I don't want to die, not any more than
anyone else, but in my Sunday
School class are ten-year-old girls who say they
can't wait and would can themselves except that
they'd go to Hell and burn forever, what
they want is to die and live with Jesus
and when they asked me if I do as well
I said Well, maybe, if I won't get bored
and one got angry and said You're going
to fry in Hell for that someday and her friend
added in the oil of your own skin yet
you'll never be consumed completely and
I said Well, I'm not afraid and she said
We're more afraid for you than you are so
I said How about a kiss? That killed me.
No one wants to die--well, I take that back:
My Sunday School teacher’s sure keen on death
and talks about it every class, she knows
that we're all getting older and some day
we'll all die though probably not the same
day and same way but make no mistake, death
is unavoidable so prepare ye
now to be good enough at least to go
to Heaven and dwell there for eterni
-ty instead of Hell (ditto for Eter
-nity) and we never know when God will
snatch us from life back to Heaven to be
judged a saint or sinner and I want to
see you all in Heaven with me someday.
I added If you go. She has good teeth.
Gale Acuff has had hundreds of poems published in a dozen countries and has authored three books of poetry. He has taught tertiary English courses in the US, PR China, and Palestine.
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When New Zealand author Heidi North won an international Irish Poetry Prize in 2007, and was told by the Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, to keep writing, it made her realise that not everyone wrote the way she did. Further recognition and confirmation of her own unique voice came just before Covid hit, when the band U2 used one of her poems in their Joshua Tree Tour on a gigantic screen before audiences of thousands. The writer of poems and fiction has been published in anthologies, journals and magazines around the world, but underlying her writing is a fascination with the human condition and how out of grief we make parcels of light.
When did you first start writing?
I’ve always been writing. I think I thought everyone just wrote poems and stories the way I did, when I was a kid. But as to when I started taking writing more seriously, that was when I won an Irish poetry prize in 2007 (The Feile Filiochta International Poetry), that’s when I realised that perhaps not everyone wrote quite the way I did.
What cultivated your love of words and storytelling?
My mother was a great storyteller and she often told me stories, especially family stories, growing up. In fact, a lot of those have made their way into an essay collection that I’m currently working on, a few decades later. My dad was an architect and artist, and my step mum is an artist, too so I grew up surrounded by creative people and books and a feeling that creativity was valued.
What do you enjoy about the process of writing?
It can be a frustrating one at times, there’s the gap between what you want things to be and where they are and finding the way to work from that point to another can be a challenge. But the great joy comes from the flow state, when you’re in that state, time and space are nothing, there is just you and the page and it’s joyful. You have to hold onto that as a writer, because a lot of the time is spent berating yourself for not actually writing, feeling deep despair about your work, and the process of editing, which can be joyful and painful too.
What differences are there between writing poetry and writing short stories/novels? Do you have to put a different ‘hat’ on to create?
For me, it’s sort of instinctual, I just know when what form things I want to explore will take. I was a poet first, so I did have to go through a process of really learning to write fiction. John Cranna from The Creative Hub (Auckland, New Zealand) really taught me how to bolt my fiction writing down. I feel like fiction adheres to the rules of gravity whereas poetry doesn’t have to. But writing both has made each form stronger, my poetry has become more narrative and my fiction benefits from the stripping back you do in poetry.
I wrote my second poetry collection, We are tiny beneath the light, as a sort of side project while I was working on my bigger project for my Masters. And it’s more a narrative than my first collection, Possibility of flight, which I published in 2015, for that reason.
How do you go about your writing? With planning, spontaneous, inspiration or contemplation?
These days, between work and kids and the obligations of adulthood, the writing has to be planned and I have to give myself deadlines and hold myself accountable to them. But in terms of what I want to write, that still is fairly spontaneous. I have never felt like I choose what I write about, things just tug at me until I make something out of them.
Does being a writer make you more observant, mindful or aware, or does noticing details and recording them make you a writer?
What a chicken and egg! My dad always says I was fascinated by why people did things, so I think writing perhaps helps me make sense of the world.
What did you gain from studying creative writing at university?
Every time I’ve done any writing study, there have been two great gifts of it; one, it ringfences writing time and gives me deadlines, and a place to play with writing, to read and to really think hard about both. But the second, and perhaps the greater gift, is the cohort. I finished my Master of Creative Writing at Auckland University in 2017, and that cohort of writers, and our lecturer, Paula Morris, have been so valuable to me since. Plus, I still keep in contact with, and champion writers from other courses I’ve taken along the way. I’ve taken several short courses at the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington and those always gave me new inspiration and introduced me to new writers, many of whom have stayed friends.
What was your experience in China/Shanghai like?
Being in Shanghai for the International Writers Program in 2016 was just such a wonderful, stimulating creative time. I’d lived in China, in Huizhou, 12 years earlier for a year teaching English at a language school there, so I had a bit of an idea of what China was like, so while in some ways I was prepared, it was also so different. I loved spending two months there. I loved having the time dedicated to writing and to being in a different culture and to be being part of a group of 10 writers from around the world and to spend time with Chinese writers and particulate in many literary events. I feel so very lucky and thankful to the Michael King Centre in New Zealand for the exchange.
It was also hard and challenging and bizarre to be away from home. I had a small daughter at home and my marriage had recently broken up. So it was many things, all at once.
How do you go about getting published?
Just sending things out and keep sending things out. Hopefully, you send things out that people like and they get published. I’ve had a lot of rejection letters, and I’ve also learnt that some people will love your work and some people won’t. It’s true what they say that everything is subjective. I’ve had work rejected by someplace that ends up winning a prize somewhere else.
How do you think writing can address difficult subjects, such as your ‘We are tiny beneath the light’?
Your hope as a writer, when you write about difficult subjects, such as I did in, ‘We are tiny beneath the light’, which is about the breakdown of my marriage and the process of rebuilding myself after that, is that it illuminates something for someone else. Maybe someone else going through a hard time reads my poems and it gives them a foothold into their own life, or a way to express their grief, or offers a sliver of hope. I go to hard writing in hard times, and it gives me great comfort.
Does writing from your own experience mean being vulnerable on the page? If so, how do you live with that?
It would be easier to step back from your work and say it’s not you, and in ‘We are tiny beneath the light’, I could no longer do that. Was I scared of being vulnerable? Yes, I was terrified. My publisher and editor Mary McCallum was invaluable through that process and trusting in her careful guidance helped me get to the heart of the story I was telling.
The other thing is, that writing anything truthful always contains poetic license, and even if it’s not about you people will make assumptions anyway, so that’s freeing in a way. And you have to get past what you think people might think of you if you’re a writer, or you’ll never write anything.
Being vulnerable is something I find quite difficult, and yet, both of the projects I’m currently working on have memoir elements, so demand a level of vulnerability. In the end, I think all good writing is an act of vulnerability of some kind, and when I’m scaring myself that’s when I know I’m going in the right direction.
How do you make a bridge with the reader for them to get into your writing?
I think it’s vulnerability. You don’t have to agree with me or like me, but you have to know I’m telling some kind of truth – which is widely subjective, but that’s what the reader is here for, to see the writer tell the truth they have in the best way they can.
How useful are deadlines, goals, and writing groups to writing and improving your work?
They cannot be underestimated! It’s not an understatement that the process of getting to the desk is extraordinary hard. It would be such a relief not to want to write, because it’s so fraught just getting to the page. You have to really want to write to overcome that dread. It makes absolutely no sense that something you love is so intensely hard to do. This is where deadlines and writing groups, that come with deadlines come in. And it’s great to be able to talk about the craft with people who care about it as much as you do.
How rewarding does it feel seeing your work and name in print?
Holding the copy of your book in your hands for the first time is such a wonderful feeling. And when you get accepted for any kind of publication there is just this instant bubble of joy. And you have to hold onto that, because the slog is hard, and the rejections keep coming. It can be hard to savour the feeling of reward that comes with seeing your work published, but it is why we continue writing, so that someone will read it.
How has your writing ended up being shared to the wider world? Is it true that U2 used your poem ‘Piha Beach, two years on’ in its New Zealand concert screen images?
Yes! Isn’t that just wild? Having my poem picked up and used by U2 is one of the most unexpected and wonderful things that being a writer has led to. I wrote about it — the surreal joy of having my poem selected to play on the largest screen I’ve ever seen – may ever see – in my life, to a crowd of thousands here: When one of the biggest bands in the world bought my tiny poem
If you can’t make a living from writing poetry, what other benefits are there from publishing poetry?
You don’t write poetry or short stories in New Zealand for the money, but being a writer has lead me to some extraordinary experiences, like an all-expenses-paid trip to Bali when I won the Asia New Zealand Foundation Short Story Competition, going to the Shanghai Writers Programme and all the wonderful experiences I had there, meeting Seamus Heaney and having him tell 26-year-old me sternly to keep writing when I picked up the Feile Filiochta poetry award in Ireland, and spending the evening in the Friends and Family lounge before the U2 concert in Auckland.
So, it’s not bought me great monetary riches, but it’s bought me great dinner party stories.
How important is winning awards, and getting feedback from readers in keeping your writing?
Really, really important. I’d like to say I don’t care what people think, but I do. I don’t mean in the way it stops me from writing hard things, but in the way that if I’d never had any positive feedback at all the doubt would have gotten the better of me and I would have stopped writing long ago.
