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
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Goutam Ghose is a well-known award-winning film director, scriptwriter and even actor. He has been the only Indian to have received the Vittorio Di Sica Award from Italy in 1997 and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in July 2006. Ghose has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival.
But did you know he has also authored a number of books? Just as he bridges borders with his poetic films that touch the human heart with a range of emotions, he does the same with his books. He takes up burning issues with artistry, never inciting with rage or hatred but conveying by his skill with the camera and words. He has created a world without borders with his transcontinental outlook and approach.
His reaction to the Ram Janmabhoomi riots was Moner Manush(2010), a film based on Lalon Fakir’s life, knitting together the best in Muslim and Hindu traditions instead of filming the clashes and the violence. Published in English as The Quest (2013), the book is a powerful dramatisation with pictures from the film. The book, like the film, is also an emotional lesson in humanism. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel on Lalon Fakir’s life, the film is beautiful. But the book allowed me to mull over the words, which have been translated by Sankar Sen. It is a book that needs to be read when casteism and religious divides take precedence over humanitarian values. By bringing these songs into translation to readers unfamiliar with Bengali, both Ghose and Sen have opened a world of love and tolerance to new readers, who will hopefully find the time to mull over the wisdom of these songs.
‘What was your caste when you came here,
What caste did you take on arrival, dear,
What would be your caste when it’s time to go --
Ponder and tell me if you know.’
-- Translated by Sankar Sen, from The Quest
His other book that traverses the silk route and journeys through China, Beyond the Himalayas(2019), transcends boundaries and fills the reader with a sense of exhilaration. It is based on his documentary of the same name. Both these recordings of their journey along the silk route are worth viewing and reading. They show humans are the same across all borders. The book, interspersed with lovely pictures of the landscape and mature writing pauses on history at the right junctures. The narration is poetic in both the book and the documentary.
Though Ghose claims that these texts and photographs capture memories of the film, both his books transported me to a different time and space. I saw the films after reading the books, but both were energising, emotionally charged and entertaining. The journey takes one through different parts of the world and gives a new perspective to a 4000-year-old route. Initiated and organised by Major Hari SinghAhluwalia and Deng Xiaoping’s son, the travels in Beyond the Himalayas took me across borders to areas I have never visited and now, I hope to visit post pandemic. Both the book and the film acquainted me with cultures that excite. And The Quest reinforced the belief, through the depiction of Lalon’s life, that humanism exists despite the degradations of history. That riots can be calmed with the soothing notes of Lalon’s lyrics, rich in wisdom, would be a win for the human spirit.
Like all great artistes, Ghose speaks in beautiful poetic sentences about concepts that touch the human heart and imagination. In this exclusive, he speaks not just about his film-books, but about the real journey and issues he is facing through the pandemic, including the delay of his film with an Italian male lead and his new short film on the current times, Covid-worn and waiting…
You are a very well-known film director, cinematographer, and music director. You have directed award winning Bollywood and Tollywood movies. Normally books come before films but from two of these films, you have made books. Why did you go in for making books of the films?
I have loved books since my childhood. The shape and form of it, the touch and smell of a book fascinate me. They will never die even if we read on the screen rather than by turning pages of a physical object. A certain sense of the sacred has surrounded books from civilisations’ inception. In cinema, be it fiction or non-fiction, we write a script at the pre-production stage. A film-book is all about times gone by — a book of memories, of both cyclic and linear time. My producer from Bangladesh, Habibur Rehman Khan, had liked the idea of film books and had published three wonderful books on Padma Nodir Majhi(Boatman of the Padma River, filmed in 1993), Moner Manush (filmed in 2010 ) and Shankhachil (Unbound, filmed in 2016) in Bengali. Niyogi books of India has published a beautiful pictorial English version of Moner Manush as The Quest and also Beyond the Himalayas, my journey along the Silk Road. Another lovely film book is Pratikshan’s bilingual centenary tribute to Bismillah Khan (Bismillah in Banaras the film Goutam Ghosh made, 2017).
Is dubbing or subtitling the film not an easier option than doing a film-book?
Well, dubbing or subtitling is for watching a language film, but a film book is meant for reading. It becomes a part of your book collections. I have some wonderful film books published from Europe and United States.
Moner Manush is based on Lalon Fakir’s life and on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Why did you feel there was a need for a separate book after you made a very powerful film on it?
Lalon Fakir is an eternal savant. Scholars have been doing research on Lalon’s life and philosophy since long. It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and the implied significance, it seems as if he was an erudite scholar tutored in an age-old system of education. His faith was not guided by any particular religion, rather it could be said to be comprised of the mysticism of Sufi and the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberalism of the tantric sect of Buddhism. My film on Lalon fakir is research on this great man aswell. The Bengali film book contains important articles by scholars besides the script, reviews and memoirs.
Do you feel that the message of Moner Manush is relevant in a world beset by not just divides but even a pandemic? Is there something we can learn from the story?
Yes, of course the message of Moner Manush is even more relevant in today’s intolerant world, a world of greed and opportunism. The pandemic has victimised the togetherness of the human race but how can we survive without empathy? I don’t know how good the film is, but Moner Manush will serve as a gospel to those who revere humanity.
Lalon says as his own introduction “I am a human.” How important is that for humankind to see themselves as humans over titles of caste, profession, and economics?
The baul (minstrels in Bengal) community had renounced all recognised institutions of religion and revolted against long established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith, they had found a large expanse under the sky which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Under that open sky, Lalon had found the truth in Humanism.
Lalon dreamt of a borderless world. Do you think adopting his outlook can change the outlook of nations which draw borders between the species? Do you think it is implementable at a personal, national or international level?
