose languages are also named the same. The author tells us that the Great Andamanese is a generic term representing 10 languages, once spoken by ten tribes living in north, south and middle of Great Andaman Islands. And Present Day Great Andamanese (PGA), however, is a mixture of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages i.e. Jeru, Khora, Bo and Sare and the grammar of the language is based on Jeru.
While the task of collecting stories and songs in the language was difficult, Abbi was helped by two speakers of Great Andamanese. One was Boa Sr. whose ancestral language was Bo. She had not conversed with anyone in her language for 30-40 years prior to that. The other speaker, Nao Jr. was a male member of the society and the only one to remember the Great Andamanese language and names of various natural objects, birds and fishes. Of the 10 stories in the book, one is narrated by Boa Sr. while the rest are narrated by Nao Jr. and while four stories were narrated in bilingual mode i.e. Great Andamanese and Andamanese Hindi, six were narrated in Adamanese Hindi only. The original versions of the stories in Great Andamanese language with line-by-line translation in English is given in the Appendix of the book. What makes this book really unusual is that the readers can have an audio-visual experience at the end of each narrative. Each story carries with it a song towards the end in the form of a QR code which can be scanned for an audio-visual recording of the song, The songs are mostly sung by Boa Sr. from Bo tribe.
It is interesting to note that all 46 songs are only of one line or a phrase which is sung again and again. Their documentation in the book is done in all the three languages i.e. first in original (in Roman script), second in Devanagri Script (which was given to the language) and third an English translation.
The book also carries pictures of Great Andamanese birds, considered to be the ancestors of Andamaneses, along with their names. It is quite interesting to note that their names have some inherent meaning as the story Maya Jiro Mithe, a kind of creation myth, informs us of the evolution of birds and their distinct and varied names.
The folk tales and songs included in this book open the reader to the world of Great Andamanese tribes, their beliefs, ways of life, knowledge, culture and their relation with nature. The diligence with which Prof. Anvita Abbi has pursued the project of compiling stories and songs of a disappearing language is evident through her exceptional work. A reader can possibly only imagine how difficult it might have been for the author to document a language and its grammar, when she could only understand it through the eyes and words of its native speakers. She has done an outstanding job towards the revival of a vanishing language, towards preserving the voices which might have otherwise been lost to the rest of the world and with it a culture woven with their intrinsic knowledge of survival and living with nature.
Mutiu Olawuyi in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty
He is a maker of dreams for writers – a man who believes in dreams that are woven in words and multimedia across the world. He connects writing with multimedia, not just by writing and YouTube screenings but also by putting upcoming writers on his television show to battle out challenging questions about how literary development affects the world. He looks for writers with a sense of social responsibility and awareness. The extent of his work is huge. Meet this personality extraordinaire — Mutiu Olawuyi (popularly called the Jungle Poet) an international award-winning poet (2013 World Poetry Empowered Poet Awardee, Canada); Honorary Professor of International Art Academy, Volos Greece; World Poetry Cultural Ambassador (2014, Vancouver – Canada); and Master of Literary Innovation (2019 – World Poetry Conference, Bathinda Punjab, India).
He is the producer and host of ArtFlakes on CBA TV, the Voice of East Africa and he is also the Editor-in-Chief of Parkchester Times and MCR newspapers (Print and Online) based in Bronx, New York, USA.
He has authored numerous books of poetry (Among them are American Literary Legends and Other Poems , Thoughts from the Jungle , 9/11 Poetry , and The Journey to the Archangels ) and has edited numerous international anthologies, journals and magazines.
Mutiu is a teacher, English language and literature curriculum developer, freelance writer/editor, literary critic, inventor of a new form of poetry called 9eleven (a poem of 9 lines written with 11 syllables) and the first writer of a story without verb – The Blotted Pawpaw (published 2013 by Bharat College in India). He is also an editor for The Criterion International Journal in English based in India.
Mutiu has some of his poems, short stories and research papers published in online and offline journals and magazines in India, Ireland, England, Canada, Greece, Nigeria and USA. Finally, some of his works have been translated to Arabic, French, Esperantos, Malayalam, Telugu and Hungarian. In this exclusive Mutiu takes us on a journey through his creative world.
