Categories
Essay

Living up to my Seafaring Name in Tasmania

Narrative and photographs by Meredith Stephens

When I asked my mother why she called me ‘Meredith’, she told me that she had named me after one of the children in the class she had been teaching before she got married. Still curious, I looked up the meaning of my name and found that it meant ‘leader of the sea’. But it wasn’t until my seventh decade that I left the cloistered world of academia and became a seafarer. Then I was finally able to live up to my name, at least partially. Not only did I become a sailor, I also became a serious hiker, and learnt how to replace my daily shower for sporadic dunks in the ocean.

Alex, Luke, Verity and I were sailing south along the rugged western coast of Tasmania to Port Davey. The morning we arrived I ventured onto the deck and noticed that there was no beach, and the foliage was scrub rather than forests. As we entered Port Davey, we noticed still waters and jagged mountains. Several other yachts were anchored in the cove. Kayakers wove their way hugging the coast. I sat on the stern of the deck taking in the scenery that few people have the chance to observe. Port Davey is only accessible by small plane or boat, not by road.

Once anchored we decided to climb Balmoral Hill. Luke chose this because it promised the best rewards for the least effort; it would be a relatively easy climb with spectacular views. We made our way in the dinghy to the shore. We followed the wombat tracks, pushing our way through the bushes and native flowers, and reached the summit in under an hour. Balmoral Hill lived up to its promise. Views of Port Davey extended in all directions. The climb down was more challenging than the climb up, and I found myself lagging behind the others as usual.

We returned to the boat and it was still only 3 pm. We hadn’t been able to take regular showers because of the limited supply of fresh water on the boat. Luke and Alex decided to have a swim. Alex begged me to go in too.

“If you go in, I’ll give you a gin and tonic,” promised Alex.

He knew that was a sure-fire way to entice me in. I donned my swimsuit and secured my hair on the top of my head. I poked my feet into the water. Alex kept encouraging me to go in and finally I braved the cold brackish waters. I willed myself to stay in for a minute or two before climbing back up the ladder. Then Alex offered me a brief but hot shower on deck. True to his word, he brought me a gin and tonic with my favourite snack of hummous and seaweed crackers.

It was still early afternoon.

“Do you want to go ashore again?” Alex offered.

A narrow strip of white shore was enticing us. We made the 100metres trip to the shore in the dinghy. The shore consisted of white granite pebbles. We walked up and down the pebbles so that they could massage the soles of our feet, providing a shiatsu-like treatment.

The next morning Alex and Luke were looking forward to climbing Mt Rugby.

“How long does it take to climb?” I asked Luke.

“About six or seven hours.”

Alex had always encouraged me to go on daily hikes with him, and I was worried that I would have to undertake a six hour hike up Mt Rugby. Alex read my mind, and I realised that he was not expecting me to accompany them. He reminded me how to use the VHF [Very High Frequency] radio in case we needed to summon help. Verity and I stayed on the boat, working on our laptops in the saloon, gazing through a window at Mt Rugby, as the boat gently swayed back and forth. I went onto the deck periodically to scan Mt Rugby to try and sight Alex and Luke, but couldn’t find them. Before I knew it they had returned.

That evening, while positioning the dinghy, the rope became intertwined in the propellor. Alex donned his swimmers and dived quickly into the cold water to cut the rope. Every now and then he emerged from the water with his mask. His legs and feet were visible beneath the surface of the tannin filled water every time he dived back in. Eventually he cut the rope and returned to the boat.

The next morning we continued to Joe Page Bay to see the swans. After anchoring we hopped into the dinghy and headed for the lagoon. We noticed flocks of swans in the distance but as soon as they heard the engines of the dinghy they took off. The water was too shallow because it was low tide. We were at risk of hitting the river bottom, so we eventually turned around and returned to the boat.

It was another two days before we exited Port Davey. We headed back in the direction of the open ocean to anchor for the night, ready to leave the next day. Alex and Luke carefully chose the calmest spot in the north-west corner of Brambell Cove. Mt Millner was beckoning so we took the dinghy ashore and headed up the mountain.

“What if I can’t do it?” I asked Alex.

“You can rest on the beach if you like,” came the reply.

We entered a shady grove and found the path. Verity and Luke took the lead and Alex the rear, so I wouldn’t get left behind. The wombat track was studded in deep holes and it was hard to enjoy the view of the islands while being careful where I placed my feet. I thought we had nearly reached the summit, but it kept stretching ahead.

“You go ahead. I don’t need to get to the summit. I’ll rest here.” I pleaded.

Alex was having none of it.

“Look! We have reached the saddle. You can even go downhill for a bit before we ascend again. Not much further to go!” he encouraged me.

How could I disagree when Alex had so much confidence in me? I continued to clamber up the mountain. The bare surroundings turned to dense scrub and I had to push the branches away from my face to clear the way. Then in my haste I found myself falling backwards. My landing was cushioned by some thick undergrowth. My feet, bound up in my heavy hiking boots, stretched before me and I was tempted to rest a bit longer, but I worried about holding the others up, so I took a deep breath and summoned the effort to get up. No sooner had I reached the summit than I realised that it was another false summit. Rising before me was a steep incline to the sky.

“I can’t do it Alex!” I called behind me.

“You’re very nearly there. Then you can say that you climbed to the summit.”

I didn’t really care about being able to boast that I had reached the summit. Would anyone be impressed by that? But again, Alex’s enthusiasm pressed me on. With such encouragement it would be surly to refuse.

After climbing the steep incline I really did reach the summit. I caught a glimpse of the seascape below and the conical islands dotted in the bay. The fierce sun was oppressive and so I turned away, gratefully sat down on some heather, and pulled my hair away from my neck. Alex gave me some water.

“Do you want to walk to the other end of the summit?” Alex invited me.

If you walked to the other side you could look down on an ocean bay, but I could view it from my seated position and this time I really did decline.

After sitting there for twenty minutes I was cool enough to brave the descent. Luke and Verity climbed down quickly and waited on the shore. Alex took the rear and we trod along the wombat path trying to avoid the holes. Finally we reached Luke and Verity. We removed our hiking boots, hopped into the dinghy and motored back to the boat.

