Categories
War & Peace

“How Many Times Must the Cannonballs Fly…?”

Featuring poetry by Lesya Bakun, Rhys Hughes, Ron Pickett, Michael R Burch, Kirpal Singh, Suzanne Kamata, Mini Babu, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Sybil Pretious and Mitali Chakravarty

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
…
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.         
 Shantih shantih shantih

-- Wasteland (1922) by TS Eliot

These lines from a hundred year old poem by TS Eliot continue to cry out to be part of our civilisation’s ethos as do the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s pacifist song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind‘ which wonders : “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned?” The world continues to war destroying nature, lives and a common human’s need to exist in peace and go about his daily tasks, secure that the family will meet in their home for dinner and a good night’s rest. Cries of humanity in crisis from the battle grounds of Ukraine take precedence as Ukrainian Lesya Bakun writes about the plight of the people within the country stalked by violence and death.

REFUGEE IN MY OWN COUNTRY/ I AM UKRAINE
By Lesya Bakun (07.03.2022, Ukraine)


I am Kharkiv.
I am Volnovakha.
I am Kyiv.
I am the blocked Mariupol on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.

I am the completely destroyed
City of Shchastia --
That is literally translated as "happiness" --
Where people have to sit in the bomb shelters,
Because nothing else is preserved.
The Russian troops are not letting them out.

I am Ukraine.
I am a fighter. 

I am a refugee
In my own country.

What's in the minds of Russians?

Nine years ago, I was in Strasbourg, France.
Seven years ago, I was in Dublin, Ireland.
Two years ago, I was in Istanbul, Turkey.

Today, I am 
In an internally displaced people’s centre --
In a city that I cannot even publicly disclose
For the security of too many families
Who are fleeing to remain safe.

"The Ukrainian IT company N has left the markets of Russia and Belarus forever".
We should have done it eight years ago.
We should have done it thirty-one years ago.

A lot of my friends are switching from Russian to Ukrainian.
We should have done that thirty-one years ago
So that no one comes to "protect us".

I am the gasoline 
that NATO sent us
Instead of closing the sky -- 
Apparently so that we can burn
The Budapest Memorandum

We have seen the real face of Russians
Again
They negotiated green corridors
And started shelling from the heavy weaponry.

Evacuation is cancelled.

"I wish you survival, 
Health
And the closed sky above you."

As the battle rages and razes, some react to what we have gleaned from media reports, some of which move hearts with stories of bravery and the spirit of the people battling the invaders who kill and destroy what they cannot possess… But can freedom of thought and resilience ever be destroyed?

THEY SHALL NOT PASS
By Rhys Hughes

They shall not pass
we cried as we held the pass
against the enemy.
And our sleepy student
days in sunlight
suddenly seemed long gone
and very far away
though it was only
a few weeks since war began.
Would such times
ever return? We had no idea.

Now the conflict is over
and the years pass
with increasing velocity
and right here
in the rebuilt city I am young
no longer. I am
the teacher: it is my turn.
And as I watch my students
dozing in sunlight
instead of revising for exams
an old refrain fills
my head: They shall not pass.

ADVANTAGE INTRUDER
By Ron Pickett

The sun edges over the cluttered horizon.
The cell towers, eucalyptus and large water tank are comforting.
The sun slowly fills the dark.
Life is safe and warm and good – for now.
The sun slides below the western horizon in Kyiv and darkness returns.
 
The dark brings its special unseen terrors.
The rumble and rattle of distant rockets and bombs.
The roar of jets and the throb of helicopters.
Flashes of light fill the night sky but there are no storms in the distance.
The earth trembles: the people quiver.
Daylight is ten long hours away, we who have been there remember, and shudder.
 
There are patches of dirty snow on the ground.
On trees and shrubs and the Peoples Friendship Arch.
And under the rubble of bombed buildings.
The snow is marked by the black stains of explosions and the red stains.
The snow will melt with the coming of spring, but the stains will remain.
The stains are physical and psychological and deep.
 
