“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour. If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country(1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume(1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.
Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.
The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.
We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.
In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”
As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.
Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.
We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.
Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) reflected the plight of Africans and the deep divides that created schisms between different groups in South Africa. The book won the author, Alan Paton, a Nobel prize. Another remarkable book that was published in the same year was a non-fiction written by a student of Tagore called Syed Mujtaba Ali. Mujtaba Ali wrote Deshe Bideshein Bengali. This has been translated in recent times by the former BBC editor, Nazes Afroz, as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. It is an outstanding memoir that demystifies and explains what led to the issues that are being faced by a country repeatedly jostled by varied regimes, a country that seems to be so steeped in problems that worrying about the pandemic remains a far cry for the common inhabitants.
For many decades this book had been feted by only a small group of readers, though the book is no lesser than Paton’s in crying out against injustices, terrors of violence and starvation, because it was written in Bengali. It was so witty and flavourful that people were afraid to translate it for the fear of losing the nuances of the original. As Afroz tells us in this interview, he had similar reservations. A book written by a scholar, it peppers history and political issues with lucidity and humour, making it an enjoyable experience for the lay reader. The author has a way of turning the mundane or intellectual into an amusing anecdote. During a conversation at an embassy party, the author through the voice of a fellow professor, makes a hilarious observation – but also, one that does convey much about Afghanistan despite its attempts at liberalisation.
“Madame Vorvechievichi argued, ‘But there are mullahs in this country.’
“Dost Muhammad said reassuringly, ‘No need to worry, Madame. I know these mullahs very well. Their knowledge of religion is very little and I can teach you all of it in three days. However, a woman can’t be a mullah.’
“Madame Vorvechievichi said angrily, ‘Why not?’
“With a deep sigh Dost Muhammad said, ‘Because she can’t grow a beard.’”
The book is speckled with multiple such instances. Along with these witticisms, the pathos of the country, the plight of the people is well captured by poignant observations:
“The real history of the country was buried beneath the soil, much like the way that Indian history was hidden in its Puranas, Mahabharata-Ramayana. Afghanistan is a poor country; Afghans do not have the time or the resources for archaeological excavations to write their own history.”
The writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974) a polyglot, scholar, traveller and humanitarian did just that – he recorded the history of the time he spent in Afghanistan, a time when a swift takeover from the liberal king Amanullah (1892-1960) was staged by Bacha-ye-Saqao (1891-1929) during the Afghan Civil War (1928-29). Does this sound familiar, reminding one of the recent August 2021 takeover by Taliban?
A Humboldt scholar, Mujtaba Ali was conversant in fourteen languages, lived in five countries, including Afghanistan, where he had gone to teach. That his erudition never interfered but enhanced without marring the simplicity of rendition is what makes the book an attractive read for all lay persons. His astute observations are laced with wit and realism. The residue of the book lingers as the vibrant narrative flows — vicariously bringing to life, with humour and empathy, a culture that is distinct and yet warm in its uniqueness. His style is reflective of an in depth understanding of the situation and a sense of empathy for the common people with who he interacted daily – like his man Friday and the colleagues he mentions. For the author, everyone, from an uneducated villager to the crown prince (who invited him to play tennis), seemed to grow effortlessly into a rounded persona of a friend. All these have been transmitted by Afroz in the translation too. Translating two cultures across borders in a language that does not have all the words to capture the intimate nuances is not an easy feat, but it has fruited into an unusual and captivating read.
Afroz’s maiden venture at translation was shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award. Afroz himself has spent a long stretch of time in Afghanistan. He joined the BBC in London in 1998. He was a senior editor in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. In 2013, he moved back to India. A passionate photographer, he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines. In recent articles, he has been voicing his own concerns about developments in Afghanistan. In this interview, he reflects on what led him to translate the book, the situation as it was then and as it is now. He dwells not only on the historic civil war as captured in the book but also on current day politics and the Taliban takeover.
You are a journalist. What got you interested in translating a Bengali classic from the last century?
I became a journalist five years after I read Deshe Bideshe. I was still a teenager when I picked up the book from a library rack. Reading Mujtaba Ali at that age had a profound impact on me. The erudition, the smooth sailing between multitude of cultures and languages, the gripping storytelling in his writing mesmerised me. I had never read anything like that in Bangla. Every Bengali reader of Syed Mujtaba Ali had felt the same way as I did. As a child I had the uncontrollable urge for travels and seeing the world. In Mujtaba Ali I found a role model. Deshe Bideshe stayed with me since then. It was one book that I would read two to three times a year from my teenage. So, by the time I decided to translate Deshe Bideshe more than thirty years after I first laid my hands on the book, I had read it for more than a hundred times! I knew its each page, I knew its each story and Afghanistan had seeped inside me permanently as I could relate to all the characters of the book.
