Categories
Contents

Borderless, November 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.

Conversations

Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.

Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click here to read.

Translations

Rows of Betelnut Trees by My Window by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

A Day in the Life of the Pink Man is a story by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee. Click here to read.

The Clay Toys and The Two Boys is a story by Haneef Shareef, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Saturday Afternoon is a poem by Ihlwha Choi, translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s poem, Tomar Shonkho Dhulay Porey (your conch lies in the dust), has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty as The Conch Calls. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Asad Latif, Rhys Hughes, Alpana, Mimi Bordeaux, Saranyan BV, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Sourav Sengupta, Ron Pickett, Davis Varghese, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Terry Trowbridge, Amrita Sharma, George Freek, Gayatri Majumdar, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry and Rhys Hughes

In Infinite Tiffin, Rhys Hughes gives an unusual short story centring around food and hunger. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

The Scream & Me

Prithvijeet Sinha writes of how Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, impacts him. Click here to read.

A Fine Sunset

Mike Smith travels with a book to a Scottish beach and walks in the footsteps of a well-know novelist. Click here to read.

The Death of a Doctor

Ravi Shankar mourns the loss of a friend and muses on mortality in his experience. Click here to read.

My Contagious Birthday Party

Meredith Stephens writes of her experience of Covid. Click here to read.

Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

Farouk Gulsara takes a nostalgic trip to Deepavali celebrations in Malaysia. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…, Devraj Singh Kalsi talks of his friends’s adventure with the guitar. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In Therese Schumacher and Nagayoshi Nagai: A Love Story, Suzanne Kamata introduces us to one of the first German women married to a Japanese scientist and their love story. Click here to read.

Essays

My Favourite Book by Fakrul Alam

The essay is a journey into Fakrul Alam’s evolution as a translator. Click here to read.

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent film critic, writes on the legend of Kishore Kumar. Click here to read.

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

Dan Meloche muses on the century-old poem and its current relevance. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In Piano Board Keys, Candice Louisa Daquin talks of biracial issues. Click here to read.

Stories

The Funeral Attendee

Ravi Prakash shares the story of the life of a migrant in rural India. Click here to read.

A Letter I can Never Post

Monisha Raman unravels the past in a short narrative using the epistolary technique. Click here to read.

Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

Paul Mirabile takes us to St Pons Abbey in France in the fifteenth century. Click here to read.

You have lost your son!

Farhanaz Rabbani gives a light story with a twist that shuttles between Dhaka and Noakhali. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An Excerpt from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems by Afsar Mohammad, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad & Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Reba Som has reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories. Click here to read.

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad and Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Click here to read.

On World Tolerance Day, we invite you to the Book Launch of the first anthology from Borderless Journal, “Monalisa No Longer Smiles”

Borderless Journal Anthology

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Editorial

We Did It!

That good things happen despite darkness, despite prognostications of doom, that light glimmers hope if you strive to focus on your strength in hard times is borne true both in fiction and in life. Perhaps, we cannot get back the old ways (but is that what we want?) but new paths emerge. Old gives way to new. And while trying to gather pearls of human excellence — borne not of awards or degrees but of bringing out the best, the kindest, the most loving in human hearts — we managed to create with a team an outstanding anthology. Woven with the writings of old and new — we created a tapestry together that the editor in chief of our publishing house said was “classy, literary, engaging and international”. That one of the oldest and most reputed publishing houses in India with bookshops countrywide took it on was also an unusual event! We are truly grateful to Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri and Jyotsna Mehta along with all our writers and readers who made our anthology a reality, and to Radha Chakravarty and Fakrul Alam for the kind words they bestowed on our effort.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Please greet our first anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles, with love and friendship. It could be the perfect Christmas gift in the spirit of the season! And as the blurb says, “it will definitely bring a smile to your face because it is a celebration of the human spirit.”