I think all mystics believe in borderless space of Earth where all centennial beings live in peace and harmony. But the wheel of time had moved in the direction of Divide and Rule. John Lennon’s Imagine has become the iconic song on the dream of a borderless world. It may have been a failed dream, but I confess it might have been one I shared growing up in India and will cherish till the last breath of my life. Let it be a dream and a wonderful utopia.
Beyond The Himalayas was first a documentary film. How long was it and when was it screened? How many episodes is the film?
Beyond the Himalayas was made as a documentary film during our expedition through the Silk Road in 1994. The final edited version is four-and-a-half hour long. It was shown in Discovery Channel in five parts in the late nineties. A shorter version was screened in BBC as well. The Indian national TV had screened a Hindi version of all five episodes.
The book seems to cover lesser than the documentary. Is that true or do the visuals/ music just seem to impact us more? Why did you leave out Pakistan?
Well watching the film with arresting visuals and absorbing the soundtracks of the trail is a linear viewing of our journey along the fabled Silk Road. It is very, very exciting indeed. But the film is also a journey back in time with many references and anecdotes from history. For instance, while showing the travel through the deadly Taklamakan desert, I referred to Sven Hedin’s(1865-1952) expedition of the region. I quote: ‘The first European to map this desolate region was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. His first expedition in 1895 was very nearly his last. The local guide supplied enough water for four days in the desert instead of ten requested. When the caravan lost its way, the guide was the first to die. The others became insane with thirst, drinking anything — even Sheep’s blood and camel’s urine. By the fifth day, the men, camels and other livestocks were all dead except for Sven Hedin and one other man. Hedin writes in Through Asia, “If I was doomed to die in the sand, I wanted to be properly attired. I wanted my burial clothes to be both white and clean.” But fate was on its side. Spying the dark green side of an oasis, he dragged himself to safety. “I stood on the brink of a pool with fresh cool water, beautiful water. I drank, drank, drank time after time. Every blood vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge.”’
Here the film-book helps the readers. One can refer back to the time past and time present more deeply to understand time as a metaphor of history.
How many days were you on the road? What was the experience like?
We were out for almost ten weeks covering a distance of 14,000 kms. The journey was fascinating for the entire team. There can be no journey more enchanting than the route we took. The collective trove of memories has made the Silk Road so memorable. We had to negotiate extreme weather conditions in Central Asia and Tibet. In a single day, we experienced two extremes. While negotiating the desert, temperatures rose to 48 degrees Celsius, and by nightfall when we pitched camp at Tianshan mountains, the temperature fell to 2 degrees. The situation is almost like the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — desert to snow in the blink of an eye.
Did you travel through the part of the route Marco Polo used? Did you find it much different from what you had imagined?
Well, the travels of Marco Polo described the wonders of the silk road, cities far greater than his own and a world more significant than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The silk road was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling along for 4,000 years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the East and the West. It ran from Xian in China to all the way to the Mediterranean. There were many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia. We could not follow the planned route through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia via Khyber Pass because of the civil war. The government of India did not want us to take such risks. All the members of the expedition, including the jeeps and equipment, were flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on 18th May, 1994.
With the silk route being revived, do you think this film has significance?
Yes, the film is still significant because it carries the memories of time. We were the first group of travellers after many, many years to cross three new republics after the collapse of Soviet Union and a vast territory of China. Now, the route is open to tourists, and I was told that many travel packages are available all along the mighty river and its tributaries. I would like to revisit the cauldron once again to understand how those multi-ethnic republics have survived the onslaught of modern times with its regional rivalries, new mafias, and consumerist pressures. I wish the new silk route trade brings peace and harmony in this intolerant world. Travellers today can choose from many trails as we did during our expedition. My favourite was Xuanzang’s (602-664 AD) trail. I quote from my book. “At 27, he set out his pilgrimage until he was 43. Unconvinced by the translations available in China, he sought the true teachings of Buddha in the holy lands of India. He walked alone into the great unknown, crossing the world’s greatest deserts and its highest mountain ranges. He faced death many times and his courage and equanimity impressed kings, bandits and barbarians alike. He lectured at monasteries and debated with learned monks and by the time he reached his destination, his reputation as a great sage had already preceded him. Xuan Zhang was not the only Chinese pilgrim to visit the homeland of Buddhism, but he was the most important. Like a death star that keeps releasing energy for thousands of years, he continues to be a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.”
You are making a new film I believe rooted in the present pandemic. What is it about? Will you be making that too into a book?
My 2019 film Rahagir or Wayfarer, starring Adil Hussain, Tillotama Som, Neeraj Kabir, had travelled to many festivals and received awards and appreciations but unfortunately, we could not release it in public theatres due to the pandemic. Another multilingual film is also stuck for obvious reasons. I could finish the Italian shoot in January 2020, but the Indian shoot did not happen till date. It is so frustrating.
Meanwhile, I have finished a short film Memories of Time on pandemic days. It is about a happy, cultured couple living in the heart of Kolkata. Like everyone else, they are caught in the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The film travels back and forth in time as they try to navigate through these hard times and search for fresh air and sanity. The film is an exploration of their fears, realisation and going back to nature. It’s from my own experience — how I have navigated 2020 and moving through the course of this pandemic. I think one can really publish a film-book because it has so many elements, the fear of people and the inhuman approach of the human race and then the migrant labours — their terrible conditions, the psychological problem of people confined inside their home and the most importantly, the problem of the children. They are confined as if in a prison. They can’t go to school. They can’t really meet their friends. I think this could be a very, very interesting material for a film-book.
Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon by Jessica Mudditt is a thought-provoking memoir about a foreigner’s experience as a journalist and outsider in Myanmar, a country emerging from decades of military rule and international isolation.
Australian Jessica Mudditt arrives in the former Burmese capital of Yangon in 2012 with her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa just as the nation is moving towards greater democracy and opening up to the world after decades of oppression, dictatorships, civil wars, and economic sanctions.