While working for the BBC World Service in London, I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the Taliban were dislodged from power in a short war towards the end of 2001. I visited the country a number of the times in the following few years. As I travelled more, I befriended my BBC colleagues there and met other journalists and people on various walks of life. Some of them became good friends as well. I used to refer to events from the times of King Amanullah while discussing Afghanistan. They were surprised to hear all the details that I mentioned from a time that they said, ‘Even we don’t know!’ So, I mentioned how a Bengali scholar came from Kolkata to Kabul in 1927 and taught here, was a participant of the modernisation project of Amanullah by teaching English and French, played tennis with the crown prince Inyatullah (1888-1946) became an eyewitness of the rebellion against the king, got caught in the anarchy in the winters of 1928-29, and nearly perished starving before managing to go back to India. Hearing my story, they asked if there was any English translation of the book as they were keen to read. I told them that there was none as it was untranslatable!
As years went by and more and more of my Afghan friends got to know about Deshe Bideshe, they demanded that I did the translation. But I had my doubts. Would I be able to capture Mujtaba Ali’s unique language? Would I be able to transpose his wicked sense of humour? Would I be able to convey his erudition?
Eventually in 2011, I had already made up my mind to quit the BBC and move back to India. At that point my day-to-day workload in the BBC was significantly reduced. As I had ample time in hand, I thought I would attempt the translation. At that point I didn’t think of any publication; I wanted to do it just for fun and for my Afghan and non-Afghan friends who knew about the book and were keen to read it. I thought I would give them a taste of Mujtaba Ali’s writing by doing a few chapters. So, I did the first few chapters and shared them with a few friends. After reading those chapters they wanted to read more. I felt encouraged and I carried on with the translation for the following few months. Eventually the whole book was complete in about a year. After completing the translation, I let it sit for a few months before picking it up again and reread it as new text without looking at the original text. That exercise went on several times over the following one year till the final manuscript shaped up.
How many countries have you worked from? You were also in Afghanistan for several years I believe. Can you share your experiences?
My work has taken me to a dozen country or so. But as an intrepid traveller, I have visited more than 40 countries so far across four continents. Apart from my regular visits to Afghanistan, I spent months at a stretch on several occasions. Working in Afghanistan was certainly a unique experience. It wasn’t a country where one could travel and roam around freely. There were always the security alerts. One needed to negotiate security barriers everywhere. The accommodations – hotels, guesthouses were guarded by armed men. In the early years – in 2002 to 2004, there weren’t so much security in the hotels or guesthouses we stayed in. But that started to change from 2010 onwards as the Taliban had at that time started to regroup, and they made their presence felt in the country and in Kabul. Even at that time, cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat were considered lot safer than Kabul. With increased and unpredictable attacks by the Taliban, the country became more and more edgy.
What was it about the book that drew you to it?
As I mentioned earlier, the uniqueness of Mujtaba Ali was that his erudition wasn’t frightening. He penned Deshe Bideshe almost twenty years after he left Kabul. By then, he had completed his PhD in comparative religion from Germany as a Humboldt scholar, did his post-doctoral research from al-Azhar university in Cairo, learned more than a dozen languages, and travelled extensively in Europe. So, even though his narrative of Afghanistan was drawn from what he had witnessed in his mid-twenties while teaching there, when he decided to write the book, he had acquired profound knowledge in philosophy, literature, culture and history of the world in many languages. The multilingual and multicultural references with an oblique yet gripping story-telling style infused with a wicked sense of humour that came in his writing, had been drawing ardent followers, including me, since 1948 when Deshe Bideshe was first published.
The book highlighted a growing divide between the minority with liberal education and the majority without education. Is that true still? Would you call the book relevant to the present-day crisis?
Yes, that divide between the educated and the not educated that Mujtaba Ali elicited in Deshe Bideshe is still there. But the gap has certainly reduced. The years between 1929 to 1978 had been relatively stable and peaceful in Afghanistan. Modern education had spread but without giving a jolt to the conservative society and keeping the clergy more or less content. In Kabul and other major cities, girls and women were getting more and more education; they were also seen in public life more. Following the coup through which the communists – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA came to power in 1978, there was a big push for universal education. This created a much bigger educated class. Women were the biggest beneficiary of that time in terms of acquiring knowledge and finding jobs. Women were joining the police and military as well. Following the capitulation of the PDPA government in 1992, the modern education system collapsed during the Mujahideen civil war years until 1996 and then after the takeover of virtually the whole of the country by the Taliban.