How do you use your writing skills in your day job?
I work in strategic communications and engagement, which is all about how to communicate the bigger story and connect with people. It’s fulfilling to tell stories in different capacities.
How do you juggle your life and other responsibilities with making time to write?
I’ve learnt to write in snatches, when kids are playing noisily around me, when I don’t want to, when I’m too tired, when I’m feeling flat. There’s always something writing or writing-adjacent you can do, even when you may not be at your best and that way you keep a toe in the water. I do everything I can just to keep a toe in the water, and then sometimes that leads to full body immersion, but with kids and a job and a house there isn’t much glorious uninterrupted time these days.
What are you currently working on?
I always have multiple things on the go at the same time, so one project I’m working on is a personal essay collection about childhood, family politics, parenting and love. And the other is my Shanghai project, a hybrid novel memoir about a runaway bride who finds herself hiding in Shanghai – the last place she remembers being happy, and it’s also about me, on the Shanghai writers programme grappling with where I was in my life post-separation.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. Do interesting things. Find your own voice. Allow yourself to write things without expectations or limits. Write into the things that make you scared. Then go deeper. Keep going.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t agonise so much, and just keep going.
How does writing make you a global citizen better connected to the world?
Participating in literary events and publications and exchanges creates so much connection and empathy with different cultures and ideas. It’s so important.
New Zealand writer Heidi North has won awards for both her poems and short stories, including an international Irish Poetry Prize, and has been published in anthologies and magazines around the world. Heidi was the New Zealand fellow in the Shanghai International Writers Programme in 2016. The same year she was awarded the Hachette/ NZSA mentorship to work on her first novel. Heidi has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland and lives in Auckland with her family. Her first poetry collection, Possibility of flight was published by Makaro Press in 2015. Her second collection, We are Tiny Beneath the light (The Cuba Press 2019), was launched by U2 when they used one of her poems from the collection in their 2019 Joshua Tree Tour.
‘Piha Beach, two years on’ by Heidi North
My feet punch bruises in the black sand
and I am back in the burn of childhood summers
the circle of sentinel gulls
their grey wings tipped to catch the light
warn me back
but I go down to the white foam edge
bluebottles bloated with their pretty poison
yield to the sharp edge of my stick
I go down to the place
where the wind kicks holes through my heart
and there is a child down there
too close to the ribbony horizon line
holding his blue kite
towards the updraft
still smiling as it lurches
against the wide white blaze of sky –
and I smile and laugh and I run with him because how can I tell him
all the brutal things are yet to come
(‘We are tiny beneath the light’ has been published with permission from The Cuba Press)
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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We were traveling at over 140 kmph. The train felt stable and comfortable. We were just entering the state of Perak, just north of Selangor state in Malaysia. Perak means silver in Bahasa Melayu. Getting out of Kuala Lumpur (KL) was slow with several stops for signal clearance and the train was now making up for lost time. The Electric Train Service covers the distance between Bandar Tasik Selatan and Taiping in around three hours and ten minutes. The train is an electric multiple unit and accelerates and brakes quickly.
My friend, Binaya and I were on the evening train to Butterworth scheduled to reach Taiping at 9.22 pm with a bunch of students. We were making excellent speed. Watching the progress on Google Maps reminded me how far we had come technologically. We pulled into the new Taiping railway station only about two minutes behind schedule. The creation of the railway line right to the Thai border was a major technological achievement and the electrified line offers quick and reliable transportation. The old railway station was next door and we resolved to come visit this heritage property during our stay.
By the time we reached the hotel, it was after ten at night and our first task was to grab some dinner. We thought the huge shopping malls would offer us some choices. A chain restaurant called Nasi Kandar Pelita was open. We ordered rice with chicken curry and vegetables there. While waiting for the food, we noticed they had a website giving the origin of the name — nasi kandar. This was the name given to hawkers who would walk through the streets, door to door, bearing rice (nasi), vegetables, curries and meats in vessels suspended on a yoke (kandar). Eventually many of these hawkers settled down and opened their own stores.
Old lores always interest me. I tried researching the name of the town. The name is said to be derived from two Chinese characters, tai (great) and ping (peace). The discovery of tin in the nineteenth century attracted immigrants from China. For several years, there was a bitter war between rival factions. The colonials eventually restored peace and named the first capital of the state of Perak.
Taiping was among the first town established by the British in Malaysia and was near important tin mines. The first railway was constructed to transport tin ore to the coast. The abandoned tin mines were converted in the 1880s to Malaysia’s first public gardens. The gardens have a well-earned reputation of being well-maintained.
We started by visiting the Taiping War Cemetery. Over 800 soldiers, who lost their lives during World War II, are commemorated here. We visited the Burmese pool and slowly walked back to the Lake Gardens. The area was vast, the sun was becoming hot, and I was soon tired. The garden, spread over 64 acres of land, is famous for the rain trees and angsana trees. Many poems have been written about the splendid rain trees. After wandering through the gardens, we took a ride to the Perak Museum. The museum is the oldest in Malaysia and was founded in 1883 by the British resident, Sir Hugh Low. The museum mainly concerns itself with natural history and the history of the area. There are some excellent assembled animal skeletons. The museum is located in a heritage building opposite the Taiping goal. There are four galleries, Nature Gallery, Cultural Gallery, Indigenous People Gallery and a Temporary Gallery.
The sun had grown very warm, and the weather was humid throughout our stay. Taiping is famous as the place with the highest rainfall (over 400 cm) but we did not see much of a downpour.
In the evening we went to the Dataran Warisan Taiping, the main public square. The land and district office across the square is a heritage building completed in 1897. Across the street was a lively market with many photo opportunities. As one of the first towns to be established by the colonials, Taiping has several other old institutions including the King Edward VII school and the St George’s institution. Our dinner was again at Nasi Kandar Pelita.
The Taiping Zoo was our primary focus the next morning. The zoo was established in 1961 and is the oldest zoo in the country. The zoo is spread over 36 acres and has over 180 species of animals. We opted to walk around the different enclosures. The orangutang were a major attraction as were the tigers and the giraffes. Animals have enough space to move around, and care has been taken to recreate their natural habitat as much as possible. The zoo also conducts a night safari with animals seen in lighting that replicates natural moonlight. We debated whether to take the night safari, but we did not have our own vehicle and we were not sure if taxis would still be operating at 11 pm when the safari ends. Discretion won and we stayed back in our hotel.
After the zoo we went to the Lake Gardens in Kamunting. The gardens are still being developed. The Lotus flowers growing in muddy water are a major attraction at both lake gardens. In the evening, we went to the old railway station and were glad we did. The first railway in Malaysia was built in 1885 to the port of Kuala Sepatang to transport tin. The current old station was built in 1893. The old signalling equipment and the old photographs transport you back in time. Most of the station has been transformed into cafes. We had a wonderful cendol at one of the cafes. Binaya was reminiscing about his university trip to Melaka. The girls in his student group had cendol while he stuck with watermelon juice. We also had a roti tisu at one of the stalls and bamboo puttu. Puttu never fails to transport me back to Kerala.
We were taking a bus to KL next morning. We went to the bus station at Kamunting but our bus was around twenty minutes late. The ride along the expressway was smooth as highways in Malaysia are excellent. We had spent a delightful three days in the oldest town in Malaysia with several firsts to its credit. The town is not on the circuit of most tourists but is well worth a visit due to its historic attractions, old architecture, the lake gardens, the zoo and the friendly people!
“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…”
— John Keats (1795-1851), To Autumn
For long writers have associated autumn with “mellow wistfulness”. That loss of spring, or loss of youth is not bleak or regretful has been captured not just by Keats but also been borne out by historical facts. Anthropocene existence only get better as the human race evolves … If we view our world as moving towards an autumn, we perhaps, as Keats suggests, need to find the new “music” for it. A music that is ripe and matures with the passage of time to the point that it moves more towards perfection. Though sometimes lives fade away after autumn gives way to winter as did those of Queen Elizabeth II (April 21st 1926 – September 8th 2022) after a reign of seventy historic years and Mikhail Gorbachev (2nd March 1931 – 30thAugust 2022) with his admirable efforts to bridge divides. Both of them have left footprints that could be eternalised if voices echo in harmony. Thoughts which create bonds never die – they live on in your hearts and mine.
Imagine… ten thousand years ago, were we better off? Recorded history shows that the first war had already been fought 13,000 years ago. And they have continued to rage – but, at least, unlike the indomitable Gauls in Asterix comics – not all jumped into the fray. They did during the last World Wars — which also led to attempts towards institutionalising humanitarian concerns and non-alignment. Yes, we have not had a perfect world as yet but as we age, the earth matures and we will, hopefully, move towards better times as we evolve. Climate change had happened earlier too. At a point, Sahara was green. Continental shifts split Pangaea into seven continents – that was even earlier. That might have driven the dinosaurs to extinction. But I am sure mankind will find a way out of the terror of climate change and wars over a period of time, as long as we believe in deciphering the sounds of autumn as did Keats in his poem.