The anthology is different from our journal in as much as it has a sample of an eclectic collection that has been honed with further editing and has some new features. Most of the writing is from our first year and showcases our ethos, except for Lesya’s poetry and interview. Lesya Bakun from Ukraine is still on the run, looking for a refuge — she cannot return home like you or I can. Her family is scattered across number of countries. Her cousin, who was guarding the factory at Azovstal, was taken prisoner. We included her story in the anthology hoping to create global empathy for refugees as the numbers will increase not only due to war but also due to climate change.

The reason we felt a hardcopy anthology was a good idea was because nothing beats the joy of having a bunch of interesting reads in the warmth of your hands (especially where internet cannot reach or is unavailable). In any case, books with the feel of paper, the rustling whispers which carry voices of leaves can never be replaced as Goutam Ghose had also said in his interview which is now part of our anthology.

And that is why we celebrate more books… this time we feature Singaporean prima donna of literature, Suchen Christine Lim, with her new book Dearest Intimate, a novel that spans more than hundred years including the harrowing Japanese invasion during World War II. She shared sound advice with writers: “Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy.” And perhaps that is what is echoed through the experiences of the other writer interviewed on our pages by Keith Lyons. This is a writer who not only brought out his own books but was a regular contributor of travel pieces for Frommer’s and National Geographic traveling to unexplored destinations — Christopher Winnan. Another writer Lyon had interviewed recently, Steve Carr, has passed on. We would like to convey our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

We have a number of books that have been reviewed. Reba Som reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories that span eras spread across time. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises and Bhaskar Parichha, Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Basudhara Roy has written of Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by the poet and Shamala Gallagher, verses that again transcend borders and divides. We have an excerpt from the same book and another from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda.

More translations from Bengali, Balochi and Korean enrich our November edition. Fazal Baloch has translated a story by Haneef Shareef and Rituparna Mukherjee by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya. We have the translation of an inspirational Tagore poem helping us find courage (Shonkho Dhulaye Pore or ‘the conch lies in the dust’). Another such poem by Nazrul has been rendered in English from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. He has also shared an autobiographical musing on how he started translating Tagore’s Gitabitan, which also happens to be his favourite book. More discussion on the literary persona of TS Eliot and the relevance of his hundred year old poem — ‘The Waste Land’ by Dan Meloche adds variety to our essay section.

Evoking the genius of another outstanding artiste, Kishore Kumar, who happened to pen thought provoking dialogues in some films, is Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri’s essay, review of a recent book on the legendary actor-singer and an interview with the authors. Infringing the boundaries of literary with popular culture and art and integrating all forms into a wholistic bundle has been part of our ethos. In that spirit we have a musing by Prithvijeet Sinha on Edvard Munch’s famous painting called Scream. We have non-fiction from Australia spanning Meredith Stephens’s recent brush with Covid, Mike Smith visits a Scottish beach in the footsteps of a novelist, Ravi Shankar has given us a poignant piece for a late friend and Candice Lousia Daquin talks of the existence of bi-racial biases. In contrast, Suzanne Kamata sent a narrative that bridges divides showcasing a German wife of a Japanese scientist that draws us to conclude that biases erode over time to create an acceptance of bi-racial people. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings in humour with his funny narrative about a guitarist. Rhys Hughes writes in a lighter vein on Indian cuisine in his column and spouts more funny poetry bordering on the absurd.

Jared Carter has shared beautiful poetry on murmuration in birds and we have touching verses from Asad Latif for a little girl he met on a train — reminiscent of Tagore’s poem Hide and Seek (Lukochuri). Michael R Burch has given us poems setting sombre but beautiful notes for the season. We host more poetry by Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Gayatri Majumdar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Alpana, Jonathan Chan, Saranyan BV, George Freek and many more. We have stories from around the world: India, France and Bangladesh.