Mitali: Why and when did you start ArtFlakes? What is the intent of this program?
Mutiu:ArtFlakes is a TV Show initiated primarily to give voice to creative writers around the globe. It was established to project literary works of art on the screen. I am pleased to say it is the only TV show on earth where global issues are explored through creative and literary lenses of writers across every corner of the world. Moreover, I believe creative works like poetry and prose shouldn’t be restricted to papers and pens alone. Those inkers shouldn’t always be placed behind the camera; they deserve to be projected on the screen too.
Mitali: How did you come up with the idea?
Mutiu: The idea came up when I was brainstorming with the managers of CBA TV on the best way to make the station unique among all its competitors, especially in the Horn of Africa. And it was actually Ridwan Adelaja, a creative member of the media team at the studio, who came up with the name, after hearing the concept.
Mitali: How many writers have you interviewed in Artflakes? What do you see as its future?
Mutiu: The show actually kicked off on air on January 25, 2019 with a review of the literary works of Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, popularly known as Hadraawi, a renowned Somali colonial and neo-colonial literary activist, who used his poetic prowess to eliminate Siyad Barre from power, and thereafter lyrically called for reconciliation and unity among the Somalis in the region after the civil war that ousted President Barre out of power.
This was co-explored with Abubakar Isiaka Ubaji (aka Eazy), a vibrant unsung Nigerian literary critic and poet. Thereafter, we started using our literary binoculars to explore critical issues in African societies. So we ended up exploring the world of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti, Republic of Sudan, South Sudan, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa and Bostwana through the review of works of African writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Sembene Ousman, Ama Atah Aidoo, Helon Habila, Ifrah Monsour, Gaariye, Nadifa Mohamed, Cristina Ali Farah, Tayeb Salih, Bessie Amelia Head, and many others.
By the end of 2019, I decided to move beyond Africa and change the style of anchoring the show by contacting the creative writers directly, instead of just reviewing their works on the screen with my regular guest, Eazy. So I started with the Greek literary world via an interview with a Greek poet and physicist, Professor Chryssa Velissariou. And so far I have covered the literary world of the United States/New World, India, Philippines, China, Yugoslavia, Indo-Singapore, Sweden, Liberia, and Pak-America by voyaging through the world of authors like Elizabeth Castillo, Bengt O Björklund, Wang Ping, Catherine Zickgraf Christopher Merill, Dustin Pickering, Ibrahim Honjo, Sonnet Mondal, Jernail Singh Anand, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley and of course, Mitali Chakravarty, the borderless Asian poet and literary activist.
Mitali: Don’t embarrass me Mutiu – do not see myself as an activist really. But let us get back to you. You teach. You write. You do television shows twice a week. Where do you find your time and energy?
Mutiu: Everything in life is all about passion. I am an edupreneur, creative writer and freelance journalist/editor – I own a college, serve as a consultant for universities in the areas of curriculum review for ESL (English as Second language) and Journalism, edit two newspapers in New York and teach ESP (English for Specific Purpose) courses at my institute and a postgraduate school of a university in the Horn of Africa. And don’t forget I also manage my college and the two media outlets in the United States, and even support the top management team of the TV station in key managerial decision making. But if you keenly look at all these responsibilities, you’ll notice that they all revolve around my passions – pedagogy, creative writing and modern media. So I always find time from no time to accomplish my missions in these key areas. My creative writings flow spontaneously, by the way.
Mitali: You call yourself a ‘Jungle Poet’. Why?
Mutiu: This is an interesting question. I first answered this question in a book I published in 2011 titled – Thoughts from the Jungle, a poetic presentation of African proverbs. If you interpret Jungle Poet denotatively, you’ll definitely get it wrong. Anyway, here is my connotative interpretation:
…The world was initially a jungle (i.e. a piece of land [of freedom] without borders) and it will finally end up becoming a jungle. Findings have shown that people who live in the jungle preciously preserve their cultural norms and values, and consequently live a better harmonious and healthy live – compared to people of the urban areas, where manipulation of nature is the order of the day. Connotatively, jungle therefore means “universal”, “aesthetic”, “naturalist” or borderless.