Tagore had also sung of the joys of autumn which happens to be a time for festivities. Professor Fakrul Alam has translated three such songs, reflecting the joie de vivre of the season, The translation of a small poem, Eshecche Sarat, brings the beauty of the season in Bengal to the fore. We have a celebration of youth and romance in a Balochi folksong, an anti-thesis to autumn and aging, translated for us by Fazal Baloch and also, poetic prose in quest of God and justice by Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed. Lost romance recapitulated makes interesting poetry is borne out by Ihlwha Choi’s translation of his own poem from Korean. But the topping in our translation section is a story called ‘Nagmati’ by eminent Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, translated by no less than a Sahitya Akademi winning translator – Aruna Chakravarti. This story illustrates how terrifying youthful follies can lead to the end of many young lives, a powerful narrative about the snake worshipping community of Bedeynis that highlights destruction due to youthful lusts and an inability to accept diverse cultures.
When this cultural acceptance becomes a part of our being, it creates bonds which transcend manmade borders as did the films of Satyajit Ray. His mingling was so effective that his work made it to the zenith of an international cinematic scenario so much so that Audrey Hepburn, while receiving the Oscar on his behalf, said: “Dear Satyajit Ray. I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”
This and more has been revealed to us in a book,Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much, authored by a protagonist from Ray’s film, Barun Chanda. This book brought out by Om Books International reflects not just Ray as a person but also how he knitted the world together with his films and took the Indian film industry to an international level. Barun Chanda has been interviewed with a focus on Satyajit Ray. Keith Lyons has also interviewed a man who has defied all norms and, in the autumn of his life, continues his journey while weaving together cultures across, China, India and Thailand by his ethnographic studies on tribes, Jim Goodman. Goodman says he left America when speaking for a war-free world became a cause for censorship. This makes one wonder if war is a game played for supporting a small minority of people who rule the roost? Or are these ramblings of a Coleridge writing ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of narcotics?
Poetry also brings the season into our pages with an autumnal interpretation of life from Michael Burch. More poetry from Sunil Sharma, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Gayatri Majumdar, George Freek, Ron Pickett, Sutputra Radheye, Marianne Tefft brings a wide range of concerns to our pages – from climate to the vagaries of human nature. Poetry by an Albanian writer, Irma Kurti, and photographs by her Italian spouse, Biagio Fortini, blend together the colours of humanity. Rhys Hughes as usual, makes it to the realm of absurd – perhaps voicing much in his poetry, especially about the environment and human nature, though he talks of woodpeckers on Noah’s ark (were there any?) and of cows, yetis, monkeys and cakes… He has also given us a hilarious cat narrative for his column. Can that be called magic realism too? Or are the edges too abstract?
A leader who quested for freedom and roamed the world after being passed over by the Congress in favour of Nehru, Netaji raised an army of women who were trained in Singapore – not a small feat in the first half of the twentieth century anywhere in the world. His death in an air crash remained an unsolved mystery — another one of those controversies which raged through the century like the Bhawal case. In his review, Parichha spells out: “Aiming to bring an end to the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the freedom fighter, the over 300-page book gives a detailed and evidence-based account of his death in one of its chapters.”
Our non-fiction also hosts humour from Devraj Singh Kalsi about his interactions with birds and, on the other hand, a very poignant poetic-prose by Mike Smith reflecting on the vagaries of autumn. From Japan, Suzanne Kamata takes us to the Rabbit Island – and murmurings of war and weapons. We have the strangest story about a set of people who are happy to be ruled by foreign settlers – we would term them colonials – from Meredith Stephens. G Venkatesh delights with a story of love and discovery in Korea, where he had gone in pre-pandemic times. Paul Mirabile travels to Turkey to rediscover a writer, Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906-1954). And Ravi Shankar gives us an emotional story about his trek in the Himalayas in Nepal with a friend who has passed on. Candice Louisa Daquin has written of the possibilities towards integrating those who are seen as minorities and marginalised into the mainstream.
The edition this time is like Autumn – multi-coloured. Though I am not able to do justice to all our contributors by mentioning them here, my heartfelt thanks to each as every piece only enriches our journal. I urge you to take a look at the September edition.
I would like to give huge thanks to our readers and our team too, especially Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious for their artwork. We could not have come this far without support from all of you.
 The men in the indomitable Gaulish village (which the Romans failed to conquer) in times of Julius Caesar loved to jump into a fight for no reason…Asterix was the protagonist of the comics along with his fat friend Obelix
Yesterday, it was cloudy.
Today, it's my cup of tea.
It's died in me.
You can see
It turned into the desire of the sea.
The desire of the sea just splashed through me.
I sensed the loss without the key.
But, why am I anticipating the next cup of tea?
As if I am not fulfilled. No idea. No key.
I wish this could be my last cup of tea
with no desire to go cloudy.
Prasanta Kumar B.K. is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Sichuan University, China. He holds master’s degrees in both English literature and international relations and diplomacy from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. He has been working for Nepal Airlines as a senior officer.
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Jim Goodman, an American traveler, author, ethnologist and photographer who has spent the last half-century in Asia, converses with Keith Lyons.
Jim Goodman is something of a legend in Southeast Asia and Eastern South Asia. His definitive guide to southwest China’s Yunnan province was the most sought-after travel book for any intrepid backpacker wanting to get off-the-beaten-track in the ethnically-diverse province bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Tibet. That’s how I first came across Jim, through the well-thumbed pages of his The Exploration of Yunnan. Back then, I marvelled at his ability to venture into areas that were only just opening up to foreign travellers, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge of different ethnic minorities. It was almost 20 years later that I finally met Jim in person in a cafe inside the old city gates of northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where he has been based since 1988. Later, on a media trip to the Golden Triangle’s eastern Shan state hill-tribe villages, I saw how Jim’s interactions, appearance (and conversation in ethnic language) endeared him to local minorities.
He has published books in Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, China and Vietnam, and also worked with ethnic minorities, including on textiles with Newars in Nepal and northern east Indian Mizos, and on traditional handicrafts with Akha in northern Thailand. “Besides acquiring new labour skills—I was the dyer and designer—the work gave me valuable insights into the different cultural norms and ways of thinking of traditional societies in this region,” he once wrote. “My writing, research and photography reflect my fascination with history, traditional cultures and ethnic minorities, not just in the ethnologies, cultural studies and histories I’ve published, but in my fiction and poetry as well.”
You were born in the US capital Washington D.C. and raised in the Midwest in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up in the US, what do you think contributed to your interest in different countries and cultures?
As a kid I was fascinated by American Indians, especially those from the western plains and the southeast. My father taught Latin American history at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He and my mother were members, later chairmen, of the Foreign Students Welcoming Committee. Every American holiday — 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc — we had foreign guests. They were from India, Nepal, Tunisia, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria. They aroused my natural curiosity.
How were your first experiences of ‘foreignness’ in the US and then overseas?
I stopped believing in my parents’ Catholicism by the time I was in high school and for the next few years felt like a foreigner in my own family and neighbourhood. In later years, when I was living in Europe or Asia I was always conscious of being foreign, especially in things like double pricing, but I integrated socially enough not to let it bother me. Occasionally, that worked in my favour. In Korea in the 70s, males were forbidden by law to grow their hair over their ears or past the collar. Every four or five months the police carried out widely publicised roundups. But foreigners were exempt.
What was it like growing up in the 1960’s in the US?
It was very exciting. Thanks to the civil rights and anti-war movements it was easy to challenge the system intellectually and practically. The drugs and music, a very new kind of music, also contributed to this sense of the times are changing everywhere and lots of options were possible. It was an amazingly optimistic decade.
How did you come to be in the army, and what was your experience as a soldier in Germany and later South Korea?
I got my draft notice in the summer of 1967, at the peak of the Vietnam War, when 80% of those drafted were sent off to Vietnam after training. So I took the enlistment option, signing up for an extra two years, with one year at the language school studying Arabic. War might be over by the time I finish the course, I thought, and anyway they wouldn’t need an Arabic translator in Vietnam. But the Army inserted a little clause in every contract, “subject to needs of the Army,” that let them do what they liked. When I arrived at the language school, after basic training I was told my orders had been changed. I had to go back and wait for new ones. Eventually they put me in a tank training unit, but by the luck of the draw I was in the company sent after training to Germany, while the other three were dispatched to Vietnam.
In Germany, I served in an armoured unit which was very often in the field. However, this was 1968 and I managed to get a pass to go to Paris in early June and marched down the avenues with the students and workers singing L’internationale over and over. I still know the first stanza, in French. I also met Arab officers from Jordan and Libya and took a month’s leave in the autumn to have my 21st birthday in Beirut. On my first night in Beirut, a South Yemeni staying in the same hotel told me there were three good reasons to travel. The first was to meet the different kinds of people living in this world. Second, was to try the various local foods and drinks. And third, was to appreciate the scenery and historical monuments. I never forgot the order in which he listed those attractions: people first. Throughout my trip, I wore a button on my shirt that said Restore Palestine to the Arab People, which guaranteed a good reception everywhere in Lebanon and Jordan. I was very active politically by then and the following spring published the first anti-war newspaper by a soldier in Europe. That later got me transferred to Korea, the only place there was no organised anti-war soldier activity. In Korea, I was in charge of the Photo Lab, where I learned the basic principles of photography. Also joined rock bands as a singer, so I wasn’t very political in Korea, except for some of the song lyrics.
After your time in the army, how did you get back to Asia?