Gathering all of your thoughts in strings of words from all corners of the world, we present to you the bumper November issue of Borderless Journal . Thank you all for sharing your thoughts with us. Thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fantastic painting and more thanks to the whole Borderless team for seeing this issue through. We would not have been able to do the anthology or these issues without each one of you — writers and readers.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

There is always hope for a new tomorrow!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Poetry

Poetry by Asad Latif

Courtesy: Creative Commons
TARINI

As the Intercity
takes a bend
a six-year-old runs
to a carriage's end.
Sixty-five years
have left me here.
"Where are you going?"
she asks.
"Oldcastle," I say.
"On this Newcastle train?"

She laughs
her way back
to the front.
Ballerina of a
swaying stage,
two minutes later
she's fetched
a colouring book
with parrots and
trees waiting to
be painted
in all the
hues
known
to light
or shade
before
this evening
is finally dead.

"How old are you?"
she demands.
"Guess."
"Eleven."
"Yes."

Infant balladeer
of my laughing age,
let's get serious.
Your name
carries mortals
across the rivers
of life and rage.
Here and now
Sing, sing and sing
of the seasons
winging their
way back in
to me
on a long
Australian evening
that abhors
any thought
of summer dying.

A station
approaches.
"Sweetie, come,"
her mother calls.

Oh no
Tarini.
Don't go away.
Can't you stay
to send me
on my way?
I wish
you'd see,
the traveller
receding in me.
When this train
comes to rest
won't your
eyes lift my feet
from platform
to concourse
and then
to the street
overhead?
Won't you see
my breath 
never break
its promise
to my knees
to rise in respect
to the nearness
of the new?
Won't you see
an old man
bowing
to the storm
in you?

Tarini
stay
or return.
Tarini
shape
my passing
into form.

 Asad Latif is a Singapore-based journalist. He can be contacted at badiarghat@borderlesssg1

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

Categories
Contents

Borderless, October 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

The Sky … Click here to read.

Conversations

Anthony Sattin, an award winning journalist and travel writer in conversation about Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, his recent book published by Hachette, India. Click here to read.

VR Devika talks of the dynamic Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly who sought justice for Devadsis and prostitutes and discusses her book, Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights published by Niyogi Books. Click here to read.

Translations

Daridro or Poverty by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

The Browless Dolls by S.Ramakrishnan, has been translated from Tamil by B Chandramouli. Click here to read.

Two poems from Italy by Rosy Gallace have been translated from Italian by Irma Kurti. Click here to read.

Flowers of Love Bloom Everywhere, a poem for peace, written by and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

Aalo Amar Aalo (Light, My Light) a song by Tagore, has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali. Click here to read.

Pandies Corner

Songs of Freedom: Moh-Reen is an autobiographical story by Amreen, translated from Hindustani by Janees. These stories highlight the ongoing struggle against debilitating rigid boundaries drawn by societal norms, with the support from organisations like Shaktishalini and Pandies. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, Kirpal Singh, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Ron Pickett, Saranyan BV, George Freek, Pramod Rastogi, Mike Smith, Gayatri Majumdar, John Grey, Vandana Kumar, Ahmad Al-Khatat, Rhys Hughes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Crossing the Date Line, Rhys talks of his fascination with this imagined construct. Click here to read.

Essays

Epaar Bangla, Opaar Bangla:  Bengals of the Mind

Asad Latif explores if homeland is defined by birth. Click here to read.

The Wabi-Sabi of Making a Living

Aditi Yadav calls for taking a break from hectic work schedules. Click here to read.

Just a Face on Currency Notes?

Debraj Mookerjee writes of Gandhi’s relevance and evolution. Click here to read.

A Mother, a Daughter & a Demon Slayer?

Meenakshi Malhotra checks out the festival of Durga Puja, declared the a heritage festival by UNESCO. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

Candice Lousia Daquin explores festivals and the God gene in We had Joy, We Had Fun…. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

KL Twin Towers near Kolkata?

