Categories
Interview Review

Satyajit Ray – Was he really ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’?

In conversation with Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much

“[O]ne would like to remember Ray as one of the last truly great renaissance men of Bengal, moulded much in the tradition of Tagore, in the sense that his genius manifested itself in manifold directions: film-making, photography, writing, composing poetry, limericks, music, designing, drawing, developing new typefaces, you name it.

“For a long time, he was also our most distinguished cultural ambassador to the world.”

This perhaps is the one of the most apt descriptions of a man whose films were legendary in our lifetime and a part of the concluding chapter in The Man Who Knew Too Much by Barun Chanda. The book is an exhaustive account of Ray and his major films, how he made the films, what were the influences he had, how he directed the films and how versatile he was. Chanda is clearly impacted by this giant of Bengal renaissance, which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the eighteenth century and encompassed Tagore.

The book is as much a memoir by Chanda about Satyajit Ray as it is a narrative about his films. Structured unusually, this non-fiction has an introduction sandwiched between two sections, the first being Chanda’s own interaction with Ray as a hero of his award-winning film, Seemabadha[1](1971), and the making of the movie; the second being the narrative that covers the titular content (borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1956 thriller), The Man Who Knew Too Much, about the genius of Ray as a filmmaker. Chanda shows us how Ray was truly unique and very gifted. He would remember all the dialogues and be intent on being involved with every part of film making, from costumes to camera, lighting and makeup — which is probably why his films had a unique touch so much so that he has to date been the only Indian filmmaker to win an honorary Oscar which Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, collected for him as he lay sick in bed (1992) breathing his last, saying: “Dear Satyajit Ray, I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”

And this note has been quoted by Chanda to bring out the uniqueness of a man who counted luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Jean Renoir, de Sica, Kurusawa, Cartier-Bresson among his friends. He has unveiled the unique persona further. “As Ray was wont to say, everything that he had done earlier in his career, helped prepare him to be a complete filmmaker. His sense of framing stemmed from his knowledge of still photography. His deep love of Western and Indian classical music helped shape him as a music director. His sense of art direction came from his earlier stint at D.J. Keymer. His power of illustration helped him design the sets of Hirak Rajar Deshe[2]and Shatranj ke Khilari[3], both marvellous instances of art direction. And a combination of these two factors facilitated his making of some of the most original and impressive cinema posters ever.”

Chanda goes on to describe the full genius of Ray’s film making which even stretched to scripts, songs — both the lyrics and music often, and of course his ability to visualise the whole movie beforehand. Ray is quoted as having said: “I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film.”

Interspersed with anecdotes about the films, the text highlights the eternal relevance of some of the dialogues and lyrics that Ray wrote himself. For example, listening carefully to the lyrics of ‘Ore Baba Dekho Cheye[4]’ (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969), one could see it as a comment from a current pacifist in today’s war-torn world. This book actually seems like an eye opener not only to understand Ray’s films, but also to find out what the world needs from the media, an important comment in times of false news and sensationalism.

However, the book is not all adulation. It is also a critique of the persona of a visionary who could risk all for realising his vision. Chanda tells us how to attain perfection, Ray could risk necks: “There was an element in Ray bordering on ruthlessness. To get a certain effect on the screen he wasn’t averse to taking risks, at times to dangerous levels.”

New perspectives are brought in from unpublished interviews: “In an unpublished Bengali interview of Ray which is in the possession of Abhijit Dasgupta, one-time chief of Doordarshan, Kolkata, when asked about his film Sadgati[5], the maestro is quoted to have said: ‘One needed to make a film on this story immediately. As a Marxist, Mrinal Sen would have probably made it differently, more angry … Had this film been angrier I’m not sure it would have served the purpose any better. I don’t think display of anger alone can lead to much of an achievement. To my mind a truly politically angry film hasn’t been made so far. Until now what has been done is to shoot at safe targets. It hasn’t made any difference to establishments in any way. If one were to achieve this kind of a thing, I would sooner be a political worker than a filmmaker.’”

While looking at the maestro through an objective lens, Chanda finds it hard not to express his affection for the giant who impacted not just him but a whole generation of movie goers, film personnel and the world. His last sentence says it all:

“As far as I’m concerned, he [Ray] is always present. Not past. Not even past perfect.”