I was discharged in Seattle in January 1972, went to San Francisco to live and later got a clerk-typist job with General Services Administration. Then my boss recommended me for a low-ranking administrative position. I would have been in charge of the installation of furniture in the California offices of the state’s two senators. Not exactly exciting work, but anyway I had to get a security clearance, starting with answering a questionnaire with things like ‘are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party’ and ‘do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by force or violence’.
I answered no to everything, but within 24 hours the office got back a disapproval of my application “for security reasons”. After that news got out, everybody in the building thought I was a terrorist, and that was before terrorist was a household word. It was doubtless my activity as an anti-war soldier but it meant I would really have no future in my country. I went to Korea that autumn on a one-way ticket without enough money for a round-trip. (I don’t think that’s even possible anymore.) I met other ex-GI’s in Seoul who gave private English lessons, so I did, too. In the second year, I got hired by Language Teaching Research Center, which didn’t use textbooks and so I made up my own lessons. I spent free time among soldiers on the army base and in off-base bars and would listen carefully to their conversations. Whatever they said that I thought my students wouldn’t understand, I wrote down and worked it into my lessons. It was a wonderfully creative job and made me especially conscious of my own language.
What happened for you to leave Korea and ending up almost dying and in jail in Nepal?
My last summer (1976) in Korea, I met travellers who had been to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. Later that year I got busted for a small amount of grass and, near the end of the year, was expelled from Korea. India and Nepal seemed a natural place to go next. It wasn’t easy in the beginning and once in Calcutta, I got robbed of everything and went over three weeks without eating. I was kind of resigned to dying by starvation but a Muslim street merchant recognised the situation, paid my bills and lent me enough money to get back to Kathmandu. Everything seemed fine but when I finally ate a meal I vomited it all a few minutes later. Body won’t take food, eh? Guess I’m going to die after all. He said don’t worry, wait a little and try again. He had witnessed the same thing with starving Bengali refugees during the break-up of Pakistan. He was right. The next meal was fine and ever since then, I’ve not worried about, for one reason or another, missing a meal or two. I missed meals three and a half weeks and got by.
And you spent some time in jail, not just in Kathmandu but in Korea?
I was three weeks in Korean solitary confinement until my girlfriend bailed me out. Longer, about four months, in the holding centre in Kathmandu, where those arrested awaited trial. I was busted for a lot of hash but charged with both possession, 10,000 rupees fine, and exporting, 100,000 rupees fine (about 70 to a dollar then). I pleaded guilty to possession only. The judge dismissed the exporting charge because the hash was found in my home, not at any border. However, to save face, the prosecutor appealed the acquittal for exporting. The appeal had to go to the special court, which only met once a week, so cases piled up. In Nepal, you don’t bribe the judge. You bribe the clerk to put your case before a sympathetic judge. I wasn’t going to hurry up the case because then I would have to leave the country afterwards. The prosecutor wasn’t going to speed up the proceedings because he still would have no evidence and would lose again. Meanwhile, I was free to continue my Nepal life. For over a year the government’s attitude to me was like a joke. They thought I had figured out how to beat the system. The following year, I became an embarrassment and the year after that, with a new government, it became an issue and I finally got a new passport and left Nepal for a month’s holiday in Thailand.
What took you to Assam, and what made you later leave?
It was one of the few places in India I hadn’t visited yet. It had an interesting separate history from the rest of the country and was surrounded by many fascinating ethnic minorities. My first trip was in the autumn of 1979, when I was paid to take an American woman and her daughter, whose tutor I was, to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kaziranga, the rhinoceros park in Assam. The Assamese anti-immigrant demonstrations had already begun, so I kept up on news then and afterwards. In 1980, I made two trips to cover the movement for newspaper articles. I only got to visit hill people (Khasi) in Meghalaya, as the other states, and parts of Assam were closed to foreigners. I bought a lot of books about them, anticipating freer travel sometime soon. Instead, I got blamed on my third trip in May by the Delhi government for organising the Assam movement (as if they couldn’t organise themselves) and banned from re-entry.
After moving to Chiang Mai Thailand, what did you concentrate on?
The skills I learned in Nepal were those involving weaving and dyeing. I used natural dyes and designed the patterns for the looms. I had worked with both Mizos from Northeast India, who used a back-strap loom, and Newars, who used a stand-up frame loom, like that of the Thai. I began working with the Karen, who used back-strap looms. But after meeting the Akha, I conceived the idea of making Akha jackets, which were cut like Western jackets, using my colours from natural dyes and bigger to fit Western bodies. I soon dropped the work with the Karen and found enough customers for Akha jackets and shoulder bags to cover the expenses of a modest lifestyle and my research on them.
What made you decide to go to Yunnan and southwest China? When did you go, and what was the experience as the region just opened up to travel by foreigners?
One of the sub-groups I worked with in Thailand, the Pamee Akha, came directly down from Yunnan. I met a relative on one of my trips who was in Pamee to make money picking lychees for a season. He invited me to his village in Xishuangbanna, if I could ever come to China. Not long afterwards a flight opened from Chiang Mai to Kunming. I booked one for July 1992. After a few days around Kunming and Lunan County, I flew to Xishuangbanna and found out from Akha in Jinghong how to find my friend I met in Pamee. After some time there, I returned to Kunming and embarked for the northwest for a quick look that did include the Torch Festival in Ninglang. I couldn’t speak much Chinese then, but in Xishuangbanna, the Akha enjoyed the fact that the first foreigner they ever met could speak their language. People were friendly everywhere and once I started repeating visits for research, I got introduced to English-speaking locals who could assist me.
When you first went to southwest China, did you feel you might be documenting some people whose culture would be wiped out by modernisation, and if so, has this happened?
From the very beginning I felt ethnic cultures were having a true revival but wondered how long that could last, not because of politics, as in the past, but because of the greater exposure to outside modern influences, including mass tourism. Certainly, that has happened, but not to the same extent everywhere. And mass tourism has been more disruptive. Lijiang and Lugu Lake are two obvious examples. I was lucky to have chosen those places to fully research before they completely transformed into tourist traps. In other places, like Ailaoshan, parts of Lincang and Pu’er prefectures and even much of Xishuangbanna, modernisation has been less noticeable and the traditional culture and lifestyles still strong.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences in Yunnan?
After watching two little Lisu girls at Lishadi cross the Nu River on the rope-bridge several times, for their own amusement, without adult supervision, I concluded:
1. It can’t be dangerous.
2. It must be fun.
Next trip to Nujiang I had a Lisu friend in Fugong get me the harness and cable hook. Made my first crossing, just for the fun of it, at Damedi south of Fugong and over the next few years carried my cable hook and rope harness to Nujiang for more rides at more locations.
The other unique, to me anyway, research experience was my repeated visits to Lige village, Lugu Lake. Mosuo culture is matrilineal, the children belong to the mother, but also Tibetan Buddhist and each family has a resident monk. Women were definitely in charge of domestic affairs. At Lugu Lake, my friends, the folks I hung out with, got high and drunk with and had the most experiences with, were mainly women. Many of them introduced themselves to me. I only knew a few men. With every other minority, I only met women because they were my friend’s wives, daughters or sisters, whom he introduced to me. The Mosuo were really special.
From your experiences across Southeast Asia and eastern Southern Asia, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt about hill tribes, their customs, societies, and beliefs?
They are very attuned to nature, with a cultural sense of ecological balance. Most of their festivals are concerned with important junctures in the agricultural work cycle. Their societies are very collective-oriented. Everyone has relationships with everyone else. No one ever has to feel alone.
How has learning languages and assisting local craftspeople enabled you to get inside like an anthropologist?
Learning an ethnic minority language is a clear indication of special interest in them. And they respond very favourably to that. Involving them in handicrafts production shows appreciation of their traditional arts and crafts, like a form of flattery. It also means getting to know them more personally and becoming an accepted part of their existence, making research easy.
What’s your personal approach to meeting new people, and why do you think it works?
As that pertains to my research work I always made clear to the people what my interest in them was and that I was going to write about them. Always had a positive response and when I indulged in their hospitality I followed four rules I set for myself: eat whatever they give me, drink whatever they give me, smoke whatever they give me, and sleep wherever they put me. As a result, I’ve had some really spicy food, very powerful liquor, pretty raunchy cigarettes and even opium and some pretty uncomfortable sleeping conditions. But I figured nothing can hurt me much for a day or so and the effect on them was that they thought I was a great guest. Everything they did for me seemed to work. They didn’t have to make any adjustments.
What’s it like to be the first outsider or ‘white person’ that some groups have seen?
That happened mostly in Yunnan and was never a negative experience. I remember once about to enter a Yunnan village that was definitely off the beaten track and when children spotted me they ran back to the village shouting, “Weiguo pengyou lai!” (“Foreign friend comes.”) And then the adults came out to welcome me. I never found any animosity or impolite, intrusive curiosity anywhere I went. The local attitude seemed to be ‘here’s a chance to make a foreign friend’. Minorities were as curious about me as I was about them. And being American in China or Vietnam, in their context I was a fellow minority person.
For many of the groups you’ve studied and spent time with, they are spread across countries and borders. Are there differences on different sides of the borders, or does close contact mean the groups retain their traditions?
I made my first trip to Vietnam precisely to answer that question. I was researching the terrace builders in Honghe between the Red River and the Vietnam border. Many ethnic groups lived on both sides, so I travelled through the border areas in Vietnam to meet sub-groups I knew in Yunnan. Lifestyles and cultural traits were very similar. The minorities in Vietnam seemed more conservative, more resistant to modern influence, while the same minorities on the Yunnan side seemed better off economically.