Dark is the province of the predator.
Dark is a comforting cover for the aggressor.
Dark is the source of fear and anguish for the weak.
This predator is man who can see in the dark.
To see at night is a huge advantage.
Advantage intruder.


FRAIL ENVELOPE OF FLESH
By Michael R Burch
 
for the mothers and children of Ukraine
 
Frail envelope of flesh,
lying cold on the surgeon’s table
with anguished eyes
like your mother’s eyes
and a heartbeat weak, unstable ...
 
Frail crucible of dust,
brief flower come to this—
your tiny hand
in your mother’s hand
for a last bewildered kiss ...
 
Brief mayfly of a child,
to live two artless years!
Now your mother’s lips
seal up your lips
from the Deluge of her tears ...
 

FOR A UKRANIAN CHILD WITH BUTTERFLIES
By Michael R Burch
 
Where does the butterfly go ...
when lightning rails ...
when thunder howls ...
when hailstones scream ...
when winter scowls ...
when nights compound dark frosts with snow ...
where does the butterfly go?
 
Where does the rose hide its bloom
when night descends oblique and chill,
beyond the capacity of moonlight to fill?
When the only relief’s a banked fire’s glow,
where does the butterfly go?
 
And where shall the spirit flee
when life is harsh, too harsh to face,
and hope is lost without a trace?
Oh, when the light of life runs low,
where does the butterfly go?


THE TIMES, THE MORALS
By Kirpal Singh
(After Ee Tiang Hong)

Testy times
Tempers flake, bruise
Blood swells veins
As memories burn.

Times were
When reason prevailed
And men talked --
Eyes glittering.

Now it’s tit for tat
No relenting
Frayed nerves
Know no restraint.

We pray n plead
For sanity’s return
As pall bearers 
Carry another dead.

When will all this horror, violence and sorrow end? Will there be peace anytime soon… many voices across the globe join in quest of harmony.

Mt Fuji: Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata
A VIEW OF MT. FUJI (March 3, 2022)
By Suzanne Kamata

On the third day 
of the third month 
of the fourth year of 
Beautiful Harmony (Reiwa)
which followed the era of
Heiwa (Peaceful Harmony)
my husband, son, and I traveled to Gotemba.
We checked into our mostly vacant hotel
wandered the grounds amongst
oaks and bamboo and volcanic rocks
gazed upon the majestic mountain
symbol of Japan.
Mt. Fuji stood
calm and dormant and frilled by cloud
spotlit by late afternoon sun.

As we stared in wonder and awe
   BOOM!
an explosion resounded.
A black helicopter
like the ones over Kyiv
flew into view.
I recalled the military vehicles 
we’d passed on the highway
those young men driving to 
practice for self-defence.

When will there be peace in Ukraine?
When will there be peace in the world?

RUSSIA AND UKRAINE
By Mini Babu

After the war,
the repose of the dead,
settles over the nations.
The leaders will smile,
shake hands and
interchange the bodies
of the dead, maimed,
captives and,
each will dust
that which belongs to 
the other, wash 
their hands and 
walk away.

Children hold on
expecting their fathers,
unknowing that
fathers never come back
after war.

And I, the ordinary,
instruct my children
how historic these names
are for examination.
Putin and Zelensky.

PEACE TALKS IN THE FOREST
By Sybil Pretious

I breathe
I sit on the hard cushion of root, foundation of growth
Peace talks to me  in the forest
Leaning against the rough trunk  bark,  feeling of strength
Peace talks to me in the forest
Above the leaves, cover me with a protective shade
Peace talks to me in the forest
Flowers flutter giving a splash of colour
Peace talks to me in the forest
Seeds heralding new life hang, dispersed on the wind
Peace talks to me in the forest
And I wonder
Why do warring nations not meet in forests
For peace talks
 where peace talks.


PRICE OF PEACE
By Malachi Edwin Vethamani

(I)

Peace is
a gentle brook,
natural and real. 

Peace is 
not things to come,
not imagined. 

We arrive as beings of peace.
One with all around us,
same flesh, same blood. 