We had to ration fresh water and did not want to waste it taking a shower. I didn’t relish bathing in the ocean but I was both hot and perspiring so I felt I didn’t have a choice. I popped on my swimsuit, asked Alex to pull down the ladder, climbed down and immersed myself in the water. Finally, I was cool and clean. I couldn’t imagine being any more tired after the strain of the climb, the punishing sun and immersion in cold water. I am surprised I managed to mount the false summits and reach the real summit. It shows how encouragement can push you beyond the goal you set for yourself.

Alex prepared dinner. Behind the boat the sunset over the sea turned from an intense orange to purple. That night the boat was so still that we could have been excused for thinking we were on land. I was finally beginning to embrace my seafaring name.

Now that I had some sense of having earnt my first name, Meredith, I was ready to explore territory featuring the second part of my name, Stephens. My Great Aunt May, born around 1906, used to explain how her forebears had run a ‘Stephens’ shipping line in London in the late 1800s. Even my surname had a seafaring connection.

The next day we headed out to the open ocean past Bramwell Bay on our left and Breaksea Islands on our right. We anchored at Spain Bay, took the dinghy to shore, and then hiked to the other side of the peninsula. First the vegetation was low, and gradually gave way to bracken. We had to push the branches aside as we trudged through the mud. Then the path entered a forest with a canopy above the trail. Wooden stairs gave way to Stephens Bay. We sat on a rock to rest, and nibbled on some of the dry seaweed washed up on the beach, wondering what it would taste like if rehydrated in a misoshiru soup. I pondered whether I had an ancestral connection to this place as ships on their way from England to the east coast of Australia would have passed by this bay.

Back on board, despite the cold, I thought I would brave the waters again to refresh myself. I donned my swimsuit and tentatively climbed down the ladder into the sea. Alex dived in before me and I could tell from his expression that it was colder than we expected, as we were closer to the ocean. I held onto the ladder and vigorously moved my legs to warm myself up. I could only manage thirty seconds in the water despite resolving to last two minutes.

The next morning Alex entreated me to get up so as not to miss out on the spectacular scenery as we rounded southern Tasmania. The seas were as calm as they could possibly be. The boat was gently cantering in slow motion across the swell. South West Cape loomed in the distance, about an hour away. Luke was at the helm and Alex, Verity and I climbed carefully to the front of the boat holding onto the rails, and sat on the foredeck while we passed the cape, as the sun forced its way into view. Five hours later we rounded South East Cape, one of the five southernmost capes in the world, the others being West Cape Howe (Western Australia), South Cape (New Zealand), Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.

Heading to the South West Cape, south western Tasmania

After so many decades spent in libraries and classrooms, my life had taken a turn and I suddenly found myself surrounded by ocean. Of course, living on a boat did not mean I would abandon reading and writing. In fact, the long hours at sea afforded even more time for these pursuits. This was especially the case when at anchor waiting for rough seas to subside, out of internet range, when there was little else to do. Nevertheless, I think my mother would have been more than surprised had she known that I would spend weeks at sea in some of Australia’s most remote waters. Neither of us could have imagined how literally I would grow into my name.

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

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Categories
Notes from Japan

Imagining a Possible Future: Filmmaker Felicity Tillack

Suzanne Kamata brings to us people, experiences and cultures from Japan

Director and writer, Felicity Tillack, preparing a shot at Uji.  Photo courtesy : William Yagi Lewis

Before coming to Japan in 2006, Felicity Tillack had hoped to become a Japanese high school teacher in Australia. She had grown up in Mackay in West Queensland where Japanese was one of the languages taught in primary school. “I fell in love,” Tillack says. In spite of her passion for the language and culture, she concedes that she wasn’t very good at Japanese. She decided to drop education as a major. After earning a B.A. in literature, she got on a plane to Japan. Now based in Kyoto, Tillack teaches at an international school, writing and making films on the side.

Tillack started making videos in 2012 on her Youtube channel Where Next Japan. She eventually moved on to documentaries such as New Japanese Citizens and 3rd Culture Kids in Japan. These projects, she says, “really started me thinking more deeply about the concept of identity and how it is tied to the culture you grow up in as well as your ethnic roots and background. I’ve seen so many kids struggle with their identity. I taught many biracial kids, with one Japanese parent and one foreign parent who, in their struggle to feel legitimate and accepted within Japan, would often strongly reject their non-Japanese heritage. So, a lot of experiences and observations started to come together and slowly built into a story.”

Impossible to Imagine, her debut narrative feature film is the story of Ami Shimizu (played by Yukiko Ito), a Kyoto woman doing her best to keep her mother’s kimono rental shop alive, and Hayato Arai (played by first-time actor William Yagi Lewis), the biracial Japanese business consultant that she hires for advice. It evolves into a romance, but it’s also an exploration of tradition versus change in one of Japan’s most traditional and impenetrable cities.

Although Tillack is Australian, the film is mostly in Japanese. “I felt that it was a story that needed to be told in Japanese with Japanese characters,” she says. “I wanted to start a conversation here in Japan.” She wrote the script initially in English and had it translated into Japanese. Tillack admits that the language barrier is “a big difficulty” when filmmaking in Japan, but both of the actors in the starring roles are bilingual. They were able to offer advice on cultural details and interpret, when necessary.

Tillack made the film on a shoestring budget of about a million yen (around US$10,000), financed out of her own pocket. The movie was shot in about ten days on the streets near her home. Although she wasn’t able to pay her actors and crew much, she said that she and her colleagues saw the making of the film as a “learning experience.”

Left to right: Felicity Tillack (director, writer), Yukiko Ito (main actress, Ami Shimizu) and William Yagi Lewis (main actor, Hayato Arai) at the Kyoto premiere of Impossible to Imagine.  Photo Courtesy: Morgan Lewis

Impossible to Imagine has been shown at several film festivals, including the Paris Lift-Off Film Festival, and the Shinjuku World Film Festival in Tokyo. Tillack has also hosted screenings at various venues in Japan. At one such event held at a Buddhist temple in Kagawa Prefecture, the audience was mostly elderly and eager to discuss the issues brought up by the film. The movie is now streaming on Amazon, making it accessible to viewers all over the world.