Your other interest is Vietnam. What fascinates you about Vietnam?
I was already familiar with Chinese culture when I first visited Vietnam, as well as Southeast Asian culture. It didn’t seem like such a strange place and I was able to discover what was unique about Vietnam, its separate cultural characteristics. The people were uniformly friendly, even though I came from a country that bombed the hell out of it. Yet the Vietnamese I met regarded all that as the past and now it’s different so no time for resentment. I made close friendships there easily (eventually married one) and found new topics to write books about—what was unique about Vietnamese culture, the special history of Hanoi, and how the country became one entity.
Why do you have a fascination and affinity with ethnic minorities, particularly hill tribes?
Hard to really say, but I suppose it was because I like their very different kind of living environment, the way they look and the way they act. Always felt comfortable with them.
How do you feel about the changes that have happened to minorities, such as becoming tourist attractions, or having to move to towns for economic opportunities?
It was probably inevitable. Traditional agriculture, the shifting cultivation type, was no longer sustainable due to population density growth. Roads are better and more numerous, too, so those who do move to cities can still maintain links with their villages. Becoming tourist attractions can be more of a lifestyle change. Everything cultural seems to become a commodity, something to be paid to do. In some places, the culture on display is not even their own. For example, in Sapa Vietnam, many Hmong girls dress up in fancy clothing of the Flowery Hmong because their own Black Hmong outfits are not as colourful or photogenic for tourists, who pay them to take photographs.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
When I first started reading world literature as an early teenager and started fantasizing about one day becoming one of the literary giants.
How do you go about your writing process?
I begin by thinking about it for many sessions, then, when it’s a book or a lengthy article, make an outline and start adding details before I actually write anything. When I do get going I often inspire myself by fantasising what a positive review might say, then add or revise something to justify the imaginary praise.
How has photography integrated with your writing?
Most of what I write requires illustration and some of it was because I had a set of photographs that sort of made a story. When doing cultural research, I photographed anything I thought might be relevant, whether it was photogenic or not, because then I would have a reference. I wouldn’t have to write down or have to remember what I saw. The photo was the record.
Yes. It was set up by a young friend many years ago. I don’t make any money from it. It would have been nice to have sold all the site’s articles, but I continue it because it represents my self-image of contributing to the sum of human knowledge concerning the topics I write about. Regarding books, I have had publishers in several cities: Kathmandu, Bangkok, Singapore, Kunming, Hong Kong and Hanoi.
What projects do you have on the go currently?
This year’s project was Peoples of the Mekong River Basin: The Ethnic Minorities. It covers 23 ethnic minorities and over 100 photos, 90% mine. The publisher is World Scientific Press, Singapore and it should come out in or maybe before October. I would like to do one more book, on Lamphun and its first ruler Queen Chamadevi, the most interesting and accomplished woman in all of Thai history. But I have to find a publisher interested before I start work on it.
*Photographs provided by Jim Goodman
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The mention of “Japan” evokes dreamy Instagrammable scenery of Sakura with Fuji-san, serene shrines, grand castles, modern skyscrapers, cute dolls, geishas, bullet trains, cool robots, so on and so forth — a long list of all things ‘kirei’ and ‘kawaii’. Of late, the world has been swept by the tsunami of Japanese life philosophies of Ikigai, Wabi-sabi, Kintsugi, and Zen. To an outsider, the perception of Japan is mostly curated through social media stories, anime, J-pop and J-drama. However, the first-hand experience as a tourist or resident will have a spectrum of shades to offer.
Orienting : An Indian in Japan by Pallavi Aiyar vibrantly captures this spectrum. Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author of several books including travel memoirs on China and Indonesia. In “Orienting”, she shares her insights on Japanese society, history and customs against the background of her globe-trotting experiences and Indian heritage. The book originally published in English in 2021 has recently been translated into Japanese, a rare feat for an Indian author.
Historically speaking, the “Oriental” depiction of the East has been a West orchestrated exercise. As a result, the world vision and perception of countries like Japan have been dominantly seen through the lens of Western authors, historians and travelers. Aiyar’s book is a fresh breeze in travel literature — a global Asian writing about another Asian country– especially given the shared culture of Buddhist heritage. From the get-go, the title stands out for its intelligent word play.
The author has a difficult time orienting herself. A country that’s world famous for its punctuality, hits her as “anachronistic” when she discovers how cumbersome it is to buy a mobile connection, open a bank account or use a taxi app. In neighboring China even beggars are open to e-payments while Japan still struggles with credit card usage in stores and restaurants. Yet, to the average Japanese, “Chinese were lacking in good manners”. The book is delightfully sprinkled with cross-cultural comparisons, insights and of course haikus.
It is common to spot young kids traveling on their own to school on buses and subways, as Japanese society watches out for them with solidarity, ensuring their safety. Talking of awe-inspiring features of Japan, the list is long one– literally convenient kobinis, super-smooth public infrastructure, clean public toilets, vending machines, and most strikingly, the land of ‘what is lost-is-always found’. Aiyar narrates how she and her family members lost their iPhones, wallets, laptops, umbrellas, jackets, tiffin boxes and hats during their four-year long stay in Japan. And, every single item was retrieved undamaged. Yet, despite all the community spirit, safety and solidarity, Japan is home to almost one million hikokimoris, people who have withdrawn from society and avoid social interaction. Patriarchy, high rates of suicide, overtime at workplace and death by overwork (karoshi) are hard facts of life in Japan that take some sheen off its ‘first world-ness’. Just like any other place on earth, the bright and dark sides exist together with multiple shades of gray.
The apparently ‘homogeneous’ society has shied away from discussing issues like ‘racism’ or ‘discrimination’. While historically, indigenous race of Ainus, Korean descendant Zainichies and socio-economically backward Burakumin were dealt second grade treatment, in these globalised times, unlike many rich countries, Japan had resisted multiculturism. The ‘gaijin’ syndrome (prejudice against foreigners) conspicuously stands out given that Japanese invented a whole new script ‘katakana’ to address anything ‘non-Japanese’. The kikokushijo, the children who return to school in Japan after being partly educated abroad, face bullying and harassment for their foreign association. The half- Japanese peculiarly termed as ‘hafus’, are also subjected to prejudices of various kinds. However, a mild streak of silver lining is evident in cases of Priyanka Yoshikawa – half-Indian, half-Japanese winner of Miss Japan title in 2016 and Yogendra Puranik, an Indian who won the elections for City Councilor (Edogawa ward) in 2019. Such cases, though few and far between, are indicative of some changes in the Japanese air of insularity. Comparing discrimination in Japan to its Indian counterpart, Aiyar observes that it almost felt churlish to point it out at all. “Indians were the perpetrators of the ugliest kinds racial and religious discrimination”. While Japan’s racism was “more respectable, less violent. It simmered rather than boiled over, and got mixed in with a general shyness and culture of suppression”.
On gastronomic spectrum, India and Japan are almost diagonally opposite. It is relatable how as an Indian, Japanese food strikes the author as “too cold and polite with too many bonito flakes” — too spiceless and raw for Indian tastes. On a trip to Tottori, she discovers how some restaurants even discourage Indian groups because they carry their own pickles and sauces, a habit which offends most Japanese. The land of mouth-watering sushi, sashimi and mochi quite amusingly is also fond of fugu, the puffer fish, which is 1200 times more poisonous than cyanide! Curry is by far the most loved Indian food. But its Japanised version would hit Indian taste buds differently. The author details how Rash Behari Bose, the Indian nationalist settled in Japan and introduced authentic Indian curry in Nakamuraya café in Tokyo.
Historically, Japan and India share the common thread of Buddhism. The oldest documented Indian resident in Japan was Bodhisen, a monk from Madurai, who held a very exalted status as a Buddhist scholar in his days. He arrived in Osaka in AD 736, and moved to Nara. He taught Sanskrit and helped establish the Kegon school of Buddhism. Japanese Buddhist pantheon even absorbed several Hindu gods in its fold. Aiyar gives an interesting account of the shared culture of yore and also “not always salubrious” relationship during the colonial era. The latter period saw Indian luminaries like Subhash Chandra Bose, Vivekananda, P.C Mozzomdar and Rabindranath Tagore visit Japan, which deepened the connections between the two countries. But when it comes to doing business together, the practical jugaad-proud Indians and perfectionist shokunin-spirit driven Japanese find it difficult to cope up with this dichotomy. The book analyses it all with facts and engaging experiences. Anyone who has ever been to Japan will find the book extremely relatable and sincere.
Aiyar writes with enthusiasm of a traveler who has pitched her tent in foreign land to capture the richness of landscape in daily travels, with a keen eye, humour and honest penmanship. The read is indeed a rewarding journey towards “Orienting”!
Title: The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud
Author: Dom Moraes
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Travel books that I have read so far, broadly fall into two categories. One is investigative and the other is a spontaneous account of the author’s experience. If one is analytical, the other is immediate. It’s not necessary that the two styles can’t be combined. V.S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now(1990) is a good example of that: a mix of investigation of a place’s past and present through ordinary people’s lives combined with day-to-day travel details. Bill Bryson’s Travels in Small-Town America (1989) is about Bryson’s experience of visiting the towns of America with occasional dosage of nostalgia.