Then labels are thrust upon us.
baptised into communities,
branded as nations. 

Essentialist labels 
bind us and blind us. 
We shed our individual beings,
stitched into communities. 

If you are not with us
You are against us, they say. 
Taking a stand 
comes with a price. 

The price is often peace. 


(II)

This is yet another call to stop a war.
A new plea for peace.
A shout out for prayers. 

The callers change 
with each new 
war cry. 

This too will pass.
How much will remain?
How much decimated?

Then these cries will be repeated. 
What is lost?
Is anything ever gained?

We will smell 
the stink of death 
and see the rubble of destruction.  

All the display of human unkindness 
we inflict on our fellow beings.


(III)

What new enterprise,
what profiteering,
has brought on this new war?
Surely, no noble cause 
can condone this waste of lives.

Whose monuments will we pull down now?
What new statues will we raise for self-proclaimed heroes?

What of the spouses who lost their partners? 
What of the parents who lost their children?
Children and citizenry 
casualties all.
Crushed and broken.


WASTELAND REVISITED AFTER A CENTURY                             
By Mitali Chakravarty

The river flowed with debris, with bodies
of the dead. When the waters reddened
with corpses crossing borders on a train,
nightmares haunted myriads of lives.

The undead cried till infecting more, the
anger, the hatred spread. That was more than
seven decades ago. History repeats itself. 
Will it ever stop? This hatred? This war?

Does killing, destroying ever help? Does 
it dissolve the buried hate, the anger, the 
deaths? Swigging blood like vodka, the madmen 
brew war with oil, weapons, the threat of nukes 
to annihilate all lives — make barren the Earth. 

Cosmic clouds gather to thunder,
‘Da, datta, dayadham, damyata’ till peace 
comes with love songs that echo through the 
Universe. A Brahmic vision of kalpas like waves 
ebb and flow, calming the cries of tortured souls. 

Oh God! Help us learn Mercy. When will the 
white horse ride to our rescue? Or was that all 
a myth? Kalki? Does the white horse ride out of each 
soul to form a lightening that dispels mushroom clouds? 

Peace be unto you.
Om Shantih, Shantih, Shantih! 

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

Categories
Slices from Life

‘When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn?’

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) lamented about the futility of war, but he also imparted hope, says Ratnottama Sengupta, as she recalls her memorable meeting with folk legend Seeger, in a tete-a-tete with friends

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Last week, as people crowded the Kiev railway station to flee the Ukrainian capital, visuals started trending of the giant staircase inside the pedestrian bridge over the Yauza River to the Kiev Railway Station, the deepest station in the world. It reminded Sonia, my batchmate from Elphinstone College, of the hours she’d spent on the fabulous stairs that take you all the way down with her father who had an attack of trachycardia as they arrived in Kiev by a train from Moscow. “With great difficulty we made our way to the waiting hall from which you have to descend by this enormous staircase. I remember all the Ukrainians helped us, just as all the Russians would help us. And father kept taking Calmposes until I supported him down the stairs into a cab that took us from the station to the hotel.”

Only after that Sonia had called for an ambulance. But why not do that two hours ago? “Because father did not want me to engage with the local health authorities as we didn’t know whether they would have the drugs he used and had forgotten in India,” she explained. “And as soon as I made that call, within five minutes the ambulance was there – with that drug.” Only after that Sonia found out that Kiev has the fastest ambulance service in the world – “and the finest,” she added – “because of what they faced in WWII…” 

All through those few hours Sonia felt so supported by the local people. “I didn’t have to explain anything to the cab driver or the hotel staff – we were whisked into our room and then I went back to check in!” So today Sonia wonders how people in the bunkers are coping with small necessities such as brushing their teeth. Even as she sends Kiev her love and prayers, she feels that “peace keeping forces have to go in rather than arming Ukraine.”

“But who will stand in the line of fire?” quips Liz George, another college mate. “So, may God help the people who are facing such terrible times!” she echoes Sonia. “May god protect everyone in Kiev,” Bhamini Subramanian’s heart goes out to the innocent civilians who lost their lives and the countless families displaced, fleeing and seeking shelter to save their lives…

Watching images of the bizarre war at Kiev opens a floodgate of memories amongst us. “Yet, put aside politics and people anywhere in the world are ready to go out of their way to help people in dire situations,” Sonia sums up. And, like her, I have seen from my travels around the world that people are the same everywhere – they just want the humdrum of a normal, peaceful day to day life. But circumstances – “and policies,” Sonia adds deny a whole lot of them that. “Wish we could find a less harmful way to settle disputes,” we sigh.

*

The mention of the staircase made me think of the Potemkin Steps – the giant stairway in Odessa, another landmark habitation in Ukraine. Originally known as the Boulevard Steps, or the Giant Steps, these are considered the formal entrance into the city from the sea. Odessa, perched on a high steppe plateau, needed direct access to the harbour below which was, in days of yore, connected only by winding path and crude wooden stairs. A hundred years eroded ‘the monstrous stairs’ built with greenish grey sandstone shipped from Italy – and so in 1933, the sandstone was replaced by granite and the landings by asphalt. And in 1955, the Soviet government renamed it as the Potemkin Stairs to honour the 50th anniversary of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. After Ukraine gained independence it restored – as it did with many other streets and landmarks — the previous name of Primorsky Stairs.

But why did I recall this bit of history? Because of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin . “That silent 1925 film is a handbook for every editor!” –  Hrishikesh Mukherjee had said to me as he must have to hundreds of other students of cinema in India. And just seven years ago, in 2015, the European Film Academy put a commemorative plate on the stairs to indicate that the Potemkin staircase is a memorable place for European cinema.

*

Watching the news unfolding tirelessly on the idiot box my friend Shireen Elavia is reminded of the Hindi film Airlift (2016), which had dealt with the evacuation of the Indian expatriates stranded in that state bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia, at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, when the soldiers of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had walked into Kuwait and run over it… “In a massive rescue operation in which our friend Raji had also participated, Air India under its regional director Mascarenhas had airlifted 170000 people…” Sonia pitched in. “I was at that time posted in Moscow.”

“It is not a question of the negativity of war,” again Sonia recounted what a dear friend of hers – Polish by birth and Indian by marriage – has said. “Ukraine suffers because of its geopolitical position.” History repeatedly shows that “Countries suffer either because they have a certain geopolitical position or because they sit on earth filled with riches.” How very tragic! For, if they now forget they are all still in East Europe, we all forget that we are inmates of the same home – this planet.

Pete Seeger: Courtesy: Creative Commons

A profound truth that we often overlook – or render to oblivion. A truth that Pete Seeger (1919-2014) had driven home to me in Delhi sometime in 1996. “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. And that is how suddenly a song about the greens becomes a song that takes a step forward. This is what I call the folk process.”

*

The human drama unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, the two countries that have been described by a cartoonist as ‘divorced spouses,’ led yet another of my university friends, Usha Kelkar Srivastava, to re-play Where have all the flowers gone (1955), that old Pete Seeger favourite “which turns out to be a Ukrainian folk song”. The poignant melody was a favourite of ours when we went to university – much like Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) and John Lenon’s Imagine (1964) – and for decades after he’d penned it, regardless of which country he was in, the guru of country singing would sing the peace songs and the audience would sing with him. “They would sing the songs in schools and in summer camps. Some of us sang in churches and unions, some sang in coffee houses and people would gather around us and sing with us old songs and new…” Pete had recounted in the course of the four days I was really fortunate to have spent in his company. The legend who sang in defence of humanity, had come to Delhi at the invitation of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) — and when he returned to America, he gifted me a set of CDs signed to me which are among my prized possessions. 

“Just as a river takes the shape of the land it flows through, a song can echo the raw emotions of a land and people,” said Usha culling from her background in Music History. “Rarely has any song touched the world like the simple Where have all the flowers gone…” It has the cyclic structure of another Hebrew folk song about violence that I’d heard in an Amos Gitai film. Pete, while travelling in air, had come across a few lines in Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don: “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.” 

The lines from a Caucasian folk song “are sung in the Ukrainian countryside as Tovchu tovchu mak and Koloda Duda,” Usha added. Pete had adapted these words, adding the refrain of ‘Long time passing and Long time ago’ almost as a chorus. At some point in time he combined it with the tune of a traditional Irish lumberjack song – “only, I slowed down the energetic and full of vigour rendition,” and thus was born the haunting song. The three verses were later expanded by other country singers who added two more verses that underscore the tragedy thus: ‘Where have all the soldiers gone? They’re in the graves, everyone of them…and Now the flowers have come back, on the graves…’

“My only complaint is that this song is not specific enough,” Pete once said at a live concert in Sweden. “It’s too easy just to say, ‘When will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?’ without saying what you want people to learn.” Yet, how potent this critique of war is can be gauged by the number of recordings, and the spread of languages in which it has been rewritten. 

The Kingston Trio first recorded it in 1961 not knowing it to be authored by Pete Seeger. In 1962 Marlene Dietrich performed it in English, French and German at a UNICEF concert – “and she sings it even better,” Seeger had said. On a tour of Israel, she rendered it in German, breaking the taboo of using that language publicly in that country. The song has versions in Dutch, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, Irish. It has been adapted to the piano, it exists in an instrumental version, and also as a parody! In 1964, Columbia Records released it in the Hall of Fame series and in 2002 Seeger was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in the Folk category. In 2010 New Statesman listed it among the Top 20 Political Songs worldwide.

I had the opportunity to hear the other American icon, Joan Baez, sing the contemporary folk song with operatic flourishes, in Manchester sometime in 1977. The activist songwriter had included the German version in her 1965 album, Farewell, Angelina. The very next year the much-loved voice of Harry Belafonte had recorded it in a Benefit concert in Stockholm. A Russian version was recorded in 1998 by Oleg Nesterov, who founded the Moscow based rock band Megapolis just before Perestroika. In the present century Olivia Newton-John recorded it in her 2004 album Indigo: Women of Song while Dolly Parton recorded it in 2005 for her album Those Were the Days. On August 9, 2009, it was sung at the funeral of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of WW1.

In Kolkata, where I now live, Anjan Dutt had covered “the old but always relevant song” in Rawng (Colour) Pencil, going on to remind us at the outset of the Gulf War, “Ekii chinta Bangla tey korechhe Lalon, Notun korey eki gaan geyechhe Lenon, Shei eki katha aaj gaichhe Suman, gaichhi aami shei eki gaan (The same thought had inspired the Baul Lalon Fakir; the American John Lenon, and Kolkata’s own Suman and me, to ask — When will they ever learn?)” As for Kabir Suman, who penned the Bengali version, Kothay gelo tara: he had himself rendered it on stage with Pete during that India tour of 1996.

Back then Pete was “very happy that the Berlin Wall came down so peacefully”. I distinctly recall asking the self-effacing giant if the wide reach of Where have all the flowers gone indicates that the world is finally learning about not going to war. The Times of India had carried his answer: “I don’t know whether songs really change things. All I do know is that throughout history, leaders have been particular about which songs they want sung!” And then the balladeer sang of a youth who was asked the same question, to say, ‘I don’t know if I can change the world… But I will make sure the world doesn’t change me…’ 

“That was a good song,” Pete had concluded. “When people around the world say that — that’s when the world will be changed.” 

Notes:
Shlokov received the Nobel prize for And Quiet Flows the Don in 1965. The book came out in four parts from 1928 to 1940.

Ratnottama Sengupta thanks the people mentioned here: Both Sonia Singh and Raji Sekhar are her batchmates from Elphinstone College, Bombay (now Mumbai). They worked in Air India. Usha Srivastava and Elizabeth George (then Vergese) were singers in Pranjyoti Choir. Usha Kelkar Srivastava, trained in Western classical music, later went on to give lessons in Music History at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. Bhamini Subramaniam is a designer while Shireen Elavia. Havewala, is a retired banker.

.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and writes books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

.

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