A large number of Afghans – almost a quarter of the population became refugees in neighbouring countries or elsewhere. When the American led international forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the population got a fresh chance to get education. Schools opened again. Both girls and boys went back to school. Internationally there were many programmes to give scholarships to Afghan women and men who were seeking higher education. As a country with a very young population (the average age of Afghanis is 18), a large number of students joined the public and private universities. So, tens of thousands of young women and men are now educated holding masters or even PhD degrees in the country. But the rural areas lagged behind. So, the gap is more of the city and rural areas.
Do you find similarities between the Afghanistan of then and of now?
The way the Afghan society works, based on its ethnic and tribal identities as witnessed by Mujtaba Ali, still exist. The stranglehold that the clergy had on the uneducated mass about a century ago has possibly changed; it’s been replaced with more political interpretation of their religion. The ethnic divisions have sharpened for multitude reasons – primarily due to the outside interference and the way ethnic groups have been used in the larger geo-political game of the world powers.
One of the issues that tussles through the book is that people were basically poor and lacked education. Syed Mustaba Ali spoke of the vicious cycles of poverty, how much has it changed from what he wrote and what you experienced? Please elaborate.
Mujtaba Ali talked about how poverty contributed to the cycle of unrest in Afghan history. Yes, that poverty still exists but with that, a toxic potion of religio-politics has been added to the cauldron. The conflict of the past four decades is more due to the global religio-political dynamics rather that its own poverty.
Did/ do you find parallels in the political situation where Amanullah and his brother escaped from the invading hardliner, Bacha-ye-Saqao? Would you see Bacha as a precursor of Taliban?
The only parallel that one can draw between 1929 when Amanullah and his brother Inayetullah fled and now in 2021 is that the suddenness of the events. Amanullah’s fall happened in months and Bacha took over Kabul in matter of days – almost the same way the Taliban took control of the country.
I don’t think Bacha-ye-Saqao or Habibullah Kalakani as he called himself, was a precursor of the Taliban. Bacha was more of an opportunist; he grabbed the opportunity that came his way. But the Taliban are more of an organised religio-political force what was the product of the geo-politics of the last decade of the Cold War. So, they two are not comparable.
Did the American or Russian intrusions into Afghanistan serve any purpose? Did they actually help the Afghans?
The short answer is no. Both the superpowers came to achieve their own strategic and foreign policy objectives. The Soviets came to expand their sphere of influence beyond their borders in Central Asia. In the process they were badly bruised and had to retreat. The Americans came to get hold of Osama-bin-Laden and dismantle the al-Qaeda infrastructure. It was never about helping a nation that had been devastated by decades of conflict in which they had no role. They just became pawns in the greater game of geopolitics.
By the descriptions in the book, Afghans seem to be fairly open as humans and yet, they have a distinct identity borne of their culture, their ethos — very different from any other. Was that undermined in any way by the attempts at modernisation?
Like many other rural, traditional and old societies, Afghans are hospitable and warm people. They are bound and governed by their age-old custom and codes of conduct.
Even when they are outside of their own land – in the West too, they extend their hospitality to strangers the same way they would in their own country and their behaviour would not differ much. It is not the question, if modernisation has or will undermine their tradition. They have had encounters with modernisation – the way modernisation is understood from the Western prism. Did that change the people who had experienced that modernisation in the time of Amanullah? Mujtaba Ali saw that the ‘so called’ modern people did not lose their Afghan-ness. The same can be said now. As a people they have largely remained unchanged despite connecting with the outside world like never before.
In the book, the international community was practically chased off Afghanistan. As the US troops left, one felt the same way. Do you feel intervention from the international community is necessary in Afghanistan? Why?
The backdrops of 1929 and the present are not identical. In 1929, the rebellion was against the king who had lost the support of the clergy. The king did not come to power with foreign intervention. So, the international community was not chased out in 1929. The Europeans left because of the chaos and the violence. The rebels didn’t fight with the foreigners. Yes, there was an armed opposition to the presence of the USA since the war in 2001, but that opposition wasn’t big enough to send the USA packing.
The USA left because they had achieved their goals in Afghanistan, and it was becoming hugely expensive for them to stay on. Many are also drawing parallels of the US’s departure from Afghanistan with their hasty retreat from Vietnam in 1975. But they were again not identical. In Vietnam, the USA visibly lost the war. But in Afghanistan they did not lose. They could have stayed on if they wanted but it made no sense to them to spend tens of billions of dollars each year. Hence, they left. They had been talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan since 2012, a year after they killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The intervention that the Afghans had been experiencing since 1979 – first by the Soviets, then Pakistan and finally the US led Western nations, devastated the country and the ordinary Afghans had been paying for it with all they had. No external intervention is beneficial for any country. It’s not desirable to have; certainly not the way the global powers had been intervening for the past 40 odd years in various corners of the world. But the question is, if unspeakable atrocities are committed on certain sections of a country or society, what does the international community do? Should the international community intervene? The world powers have unfortunately always used these as pretexts to intervene to further and achieve their own objectives not only in Afghanistan but in other countries too.