The Best of Travel Writingof Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud falls into the second category – a spontaneous account of events as seen by the author. However, where it’s different from travel books in general (and the ones mentioned above) is that it doesn’t stick to a singular theme. A collection of essays, some autobiographical, some reports, the book takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic journey spanning continents, lives and topics ranging from when the author takes his first steps into the world of writing as a child to the time he is a mature travelling journalist covering topics as diverse as Suharto’s rule in Indonesia to dacoits in India.
If you are familiar with Dom Moraes ((1938-2004) as a poet, novelist and columnist, you will not be surprised by the sheer finesse of writing you encounter as you move from one essay to another, although you may have your own favourites. Regarded as one of the giants of Indian English literature, Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize when he was just 20 followed by Sahitya Academy Award and a series of other literary awards in England, America and India.
The book starts with an introduction by Sarayu Srivastava recounting the last days of Moreas with detours to his past. The introduction has a morbid element to it, as did Moraes’s life. But, surprisingly, the morbid mood the introduction sets, vaporises in the pieces that follow.
The first two travel pieces are purely autobiographical. ‘His Father’s Son’ (1945) recollects the carefree childhood days of Dom Moraes in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where is father, a reporter with Times of India, was posted. There is a strong visual element to how the natural world of these places has been described. Anecdotes about a child – Moraes – discovering this natural world slowly almost reads like the formative pages of a novel. In ‘Figures in the Landscape’ (1955) Moraes is equally carefree, if a little awkward, going through a range of experiences, some writerly, others potentially amorous, in that global capital of arts, artists and sensuality, Paris.
But there is a tragic and frightening aspect to the pieces, too, which appears and retreats only to reappear as if to remind you that life is not just about gambolling. That aspect is the gradual mental deterioration of Dom Moreas’s mother who was given to violence. Her fits of violence form a recurrent theme until she leaves Ceylon and returns to Bombay to stay with her relatives. But even after she departs, her presence constantly lurks in the background. And when she does reappear, either actually or via recollection, the atmosphere of the essay instantly changes.
She, although absent from many other pieces in the collection, casts a shadow on her son such that some of the actions of the son, particularly his introverted and melancholic personality, seem to be coloured by his mother’s tragedy. One can sense in later essays where the author has grown up, how the derangement of the mother would have affected the son. That almost becomes a subterranean subtheme.
The following opening passage of ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ is a case in point.
“One recalled the oddest things: I remember a toy-shop in a Knightsbridge arcade where I used to go when very unhappy, during my first days in London, in order to buy small delicate glass toys which I later smashed, one by one, in the fireplace of my flat, with a malediction against anything beautiful.”
Moraes had a complex relationship with his mother. And in the essays that are a throwback to his childhood days, you meet a helpless child unable to make up his mind whether he loves his mother for who she is, or is indifferent to her — seeing her from a distance with a sense of fright and awe.
As the book progresses, the world of Moraes opens up further. ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ (1959) is about a sudden journey to Sikkim and surrounding places. There is a tension in the place that it’s abuzz with Chinese spies, and that China is engaged in incursions and military build-up in the Indian border states. The year is 1959 and developments are admittedly a precursor to the things to come in 1962. Written more than half a century ago, the essay reads disturbingly current. The essay’s narrative is much tauter, almost like a spy thriller, than the other essays.
Since the global brouhaha about climate change is not older than roughly a decade and half, we tend to locate all climate disasters to recent times, having settled into the belief that the past generations were coexisting with nature in peace and harmony. However, the subcontinent has always been home to extreme climate events going back to the 18th century.
“Geography as well as history has always been linked to East Pakistan.” When I read this sentence, the first sentence in ‘Death by Water’ (1970), I thought I was in for an account of the atrocities on the Hindu population of East Pakistan during that period but was surprised to find an extremely well-informed report on a cyclone which had hit the region in 1970. The sea level had risen to a great height creating a ‘water wall’, according to eyewitnesses, which had then crashed on the land raging inland with a monster force and then stopping and moving back into the sea. The next day when helicopters were sent to survey the damage, bodies of humans and cattle were found floating in the sea, river and crevices.
In ‘Dispatches from Indonesia’ (1972), Moraes visits a country under the tyrannical rule of General Suharto. The dictator had come to power seven years before his visit through a military coup, and immediately after, there was a crackdown on the intelligentsia. Some were executed and some sent to prison camps. Moraes travels to one such prison camp outside the city and meets two famous prisoners, Suprapto (Soeprapto), the former Attorney General, and Pramudja (Pramudya Ananta Tur), a famous writer. Their lives are a reflection of the losses and tragedies the critics of the regime suffered.
In ‘The Company of Dacoits’ (1981), Moraes withdraws from the world of dictators and devastating floods and enters the rugged terrain of dacoits. We meet Lajjaram, who is dead and whose body is being constantly mishandled by the police, and Lakshman Singh Rathore, alias Lachhi, an eighteen-year-old boy who was thrust into dacoity by his circumstances, first to seek help to avenge his father being deceived, and then to pay for the help received by becoming a fulltime bandit. The rest of the essay is about Lachhi trying to get himself acquitted of the crimes committed by other dacoits in his group.
Likewise, the other pieces also deal with human conditions in varied settings.
The essays are undoubtedly dated, but the subjects they deal with brim with recency: human disaster, tyrannical govt, national expansionism, inaccessibility of justice. Over a period of time, these subjects, of course, have acquired a new lexicon: territorial conflict, climate change, human right excesses and so on.
The collective time span of the pieces is almost 60 years. Dom Moraes’s gaze is that of a writer, rather than of a journalist, always looking out for human tragedies, helplessness and intricacies within bigger narratives of climate disaster, military coups and national conflicts.
Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India.
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On a bleak wintertide morning in January, our story begins with a black taxi and a somnolent rider. The taxi was racing through a maze of concrete towards the southern part of the city when out of the blue, the silhouette of a towering mountain appeared. With a large flock of wings dancing around its crest, the mountain looked surreal. One would naturally be stupefied to come across this elevation as Delhi is supposed to be flat as a pancake. As we closed in, my initial shock was instantly replaced by a strong sense of revulsion, for the mountain turned out to be a ginormous pile of rubbish. This reeking pile, I would later find out, is infamously known as the mountain of garbage.
The mountain is currently as tall as the majestic Taj Mahal, and would soon outgrow the mausoleum. On blazing summer days, spontaneous fires erupt from the methane released from the dump. Encircling its slope, is a small slum of rag-pickers. The local inhabitants who continually breathe in the putrid air often develop severe respiratory diseases, allergies, and asthma. Discarded tires at the dumpsite accumulate rain-water and transform into a haven for mosquitoes. This dump at Ghazipur was instated in 1984 and was to be closed in 2002 when it had reached its capacity, but evidently, that did not happen. The mountain and its ailing people sum up the out-and-out failure of the capital’s waste management system and its lack of operational efficiency.
On average, Delhi produces 10,000 tonnes of waste per day, and less than half of it gets segregated. About 50% of this waste is composed of organic materials, which for the most part comes from individual households. To treat this heap of organic waste, Delhi has only two operational composting and zero vermi-composting plants. The number of such facilities undoubtedly need to be increased. Although organic wastes account for a large fraction of the total waste, it imposes a lesser threat than other inorganic wastes such as plastic.
Plastic wastes make up just about 10% of the total municipal solid waste in Delhi, despite the current blanket-ban on 50-micron plastics. Three fourth of the household garbages are wrapped in single-use polythene bags, which eventually end up in landfill sites. Delhi currently generates the largest quantity of plastic waste in India, which is truthfully shameful. These plastics are practically impossible to segregate at the landfill sites due to the lack of advanced equipment. The only recycling presently being done is by the rag-pickers, who risk their lives to rummage through the rotten dumps and sell the collected plastics to intermediary dealers.
Other countries, however, have addressed this very problem by using advanced scientific methods. Commercially available sorting machines can easily classify the plastic wastes from other garbages, which uncomplicate the task of recycling. These machines employ basic spectroscopy and x-ray techniques to perform macro-sorting, which is far more efficient than manual sorting. Macro-sorting involves the separation of plastic bottles and containers, while micro-sorting deals with smaller bits, such as chopped plastic flakes. Thesink-float techniqueis one of the major methods used to perform micro-sorting; here the materials are deposited in a water-filled tank and subsequently, the lighter materials start to float while the heavy materials sink. This technique works only when the materials have different densities. The plastic wastes can also be used to fabricate usable products, such as hydrogen and carbon-nanotubes, by using a process called two-step pyrolysis. This process uses Ni-Fe (Nickel and Iron) as a catalyst under extreme temperatures, to produce high yields of hydrogen gas. This thermochemical method is remarkably energy-efficient and can be easily practiced to recycle our plastic wastes.
An alternative way to get rid of plastics is throughbioremediation. It involves the usage of different microorganisms, which can consume and degrade certain environmental pollutants. Last year, a paper published in the journal, Environmental Pollution has discovered an entirely new species of plastic-eating bacteria (Ji et al. Env. Pol.258, 113793; 2020). This bacteria, Mycobacterium neoaurum, is the first known bacteria identified to have the ability to degrade 2,6-DMP (2,6-dimethylphenol), which is a widely used plastic monomer. Consequently, M. neoaurum might prove to be a key candidate for the bioremediation of 2,6-DMP-contaminated areas.
Corresponding to this, another paper published in, Science of the Total Environment has unearthed a plastic-eating super worm in China (Yang et al. Sci Total Environ. 708, 135233; 2020) . The larvae of the worm, Zophobas atratus, was proven to be capable of degrading and mineralizing polystyrene. The worms were shown to survive near about a month on the Styrofoam diet alone. Each super worm was estimated to devour 0.58 mg Styrofoam per day, which is four times more than what mealworms can eat. These new findings can change the currents ways of recycling plastic but we have to bear in mind that these scientific methods can only be used when our waste is properly segregated and disposed of in the first place; if the biological wastes are mixed with inorganic wastes, then they become unusable for future use.
The present-day segregation and sorting happen under extremely hazardous conditions and its effectiveness is reasonably low as only valuable discards are segregated from the dumpsite which guarantees a comparatively greater economic benefit in the recycling market. So, it becomes our duty as civilized citizens to ensure that we sort our household trash at our homes and then only it will have a domino effect on the waste management process.
The mountain of garbage is not only a physical body, but it is a metaphor that can be applied to any city with poor garbage disposal facilities. Luckily for us, the final act is yet to be written, and only time will reveal that story.
Sayantan Sur is a doctoral fellow at the University of Delhi. He has published numerous scientific articles and has won 2019 AWSAR award for articulating best science story.
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Inclusiveness seeks to bridge gaps between peoples and places. Too often our parochial approach in life, leaves us alienated and estranged. But speaking of aliens … in the 2000’s it seems we are at last coming to the point in time where humans will begin to, if not live off world, then visit in greater numbers. Space travel? That’s truly borderless. How exciting to imagine traveling the universe and having our eyes opened to the immense possibilities of space!
Though the elites enjoy space travel, the question remains, will the human race en mass ever truly reach the stars and expand beyond Earth? With this in mind, I posit the following questions;
Is it viable?
Back in the 1950s there was a contagious worldwide fervour to go to space, fuelled by the fantasy of sci-fi writers and films that made this achievement seem imminent. Maybe after the two world wars and the fatigue of poverty contrasted with the hopefulness of better days ahead, we were finally able to dream. In a way, space travel has always been the purview of the dreamer. The Soviets launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. The competition and fear between America and the Soviet Union no doubt accelerated the development of space exploration during this time. Additionally, the cessation of world wars made this logistically more possible, and the knowledge gained from those wars was utilised to create space worthy ships. The race to get to space was a Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop their respective aerospace abilities and send satellites, space probes, and humans up into space. But the whole world was involved, with astronauts, scientists and researchers working together as much as they competed with each other.
In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered Earth’s orbit, in Vostok I, a space craft for one person, becoming the first man ‘in space’. In the 1960s, the US reached the moon (unless you believe that this was faked, in which case, film maker Stanley Kubrick made a faux film of reaching the moon, information on this can be found in the revealing documentary Room 237, by Rodney Ascher made in 2012!). If indeed the moon was reached, it seemed back then, this was just the beginning. There was a palpable obsession with the future. Technology that would get us to space gripped the United States and deeply influenced the cultural artefacts of the time. In 1955, Walt Disney paid consultants who worked on space-related projects to help him design the rocket ship rides of Disney’s Tomorrowland. Songs about space, art and fashion relating to space were all fascinations that beget the drive forward. Stanley Kubrick‘s film The Shining (1980) is supposed to have secret references to the faking of the lunar landing. Whether faked or real, the world believed humans landed on the moon and in a way that’s what counts most — perception.
Then wham! Our predictions of where we’d be by the 2000’s seemed vastly optimistic. For a plethora of reasons, not least, the sheer magnitude and cost of space travel. We were not riding on space elevators or darting around the universe by the 2000’s – so all those old shows predicting we’d be there by now, seemed to be just fantasy. Some people point to the Challenger explosion as the beginning of the end of American at least, space adventure. Cost, danger, the environment, many reasons can be ascribed but do not explain the extreme and total diminishment of interest. Once upon a time people pressed themselves to store fronts to watch old TV’s displaying live rocket takeoffs and now nobody seemed to care if America has abandoned her search for the stars. Was the interest just an epoch in time that has been replaced with other technologies and obsessions? How does this explain other countries who continue to fund and grow their space programmes? How can something as crucial as endeavouring to reach another world, be shelved in favour of the latest iPhone?
Astronauts have spoken out claiming the reason humans have only just returned to the lunar surface since 1973 (China just landed in 2020) isn’t based on science or technical challenges, but budget and political hurdles. This is easy to believe if you consider the American technology that landed them on the moon had less ‘tech’ than a modern-day scientific calculator. I remember going to Houston and seeing the original ‘space control’ and how tiny everything was and wondering how on earth they landed men on the moon and returned them safely. To advance that technology for further space exploration is both expensive, daunting and involves consistent agreement among politicians. Makes you wonder how it was ever made possible! The reason America funded the space race initially was because it was a point of pride (beating the Soviet Union) which as pathetic as that seems, seemed to gear up enough people to make it happen. Without that impetus, politics drowns the scientist and astronauts wish to advance space exploration.
The mother of invention isn’t just necessity, it’s also fantasy. Artists have long influenced inventors – think Star Trek and the low-tech ideas they had, which have been replicated more recently in flip-phones and video-chat. Sci-Fi writers and thinkers have influenced those who seek to go to space as much as anyone else. It could be argued there is no real delineation between fiction and reality in this case, owing to their mutual influence. If we could create a lunar base, scientists believe this base could evolve into a fuelling point for future further-flung missions into deep space. It could also lead to the creation of improved space telescopes and eventually enable us to live on Mars. We need to push ourselves to the next level of exploration – having relied upon ageing technologies that we have not funded sufficiently to advance. Now, billionaires like Elon Musk push for space tourism, rather than chronically underfunded agencies.
One of the biggest impediments, is how to pay and guarantee safety. NASA is under-funded and receives a tiny percentage of the overall US budget. Priorities go to the military and other immediate programs that are deemed more essential. Since this is political, it’s up to the public to generate an interest in space travel. Sadly, even when the Apollo program was at its greatest; after Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, only 53% of Americans said they thought the programme was worth the cost, according to a report in the Insider.With politicians changing too frequently to see through long-term investment space projects, this stymies those who believe space exploration should be prioritised. Buzz Aldrin has been strategising to get to Mars for over 30 years, as he lamented the lack of support space exploration receives. Aldrin and other experts agreed it must involve international cooperation: “A US-led coalition would include Europe, Russia, India, Japan and China, as well as emerging space nations the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Saudi Arabia,” Aldrin said in an article in The Gaurdian. “We can afford to go to Mars but we must have fiscal discipline. We must focus our limited resources on only those things that are really necessary to get to Mars. In my view, we are currently spending over $6bn on programs we do not need to get to Mars. We need reusability, every element of the system.”
It’s nearly 2022 and we’re still not there en mass or reaching further. We’re told it’s possible but technologically there are hurdles to overcome, not least the effect of long-term space travel on the human body, or the effects of uncontrolled radiation from the (belt) or the methods by which we fuel vessels for such long-haul trips. Space radiation is one of the greatest risks for astronauts. “Determining astronaut health consequences following radiation exposure involve very complex processes,” stated Tony Slaba, Ph.D., NASA research physicist in a government website. “It’s difficult to quantify exactly how radiation is interacting with tissues and cells – and more complicated to quantify and determine what long-term outcomes are going to be in terms of the potential diseases and biological system effects.”
And that’s without touching on putting people into statis or some kind of sleep. We have great ideas and history tells us great ideas eventually become reality, but it’s taken us longer than we anticipated back then. Technologies like magnetic and water shielding have only gone so far and need to be prioritised if we’re to live off-planet. Another real threat, alien microorganisms, prions or diseases humans have zero exposure or immunity to. If we imagine what Covid-19 has wrought, it’s easy to see why bringing ‘space-bugs’ back to earth or exposing astronauts to unknown elements, could be fatal. Finding unbreakable ways of protecting everyone will prevent the science fiction horror stories from coming true. But what’s more likely? Thinking about potential dangers being brought back to Earth, or the excitement of exploration?
What does it bring us if we achieve it?
The people who will benefit from space travel won’t be you and I. It will be the trillionaires who can fund projects and much like early explorers they will exploit natural resources and profit from them. Whether they find planets made of diamonds or copper or other expensive minerals it will be they with their reach, who like plantation and slave owners will come out on top. One can argue this is a replication of the exploitation of the Earth, and those people working for the giant industries. I would agree. Does this mean all space exploration is without value? There is always value to reaching further, but it generally comes at a cost and requires exploiting the masses by the few. Pluses could include sending people off world to ease the burden on the planet as we become overpopulated. We might be able to terra form, and create liveable planets that can sustain life, although predictions suggest this would take lifetimes. One idea has been generation ships; where ships are able to manufacture a way to self-generate power and travel for long distances and time. Those in the ship may live their entire lives onboard and it may be their children or grandchildren who reach the final destination. The idea of sacrifice always exists when considering far-flung exploration, and this was often the case when people got into little wooden boats centuries ago in quest of unknown continents.
Can we learn from the mistakes made by early explorers? Or will we repeat history because it’s our nature? If we cannot create planets that are self-sustaining then we rely upon earth to supply those planets with food and water etc. and that’s less sustainable than not going off world. Potentially if we could make this work, it would be years in the future, but might give the human race the opportunity to significantly grow due to increased resources. Without this, we are stymied by the resources of one planet, which we are using up rapidly. Whether it’s a good thing to increase the human race throughout a galaxy or universe, remains unknown. We could be viewed as cockroaches or explorers, that’s up to the interpreter and our choices should we become a race of space farers.
A 2018 Pew Research Center poll showed the tide is turning, with the majority of voters saying NASA space exploration is necessary but majority want the skies scanned for killer asteroids. Maybe the way we get to space will change, in that we have to think of modern day, pragmatic methods of funding space travel, even if its in the guise of space tourism or tagging on the back of projects to protect the planet against killer asteroids. Maybe it will take another tragedy like an asteroid hitting the Earth to advance our current knowledge, as this seems to be the only way humans operate. We are less inclined to prevent disaster as to respond to it. Sadly, if the environment continues to be eroded, we may have no choice but to seek off-world options, and we don’t want to leave that option till it is too late to act. With dramatic weather pattern changes throughout the world, it’s never been more essential to protect Earth but we’ve not doing a very good job if the oceans and air pollution are anything to go by.
What are the potential down-sides?
It isn’t possible to talk about this without considering the many side-effects of space travel. Many I’ve already touched on but it’s worth really to reconsider history which has shown the penchant of humans to dominate and disrespect other cultures. Humans often consider themselves the ultimate alpha, the top dog, but in truth they could be replaced tomorrow depending on weather and climate and natural disasters, just as the dinosaurs were. We shouldn’t let our hubris make us forget our responsibility to our planet. Some argue space travel is a waste of resources and money because it’s looking beyond us rather than at what we already have. Shouldn’t we be fixing our home-grown problems before we focus on the skies? Others say we should look at the ocean before we consider space. Home grown issues include the devastation human beings have wrought on Earth, which most of us are familiar with.
Given we are reckless with our inventions. They benefit us but not necessarily the natural world around us. Is it any wonder to guess why expanding the human race can be a matter of concern? I’m not one who believes humans are the apex and that we are entitled to be. I predict one day we’ll give up our throne. But there’s the other side of me filled with the wonder of imagining what is out there. I mean, if space is infinite, which they have agreed upon, that means it never ends, a concept few of us can even understand or relate to. Imagine? Infinity. What does that even mean? When we humans begin-middle-end and everything around us does the same. It’s the true sense of forever, something larger than we will ever be. I’m filled with a fascination for a universe that doesn’t end, how do I wrap my head around that and comprehend the myriad possibilities this entails!
What I do know is if something never ends there literally are eternal possibilities meaning every possible eventuality must occur, because of the law of replication. There are only a certain number of creations that come from a universe containing certain components and those creations if given affinity, will reproduce in varied forms, but also replicate. I think this is where the concept of parallel universes comes from. Rather than a literal slice in time dividing one notion of reality from another similar but not the same version of reality. A universe that has no end, will eventually ‘play out’ every scenario, a little like you could crack any code if you had long enough to go through the permeations – but we don’t have time, so we don’t do that. The universe, however, does have time, infinite, so all that can be created will be, and all that has been created (including us) will be created (again) in shades of similarity. This I believe is where we get the concept of a parallel universe, although that’s not quite what it is.
If we add to this the concept of space and time, how time is not a set notion but rather, a perception based on humanity, the same goes for our understanding of the material world. In other words, we’re limited by our own physical presence and lifespan in our understanding of what is beyond us. For those like Steven Hawkins or Ashwin Vasavada (Project Scientist for NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity, in charge of a team of 500 researchers), they can see beyond what is literal and imagine like any great thinker, beyond what we know and assume, and extrapolate. This extrapolation includes quantum physics and the breaking away from normal modes of thinking to include things we’re only beginning to understand.
If time is not mutable, if concepts of reality really don’t exist as we assumed they did, then it throws everything into question. Is what we perceive as reality even remotely real? Or just a flawed, human-centric bias? And if the latter, the universe’s secrets are closed to the limitations of our minds? This is why some who have taken psychedelic drugs have said, sometimes the doorways of perception (Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, written about his experiences with mescaline in May 1953) must be opened differently. Huxley was in turn influenced by the poet William Blake who wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Science, logic, mathematics, will probably provide us with many answers but in order for us, as sentient but limited-sentient beings, to evolve perceptively, we may need a further key to elucidate things beyond subjective perception. Some evaluation of psychedelic drugs as facilitators of mystical insight with great potential benefits for science could be that missing link.
Having read a great deal of science fiction, I wonder if I would think like this had the ideas not been implanted by some of those great science fiction tomes and operas. I suspect we build on what we learn, so nothing is entirely original, but in building on others, we may come closer to answers than if we operated in a vacuum. This is also true with making science fiction a reality. But just as our urge is to explore, we should be mindful of past mistakes as a race (human) and not repeat the colonialist model that only caused pain. Otherwise, life could be no more than a petri dish with us experimenter or experimented upon. There is more to life than conquer or absolute knowledge. There is the humility of experience and growing from it, which is something we often diminish. Perhaps spirituality and hard science are not after all, so incompatible.
Will it actually happen?
The development of nuclear-thermic powered propulsion systems to enable long-haul space-flight is essential to reduce crews journey time and make travel to Mars and beyond realistic. Heat shields to ensure landing is safer on unknown planets, would cut down on landing fatalities. Next generation space suits that are flexible and livable would allow explorers to spend more time in their suits than the suits of old that were not invented for long term use. There would also need to be a nuclear fusion style power system that enabled those landing on planets, to tap into power whilst on planet, and not fear running out. Radio systems used currently, can take up to nine years to send transmissions from say, Mars to Earth, so the development of technology like lasers to send information and communications rapidly would be essential. Scientists like Sharmila Bhattacharya (Director of Research in the Biomodel Performance Laboratory of the Space Bio-sciences Division, NASA) are spending decades researching the effects of the human body in space to understand how to survive, even thrive in space.
I’d love to think our progeny will reach space in a way we have yet to. Why? Because there is something fantastic about imagining us getting off-world and exploring. I think human beings are innately curious but like cats, their curiosity can be destructive. I would like a more utopian future, where we learn from prior mistakes and if we do reach space, we do so ethically. I don’t know if that’s possible, but anything less will be just another belching coal mine, suffocating those who work in it and those who live around it and that is not a dream I share.
Why is going to space so bewitching when we have unexplored oceans that we’re contaminating rather than exploring (Eight million metric tons: That’s how much plastic we dump into the oceans each year. That’s about 17.6 billion pounds — or the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales — every single year. By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.). Without the ocean, the planet dies Is space travel selfish when starving people here on Earth need immediate help rather than pouring money into space flights that are at this time, only for the privileged? I think we all share a bigger dream of being ‘more’ than simply Earthlings. If a God exists maybe they don’t want us to go beyond these confines, or maybe they do. If a God doesn’t exist, then it seems obvious we’d want to go as far as we could, because again, this is our nature. It’s how we do it. And if we do it because we’ve ruined this planet, that’s a pretty good determinant that we’re going to make the same mistakes in space.
Finally, is it necessary?
This is perhaps the most important question because we do a lot of things that are not strictly speaking necessary. Ever noticed how when someone gets money, they spend a lot of it on ‘unnecessary’ things? Why don’t some of these uber-rich people put money into worthy causes with the same intensity as frivolous? Why do those with money often need more? Why is the accumulation of material gain, so addictive? All this relates to a bigger question, a moral question. What is necessary versus what is not? For a rich person they go well beyond what is necessary in an ordinary sense because their wealth gives them more opportunity. Interestingly those who win the lottery are often said to be less happy after winning than before. Perhaps money is a double-edged sword. There is something to be said for adversity and earning our own way in the world, and a realistic measure. A bit like when you spoil and ruin a child because you indulged them and they no longer have a sense of the true worth of things.
We are very entitled when we get into those vaunted positions and perhaps things we think are necessary, are not. So how do we decide? Is it right for us to be a moral judge and tell others their dreams and excesses are not allowed? Realistically we could never control excess, so it’s not an option. There will always be people who live on different levels and have excesses the ordinary person cannot imagine. Those people may use up the resources we have to share, in greater quantity, which is bad. Or they may inadvertently propel our collective aspirations further. By having some of us who are capable of making dreams come true, the rest of us are swept along by the excess and the dream. In this sense, dreams are necessary, as they give us all something to aspire to, even if we may not literally be the one possessing the outcome of the dream.
I think it is necessary to have aspiration and fanciful dreams that aren’t strictly speaking practical or entirely pragmatic. Sometimes we just want to dream bigger than we are, because we know we are all going to die eventually, and we want something astounding. For some of us this may be God, for others it may be space (or it may be both). Without this, we revert back to the star gazers of the past, who probably also hoped their progeny would reach those stars but didn’t have the means to make it come true themselves. If you have the means, maybe you should use them, just as if you have the ability to invent and conceptualise, you do so. Maybe it’s an intrinsic collective wish that we should not neglect, by being entirely sensible. Maybe we won’t save the planet by aiming for the stars, but we might find a little magic.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.