I guess, with this, you can now decode the reason for calling myself Jungle Poet (JP)…
Mitali: You have written on many issues that affect mankind in general, even about violence against women in India. What about women in Africa? Do they face any violence any abuse? How do you see their condition in context of women in other parts of the world?
Mutiu: Yes, I have led several global literary advocacies against gender inequities and violence, and have published several international poetry anthologies on universal peace and love, plus protest against rape and domestic violence. But note that violence of all sorts is a universal issue. It’s not limited to India alone. Rape and other forms of domestic violence are also common in Africa, as they’re common in other Asian world, Mideast, Europe, Australia and America.
It’s true that some women have chosen to die in silence; they bury within themselves the wounds inflicted on them by their male counterparts. However, this abuse has been extensively curtailed in Africa these days, especially with the influence of politically strong African women activists and other activists against gender violence. Most women nowadays are “in-charge”. I mean they are “FULLY in charge”.
In fact, the case is becoming vice versa – some men these days are becoming victims of domestic violence, especially in Nigeria. This is why I personally believe that advocacy for gender equality is like a fairytale, because it’s an impossible dream. True activists fight for gender equity; not gender equality!
Mitali: Africa is where mankind started its journey. Yet we know very less about Africa, the different cultures it houses and your own culture. Educate us a bit about this.
Mutiu: You’re right. Anthropologists will tell you categorically that the journey of mankind started in Africa. It’s a continent with abundant natural resources and diverse cultural norms and values, with numerous socio-linguistic settings. Nigeria alone, for instance, has got over two hundred languages, and of course over two hundred socio-cultural groups, with a population of over two hundred million.
Apart from Ethiopia and Liberia, two countries that didn’t experience colonialism, African cultures started losing their values when they came in contact with the western colonialists, particularly the Britons, French, Portuguese and Italians. Influence of Arab colonialists couldn’t go beyond the Abyssinian territories in the Horn of Africa, whose leaders were major suppliers of slaves to the Arab world.
The assimilation and indirect rule system put in place in West Africa by respective French and British colonialists, who initially disguised with the three B’s (Business, Bible and Bullet) to cajole and conquer African kings, swiftly aided the establishment of the colonialists’ socio-political and economic dominance. And they diplomatically sealed their presence even after the abolition of slave trade and colonialism in the continent. They handed over power to their puppets when leaving Africa and since then, they’ve been major determinants of the socio-economic and political systems in the continent. Our key resources are managed by out imperialists, safeguarded for them by their boot-lickers, our so-called power-drunk leaders.
This long-term dominance has therefore dramatically affected African cultural heritage. It’s pathetically diminishing. Even some African traditional rulers, nowadays, invest heavily in the West, surprisingly with resources gathered indirectly from their subjects. You can see there a serious problem – what do you expect the younger generation to do after seeing their elders still licking the foot of the West? It’s sad to disclose to the borderless literary world that African cultures are dying day by day. Most Africans nowadays now live either an Arab or a Western lifestyle. Most of the youth have proudly lost the understanding of the core aspects of their local languages to foreign tongues. It’s really, really pathetic!
Mitali: You have a huge repertoire of works. Tell us how and when your journey as a writer and creative person started?
Mutiu: I actually started with visual art, because I guess it’s hereditary. No one taught me how to draw, but one thing I knew was that my father was once a visual artist before he became an engineer and university instructor. So I picked up my inbuilt creativity from him since I was 6, and got more into creative writing when I got to high school. And the rest of my formal education pursuits have been in the area of creative writing, media and language pedagogy.
More importantly, my early childhood experience made me a poet, if you understand what I mean. You know, poetry is medicinal; it heals wounds within; wounds that pharmaceutical products can’t cure. But to be candid, I can vividly say I started serious creative writing about 24 years ago, when I realized I couldn’t find other way out to solve my personal domestic challenges… So I resorted to offloading my heavy thoughts poetically on papers.
