The right to exist with freedom to choose is threatened when dictatorial regimes try to erase a culture or linguistic group as we can see in the current conflict that rages between Russia and Ukraine. In 1971, Bangladesh came into existence over a similar issue. The colonials had divided the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion — not culture. Before this division, Bengal was a whole. In 1905, Tagore had marched against the British directive to divide Bengal and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India. In 1911, Bengal was reunited to be slashed again in 1947 and made a part of Pakistan with Urdu as its national language. Bangladesh fought a war to find the right to exist as an entity outside of Pakistan — adopting their favoured language Bangla. Throwing off the yoke of Urdu, Bangladesh came to its own. On 16th December, the battle against cultural hegemony was won with warplanes drawing to a halt.
Celebrating freedom from oppression, we have an article by Fakrul Alam giving the historical background of the struggle. A musing from across the border about the 1971 refugee exodus into India has been written by Ratnottama Sengupta. Asad Latif muses on the need to identify with a culture. We have translations of poetry by Nazrul to add a dash of seasoning.
Asma, the mother of two children, was deep in thought. She mumbled, “Poverty has a similar picture everywhere; a vast void, an ugly monster crying with endless wants.” She was thinking out loud.
The early hours of the day were peaceful for her, with children sleeping, and it was the only part of the day that she could enjoy solitude. She would get the mud stove going and cook the rice when the sky became brighter. The fire was kept going with sticks and dry leaves her daughter, Sumi, collected from the nearby thickets.
Poverty, malnourishment, and hard work made Asma look older than her actual age. At mid-thirty, most of her hair had turned white. As she reflected on her complicated life in Ramna, a village in Bangladesh, tears welled in her eyes. As a farmer’s wife, they had good days in the past when harvests were good crops, and they had enough rice to eat for the year. But farming for a couple of years was riddled with natural calamities in the delta. Monsoons were unpredictable; either drought or flooding affected their crops.
“Somehow, life seems to pressure people like us, the needy all the more,” Asma continued in her monologue. Talking to herself had become a thing lately. While the heart and the mind battled over reasons and passions, she found it easier to voice her worries to herself. Asma heard a yellow bird calling loudly from a nearby tree. The bird’s “Coo, coo.” broke into the quiet morning. The villagers believed yellow birds call to announce forthcoming weddings. Asma wondered who was getting married and what message the bird was bringing. She smiled as daydreams came with thoughts of having her daughter, Sumi, a twelve-year-old daughter married — the sooner, the better. Sumi was not a teenager and hadn’t had her first menstruation cycle, but that didn’t mean she had to wait long. Girls got married as early as eleven or twelve in the village. Asma could well imagine how days would fly. Her daughter would reach puberty, and there would be a hurry to find a husband.
On the other hand, she remembered some television programmes she had watched in the landlord’s house about the adverse effects of early marriages. Belonging to the village meant abiding by its norms and marrying off girls as soon as possible. The older girls had fewer chances of finding a husband. It seemed to Asma that men looked at girls like guavas, neither too young nor too old, just the right crunch to satisfy their desires. “Those TV ads about the marriage age for girls at eighteen, who cares about them?” she spoke aloud as if asking the gust of wind that touched her face. The coconut trees standing in the corner of the yard had droopy branches that swayed with the wind as if nodding in agreement. Asma reached for her long hair hanging down her back and, with an expert twist, made a bun that settled on her nape. Her gentle eyes, pert nose, and wide mouth on her oval face held an air of quiet grace and kindness. She smiled as she heard the yellow bird call again.
She wondered if the bird was a messenger for the girl named Lucky from the village. Lucky’s mother had confided that her daughter had just had her first menstruation. And if that was so, it would mean a little feast waiting for them. She hoped that Lucky’s mother would send an invitation. It seemed ages since she had some excellent food like pulau and korma.
Her happy thoughts suddenly broke the note when a crow called out ominous notes of “Caw, caw”. The bird dimmed the lights of hope for Asma. Something sad about that bird’s call sent a shiver down her spine. The crow was not a bird the villagers favoured. A gust of cold wind swept through the trees around the yard, and it was a reminder that winter was not far away. The sun climbed higher. Although the sky was bright with the rising sun of autumn, she worried about the coming cold days when her children would suffer from a lack of warm clothes. God, why did the cold days have to come? It only brought more trouble for her. Asma had a firm belief in God but often could not connect to harsh life and the different ways of life He gave to people. There was discrimination somewhere; why did the village landlord have so much wealth and her husband, such a good man, had so little? This was a puzzle. Asma stared at the infinite sky with endless unanswered questions.