Tillack, who cites Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series as an inspiration, had plans to start shooting a sequel: I had written the script, lined up financing, and everything.” But then the pandemic hit. Unable to make movies for the time being, she has started on another script, this one tentatively entitled Before Real Life Begins. It refers to the idea that foreigners often come to Japan after graduating from college intending to stay for a year or two before their “real life” starts. Tillack’s script contends that time spent in Japan is real life. Keeping in mind that Westerners experience Japan differently than Filipinos, for example, she hopes to explore this issue from various viewpoints. She is working on this story with two other writers who are based in Tokyo.

Tillack also had a hand in the forthcoming film Matcha and Vanilla, a love story written and directed by her friend Hamish Downie, who was the producer of Impossible to Imagine. Tillack is listed in the cast as “journalist” on the movie’s IMBD site, however she insists it’s only a bit part. Tillack’s future in filmmaking is off to a promising start.

In imagining a future for Japan, Felicity Tillack looks back at her own country’s history. “I was told when I was very young not to marry outside my culture,” she says – advice that she did not heed. She points out that in the 1970s, Australia was “95% white”, however, now, one in four in the country were born overseas. “Australia has changed culturally.” Through her work, both on this film and her other creative endeavors, Tillak suggests that her adopted country, too, may become more inclusive and accepting in the not-too-distant future.


Felicity Tillack (director, writer) and Shota Wanibe (sound mixer, boom operator) receiving an award at Shinjuku World Festival. Photo Courtesy: Shota Wanibe

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Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

Thanks to the columnist Suzanne Kamata for sourcing the photographs.

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Categories
Review

Masala and Murder: Sugar & Spice & Not Everything Nice

Book review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Masala and Murder

Author: Patrick Lyons

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Masala and Murder is a tantalising detective novel by Patrick Lyons, who is an Anglo-Indian writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He has had an interest in crime stories since childhood and has been writing from a very young age. His writing reflects his experience as an Anglo-Indian growing up in Australia during the 1970s and 1980s, which paves the way for Lyons to explore broader concepts of exclusiveness, racism, identity, and duality. These notions subtly sprout in his work and fortify the plot and characters in his story.

The whodunit comes in a well-packed set of 40 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. The opening of the murder mystery is at a place called Uluru, or Ayers Rock, a scenic, sacred place for the aboriginal Australians which houses a massive sandstone monolith in the heart of the country’s arid “Red Centre”. On the fateful day, a mix of noise and silence, natural and artificial at the foot of the Uluru after sunrise await the tourists along with the Bollywood crew as they prepare to scale the famous rock. The Bollywood celebrity, Subhani Mehta, is all set to shoot a dance number on the top of the Uluru. As they reach the summit, amidst the heat and dust, the lead lady readies herself. High-pitched music plays. The camera rolls. They all move in unison. All of a sudden, Subhani Mehta gasps for air and falls. She dies in a matter of seconds.      

This makes headlines in India although it was just another crime news in Australia. Aamir Mehta, a well-to-do industrialist, and father of the dead actress, suspects foul play and approaches Samson Ryder, a private investigator in Melbourne to investigate the incident. Ryder, who was not a private investigator by choice, accepts the case for easy money. Ryder also empathises with the helplessness of Subhani’s father as he had lost his only sister and had seen his parents suffer similarly. He still carries the pangs of guilt for not having done enough to save his sibling.

An initial inquiry to Subhani’s case is dismissed as her demise is listed as a “natural death”. What had actually led to her death continues to be a puzzle as the incident was wrapped up in a hurry. Widespread corruption made way to create an easy exit for the case. Little did Ryder know that the task would lead him to unknown territories that would not only give a fair share of closure for the case but also, add to a better understanding of his messed-up work and life.   

Lyons manoeuvres the crime novel with a set of interesting characters that harmonise to make an intriguing tale. Besides the fee, Ryder’s own past and his relationship with his family make him want to bring solace to the torments of the loss of a child to a family. Cross-cultural exchanges on the aspects of beliefs, rituals, taboos, faith, and spiritualism, black magic, talisman, spirits, tantric, curses, exorcism, Kali worship, etc. in the story are ingredients of the masalas that spice the scrumptious murder mystery. Traversing inner lanes of glamour and darkness, the narrative excitingly reveals the rawness of humans in Bollywood. Lyon presents the Anglo-Indian communities in Australia and Mumbai, with more focus on food and lifestyle to create a feeling of universal belonging. Additionally, his experience as a citizen and as an NRI, ultimately shares a greater awareness of stereotypes and realities of identity.

Lyons beautifully brings up the idea of dreams in relation to our state of mind through Ryder. Themes of minority, infidelity, jealousy, ego, vengeance, depression, grieving, trauma, death threats, abuse – physical and drugs — are touched upon as the story meanders to figure out who murdered Subhani.

Was it the Singhs, Nair, Nadar or Ms. Khan, or was it just a natural death? The suspense interestingly lingers till the end. There is a tussle of love and hate, good and bad, atheism and faith, fear and strength, an exploration of identities bringing to life the duality in characters and unraveling stories within the story. That people cope with personal loss in different ways is subtly shown. Ryder’s father and his godmother, Mabel, resort to faith and worship and his mother keeps herself busier with cooking.

Lyons brings in timely wit and humour. The romantic grids with Rebecca, Ryder’s love interest, and conversations on the unfolding of the crime with Mabel are the lighter shades in the story. Through the descriptions of  traffic, lanes, scent and sights of the cities of Melbourne and Mumbai, Lyons also captivates  with  glimpses of  relatable beauty and distasteful sides of the cityscape. Throughout Ryder’s investigation that unravels as he takes taxi rides, walks, runs, making smart moves, breaking laws or flying across cities, there is not a dull moment in the novel.  

The mystery behind the murder trickles from one circumstance to another making a string of unbelievable coincidences. The protagonist advances to the core of the investigation to be stuck with the question — was it all mere coincidence or planned? With every turn of the page, suspense is in the air right from the start to the end. The plot mingles the mysteries of murder with masalas that throw light on love and loss, blatant racism, complexities of identity and belonging, tradition and beliefs across cultures, and the constant battle of good and evil that we play out as human beings. Patrick Lyons’ Masala and Murder (2021) published by Niyogi Books is a crime novel that is refreshingly told and is a compelling read with content that is contemporary and relatable. A beautiful cover design complements the thrill of the narrative.  

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Gracy Samjetsabam is a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. 

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Categories
Editorial

Elephants & Laughter

Run, Painting by Sybil Pretious

Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …

Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.

The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.

Hughes has of course, given some writerly advice not just in the interview but in ‘Making Something of Nothing’ – pretty much the advice that God had probably been given when he asked an unspecified friend on how to create the universe and multiple realities. Hughes has also added to our galaxy of poets where Michael Burch, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Anasuya Bhar, Vernon Daim, William Miller, Pramod Rastogi, Mike Smith, Jay Nicholls and many more continue to sparkle. Taking up the theme of God’s creations, Devraj Singh Kalsi has added to more humour with a dream of divine intervention to make the ‘New Normal’ in 2022 – a plan for this year. Will it ever be real?

Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.

While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years.  Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.

Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.

We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.

We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.

Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’s John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”

I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.

I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.

Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.

I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Essay

Where Sands Drift Back in Time…

Shernaz Wadia explores Western Australia

The aquamarine Indian Ocean shimmered to our left on this sunny day along the drive up north from Perth. There was vague comfort in the thought that it connected us to distant India. This picturesque drive would take us to Lancelin, a small town about 129 kms. north of Perth, approximately an hour and half away. Its biggest attractions are the sand dunes and the sand boarding. As we drew closer to the small town, we passed by many small dunes They were so far from the ocean with tracts of shrub-land on both sides and the highway running through the middle that they seemed like freaks of nature.

From here it was another 3-km drive to the dunes. There was a car park at the entrance but we risked our jeep through the flat, stony terrain to park closer to the dunes and went the next bit on foot. The path was narrow. Having left all footwear in the car our bare soles were chafed walking the few meters of pebbly, coarse path to our destination. But voila! We rounded a bend and it seemed that someone had waved a magic wand!

Simply Stunning! Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Snow white, wind-chiselled dunes rose up over silk soft sand that widened in an undulating carpet. The ocean glittered and foamed some distance away below an azure sky dotted with white clouds; and a wide, lush green strip acted as a barrier between the surf and the dunes. The snowy dunes stood lofty. Reaching the top could be quite a task with a sand board in hand as feet kept sinking into the cool sands! With effort, we managed the yielding surface as we climbed up a mound. Caps and hats blew off. Bare headed at the mercy of the cobalt sky, we lumbered up. But once on top, the panorama took our breath away more than the climb!

‘Have A Chat General Store’ on 104 Gingin Road in the town centre, hired out sand boards. Other than boards, there were buggies, quads, 4WD cars and motorcycles to zip up, down and around the dunes.

Sliding down appeared to be a lot of fun for adults and children alike but climbing back up the steep incline took the wind out of many. For those not quite physically fit, (which I wasn’t) this could be very daunting.

Sand Boarding. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Much as we would have loved to spend more time on the dunes, a merciless wind forced us to pack and leave. It blew sand into our eyes (we had sunglasses on), nose, ears, hair and even inside our well protected cell phones. The battery later had to be removed to blow out the fine grains. It was worth it, nonetheless.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

From the sand dunes we drove further north on this one day trip. Along the way, most of the vegetation was stunted. But flowering trees dotted the wayside to cheer us en route to the amazing desert of ancient limestone pillars, scattered across approximately 190 hectares, 60 meters above sea level and just a short distance away from the ocean. Coming upon this alien looking place, with its millennia old history, one’s reaction could only be of reverent awe. It was nature — raw and unrefined — a gateway into the unknown.

These limestone formations were within Nambung National Park, near the town of Cervantes. August to October was the best time to visit the Pinnacles. The weather was mild, wattles and wildflowers welcomed us. One could drive right into the desert, along a four-meter loop carefully demarcated with stones. There were delineated parking spaces where one could stop to roam among these pillars and enjoy a richer experience of the astounding landscape. They have been rightly nicknamed “The Rock Stars of the Outback”. These fragile structures demand to be treated with respect. The raw materials that went into forming these pillars were lime-rich sand and ancient sea-shells, but there are three theories regarding their formation and no consensus has been reached so far.

A diminutive view of the vast Pinnacles desert. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

This millennia-old site, about 60 meters above sea level, evokes veneration. Thousands of the mystifying columns rise above a yellow shifting sand bed. Many of them daunt at 3.5 to 5 meters in height, some with jagged points and others mushroom-like with rounded, hard, calcrete caps that protect the frail formations. It is harder than the limestone below it and so takes longer to erode.

These Pinnacles and their surroundings are a very significant region for the traditional owners of the land, the aboriginal people. The aboriginals who inhabited this region were named the Nyoongar. A river called ‘Nambung’, meaning ‘crooked’, weaves through the region. The Pinnacles are sacred to the local tribe. During the wet season, the Nambung River made a chain of waterholes throughout the park, with the water flowing into the cave systems. These cave waterholes became essential for the survival of the tribe for hundreds of years.

There are many myths surrounding the region, with the local aboriginal people stating the large rock formations were the remains of fossilised ghosts. They were said to be young men who had wandered into the forbidden desert which was sacred and reserved for women. The gods punished them by burying them alive and leaving behind only their standing limestone figures.

It continues treated as a significant region for women, with many women groups gathering together in the desert to do traditional ceremonies, give birth, and camp beneath the stars.

The spectacular desert with its shrubbery is home to many native birds and animals like emus, black-shouldered kite, white-tailed black cockatoos, sand goannas, grey kangaroos, carpet pythons, bobtail lizards and more. Unfortunately we did not spot any of these. A visit to the Pinnacles Desert Discovery Centre, at the edge of the yellow sands gave us an idea of some of these splendid creatures through photos and taxidermy mounts. It also explained the geology of the formations and the cultural and natural heritage values of the area with soundscapes, videos and objects.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Wandering among these ancient sage-like structures is to expand the margins of oneself and slide into a meditative trance; into a strange beyond. The ego slinks away; only deep awe fills the mind and spirit.

Lake Thetis

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

As we drove back towards Perth, we made one more stop for a tryst with ‘Living Fossils” the modern versions of our Earth’s most ancient life-forms: living marine stromatolites. The lake has a circumference of 1.2 metres, with an easy walking path looping around it. A walk down a gravel path and then up a boardwalk and one reaches the lookout platform which has good, informative and instructive sign posts, like this one.

Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke
Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke
Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

Lake Thetis is one of the few places on earth where stromatolites or living fossils are to be found. They are built by microbes called cyanobacteria which are similar to the earliest organisms that produced oxygen for subsequent life forms. They have been growing here for about 3500 years. These rocklike formations teem with micro-organisms that are invisible to the human eye but these living communities of varied residents have population densities of 3000 per square metre! Stromatolites are layered, while their microbial cousins Thrombolites, which are also found here, are clotted structures.  

Fragile Stromalites. Photo Courtesy: Daisy Wadia and Rajeev Ghodke

The stromatolites are our only doorway into the emergence of life way, way, back in cavernous time. A small piece of stromatolite is encoded with biological activity that is thousands of years old. This community is threatened by nutrient enrichment and physical crushing, so visitors are requested to keep off these extraordinary forms.

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Shernaz Wadia regards reading and writing as an inward journey. Her work has been published in various anthologies and e-journals. She sometimes dabbles in short Japanese forms of poetry too.

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Editorial

Towards a Brave New World

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

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’s Beyond 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’s Two 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’s In 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 ‘Trouser Hermit’ 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.

We have also travelled with our book excerpts this time. Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow shuttles between US and Japan and Somdatta Mandal’s translation of  A Bengali lady in England by Krishnabhabi Das, actually has the lady relocate to nineteenth century England and assume the dress and mannerisms of the West to write an eye-opener for her compatriots about the customs of the colonials in their own country.

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!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Slices from Life Travel

How I Transitioned from a Desk Worker to a Rugged Trail Hiker at Age Sixty

Meredith Stephens shares how the pandemic impacted her life choices, with photographs and narration of her adventures

When I worked in Japan I prided myself on my routine of only exercising when incorporating physical movement into my daily routine. I would cycle to and from work, and between buildings on the university campus. This was easy unless there was a storm. Then I would cycle attempting to hold my umbrella, but to no avail. It wasn’t just that cycling with an umbrella was illegal. It was also that my umbrella would turn inside out in the gale and the spokes would break.

When there was a typhoon we were forbidden to go to campus, but I took no notice. Rather than cycling to work I walked. I would run between each building block hoping not to be swept into the air, and when I left the campus to walk home along the riverbank, I would hope that the wind would not pick me up and fling me into the river.

Every day at work I would walk up and down the stairs instead of taking the lift. This was natural given that university policy frowned upon using the lift unless you had to go beyond the third floor. I developed strong calf muscles from climbing the stairs, and strong biceps from carrying books up and down the stairs. I secretly looked down on those who drove to work and then spent their evenings at the gym.

I returned to Australia to visit family just before the pandemic started. Soon after my arrival the Australian government warned its citizens, ‘Do not travel’. I followed this advice and continued working remotely. My return coincided with that of my friend Alex who resided as an expat in the UK. He too decided to follow the advice of the government travel ban. Every now and then Alex invited me to go hiking with him and his daughter Verity. I keenly accepted, since I was so proud of my fitness and strength.

Alex and I began with regular seven kilometre beach walks. The terrain was flat, and I proudly maintained the same pace as him. Then Alex invited me to hike with him in the Innes National Park on the tip of the boot-shaped Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.

I had as much stamina as Alex and I was determined not to lag behind, but there were numerous distractions. We were walking along rugged coastline on the south of the peninsula overlooking Wedge Island when a pair of roos caught my attention. The buck was overlooking the cliff, and the doe, who was beneath, was bathing herself in the warm sand, with her joey’s legs poking out of her pouch. In the glare, I fumbled to see the image on my phone’s camera in order to snap a photograph.

Next the bright yellow wildflowers rising from the succulents demanded my attention as I gazed at the grainy sand and rocks before me.

When I looked up I noticed a gap widening between Alex, Verity, and me.

“Why are you so far behind? Goodness Gracious!” Alex exclaimed.

I tried to explain myself but my voice was carried away in the wind.

I hastily caught up with Alex and Verity, and we completed the walk. Alex announced that our next walk would be along a trail of ruins in the deserted township of Inneston, a few kilometres inland. Now part of a National Park, Inneston had formerly been a gypsum mining town. The township featured a long-abandoned cricket ground, restored houses, and ruins of houses and a bakery. Abandoned farm machinery and mining equipment, long since left to rust, dotted the trail.

Alex informed me that the Inneston hike was seven kilometres and I bravely assured him that I could take it in my stride. The former railway track where gypsum had been transported had been transformed into a hiking trail.

Because I had lagged so far behind on the coastline walk, Alex now insisted I walk in front. I continued to stride confidently, safe in my position as trail leader. Alex monitored the number of kilometres we had covered on My Tracks on his phone. I felt like we had covered five kilometres but when I asked him he said that we had only covered three. Then when I felt we had covered ten kilometres we had only covered seven. On the return journey I could sense Alex’s strides growing closer behind me, and then Verity’s strides growing closer behind him.

“Hurry up!” insisted Alex.

I couldn’t reply. I was so proud of my stamina and endurance. Alex sensed my silence,

“Are you okay? I guess if you combine all of today’s walks we would have walked seventeen kilometres in total.”

I could feel my face burning and eyes swelling. I took a deep breath to calm myself, but couldn’t help blurting out.

“You go ahead. I don’t mind taking the rear.”

As we covered the remaining few kilometres to the carpark I started lagging further and further behind. I took less interest in the ruins and restored houses. When we arrived back at the car I gratefully heaved myself into the passenger seat and let Alex drive us back to our lodgings. On the way Alex stopped to look at the historic jetty in Stenhouse Bay but I did not budge from the passenger seat when invited to join him.

The next morning we resumed our hiking, and I was back in form, climbing up and down sandy dunes to the beach. It’s not so much that I was shorter than Alex or Verity, or even slower, but rather that I got distracted by the purple, yellow and white wildflowers, and the families of roos. Admittedly, I did start to lose stamina after hiking the first few kilometres while trying to hide from the intense Australian sunshine and stopping the legions of flies from entering my mouth.

After the Yorke Peninsula trip, Alex announced that our next hike would be on Kangaroo Island, which lies between the South Australian mainland and the Southern Ocean. No doubt, I will continue to be mesmerised by nature, not least because the kangaroos are smaller over there and have thick chocolate fur, with darker colouring on the tips of their ears, limbs and tails. I might even spot an endangered glossy-black cockatoo, or a seal. Despite these distractions, I am confident that I will keep up. Unless, of course, I stop to take some photographs along the way.

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

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

Categories
Review

From Japan to Australia with a Cat

Book Review by Keith Lyons

Title: The Cat with Three Passports

Author: CJ Fentiman

Going to Japan to teach English seemed like a good way to earn money, but animal lover CJ Fentiman came away from living and working in Japan with more than she expected as chronicled by her in The Cat with Three Passports: What a Japanese cat taught me about an old culture and new beginnings.

A book  that could be  considered a travel memoir, but it stretches beyond the normal scope of a travelogue, due partly to the introverted author’s inner reflection and personal transformation, but mainly due to the courageous actions of the writer in turning a soft spot for a cat into an international animal relocation mission. Sorry to spoil the ending of the book, but in most cases, foreigners going to a strange and different country take a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” approach. So when they leave, it is with fond memories, tales of culture shock and culinary misadventures, and bulging suitcases.

Not so with Fentiman and her partner, Ryan, who faced new challenges while taking a homeless cat with them to Australia, some 8,000 kilometres away. So why would you rescue from the streets a bedraggled silver tabby and then contemplate taking it with you across the oceans? If you are a cat lover, you already know the answer.

Let’s back up. One of the reasons The Cat with Three Passports is such a good read is that from the outset, the reader is invited in to experience Japan as seen through the eyes of someone right off the plane after a long flight. Throughout the book, there are vivid descriptions of landscapes, encounters and events, including weird festivals (naked men) which give an insight into an unfamiliar culture.

If the anticipation isn’t enough, the author exposes her vulnerability by sharing her anxieties and self-doubts, along with her past patterns of escaping situations and places, and how she has been distant from her estranged family.

Cats feature literally and figuratively throughout the book, and the author has blended in feline-related sayings and some of Japan’s cat wisdom. In a way, the cats make CJ and Ryan more “at home” in Japan among the cherry blossoms, bullet trains and vending machines. Essentially, the cats they encounter are the facilitators of the adaption and softening, helping them discover their purpose and giving them fulfilment.

Things take a turn for the surreal when they transfer to a job at a school set in a British theme park high in the mountains. Their time in Japan is not complete without a visit to the famed Cat Island, where cats outnumber humans perhaps thirty five to one. In the same way that cats love warmth and sun, humans are also attracted to cats because they bestow blessings on homo sapiens. One study found that cat owners have better psychological health than people without pets. Cat feeders claim to feel happier, more confident, less nervous and to sleep, focus and face problems better in their lives.

The Cat with Three Passports will appeal to anyone who has or wants to visit Japan, any animal lover or ailurophile along with readers who enjoy travel memoirs. It is a heart-warming and touching tale of outer and inner discovery.

If you’ve already encountered some travel classics on Japan, such as Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson, or Pico Iyer’s recent A Beginners Guide to Japan, consider reading The Cat with Three Passports even if you aren’t a pet lover or Japan fan.

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

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Click here to read the book excerpt.

Click here to read CJ Fentiman’s interview.

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

Categories
Interview

Lessons old and new from a stray Japanese cat

CJ Fentiman in conversation with Keith Lyons

CJ Fentiman & the much travelled cat. Courtesy: CJ Fentiman

CJ Fentiman is a writer, an entrepreneur, and an animal lover, originally from the UK, but currently living in Australia with her partner and two cats. She runs the Australian website, Pet Friendly Accommodation, and published a handy guidebook Travelling with Pets on Australia’s East Coast now in its fifth edition. Regarded as an expert on pet travel, CJ’s memoir The Cat with Three Passports: What a Japanese cat taught me about a old culture and new beginnings tells the story of her adventures as an English teacher in Japan, a fateful encounter with a homeless cat, and her own personal journey of growth and discovery, Fentiman and her partner, Ryan, lived in Japan from 2004 to 2007, but as we’ll learn, some of the biggest challenges came from CJ’s past and their future after working in Japan.

What attracted you to live and work in a place which is very foreign?

When a teaching opportunity came up in Japan, complete with two cats in the work apartment, I jumped at the chance. At first, Japan offered a way to travel and make money, I never thought I’d fall in love with the culture as much as I did, and that I’d learn so much from living there.

Do you think living in a strange and foreign place, and living as a couple, focused more on you, how you are in the world, and past patterns?

It can be quite a culture shock with regard to the work ethic and way of doing things in Japan, but the longer I was there I developed a real appreciation for the attention to detail to things, the politeness, respect, and courtesy. It also made me appreciate how fortunate I am to have the opportunities I have as an English speaker to work and study abroad without too many visa restrictions. I love the anonymity that Japan provided me. There I was just another ‘foreigner’.

Living as a couple in Japan was attractive to many employers, as I guess they saw you as more stable than a single person, so it actually helped when applying for jobs.

One of the themes is about your running away from things in the past. What do you think was behind this flight/escape urge?

That’s a good question. Three generations of women in my family have all emigrated internationally for one reason or another, so I guess I was following in their footsteps. The main temptation in living away from home offers you the opportunity to reinvent yourself and start afresh.

How did Japan, travel and cats (and Ryan) help you deal with this instinctive response?

Being able to just be the gaijin (foreigner) was really liberating for me, I was able to shed a lifetime of labels and reboot myself in a very positive way. Having a cat also meant a commitment, so I couldn’t just flit off when I chose. It gave me a reason to stay in one place and put down some roots and by doing so, connected with local people on a much deeper level, and was warmly welcomed as part of their community.

What do you think makes your book a little different from the standard foreigner goes to Japan travel memoir?

I like to think that it has a message of hope that no matter how bad things get, there is a way out. Changing your location and your surroundings can have a huge impact on how you see the world, and for me travel has been the greatest teacher.

How did your experiences in Japan and then moving Gershwin develop into articles and then your book and website?

It happened very naturally.  Seeing people take their pets on holiday in Japan, was the inspiration for my first book, which is about ‘Travelling with Pets’. I remember seeing a couple at Lake Inawashiro in Fukushima Prefecture with a cat and dog, thinking that’s exactly what I want to do! The inspiration for my second book, The Cat with Three Passports, was the experience of relocating internationally with a pet, and all the amazing people I met along the way.

How was the process of writing The Cat with Three Passports, given that it was your first book of that kind?

It was a challenge because I had so many positive experiences while living in Japan that I felt would be good material, I almost had too much, so I had to spend a lot of time editing. My first book pretty much wrote itself, but as a travel memoir is much more personal, I had to dig a lot deeper, which wasn’t always easy!

Who do you think your book will appeal to?

It will definitely appeal to people interested in going to Japan, cat lovers, and even Japanese people themselves. Recently, I received a lovely message from a Japanese lady, who said how much she enjoyed the book because she was living in New Zealand during the lockdown and couldn’t return home to Japan, she said my book helped her with homesickness. It was a very special moment for me.

How are sales of your book going, and in what countries is it selling? 

It seems to be hugely popular in the USA at the moment, and it even won an award there at the International Book Awards for American Book Fest in the narrative non-fiction category for animals.

What have been the highlights and lasting experiences of having your book appear in print and in bookshops?

I would say the biggest highlight has been the people that I have met, to hear that people have felt connected to the story is amazing. It’s nice to know that there are others out there that have had similar experiences in life.

The comments I get from different people around the world about how much people related to my story are beyond rewarding and make it all worthwhile.

You’ve lived away from the UK for quite some time — where are you now, and what are your plans for future, such as going back to the UK?

Never say never – but the older I get, the more I realise how lucky I am to have lived in many countries. I love the UK and will always consider it home, it’s just there are so many other places I’d love to visit and live in. We currently live in Australia, and although I do have a romantic idea of living back in the UK, I’m unsure when that will happen at the moment.

Click here to read an excerpt of The Cat with Three Passports.

Click here to read the review of the book.

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

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

Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Jessica Mudditt

Keith Lyons interviews Jessica Mudditt, who spent four years in Myanmar and wrote a book about it

Jessica Mudditt holding her book. Photo sourced from author

Australian author and journalist Jessica Mudditt studied and worked in the UK, but it is the seven years she spent in Bangladesh and Myanmar which seems to have made the most significant impact on her professional career and personal life. Mainly covering business, technology and lifestyle, her articles have appeared in The Economist, BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian, CNN, GQ and Marie Claire. 

She lived and worked in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon in the mid-2010s, and after returning to Australia, Our Home in Myanmar – Four Years in Yangon (Hembury Press, May 2021) was published with an Epilogue placing the book’s focus in the context of the military coup which stole back power in February this year following democratic elections. 

From Sydney, Jessica reflected on her time in Myanmar, and the recent events which have curtailed hopes for democracy, freedom and economic growth. 

Looking back on what happened this year, does it make your time in Myanmar seem more special?

In a way, it makes even my most happy and carefree memories bittersweet. When I was reading back over the book as part of the editing process, some of the situations I described became quite poignant, knowing what I know in hindsight. For example, after the 2015 elections, it was Senior General Min Aung Hlaing who was the first to come out and say that as the commander-in-chief, he would respect the election results and the will of the people in voting for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Five years later, it was he who staged this terrible coup and is holding the entire country hostage. What changed for him, I wonder, between then and now? It was like he tried the shoe on one day and decided that it didn’t fit.

If you were still in Myanmar at the time of the coup, would you get out or stay given the dangerous time for journalists right now?

I would leave. It is simply too unsafe. There are no newspapers left to write for at any rate, other than The Global New Light of Myanmar. Mizzima and Irrawaddy and others have been stripped of their operating licenses and as such, are illegal entities. If you go on The Myanmar Times website, it turns black, and then a pop-up notice announces that the newspaper has been suspended for three months. That was six months ago. There are very, very few foreign journalists left inside the country. Of course, every expat was heartbroken to leave and many have expressed that they feel guilty about the people they have left behind. Everyone is in an impossible situation right now.  

You added to the book from 2015 with updates on where some of the key players are now: The Myanmar Times co-founder Ross Dunkley was pardoned after the coup and is now back in Australia, have you had any contact with him, and if so, how do you feel about how it all panned out for him?

When Ross got a 13-year sentence in 2019 on drugs charges, I worried that he may not survive such a long period in prison. He is not a young man anymore. However, Ross turned out to be a cat with nine lives. He was released shortly after the coup (he joked in an interview that he is the only person to have benefitted from the coup). What astounded me was that despite everything he has been through in Myanmar, he expressed a wish to return there. I suppose it is his home, after all the years he has spent there. But even so! I sent him a message on Facebook just saying I was glad and relieved for him. However, I don’t think he has logged onto it since his release. 

Photos of jailed former advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Sean Turnell, being vaccinated were released recently; are you concerned about his fate and also that of journalist Danny Fenster from Frontier who is also in Insein?

I feel sick when I think about them. I don’t know Danny personally, but Sean was a source for a few stories, and I met him in Sydney. I have so much respect for him, and he was always so kind and helpful. I am friends with his wife, Ha Vu, on Facebook, and her anguished posts are deeply upsetting. Yesterday was her birthday and she wrote that it was the first time in a decade that her husband hadn’t been able to wish her a happy birthday. She knew it would upset him. Sean has done nothing wrong – nor has Danny, of course – and I just wish that the military would let them go – along with the other 6,000 innocent people they have arrested.

Do you think you were lucky to have been in the country during its opening up and transformation?

I was incredibly lucky. The pace of change was so fast that I often had the sensation that I was watching history unfold in front of me. That may never happen again in my life. The liberalisation of the media was incredible. As a freelance journalist, when I had an idea for a story, I would google the topic to see what had been previously written. There were many instances when there was virtually nothing at all because it had never been possible to write of such topics under the draconian censorship laws (most of these laws were lifted not long after I arrived). I wrote the first stories on Myanmar’s human hair trade, cobras being found inside peoples’   homes in Yangon, children with cancer and elderly care. Journalism was challenging in Myanmar because there was a dearth of reliable data and finding sources could be tricky, as people were not always willing to speak as they still mistrusted the military (with good reason, it turned out). But it was also rewarding because it gave people the chance to tell their stories for the first time, and to provide information to readers that had perhaps not been in the public domain before. 

What do you think attracted others from overseas to witness, take part or benefit from the changes?

One of the reasons I loved living in Yangon was because the ex-pat community was very interesting. At a party, for example, I could walk up to someone and ask, “What brought you to Myanmar?” or “What are you doing in Myanmar” and the answer would just about always be fascinating. Myanmar is a beautiful country with wonderful people, but it isn’t an easy place to live and many of the things associated with the ‘good life’ are unavailable. I think that if you moved to Myanmar, you wanted something different out of life, or to do things in a different way. 

I’m pretty sure that there were a host of motivations though, and I’m sure that a few were motivated partially by greed. Myanmar was an untapped market with a large population, although spending power is comparatively low. There were also few laws regulating business dealings, so it was a bit of a wild west and that attracted a few shandy operators. But I think, for the most part, people’s intentions were good. They were there because they wanted to make a difference as well as to witness something really historic, in a political sense.

As a woman in Myanmar how safe did you feel, and do you think that helped or hindered your work?

I felt safe in Myanmar, as it has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia. I remember reading in Lonely Planet that muggings and pickpocketing are rare, and that if you accidentally drop money on the ground in a big city like Yangon, it’s more likely that someone will come chasing after you to return it. That actually happened to me. I would sit at a beer station in the evening with my bag slung behind my chair or on the ground or whatnot, and I never gave it a second thought. I wouldn’t do that in Sydney.

Sexual harassment is nowhere near as prevalent as it is in places such as India. In saying that, I am referring to sexual harassment against expat women. There were frequent reports of Burmese women being groped on crowded buses, for example.

Someone in Yangon told me last week that even though the current situation is desperate, and millions of people are starving and displaced, there is a huge amount of cooperation among the people, who help each other in any way they can. Sadly, we all know that the criminals in Myanmar are the military. The reams of razor wire that sit atop six-foot fences around people’s homes are there not because there are a lot of burglaries, but because the military comes for people in the night. They were doing it for decades before I arrived, and they are doing it again now. 

What misconceptions about Myanmar do you think are held outside the country?

I’m not sure if it’s a misconception, but Myanmar’s political history is so complex that it can be difficult for people to get their head around it, and difficult to explain. The first thing most people say to me when the subject of Myanmar comes up is “What is the deal with Aung San Suu Kyi? I thought she was a good person – why did she fall from grace?” Or they will say they have heard of the terrible situation with the Rohingya, but they don’t understand how the genocide came about, or why they are still living in refugee camps. Most people outside Myanmar assume that Buddhism is a religion of peace, so they don’t understand why so much violence has taken place, or that Buddhism can turn militant and be infected with extreme nationalism. 

Were you more surprised about the frosty reception you got from fellow ex-pats at your first newspaper job, or the treatment you got working for a newspaper once considered a mouthpiece for the military and government?

I was more surprised by the frosty reception I got at The Myanmar Times. I was wildly excited to be working there and went through a lot of difficulties to get my first visa (I brush over it in the book, but Sherpa and I initially applied from Bangladesh and were denied visas, so in the end we had to apply from Thailand). My colleagues at newspapers in Bangladesh had always been fantastically friendly, so it just never crossed my mind that my expat colleagues in Myanmar wouldn’t be friendly. My expectations were way too high, but I was pretty crushed, I have to say. Over time though, things improved, and I ended up with a terrific group of friends at work. We had a lot of fun nights out too. 

My colleagues at The Global New Light of Myanmar were really kind and wonderful. I learnt so much about Myanmar from them, both on the job and during the casual conversations we’d have while smoking cigarettes or drinking whisky together after work. Myanmar people are so kind –so it wasn’t my colleagues’ kindness that surprised me. It was how strongly opposed to the military they were. I had not expected them to be staunch supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or even to themselves be former political prisoners. Many worked at the state-run newspaper because it was one of the few opportunities to use English in a professional context. To me, it showed just how pervasive the desire is for democracy and human rights among the people of Myanmar.

When did you get the idea for writing a book about your time in Myanmar?

I got the idea after I returned from Myanmar to Australia. Funnily enough, while I was living in Myanmar, I had been writing a book about Bangladesh. When I got back to Australia, I had no luck getting a publishing deal for the memoir on Bangladesh, so I decided to put it aside and start one on Myanmar. I started it in 2018 and finished it in April 2021. I’m glad that I decided to do that, because it would be hard to write the same book knowing that a coup would take place after I left. I am sure I would write it differently — with less optimism. As I mention in the epilogue, I thought I was simply writing about the ‘new Myanmar’ and that many books would follow in the same vein. I had no idea that I was inadvertently writing a history book.

In light of the events of 2021 with the military coup and Covid, do you see any hope for Myanmar, or is it a failed state?

There has possibly never been a darker time in Myanmar’s history, with the twin crises of COVID-19 and the military takeover to endure. But I don’t believe that this is how the story ends for Myanmar. It is evident that the people are unwilling to give up their democratic freedoms and human rights – I get the sense that they will fight until there is no one left standing. 

However, the country is on the brink of becoming a failed state, if it isn’t already, and the suffering has already been immense. I know from my time in Myanmar that building back after half a century of dictatorship and a mismanaged economy was already difficult enough – I worry about how much this puts the country back on the path to progress. I take a long-term view of things though, and I believe that democracy will be restored, and the military will be booted out of all aspects of civilian life, including their 25% quota of parliamentary seats. I have no idea when this may occur, but I do believe that it will.

Click here to read an excerpt of Our Home In Myanmar.

Click here to read the review of the book.

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

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