In the book, only foreigners with work seemed to be in Afghanistan. Is/ Was it possible for tourists to visit Afghanistan, even before the Taliban took over?
In the last twenty years, Afghanistan had been unstable. Violent incidents kept happening. So, it was not advisable for tourist to go there. But the country always issued tourist visa for short visits! For a few years, Japanese tourist used to come to visit the ancient Buddhist sites like Bamiyan. That too waned due to the escalating conflict.
Thank you for this wonderful interview and also for the flawless translation of a classic memoir.
Goutam Ghose is a well-known award-winning film director, scriptwriter and even actor. He has been the only Indian to have received the Vittorio Di Sica Award from Italy in 1997 and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in July 2006. Ghose has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival.
But did you know he has also authored a number of books? Just as he bridges borders with his poetic films that touch the human heart with a range of emotions, he does the same with his books. He takes up burning issues with artistry, never inciting with rage or hatred but conveying by his skill with the camera and words. He has created a world without borders with his transcontinental outlook and approach.
His reaction to the Ram Janmabhoomi riots was Moner Manush(2010), a film based on Lalon Fakir’s life, knitting together the best in Muslim and Hindu traditions instead of filming the clashes and the violence. Published in English as The Quest (2013), the book is a powerful dramatisation with pictures from the film. The book, like the film, is also an emotional lesson in humanism. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel on Lalon Fakir’s life, the film is beautiful. But the book allowed me to mull over the words, which have been translated by Sankar Sen. It is a book that needs to be read when casteism and religious divides take precedence over humanitarian values. By bringing these songs into translation to readers unfamiliar with Bengali, both Ghose and Sen have opened a world of love and tolerance to new readers, who will hopefully find the time to mull over the wisdom of these songs.
‘What was your caste when you came here,
What caste did you take on arrival, dear,
What would be your caste when it’s time to go --
Ponder and tell me if you know.’
-- Translated by Sankar Sen, from The Quest
His other book that traverses the silk route and journeys through China, Beyond the Himalayas(2019), transcends boundaries and fills the reader with a sense of exhilaration. It is based on his documentary of the same name. Both these recordings of their journey along the silk route are worth viewing and reading. They show humans are the same across all borders. The book, interspersed with lovely pictures of the landscape and mature writing pauses on history at the right junctures. The narration is poetic in both the book and the documentary.
Though Ghose claims that these texts and photographs capture memories of the film, both his books transported me to a different time and space. I saw the films after reading the books, but both were energising, emotionally charged and entertaining. The journey takes one through different parts of the world and gives a new perspective to a 4000-year-old route. Initiated and organised by Major Hari SinghAhluwalia and Deng Xiaoping’s son, the travels in Beyond the Himalayas took me across borders to areas I have never visited and now, I hope to visit post pandemic. Both the book and the film acquainted me with cultures that excite. And The Quest reinforced the belief, through the depiction of Lalon’s life, that humanism exists despite the degradations of history. That riots can be calmed with the soothing notes of Lalon’s lyrics, rich in wisdom, would be a win for the human spirit.
Like all great artistes, Ghose speaks in beautiful poetic sentences about concepts that touch the human heart and imagination. In this exclusive, he speaks not just about his film-books, but about the real journey and issues he is facing through the pandemic, including the delay of his film with an Italian male lead and his new short film on the current times, Covid-worn and waiting…
You are a very well-known film director, cinematographer, and music director. You have directed award winning Bollywood and Tollywood movies. Normally books come before films but from two of these films, you have made books. Why did you go in for making books of the films?
I have loved books since my childhood. The shape and form of it, the touch and smell of a book fascinate me. They will never die even if we read on the screen rather than by turning pages of a physical object. A certain sense of the sacred has surrounded books from civilisations’ inception. In cinema, be it fiction or non-fiction, we write a script at the pre-production stage. A film-book is all about times gone by — a book of memories, of both cyclic and linear time. My producer from Bangladesh, Habibur Rehman Khan, had liked the idea of film books and had published three wonderful books on Padma Nodir Majhi(Boatman of the Padma River, filmed in 1993), Moner Manush (filmed in 2010 ) and Shankhachil (Unbound, filmed in 2016) in Bengali. Niyogi books of India has published a beautiful pictorial English version of Moner Manush as The Quest and also Beyond the Himalayas, my journey along the Silk Road. Another lovely film book is Pratikshan’s bilingual centenary tribute to Bismillah Khan (Bismillah in Banaras the film Goutam Ghosh made, 2017).