I have had numerous poetry publications to my credit especially on socio-cultural, political and economic issues like gender violence, socio-economic disparities, culture, peace, love and unity among human race. I have also collaborated with several great and passionate creative minds within Africa and beyond Africa, especially from countries India, England, the United States, Greece, Romania, France, Cyprus and more.
I have co-edited global literary anthologies with passionate creative writing giants and pedagogues like Denise Dee Sweet and Kirsten Hemmy (both from USA), late Madan Yayati Gandhi (India), Chryssa Velissariou (Greece), Sunil Sharma and Jernail Singh Anand (both from India), Stephen Billy Olajide (Nigeria), Kathy Figueroa (Canada), Mario Melendez (Italy), Lucette Bailliet (Australia) and the likes.
Essentially, as an explorer and true creative mind, particularly in the world of English language and literature, I got to a stage in my literary journey where I was no longer satisfied with myself just a poet or short story writer alone; I was tired of following the rules established by so-called renowned writers in the past, so I decided to try my hand in unique literary innovations.
This led to creating in 2011 a new form of poetry called 9eleven (a poem of nine lines written with eleven monosyllabic words), and likewise writing a story without a verb in 2013 called The Blotted Pawpaw, which was first published in the same year in an academic journal in India. I actually initiated the latter to debunk syntacticians like Noam Chomsky and McHalliday who believe that a sentence is incomplete without a verb. Now with my story, we can obviously change the conventional rule of sentence structure from Sentence = (Subject) + Verb + (Object) + (Adjunct/Complement) to Sentence = (Subject) + (Verb) + (Object) + (Adjunct/Complement). Mission accomplished, right? Hahaha…
Note also that I later joined the media fraternity mainly because I was tired of the mainstream media operators, who are paid to report and show to the rest of the world nothing good in my continent Africa and Asia.
I was tired of being misrepresented in paper and on screen. So I realized that my universal peace advocacy will be fruitless without changing the narratives through the media. I found out that everything good is reported about the West in the Western media with global presence, but the reverse is the case when dealing with media reports from Asia and Africa.
Where then is the objectivity in the global ethics of journalism? Who is deceiving who? And you know the worst and most unfortunate part of this is that the key figures in charge of the media in these two continents have been brainwashed to believe that media market is lucrative only when you focus heavily on negative happenings in the society.
The finance report that shows extreme poverty in Congo or Rwanda or health issues and war in Liberia or Seirra Leon, but no finance to cover homelessness and abject poverty in Mississippi, and the Bronx in the United States or even the “mighty” London. This is nonsense! This narrative has to change…
Our people in the media must know the truth – we must fairly project every situation in our society – positive and negative, and be given the chance to see the other side of the so-called developed countries. I am the voice and the true descriptor of myself and I cannot allow anyone to define me. Never! Enough of using media for creative racial, religious, and socio-cultural divisions among human race! We should also know that the same media can be used for creating peace, unity in diversity, and projecting socio-economic realities…
Mitali: What was it like growing up in Nigeria and how far do you think you have journeyed? Where do you see yourself, your show and your writing in the future?
Mutiu: Nigeria is a great nation; a nation of hardworking and entrepreneurial people. I was actually raised in a metropolitan city of Ilorin and spent almost a half of my life there, before relocating to other cities in the south east and south west. In 2009, I became a foreigner in my homeland because I jetted out of the country, and since then, I only returned thrice as a stranger who spent only maximum of three months in his fatherland.
Everything I left had changed completely – both human and materials. The most shocking part of these changes was seeing our young men and women becoming so inferior that they no longer cherished their natural skin – they had opted for body bleaching creams and soaps, all in the name of being “white”. It’s sad, right? So so sad… This is what you get when your school syllabi are designed to suit only “Western” standard; and not indigenous standard. On the other hand, infrastructural development had taken over most cities in Nigeria, except for few places unfortunately handled by greedy politicians.