Newly arrived Mudditt discerns a fresh optimism and hope for transformation in Yangon as she negotiates the culture shocks and cultural quirks of enigmatic Myanmar (also known as Burma). Yet there are few happy endings in ‘Our Home in Myanmar’, just some sobering realities.
While their outward quest is to find a place to call home (and secure visas to legally work), the couple’s inner journey is about trying to understand the complexities and contradictions of a largely Buddhist country where monks are among the most vocal protestors — and the daughter of the independence leader and founder of the armed forces had been under house arrest for 15 years.
Covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi is just one of the assignments Jessica undertakes; her role as a journalist for various publications and organisations gives her access to the newsmakers as well as those seldom featured in the media. But for every door that opens, another one slams shut. Nevertheless, the reader gets a window into the machinations, superstitions, and craziness of the military regime in what appeared to be its decline. Spoiler alert: in light of current events, it turned out to be a false spring.
She gets a frosty reception from the old-hand expat editors at the major English language newspaper co-owned by an Australian maverick media mogul, but later one of the most emotional high points comes in 2015 when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) gets a landslide victory while Mudditt worked as the first foreign editor at the newspaper considered the propaganda mouthpiece of the junta.
This underlying theme contrasting expectations and realities gives the book momentum, as do the challenges and hurdles for a naïve foreign journalist struggling to comprehend the strange yet fascinating aspects of Burmese life and governance during this turbulent time. While many visiting media have fawned over Aung San Suu Kyi, she finds the NLD leader lacking charisma, in contrast to the vibrant President Barack Obama who champions Myanmar’s freedoms during a landmark visit.
The book weaves personal narratives with political backstories and cultural backgrounders. The author’s vulnerability and bravery make it a riveting read, with the reader drawn into the risky plight of the writer as well as the precarious situation of her host country. With a clear empathetic voice, attention to detail, and well-crafted chapters, Mudditt, who has written for The Telegraph, Marie Claire, GQ, and CNN, reveals she is not just a good storyteller but has something to say. She survives sudden earthquakes, dilapidated hospitals, and tropical turbulence, often finding solace in cigarettes, alcohol, and her Sherpa. She is a social butterfly with the cool expats who have arrived in Yangon, but her work for the UN and the British Embassy shatters the dream that Myanmar has broken free of its backwardness and nastiness. Amid the moments of despair and farce, thankfully there are dashes of absurdity and humour.
The author left Myanmar in 2016 amid a rise in Buddhist nationalism, but an ‘Epilogue’ has been added to highlight the unexpected but not unsurprising military coup earlier this year. The book concludes with a ‘where are they now’ update on some of the key people depicted in its pages.
Perhaps without realising it, Mudditt has chronicled a significant period in Myanmar’s modern history. Our Home in Myanmar is a good introduction to Myanmar, as it sheds light on the intriguing former British colony, its rocky road towards freedom and democracy. The author was fortunate to be in Myanmar during a small window of opportunity.
With Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing declaring himself prime minister at the start of this month, but promising to hold elections by 2023, Myanmar remains out-of-bounds for any outsiders. By the middle of August 2021 as much as half of Myanmar’s 55 million population could have Covid-19, experts reckon.
Burma-watchers will find it nostalgic and insightful, while democracy-watchers and those concerned about press freedoms, will find information and substance. Intrepid travellers to the Land of Golden Pagodas will find the book provides a fresh perspective on modern Myanmar, a troubled country facing a difficult uncertain future. Given Myanmar’s strategic buffer location between superpowers China and India, the former British colony will continue to play a significant role in the region’s development, direction and alliances. That’s why anyone with an interest in South Asia and South-east Asia should read this perceptive and illuminating book.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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A life well-lived tends to be interpreted by cultural needs. In China, maybe it is portrayed as the accumulation of wealth and taking care of ones’ family; in Africa it may be about survival, integrity, and hard work; in Italy, possibly about how many friends you have, how often you laugh, if you feed stray animals. No one country shares a defined concept of what a well-lived life looks like, but as we are more homogenized than ever before we’re all cross-influenced by other cultures.
The other day I was watching a travel documentary about The Silk Road. The idea of so many foreign countries we’ve never visited, nor know very much about, can be incredibly humbling. We talk in international terms; we talk as if we alone have the right to proclaim for the rest of the world. Even the most avid traveler hasn’t been steeped in a culture long enough to make those assumptions, nor have they visited every shore, every mountain, every tribe. As that is impossible, no one culture or group should claim to speak for what is a universal truth, there is no such thing. How can meaning being separated from being human, thus subjective?
Growing up I was deeply influenced by my mother. She didn’t live with me, but she wrote me letters from all parts of the globe she visited with amazing letterheads and stamps. Eventually this became more than an expensive hobby, she opened a travel company that published newsletters and books on high end travel. In my teen years, I might not have appreciated what she did from afar because I felt ‘high end’ was exclusionary, and it is. But despite this, I have grown to respect what my mom did, because it wasn’t for a living, it was for passion, and in this, I felt she has always lived her life to the full.
True, who wouldn’t like traveling for a living? In high end hotels? Isn’t she just another example of privilege? But she wasn’t. She created this from scratch, having left a highly successful career in media that she attained on her own merit. I think if it were not for my mom, I would not understand how far people can go if they are determined and hard working. It’s definitely why I work hard. However, my own journey has been vastly different. I found it challenging enough at times, to get through life, let alone to thrive. I recall my mom saying love what you do, feel passion in what you do! I felt I was missing a magical ingredient.