The rising sun’s warmth reminded her that it was time to prepare food. She knew that the little bit of rice was in the pot was not enough for all of them. That meant borrowing again. She called out to her daughter, “Sumi. Sumi, wake up and get some rice from the Boroma from Jamindar Bari. We don’t have enough to cook today. “
Jamindar Bari was the landlord’s house, and they had always been kind enough to lend some rice every now and then. Sumi joined her mother on the porch and asked, “Will they allow us to borrow? We didn’t return the last rice.”
“Hmmm?” Asma carefully observed her daughter’s sleepy face, noting the unkempt hair that framed her oval face. The girl’s large, dark eyes were questioning as she looked at her mother. Her eyes closed for a second, reflecting momentarily on the possibility of not having any meals for the day. She could picture her two children sitting with empty plates with hunger raging in their stomachs. Tears welled up in her eyes. Drying them with the end of her sari, she came up with an idea.
“Tell your Boroma that your father has gone to the next village for some work and when he returns, we will be sure to return the rice.”
Boroma was a kind woman, and it was challenging to think up excuses every time she failed to keep her word and return the things she took from her rich neighbour. She felt resentment against her husband, Kutub, for his inability to provide them with enough food and clothing. But then she told herself that at least she had a good man who had not married a second wife, a man who did not beat her and, most importantly, had not been unfaithful to her. And Asma felt relieved that her husband did not visit any red light areas. If he did, she would have heard the rumours. Though a small community, the villagers were undoubtedly quick to catch on gossip.
As Sumi started to walk toward the landlord’s house, Asma sighed. Despite the sorrows about life’s unfairness, she felt proud to be the only wife of a good man. She had endless unfulfilled needs, but at least she could hold her head high regarding family matters. The vicious cycle of poverty had gnawed at that. Manik, Asma’s four-year-old son, came out of the house to ask for some sweets, and he was hungry upon waking from sleep.
“Where can I get sweets all of a sudden?” She asked her son as she lovingly hugged his frail little body. He had been in better health when she had been breastfeeding him. But now, with the bit of food she managed to put on his plate, he had grown much thinner.
Manik looked at his mother for a while and then asked,”Where did Ruku get his sweet? I just saw him eating some yesterday.” Ruku was the son of Hiram Khan, the owner of the only barber shop in the village. They were pretty well off, with the store doing good business.
“They have bought it from the sweet shop, but I don’t have the money to buy any for you.” Asma looked at her son’s crestfallen face and added,” Maybe when your Baba comes, he will get some for you.”
“Why don’t you have money? Ruku’s mother gave the sweets to him.”
Asma wished that she had an answer to her son’s question. She said, “It is Allah’s will, son, and don’t question His ways.” She could not find better words of consolation for her little son. Perhaps someday things would change, and maybe she would have enough to eat and have proper clothes to wear. Possibly her husband will eventually own a shop and not depend on nature for rice.
As Asma waited for her daughter to return with the rice, she continued to look at the sun, climbing higher in the sky. She needed to cook the rice soon, for Manik would ask for food. Just then, her husband Kutub walked into the yard. She was surprised that he was two more days earlier than his due day. But she noted that he was smiling and looked happy. Maybe he found some unexpected money and had come home before.
Asma’s hopes spread wings and filled her heart with excitement. Her husband’s smiling face touched her with joy, and she smiled back. “Why, you are up early. Have you got some good luck?” She asked, taking her husband’s shirt from his hand.
“Wait, let me sit down, and then I have something to tell you,” Kutub said, settling down on an old bamboo bench that served as a sitting place for him. Asma sat still with rapt attention, wondering what right turn was coming from her husband.
Kutub began, “There is a village nearby called Shaina, and I went to work there for a rich farmer last month, remember? The farmer has his sons in Saudi Arabia who send him money and are rich. The farmer has a widowed daughter.” Kutub paused, looking intently at his wife. Asma listened with anticipation, getting more hopeful every moment. She knew about that look on her husband’s face, the rare light that lit up his eyes.
While they were talking, Sumi returned with rice, her mother instructed her mother to start cooking the rice. Kutub was silent until his daughter moved away. And then he continued,
“It seemed the farmer knows our landlord and asked him about me. Our landlord praised me. The root of all this is that the farmer wants to get his daughter married to me. And since having a second wife is allowed in the village and common too, I was the man of choice.” Here Kutub stopped. He looked for a long while at his wife’s sweet, honest face. “And so, the farmer wants me to marry his daughter, and in return, he will send me off to Saudi Arabia. Imagine how much money I could earn once in the country of the Saudis. Why we will be rich! You should have seen the farmer’s grand house filled with expensive furniture and the food they eat. They live like kings. I should accept the offer. What do you think?”
Asma could hardly grasp what he was talking about at first, then slowly, the reality of the sacrifice and the reward sunk in. Her husband was about to get a second wife in return, and she could enjoy some good days. Her first impulse was to shout, “No!” and run away.
But then, a voice seemed to tell her that Kutub was doing this for her and the children. The marriage would bring money into her home; they would finally not be hungry anymore. Yet another voice wailed inside her; the dignity of being her husband’s only wife would be lost. Why had she strutted like a proud peacock because her husband had no second woman?
Asma thought of the poverty and all that they needed and didn’t have. A marriage to bring in money from Saudi Arabia would be the solution to their poverty.
Asma had tears running down her face as she asked, “Is the rich man’s daughter beautiful?”
Suddenly, she began to see her husband in a new light. She still liked to believe in his goodness and wanted to think that what he was about to do was for their good, for their children’s sake. She tried to feel good with the thought that he was only going away to Saudi Arabia to bring money for them. The second marriage was a medium to bring happiness to her and the children.
She half listened to Kutub talking away about how wealthy his to-be in-laws were and how well off Asma and the children would be if only he could enter that luxurious house. They could even make a new home in the village, and all could live happily. “You will always be my first wife, the Borobou ( Senior wife); the second one shall look up to you for advice.”
Asma sat there listening to her husband, trying to picture happier days when her children would have their plates filled with rice. She felt gladto think the weight of poverty would lighten. Yet, somewhere deep in her soul, she felt a deep void, as if somebody was stealing something—a puzzled expression set on her eyes. Indeed, life can be perplexing; poverty can play vicious games.
The yellow bird called again, and Asma wanted to say aloud to her husband, “I didn’t know the wedding messenger bird was bringing news of my husband’s second marriage.” No wonder the crow had joined the yellowbird and sent its warning notes too.
Asma thought life reflected two sides of the mirror. She had yet to find if there were a third perspective too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Banglawins when Opaar Banglais 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 smiled a lot but was fierce, chachiamma 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 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 poem,Udvastu, rendered unforgettably in the recitation by Kazi Sabyasachi, 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 bari. Basha 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 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 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 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.
 Epaar Bangla: This side of Bengal (West Bengal)
 Opaar Bangla: That side of Bengal (East Bengal or Bangladesh)
 Father’s younger brother is chacha and ji is an honorific in chachaji
A poignant short story about a Rohingya child by Shaheen Akhtar, translated from Bengali by Arifa Ghani Rahman
Musa was born in the year when the girl child in his region was allowed to live and the sons were being killed. Dadi, his father’s mother, Bismillahjaan, had named him. There were no celebrations, no events to mark this ceremony, and not even an insignificant penny was spent on incense. However, as a tax for the arrival of a child into this world, a fat sum had to be donated to the nearby police station. That is how Dadi Bismillahjaan described the heavy term ‘birth registration’ used by people.
And Musa had landed on this side of the Naf River last night without that Dadi. He did not know at the time that his grandmother was not on the boat. She had paid for both their passages with six thousand kyat. Then ensued the hullabaloo as people vied to get on the boat under cover of the darkest of nights.
A stream of salty tears ran down Musa’s cheeks as he stared down the endless river. Had his lungi been tied to his Dadi’s Thami, he would never have let her float away. God forbid! Why would the old woman have floated away? She probably had not boarded the boat in the first place. She had ensured her grandson’s passage and quietly withdrawn from the back.
That was what Bismillahjaan had wanted from the very beginning. Musa was the sole heir to his family name, she used to say with every breath. If he survived in any corner of the earth, at least his bloodline would live on. And so, she had pulled her old, skeletal body across the hills and through the jungles. In all this time, she had held on to the enamel pot in which she cooked rice. Along the way, she had boiled whatever leaves she could gather and served them to Musa.
Musa had not paid attention to this at the time. His eye had been on the mountain along their path – perhaps he might see the light of God, the light which burned the mountain, but not Musa, the prophet. But none of these mountains were named Sinai. He had found a staff on the way though, and he had tied the bundle of clothes and the cooking pot to one end.
When Musa’s caravan arrived at the sandy banks of the Naf, he had relieved the stick of its burden. The sandy banks were like Karbala – with no water to drink nor food. The salty water where the river and the ocean met only made them vomit, cry, and struggle. In the meantime, when one woman gave birth, Musa, the learned student of the village religious school, was summoned to sound the azaan, the call for prayer, in the baby’s ear. Two days and two nights passed. There was no boat in sight. The Burmese army was hunting them down like the Pharaoh’s soldiers. Secretly, Musa had extended his arms once towards the river but to no avail. So, under cover of the night, he had thrown his staff into the water. This too was fruitless. The stick was swept away by the current. But at that moment, an engine boat puttered over from the other side and stopped at the bank. It was in that boat that Musa had piled in to arrive at this unknown destination last night. In the midst of this, he had lost Dadi, Bismillah.