Anyway, as an ambitious person, I believe in the next couple of years I would have been able to set up independent platforms for unsung creative minds around the world through digital/electronic media. This, I believe, is one of the best ways to speak directly to those in power and the masses. Fair share should be given to creativity as it is given to politics, science and technology through news, shows and documentaries. With my borderless mind, I can easily get it done by collaborating with like-minds in other parts of the globe.
Mitali: How diverse are the cultures in different parts of Africa, within the country and without? Has this influenced your writing?
Mutiu: Africa is a home of cultural diversity with over 1.3 billion people. Research, in fact, shows that the continent has more than 3000 different ethnic groups speaking more than 2000 unrelated languages. Likewise, most Africans practice a multiplicity of religions, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and numerous traditional religions attached to individual ethnic group.
This multilingual and multicultural nature of African continent has greatly influenced my writing. For instance as a writer, who has lived in different socio-linguistic settings within the continent, apart from Yoruba, Arabic and English, which are languages I acquired formally, I can proudly say, at least, I have basic understanding of five other African languages, which I use a lot in my poems and short stories. As a borderless writer too, I’m still learning languages like Chinese, Dutch and French for global intelligibility.
Mitali: You have written poetry on Apartheid. Is apartheid still an issue in Africa?
Mutiu: Not really. Apartheid has significantly faded away from Africa. Its remains could only be seen in the areas of gender, and caste/tribe. And they too are fading away gradually. I actually wrote the poem on apartheid to remind our younger generations about past happenings in Africa and its painful effects. This would make them comprehend it as an abomination.
Mitali: In some of the developing countries, we see a yawning gap between the rich and poor. Is that true of Africa too? Does literature in Africa take up these issues?
Mutiu: Every capitalistic society generally has one thing in common – the wide gap between the rich and the poor; the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. And it’s important to note here that the influence of American and Chinese politico-economic systems in Africa has made this a reality in the continent.
Does literature in Africa take up these issues?I’d say: Of course yes, it does. Some African creative writers like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Olu Obafemi, John Pepper Clark, Ama Attah Aidoo, Sembene Ousman, Fatou Juka Jabang, Nana Grey Johnson and the likes are really trying to expose this in their writings. These are leading African literary figure who are tirelessly promoting the preservation of African culture through literature.
Young unsung African poets, playwrights and novelists too like Abubakar Isiaka Ubaji, Abullahi Jatta (The Kunta Kinte), Abubakar Ibrahim, Seun Sokoya, Ridwan Adelaja, Lekpele Nyamalon, Taofeeq Ogunperi, Nii-Ayi Solomon, Robert Ebi, Kinsley Nwadishi, Ndaba Sibanda, Darlignton Njobuewu, Kibrom Habtu, Muizat Kehinde Hameed, Alex O. Edevwie, Timileyin Olajuwon and the likes mostly pour their feelings on socio-economic and political decadence in the continent – perhaps because that’s the reality in their modern individual world.
But as far as I am concerned, I strongly believe in juxtaposition of socio-cultural revitalization and politico-economic revelation in creative writing. Our ideas shouldn’t be caged in one world alone. Creative writers are borderless. We should be able to link the past with the present in order to accurately and creatively capture and proffer solutions to future societal challenges.
Mitali: Is there a large body of African writers writing in English? What are the themes they like to address?
Mutiu: There are several country-based established associations of creative writers in Africa. Some of these are managed by people of academia, so voices of young or old less academic Africans are not really heard there. However, there are also numerous platforms available online (especially social media literary groups) that connect African writers together – regardless of age, academic or socio-economic background. Most African writers nowadays focus their works on socio-political and economic issues like relationship, deception, corruption, poverty and fraud.
Mitali: Have you travelled to all the countries your work has travelled to? Has your travel affected your writing?
Mutiu: As a proud borderless writer with keen interest in universal peace and love, I can only say boldly that I have, of course, travelled physically and digitally to a lot of countries within Africa and beyond. This is why I could write about socio-cultural and economic issues in India, Greece, Canada, the US, the UK, China, Middle East and of course various countries in Africa.