Eventually, health issues seemed to close that door to a passion-driven dimension, and I began to be more pragmatic. My thoughts were more along the lines of: how can I support myself and ensure I will have enough to survive? What can I do to overcome or compensate for my shortcomings in health? I lost the advantage of just being able to dream, because I had to survive, and sometimes for many of us, we simply don’t have the luxury to dream. That led me to understand, a life worth living is necessarily subjective. Unequal life chances versus individual effort play a bigger role in the outcome.
Even so, the question of what a well lived life looks like, is one worthy of examination. In the world there are women who are essentially still indentured to their husbands. There are castes and groups who will never be able to rise above other castes and groups because of their birth. There are those so poor they couldn’t attend school if they wanted to. I think of how the girls of Afghanistan will fare with the UK and US leaving and the Taliban gaining their former foothold. Will girls be safe? It doesn’t seem likely nor permitted their former right to education. I envision a similar outcome to what happened to women in Iran. And then there are the fabulously wealthy and the comfortable middle class. We simply don’t all have the same access to a well-lived life to begin with!
Within all these groups lie many variables, not least, our physical and mental state, our chosen career(s), where we live and how expensive it is to survive there. Then there’s just the fickleness of luck, who gets to live, who does not. To boldly state a life worth living is any one of these options, belies the truth of our differences. A child born with HIV may have a different life than one born healthy; a child born blind might have different outcomes than a child born with athletic prowess. Even then, one advantage may be nothing, we may need more advantages. To proclaim as self-help books and life coaches do, that there is one way, seems redundant and missing out on the diversity of our experiences. You can do everything right and still not succeed.
We get older and we think back and wonder, did I make the right choices, was this the direction I intended? Am I satisfied or disappointed? When we’re very young, these considerations are rarely as important, as such we simply experience. Maybe in youthful hedonism, we miss the very moment we should be thinking of the future. Some cultures do a better job of forcing their young to consider the future, such as Germany, who asks the very young to pick a career before they are even in their teens, to help mold an often vocational direction rather than leaving them to decide many years later when it could be too late?
For example, if you had a child, would you wish for the child to take philosophy or neuroscience in university? Which would be more likely to land them a secure job? This surely is part of our role as parents, to ensure our children will be financially safe when growing up. At the same time, we know the potential value of philosophy, but how translatable is that value in today’s world?
I grew up very aspirant-minded because my mom was very successful. Even as I didn’t live with her, I saw her as a role model and believed naively I could follow in her footsteps. There were many reasons I did not. The locations and cultures had changed. The times had changed as in her day it was easier to walk into jobs. By the time I was looking for work, there were thousands clamouring for fewer positions. Often people cannot understand this change because they only have their experience to refer to, but things change a lot, including what was possible and what is no longer possible.
One might argue, then you just must be better, to do better. This is true in India, China (a Confucian principle) and many other Asian countries, where an excellent and high achieving work ethic coupled with a huge population, causes young people to be under more pressure than ever to attain those coveted positions. This causes one of the following two things as en masse more people do excellently, the bar gets pushed higher, and people from such countries can often cherry pick jobs in other countries because they excel; or a greater division between those who succeed (the minority) and those who traditionally speaking do not (the majority). It’s about sorting out the reality from the stereotype.
America, a country long thought to possess no caste or class system, perpetuates other countries’ histories by having a quiet class system that is denied by the mainstream but very alive. For many families with money, sending their kids to schools that will guarantee the best universities and thus, the best networking and jobs, there is an obvious bias. We talk of ‘The American Dream’, but for the majority, the advantages they are born into, play an equal if not larger role in determining their outcome.
This is partly why discussions about reparation exist, because if families that were traditionally exploited are now generationally paying the price by not having generational wealth and influence to hand down to their children, they come from a position of inequality and inequity even as the American dream continues to be touted. And if those families are mostly families of colour, even more so, as you must consider the racial injustice of the past, which has been carried into the future by this ongoing inequity. The same is true in other countries, the idea we’re born equal and thus, we all have the same chance at a dream is naïve at best.
But how much does this play into a life well-lived? Is it essential to be conventionally successful to achieve such a goal? I would argue it is not. Whilst there are basic essentials coined by Psychologist Abraham Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) that must be met to even be in the running. In other words, if you cannot afford the basics such as healthcare, economic security, education etc, you’re still stuck on trying to survive. In that sense, it’s a luxury for most to even consider a life well lived, because they are too busy surviving.
Let’s assume however, some of us reach that position of being economically sound enough to consider beyond the mechanisms of survival. Then let us ask ourselves what is a life well lived? Should it be like that of my mother? Being somewhat hedonistic but, true to myself, by doing exactly what she wanted and traveling the world where she could expand. When she passes, will she have felt her life was well lived? I’m guessing she will.
That’s because of a process called reconciliation. One must reconcile one’s regrets or things we were judged for, and if we are able to do this (many of us fail), then we find inner peace. With peace comes a sense of no matter what, we did the best we could, we gave it all we could, we’re glad for the life we lived. In a sense, this summation of a life well lived, is rooted in our self-perception and then that perception projected into a larger context. It takes a lot to consider more than our immediate circle. Perhaps if we could, we would be less fractured as a planet. Less liable to turn the other cheek when atrocities occur, or put our head in the sand and not think of future generations.
By coming together, universally, thinking in terms of all of us, not just as an individual, as touted so long by the West, we consider wholeness. Can we be whole if others are not? Should we be? And at the same time, not going so far as to lose a sense of ourselves or be merged into a homogenised, possibly too socialised loss of self? In other words, balance.
As you age you realise what mattered then doesn’t matter as much now. Or maybe, you come to realise that what you have always cared about, still matters. For myself, I am very different from my 15-year-old self, where I lived relatively hedonistically, caring about animals and injustice, but not doing enough about it. I see that at 15 , I thought mostly of having fun and generally being a little unrealistic about life. Some 15-year-olds aren’t that way. Why do some children grow up responsible and mature before their time, whilst others can be 30 and still fail to launch?