Is dubbing or subtitling the film not an easier option than doing a film-book?
Well, dubbing or subtitling is for watching a language film, but a film book is meant for reading. It becomes a part of your book collections. I have some wonderful film books published from Europe and United States.
Moner Manush is based on Lalon Fakir’s life and on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Why did you feel there was a need for a separate book after you made a very powerful film on it?
Lalon Fakir is an eternal savant. Scholars have been doing research on Lalon’s life and philosophy since long. It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and the implied significance, it seems as if he was an erudite scholar tutored in an age-old system of education. His faith was not guided by any particular religion, rather it could be said to be comprised of the mysticism of Sufi and the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberalism of the tantric sect of Buddhism. My film on Lalon fakir is research on this great man aswell. The Bengali film book contains important articles by scholars besides the script, reviews and memoirs.
Do you feel that the message of Moner Manush is relevant in a world beset by not just divides but even a pandemic? Is there something we can learn from the story?
Yes, of course the message of Moner Manush is even more relevant in today’s intolerant world, a world of greed and opportunism. The pandemic has victimised the togetherness of the human race but how can we survive without empathy? I don’t know how good the film is, but Moner Manush will serve as a gospel to those who revere humanity.
Lalon says as his own introduction “I am a human.” How important is that for humankind to see themselves as humans over titles of caste, profession, and economics?
The baul (minstrels in Bengal) community had renounced all recognised institutions of religion and revolted against long established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith, they had found a large expanse under the sky which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Under that open sky, Lalon had found the truth in Humanism.
Lalon dreamt of a borderless world. Do you think adopting his outlook can change the outlook of nations which draw borders between the species? Do you think it is implementable at a personal, national or international level?
I think all mystics believe in borderless space of Earth where all centennial beings live in peace and harmony. But the wheel of time had moved in the direction of Divide and Rule. John Lennon’s Imagine has become the iconic song on the dream of a borderless world. It may have been a failed dream, but I confess it might have been one I shared growing up in India and will cherish till the last breath of my life. Let it be a dream and a wonderful utopia.
Beyond The Himalayas was first a documentary film. How long was it and when was it screened? How many episodes is the film?
Beyond the Himalayas was made as a documentary film during our expedition through the Silk Road in 1994. The final edited version is four-and-a-half hour long. It was shown in Discovery Channel in five parts in the late nineties. A shorter version was screened in BBC as well. The Indian national TV had screened a Hindi version of all five episodes.
The book seems to cover lesser than the documentary. Is that true or do the visuals/ music just seem to impact us more? Why did you leave out Pakistan?
Well watching the film with arresting visuals and absorbing the soundtracks of the trail is a linear viewing of our journey along the fabled Silk Road. It is very, very exciting indeed. But the film is also a journey back in time with many references and anecdotes from history. For instance, while showing the travel through the deadly Taklamakan desert, I referred to Sven Hedin’s(1865-1952) expedition of the region. I quote: ‘The first European to map this desolate region was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. His first expedition in 1895 was very nearly his last. The local guide supplied enough water for four days in the desert instead of ten requested. When the caravan lost its way, the guide was the first to die. The others became insane with thirst, drinking anything — even Sheep’s blood and camel’s urine. By the fifth day, the men, camels and other livestocks were all dead except for Sven Hedin and one other man. Hedin writes in Through Asia, “If I was doomed to die in the sand, I wanted to be properly attired. I wanted my burial clothes to be both white and clean.” But fate was on its side. Spying the dark green side of an oasis, he dragged himself to safety. “I stood on the brink of a pool with fresh cool water, beautiful water. I drank, drank, drank time after time. Every blood vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge.”’
Here the film-book helps the readers. One can refer back to the time past and time present more deeply to understand time as a metaphor of history.
How many days were you on the road? What was the experience like?
We were out for almost ten weeks covering a distance of 14,000 kms. The journey was fascinating for the entire team. There can be no journey more enchanting than the route we took. The collective trove of memories has made the Silk Road so memorable. We had to negotiate extreme weather conditions in Central Asia and Tibet. In a single day, we experienced two extremes. While negotiating the desert, temperatures rose to 48 degrees Celsius, and by nightfall when we pitched camp at Tianshan mountains, the temperature fell to 2 degrees. The situation is almost like the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — desert to snow in the blink of an eye.
Did you travel through the part of the route Marco Polo used? Did you find it much different from what you had imagined?
Well, the travels of Marco Polo described the wonders of the silk road, cities far greater than his own and a world more significant than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The silk road was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling along for 4,000 years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the East and the West. It ran from Xian in China to all the way to the Mediterranean. There were many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia. We could not follow the planned route through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia via Khyber Pass because of the civil war. The government of India did not want us to take such risks. All the members of the expedition, including the jeeps and equipment, were flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on 18th May, 1994.