Devraj Singh Kalsi visits the colours of a marquee hosting the Durga Puja season with its spirit of inclusivity. Click here to read.

A Five Hundred Nautical Mile Voyage to Tasmania

Meredith Stephens writes of sailing to Tasmania when the pandemic had just started loosening its grip. Click here to read.

Keep Walking…

Ravi Shankar recommends walking as a panacea to multiple issues, health and climate change and takes us on a tour of walks around the world. Click here to read.

The Matriarch of Hirronk

Ali Jan Maqsood introduces us to a strong matriarch from a Balochi village. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Drill, Fill, Just Chill, Devraj Singh Kalsi gives us humour while under a dentist’s drill. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

Suzanne Kamata writes of her A Ramble on Bizan, focussing on a writer, also by the surname of Moraes, who lived on Mount Bizan more than century ago, moving to Japan from Portugal having fallen violently in love. Click here to read.

Short Stories

Half-Sisters

Sohana Manzoor explores the darker regions of human thought with a haunting psychological narrative about familial structures. Click here to read.

Homecoming

Rituparna Mukherjee gives a poignant story about missing home. Click here to read.

The Phosphorescent Sea

Paul Mirabile journeys with his protagonist into the depths of the ocean. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In Deathless are the Words, Sunil Sharma explores madness and ideators who believe in the power of words. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee. Click here to read.

An excerpt from A Handful of Sesame by Shrinivas Vaidya, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed BM Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakir. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More, a collection of the maestro’s writings and illustrations. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

The Sky

The sky is, was and will be.

It stretches without borders, without interruptions, without contentions, unifying all under its life-giving ambience. We live nurtured by the sky, the water and the Earth. If we think back to times before humans made constructs and built walls to guard their own, to times when their ancestors roamed the Earth and moved to meet their needs, the population was not huge, and resources were abundant. Our species lived in consonance with nature. People revered natural forces and found trends that evolved into traditions and constructs which eventually made their progeny forget that the sky, water and Earth did not belong to them. These belong or perhaps exist for some reason that we do not comprehend despite the explanations given by science and religions. Being merely transient passers-by through these, humanity, unlike dinosaurs, has an urge to survive and be like the sky — with a past, present and future and a sense of the eternal. Though we all have short lives compared to the sky, Earth or universe, we continue to find ourselves in a homo centric world that considers all else to be made to meet their aspirations. But there was a time, when humans lacked this arrogance. They just tried to survive. And move with shifting rivers in an unbordered world.

Exploring such times, is Anthony Sattin’s profound book, Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World. He converses to reinforce reviving the concept of asabiyya or bonding between humans so that they find it in their hearts to move forward with necessary changes to avoid following in the footsteps of mammoths. A change maker who redefined constructs for humankind, a devdasi’s[1] daughter who rose to become a pioneering doctor and activist a hundred years ago, is Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. We have an interview with her recent biographer, R Devika, who authored Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights.

The books reviewed this time include one featuring the writings by the greatest change maker in cinema — Satyajit Ray. Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More while Professor Somdatta Mandal has given us a candid opinion on BM Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakir. Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the  Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee brings unexplored dark mysterious forces into play and has been reviewed by Basudhara Roy. We have an excerpt from the titular stories of Tarantath Tantrik. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay(1894-1950) was a legendary writer from Bengal. He wrote stories and novels, some of which were immortalised in cinema, such as the Apu triology by Satyajit Ray. The other book excerpt is from a translation from Kannada by an upcoming voice that needs to be heard, Maithreyi Karnoor. She has brought to the anglophone world Shrinivas Vaidya’s Handful of Sesame.