We can blame parenting, modern society, all sorts of things, but it’s probably more complicated than that. In Japan, many young people are literally shut-ins, (known as hikikomori) living on the cud of their parents income, rarely leaving their room, immersed in an unrealistic life, mostly online. Why do so few Japanese marry or have relationships comparatively speaking? Did the parents mess up? Or is this a symptom of a bigger sense of futility and despair felt by the young because some do think of the future?
I recall as a child I was unrealistic in my expectations, I truly thought I could do anything, be anything and this just wasn’t an honest evaluation of my situation. For some children, they knew they would be dentists at fifteen. For others, they did drugs and lived lost lives, before reinventing themselves. That’s the luxury of youth. But it’s not a permanent state. When you are older you realise, there isn’t as much time to ‘do anything / be anything’ and maybe that’s why I find some self-help/life coaches a little jarring. How long can we ‘do anything’ for realistically? Especially now, where different types of jobs are less than ever before, we’re being asked to homogenise into ever decreasing employment options. Many graduate law schools, formerly considered the pinnacles for employment, find no openings in an already saturated market, but should we doom a child’s dream if that’s what they want to do? The labour market doesn’t have a skills gap, it has an opportunity gap.
Many young people want to be famous, emulate some truly scary people, be unrealistically rich and have celebrity status. Less people want to heal, they want to make big bucks. Maybe they have it right. After all, when we do altruistic things but remain poor, how good does that feel when we can’t afford a car? With price hikes, standard of living seems to be improving because people have technology, but actually, we’re more in debt, without savings and living on a razor’s edge. Which might work at 25, but at 45 with children ready for college?
Again, I hark back to ‘balance’ and the need to live within one’s means, to have dreams that are capable of being pursued, and to help our kids dream up realistic jobs. The younger generations do not have the inherited wealth of the older, and immigrants often come with nothing to a country, depending upon the charity of that country, which is shrinking as our social services are overwhelmed and underfunded, even as immigration is on the rise.
Is the answer to print money? As has been discussed among Democrats? Or tax the rich and risk them leaving? Or is that a myth? With Covid 19 recently closing everything down, many formerly low wage workers were given monetary Covid compensations due to extended unemployment, which ended up being more than they were making as a badly paid waitress or shop worker. With some of those jobs vanishing forever, those that do return, see no employees willing to work for those wages again, and rightly so. But can we sustain a country if we pay what economists would consider a living wage? When $15 is already too little for someone to live on once tax and benefits are removed.
Increasingly we’re seeing a rise in people who fall through the cracks, they are the invisible workers whom we don’t know about, the underemployed, the fragile self-employed. That micro economy might not even show up on official statistics but look around, it exists. How likely can those people consider retiring in 30 years’ time? Can we blame those generations who are trapped by a system that doesn’t make it very likely to find an American Dream and what of the rest of the world, where survival comes long before the luxury of dreaming?
Where in this do we find concepts of lives well-lived? I think no such thing exists fundamentally but individually as we age, we should consider are we congruent to our concept of what a life well-lived means to us? Can we do anything to get closer to it? If so, what?
Recently I thought about this a lot and realised struggling with my health was my tipping point. For some that’s not their tipping point. A friend of mine said hers was losing her home. For me it was being told I was developing premature Macular Degeneration and with no treatment for Dry MD would lose my sight whilst still young. Facing those kinds of things forces us to consider what matters, what does not, and really think about how we value existence.
When I talk to people today, I recognise the value of clarity of purpose. When we know how best to direct our lives, we can spend more time on being the kind of person we want to be, rather than picking up the pieces from a series of failed impulses. If we remember how lucky we are to even have choices, when so many do not, even reading this on a computer puts us in a position of privilege, so rather than lamenting about what you do not have, consider what you need to live a life worth living and then do your best. Even half-way there might be enough to one day say, I have lived a life well-lived.
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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‘Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January.
Everything shifted last year. Priorities. Energies. Focus.
Well, actually, there wasn’t much focus for me last year. For much of 2020, I felt unfocused, scattered, reactive. I was not achieving peak performance or being proactive going forward, if we were to use business language. I doubt if I was being the best version of myself either. I definitely needed to ‘pivot’, whatever that meant.
What was initially a short holiday ‘back home’ to catch up with family and friends turned into something without a clear ending, as it dawned on me maybe I wouldn’t be travelling again for years perhaps, why, even ever.
Usually, by May, I would be like the snowbird and migrate to warmer climes. I would head to my base in Bali’s Ubud, and then later in the year to southwest China and Myanmar, the three locations in Asia where I have caches of cotton shirts, swimming goggles, cycle shorts, hot water kettles, tea strainers and rice cookers.
By November, I would surely be back in the country termed ‘the land of mystery, mysticism, mythology, miracles, multiculturalism and mightiness’ — India.
When I left Kerala’s Varkala Beach near Thiruvananthapuram in February last year, after my last dip in the warm breaking waves, I always thought I would be back for chai at one of the cliff top cafes overlooking the gleaming ocean, the lunchtime Rs.90(US$1.25) thali at True Thomas and falling asleep to the whirl of the fan and the shushing of the Arabian Sea.
But it didn’t happen last Indian winter, and I doubt if it will happen this year or even next. The seasons turn, the tides come and go, the waves roll onto the main Papanasham beach and the less-visited Black Sand beach. True Thomas is ‘temporarily closed’ according to Google. In fact, the Kerala beach destination was already impacted by Covid-19 in March 2020, when an Italian tourist visiting for a fortnight tested positive for the virus. The English boss of Coffee Temple Cafe had got in trouble with authorities for his blackboard offering of ‘Anti-Coronavirus juice’ (150 Rs) made from ginger, lemon, gooseberry.