With the silk route being revived, do you think this film has significance?
Yes, the film is still significant because it carries the memories of time. We were the first group of travellers after many, many years to cross three new republics after the collapse of Soviet Union and a vast territory of China. Now, the route is open to tourists, and I was told that many travel packages are available all along the mighty river and its tributaries. I would like to revisit the cauldron once again to understand how those multi-ethnic republics have survived the onslaught of modern times with its regional rivalries, new mafias, and consumerist pressures. I wish the new silk route trade brings peace and harmony in this intolerant world. Travellers today can choose from many trails as we did during our expedition. My favourite was Xuanzang’s (602-664 AD) trail. I quote from my book. “At 27, he set out his pilgrimage until he was 43. Unconvinced by the translations available in China, he sought the true teachings of Buddha in the holy lands of India. He walked alone into the great unknown, crossing the world’s greatest deserts and its highest mountain ranges. He faced death many times and his courage and equanimity impressed kings, bandits and barbarians alike. He lectured at monasteries and debated with learned monks and by the time he reached his destination, his reputation as a great sage had already preceded him. Xuan Zhang was not the only Chinese pilgrim to visit the homeland of Buddhism, but he was the most important. Like a death star that keeps releasing energy for thousands of years, he continues to be a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.”
You are making a new film I believe rooted in the present pandemic. What is it about? Will you be making that too into a book?
My 2019 film Rahagir or Wayfarer, starring Adil Hussain, Tillotama Som, Neeraj Kabir, had travelled to many festivals and received awards and appreciations but unfortunately, we could not release it in public theatres due to the pandemic. Another multilingual film is also stuck for obvious reasons. I could finish the Italian shoot in January 2020, but the Indian shoot did not happen till date. It is so frustrating.
Meanwhile, I have finished a short film Memories of Time on pandemic days. It is about a happy, cultured couple living in the heart of Kolkata. Like everyone else, they are caught in the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The film travels back and forth in time as they try to navigate through these hard times and search for fresh air and sanity. The film is an exploration of their fears, realisation and going back to nature. It’s from my own experience — how I have navigated 2020 and moving through the course of this pandemic. I think one can really publish a film-book because it has so many elements, the fear of people and the inhuman approach of the human race and then the migrant labours — their terrible conditions, the psychological problem of people confined inside their home and the most importantly, the problem of the children. They are confined as if in a prison. They can’t go to school. They can’t really meet their friends. I think this could be a very, very interesting material for a film-book.
The tide was out. But when it came back in, the waves would lap at Daw Myint Shwe’s house. Pointing towards the ocean, she told me the erosion was so bad that she’d been forced to move her bamboo shack four times, but could only ever move it a little further inland. She had lived in the area her entire life and was now in her sixties, but even so, she wished that she could start again in a safer place. The problem was that she didn’t have the money. And every year, the Bay of Bengal crept closer in.
As my translator asked Daw Myint Shwe another question on my behalf, my eyes strained to make out the horizon behind her, so muted were the colours of the landscape. The hazy sky seemed to melt into the taupe mud flats, where shallow pools of water looked like shards of broken glass. Debris was scattered across the soggy sand on which the three of us stood: a ripped blue tarpaulin, cracked ceramic bowls, coconut husks and discarded fishing nets.
The next person the United Nations had lined up for me to interview was U Myint Swe, who lived slightly further inland. Raising his voice to be heard over a noisy gust of wind, he told us that his main worry was for his three young children, who had to cross a river in a small boat to get to school.
‘During the wet season, when the waters are high and rough, U Myint Swe worries that the boat will capsize,’ my translator said. ‘He says that no one in the fishing village can afford life jackets – not even if they all chipped in together to buy them.’
U Myint Swe’s family was stuck in Labutta Township in the southern, low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta: the only jobs were there, near the coast. Even so, he only made about two American dollars a day as a fisherman.
‘Nowadays the weather is often too foul to go out in – and on those days he earns nothing,’ my translator said. ‘But he says he is grateful for the weather warnings that are broadcast through speakers at the local monastery.’
In 2008, there had been no warning before Cyclone Nargis swept through the 115 villages in U Myint Swe’s township and left 85,000 people dead in its wake. He told us several times that he was still haunted by the death and destruction he had seen, and I suspected that his current worries about his children were exacerbated by previous trauma.
