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Stories

The Magic Staff

A poignant short story about a Rohingya child by Shaheen Akhtar, translated from Bengali by Arifa Ghani Rahman

Shaheen Akhtar

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[1]. 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,[2] 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 She had ensured her grandson’s passage and quietly withdrawn from the back.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[3] 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[4], 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[5] 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.

Children with Thanka on their face. Courtesy: Creative Commons

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[6]. 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,[7] 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.[8]

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)


[1] Kyat is the currency of Myanmar

[2] A sarong-like piece of clothing worn by the people of Myanmar

[3] The Border Guard Bangladesh

[4] Islamic elementary school

[5] Thanaka is made from barks of trees and used like Sandalwood paste to decorate and protect people from sunburns

[6] A traditional water carrying bag made from goat skin

[7] The Quranic equivalent of the Biblical Abel and Cain

[8] 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.

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Categories
Poetry of Jibananda Das

All Afternoon Long

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.”

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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

Categories
Tagore Translations

Tagore Translated by Fakrul Alam

Rabindranath’s Oikotan (Harmonising) was first published in 1941. It has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam specially to commemorate Tagore’s Birth Anniversary.

Courtesy: Creative Commons
HARMONISING

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   

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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

Categories
Tagore Translations

Endless Love: Tagore translated by Fakrul Alam

Veiled Woman: Painting by Rabindranath Tagore. Courtesy: Creative Commons
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! 

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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

Categories
Independence Day

“Struggle for Our Liberty”

 “The struggle this time, is a struggle for our liberty. The struggle this time, is a struggle for our independence.”

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Founding Father of Bangladesh

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

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.

Poetry

Manush: Nazrul’s Lines for Humankind: Translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Birth of an Ally by Tamoha Siddiqui. Click here to read.

Prose

Maya and the Dolphins: Mohin Uddin Mizan creates a flash fiction on dolphin sightings in the crowded Cox Bazar at Dhaka. Click here to read.

Henrik’s Journey: Farah Ghuznavi follows a conglomerate of people on board a flight to address issues ranging from Rohingyas to race bias. Click here to read.

The Doll: Sohana Manzoor tells a story around the awakening of a young woman. Click here to read.

Remembering Rokeya: Patriarchy, Politics, and Praxis: Azfar Hussain takes us on a journey into the world of Madam Rokeya who wrote more than a century ago in English, Urdu and Bengali. Her books talked of women, climate and issues related to patriarchy. Click here to read.

Categories
Nazrul Translations

Manush: Nazrul’s Lines for Humankind

Translated by Professor Fakrul Alam

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.

MANKIND

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, 
Disdaining mankind!
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! 

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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

Categories
Editorial

Where Have All the Sunflowers Gone?

Only when the cries of the wretched of the earth will stop renting the skies,
Only when the oppressor’s bloody sword will cease smearing battlefields,
			A rebel, weary of war,
			Only then I won’t stir.
…
I’m the ever-rebellious hero--
	Soaring over the world, all alone, head forever held high!

--  Rebel or 'Bidrohi' (1922) by Nazrul, translated by Fakrul Alam
Borderless: Digital Art by Ayaan Ghoshal
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
…
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.         
 Shantih shantih shantih

-- Wasteland (1922) by TS Eliot

These lines reiterate values we would do well to live by in a war-torn, dissension-worn world where the need for a rebel to recreate a humane society that lives with values such as peace, generosity, acceptance, tolerance, compassion and restraint — is a felt need. The two great poems made history by remaining as popular a hundred years after they were written — ‘The Rebel’ by Nazrul and TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. Nazrul defined a rebel as an iconoclast who breaks norms to find peace, justice and love for all, to move towards the creation of an ideal world. TS Eliot quoted from the Upanishads and ended with redemption coming with giving (giver perhaps denoted generosity), compassion and restraint. Despite the wisdom of these great poets and seers, war still continues a reality. The values remain neglected not just in as we see in conflicts, like the one in Ukraine that destroys lives, property and nature with intolerance towards differences, but also in our personal lives. Tagore also reiterated the same need for stepping out of personal, social, economic and political insularity. We carry a translation of a song that echoed this need while inviting participation in his ecstasy. He wrote:

Why do you sit in isolation,
Dwelling on self-centred issues? 

Tagore had not only written of the negative impact of isolation from the world but he led by example, building institutions that could lead the world towards pacifism with acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness. Sriniketan and Santiniketan were created to move towards these ideals. Many of the people he influenced or who studied in Santiniketan made history, like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray; many added to the sense of inclusiveness, like Mahasweta Devi, who other than her enormous work to integrate different cultures, also wrote a memoir about Santiniketan in Bengali. Radha Chakravarty, nominated for the Crossword Translation Award (2004) for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi, has translated this memoir, a narrative which brings us close to Tagore’s ideals of the whole world being a family. How wonderful it would be if the world were open to such ideals and would behave like a global family and not go to war!  Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan, which has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, reiterates Tagore’s vision of a planet living in harmony with the flora and fauna.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed another non-fiction by Ashok Kumar Pandey, Why They Killed Gandhi; Unmasking the Ideology and the Conspiracy. Parichha writes: “The finest point about this book is its storytelling…” The book review brings to mind in the midst of a war and violence that Gandhi had tried to erase this mindless destruction of lives, nature and cities with Ahimsa or non-violence. Will we ever rise up to it? Perhaps… We see strains of recognising the negative impact of insular outlook in writings like that of Temsula Ao, a Sahitya Akademi Award winner, according to Indrashish Banerjee who has reviewed her new book, The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories from Nagaland. Keith Lyons has reviewed Asian Anthology: New Writing Vol. 1: Stories by Writers from Around the World, edited by Ivy Ngeow, an exotic medley of Asian stories, one of which has been excerpted as well.

We are privileged to carry another excerpt from Ruskin Bond’s Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions, a hilarious story about a pet tiger adopted by the legendary writer’s grandfather. What is amazing about Ruskin Bond’s writing is the love and compassions for all creatures great and small that colours the tongue-in-cheek humour he rolls out to his readers. If only we could think like Bond, there would be no wars. His writing, I feel, transcends political borders or ‘isms’, and laces with love and compassion tales of menageries of monkeys, snakes, mongoose, humans of different denominations. This excerpt is a treat we are giving Borderless Journal as the journal completes two years of its existence. We are truly grateful to Speaking Tiger for sharing this excerpt with us. But our celebrations this time are sombre as the war rages with incoherence accompanied by heart-breaking ravages.

The refrain from Ukraine has been taken up by Ratnottama Sengupta as she takes us through the past and present experiences of the devastated country, bringing in the views of the legendary folk singer and pacifist, Pete Seeger (1919-2014), who she had interviewed over a span of four days. The writer of ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, a song based on an Ukrainian folk song, Seeger said, “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it.” Candice Louisa Daquin has also pondered on the justification of war, contextualising it with the current one along with her essay on the paradox of modern linguistic communication.

We have an exhaustive essay on the legendary Satyajit Ray’s creations by Anasuya Bhar. Malhotra has pondered at exclusivity reinforcing divisions, margins and borders to plague humankind, against the backdrop of the Women’s Month, March. Highlighting women in writing, we have interviewed two female writers, one from Nepal and another from Bangladesh. Sangita Swechcha lives in UK but her writing, till now largely in Nepali, often pines for her home embedded in the Himalayas whereas, an expat, Neeman Sobhan, shuttles between Bangladesh and Italy with the affluence and assurance of a privileged background.

Finding a way to override lack of privileges, deprivation and violence, are the youngsters of Nithari on the outskirts of Delhi where less than two decades ago other than poverty, savage criminality devastated the local populace. These youngsters transcended the suffering over time with help from volunteering NGOs to create narratives that amaze with their inventiveness and confidence. Tanveer Hussain from Nithari, self-motivated and self-made from a young age, asks questions that would be relevant for all humankind in a letter to God. It has been translated from Hindustani by Vritika Thareja of pandies’. This edition’s translations include Professor Fakrul Alam’s mellifluous rendition of Jibanananda Das’s poetry from Bengali to English, Ihlwha Choi’s Korean poetry and a Balochi poem by Munir Momin rendered in English by Fazal Baloch. Baloch had earlier translated poems by Akbar Barakzai, a great poet who departed on 7th March, depriving the world of yet another powerful writer who imbibed hope of a better future in his poetry. We are privileged to have hosted the translations of some of his poems and his last interview.

Another well-known poetic voice from Singapore, Kirpal Singh, has given us poignant poetry that can be applied to the situation that is leading to the wreck of Ukraine. Anasuya Bhar has  poetry, one of which despite being in the ilk of Nazrul’s great poem, ‘Rebel or Bidrohi’, questions gently mainly social constructs that obstruct the flow of harmony. Ryan Quinn Flanagan has pondered on the acceptance of a changed world. We have humour from Rhys Hughes in poetry and wonderful poems by Michael R Burch on spring. Jay Nicholls shares the last of her dozen Pirate poems as Blacktarn sails the lemon seas to fight pollution. Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, George Freek, Sutputra Radheye, Mike Smith, Shaza Khan and many more have contributed a wealth of beautiful lines. Penny Wilkes has captured storms and seas with photographs and text and Rhys has surprised us with some strange, bizarre tales in his column.

We have musings from around the world. San Lin Tun, Meredith Stephens, Erwin Coombs, G Venkatesh have all brought in flavours of multiple cultures. Devraj Singh Kalsi has spoken of a book fair he visited in a semi-sardonic tone. He has also given us a short story as has Farah Ghuznavi – a truly borderless story which takes place in an aeroplane, in the sky where all borders collapse. We have more stories from Balochistan, US and India.

Suzanne Kamata continues writing on Japan as she  introduces us to an Australian film maker who is making films in Japan and in Japanese, called Felicity Tillack. Cultures are perhaps truly crossing borders as we can see Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist who moved from US to Indonesia start a new column with us called ‘Mission Earth’. We hope, like Tagore or Rousseau, he will help to revive our felt need to live with nature, acknowledge the nurture that we get from the planet to live in harmony with it and on it.

At the end of twenty-four months of existence – that sounds better than a mere two years— we are happy to host a melange of writers from across the borders and be the meeting grounds of writers and readers from across continents. I am truly thankful to all of you for helping concretise an ideal. Huge thanks to all the writers, artists, photographers and the readers for the contribution of their time, effort and love. And thanks to our fabulous team who continue to support the journal unwaveringly. I would also like to thank Sohana for the lovely visuals she generously shares with us. A special thanks also to young Ayaan Ghoshal for his digital art where hands reach out to support a truly borderless world.

As usual, all the content has not been covered here, I invite you all to enjoy our March edition of Borderless Journal.

At the start of the third year of our existence, let us march onwards towards renewed hope – maybe the Ukraine experience will take us closer to a war-free world with an awakening of a felt need for peace and compassion in a planet without borders.

In quest of a peaceful, humane world, I invite you all to continue being part of this journey.  

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Stories

Henrik’s Journey

By Farah Ghuznavi

It was time to give up the fight.

Shifting from the uncomfortable position on her side, Chhaya sat up. There was no way she was getting a nap on this flight.

For her surrender, she was rewarded with a beaming smile from one of her fellow passengers. The man, who had earlier introduced himself as Henrik Something-or-the-other, had not stopped talking – or so it seemed to her – for the past five hours. She was grateful that they had less than two hours of flight time remaining before they landed in Copenhagen.

Reaching the departure gate in Dubai, Chhaya had noticed Henrik almost immediately. Tall and lean, his well-groomed silver hair seemed a little at odds with his flamboyant clothing: a zipper-festooned biker jacket, red tie, white shirt and navy jeans, with a black cowboy hat jauntily perched on the extended handle of his cabin baggage, for good measure.

A short time later, she located her aisle seat, only to find him comfortably ensconced between her and the young Indian man sitting by the window. Curtly acknowledging his introduction, she ignored the twinkle in his eye and dived into a report on refugee relief activities, indicating, she hoped, a total lack of interest in further conversation.

A man dressed like that had to be working his way through some form of midlife crisis, Chhaya figured, albeit one that had arrived late. She had no idea how accurate her assessment actually was. But she was determined not to be a spectator at Henrik Whatnot’s travelling circus. Besides, she was determined to be well-prepared for the donor meeting in Copenhagen.

By the time their meal had been served, Henrik was on first-name terms with all the cabin crew members. He had started by sharing the holiday photos on his phone with Giselle. A tall blonde from Munich, she seemed unaccountably interested in his safari experiences at Kruger National Park. And even Chhaya had to admit that the picture of him bottle-feeding a lion cub was rather cute.

“Was this your first trip to South Africa, sir?” Giselle asked.

“Call me Henrik! Yes, it was, and I am thinking of buying a third home there. Now that I’m retired, my wife and I have more freedom to travel. A doctor’s life isn’t really designed for leisure, but for the last couple of years, we’ve been spending our summers in Denmark and our winters in Thailand, where my wife is from. I’m making up for lost time, so to speak – though my wife’s convinced I travel too much!”

Chhaya concealed an inward shudder at this instance of yet another older white man picking up some young Thai woman on a beach holiday, and taking his submissive Asian flower home to keep him warm in the frozen north. The stewardess, who was probably thinking the same thing, did an even better job of hiding her distaste.

“So you met your wife on your travels, sir – I mean, Henrik?”

“Yes, but perhaps not in the way that you are thinking,” said Henrik, smiling. “I was hiking through northern Thailand, when I stumbled across a village tucked away in the hills. There were no hotels, so I rented a room for the night in someone’s home. The family had a son who was visiting from Bangkok. He was the only one who spoke good English, so he translated our conversation for the others, while we ate the delicious food his mother had cooked for us.

“In the middle of the night, there was a knock on the door, and the young man came in to say that his neighbour’s child was very ill. He asked if I could help. I did what I could, but it was touch and go for a while, because the boy was burning up. I spent the next few days looking after him. He lived with his mother and aunt, who had the unenviable job of plucking and cleaning slaughtered chickens at a nearby poultry farm.

“I ended up staying in that village for three months. That’s how long it took me to persuade the boy’s aunt that I would make a good husband. Even today, my wife Su doesn’t like spending time in Bangkok, so we decided to build a house in her village. You never can tell what fate has in store. My marriage to the world’s kindest woman was built on a foundation of chicken guts, late nights with a sick child, and her determined resistance to the advances of a strange foreigner!”

By the end of his story, they were all smiling, even Chhaya.

She was less impressed when Henrik decided to buy gifts for his beloved wife from the duty-free trolley after dinner. Examining a platinum bracelet stud with diamonds, he asked the steward Jeffery, what he thought of it.

“It’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?” the man said. And then, perhaps remembering that his job was to actually sell things – the more expensive the better – the steward made a quick recovery, adding “Though I suppose it depends on your wife’s preferences. It is a very beautiful bracelet!”

“Yes, but I think you may be right. My wife is a woman of simple tastes. I think she would prefer this one.” He selected a slim gold bracelet cunningly crafted into three interwoven strands, before moving on to the perfumes. “Which of these fragrances do you think she’d prefer?” he asked Jeffery.

“I don’t really know, sir…” he said, hesitating.

“But you must have some preference!” Henrik said. “What would you buy for a woman – for your wife or girlfriend?”

Since Jeffery looked decidedly ill at ease, Chhaya intervened. “Why don’t you ask one of the women Henrik? I’m sure they would be happy to give you some advice.”

The look of relief on Jeffery’s face made Chhaya wonder if perhaps giving away aftershaves was more his style than perfumes. Summoning his co-worker, a petite brunette, to the trolley, Jeffery said, “Marta, this gentleman would like some suggestions about which perfume to get his wife for a special occasion.”

Rolling her eyes at Jeffery, Marta nevertheless obliged. With her more savvy assistance, Henrik finally selected a crystal Baccarat bottle of Guerlain Idylle, spending the tidy sum of nearly 1500 euros on the two items. “I’ve been away a long time, so I have some making up to do where she’s concerned!” he joked.

Appalled at his extravagance, Chhaya couldn’t help thinking about how much better that money could have been spent in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where she and her team found themselves working under increasingly frustrating conditions.

There was no point in making such comparisons, she knew, but it was infuriating when people threw away money like that in a world where others were desperate. And with money to burn, why was this guy travelling economy anyway?

Deciding she had had enough of the strange man and his stories, Chhaya turned on her side, jamming in the earplugs that she had cadged off Jeffery, and willed herself to sleep.

Meanwhile, Henrik turned to speak to the young man on his right, who reluctantly surrendered his headphones and his plans for in-flight entertainment. As Chhaya persisted with her abortive attempt at napping, Henrik proceeded to chat with Sunil, a nerdy youth with well-oiled hair, who was on his way to the US to study Engineering.

“So you’re going on a full scholarship? How wonderful! Your family must be very proud,” Henrik said.

“Yes, they are. I would never have got the scholarship without the sacrifices my parents made for my education,” Sunil said. “But now I am facing some difficulties.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Henrik said.

“Well, it was my mother’s fervent wish that I get engaged before leaving for America, but I just could not find a suitable girl. My parents tried everything. They matched horoscopes, discussed nice girls with my uncles and aunties, and identified a number of prospective brides.”

“But do you want to get married so soon?” Henrik said.

“Oh yes, I have no problem with having the engagement now and getting married after I return from the US,” Sunil assured him. “It is just that none of the girls was right for me. What I mean is, several of them were beautiful, but there was always something I didn’t like about them. And also, too many of them wore glasses!”

“Ah, but you mustn’t be so finicky, young man! You can’t pick a bride simply for her beauty, and think that’ll be enough to keep you happy. Beauty is all very well, but after a while, its effects wear off. The important things in a marriage are humour, and companionship – a wife who is smart enough to understand what you need, and to tell you what she needs. And the girls who wear glasses are probably the smarter ones!”

“But my wife must be beautiful! You see, I am intelligent, but I am not very good-looking. So when we have children…”

“You want them to have her looks and your intelligence?”

“Yes!”

“But Sunil, as George Bernard Shaw famously pointed out, you must realise that it could also work out the other way around! And if they were to have your looks and her intellect, surely you would want her to be intelligent too?” Henrik laughed. “Not that there’s anything wrong with your looks, of course!” he added cheerfully.

With Sunil as his captive audience, Henrik continued to expound on his theories regarding marriage. Trying to sleep, Chhaya ground her teeth as the sub-standard airline earplugs forced her to listen in; though she had to admit that the older man did make a number of good points.

In the end, Sunil reached the same conclusion, saying “Yes, Mr Henrik, I think you are right. I will take another look at the bio-datas of some of the girls with spectacles.”

In the end, Chhaya gave up all hope of sleeping and sat up once again. Marvelling at Henrik’s powers of persuasion, she decided to try for an attitude adjustment. It helped when the object of her ire turned to ask Chhaya what line of business she was in.

“I’m a development worker, actually,” she said.

“Oh?” Henrik’s eyes lit up. ”What’s your area of specialisation? And if you don’t mind my asking, where are you from?”

Some imp of mischief made Chhaya reply, “Well, where do you think I am from?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m having a hard time figuring it out. I want to say Thailand, because you remind me a bit of my wife, but your name doesn’t sound Thai. Are you Malaysian? Or Nepali?” Henrik said.

“That’s what most people think,” Chhaya said. “But actually, I’m from Bangladesh.”

“Well, that’s a country facing some challenges right now!” said Henrik. “I was surprised when your government decided to let the Rohingyas in a couple of years ago. So many of them too. I just wish European governments were half as generous when it came to refugees!”

“Yes, if only!” Chhaya laughed. “But coping with the influx has presented enormous logistical challenges for those in my line of work. As well as for Bangladesh as a country, of course.

“Actually, that’s why I’m going to Copenhagen right now, to address the donor consortium that funds my organisation.” She gestured at the report she was holding, “So I need to sound informed and authoritative.”

“Have you actually been to the camps yourself?”

“Yes, several times. I was there very recently, just a couple of days ago. Things are a mess right now, but we have to deal with the realities on the ground. And there’s also some talk about this new disease, COVID 19, that’s popped up out of nowhere. It could be disastrous if it makes its way to Bangladesh, given our population density. And people are living cheek by jowl in the refugee camps already!

“To make matters worse, China’s pretty close by for us, so the threat is very real. Unless, of course, it miraculously disappears the way MERS or SARS did. Still, I’m actually quite proud of Bangladesh for opening the borders to the refugees from Myanmar despite what it’s costing us.”

Chhaya smiled briefly before continuing, “As for Aung San Suu Kyi — I can’t understand how, after benefiting from the international human rights movement’s support for decades, she could turn her back on the Rohingya refugees like this!”

“I guess her hands are tied, to some extent,” Henrik said. “The military are still in charge in Myanmar, after all.”

“That’s true, but I don’t understand how she can possibly deny what’s happening there. And it infuriates me when she draws a false equivalence between the elements carrying out this ethnic cleansing, and whatever supposed disruption the Rohingyas have caused in Myanmar!” Chhaya said.

“I can’t argue with you there. But unlike her fellow Peace Prize-winner Mandela, Suu Kyi is ultimately a politician. And to politicians, the most important thing is power – regardless of how they get it.”

“I wish the Nobel Committee had never given her that Peace Prize. She certainly doesn’t deserve it!”

“I suspect the Norwegians are thinking the very same thing!” Henrik said.

Looking into those shrewd blue eyes, Chhaya realised that she had underestimated the older man. He was no buffoon, whatever the reason for his gregariousness. Or indeed, what some might call his garrulousness.

His interest in the challenges posed by the Rohingya presence in Bangladesh, and his awareness of Suu Kyi’s fall from grace indicated a surprising knowledge of global events, something she would not necessarily have associated with the average Dane, given the sheltered lives they led.

Though of course, Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize had originated in Henrik’s part of the world, in neighbouring Norway. And she had met enough Scandinavian activists and development workers to know that most of them cared passionately about sharing resources to help create a better world.  

“Unfortunately, there is no precedent for stripping someone of the award. So I think we’d have been better off giving her the Ig-Nobel Prize rather than the Nobel!”

“Is there such a thing?” Chhaya asked in disbelief.

 “Oh yes, very much so. They identify recipients for it every year. Not that anyone is eager to be an award winner for that one! But, on a different note, does your organisation accept private donations?” Henrik asked.

“Yes, we do, actually!” Chhaya replied, surprised. “We have a special PayPal account for this campaign, because it’s a humanitarian emergency.”

Henrik took down the details, before taking out his mobile phone. Even as she gave them to him, a cynical part of Chhaya’s mind wondered if this was more of the man’s posturing, or whether a donation would ever materialise. She did not have to wait long to find out.

Jeffery appeared in response to Henrik pressing the call button. “I wonder if you could help me get online for a few minutes?” Henrik said.

Chhaya knew that it was expensive to use the Internet while the flight was airborne, but it didn’t seem to deter Henrik. Jeffery, happier with this request than he had been with the previous one, helped him navigate the process. As Chhaya watched, Henrik entered the staggering amount of five thousand euro, and sent off his contribution.

The remaining flight time passed quickly, as they discussed the situation. And after she had collected her baggage upon landing, Chhaya looked around to say goodbye to her strange companion, and to thank him one last time.  But by then, Henrik was nowhere to be seen.

Chhaya gave a mental shrug. Henrik had asked for her email address, but she doubted she would hear from him again. He had already made his donation, and a generous one at that. It was surely enough to allow him to wash his hands and his conscience clean of the matter.

*

Evelina Morales was having a bad day. After an exhausting flight from the Philippines, she had landed in Copenhagen to discover that her employer was going to be late picking her up. Not that she cared. Despite being tired, she was in no hurry to be reunited with Mrs. Solgaard. Because though her employer liked to insist that Evelina address her as Anne-Karin, the young woman was under no illusion that it made their relationship any less formal.

Anne-Karin Solgaard’s soaring career trajectory meant that Evelina’s services as an au pair made up a key element of her support system. With two young children, Anne-Karin could not have sustained her meteoric rise as a right-wing politician without Evelina’s help at home.

Nevertheless, Evelina could not shake the sense that her employer viewed her as more of a robotic nanny service than a human being. And although Anne-Karin often touted Denmark as an ideal society where everyone, including workers, had good lives and proper weekends off, Evelina noticed that this did not stop her employer from asking her to work on a Saturday or Sunday if Anne-Karin needed her services, as she all too often seemed to.

Nor was Evelina’s job an easy one. The children, both boys under the age of five, displayed a boisterousness that verged on being hyperactive. Danish permissiveness with respect to child rearing made things even harder. So while Anne-Karin fondly referred to her boys as “chaos pilots”, Evelina could not help thinking that she might have been less indulgent if she herself had to deal singlehandedly with the chaos that they created.

But if Evelina could not quite be sure how her employer viewed her, she was left in no doubt of Anne-Karin’s general dislike of immigrants, particularly those who came to Denmark from Somalia and other hotspots. “If only the Muslims would make an effort to integrate!” she was often heard saying to her admirers. “You’d think they would be grateful to have a new life here, but it’s unbelievable how resistant some of these people are to adopting Danish values.”

Evelina made it a point never to react when Anne-Karin made remarks like that, but she drew the line when her employer suggested she read the autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “She’s a remarkable woman, you know, Evelina. She identified the threat that Muslims pose to Europe long before most of us were aware of the danger. And she knows what she’s talking about — she grew up in Somalia!”

Aware of Ali’s incendiary views on religion from her conversations with a Somali friend, Evelina could not remain silent. “Thank you, but I find some of her ideas too extreme. I mean, according to her, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik felt that censorship of his writings on Christian superiority left him “no choice” but to commit murder! Breivik massacred dozens of children on Utøya. And this vile man actually expressed admiration for her in his manifesto!”

“I haven’t heard her views on Breivik,” Anne-Karin replied, unruffled. “But she is right to talk about the need to combat Islamic terrorism.”

Despite her own worries about the Muslim separatist struggle in the Philippines, Evelina despised people like her boss, whose populist rhetoric recycled tired stereotypes to score cheap political points. So, though she allowed the statuesque redhead to have the last word, the young Filipina left the book untouched where it lay.

To make matters worse, Evelina knew that quite apart from her hostility to immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, Anne-Karin’s identity as part of a tiny minority of Danes attending evangelical churches meant that she often viewed other Christians – especially Catholics like Evelina – with a degree of suspicion. And as a Christian herself, Evelina could not help thinking that Anne-Karin and her Pentecostal friends held views that would not pass the litmus test that they were so fond of applying to key life questions: namely asking, “What would Jesus do?”

That this group’s political opinions reflected the general hardening of Danish attitudes towards foreigners did not make her employer’s racist comments any easier for Evelina to swallow. No matter how much she worked, Evelina was regularly subjected to Anne-Karin’s assertion that Denmark was too soft in letting in the migrants “flood in” to exploit its admittedly-generous welfare system.

Evelina’s friend Aaden, a young Somali man who had fled the brutal civil war, certainly had little time for people like her employer. “How’s Ol’ Sunshine today?” Aaden would ask, smiling. It was a long-standing joke that her sourpuss employer’s surname included the word for sun, “sol” — even if it was because she had taken her husband’s name. Such merriment at her expense was probably not the outcome Anne-Karin had in mind when she packed her nanny off to the introductory language course where Evelina had met Aaden.

“If I knew what would make her happy, Aaden, I would do it just to get that look of disdain off her face. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, but nothing you can do is likely to change anything! Let’s face it, she just hates foreigners. What’s worrying is that someone like her is doing so well in Danish politics!”

“I guess she represents all the people who think like her. Such nasty people shouldn’t be the ones making decisions that impact other people’s lives…”

“Well, she certainly seems to have no problem having foreigners around when they’re changing diapers and ‘airing’ the dog!” Aaden said, referring to the literal meaning of the Danish term used for dog-walking.

“That’s because she can’t afford to hire a Dane to do the work that I do!” Evelina retorted.

“Don’t forget, most of them think they’re too good to be doing this kind of work. I’ve never seen so many people who want all the crappy jobs done for them, but don’t want to let in the workers who’re willing to do those jobs,” Aaden replied.

Now, nursing the overpriced cup of coffee she had bought in order to occupy a table at the airport snack bar, Evelina reflected on how unhappy she felt being back in Denmark.

Nobody at home understood. For them, it was a great opportunity to travel and earn good money for what was, after all, a relatively simple job. Too simple, Evelina thought. Was this all that being a straight “A” student throughout school and college was worth?

To add insult to injury, Aunty Nancy kept telling her, “You might even meet some nice Danish man. And then you could stay on there!” Evelina did not have the heart to tell her that marriage was probably the last thing on the average Danish man’s mind. But letting her family down by quitting her job was just not an option. And it did at least allow her to save some money towards a university degree.

Her despondent musings were interrupted by a smiling stranger. As the silver-haired gentleman standing in front of her enquired if he could share her table, Evelina looked around at the lack of available spaces and assented with whatever grace she could muster.

“Are you okay?” the man asked her, after a moment. “You look a little tired.”

The concern in his eyes prevented her from taking offence. “I’m all right. It’s just been a long flight…” And before she knew it, Evelina found herself telling a stranger what she had been unable to share with her family.

He listened patiently, before saying, “I’m so sorry you’re having such a difficult time. This is certainly not the best time to be an outsider in Denmark. But you know, there are many Danes who feel exactly the same way that you do. Especially people working in the development sector, like me, who’ve seen more of the world.”

“Oh, do you travel a lot for work?” Evelina asked.

“Yes, or at least, I have done more of that recently. I’m a doctor, you see. Once I retired, I wanted to do something useful. So now I volunteer to work in countries that are experiencing humanitarian crises – though I’ll admit that I wasn’t brave enough to help with the Ebola outbreak.”

“So where have you been?” Evelina asked.

“All over the place, really,” her companion replied. “In fact, it’s caused a lot of trouble in my personal life. My wife is, understandably enough, fed up with my absences! Still, I didn’t expect…” he paused.

“Is something wrong?” It was Evelina’s turn to ask.

“Yes, well… I was expecting my wife to pick me up, you see. But I just received the text message she wrote last night. She says she’s leaving me. So there won’t be anyone to meet me at the house now – and I was so excited about coming home.”

“I’m really sorry!” Evelina didn’t know what to say. He seemed like a nice man, but she could understand that his wife might get tired of waiting for a husband who was always travelling to faraway, and potentially dangerous, places.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I’ll manage. It’s not entirely unexpected, but I did hope that things wouldn’t come to this. I’ll just go on to my next assignment straightaway. I’m volunteering at the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they’ve been dealing with the Rohingya people, who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar. ”

“Of course, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Evelina said, feeling awkward. She didn’t even know the man, but it made her oddly sad to think of him returning to an empty house with a broken heart. Still, it was good to be reminded that not all Danes were as unfeeling or self-absorbed as Anne-Karin.

“This would never happen in your country, would it?” her companion said, making an attempt at humour. “I suppose people aren’t often lonely in cultures like yours – not unless they want to be alone, of course”.

“You’d be hard put to find yourself alone in the Philippines, even if you wanted to be!” Evelina said.

They smiled at each other briefly, before the man continued, “I should head home now. But before I go, could I ask you for a favour?”

Evelina nodded, a little wary. He didn’t look like a creep, but you could never tell.

She waited.

“I bought a present for my wife, you see – and I just can’t bear to carry it around. You’d be doing me a great favour by taking it off my hands…” he said, looking at her hopefully.

Evelina was in a quandary. She did not want to accept a gift from a stranger, but she could understand why the poor man might find the poignant reminder of his changed circumstances too painful.

“Please!” he said, “I would be very grateful.”

Reluctantly, Evelina agreed. Straightening to his full height, the stranger handed her a small duty-free bag. Then he turned and walked away, disappearing into the excited crowds that had gathered to greet their friends and families.

*

Well, that took care of one thing, Henrik thought. He had observed the sad-looking young woman for a while before deciding that she would be the recipient of his duty-free purchases.  Hopefully Evelina would enjoy the bracelet and perfume.

Poor girl, what a nightmare her employer was! But what could you expect from a member of the Danish right-wing? The rising tide of hostility to immigrants in Denmark was part of a wider global picture that Henrik struggled to understand, though he was familiar with the othering rhetoric of “us” versus “them”.

Muslims in particular were often demonised, and when you got down to it, were about as welcome to most Europeans as the Rohingyas were to the Buddhists in Myanmar. It bothered Henrik that his fellow Danes’ commitment to the egalitarian values underpinning their society did not seem to extend beyond their borders.

On the other hand, human beings were complicated creatures, full of contradictions. You just had to look at him to see that, after all.

He had gone from being shy Henrik Ahlberg, to a globetrotting sophisticate capable of talking to complete strangers at great length – even when he wasn’t speaking a word of truth!

Actually, that was not entirely fair: it was true that he was a doctor. And the life story he told was, after all, the life he could have had. If only he had been brave enough to go in search of it before…

As for his imaginary Thai wife, Henrik gave himself points for coming up with such a highly believable detail. His countrymen’s weakness for Thai women was well-known, though Henrik himself would have been happy with a woman from any country, if she had only loved him in the way that he had longed for his entire life.

He had waited patiently for years to meet the woman of his dreams. Preoccupied by his work, and distracted by fantasies about the future, it was too late by the time Henrik realised that the love of his life had stood him up. Unlike him, perhaps she had got tired of waiting. Which meant that now, the woman who should have been his wife was probably having a great life with someone else.

There was nothing Henrik could do about those lost opportunities. But when the unexpected remission from his illness materialised, he decided to use whatever time he had left – and nobody seemed to know exactly how long this could be, since estimates ranged from ten months to as many years – to make up for all the time he had wasted. The South African safari was just the first step in that process.

It was a pity, he thought, that he had never lived up to his dream of working for Doctors Without Borders. Helping people survive disasters in the darker corners of the globe would have been a worthwhile use of a life, and probably far better than what he had used his life for, at least to date.

He had felt a pang when he was describing his dream retirement career to Evelina. But to his younger self, viewed from the safety of Scandinavia, that kind of work had seemed too dangerous. It took his diagnosis to show him just how close to home danger could lurk.

It was inspiring to see people who cared so much about their work, like that girl on the plane, Chhaya. She had been so offended by the extravagance of his duty-free purchases! It was written all over her expressive face, reflected in the furious knitting of those dark brows set over her long-lashed brown eyes.

She had no way of knowing that he was “in character” at the time. Or that money was the one thing that he did have, since both love and time were in short supply.

She was a feisty little thing, that one, Henrik thought, chuckling inwardly. Not that she would thank him for describing her as “little”, he suspected. Even if he did tower over her five foot frame. The encounter with her reminded him of something that his Indian friend Jayesh had said, about a proverb to the effect that small chillies often pack the biggest punch.

And meeting people like her also validated his choice to travel economy, which he preferred because of the diversity it offered, in comparison to the comfortable predictability of business class.

Remembering that he still had Chhaya’s card tucked away in his wallet, Henrik had the sudden thought that medical volunteering might not be such a far-fetched idea, even now. After all, he suspected they needed all the help they could get in those refugee camps.

And if he followed through with his plan, then perhaps on some future flight he would even get to tell his fellow travellers a true story or two.

.

Farah Ghuznavi is a Bangladeshi writer, whose work has been published in Germany, France, Austria, UK, USA, Canada, Singapore, Nigeria, Nepal and India. Her story, ‘Judgement Day’, was awarded in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010. She was also the writer in residence with the Commonwealth Writers website in 2014.

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

Categories
Poetry of Jibananda Das

One Day in the Fog…

Translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam

Jibananada Das. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Jibananada 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.”

ONE DAY IN THE FOG...

(“Akdin Kuashai” from Ruposhi Bangla)
 
I well know a day will come when you won’t find me in this foggy field
Having ended its walks, the heart will move on to a silent, icy room then
Or perhaps it will be a while before it can be consoled. It may take time
For it to forget this earthly field. In astonishment, I’ll keep looking 
At the shaliks of the field from my bed in darkness. Will golden eagles
Still unfurl their wings and waft their way to this fog-filled field from afar?
To this day they head for bare ashwath branches as evening turns golden.
While through the soft rice stalks field mice still keep looking at the stars
 
As evening descends. Do bees still not build hives in intense dense darkness?
Having their fill of honey, don’t they fly away in the foggy, evening wind?
So far they must fly to, alas…or perhaps hemmed by chalta leaves
Some get trapped under hives. The flies fly away…drop… die in the grass—.

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

Categories
Essay

‘What remains is darkness and facing me – Banalata Sen!’

 

Rakibul Hasan Khan explores death and darkness in Fakrul Alam’s translation of Jibanananda Das’s poetry

I

Literary translation is a creative work, and the literariness of a translated work reflects the creativity of the translator. From a reader’s perspective who does not know the language of the “original”, the more the translated work reads “natural”, the better is the translation. But it is very intriguing from the viewpoint of someone who has access to both the original and the language of the translation. Reading the translation for such a reader is sometimes like reading the same poem in two languages at the same time, which is often a very enriching and exhilarating experience. But it is not always the case, for such readers may show a critical attitude to the translation for having a “bias” towards the original, especially if the latter is written in their first language. Then their reading turns out to be more an evaluation of the translation than enjoying the work in translation. It is a difficult task for such readers to overcome this predicament. 

I also face this predicament while reading Fakrul Alam’s translations of Jibanananda Das’(1899-1954) poetry in Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology, and Glossary (Dhaka: UPL, 2nd Ed, 2003). To keep aside my evaluative concerns, therefore, a middle course was necessary, while still comparing the translations with the originals. To this end, I read some of the most “popular” poems by Das in Alam’s translations with a particular focus on the latter’s recreation of the images of death, dread, and darkness.

There is a personal preference for my choosing of the dark images, for I always find Das’ grotesque or dreadful images as appealing as the beautiful ones, but more important reason for my choosing of the dreadful than the beautiful is to underscore the experience of a poet who lived under the dark shadow of colonial rule. Initially, I thought it would be very intriguing to read Das’ poetry postcolonially in Alam’s translations because of the latter’s reputation as an academic in the field of postcolonial studies. But while reading the translations, particularly the erudite introduction that he has included at the beginning of the volume to introduce the salient features of Das’ poetry as well as to offer a very insightful and resourceful discussion on others’ and his translations of the poet, I felt that Alam almost altogether suspended his postcolonial self and fully activated his own creativity to capture the sights and sounds of the works of a poet who is extraordinarily famous for the aesthetic and artistic qualities of his poetry. Alam seems to have embraced this challenge enthusiastically and has succeeded with flying colours, but his emphasis on the art may have cost him thematically on certain occasions, although it has not diminished the overall quality of the translations. His translations also continue to bear the mark of his academic background as a scholar in English studies.      

In spite of discovering that Fakrul Alam does not highlight the postcolonial elements in Jibanananda Das’s poetry, I did not abandon my initial plan of reading his translations through postcolonial lenses. Therefore, I resort to Edward Said, whom Alam considers his “guru”, to adopt the former’s concept of “contrapuntal reading” and apply it on the latter’s translations.

Said theorised contrapuntal reading as a technique of reading the texts of English literature, particularly the novel, to unravel the unrecognised and unarticulated elements of colonisation which are ostensibly absent in those texts. I adopted this technique for reading Alam’s translations to examine the images of death, dread, and darkness in Das’ poetry as the expressions of the poet’s experience as a colonised person. To view translation as an act of interpreting a text, I invoked Frederic Jameson’s formulation that interpretations of literary texts could bring to surface the repressed political unconscious in the narrative. Although Jameson’s theory is essentially a Marxist reading strategy, for my postcolonial materialist reading of Fakrul Alam’s translations, a reworking was necessary. Alam’s translations brought to light the repressed political unconscious in Das’ poetry, giving clue to the poet’s rendition of the grotesques as a result of the material realities of his time under the British Empire.

II

The first poem of Jibanananda Das that I read in Fakrul Alam’s translations is “An Overwhelming Sensation” (“Bodh”) – a deeply engaging poem that highlights the extraordinary sensibilities of a poet that separate them from the multitude. There are two “dreadful” images in this poem, and the first one is as follows:

In my head!
Walking along beaches – crossing shores
I try to shake it off;
I want to grab it as I would a dead man’s skull
And dash it on the ground; yet, like a live man’s head,
It wheels all around my heart! 
(26-31, p. 30)

The image of death and dread in the above quotation reminds me of Shakespeare’s the “grave diggers scene” in Hamlet as well as “Lady Macbeth’s persuasion scene” in Macbeth, although the original poem does not allude to Shakespeare so noticeably. Similarly, the second dreadful image of the poem resonates a Shakespearean diseased imagery in Alam’s translation:

Eyes whose nerves have dried up,
Ears which cannot hear,
And like that hump – a goitre erupting on flesh
Rotten cucumber – putrid pumpkin – 
All that have grown rank in the heart – 
All that. 
(101-106, p. 32)    

Is it a mere coincidence that Alam’s translations of the above images of death and dread remind me of Shakespeare? Do they have any connection with his academic background of English studies that must have included Shakespeare? It is also not a coincidence that Das himself was a student of English literature, who also pursued a teaching career in English. The colonial connection of English studies in the Indian subcontinent is a historical fact, which occasioned for the poet, the translator, and me to study the Bard, but more important is to note on how the presence of Shakespeare becomes more obvious in Alam’s translation than it is in the original. To me, the dreadful images recreated by Alam reflects the tormented mental state of the colonised poet. If we keep in mind that the original poem was written around the death throes of the colonial rule in India, we cannot overlook the link between these images and colonisation.

“Camping” (“Campe”) is another poem that contains some extremely poignant and dreadful images. In Fakrul Alam’s translation, this poem’s connection with colonisation becomes more recognisable than it is in the original. The poem describes a hunting night in a forest where the speaker of the poem is camping: “Somewhere deer are being hunted this day; / Hunters have moved into the heart of the forest today” (6-7, p. 32). The night for the speaker is both enchanting and mysterious – “a night full of wonders” (60, p. 34), but it turns into a horrible one due to the presence of the hunters. In Alam’s translation, the anxiety of the speaker reflects an acutely sensitive mind of a person who is restless by what is happening around him:

I can sleep no more;
Lying down
I hear gunshots;
And then more guns firing. 
In the moonlight the doe in heat call again.
Lying down here all by myself
I feel a heaviness in my heart
Hearing gunshots
Hearing the doe calling. 
(42-50, p. 33-34) 

Alam’s use of the words, “gunshots” and “guns firing”, perfectly captures the dreadfulness of the night and clarifies the heaviness of the speaker’s heart. He makes the anxiety of the speaker palpable. As he informs the reader with a footnote at the beginning of the poem, Jibanananda Das wrote this poem as an expression of “the helplessness of life” (p. 32), the above lines represent that helplessness of the speaker.   

Interestingly, this is a love poem – seemingly. The speaker compares himself with the fallen lovers of the doe who tempts the stags to come out of their hideouts by calling them passionately but deceivingly to be shot by hunters. According to the speaker, the doe has learnt this art of deception and cruelty from humans: “Lessons she has learnt from humans!” (51-54, p. 34). In Alam’s translation, the cruelty of hunting and the agony of the speaker become obvious:

I hear a double-barreled gun thunder,
The doe in heat keeps calling,
My heart can’t get to sleep
As I lie down all by myself; 
(79-82, p. 35)

Here the doe is a symbol of deceptive love. The speaker himself is also a victim of such love. His heart bleeds at the sound of gunfire. The innocent death of the stags reminds him of his own wretched state, but he is aware that he needs to learn how to negotiate with this wretchedness: “Still I must learn to forget sound of guns going off” (83, p. 35). This realisation gives the speaker the composure to reflect on the identity of the hunters:

They who own the double-barreled guns that destroyed the stags this day,
They who brought the relish of deer flesh and bones to their dinner
Are like you – 
Lying in camp beds they are drying up their souls
Reflecting on their feast – reminiscing – remembering. 
(84-88, p. 35)

The hunters are those who “own the double-barreled guns”. Does it ring a bell? Although the first Mughal Emperor Babur introduced guns in India in the sixteenth century, it is the British who made use of guns the most in the Indian subcontinent. Thus, there is a strong association between the British colonisers and the hunters in this poem.

Alam’s translation brings to surface the repressed political unconscious of the poem. If the poem is an expression of “the helplessness of life”, he heightens that helplessness, demystifying some of the obscurities of the original poem in the process of translating it. He succeeds in recreating the atmosphere of horror that does not let the speaker sleep. The anxiety of the speaker over the helplessness of his fellow people and of the animal world as a whole make us think about the time and place of writing this poem.

The dreadful images of death and dread recreated by Alam using words and phrases like “gunshots”, “guns firing”, and “double-barreled gun thunder” present before us a troubled world where the serenity of the natural world is shattered by the sound of gunshots. Yet, the speaker realises that he needs to negotiate. The colonised also had to negotiate with the colonisers. Therefore, if we situate the poem against the backdrop of its writing during the colonial period from a colonised location, can we overlook its colonial connection? Does Das portray the tormented state of the colonised through this allegorical love poem? This allegory of the hunted existence of the colonised becomes more perceptible than the original through Alam’s interpretative translation – translating as interpreting. Alam’s translated version of the poem reveals the material realities of the poet’s time which are largely concealed by symbols and imageries in the original poem.

III

To write on the theme of darkness, the poem “Banalata Sen” first comes to my mind, for I consider it as one of the darkest poems by Das. The poem’s darkness is very subtly camouflaged by a tapestry of extraordinary images. Its astonishing popularity as a love poem also often hides the darkness. Alam’s translation largely unveils the camouflage, and brings to light the overwhelming darkness of the poem. In the Bangla version, Das deploys the word “darkness” by somewhat screening it with other associated images and allusions. Alam also does so without using any synonym for “darkness” in his English translation, understandably for not affecting the poetic quality of the poem. As a result, the word “darkness” appears as many as five times in his translation, which is the same number as in the original. Here, the recurrent word has been put on bold typeface.

From Sinhala’s Sea to Malaya’s in night’s darkness, 
…
Was I present; Farther off, in distant Vidarba city’s darkness, 
… 
Her hair was full of the darkness of a distant Vidisha night, 
…
Did I see her in darkness; said she, “Where had you been?”
…
What remains is darkness and facing me – Banalata Sen!
(2, 4, 7, 11, 18, p. 61)

Fakrul Alam does justice to the original while translating this “difficult” poem, and exposes the dominance of darkness in it. Probably any other translator would also keep the word “darkness” the same number of times, but Alam’s success lies in his maintaining a similar artistic sublimity that we find in the original poem. It is evident in his coining or use of the phrases like “the ways of the world”, “ash-grey world”, “foaming ocean”, “the soft sound of dew”, “fireflies light up the world anew”, and “life’s mart close again”. His successful recreation of the images of darkness opens up the opportunity to explore the political potentialities of the poem.

“Darkness” (“Andhakar”) is another poem of overwhelming darkness. Fakrul Alam’s translated version of this poem also testifies my claim of his interpretive translation. He also explains in the introduction of the volume the process of his using self-explanatory words for retaining Bengali names to honour Jibanananda Das’s preference for this: “[t]he sensible option, it appeared to me, was to use Bengali names when an exact English equivalent was not available, and then to use a Bengali word in such a way that the meaning could be conveyed where possible within the line” (p. 21). Alam’s explanatory use of two Hindu mythological rivers’ names in the following lines of “Darkness” may also clarify my point:

I looked up and saw the pale moon withdrawing half of its shadow from that river of death, Vaitarani, 
As if gesturing towards the river of mutability, the Kirtanasha. (2-3, p. 72)

Alam supplements the meanings of the rivers by using the phrases “that river of death” and “the river of mutability” before Vaitarani and Kirtanasha respectively, while in the original poem, there is no such explanatory “notes” preceding the rivers’ names, assumingly because the Bengali readers of the poem are supposed to know the names of these mythological rivers, although I think many Bengali readers are also not fully informed of the significance of these rivers. Therefore, Alam’s innovative use of these rivers’ names becomes self-explanatory, without undermining the poetic quality of the lines. Similarly, the following line of the same poem is another example of his explanatory translation: “O Moon whose brightness has faded to a faint blue” (6, p. 72). In this line, the part following “O Moon” is clearly an attempt by the translator to explain the faded colour of the moon. However, Alam’s translation of this poem, like “Banalata Sen”, enhances the deep darkness manifested in the original.    

If we go back to the time of publication of the volume Banalata Sen (1942) where the two poems “Banalata Sen” and “Darkness” were included, we can get an explanation to the poet’s obsession with darkness. It was indeed the darkest time for the people of the Indian subcontinent under British colonisers. The colonial rule affected the Bengal province (where Jibanananda Das is from) so severely that it resulted in the worst famine in the subcontinental history in 1943. The Bengal famine of 1943 has been called a “man-made holocaust” by Gideon Polya, for which the then Prime Minister of England Winston Churchill’s policy of hoarding food supplies for the British soldiers fighting in the Second World War by depriving the colonised. Apart from the effects of the famine and the World War, communal conflicts also ravaged the peacefulness and harmony of life in this region. The optimism of anti-colonial movement was soon to be marred by the proposal of partitioning India on the basis of “two-nation theory”. All these must have affected Das while writing “Banalata Sen” or “Darkness”, and Alam’s translations give us a clear view of the unfathomable darkness that engulfed the poet’s world.

IV

In this section, Fakrul Alam’s translations of the poems of Beautiful Bengal [Ruposhi Bangla], one of Jibanananda Das’ most loved poetry collections, will be discussed. The poems of this collection reflect the poet’s deep attachment with his land as well as his meditations on death and reincarnation through picturesque and sensuous portrayals of the flora and fauna and the landscapes of rural Bengal. The first poem of this volume that appears in Alam’s translations reveals the poet’s musings on death. The very title of the poem, “Knowing How These Fields Will Not Be Hushed That Day” (“Shei Din Ei Math”), alludes to the day after the poet’s death. In Alam’s translation, the poet’s sense of grief imagining the day when he will be no more becomes as poignant as it is in the original:

Because I will disappear one day
Won’t dewdrops ever cease to wet chalta flowers 
In surges of soft scent?
(4-6, p. 43) 

These lines demonstrate the poet’s wistful imaginings of the time after his own death, but at the final stanza of the poem, he perceives death from an objective viewpoint. Alam perfectly captures this transition from subjective to objective, and presents it as authentically as possible:

Quiet lights – moist smells – murmurings everywhere; 
Ferryboats moor very close to sandbanks;
These tales of earth live on forever,
Though Assyria in dust – Babylon in ashes – lie.
(9-12, p. 43)

In Alam’s translation, the poet’s contemplation of the inevitability of death and the impermanence of everything, including great civilizations, appear in a perfect state of semblance and equipoise as in the original poem.  

“Go Wherever You Want To” (“Tomra Jekhane Shadh”), one of the most famous poems of Beautiful Bengal, bears evidence of the poet’s deep desire to stay eternally in the lap of Bengal amidst its unique beauties, refusing the prospects of moving to elsewhere, especially to any foreign land. The poet asks those fascinated by the attractions of foreign lands to go wherever they want to, but he himself wants to remain in Bengal eternally, justifying his decision by describing its bewitching beauty. Fakrul Alam is at his best as a translator in recreating the sights and sounds of the poet’s beautiful Bengal, where the sestet of the sonnet implies the poet’s eternal connection with this land:

Ready to take her grey-coloured duck to some storyland – 
As if the smell of Paran’s tale is sticking to her soft flesh, 
As if she has risen from her underwater kalmi reed abode – 
Silently leaving herself in water once – then disappearing 
Into the fog far, far away – but I know I’ll never lose sight of her
Even in the press of the world – for she is in my Bengal evermore. 
(9-14, p. 44)

Apparently, this poem is free from the heaviness of death imageries, but a close examination may bring to surface the poet’s embedded desires for death and rebirth. His yearning for remaining in Bengal eternally is only possible through his reincarnation in this land after his death.

The poem “I Have Seen Bengal’s Face” (“Banglar Mukh Ami Dekhiyachhi”), another sonnet of Beautiful Bengal, further justifies the poet’s decision to stay in Bengal for good and to go nowhere else. In his translation of the poem, Alam shows outstanding artistic skills to emulate the aesthetic and poetic beauty of the original. The octave quoted below may clarify my point:

I have seen Bengal’s face, and seek no more,
The world has not anything more beautiful to show me.
Waking up in darkness, gazing at the fig-tree, I behold
Dawn’s swallows roosting under huge umbrella-like leaves.
I look all around me and discover a leafy dome, 
Jam kanthal bat hijol aswatha trees all in a hush,
Shadowing clumps of cactus and zeodary bushes.
When long, long ago, Chand came in his honeycombed boat
To a blue Hijal Bat Tamal shade near the Champa, he too sighted 

Bengal’s incomparable beauty. 
(1-9, p. 49) 

Alam’s innovative use of native tress and legends appear as spontaneously and effectively as possible to make the piece apprehensible to non-native readers. The poem gestures to the poet’s desire to glorify his land and culture, and Alam’s translation further accomplishes that glorification.      

The poet’s desire for rebirth in Bengal is emphatically expressed in the poem “Beautiful Bengal” (“Abar Ashibo Phire”). Since the poems of the Beautiful Bengal are untitled, the first line of each poem is mostly accepted as the titles of the poems in Bangla original. Fakrul Alam also mostly follows this tradition, but often makes use of his freedom as a translator to change the title. The title of this poem “Beautiful Bengal” in Alam’s translation is another example of his applying that freedom. Perhaps he translates the title so differently from the “original” title, which could be something like “I Will Come Again”, to emphasise the extraordinary popularity of the poem that could easily be rendered as the titular poem of the volume. While I agree with this position, I feel it is deviating from the sense of reincarnation that the “original” title evokes. However, Alam does not deviate from the idea of return used as a refrain in the whole poem, and maintains the same stature as a translator that I find him in most other poems. I quote first few lines of the poem to support my view:

I’ll come again to the banks of the Dhanshiri – to this land
Perhaps not as a human – maybe as a white-breasted 
shankachil or a yellow-beaked shalik;
Or as a morning crow I’ll return to this late autumnal rice-harvest laden land, 
Wafting on the fog’s bosom I’ll float one day into the jackfruit tree shade; 
(1-4, p. 51)

This poem can be read as a companion piece to the two other poems I have discussed above: “Go Wherever You Want To”, and “I Have Seen Bengal’s Face”. The idea of reincarnation and the feeling of an inseparable connection with the homeland reverberate in these poems with exquisite descriptions of the beauty of Bengal.

The poems of Beautiful Bengal are perhaps most passionate “postcolonial poems” by Jibanananda Das, where he glorifies his native land and culture as an attempt to recuperate the damages done to those by colonials. Fakrul Alam’s translations bring to surface the repressed postcoloniality of these poems by making the poet’s postcolonial sensibility more prominent than they are in the originals. Das’s deep rootedness in his land and culture expressed in the poems of Beautiful Bengal exemplifies his unequivocal stand on the question of belonging. During a time when the colonial effects occasioned for many of his contemporaries to leave their homelands and embrace diaspora identities, Das’s unwavering utterance like “Go Wherever You Want To” reflects his resistance to colonization. It remains as a source of inspiration for many in the days to come, particularly at the wake globalization when the lure of a transnational identity complicates the questions of home and belonging.

V

In the final section of the essay one of Jibanananda Das’ most overtly time conscious poem entitled “1946-47” will be discussed. As the title suggests, this poem reflects Das’ deep observations on the contemporary sociopolitical issues of his time during and preceding the year of partition of India. Fakrul Alam adds a brief note to the poem to brief his readers the poem’s background. I find that note as a very helpful starting point for those who are not informed of the history of the Indian subcontinent. I quote it entirely to demonstrate how meticulous Alam is to make his translations comprehensive as well as comprehensible, particularly for non-native readers:

“1946-47” is the longest poem by Jibanananda Das that I have translated and is one of his most impressive meditations on contemporary history. In it, he broods on the communal strife, chaos, and diasporas that accompanied the partition of India in general and Bengal in particular. Das himself had been uprooted by historical events, and had moved from the Muslim majority district of Barisal to Calcutta, where Hindus were in a majority. But Calcutta too was in tumult and riven by religious riots; the names and places mentioned in the poem represent Hindus and Muslims and localities associated with these communities.“(p. 115)    

With this note, the translated version of the poem becomes self-explanatory and more transmissible than the original, but it may surprise one that neither Das nor Alam directly mention the culpability of the colonization for the tumultuous historical events that the poem foregrounds. Perhaps both of them skip this deliberately, for the role of the British colonisers is too obvious to mention.

The long history of colonial rule culminated in the partition of India, which was preceded and followed by communal riots and dispersion of people from their homelands, resulting in deaths, dreads, and destructions. Therefore, the poem is replete with images of dead, dread, and darkness that best describe the time it represents. In Alam’s translation, the horror of human atrocities becomes as poignant as in the original:  

Somewhere someone’s house will be auctioned off now,
Possibly for a song!
And so you must cheat everyone else
And be the first to reach heaven!.
…
Thousands of Bengali villages, drowned in disillusionment and 
benighted, have become silenced.
…
The children now are close to death, trampled
By ignorant exhausted rulers of an era of misgovernment;
Their ancestors had once laughed and loved and played, 
And had gone to rest in dark after raising permanently 
The swing landlords had them make from tall trees for charak festivals. 
They were not that well off then; yet compared to present-day villagers, 
Blinded and tattered by famines, riots, darkness and ignorance,
They lived in a distinct and clear world. 

Is everything indistinct today? It is difficult to speak or think well now;
The rule is to keep everyone in the dark, full of half-truths;
The practice is to infer the other half of truth  
All by yourself in the dark; all are suspicious of each other. 
(3-6, 31, 49-60, p. 115-17)

The implications of the lines I have quoted above from Fakrul Alam’s translation of the poem “1946-47” are so obvious that they do not require further explanation. Das’ political consciousness is relatively more apparent here than his most other poems. In Alam’s translation, that political consciousness resonates very loudly. Like a typical postcolonial poet, Das highlights the miseries caused by colonial rule, comparing the present with a “better” past. While making this comparison, he refers to the exploitative system called “Permanent Settlement of Bengal” introduced by Earl Cornwallis on behalf of the East India Company in 1793 to settle a deal between the Company and the landlords, causing enormous oppression and deprivation for the peasants and those at the margins. Fakrul Alam aptly explains this reference with a footnote that “[t]here is an allusion here to the system introduced by Lord Cornwallis in colonial Bengal in 1793 which created a class of landlords and let to the impoverishments of peasants” (p. 116). Notes like this and the glossary he has added to the volume makes the poems very much accessible not only to the non-native readers but also the native readers of the translations.

In fine, I repeat that translating is a process of explaining a text, and often it is on the discretion of the translator how explanatory the translation would be. In the case of Fakrul Alam’s translations of Jibanananda Das’ poetry, sometimes his attempts to explain the texts are explicit. He even points out where the intertextuality of a particular poem is quite obvious by quoting some lines from the “original” poem that inspired Das to write that poem. In my discussion, I have so far deliberately avoided this point of intertextuality because I find those poems so authentic in expression that the “originals” seem to replicate those, but it is an important point that I cannot avoid altogether. The Western “influence” on Das’ poetry indicates the Western education and culture in which he was exposed to through colonization. As a poet, he and his contemporaries of Bangla poetry were “benefited” from that exposure, which makes it clear that to oppose European colonisation or Western imperialism does not necessarily mean to reject their artistic, cultural, literary, or scientific achievements. But it is also not to be forgotten that the artistic, cultural, or literary matters were often used by the colonizers to maintain their hegemonic dominance by relegating the same originating from the native societies to an inferior status. In Orientalism (1978), Edward Said categorically explains the basis of cultural supremacy of the European that prompted them to colonize. Therefore, a critical awareness is necessary to approach those even at this age of the so-called postcolonial period. In the case of Jibanananda Das, whereas he mostly succeeded in maintaining his originality while writing poetry being inspired by Western poets, many of his contemporaries merely imitated them as blind devotees, which makes him truly “a poet apart”. However, Fakrul Alam’s all-encompassing translations help his readers to access the poems with much ease than it is in the case of the originals, foregrounding the repressed political unconscious of the poems. And in spite of this “explanatory translating”, he succeeds exceedingly in maintaining the poetic qualities of his translations, and that makes the volume so special.  

References:

Jameson, Frederic. “The Ideology of The Text.” Salmagundi, no. 31/32, Skidmore College, 1975, pp. 204–46, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40546905.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.

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Rakibul Hasan Khan is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at rakib.hasan82@gmail.com.

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