I wonder how the Tibetan and Nepalese who work in eateries during the season, November to May, are surviving.
Mid-2020 I found myself unable to continue my digital semi-nomadic existence of following mild weather and hopping on AirAsia flights I’d booked up to a year earlier. Instead, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, and my own wish to stay safe, I was lock-downed in my hometown in New Zealand, cohabiting with my parents in the house I’d lived in since aged eight years old.
A friend on Facebook sent me a message saying she couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle, with a photo of an aeroplane aisle. Another sent an image showing the perfect Covid-19 sport which requires masks, gloves and 2m distance: fencing.
In the post from China, I received a couple of full-face snorkelling masks. In between the time of ordering and the arrival of the goods, on YouTube, there was a video on how to convert to meet the N95 respirator standards, or how to modify for use as an emergency interface with a ventilator. Researchers even had a paper in Nature about using Decathalon snorkelling masks. I wouldn’t believe much else on Youtube. What a shame that many do.
From Bali last year, there were claims that it was one of the safest places in the world as the recovery rate was high, and mortality rate low, compared to other places. This was attributed to a mix of sunshine, high temperatures, and a better (superior) immune system.
Sound familiar, my friends in India? Later someone posted a graph showing exponential growth, with the caption ‘Bali, what happened?’
New Zealand, as it turns out, has been largely protected from the ravages of Covid-19, thanks to closing the borders, a short lockdown, and citizens acting together as a ‘Team of 5 Million’.
This time last year I went on lots of walks, I gazed at cloud formations, and watched sunsets. I cut down scraggly trees, sorted through books, and gave away many of my parent’s possessions as part of downsizing. Of the bounty of childhood books I distributed, one was the beguiling ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, penned 150 years ago, which my father would read to us when we were young:
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …
I even sold the family silver.
My parents didn’t get Covid, and just last week, got the first of two Pfizer pricks in the upper arm (so far, only 10% of the population in New Zealand have received their first shot).
What changed dramatically was their circumstances. An operation in hospital for my 85-year-old father to reverse a previous insertion of a stoma didn’t work out as expected, and in late June last year the one night back home after his surgery proved to be his last night in the house they bought in 1976. He left in the back of an ambulance. He is now in hospital-level care in a rest home, and his wife, my mother, lives nearby in a retirement village.
Before his surgery, they considered selling the house and moving to the retirement village together, but undetected earthquake damage from 2010-2011 was discovered by the real estate agent, and I had to initiate a claim to have the damage repaired.
Being back home, many things were familiar, some things had changed, a few things were strange. I had become the parent of my parents. My days revolved around sorting out their problems. Instead of my independent existence and free lifestyle, I found myself taking on family responsibilities. Yet I was glad that in a time of need, I had been there to do the things they couldn’t do easily.
The year 2020 was unprecedented (and UnPresidented), with so many unknowns, so many surprises. Sharing a birth date with a friend from journalism school, we went for dinner with her family. Little did I anticipate it was the last time I saw her husband, a blood doctor, who died suddenly during a video consult with a patient.
My side hustle — a small travel agency working with ethnic minorities in southwest China — got its first inquiries in June last year. Several guides urged me to keep it open, as it was their main source of income. Before that, I hadn’t received any inquiries for the first part of 2020.
Several of the publications I usually write for have gone into hibernation, and some projects are on hold indefinitely. Before a job interview last week, I had to reflect on what I have been doing with my life. Or at least, the last 15 years.
But what do I do these days? I swim most days, some days join a friend at the gym who wants to improve his heart. I drink one cup of coffee a day, recently, made from green coffee beans I’ve roasted in a popcorn machine. At least once I week I go out to have an Indian meal. This week it was a Kerala thali of a dozen delicious parts. Last week my friends ordered a family dosa, which had to be carried to the table by two waiters.
My parent’s house is now my house, and each day I attend to its restoration and renovation, learning new skills of skim-coating, tiling, and concreting. Each month I get an email reminder that most of my AirAsia BIG Loyalty points are expiring soon.
Spending time with those I love is more important for me these days. We speak more frankly about what really matters. I’ve even started attending Death Cafe events, where anyone can share about their fear of death.
Through it all, I feel like I am becoming a better friend to myself. I am my own guru. I am my own Jedi Master — it was just that I didn’t realise it before. I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: “Named must be your fear before banish it you can”.
All I have to do is breathe. Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat.
Last year, just a week after traditionally the coldest day of the year (one month after the shortest day), I saw my first golden daffodils, the yellow trumpets signalling that the winter had been mild, and that the warmer days of spring were not far away.
Today on my way to the swimming pool, weeks before the solstice, I spied a row of daffodils in a neighbour’s garden and had to smile. I don’t know what the future holds, and I acknowledge that things will not return to normal like before. Yet I walk on, carrying in my heart hope, not so much as wishful thinking or expecting a positive outcome, but knowing that whatever the rest of 2021 and beyond throw up, no matter how disruptive, that the only way out is through it.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
In 2007, Sybil Pretious travelled to spend a night with a local family in rural China and lived in a ‘hundred-year-old home’. She writes of her experiences with photographs and aplomb.
“Respect is a two-way street. If you want to get it, you have to give it.”
— R G Risch
Sometimes I wonder why people travel. I especially wonder when someone travelling in a foreign land asks me the way to the nearest MacDonalds. Of course, that can be seen as being judgemental, but I don’t think of myself as over critical, because I travel to experience different cultures as they are and not as I am. When anyone asks me, which is the best country in the world my reply is simple,
“The best country in the world is wherever I am.”
Travelling alone means that I have to communicate with people. And in general, responses are kind, positive and helpful. This is just one experience I have had while living six years in China but there are many more and equally as interesting.