But as arresting and poignant as these stories were, I was struggling to focus. My attention kept wandering from the people the United Nations had sent me to interview for a series of articles on climate change to my husband’s visa situation. Sherpa is from Bangladesh and getting a visa for Myanmar – or anywhere, for that matter – had never been straightforward. But in the four years we had been living in Yangon and working as journalists, it had never taken as long as it was taking this time around. He had submitted his passport to the immigration department three months ago, but when his go-between, Aye Chan Wynn, started calling to find out whether the visa was ready, his contact at the department wouldn’t return his calls. I was worried that Sherpa’s passport had been lost, as nothing else seemed to explain the delay.
I spent the next day in a village on an island so remote that accessing it required a two-hour journey by longboat. I was anxiously hoping for an update on the visa, but my phone lost reception soon after we set off through the mangroves. The island had no electricity and supplies of clean water were limited. Stagnant water, however, was abundant: it pooled under the residents’ shacks on stilts, so the mosquitoes bred incessantly. Later, I suspected it was our lunch in the village that gave me a painful and lasting bout of colitis.
While I was on the island, I met a young woman called May Thazin who worked at a prawn farm for fourteen hours a day. The work was seasonal, so she and her husband scavenged for crabs to get by in the off-months. She said that most of her friends had moved several hundred kilometres away to Yangon in search of a better life, but she was deterred by the bad stories she’d heard from those who couldn’t make a go of it and were forced to return. Her only fun was watching Korean soap operas on a solar-powered television.
When I got back to the bare bones guesthouse at dusk, there was still no news on Sherpa’s visa. He said that Aye Chan Wynn would keep trying to make contact and would go to the department in person if he had to. I lay in bed that night with an aching stomach, morosely thinking of my husband’s uncertain visa situation and how vulnerable Myanmar was to climate change. The United Nations was working with the government to boost resilience in places like Labutta Township – including practical courses on what to do in an emergency situation – but I could see that the challenge was immense. Everyone I had met depended on agriculture for a livelihood, and the need to take out high-interest loans to rebuild homes and farmland following a natural disaster trapped them in a continuous cycle of poverty. The UN had hired me as a sort of in-house journalist to draw attention to the need for urgent action.
After doing an interview at a government department in the morning, I farewelled my translator and hopped back in the UN’s oversized 4WD. With my completely silent driver at the wheel, I continued on to the drought-ravaged plains of Magway region in central Myanmar, where I heard harrowing stories of how a particularly terrible flood in 2010 swept entire families away in their beds one night. In the late afternoon, a surprise storm caused flash-flooding that almost made the road impassable on our way out. From there it was only a few hours to the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, where I was scheduled to interview members of the environment ministry and work from the UN’s office. I was on the tail end of a ten-day mission, and my loneliness was compounded by Nay Pyi Taw being a bizarre place without a heart or soul. A visit there always left me feeling blue.
The junta abruptly moved Myanmar’s capital city to Nay Pyi Taw in 2006 and it was built in secret, possibly using slave labour. Nay Pyi Taw is the only place in Myanmar with 24-hour electricity and decent internet speeds. It is flat, deserted and massive: New York City is just a sixth of its size. But it wasn’t a case of ‘build it and they will come,’ as not even the embassies could be convinced to move to the purpose-built city, which is nothing short of dystopian. It is divided into ‘zones’ for retail, government, hotels and so forth, and it has a zoo that cost a fortune to build but scarcely sees any children pass through its gates. There are also oddities like the restaurant in an aeroplane that is parked out the front of a palatial hotel.
As we sped along an empty twenty-lane highway, my phone pinged with a text message from Sherpa.
‘Hey babe. Great news. My passport is ready to be collected. Aye Chan Wynn will go to the immigration department now to pick it up.’
I was so relieved that I wanted to cheer. We pulled up at an enormous hotel that looked like a wedding cake. I checked in at the vast, empty lobby, then unpacked my things and took a shower, humming all the while.
I’d been enjoying the warm water for a couple of minutes when someone started violently banging on the door of my room.
‘I’m in the—!’ I began to shout, but was drowned out by a deafening roar. It sounded as if artillery was hitting the building, so my first instinct was to crouch. As the ground beneath me gave way, I realised it was an earthquake. I tried to grab the bath rail but missed: my hands were covered in soap suds and wet hair covered my face.
The shaking lasted maybe a minute, and it was the most terrifying minute of my life. When it stopped, I stood there dripping wet and praying that it wouldn’t start again. With trembling hands, I wrapped a towel around me, then I went online and discovered that the epicentre of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake was 250 kilometres away in Magway region, where I’d just been. Photos were appearing on social media of the moment the earthquake struck Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, leaving dozens of the ancient structures lying in the dust. One person was killed.
Still frightened, I called Sherpa. He listened to me recount the experience and said how sorry he was that he wasn’t there to comfort me. And then he said he had something to tell me. I could tell from his tone that something was amiss.