In our section on translations, we are privileged to carry voices that remain relevant to date, Tagore and Nazrul. Nazrul’s poem on poverty, Daridro, has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam and we have a transcreation of Tagore’s inspiring lyrics (Aalo Amar Aalo) to energise one’s life with the refulgence of light. Rosy Gallace’s poetry has been translated from Italian by Albanian writer, Irma Kurti. Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, has translated his own poem on peace for us. And a Tamil short story by S Ramakrishnan, has been rendered into English by B Chandramouli. It is an interesting potpourri as is our poetry section, which even features poetry from Iraq by Ahmad Al-Khatat. We also feature poems by Michael Burch, Kirpal Singh, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Ron Pickett, George Freek, Gayatri Majumdar, Vandana Kumar, Mike Smith and many more along with the inimitable witty ditties of Rhys Hughes which not only make us laugh but also wonder…

Evoking humour is not easy, but we do have a few such writers who manage it very well. Hughes has given us a tongue-in-cheek piece on the dateline, which has more than humour. And Devraj Singh Kalsi has shared his discovery that laughter is the best medicine to shrug off a dentist’s drill. He has also visited the colours of Durga Puja which, with its spirit of inclusivity, transported visitors in one marquee near Kolkata to the iconic Malaysian Twin Towers. Thus, bringing festivals in October into our purview. Candice Lousia Daquin has actually explored why we celebrate festivals and the God gene… Did you know we have a biological need for spirituality?

Suzanne Kamata has introduced us to Mount Bizan, which houses a writer by the surname of Moraes – Wenceslau José de Souza de Moraes, an expat writer who lived in Japan at the turn of the twentieth century. Wonder if he could have been related to the Anglo Indian writer, Dom Moraes? Aditi Yadav has also given us an essay on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi with its world view centred on imperfections and transience. Ravi Shankar has suggested walks for all of us, sharing his experiences in the Himalayas, the Caribbean island of Aruba and in many more places. Meredith Stephens has written of sailing to Tasmania.

The essay that brought back a flavour of home for me is one by Asad Latif, now a journalist in Singapore but long ago, he was an icon in India. We are very privileged to have his writing on what borders do for us… a piece exploring the idea on which we base our journal, also perhaps with a touch of Anthony Sattin’ s asabiyya. ‘Pandies’ Corner‘ starts another run, showcasing women’s tryst for freedom. Amreen’s ‘Moh-Reen’, her own story, translated from Hindustani by Janees, is a brave start to the series. The voices ring out asking for a change, to heal social norms to accommodate love and kindness with the backing of Shaktishalini and Pandies as does the unsupported solo voice of an older woman from Balochistan, Ganji Baloch, brought to our notice by Ali Jaan Maqsood.

We have fiction from Sohana Manzoor – again bringing to fore strange stories of women rebelling against social norms. Paul Mirabile explores death and the sea in a horrific story. Sunil Sharma’s fiction explores madness and ideators, making a social comment on recent happenings. As the sky stretches out to accommodate all kinds of writings, all creatures great and small, we try our best to give voice to a fair cross section from around the world as we have done this time too.

There are as usual pieces that we have not mentioned in this note but they are all worth a read. Do drop in to check out our contents in this October issue. We are truly grateful to our contributors who continue to connect with words and thoughts that waft along with clouds. We would like to thank Sohana Manzoor especially for her wonderful artwork. The journal would not be a possibility without the support of the whole team and our valuable readers who make writing worth the effort. It is lovely to be read and remembered for the words we write.

Wish you all a wonderful October.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com


[1] A woman ‘married’ to Gods and forced to live as a mistress to mortal men.

Categories
Essay

Epaar Bangla, Opaar Bangla:  Bengals of the Mind

Asad Latif

By Asad Latif 

If nations are imagined (but not therefore imaginary) communities, Bengal is a nation. The reality of nationhood rests on the quality of the imagination that goes into it. 