As I travelled home to Suzhou from Shanghai on the train, a young Chinese lady sitting next to me was laden with packages. I smiled and asked her what she had bought. She smiled and proceeded to hold up many items for my inspection telling me the miniscule prices she had paid for them and where she had bought them and then offering to take me there. The two-hour train trip passed very pleasantly.
Back in my apartment I had a phone call from Jessica, my friend from the train asking if there was anything she could do for me. As I had been unable to get plain yoghurt, I asked her if she knew where I could get some. Next morning, on my doorstep were six small yoghurts.
I found throughout my six years in China that I had nothing but kindness and people going out of their way to help, either with an explanation or an address written in Chinese to show to the taxi driver or an offer to accompany me and be my interpreter.
The friendship with Jessica progressed. She introduced me to her fiancé, Jack. Their families were good friends and the marriage seemed almost expected. Jessica was not keen but was fulfilling her family’s wishes.
After many outings with the two of them, Jessica asked me if I would like to accompany her and Jack on a weekend trip to visit her parents and grandfather in Baoying.
Before giving my answer, I enquired of the Chinese teachers at school where Baoying was and what I should expect. Baoying is a county under the administration of Yangzhou, within Jiangsu Province about 170 miles north of Suzhou where I lived. They painted a very rural picture, and I was intrigued. When would a foreigner like me ever get this chance to experience China with a family in their rural home setting? I accepted.
We travelled on a very overcrowded bus from Suzhou, me squashed in and clutching the presents I had bought for the family, mainly luxury food and special tea, on my lap, together with my backpack. It was not a comfortable position for a four-hour journey.
The bus stopped twice for toilet breaks. The toilets were the usual Asian ones, where my poor knees suffered as I bent them delicately while desperately looking round for something to hold onto so that I didn’t collapse into the deposits beneath. This is when I wish I was a man. Jessica stood guard outside to make sure I came out unharmed.
The roads, all beautifully tarred and lined with lovely trees were not what I had expected out in the country. When we finally arrived at the bus station in Yangzhou, we were met by Jessica’s father who had borrowed the second uncle’s car. Her second uncle owned a construction firm and he appeared to have Government contracts for the construction of offices — hence the smart car. Jessica’s father was slim, with startlingly fine features and a ‘naughty boy’ look about him. Her mother was more solidly built with a kindly, patient demeanour and slightly protruding front teeth.
I was thoroughly welcomed by the two of them with the double hand clasp. We proceeded to an unpretentious restaurant, up the stairs and into a room where a round table with the usual round swivel in the centre, was set. I was welcomed into the seat of honour. That means you get to sit in the chair that directly faces the door – possibly to detect if unwanted guests might enter. And of course, I was introduced to the one rule of dining that embarrassed me – I, as the honoured guest, had to take the first taste of special dishes before anyone else.
As is usual with Chinese meals, dishes were brought out in endless succession – vegetables, salads and meat. Chicken soup in an enormous pot had every part of the chicken in it, including heads and feet. I tasted everything and really enjoyed it all, especially some of the fish dishes. I was complimented on my adeptness with chopsticks and was happy to use my fingers as well. Lots of lovely slurping sounds signalled appreciation of the meal. Bones, skins and other inedible bits were just put in a pile on the table next to you, to be cleared away later.
There was one whole fish, and I was told the eyes were the best part and naturally as the honoured guest I got to eat them. I tried to look delighted. I ate them when they were offered – well I think I swallowed them whole and tried not to think of what I was consuming! I said they were very tasty, and they might well have been.
Second and third uncles and aunts were there to greet me. Grandfather was there as well. He was a very distinguished looking old man who reminded me of Paul Newman, one of my favourite actors, though I never thought that Paul looked Asian.
Throughout the meal everyone toasted everyone else with much back slapping and laughter, shouting, “Ganbei”, especially every time grandfather drank or smoked.
As a mark of respect, you had to imitate what grandfather did. The men drank wine and beer while the women only drank orange squash. I got to drink a small glass of beer. It pays to be the honoured guest.
Jessica was really mad with Jack who seemed to be involved in more toasts than anyone else. She said he was saying all the wrong things.
Everyone smoked endlessly but I tried not to cover my face. Smoking in China was very popular at that time and was only banned in stages. In 2009, it was announced that there would be no smoking in all health care facilities by 2011. At that time, there were 350 million smokers in China.
Throughout the time since we had left Suzhou, I had not seen another European, nor had I heard any English apart from what was spoken to me by Jessica and Jack. Many people stared and of course the kids were really curious about me, hiding behind their mothers and peeping out. I just made funny faces and hid my face behind my hand which made them laugh. My Chinese friends could not understand how I got around China without speaking Mandarin! My communication, however, is not always with words. The body and especially the hands perform wonders of enlightenment in many different languages.
Time to get into the car again — four of us squashed in the back to go to view the new Government buildings built by uncle’s construction firm — very big, modern and impressive they were too.
I noticed that the family had been chatting and gesturing animatedly amongst themselves and looking at me whilst doing so. Eventually, Jessica asked me if I would like to stay in a hotel or stay in their home. No contest. I asked to stay with them. I was here for new experiences.
At last, we were on the road where the countryside borders on the Grand Canal.
This canal runs from Beijing to Hangzhou, a distance of 1776km and the oldest part of it was started in fifth century BC. It has twenty-four locks and sixty bridges.
“Don’t these people build anything small?” I wondered to myself.
On the canal, great barges plied back and forth carrying sand, pebbles and rocks used in construction. Beside the canal were great heaps of rock and stone.
Then came the best part of the adventure, the China that my family had thought I had come to. We turned onto a narrow concrete road (one car width and not another car in sight) with narrow water filled furrows alongside and fields of ripened wheat yellow waving beyond them.
This was the season of wheat. After it is harvested, they would plant rice which would be reaped in October — fertile land indeed. Jack informed me that the Government instructed the farmers what they should plant each season.