‘Aye Chan Wynn picked up my passport,’ he said quietly. ‘There was no visa inside. They wouldn’t say why they didn’t give me one.’
I felt unsteady on my feet all over again.
* * *
Three days later, I was back in Yangon and Sherpa and I were heading to the airport in a taxi through torrential rain. His plan was to get a visa from the embassy in Bangkok, while I would stay put in Yangon with our cat, Butters. But we were worried that he wouldn’t make it out of Myanmar at all – and that he may even be arrested at the airport. Overstaying a visa by several months could be considered a crime under local laws. It didn’t matter that it had been impossible for Sherpa to leave because the immigration department had his passport. We were scared and hadn’t slept.
The taxi ride through the rain seemed to take forever, but we eventually pulled up out the front of the new international terminal. It had opened just the previous week after years of hype about its refurbishment. A small group of taxi drivers in grotty white singlets and longyis, a long sarong tied at the waist, stood out the front and spat red daubs of betel nut onto the freshly laid cement as they waited for a fare. One fanned himself with a newspaper as he stood there shooting the breeze with the others, his gut protruding like a balloon and his singlet rolled up above his nipples. It looked like he was wearing a cut-off sports bra.
Sherpa handed over 6000 kyat to our driver, which was about US$5, and we leapt out of the taxi. He hadn’t any luggage, apart from the small backpack he took to work every day, into which he’d tossed a couple of t-shirts and his shaving gear. If he got out okay, it was only going to be a quickie visa run to Bangkok and back.
I shivered as a shot of icy air met us as we walked inside the terminal. The carpet was a sickly green with mustard-coloured swirls, but there was no denying that the place looked a lot more modern than it used to – the previous incarnation was more of a shed. The airport’s bigger size made it seem emptier than usual, but I took the upgrade as a reassuring sign that Myanmar was eager to be part of the global community after decades of self-imposed isolation. I hoped that perhaps it wouldn’t be heavy-handed in its treatment of outgoing foreigners like my husband.
Please just let him leave.
I squeezed Sherpa’s hand one last time before reluctantly letting go. He looked edgy and unsure of himself, which I knew wouldn’t bode well when he fronted up to the immigration counter. Our eyes locked for a second and we mouthed a quick ‘I love you’ – the most affection it was appropriate to show in the conservative Buddhist country. I wanted to run my hand through his mop of curly black hair but he was already walking away from me.
I crossed both my fingers behind my back and whispered ‘please, please, please’ under my breath as Sherpa approached the counter. Please let luck come our way. After all the time we’d spent in Myanmar, it was probably inevitable that its superstitious ways had rubbed off on me.
I watched on from behind a set of glass doors as Sherpa held up his green passport to the immigration officer, whom he was speaking to deferentially in Burmese. I held my breath. A minute passed, then two. Sherpa had his back to me and I couldn’t read the officer’s unchanging facial expression. He called another officer over. Another couple of minutes passed as they conversed. Just when I couldn’t bear to watch on any longer, I saw Sherpa reach for his wallet to retrieve the wad of US dollars he had ready to pay in overstay fees. As he was waved through to passport control I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. The months of worry were over.
Sherpa turned back to look at me from where I stood in the departures’ hall. His large brown eyes were lit up with happiness. I grinned back and made a stupid thumbs-up gesture, feeling giddy with relief.
I had no idea that this was the last time I’d ever see my husband in Myanmar.
About the Book:
After a whirlwind romance in Bangladesh, Australian journalist Jessica Mudditt and her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa arrive in Yangon in 2012 – just as the military junta is beginning to relax its ironclad grip on power. It is a high-risk atmosphere; a life riddled with chaos and confusion as much as it is with wonder and excitement.
Jessica joins a small team of old-hand expat editors at The Myanmar Times, whose Burmese editor is still languishing in prison. Whether she is covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, getting dangerously close to cobras, directing cover shoots with Burmese models, or scaling Bagan’s thousand-year-old temples, Jessica is entranced and challenged by a country undergoing rapid change.
But as the historic elections of 2015 draw near, it becomes evident that the road to democracy is full of twists, turns and false starts. The couple is blindsided when a rise in militant Buddhism takes a personal turn and challenges their belief that they have found a home in Myanmar. (Read the book review by clicking here.)
About the Author:
Jessica Mudditt is a freelance journalist whose articles have been published by The Economist, BBC, CNN, GQ, The Telegraph and Marie Claire. In the lead up to the general election of 2015, she became the first foreign journalist to be appointed on staff at Myanmar’s state-run newspaper, The Global New Light of Myanmar. She also worked as a consultant for the United Nations and the British Embassy.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.