Calcutta, where I was born in 1957, provided me with a cartographic point of entry into the imagined geography of Bengal. My Bengal began with West Bengal, within which lay a rough face-to-face society rich in visual and oral provenance. The everyday homeliness of rural thatched mud huts were reflected in the high gabled roofs which contoured the spiritual skyline of Dakshineswar. Minstrel bauls walked through the soul, half-starved on their way to seeking salvation for everyone. The very soil of Bengal broke out in bhatiali song. The chau dancers of Purulia dramatised Hindu epics in a language emotively accessible to all. The energy of santhali dances invoked the performative agency of a tribal culture that refused to let pre-industrial and pre-state time lapse into contemporary irrelevance.   

Agricultural West Bengal encompassed the legacy of a land whose grasp was much longer and larger than the social circumference of middle-class life in Calcutta. In my own ancestral village in Hooghly district, a short train journey from Howrah station, boys my age could climb trees and run barefoot and naked across scorching soil, outpacing the shy urbanite in me. Young women, taught to avoid the roving gaze of male strangers, lowered their eyes to the ground in modest contemplation when men passed by. Farmers could bend unbearingly long to till the land, standing upright for only a few minutes before they resumed their toil. No one spoke English. No one needed to. No one needed me. I needed them.

To the west of West Bengal lay the rest of India. The “rest of the Indians” were decipherable. In Bihar and Odisha, once a part of Bengal Presidency, rump Bengal lived on in the linguistic and cultural traces of the colonial past. Farther west, West Bengal vanished into an eclectic Indian nationalism. I must say, though, that on a long train journey from Calcutta to Cochin in Kerala as a teenager, I thought (rightly or wrongly) that the particular shade of green found in the vegetation of West Bengal was lost till it was found in Kerala again. The renewed connection between Calcutta and Cochin made it possible for me to extend my Bengali-ness vicariously all the way to Kerala, making me quite a pan-Indian Bengali, I suppose. The connective nationalism of Indian Railways (like that of the State Bank of India) plays no small part in protecting the unitary reality of contemporary India. 

Farther to the west of the rest of India lay the lands of Islam. They began with forbidden territory: Pakistan. Pakistan embodied the Partition of India, the departure of space from Indian time. For me, West Pakistan was unknown terrain: No one I loved or hated lived there. But if, indeed, there was an “Islamic world”, then I certainly inhabited it subliminally. I was (and am) a Muslim. I belonged to the global efflorescence of a great faith that had spread into my birth and self-recognition. West Pakistan had nothing to do with it. My mother was a practising Muslim (after a fashion), my father was a practising atheist. As a five-day-old, I had been “adopted” by a childless Hindu couple who lived in the same block of flats as my parents. Nilima Kurup (née Bose) took me to temples, and Parameshwara Raghava Kurup, well-versed in the Vedas, stayed away from the Puranas. But no one made me anything but a Bengali indebted forever to the Islamic religiosity of South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. Certainly, I belonged to the lands of Islam. There was nothing vicarious about this. It is just that West Pakistan had nothing to do with my identity. I respected its existence even as it stayed indifferent to mine (since it had no idea that I existed). That was all.   

East Pakistan was different. I had relatives there on both my mother’s side and my father’s. I remember a childhood visit to my paternal uncle’s home in Narayanganj. It was raining. Unlike West Bengal (where rain falls on people), the people of East Bengal fall on the rain. A female cousin, all of six years old, made an excuse of going to the bathroom: instead, she took a bath in a roomful of rain as wide as the skies outside, within sight of the elders, dancing with the abandon of the water that flowed through her tresses, kissed her eyes, drenched her frock, and caused an uproar that led her to be dragged back to lunch, laughing unrepentantly. Meanwhile, her elder brother wanted to go to the “bathroom” as well. He was held back by his hair and resisted violently, raining cries of recrimination on everyone. Watching my wild bangal (native East Bengali) cousins in righteous ghoti (native West Bengali) awe, I decided that East Pakistan was too Bengali for me. 

But it was not to be. 

Bangladesh

Baker-ul Haque came to live next door to our flat in Nasiruddin Road, Park Circus, Calcutta, in 1971. A year younger, he caught up with me in historical time with vivid stories of how he and his family had escaped Bogra, trudging through forests as the Pakistani air force strafed fleeing civilians, people fell dead on the left and the right, his mother held on his elder sister’s hand, he grasped his younger siblings firmly, his father led on, and all of them made their way — to me. I doubted specific details of his heroic journey, but not his visceral courage. I witnessed it when my pet dog chased him to the fourth-storey terrace, he climbed on to the parapet and kept walking on it calmly, I held the dog back, and I implored Baker to climb down. He smiled at me insouciantly. It was only when he saw tears in my eyes that he relented. Once he was safely down, I wanted to give him a hearty kick, but settled for a rib-shattering hug instead. Epaar Bangla[1]wins when Opaar Bangla[2]is safe. 

Baker and his family lived next door, in the third-storey flat which the writer Syed Mujtaba Ali had occupied briefly earlier. Given his literary reputation, I stayed away from him, but he was rather fond of me, and I invaded his rooms whenever I found the door ajar. The family which stayed with my own family was that of Lutfar Rahman, an Awami League Member of the National Assembly from Khulna. Chachaji[3] smiled a lot but was fierce, chachiamma[4] was benign to a fault, their elder son Ornob took after his mother and their younger son Tulu (his pet-name) took after his father. Both brothers, who were much younger than I was, became mini companions on laughing excursions to the same terrace on which Baker had reduced me to tears.         

The liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971 (which happily and sadly soon saw Baker’s and Lutfar Chacha’s families returning to Bogra and Khulna) was my rebirth as a Bengali. I had been born into the bifurcated mythos of Bengal, which was first partitioned administratively in 1905 in an act rescinded in 1911, and then partitioned along national lines in 1947 to produce Pakistan. The partition of that Pakistan in 1971 produced an independent Bengali nation called Bangladesh. It is only in the years to come that I would understand the reasons for the ontological security of Bangladesh: it is a sated or satisfied nation because its borders guarantee the two conditions of its existence — that it be Bengali and Muslim in co-determinate measure — with provision being made for the rights of non-Bengalis and non-Muslims within its borders. Indeed, so successful has Bangladeshi nationalism been that its majority population finds it unnecessary to seek links with West Bengal to achieve cultural completion. That attitude is reciprocated in West Bengal, whose incorporation into the Indian ethos makes Bangladesh its closest neighbour, but a neighbour nevertheless. 

Yet, to look across the border within Bengal, to see its integrity, is to un-see its divisions. Bengal is named ground: To walk on it, even vicariously, is to recover the insights of Walter Benjamin [5]on his visit to Moscow. Benjamin’s delineation of Russia as named ground (in his Reflections) leads him to proclaim that “you can only see if you have already decided… Only he who, by decision, has made his dialectical peace with the world can grasp the concrete. But someone who wishes to decide ‘on the basis of facts’ will find no basis in the facts”. The facts are always too many. The facts are contested. The facts might not even be facts. But Bengal is decidedly one — not because of its successes but because of its vulnerabilities. 

The Refugee Within

The fragile figure of the refugee straddles the two Bengals. Achintya Kumar Sengupta’s[6] poem, Udvastu[7], rendered unforgettably in the recitation by Kazi Sabyasachi[8], is a part of an aural tradition without which it is impossible to re-imagine the Bengal that existed once. What makes the refugee central to the idea of Bengal as a state of mind is that she embodies the land’s biological unity and integrity in the very act of losing her place in its stolen geography. Bearing the scars of uprooting, dispossession and exile, the refugee socialises the pain which lasts long after the immediate displacement of enforced migration has passed. To seek refuge is to pass from basha to bariBasha is a temporary place of residence, no matter how long that temporarity lasts. Bari is an inherited abode which is both ancestrally personal and nationally interchangeable with desh, the native land. The udvastu or vastuhara[9] from East Bengal seeking refuge in West Bengal since 1947 had to contend with what Nilanjana Chatterjee calls “epistemological denial in India”, wherein those who had crossed the border were treated as an economic burden. 