We turned down an even narrower road made of red bricks and later just sand. Melons growing in greenhouses covered in plastic on one side and further along the road a put-putting pump engine, which was moving water from one canal to another, blocked our way. Jessica’s father eventually called the owner and together they moved it and we squeezed past, a hair’s breadth from falling into the furrow below.
Finally, we arrived at Jessica’s parent’s house in the country.
I was told it was over 100 years old. It was quite basic, with rough pealing, painted walls and an entrance arch with old roses on either side. This led into an open courtyard with a clean concrete floor. Up some steps and inside were three identical rooms connected by a passageway in the front. Plain concrete floors and odd furniture as well as suitcases and cases of drinks and duvets all piled on the sides against the walls. Jessica said that her parents did not often use the house. They usually stayed with grandfather and his new wife just down the road.
I really needed to stretch my legs while Jack and Jessica had a sleep. They were both very tired as they worked long hours. I was happy to go alone and set forth with a fresh breeze brushing my cheeks and unpolluted air drawn into my lungs. The narrow walkways, with ducks and geese paddling furiously in shallow furrows were a lovely respite from the tarred roads and manicured gardens of Suzhou. This all took me way back to early childhood memories of farms in Rhodesia.
I soon had that feeling of being followed, and realised Jack was wearily walking some way behind me. I felt guilty, having deprived him of his sleep but I appreciated his caring. So often I had occasion to feel this towards my Chinese friends. I apologized and walked back with him.
There was no bathroom in the house and in the evening, I was taken next door to another aunt whose home had a shower.
Hmmmm, yes, a shower? It was like an attic room on the ground floor with a really low ceiling and a bath/shower that I couldn’t possibly get into without bumping my head! So I just used the loose shower head to vaguely water myself, bending double to soap and wash the nether parts. I then dried with a tiny towel I had remembered to bring with me. Finally I tried getting into my pyjamas which was even worse as I couldn’t stand up. In the middle of it all, with the bottom half of my pyjamas round my ankles, Jessica popped her head in to see how was doing – me in the dripping half nude and trying to point my foot in the right direction to get it into the leg part.
“Um, okay,” I mumbled, trying to place the small towel strategically over the parts that hadn’t got into the pyjamas yet.
Finally, I stepped out and feeling somewhat strange I put a jacket over the pyjamas as I still had to walk out into the road to get back to the house! The fact that, in China, many people walk round in their pyjamas even in Shanghai streets escaped me at that moment. One of the aunts walking with us stroked my tanned, freckled arm and asked Jessica what was wrong with my skin.
In the evening, we sat in one of the rooms which doubles as a bedroom/lounge watching TV all in Chinese and everyone chatting in Chinese. It was interesting to observe the interactions.
A light supper of rice porridge and beans was served which was very pleasant. Jessica asked me if I minded sharing a double bed with her. No problem. Before bed I had to go to the toilet. She apologized and brought out a cute china potty with a lid. I did my bit in that and she carted it away for me – shades of my early childhood in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) again! The bed was a typical hard Chinese one with one thick quilt each. I snuggled in and I was surprised at how well I slept – not even the slightest backache.
However, before we nodded off, I became Jessica’s confidante as she told me of her love problems and asked my advice. I was mostly at a loss to advise her as I was not really well versed in Chinese customs, but she seemed happy to listen to what I had to say. Maybe my voice was consoling, and she didn’t really have anyone else to tell. I was woken at 5am, not to the song of birds or a cock’s crow but to a loud caterwauling which apparently signalled all the workers to begin their day!
Later I rose and went to wash my teeth in the kitchen sink and then off to the toilet. Oh dear! Outside in the courtyard an opening into a room with no door and a rectangular sloping away pit of which the bottom slush was visible. I got in and out of there really quickly.
Breakfast was simple and included fascinating rice wrapped in cane leaves to look like an ice cream – delicious.
Lunch is always the main meal and that morning Jessica’s mother had got up at five to go to the market to purchase a duck, fresh fish, prawns and vegetables. There were strange looking creatures that looked like great big cockroaches. They were alive and kicking. The fish were swimming around in a bowl. All the vegetables – eggplant, Chinese cabbage, other greens and beans were being meticulously prepared on the pristine concrete floor of the courtyard. Five relatives/friends had come to help. One lady was cutting off the legs of the still kicking ‘cockroaches, a goose was also being prepared – I didn’t view the slaughter or de-feathering of that. The ingredients for the meal were definitely as fresh as you could get.
During the morning I was taken to pick my own watermelons, round and green striped, but when broken open were yellow, not pink. Sweet and juicy, six of them were boxed on the spot for me to take home as a present.
During lunch time I was surrounded by ten men (Jessica’s father had invited all his work mates) and Jessica sat beside me. Her mother and the other ladies, who had toiled all morning, did not take part in eating the meal. We drank and ate and went through numerous toasts. I was allowed some rice wine, and everyone wanted to toast me with, “Ganbei” and bottoms up! It seems that I was accepted as ‘one of the boys’ for the moment.
Finally after relaxing, we were driven in yet another car belonging to Jessica’s uncle and we made our way back to catch the bus and to take the four hour return journey to Suzhou.
My chance to repay Jessica’s kindness came a couple of weeks later. I was going to be away for a weekend, and she asked me if it would be possible for a couple of her relatives to stay in my apartment for that weekend. She had many visitors arriving to plan her wedding and not enough accommodation. Of course, I was delighted to oblige. Some of my colleagues were sceptical about the idea. I ignored them.
I felt blessed to be accepted as part of the family and I knew that being on my own was a distinct advantage. If I had been on that train initially with many friends, I would not have started the conversation with Jessica or uniquely experienced rural Baoying.
Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL