“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.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
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.
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;—
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie...
-- Travel, RL Stevenson (1850-1894)
December is often a time when we look forward to a vacation and travel. Through the pandemic ravaged years, moving out of the house itself had become a challenge. Now as the world opens up slowly (hopefully the Omicron variant of the virus will be more benign), travel stretches its limbs to awaken to a new day with new trends and rules. Borderless invites you to savour of writing that takes you around the world with backpackers, travellers, hikers, sailors and pirates — fantastical, imaginary or real planned ones in a post-pandemic world. Enjoy!
Do you enjoy babysitting nieces, nephews on trips and have you ever traveled with ‘hundreds of pieces of luggage, a few coolies, five women and only one man’? Tagore did. Somdatta Mandal translates hilarious writings from young Tagore on travel. Click here to read.
Travel through Bengal with Shorodhoni, a woman dubbed a ‘Daini’ or witch, in her quest to find a home in Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of Tarasankar Bandhopadhyay’s poignant story. Click here to read.
“Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere.” That is what Ratnottama Sengupta concludes as she vicariously travels through the famed route from the past. Click here to read.
She paints. She writes. And she has lived through history. She was born in a country that no longer exists. The borders changed with movements of history. In South Africa in the late 80’s, early 90’s she ran a Nursery School attached to the local Primary School for whites. She lived through Nelson Mandela’s movement. As laws changed she admitted the first black child into the school in 1993. She writes of celebrating the first democratic elections in South Africa: “I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid.” She lived through it all and soared out to explore more…
Sybil Pretious is a woman who has travelled through life with an élan for assimilating the best in all cultures she has lived in, and she has lived in many. She has lived in six countries and travelled to forty. I met her in China, where she was teaching in an international school. She was like a beam of sunshine. She retired and left. Then we met virtually in a world devoid of borders. While she wrote of her travels from China, the part of her life where she lived through incidents we only read of in history remained silent. That is what we set out to explore in this interview. At an age where others retire and complain of aches and pains, she is writing a biography of her mother and looks forward to traveling, painting, and writing more. Now, this traveller in time, with a heart full of compassion, calls herself a South African, lives in United Kingdom and unfolds for us the story of her life.
Tell us about your childhood in South Africa.
My childhood was never spent in South Africa. The first 23 years of my life were spent in Southern Rhodesia/ Rhodesia. Rhodesia joined Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as the Federation – 1953-1963). Rhodesia declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) from Britain in 1965. This lasted for 13 years and in 1980 after much conflict Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
Only now, when I look back do I realise how much of an influence my childhood had on my passage through life.
Rhodesia, part of the British empire, a land-locked country almost in the centre of Africa, was first colonised by the BSA Company (British South Africa Company) lead by Cecil Rhodes in 1890 when mineral rights were granted by the chief, Lobengula. The country was named after Rhodes. It had a perfect climate and was known as ‘The Breadbasket of Africa’ for the high-quality food crops the farmers produced. Sadly, now, there are many people who do not have enough to eat in the country.
My parents met and married in in 1934. My dad was born in Rhodesia in 1901. His father had been one of the early pioneers in the 1890’s. My mother travelled from Kimberley in South Africa where she was born, to Rhodesia in 1926.
My dad refused to go to university because his father would not allow him to study Mine Engineering. My mother had little education because she was so involved with helping her mother with her six siblings.
I was born in 1942. Fortunately, my father was too old to enlist for World War II. I arrived six years after my elder brother and sister and my arrival was greeted with joy. I was the centre of attention and loved it, generally revelling in the light shining on me and responding to it. From then on, I tried to please everyone. I was not enamoured when two-and-a-half years after my birth my younger sister made an appearance followed a year after that by my younger brother. Of necessity they became the focus of attention, and I became more of a loner and learnt to enjoy my own company.
My father had a great love of the outdoors, prospecting, and mining for gold. Mum grew to love the peace of the veld in his company. During my parents’ first few years of marriage, they moved often as gold reefs ran out. They also farmed during this period. Eventually when they settled in the capital, Salisbury, and made their money by purchasing land, building a house, living in it for a short while before selling it and moving on to the next project.
This made for a rather interrupted childhood where we changed homes and schools often. I attended four different schools in the first four years of my schooling. When I finally had some settled years in a Primary School, I did well. I was the star of the family, but it put a lot of pressure on me to perform.
As children we found it difficult to make and keep friends, but this constant change equipped us for adapting to many different situations. My elder sister insisted on going to Boarding School just so that she could make friends and I think get away from her three younger siblings.
With the wonderful climate in Rhodesia, I spent much of my free time during childhood out of doors. We had one-acre gardens that were generally virgin veld. They provided many opportunities to explore, invent games, problem solve, and use our imaginations.
I loved going to the library in Salisbury and taking out many books, especially adventure stories and visualised myself in the roles of the characters. I created imaginary people and used the natural world to feature in my make-believe stories. Although we were always moving, there was no lack of childhood company as our cousins lived close by. But of course, they were not the same as friends.
Our holidays were spent mainly in Rhodesia, camping in the Eastern Highlands. I loved camping and still do even at my age. On occasion we travelled to Natal in South Africa or Beira in Mozambique for seaside holidays. In our teens we went in friend’s cars on wonderful picnics to dams where we swam and water-skied. We visited the beautiful outdoor places with names like ‘Mermaid’s Pool’ and Sinoia Caves with its mysterious bottomless pool. We scrambled over rocks and climbed hills and had parties on friends’ farms. It was generally a carefree existence in the open air.
My contact with Africans was mainly when we lived on farms. I enjoyed sitting in the dust with a few of the children and pretending to ‘teach’ them. I had a small blackboard, and I would write a word and say it and they had to repeat it and copy in the sand. I used fingers to indicate numbers and showed them how to count (though I am sure they could do that in their own language). They did not attend our schools and we rarely saw the children or mothers in towns. The African men worked as servants in our homes.
Did you often visit other countries during your childhood?
The only other countries I visited during childhood were South Africa and Mozambique for holidays. I loved reading about other countries and was always fascinated the by different peoples, climates, and lifestyles.
Can you recall a memorable event?
The most memorable day in the whole of my time in Africa must be the day of the first democratic elections in South Africa on 27th April 1994.
On that day I remember rising early, stowing a water bottle, some sandwiches and fruit in my backpack. The closest polling station was not far from where I lived so I walked. It was a beautiful day. Clear sky, warm sun (though that proved to be hot after many hours of standing). My husband had decided to go later. I was astonished at the long queues that had formed – some literally miles long. I approached and found myself standing behind two Africans and Indian lady. We all greeted each other warmly clasping two hands together and greeting in our own languages. Later as the time wore on in the heat I shared my water, fruit and sandwiches. Our discussions were general – the weather, our families, where we had come from and how glad we were to be there at this historic time. They had all travelled further than I had but there was no grumbling as we stood patiently.
There was an air of calm euphoria.
I felt ecstatic. I realised that it was not only the Africans who had been freed to be equal citizens, but I felt free too. I had been released from the enormous guilt and helplessness that had been part of daily living during apartheid. We could only treat the people in our employ with sympathy and fairness, but the rules of apartheid shackled our relationships. It was a day of hope for everyone chatting, showing kindness, laughter and waiting patiently to vote.
There was not one adverse incident throughout the country and foreign journalists were disappointed that violence had not broken out. This day was the greatest example of forgiveness and acceptance that I have ever witnessed. I feel privileged and blessed to have been there.
You are writing your mother’s memoirs tell us about it.
My mother was born in 1904 and lived until 2001. At sixteen, she was the eldest of seven siblings in Kimberly, South Africa, when her mother was tragically killed in a shooting accident which involved her brother. When her father remarried, she felt rejected and left to stay with a friend. With little knowledge except of cooking and shopping for her mother she took on the job of manageress of a bakery and improved her education by reading the newspaper to her friend’s blind father and writing letters for him.
Eventually she decided to relocate to the newly annexed colony of Southern Rhodesia. The story records her many personal challenges in this pioneering country – some sad, some hair raising, some very amusing and others poignant. When she married my father, their resourcefulness was tested to the limit with five children to raise. She is an example of courage, inventiveness, creativity, love and sheer grit in pioneering times. It encompasses family life in a fledgling country.
I want my children and grandchildren to know about their roots so that they may be as fearless and resourceful as my mother was in very testing circumstances.
Why did you write about your mother specifically?
I wrote about my mother because the first sixteen years of her life were very demanding as she helped her mother with her six siblings at home while missing school. The death of her mother left her without a purpose in life as the family was dispersed.
She is a shining example of getting on with life no matter the circumstances. Subsequently with her marriage the story includes my father. They have both been inspirational in different ways. My mother for her love, steely determination and creative thinking, my father for his quiet, never-ceasing support of her and us.
My mother, despite her poor schooling manged a bakery, worked in a department store, designed the houses they built, helped build them and was there for her children. She never hired any help to look after us. She was thrifty, made all our clothes and was a tower of strength in our family as well as being adored by her siblings.
She remains the most positive person I have ever known despite having no help with getting over the death of her mother. Her influence on my outlook in life is tremendous and while the story is mainly hers, it honours both of my parents.
How many countries have you lived in? Tell us a bit aboutwhy you moved.
I have lived in six countries but travelled to about forty. My home country is of course Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
I travelled to UK age 23 and lived here for a year working and travelling.
When I married in 1967 my husband was from Swaziland, so we lived this beautiful mountainous country for three years. Our first precious daughter was born there.
We moved to South Africa in 1971 and lived mainly in Durban and Johannesburg in the next 30 years. Our precious two younger daughters were born in Durban. This was during the apartheid years. In 1988, we bought a trading store in the rural cane farming area out of Durban and with no experience plunged into that way of life. Our customers were mainly Zulu farm workers. During that time, I started a Pre-School and admitted the first African child. These were the years leading up to the first democratic election and there were many tumultuous incidents during that time. Our venture failed and we returned to Johannesburg to recoup our losses.
While I was teaching, I studied for my BA by correspondence, and did a Remedial Teaching qualification.
In 2003, I obtained a teaching post at an International School in Maputo, Mozambique, commuting back to Durban during the holidays. After two years, I realised that I needed to be on my own and in 2005 our divorce went through.
In 2006, I secured a teaching post at an international school in Suzhou, China. I spent the next six years in this fascinating country. This was a really special time in my teaching career and life and fuelled my passion for travel. Precious people in a spectacular country, they will always remain dear to me. In 2012, I had no choice but to retire at age 70.
I have not taught since moving to the UK but have enjoyed the history, walking in gentle countryside, painting, singing in a choir, Circle Dancing and of course writing. This has been a beautiful retirement.
Which country has been the most memorable and why?
Many people ask me which is the best country I have ever been to or lived in. My answer is simple:
“The best country in the world is wherever I am.”
Of course, no one is satisfied with that answer even though it is perfectly true. I look for the best in each country I go to and tell the people I meet.
I generally find that it is then very easy to settle into a new place.
If I was forced to choose a country, my home country would be the one – wonderful people, perfect climate and terrain and a relaxed lifestyle.
What has been your learning from all your travels?
I have learnt that there is no substitute for my own very special daughters. While on my travels they and their families were so often in my thoughts, and I have learnt that sacrifices are made when you are away from your family.
I have learnt to welcome differences instead of looking for similarities in cultures.
I have learnt that you need not speak a language to communicate. Communication comes in many forms.
I have learnt to go with the unexpected as wonderful surprises often ensue.
I have learnt that the way in which you approach people is usually what will be returned to you.
I have learnt that this world of ours is infinitely beautiful in so many different ways.
I have learnt that we need to take better care of our precious planet.
I have learnt to take risks and not to fear the unknown.
And I have learnt to appreciate and understand differences and similarities in countries and peoples.
How did you get impacted by the pandemic? How did you tackle it?
I did not weather the pandemic very well during the first lockdown in 2020. In 2019, I had just moved into a new complex, gone through winter, then spent a month in South Africa with my family so had little time to meet people and settle in. I returned to UK the day that lockdown started. My youngest daughter and family lived fairly close, but I was unable to see much of them.
I am usually positive in most situations, but my mind appeared to lockdown during this time.
I gave up painting, playing the ukulele and at times writing during those months. I cleared out a lot of stuff that I didn’t really need so that was good, but it was a very frustrating time for me as I was considered too old to volunteer for anything. I didn’t consider myself vulnerable and resented being told what was supposedly ‘good for me’. By the time the second lock down came in 2021, I had inherited my granddaughter’s little dachshund called Hope. She has indeed brought hope and joy to my life. And now that we are almost back to normal, I seem to be re-igniting my creativity.
Do you see any commonality among people across different cultures and in different places?
People are people throughout the world. Unfortunately, borders are created by governments. Wherever I have travelled my reception has always been generous and helpful. People are curious and show exceptional interest in the differences between our cultures. Laughter often follows explanations. I have been asked to give a speech at a Chinese wedding and had toasts in my honour. I have slept on beds with bamboo pillows and climbed mountains with local people. I feel blessed for the acceptance I have experienced.
Travelling without expecting other cultures to mimic your own; expecting and experiencing exciting and interesting differences is the most gratifying point of travel. I have been privileged to be accepted into the homes of local people in many countries which is why I like to travel on my own or perhaps with one other. The real joy of travel and culture is to be found in local places with local people, not in hotels and on organised tours.
Generally, a Westerner shouldn’t try to dabble in writing about Indian great men because it’s that kind of appropriate-ism that caused so much misunderstanding and damage to begin with. The idea the West had all the answers, which clearly it does not. The idea someone whose country used to be a colonialist-force, had the right anymore to discuss countries that were colonized, can smack deeply of appropriate-ism or worse. However, there are also ways we can appreciate what we know and transmit that without being patronizing or culturally insensitive.
I choose to consider Gandhi and his impact on the world, to remain in the middle ground. Neither applauding Gandhi without reservation, nor ignoring his incredible impact and influence on India and beyond. I don’t always do this, in the case of someone like Woody Allen or Charles Bukowski (hardly comparable) I cut them off immediately because despite being talented, their talent simply doesn’t measure against the harm they caused. With someone like Friedrich Nietzsche I would say, he has some brilliant perspectives, but his over-all views were too harmful for me to support him. Revisionist thinking is necessary, but sometimes like anything else, it can go too far and condemn significant people based on modern thinking that doesn’t take into account the mores of the time.
One of the hardest things in the world is when your heroes appear to fall. But in this case, there is so much positive about Gandhi I believe (and this is a personal belief), that his goodness encourages us to retain his relevance and enduring impact.
Firstly, Satyagraha – belief in using truth to resist evils with non-violence. Not the same as simply ‘truth’ or ‘verité’ as I would say in French. But more the ideal of believing in truth rather than being deceived or unable to believe. This is not just valuing truth, but believing in truth and thus, through that belief, knowing what is true (and reasonably, what is not).
I find this very interesting because whilst we all ‘think’ we know truth, obviously most of us do not. When does opinion and truth come together? Really holding an opinion has nothing to do with truth but with multiple versions of truth, how do we ever know which one is right? This is a discussion I have had many times in my life with friends of differing views. For a time, I wanted to be a Christian because I needed to believe in something and so many whom I knew were Christian would try to persuade me that was the ‘right’ (true) path. I was not convinced, despite my own attempts to be and it did not strike me as ‘truthful’ or ‘the truth.’ But the question is if people ‘doubt’ another’s truth then where does that end up?
I think of what Gandhi might have said; that truth is beyond conjecture, difference and trying to be ‘right’ the truth is there all along, it is immutable, transformative and fluid at the same time. And by truth he is not speaking purely of a particular faith, or a particular creed, but a universal truth. That is pretty esoteric for Westerners, I think overall Western thinking is prescribed, it feels comfortable having absolutes to follow and only demurs when it’s considered socially ‘trendy’ to disagree. While there may appear to be diverse thinking in the West, I would say it’s no more diverse than closed societies like China, the propaganda is just less obvious. After all, it’s not a societal dictate that has people unquestioning, it’s the mandate of the individual which links with the concept of Swaraj – self-rule which ultimately led to home rule, the idea that led to an independent India.
If I think of his ideals today, how many of us believe in truth by considering how this lies within us and then without us. Isn’t it more common for us to be spoon fed a ‘truism’ from our respective societies, and even if we question that truth, we do so with groupthink, subscribing to a ‘truth’ without considering what believing in truth means in relation to ultimate truth? Thus, without individual self-policing (or by proxy, the questioning of something outside ourselves) and perhaps by being so busy, we take the easy road because to question everything can be an exhausting enterprise, and as Marx would say, we’re distracted by how busy we are in the machine of work. Leading to at times, mass delusion, or mass indifference, but definitely not an understanding or questioning of how to cultivate a belief in truth.
In fact, how important is truth to us? We bandy around the words, paying lip service to the idea, but without going further to consider the idea at a more personal and then social level. Truly believing in truth would be almost like letting go of everything and beginning over (as one could say Gandhi did) and as you rebuild, doing so with belief in truth in a pure sense of the word. I believe in truth and therefore reject attempts of subterfuge in favour of increasing my belief in the existence of truth. In many ways this is like believing in God without it becoming all about the details (scripture, deity, icons etc). It seems to have a lot in common with the pure heart of Buddhism too,
This leads to another principal of Gandhi’s — simplicity. Simplicity of an idea clears the clutter to reach at the truth. That simple. Practice simplicity and you will see more clearly. How many of us truly practice simplicity? I may try, but I fail, as most of us do, with this increasingly complicated pull and push of modern society, where I might rail against absurdities because I’ve been sucked into thinking they matter. Maybe some of us don’t have the luxury of opting out and going back to basics, maybe our lives are too interwoven with an unnecessarily complicated society that ‘demands’ we brush our hair, shine our shoes, iron our clothes, wipe our faces and face the world a certain way.
The perennial question has always been: is this the only way to live? And as we lose more and more of our simplicity, we may no longer care about other options, in favour of following the status quo. Furthermore, we may believe a complicated life with stress and demands, is the only way we can live, the only way things can work. I would think Gandhi could see, by giving things up, you gain more than by taking on more, and whilst his message may seem inapplicable to many, we can all learn something by doing less, wanting less, needing less.
After all, we cannot take what we accumulate with us, so the ideals of physical wealth seem less important than spiritual health. Many of us may brag about the car we drive, the house or neighborhood we live in, where our kids go to school or university, what they do for a living and so it goes on. Even in India, this is true, as the upper and middle classes seek to emulate what they have seen dominate the rest of the world and define themselves by those status markers that mean so much (and conversely, may mean so little). It is easy to get caught up in it.
I was never an acolyte of the materialistic world, but like most people, I had my insecurities and wanted to jump through few hoops that I felt defined you as a success in society. When I became sick, it really showed me in a shocking way, how little those things mattered. I recall one day in hospital, my hair matted from throwing up, I just reached for my ponytail and cut half of it off. I had always been vain of my hair as it was thick and long and yet, it felt absurd to hold onto something for vanities sake when I was so sick and bereft of any normalcy. Likewise, when I went out into the common area of the hospital, I saw people sicker than me, and as we talked, I saw they were friendly irrespective of my not wearing make-up, or shoes (!) and in a gown with a green face. They saw ‘me’ and it felt like being a child again, liked for being ‘me’ instead of the ‘me’ I had become used to showing the world which was a counterfeit version. This principle then applies also to the notion of truth, and self-policing. Without an inflexible doctrine like religions, Gandhi’s philosophy was free to consider the whole rather than the individual steps toward being whole.
9/11 has just passed here in America my adopted country, and at its 20-year anniversary there has been much made of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country America invaded after 9/11 for sheltering the terrorists who were involved in the murder of so many people. Whether you are a Democrat, or Republican, many Americans believed someone had to pay for the atrocities committed on American soil. I recall at the time understanding both perspectives: the felt need for revenge or justice, and also, the need to lean towards understanding the how and the why of the incident to prevent it from recurring again.
When America withdrew from its longest and unsuccessful war against the Taliban, only to find the Taliban and Isis took over Afghanistan as if America had never been there, it did strike many as being a truly futile war (and we can argue, all wars are futile to some degree). How blatant was the takeover of a country America had wrongly thought was tamed from its former ‘enemies’. Over time, it had just felt a lot like other wars (Vietnam etc.) where so much death, destruction and expense wrought no change, certainly not as Americans had visualised. Furthermore, did the taxpayer really want to leave behind US$ 2.26 trillion of their hard-earned money to equip Afghanistan? Yet that is exactly what happened along with the providing a free access to the very latest technology in the abandoned US embassy.
Why doesn’t America learn this lesson? That going to war doesn’t really change the ideology of an invaded country, that small bandit terror cells continue to thrive and even increase, because the promotion of American ideals isn’t always universal or accepted, and promoting them whilst invading a country, breeds as much resentment as it does thankfulness. By this I am not suggesting everything America did was negative, they truly tried to help the Afghani people, but at what cost? And did it work? I would say it did not. That’s perhaps because it is not the role of any one nation to police another or dictate to another.
But what do you do if you are a military person, and your country is attacked? It’s hard to imagine sitting there and debating how to have a non-violent discussion with the enemy. Yet that is exactly what Gandhi is most famous for. Satyagraha may seem a very outdated term, or it may appeal as a modern notion, either way it’s so laden with symbolism we hardly understand its core anymore. On the one hand, there is the Old-Testament idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ and then as Gandhi followed ‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind’.
Personally, I find truth in both, maybe truth can have a duality or not be as black and white as we often want it to be, but either way, non-violence is erasing the option for any kind of vengeance or payback, not an easy thing to accomplish when your enemy is being deeply unfair, as was the case with Gandhi watching the treatment of Indians in South Africa and then again with the colonial invading forces of the British in India. Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, where he campaigned for the rights of indentured labourers in South Africa and protested against the system of requiring passes for Indians. Gandhi went on to organise the local Indian community, of all income brackets, into a passive resistance against this inequality. With these early eye-openers, Gandhi began his first experiences of community building into protest, utilizing peaceful means, against entrenched inequality and racism.
But every situation is different and 9/11 did not happen out of the blue, it came about as a result of decades of fighting between Christian and Muslim extremists on both sides. It also came about because the West wanted the Muslim world to accept some things, they found unacceptable. When asked why he caused the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden said because Saudi Arabia, his homeland, was in bed with America in going after Saddam Husain and others in Iraq. Why did he find this so offensive? In part because he didn’t like American military in his country, especially women soldiers. His brand of extremist Islam did not believe women equal to men and found that an abomination.
What is ironic about this extremist thinking, which can be found in all faiths, is how hypocritical those who believe it seem to be. All the terrorists who came to America to attack on 9/11 visited brothels and took full advantage of the Western ‘evils’ they preached against. They would argue that they had no respect for those people because they were ‘evil’ – in essence justifying their behavior based on a greater sin. But who are we to dictate who is more ‘sinful’ than another, and surely, if we believe in truth, we don’t break it when tempted by the very thing we condemn? Going back to Gandhi’s ideal of belief in truth, one who does, would not be hypocritical.
Yet so many humans are. Some people who condemn homosexuals have secretly practiced homosexuality. People who condemn women might be profiting from their exploitation. Those kinds of hypocrites negate the truth of their original argument. If we simplify the argument, we have no legs to stand on. Oppression of others goes against all religions but is practiced by all religions. I think Gandhi saw this palpably and was trying to redirect us to see how absurd this was. And what greater way than to practice non-violence against a violent oppressor? It literally was an act of faith, and incorporated belief in truth, and political self-policing. Is this not the ultimate reality? ‘Ahimsa’ isn’t just ‘non-violence’ because no one principle exists in isolation from ‘other’ in this case, love. Without love there is no mercy, there is no wish for non-violence. It is the connection between the intension and the outcome that produces Gandhi’s ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violence).
If all life is one, then all violence perpetrated against self or other is experienced as a whole, the welfare of human beings at the core. The very opposite of the competitive consumerism of Capitalism, which America is known for. And with this, Gandhi predicted the future, a practical need to eat less meat, (vegetarianism) or to respect life (by not consuming animals or exposing animals to suffering) relating back to the idea all living things are connected. I recall as a child being deeply impressed with this concept and it was one reason I myself became a vegetarian at a very young age. To many in the West, vegetarianism is considered the purview of the privileged, and I now understand that, because if you live a very simple life, it’s often very hard to be vegetarian and consume enough calories. To an extent, being vegetarian is abstinence. Many people with eating disorders become vegetarian or vegan as a form of orthorexia. Many middle-class kids have the ‘fad’ of vegetarianism. But the core behind Gandhi’s form vegetarianism or veganism is more in line with Hindu/Buddhist perspectives of respecting living things and causing no suffering.
The hardest principle of Gandhism I have encountered is faith. For some, this is the easiest as they already possess faith, as Gandhi did. He said: “I must confess that the observance of the law of continence is impossible without a living faith in God, which is living Truth. It is the fashion nowadays to dismiss God altogether and insist on the possibility of reaching the highest kind of life without the necessity of a living faith in a living God. I must confess my inability to drive the truth of the law home to those who have no faith in and no need for a Power infinitely higher than themselves. My own experience has led me to the knowledge that fullest life is impossible without an immovable belief in a living law in obedience to which the whole universe moves.”But unlike the shaming faith separating gender and men and women, Gandhi didn’t impose those divisions: “It is not woman whose touch defiles man, but he is often himself too impure to touch her ……” As a woman who disliked the inferior status given women in most mainstream religions, I found Gandhi’s perspective on this, refreshing and egalitarian. I cannot speak on faith as I do not possess it adequately, but I can see its place in Gandhi’s principles and understand it didn’t come to him all at once, but through the experience in part of the other values he lived with. They built into on one another and are interconnected.
Gandhi’s belief included celibacy. “Brahmacharya … means control in thought, word and action, of all the senses at all times and in all places.” The conclusion in some ways to the fulfilment of all the other principles. Those who find ways to condemn Gandhi, point to the potential for scandal by Gandhi’s relationship with Sarla Devi Chaudharani, daughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s elder sister owing to materials where Gandhi called Sarla Devi his ‘spiritual wife’. Yet in Gandhi’s letters to his friends, Gandhi explained that he called Sarla Devi his ‘spiritual wife’ because theirs’ was a ‘wedding based on knowledge.’ Why this matters, is Brahmacharya is related to celibacy and people often question whether any man is capable of celibacy or whether it was just the outward appearance of.
Personally, I’m not sure it’s as important as others feel it is, to discern whether Gandhi remained celibate, because I do not place importance on celibacy, but I understand if you are literally reading Gandhi, you would hope he did what he said he did. I wonder why this matters so much and why sex with a woman (or man) would be such an issue for those who love Gandhi (or for that matter Jesus, because many thought, he had a wife and this idea alone, scandalized others). Perhaps when it doesn’t matter if a spiritual leader has sex or not, we’ll really be free of all shame attached to sexual relations. Although for Gandhi it was more about control over impulses that could sway him from his path. Gandhi wrote in a letter on the subject; “I have reached a definition of a spiritual marriage. It is the partnership between two people of the opposite sex where the physical is wholly absent. It is therefore possible between brother and sister, father and daughter. It is possible only between two brahmacharis in thought, word and deed.”
I understand for him, perhaps passion was an inflammation of sense and morality, and this would distract him. Gandhi was thought to have developed his perspectives on carnal passions by concluding a person cannot selflessly serve humanity without accepting poverty and chastity. This seems an enduring theme among many holy men and I’m not one to dispute it, although I think it’s different for a woman. When Gandhi said: “physical union for the sake of carnal satisfaction is reversion to animality,” he may have set himself up to be perceived as unrealistically idealist and unrealistically puritanical.
On the other hand, like anything, we have to take the influences of the time-period into account; what Gandhi was responding to, what he witnessed, what he saw occur, how those played into his striving for inner-strength. I see it like trying to translate what a great painter meant by their painting, hundreds of years later. Ultimately, we do, but that painter if alive today, may say; ‘oh no you got it all wrong.’ So, when people point to the strange things Gandhi did in his Brahmacharya experiments, they could be very right, or it could be one piece of a much larger puzzle. We are all twisted by our life experiences, but we expect Gandhi to be free of this, even as he said he wasn’t. Perhaps the shame of not being with his father during his last moments as he went to his bedroom to have sex with his wife, was among some of the reasons he embraced Brahmacharya, Gandhi was after-all, human.
Trying to understand the motives of someone born in another era involves taking into account their worldview as influenced by that era. Gandhi was from a middle-class family, and we know those born into higher classes are often received differently to those from other classes. This isn’t right, but it’s the way the world has operated and blaming the person born into that family is blaming the wrong person. It is the system that perpetuates this, just as now, most ‘notable’ people come from some degree of privilege than obscurity (with significant exceptions). Gandhi was a product of that privilege but that’s not quite the same as being privileged in thought. Likewise, it’s easy to say, he got married at 13 and had 4 kids, so it was relatively easy to become celibate, but without experiencing that personally, that’s an assumption based on reaction, not fact.
I can understand the unease of revisiting historically important figures, the desire to applaud them but also the need to criticize their failings. I think if Gandhi were alive today, he would say ‘have at it’ and be open to criticism, although possibly he would find today’s world untenable, for who really knows how a historical figure would greet the future? We become the future by evolving. Only 20 years ago, the idea of gay-marriage would be abhorrent to most, so much transforms with acceptance and shifting of ideas. Some of that actually comes from thinkers like Gandhi who perhaps paved the way in some form, for the future, even if that future is quick to criticize him. But just as we must respect our grandparents view things differently from us, often through no fault or hate on their part but their upbringing, we cannot always realistically expect people, however smart, to transform on par with our own insights; that’s just not realistic or how we work as humans.
Either way, whether you are successful in incorporating the principles of Gandhi-ism in your life, or not, value lies in taking a leaf out of some of his philosophies. I don’t agree with everything I have read of Gandhi’s beliefs, but he was the first one to say, we contradict ourselves, as we grow, and nothing we do is set in stone. He was continually questioning and evolving, and that to me seems far more realistic than to be a static deity demanding fealty without question.
I remember buying my Goddaughter the kids book; The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe and worrying that her generation may not find it as bewitching as mine did. Some things don’t age well. Others endure. But on average, there are always parts that last the test of time. Instead of being precious about Gandhi, we should be open to questioning his perspectives without rancor, because he would have wanted us to. At the same time, dismissing him because he held some views that at the time were considered normal but are now unfashionable, is to dismiss the value he brought to the table when we discuss faith and philosophy. If we demand perfection, we’ll not find anyone to be inspired by, at the same time it is not wrong to want to redefine norms as we evolve as a society, just the way Gandhi hoped we would.
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
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