The epilogue to the story of the refugees of 1947 was written in 1971, when it was the turn of Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan to join Bengali Hindus in seeking refuge in West Bengal. While the vast majority of refugees spent months in harrowing conditions, professional and other middle-class families were often hosted by middle-class families in West Bengal who could afford to do so. It was not unknown for the family of a Bengali Hindu, who himself had come from East Bengal in 1947, to share its basha with a Bengali Muslim family. The Bengali Muslim knew that he would return home if Bangladesh won the war. His Hindu host kept dreaming of a bari relegated forever to the nostalgic lay of a lost land. 

My family was more lucky. Our first trip to Bangladesh was to Lutfar Chacha‘s home in Khulna across the land crossing in Benapole. Of course, I enjoyed the royal spreads at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. But what filled my eyes was the sight of Ornob, Tulu and their little sister (by then), strutting about their home as if it was theirs. It was theirs. Bangladesh restored in me my extended sense of myself, my identity as a resident of Epaar Bangla who sought completion in the autonomy of Opaar Bangla. Soon after, I visited Baker in Bogra. At one dinner, his mother sat down just the two of us together. Naturally, I got the larger piece of fish in a bowl. I cooked up an excuse for Baker to go and look for something. I exchanged the bowls. He returned to eat. When we began with the vegetables, he exchanged the bowls. That insouciant smile again. I hate him. He has outwitted me always inspite of being a year younger.     

The refugee is the first citizen of imagined Bengal. She will also be the last. That is, without Bangladesh and West Bengal being the ultimate refuge of the transitional Bengali self, there will be no Bengal.  

There will be no me.

Birth matters. No one can be born in two places.

In his essay, “Englands of the Mind”, Seamus Heaney[10] registers the birthing role of place in the “interlacing and trellising of natural life and mythical life”; what a land does is to afford a man “nurture that he receives by living among his own”. Bengal forms a similar geography of the mind. It received me among my own. Life was material, which is to say that it veered from the banal to the brutal, but it was redeemed by the furtive companionship of the imagination.  The trellising which Heaney notes does not have to be idyllic. It rarely is. Australian writer Dorothea Mackellar’s[11] poem, “My Country“, written while she was homesick in Britain, captures the native lore of a land that her ancestors supposedly discovered for her. She writes: “I love a sunburnt country,/ A land of sweeping plains,/ Of ragged mountain ranges,/Of drought and flooding rains.” Australia is nothing without its enervating drought and its equally uncaring rain. Mackellar dismisses the pastoral epiphanies of a promised expatriate land, particularly “When sick at heart, around us/ We see the cattle die”. Natural disasters provoke her to reclaim art from nature. She redeems a wayward landscape by offering it refuge in her lines.

I am no Heaney or Mackellar. Bengal has no need to find refuge in my words. May these English words of mine find refuge in the lap of Bengal from which I sprung into life.  


[1] Epaar Bangla: This side of Bengal (West Bengal)

[2] Opaar Bangla: That side of Bengal (East Bengal or Bangladesh)

[3] Father’s younger brother is chacha and ji is an honorific in chachaji

[4] Father’s younger brother’s wife

[5] Walter Benjamin, German-Jewish man of letters and aesthetician (1892-1940)

[6] Achintya Kumar Sengupta (1903-1976), writer and editor in Bengali language

[7] Refugee in Bengali

[8] Kazi Sabyasachi (died 1979), a Bengali Elocutionist, Nazrul’s son

[9] Dispossessed in Bengali

[10] Seamus Heany, 1939-2013, Irish writer

[11]  Dorothea Mackellar, 1885-1962

 Asad Latif is a Singapore-based journalist. He can be contacted at badiarghat@borderlesssg1

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