How would Dadi traverse that long road again? Where would she go? What would she eat? Home burnt, fields burnt – their land had been destroyed by the ruling goons. If the family graveyard was still intact, she could probably find shelter in a foxhole. This must have been her plan all along. Musa’s sleep-deprived, numb, dizzy brain now recalled the rambling hints she had dropped about this. Five years ago, Bismillahjaan’s only son, Musa’s father, had been laid to rest in that graveyard. Musa had been a child of eight then. As he watched the gravedigger shovelling in the earth, he thought about the ancestors that were lying there. Baba had suffered much in life and his death had been worse. The military junta soldiers had shot him in the chest and then his throat had been slit by the monks. As he lay in his grave, Baba would tell of his travails to his dear ones who had led comparatively peaceful lives.
Musa wiped the tears from his eyes and sat on the rocks of the dam. He was closer to the water’s edge from here. Countless people stood squashed together on this side of the Naf, their eyes trained on the other bank. As darkness descended, a lantern or two lighted up on the river, and there was the occasional flicker of a flashlight. Musa drew in his breath sharply. Did the battery-operated lights belong to the military junta?
Perhaps there were still thousands of people waiting on the tarpaulin laid out on the sands he had left behind yesterday. Some would be giving birth; some would be dying – their bodies burned or maimed by bullets. There was no medicine, no proper food. For what sin were they suffering this hell on earth? Was Dadi still burning in the hell at the sandy banks?
As soon as a fleet of boats docked along the bank, Musa jumped into the water. He could not move forward as the crowd shoved through the neck-deep water from the opposite direction. He did not even have a light to shine on the faces of the swarm of people to find Dadi’s. Whatever light there was on this side came from the flash of cameras or the flashlights of the BGB or the coastguards. They were using their flashlights to search through the refugees’ belongings that had been dumped on the banks – their plastic sacks, cooking utensils, urns, broken wall clocks, solar panels, and piles of quilts and pillows. At that moment, lightning in the sky heightened the tremors in Musa’s heart. What if Dadi drowned in the middle of the river in a storm? Raindrops fell on Musa’s head while he was still chest-deep in the water. In the meantime, boats docked relentlessly, as countless as the waves in the sea, compounded by the lapping of the water on the bank and the ear-splitting noise of their engines.
When it began to pour, Musa took shelter in the barn, or rather, a goat shed, of a nearby house. The shed shared a wall with the hut and was covered by the Nipa palm leaf with the other three sides open. In this tiny space stood two closely tethered goats. Musa crowded in with them. Who knew how late it was now. The homeowners must be sleeping soundly. He thought he would leave when the rain eased off but just then, the thunder clapped and he grabbed one of the goats around the neck and sat down. It was a familiar touch after so many days and the smell was exactly the same. When lightning struck a little later, he looked timidly, for the first time, at any creature from this unknown land. It did not look unfamiliar though. In fact, the eyes looked as tender as his pet goat’s. So what if Musa was a scholar in the maktab, at heart he was a shepherd – of a pair of golden buffalos and two goats with four or so kids. How much pain those goats must have suffered when they struggled in the fire that engulfed them!
Before the army set fire to their homes, the buffalos had been set free and Dadi had taken refuge in the forest with twelve-year-old Musa. Perhaps she had thought nothing would happen to a woman, child, and a few innocent goats. What Bismillahjaan did not know was that the tyranny of the army had heightened by the day. Even the girls were not spared. These tyrants used to rape before, but now they resorted to spilling blood. When Musa returned home two days later, all he found were ashes and destruction. They had taken shelter in Dadi’s sister’s home a little to the south that day and that is where they stayed for a full year prior to their migration.
When Musa thought of his mother, he recalled a woman sprawling on the front yard with a child in her lap. The child’s pigeon-like pink feet hung over one side of Ma’s lap. Where were his young siblings now? His mother? Musa was awoken by his own cries. He found himself lying curled up on the straw in the goat shed, the pair of goats standing next to him. Someone had wrapped his entire body with a torn quilt – just as his mother used to silently cover him up during the heavy monsoon or winter nights. Even so, Musa left the shed before the first light of dawn. He did not return to the dam. Instead, he began to wade through the muddy path in the opposite direction.
The marketplace ahead was already buzzing at this ungodly hour. City dwellers, alighting from the intercity buses, rushed to the stalls for breakfast, their bags hanging from their shoulders. Aromatic smells filled the dawn air. As hunger pangs rose in Musa’s empty stomach, he began to loiter around the stalls.
When someone came out of a stall and aimed a camera at him, Musa took shelter behind the stall. The camera was a lure – this person was actually a kidnapper, thought Musa. He hissed inwardly like a snake. When the same man, however, returned with a plate of food from inside the stall and called to him, Musa dragged his feet forward. Then he wolfed down the food. He cared nothing at all for the number of clicks the camera made or how many pictures were taken of his starved face. As he burped after polishing off the plate, Musa thought that he would be willing to allow photographs if it meant meals twice a day. He was actually waiting to find a staff that would transform magically into a snake. This was now his aim in life.
With his life’s goal determined, Musa could now afford to look around casually. The place may not have been a township but it was quite busy regardless. There were some paved stores. A schoolhouse stood nearby, some mud-splattered sleeping people crowding its veranda. In the middle stood a pile of their dirty household belongings. When someone emerged from behind a plastic sack of this rootless group, Musa was taken by surprise. Was this boy his twin or was he looking at himself in the mirror? The only difference was that the boy had a white clay mark of Thanaka on his cheek. He was dressed in light blue denim shorts chopped off at the knees. With these and some other differences, the two of them stood in the shade of the stall, next to each other. Neither seemed to have the strength or the inclination to speak.
When the cameraman appeared with a local in tow, Musa quickly turned his back on them to face the wall. Why was this man so overenthusiastic? Wasn’t he satisfied with the bunch of photos he had already taken of his starving, beggarly face? But this time it was not the click of the camera, but the man’s words that drew attention. Musa realised he was taking interviews. In the beginning, the boy next to him also stood silently. Perhaps he was mute, deaf. But the next moment, he began to stammer. Musa felt goosebumps. Did everything become topsy-turvy when doomsday loomed? Was Musa glib of tongue and Harun a stammerer? Of course, he had no idea if this boy’s name was even Harun.
‘So many murders, rapes, arson – did you see these with your own eyes?’ The local translated the cameraman’s words into Rohingya.
What could be the answer to this question? And how could it be described? Did the kid next to him stammer so he did not have to answer such questions? Musa’s heart was in a turmoil. To save the boy who looked like his twin, Musa turned his face away from the wall.
Holding his Dadi’s hand, he had been escaping – Musa began to pour out his story in Rohingya. There was black smoke and fire behind, the sound of screams and bullets chasing them. Body after body lay dead along the road. Bullet-ridden. Throats slit. Then the thunder of the ocean. It seemed to be howling, wanting to divide itself into two. But the stick in his hand did not have that power.
The two men, like the Pharaoh, looked at Musa in disbelief. But the twin-like kid was happy, even though his name was not Harun, but Shah Alam.
As they walked towards the schoolhouse, Shah Alam said that they had crossed over on a raft the night before from the village of Fatongja in Maungdaw. Shah Alam’s father was missing and his older brother had been murdered. His three other siblings were with his mother.
“With Musa, you are now four,” said his mother to Shah Alam as she sat on the veranda and rolled up a plastic mat. A truck was due to arrive shortly and they would be transferred to a nearby refugee camp. Musa felt suffocated. The air was moist and heavy like a full mashk. Dazed people walked around, vacant looks in their sleepless, tired eyes. No face reflected any sign of joy at the prospect of a new life. Did Musa’s face show any sign of delight? He did not want to live the life of an insect in a camp.
When the convoy of trucks arrived in the marketplace, Musa ran the other way as fast as he could. Government forces of this land chased him back. Shah Alam was standing in the truck and sucking his thumb. His mother had let out a cry as if a child of her own womb was running away. Standing in the open truck like cattle, Musa growled in anger. He was more upset with Shah Alam’s mother than with the authorities here. Musa did not want an adoptive mother or brother – he wanted a staff, one that would magically turn into a snake.
“You must not take the words of the Book literally, Musa!” Bismillahjaan came into Musa’s dreams that night. “It is foolishness to do so. Forget about me. Your entire life awaits you. Go forward on your own.”
“Where will I go, Dadi?” Sad and angry, Musa asked in a teary voice. “I want to go back – to that graveyard where you are headed to take shelter in a foxhole.”
Musa shut up when he heard someone groan in their sleep. He began to sweat profusely as he lay under the tarpaulin. His stomach had encountered some rice after many days, refugee rice – and he had not been able to digest it properly. Yet, the day before, a lot had been accomplished. The authorities had done a family headcount and provided ration cards. They had collected and brought their rations of rice, lentils, sugar, and oil to their tarp-covered shelter. Shah Alam’s mother had instantly set up house and Musa had become a part of the family. He was now spending his nights under the same tarp.
Chores were distributed in the morning. Shah Alam’s mother and siblings would stand in line at the ration shop while Musa and Shah Alam were responsible for collecting firewood from the forest and water from the pump. “Don’t fight like Habil and Qabil, my dears,” Shah Alam’s mother poked her face through a hole in the tarp as they walked toward the jungle. “Be good brothers like Musa and Harun.”
Musa’s heart danced with joy when he heard the names Musa-Harun pronounced together. He immediately wanted to address Shah Alam’s mother as Ma, but he suppressed that desire by turning to look at Shah Alam. What a fool! He did not look like he could be good for anything other than gathering firewood. Anyhow, going into the forest did not just mean collecting firewood for the stove – it also meant that he might find the staff he had been searching for. By Allah’s infinite mercy, Shah Alam’s mother had not made him stand in line like a beggar with a bowl, waiting for handouts of food. Moreover, he did not have to remain confined to the camp.
Besides going into the forest, Musa also climbed the mounds around the camp with the others when he heard that the Burmese military had yet again set fire on the other side of the Naf. His people howled, the women wailed and beat their chests. Musa joined them: “Oh Dadi! My heart aches for you!” Sometimes, he cried in tune. “How will I live without Dadi!” When his tears dried up, there was fire in his eyes.
When he received news that a boat had sunk on the Naf, Musa rushed to see. He went close to the dam and sat on the stone slab to stare out into the river. In his hand was a branch of the gojari tree he had found in the forest. He muttered to himself as he struck the water with the branch.
What sort of justice was this? No one would remain – no father or mother, sister or brother, no home or land, no country, no earth. What was his fault? Why did he have to spend his life at a camp – like a cockroach under a tarp? And then there were other troubles. Young girls kept disappearing. As soon as their wounds healed, the young men plotted evil deeds while the police invaded at odd hours of the night. Children cried, old women lamented. Was there no way out of this hell?
“Of course, there is! There is only one route out of this place,” said a trafficker to Musa one day by the riverside. Musa could test his fortune by crossing the river like Sindabad the Sailor. There was a boat nearby and he would not even have to pay for passage.
Musa had no desire to test his fortune. He did not care either about the camp’s development like the light-skinned men who rolled in on expensive cars to find fault. He just wanted to return to his own land. For that he needed a magic staff that would turn into a snake and chase his enemies away. He wanted to see the land overrun with frogs, lice, and locusts that would put fear into the hearts of the Burmese soldiers and drive them out of Rakhine. Or blood would flow in the river instead of water, just like it did when his people were tortured by the commanding forces on his land.
The idea of blood flowing down the river appealed to the militant who waited by the mound everyday for Musa. He had no beard on his face or cap on his head and Musa had no idea where he came from or where he lived. Perhaps he hid beneath the grass like an insect or burrowed into the dark trunk of the enormous banyan tree. But no matter where he lived, the militant ignored the staff in Musa’s hand. As he stood on the mound and looked out onto the fire and smoke on the other side of the Naf, he said to Musa, “If you want blood to flow in the river, you must be trained in arms. It is not possible to do it with a mere gojari branch.”
“Who said this is merely a gojari branch?” Musa questioned. He had no use for an AK-47, grenades, or bombs. He wanted to tell him about the magic staff that would instantly turn into a snake and save his people.
The militant grew quite angry with Musa. He said, “Listen, O Musa, doomsday is near. Bullets and guns are the final answer.”
Musa felt helpless. Couldn’t he show the militant even a little bit of magic now? Like a tiny frog? Musa opened up his palm. Instead of a frog, his palm felt the brush of the breeze.
But neither of the paths suggested by the trafficker or the militant appealed to him. What would he do now? Musa wanted to howl. In anger and frustration, he flung away the branch in his hand. Instantly, it turned into a snake and disappeared into the wilderness around the mound.
(First published in Bengali in Prothom Alo on July 15, 2018)
Thanaka is made from barks of trees and used like Sandalwood paste to decorate and protect people from sunburns
 A traditional water carrying bag made from goat skin
 The Quranic equivalent of the Biblical Abel and Cain
 The Quranic equivalent of the Biblical Moses and Aaron
Shaheen Akhtar is a notable Bangladeshi short story writer and novelist. She received the Bangla Academy Literary Award (2015) for her contributions to literature and the Asian Literary Award (2020) for her novel The Search.
Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor and Head of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka. In addition, she is a freelance editor and translator.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Poetry of Jibananda Das, translated by Fakrul Alam
ALL AFTERNOON LONG
All afternoon long I saw Bashir inside the paddy field.
All through the afternoon the skeleton of that three-storied red brick building
Besides the paddy field was being set up.
(Everything is turning urban!)
Who owns that building? Why is it being built?
In the minds of the birds perched on this shore in fading evening light,
Or unlike the birds, or the boatmen in the boats plying here or the other shore
With their usual outcries,
The blue sky looked on impassively, its mind vacant.
In my dream at night, I saw Kolkata’s tram company getting ready to be here as well.
Bashir’s bullocks twain out in this day’s sun look for a break
As domesticated quadrupeds of the world will.
Which country’s what animals’ and which tribes’ sketches will they resemble
In becoming museum tales for the high-born and in being immortalised?
The truths about them will be lost steadily!
And yet in this land of museums, in the soundless but open room of one of them,
Could it be they would go up in flames without making civilisation any poorer
Despite its stupendous piston?
Here the only story everyone still knows is of the jackdaw and the fairy tale princess, Shankhamala!
There are innumerable bird, nests and eggs on treetops here but still they haven’t been able to build
this day a scientific poultry shop!
(These translations are from Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology and Glossary, translated by Fakrul Alam, published by The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1999. Republished with permission from the original publisher.)
Jibonanada Das (1899-1954) was a Bengali writer, who now is named as one of the greats. During his life he wrote beautiful poetry, novels, essays and more. He believed: “Poetry and life are two different outpouring of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet’s talent nor the reader’s imagination … poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.”
Rabindranath’sOikotan (Harmonising) was first published in 1941. It has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam specially to commemorate Tagore’s Birth Anniversary.
How little I know of this immense world,
Of its countless countries, cities, capitals,
And the never-ending deeds of its peoples
As well as its rivers, hills, deserts and seas
And innumerable animals and strange trees—
So many things fated to be forever unknown
Such a vast assemblage
And yet my mind has to be content with only a corner!
Frustrated, I read as many books and travel tales as I can
With boundless enthusiasm.
I pick up too vividly written accounts I come across
With never-diminishing eagerness,
Satiating my knowledge deficit
With treasures I’ll gather by scavenging for them!
I am the world’s poet. Whatever of its sounds I hear
I try to reverberate in my flute later
But though this may be my intent
Many of earth’s notes still elude me
For despite my efforts, gaps remain!
I intuit earth’s amazing harmonies
Through leaps of my imagination
On many an occasion intense silence fills my soul
Notes sounding across remote snowy mountains
And the azure stillness of the sky too
Invite me to commune with them again and again!
The unknown star at the apex of the south pole
Reigning illustriously through long nights
Illuminates my sleepless eyes on midnights.
Distant waterfalls cascading down
With immense force, flooding everything in sight,
Transmit their harmonies to the innermost me.
I connect intuitively as well with poets everywhere
Contributing to nature’s harmonies
All keep me company and give me immense delight
I receive offerings of lyric notes from the muse of songs
As well as intimations of the music of the spheres.
The outside world can’t fathom fully
The most inaccessible of being residing in us
For He is in our innermost part
And only when one enters it
One gets to know the Being who is truly Him
But I can’t find the door with which to enter there
Since I’ve erected fences in pathways everywhere!
Farmer who keep tilling the soil
Weavers threading yarn and fishermen casting nets—
Varied professions having far-reaching impact
On them all depend whole families and lifestyles.
But the honour due to them is confined
To people of the top tiers of the society I live in
We can only peep at them from narrow openings!
At times I’d take paths fronting their neighbourhoods
But never ever was resolute enough to enter inside!
If one can’t connect one’s life with another’s though
The songs one composes can become cumbersome
And so, I concede to charges levelled against me
And admit my own songs’ limitations.
I know my verses may have traversed varied paths
But they haven’t reached everywhere!
The one who can share a peasant’s life
And whose words and deeds are kins
Is the one who is truly close to the soil
And I’m all ears to listen to that kind of poet.
I may not have created a feast of literary delights
Yet, what I couldn’t attain I keep questing for
Let what I discover ring true
And let me not mislead others’ eyes with fakery
It’s not right to earn fame without paying its true price
It isn’t right at all to indulge in any kind of foppery!
Come poet, retrieve as many as you can
Of those voiceless ones whose minds are unheard
And relieve those nurturing deep hurt inside
In this land lacking spirit
Bereft of songs being sung on any side,
A land which has become an arid desert
For want of joy and the strain created by neglect
Fill with the essence of everything beautiful
And untie the spirit residing in one’s innermost being
In literary festivals and musical concerts organised,
Let those playing the one-stringed ektara be duly feted.
And the muted ones who can’t express either joy or sorrow
And those whose heads are bowed and voices silent
While facing the world—
Oh gifted one,
Let me hear them all—near or far
Let them partake of your fame
As for me—
Again and again, I’ll pay homage to you
ENDLESS LOVE (Anonto Prem)
It is as if I’ve loved only you,
Hundreds of times, in hundreds of forms
In life after life, age after age, again and again!
Forever, and with an enchanted heart,
I wove necklaces of lyrics
Which you’d wear beautifully,
Accepting my gifts gracefully,
Life after life, age after age, again and again!
The more I hear stories from far away times
Of agonies lovers endured in ages long past,
Of tales of unions and separations
And whenever I look at events of days of yore,
Piercing the veil of darkness of times past
They appear in the form of an eternal star
In your visage.
The two of us float forward
In the current of a union
Emanating from eternity.
The two of us keep frolicking
Amidst millions of lovers,
Whose eyes moisten with tears of separation
Or light up with bashfulness as they meet—
In a love transcendental but in a guise all new
In love everlasting, but of this very day and age!
At a time, while a war is challenging the freedom of humanity, it is necessary to celebrate the past victories that freed humankind from different kinds of hegemony and oppression, especially with poetry and prose that brings this struggle to the fore. Bangladesh was declared an independent entity on 26th March, 1971. For this occasion powerful poetry that rebels against injustices from the pen of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the writer who Bangladesh has adopted as their national poet, has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. More writing from emerging writers of Bangladesh showcase the same spirit mingled with rebellion and a love for justice.
Born in united Bengal, long before the Partition, Kazi Nazrul Islam(1899-1976) was known as the Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs. ‘Manush‘ or ‘Mankind’ was published in Nazrul’s collection called Sanchita.
Of equality I sing.
There isn’t anything greater or nobler than a human being.
Wipe all distinctions based on country, period and situation.
Let all religions and countries be one.
In all nations, ages, and homes let God be your companion.
Arising from a dream, a zealous priest opens the temple door and exclaims:
“Devotee, open doors,
The God of Hunger stands outside; time now to pray to Him.”
Surely, he thinks, God’s Grace will transform him into a King!
Wearing tattered clothes, emaciated, and voice enfeebled by hunger,
A wayfarer pleads: “Open the door, I’ve been hungry the whole week.”
Instantly, the door is shut, the hungry one is turned away.
In the darkness of night his hungry eyes glare all the way.
The beggar mutters, “Lord, the temple seems to be his, and not yours!”
Yesterday the mosque was full of sweets and meat and bread,
This day the sight of the leftovers makes the Mullah glad!
Just then a hungry man comes in, sores on his skin,
He says, “Sir, for the seventh day I’m starving!
Enraged, the Mullah exclaims, “So what, if you are hungry?
Go and lie down where carcasses of cattle are cast away!
By the way, do you pray?” The wayfarer confesses, “No Sir!”
The Mullah swears, “Swine, time then for you to scram!”
Picking up all leftovers, the mullah the mosque gate slams!
The hungry one turns back, muttering, “I can claim,
Eighty years I survived without ever invoking your name
How come, from me, Lord, you never withdrew your bounty?
Should I conclude mosques and temples are not for me?
That Mullahs and Brahmins have shut their doors to the poor?
Where are you, Chengiz, Mahmud of Ghazni, and Kalapahar?
Storm all doors of these so-called houses of prayer!
Who bolts the House of God? Who locks its portals?
All doors force open, smash ’em with hammers and crowbars.
Alas House of Prayer
Aloft on your minarets charlatans flaunt themselves,
Who could these people be, loathing man,
But kissing ostentatiously the Vedas, the Bible, and the Quran?
Snatch from their lips all the holy books.
Don’t forget their originators perished in the hands of such crooks!
Hypocrites always prosper thus! Listen all you fools,
Men brought books into being; books didn’t create men!
Adam, David, Moses, Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed,
Krishna, Buddha, Nanak, and Kabir are our ancestors.
Their blood course through us, we are their successors,
We are their kin; our bodies are like theirs.
It is possible that one day we will achieve their statures!
Don’t laugh, friends. My self stretches to infinity,
None -- not even I -- knows what greatness lies within me.
Perhaps within me is Kalki, in you Mehdi or Jesus,
Who knows where one begins and ends; who can limit us?
Why loathe the man so, brother, why kick him at will?
It could be that even in him God keeps vigil!
Or even if he is nobody, no one exalted or great,
See him as a man besmeared and completely shattered.
And yet no house of worship or sacred book on earth
Can measure up to that small body’s worth!
It could be that in his humble hut one day will be born
Someone who in his unique way the world will adorn!
The message the world awaits, the superman not yet glimpsed,
Perhaps will appear in this very hut someday soon!
Is he untouchable? Does he put you off? But he isn’t reprehensible!
He could be Harishchandra or Lord Shiva!
An untouchable today could be Emperor of all Yogis tomorrow.
Tomorrow, you will eulogise him, will praise him to the skies
Who is that you call a rustic, who is it that you despise?
It could be Lord Krishna in a cowherd’s guise!
And what if the one you hated as a peasant so
Was King Janaka or Lord Balaram incognito?
Prophets were once shepherds, once they tilled fields,
But they brought us news of eternity—which will forever be.
Male or female, you kept refusing all beggars every day
Could it be that Bholanath and Girjaya were thus sent away?
Lest feeding a beggar makes you feast less,
Your porter punished the beggar at your door,
What if you thus drove a deity away?
What punishment will lie for you then who can say?
What if the goddess thus insulted never forgives you?
If your heart wasn’t so greedy, so obsessed with only what you need,
Friend, you would see that in serving you the gods became impoverished!
Beast that you are, will you abuse the God within your heart
To swallow the nectar distilled from human misery and hurt?
Will that drink make you happy? Will that satiate your lust?
Only your evil angel knows what food will please you most.
One your evil angel knows how you can self-destruct best!
Through ages, beast, know that what thrusts you to death is lust!