Chanda, a man who started his life working in the same advertising agency as Ray and dreaming of being an actor, with four books and multiple films under his belt, himself mesmerised audiences as a protagonist in Ray’s award-winning film and then suddenly withdrew from the industry for two decades. Why would he do that? Let us find out more about him and Ray in this interview.

Barun Chanda

First of all, let me tell you I am very honoured to be interviewing a Ray hero from a film I have watched multiple times. So, tell me, why did you act only in one Ray film, have a hiatus of twenty years and then go back to acting with Hirer Angti [6]  in 1992, the year Ray died. Did it have anything to do with Satyajit Ray’s presence or influence?

No. I’ll tell you what – after Seemabadha, I got a cluster of film offers, nine-ten offers and I did not accept anyone of them because they did not seem to be significant enough. I wasn’t interested in making money out of films or becoming a film star. I was interested in acting in good films. If they came my way, I would do. If they didn’t come my way, I wouldn’t. I would go back to my profession which is advertising. I was very happy there.

So, these offers that came didn’t quite satisfy me. And Manikda[7] did not call me back again for whatever reasons. The other significant filmmakers like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak – they did not call me. I suppose I was branded as a capitalist actor. Or Imperialistic actor! I suppose it became ingrained in their mind I was an executive and nothing else. They felt they could not bend me into the roles in their film. A pity!

Is this your first non- fiction? What led you to think of writing a book on Satyajit Ray?

Yes, it is my first non-fiction. I had harboured this thought for a long-long time but there is a natural reluctance about writing anything. I am, by and large, a lazy person and there were a whole lot of things that were pretty personal, and I thought, you know, let it be stored in my mind. Maybe, I could narrate to my close friends’ circle certain stories and certain things that happened between me and him. But not for everyone. Even in this book, I have not mentioned a whole lot of things that are too personal, which he confided to me in good understanding that I will not tell another. I won’t speak about it.

Then the centenary year came, and many asked me why I did not write my out my memories. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri was one of them. He said the time is right and you have such wonderful anecdotes and experience, put it down for posterity. When I did the first part, I realised it could not just be my experiences but also something larger – in the sense what kind of a man was he in real life.

I was also dissatisfied with the books I have been reading about Ray and his works — starting with Marie Seton[8], who was supposed to be a gospel on Ray. I found it was a narration of his films in chronological order and what she thought of them. It was film-based assessment, not of the man himself or his qualities separated from the films. So, I decided to explore his persona. This book is quite different from any written on him. I have sections on music, editing with a whole lot of films but not in a chronological order. That is passé. The second part started with what has not been done. As I progressed, newer sections dawned on me – a whole lot of sections I have not used. I wanted a chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Ray Empire” – but then thought I’d rather not finally. It would have been terrific, but I did not, perhaps want to spoil the public feeling about Ray. I did not want to criticise. I did do a chapter though — “Director or dictator”.

Absolutely. Your book is dispassionate but has no scandals or any unfair criticism. In fact, it seems to be based on not just your memories but also many interviews and lot of research. Can you tell us what went into the making of this book in this context? What kind of research and who all did you interview? How much time went into the making of the book?

I used Ray’s experiences with actors who are no longer alive – like Chabbi Biswas or Tulsi Chakraborty. I have used Aloknanda Roy who happened to work with Chabbi Babu in Kanchenjunga[9]. I used the living actors. I did not interview Soumitra Chatterjee – I know his feelings on Ray. So, I did not interview him separately. But there is a lot in the book about how Soumitra da perceived Ray or his equation with Ray.

The book worked well for me – I would have gone to a madhouse but for this book. You have to believe me. For it helped my sanity, writing this book during the Covid period[10]. The eighteen months—closer to two years. I could really concentrate on something as I am an outgoing person – not that I am a club person – but I would like to meet my friends, lead an active life. Suddenly, I felt imprisoned – it was like house imprisonment. So, I turned my attention to writing this book and whatever I could get out of YouTube, whole lot of other’s books, Ray’s interviews. One gentleman, Abhijit Dasgupta, who was the head of Kolkata Doordarshan, had conducted an interview. He gave me part of it which I found very intimate. You could do a book on Ray and Mrinal Sen dispassionately –Mrinal’s films would be of historical importance but not of relevance otherwise whereas Manikda’s films can be watched again and again because it touches your heart.

That is so true. Your book is structurally unusual with an introduction in the middle of two parts. Why did you follow such an unconventional format? Do you feel it helped your presentation in any way?

Yes. Because I was writing a different book. No one has written a biography in two parts. In a way it is not a biography, but it is trying to understand and appreciate Ray as a filmmaker. That’s what the book is.

I was in an advantageous position to write on Ray. Actually, Dhritiman Chatterjee could have done the same. I admire Dhriti for his thinking, but I guess there is an innate laziness. He did interview Manikda but I do not know where the tapes are.

I felt the way I did it was the right way. The book came naturally to me. For somethings, I went out of my way — like the titling.

To this date, no Indian director has made a film where the title is relevant to the film. The film follows from the title. The thought is not there. But it is there in the West. That is why you have people like Saul Bass. Ray wanted to do things himself – that might have been why he did the titling too. He would draw and present to the art director who would work further on it. I should have had a whole lot of drawings in this book, but it was not readily available.

I continue to feel I could embellish certain chapters, especially on music. Debojyoti Mishra, a film music director, has written a book in Bengali which actually traces from where Ray has borrowed what piece of Western Classical music. It is not unlike Tagore – there are analogies in the use of music between the two.

Ray spent a few years in Santiniketan when he was young, I think around 1940. Was he impacted by Tagore? Can you tell us about it? Did he meet Tagore or have any conversation with him as it was a year before Rabindranath passed on?

He did not actively seek out Rabi Thakur. He was a very shy person. There is no mention anywhere in his writings about seeking out Tagore, knowing very well Tagore held his father and grandfather in great esteem. His mom knew Tagore well. But he never sought him out. It is rather difficult to understand why he did not utilise the time speaking with Tagore. Maybe, Tagore was inaccessible. I could have asked him, but I never did. I do not know why I never asked.

Why would you borrow from Alfred Hitchcock to name probably one of the last of the Bengal renaissance men? Can you please elaborate?

I thought that the title was absolutely apt. As a director he knew more than any director did. It described him to perfection. He would draw, give music and work with his basic idea with the rest of the team.

What would you say is Ray’s most major contribution to the world?

The brilliance of Ray’s portrayal of the village was outstanding. You watch the film and think you cannot improve on it. And Ray knew it and has said it.

Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?

Ray was a classicist. The film making style has moved away from that. He would not move the camera unless it became imperative to his film. But now, cameras are handheld, and they have fast shooting. Film making has transformed with the emergence of the web series. Shooting has become so much easier and quick, though they work very hard. There is something more raw about web series. The feature film is more stately, more crafted. Films have enough time. You cannot get a good film if the actors are not brilliant. You cannot shoot a good film in ten or twelve days as they do for web series. That is not physically possible. In the West, they take eighty to ninety days to shoot a film.

Ray wrote many novels on Feluda and Professor Sonkhu. Yet made few films on them. He made films of others’ books rather than his own. Can you tell us why?

Maybe, the writing part started late in his life. It was propelled by his need to feed Sandesh[11] and he had to supply stories to Desh[12] — one per year, for the puja [13]special. His writing came as an offshoot – it was an accident. But the preparation was there – if you read his scripts or lyrics, they are fantastic. The scripts he wrote were brilliant. There is much to admire and respect about him. He was a writer too.

You are known to be a writer too. Are your books impacted by your association with Ray?

What I learnt from him was how to write dialogues. The publisher of my Bengali books, Tridib Chatterjee, said he found my dialogues “smart”. Ray’s writing was very tight. I tighten my descriptions. I do not expect the readers to read a book like Tom Jones[14].

Can you tell us about your other books? Coke (2011) interestingly, is available in both Bengali and English. So, which came first — the Bengali book or the English? Are they both your handiwork? Tell us a bit about your novels?

I wrote it in Bengali first and then wrote it in English later. Actually, it was not a direct translation. I write in both the languages. Another one which is in English is Murder in the Monastery. The second edition is being brought out by Rupa, should be available on Amazon soon hopefully. Post-Covid, people have gone into hibernation. So, many have complained they cannot get it.

I have two books in English, Coke and Murder in the Monastery. The others are in Bengali.

Which genre is preferable to you — murder, mystery thrillers or non-fiction like this one?

I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.

Are you giving us any new books in the near future?

Yes, a collection of short stories in Bengali, probably after the pujas. I have created a character called Avinash Roy. He is learned and intelligent but not overtly brilliant like Sherlock Holmes. My favourite character [fictional] among detectives is that of Inspector Morse – I have seen the TV series but not read the books. He was very human. Absolutely brilliant. But coming back to my current book, it is also facing delays, but I am hoping it will be out this October.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions


[1] Translates to ‘bound by limits’

[2] 1980 film by Ray, translates from Bengali as ‘In Hirak Raja’s Kingdom’

[3]1977 film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘The Chess Players’

[4] Translates from Bengali to ‘Oh dear look around’

[5] 1981 television film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘Deliverance’

[6] A film by Rituporno Ghosh, translates as ‘Diamond Ring’

[7] Satyajit Ray – he was often referred to as such by his friends

[8] Marie Seton: Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, 2003

[9] Ray film released in 1962

[10] Lockdown due to the Pandemic

[11] A magazine started by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray in 1913

[12] A Bengali magazine that was started in 1933

[13] Durga Puja, the main festival of Bengalis, where the Goddess is said to return to her parent’s home for five days

[14] The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding

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(This review and telephonic interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Poetry

Extreme Drought or California Dreaming

By Ron Pickett

Courtesy: Creative Commons
EXTREME DROUGHT OR CALIFORNIA DREAMING


There, on the horizon, a cloud.
I watch it as it moves slowly closer.
I think I know clouds, all kinds of clouds.
This cloud moves toward me.
I see it change as it moves, it thins out,
Becomes lighter, less a cloud than a wispy space in the air.
It isn’t a rain cloud, I know that. However much I want it to be.
I’m disappointed. It’s an extreme drought --
 
Just beyond my window is a copse of magnificent gum trees.
The leaves and limbs move in the gentle breeze.
Downwind a spray of fine oil droplets hangs in the air.
It’s what gum trees do – it’s what makes them burn.
It’s the price we pay for fast-growing, softwood trees and their wonderful shade.
I’ve seen them burn and release their glowing embers.
I’ve watched their devastation move like a living, ravenous daemon.
Like a creature unleashed from a Japanese Sci-fi movie.
 
We cover the signs of the drought with green stuff.
It’s Cali and we do that here.
We douse the surface with water we pump from below or bring from 500 miles away
It’s Cali and that’s what we do.
We live in a luxurious, verdant world of green.
We are oblivious to the reality, the drought.
If we can’t see it, it isn’t really happening. It’s Hollywood.
So, there is no drought here, no extreme drought.
 
The lighted sign above the Freeway flashes EXTREME DROUGHT conserve water,
The edges of the freeway are green and lush and need to be mowed.
The sign over the freeway continues to tell us the big lie – Extreme Drought.
How can there be a drought? Everything I see is in denial, part of the deceit.
It’s a scam, a con, the government can’t be trusted.
Look at the Covid vaccines.
I must water my shrubs when I get home.
 
Longest in recorded history – that’s what they say.
Indian tribes moved their dwellings to a new place to follow the water.
We move the water to follow us. As long as there is water to move.
Droughts are always followed by floods, aren’t they?
We will wait for the floods.
El Nino isn’t going to save us this time. His sister is in charge.
One more year? Can we last for one more year?
The green will lose its power to deceive in a few months and then what?
Extreme Drought – conserve water!

PS: The freeway signs have changed!
Don’t drive drunk!

Ron Pickett is a retired naval aviator with over 250 combat missions and 500 carrier landings. His 90-plus articles have appeared in numerous publications. He enjoys writing fiction and has published five books: Perfect Crimes – I Got Away with It, Discovering Roots, Getting Published, EMPATHS, and Sixty Odd Short Stories.

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Categories
Poetry

‘Will Hudson have a chance to live in a Golden Age?’

Poetry by Ron Pickett

Courtesy: Creative Commons
THE GOLDEN AGE

Did I miss it?
No, I was there – I loved it!
Stuff was there when you wanted it.
Shelves were full and that was normal.
Workers were there when they promised.
Fuel was cheap – and available.
Solar was growing and getting cheaper.
I know it now I missed it then.

Stocks were up, dips were for buying.
401k and IRA were fat and getting fatter.
New stuff kept coming. I want some.
News was flat and boring and predictable.
And that was good.
Trump was starting to fade.
Was the election really rigged?
I never knew.

There were too many people.
The virus helped – but not enough.
Demands were blatant and excessive.
Work was optional. For idiots.
Stupidity became normal, praised even.
History is irrelevant – We will do it differently.
Free is a right
Free is a minimum.

Is it all downhill from here?
Will Hudson have a chance to live in a Golden Age?
Will shelves ever be filled?
Will energy ever be cheap?
Will the world become available to me again?
Will the idiots win? – They are now. 
Did the Golden Age just end?
Can it ever return?

The optimist becomes a pessimist 

AGAIN -- STILL -- NO -- IT’S NOT FUNNY 

6000 new cases in California yesterday,
Again.
The COVID curve is beautiful – now – now that it’s bent down, 
Again.
I forgot my mask yesterday,
Again.
I thought it was a fixed part of my leaving the house check-off list,
Again.
I must wear a mask – even exercising!
Again.
I have natural immunity – that’s what we call having had COVID19,
Still.
I resist,
Again
It doesn’t matter,
Still.
We hear orders and mandates - pontifications, because they can!
Still.
They aren’t wearing masks!
Again.
I check the statistics and the curve is down,
Still!
Have we learned anything?
No!

Ron Pickett is a retired naval aviator with over 250 combat missions and 500 carrier landings. His 90-plus articles have appeared in numerous publications. He enjoys writing fiction and has published five books: Perfect Crimes – I Got Away with It, Discovering Roots, Getting Published, EMPATHS, and Sixty Odd Short Stories.

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

Categories
Interview

A Voice from Kharkiv : A Refugee in her Own Country

Lesya Bakun, a poet and writer, tells her story of escape from war-torn Ukraine. Her narrative maps the past and the present.

“I woke up around 4 am with the sound of a loud explosion. And I heard all around me people running. They were leaving as they knew it (war) had started,” said Lesya Bakun, an applied linguist who worked as a youth worker and Non-Formal Education trainer in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This was on 24th February 2022. The offensive that is devastating a huge country with a population of 43,273,062 had started.

Lesya faced bombs as she tried to get food to her mother from her home as supermarkets were not functioning. She went live on Facebook while the shelling continued, using the footage as a defence mechanism. She elucidates: “I have documented my trip to bring my mother some food. It was scary because I heard explosions all the time. I was partly doing that as a security measure so that if anything happened to me it would be caught live on video. I had told my friends, if anything happened to me, they had my permission to disclose it. I had been sharing the overall story of the war. Many followed me on FB live from different countries because I was involved in European Commission’s Erasmus Programme for nine years and I knew people from pretty much all around Europe. I had connections also because I was a moderator for Virtual Poetry Readings. I had friends from every continent. People were following my story. It is one thing to watch the events in news but another to watch someone live through it. Eventually, people started recommending me to journalists in other countries. I gave five interviews to Canada, USA, Lithuania, Georgia and Italy. I became a bit famous. Weird though, not on the basis of who I am but on the basis of where I was and what I experienced. Like I am doing right now.”

Born five years before the USSR was dissolved, Lesya lived the first part of her life in the city that has been ground to pulp with the bombing, Mariupol. She moved to Kharkiv when she was twelve. She has memories of her past growing up in a Ukranian-speaking home, she was exposed to Russian and English together at kindergarten.  

She unfolds the story of the current aggression bit by bit. The war this time was anticipated, she tells us. “This (attack) was anticipated because pretty much the whole world warned us that this would happen. And I had been warned by my friends from Lithuania and Latvia. My friend from Lithuania warned me three days before the attack and my friend from Latvia, three weeks before the attack. Russia and Belarus had prepared troops nearby, but a lot of people did not believe it would happen as they believed the Russian propaganda for dozens of years. I could have left earlier but my mum was really ill. She had COVID and pneumonia in January. She was in hospital. Then we brought her home with the oxygen machine.”

She had been going through family crises when the war started. She tells us: “Even though I was warned, I had not packed at all. In December, my grandmother died of a long illness. Then in January, my mum got ill with COVID. I had formalities of the funeral and all that. I was definitely not mentally prepared for war. How can you ever be prepared? I think even Putin was not prepared though he knew Russia’s plan. But he definitely did not understand how the Ukranians would meet him and his troops. Because for some reason, he was sure Ukranians would be happy to meet them. But Ukranians were not happy at all. He anticipated welcome like in Crimea (2014) where people did not fight. Unfortunately, eight years ago, lot of Ukranian troops and Crimea just gave up and changed the flag just like that. So, they have broken their promise to the Ukranian nation.”

She spells out clearly that Ukranians want their identity respected and not annihilated. “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.”

The sense of resentment runs strong. The feeling of being let down is evident. She talks of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994, which led to the denuclearisation of Ukraine, here as she did in her poem. “Budapest Memorandum is an agreement between Russia, USA and UK. It says these three countries will protect us if we are attacked. When Russia took away Crimea eight years ago, no one came to protect us. There was a war with people dying in the East of Ukraine. Now as Russia attacks us, will Russia protect us? The United States and United Kingdom did not protect us from Russia. Thank you for all the help, help to refugees, for weapons. But the world would not need to face millions of refugees if they had respected the Budapest Memorandum eight years ago.”

Lesya gives a backgrounder to elucidate the need to withstand the Russian forces: “Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country, we have ethnic Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Belarusians, Poles, Jews, Tartars, many others — not only Ukrainians and Russians, so it was never about ‘evil Ukrainians want to forbid Russian language and oppress Russian-speakers’ as they said in propaganda for years. Ukrainian Constitution protects the right for every nation and language to exist — but for Russia, just the existence of the Ukrainian language is an insult and a ‘threat to their existence’ (that they apparently need to protect by bombing Russian-speaking cities among others).

“For centuries, massive anti-Ukraine politics have been lead, targeted to wipe out Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, in the Tsarist Russia, in the USSR, and even after the Ukrainian independence. People have been brainwashed, and even our own TV shows often made fun of Ukrainians. A lot of common people (in some regions, up to 50%) believed the Russian propaganda. Films and media were still in Russian despite our breaking away, for years, which made me — a Ukrainian speaker — feel like an unwanted element in my own country. Only Yushchenko — our third President – introduced the law that all movies had to be dubbed in Ukrainian. Poroshenko — our fifth President — introduced Ukrainian-speaking quotas on the Radio — and a lot of business owners opposed that, and from that point, rumours of ‘Ukrainians suppressing Russians’ intensified. Russia wanted Russian to be the sole ‘inhabiter’ of our narrative and media, and the mere existence of Ukrainian media in Ukraine was perceived aggressively as ‘Ukrainian Nazism’ and ‘Ukrainians hating Russians’, ‘oppression of Russian-speakers’ and ‘Russian language needing protection in Ukraine’ (by destroying kindergartens and maternity hospitals, apparently).”

She gives an example of a woman who believed the ‘Russian narrative’ just before the war started. Lesya had gone for a lung check up to the hospital as she was coughing. This is what she says she encountered. “Two days before (the war started), I went to the hospital. I went for a fluoroscopy of my lungs. Then I could not take my results because the war began. But I still went to see the doctor before the war. A patient waiting with me asked, ‘If you do not have the results of the flouroscopy, why are you waiting to see the doctor?’ And I told her, ‘What if tomorrow the war starts?’ And this woman was too scared to believe.”

Lesya comes from a family of academics and intellectuals. She tells us about her mother, who despite the shelling continues to live in Kharkiv. A university lecturer, a Slavist and a dialectologist, her mother researched on language policies. Lesya explains:  “My mother researched the Habsburg dynasty language policy in Wien and saw the originals of documents and laws. The laws of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were issued in local languages — among them, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech. There were magazines and books published in Ukrainian — while in the part of Ukraine under Tsarist Russia it was impossible. The existence of Ukrainian press, theatre, education, independent thought was forbidden. While in the Tsarist Russia, there had been a sets of laws that gradually forbade the use of Ukrainian in all wakes of life. Under the Soviet occupation, the situation did not improve. While on paper you could use Ukrainian, but in reality, all ‘other-thinkers’ were executed, sent to Siberia or suppressed and mentally broken until they started writing only ‘Social realism’ and praise of the Soviet regime and Stalin.”

Lesya draws from the past to explain how long Ukranians have faced oppression and why they felt the need to stand up to Russia. “You could not tell the story of Ukranian oppression in USSR because then you would be killed. Both my grandparents’ families have lived through the genocide of Holdomor genocide of 1932-33. Food was taken from the children and sold to the West, creating an artificial famine. Millions of Ukranians died of hunger. My grandfather’s family survived that, but his aunts died of hunger. And my grandmother’s family went through that. Their whole life, they were together, but they only started speaking to each other about the Holodomor genocide and their families’ experiences after Ukraine got its independence in 1991. Speaking about all this was forbidden so that even within the family people were scared to discuss it.”

To explain the current crises, Lesya drew upon the past. “We wanted to exist. Ukranian history, culture and language had been destroyed for centuries. We wanted to exist as a nation. The weak and faulty Soviet economy was another reason why not just Ukraine, but most of the Soviet republics, wanted independence. That was very noticeable even to common citizens despite all the anti-West propaganda and the Iron Curtain. I only have faint memories of it as I was five when the USSR collapsed, but I heard and read a lot of stories, and saw photos of empty shells of Soviet shops — there was this huge deficit of even the most needed things. The ‘planned economy’ was a ‘disaster’. Like if you wanted to buy milk, you needed to wake up at 4 am and stand in queue for two hours. There was the Iron Curtain — citizens of Soviet Union were forbidden to go abroad, or Western products brought in. Only if you were thoroughly screened by the KGB, you would be allowed to go abroad, and that would mainly be to the ‘Socialist block’ countries, on a preliminary very thoroughly planned visit. The KGB would continue to follow each of your steps while you were on a visit abroad. Only several dozen people were allowed to leave USSR for a short period of time, on a route agreed by the KGB — mostly diplomats or huge cultural actors (like ballet dancers). No such thing as ‘travel’ outside of Soviet Union could even happen.

“Of course, we had notion of international friendships, India, African countries, Cuba. We were curious. One of my closest friends is Ukranian-speaking half-Cuban — one parent is Cuban and the other Ukranian. They fell in love when as a student, one of them came from Cuba to study in Ukraine. We have had international friendships but only with socialist countries.”

Lesya tells us more about the suffering within her family in the Soviet Union. “Individual businesses were forbidden in USSR. My grandmother’s uncle was executed for owning a windmill. Being an entrepreneur was impossible. In my family, we have lots of such stories. My grandfather from my father’s side (who I did not know because he died before my parents married) believed in the Soviet propaganda, and he crossed over from Poland across the border with Belarus on foot. My grandfather eventually got married and had a daughter. But he was convicted on false allegations that he was a Polish spy and sent for ten years to Siberia. When he returned, his family had forsaken him in order not to live under the black mark of a ‘family of an enemy of the state’.

“With time, my grandfather managed to create another family and have my father — I am carrying this grandfather’s surname. My father, despite being born in Belarus from a Polish person, was documented as a ‘Russian’ in order to save him from a similar fate. Now imagine how many people in the Soviet Union were written as ‘Russian’ despite not being such? When he met my mother and he told her the truth, but my mum was okay because she said her father was also ‘an enemy of the state’.”

Lesya’s pride in her heritage is strong. She talks of her city and grandfather, mingling it with the present. “My city of Mariupol is being ruined by the Orcs (as we call the Russians) so much so that now the city almost does not exist. The city is an important cultural, naval (port), technological and industrial centre. It is a city in which my grandfather, Nil Andriyovych Karnaushenko, was a professor of metallurgy. And he has 32 patents that have been used in the local metallurgical works.

You have heard about the tragedy of civilians and the military — sheltered and simultaneously trapped in the metallurgical factory Azovstal. One of them is my cousin, who has been captured by the Russians*. The metallurgical works of Illicha and Azovstal were working non-stop even during the WW2 and the four years it’s been fought on Ukrainian territory – my grandfather said if the blast furnace gets stopped, it takes a lot of efforts and days to start it again, with a risk you could not start it at all. So the furnaces were working even during the four years of war.

“And now – two months of war with Russia – the metallurgical works that used my grandfather’s 32 inventions, all of his life’s work – are being destroyed. The university in which he lectured until his last breath – has lost half if its personnel. The city almost ceased to exist. And this is a primarily Russian-speaking city (despite being created by Greeks and being surrounded by ethnic Greek villages).

“It is not just Mariupol, but multiple cities, towns, villages near the Azov and Black seas, were built by Greeks. We have many ethnic Greeks living in and around Mariupol, we have lot of villages that are mostly populated by ethnic Greeks — that are now either wiped out or seized (after being wiped out) by Russians. We used to have a Greek consulate in Mariupol. It was as important cultural city, and hopefully will be again — after we win and rebuild it. And each of the 24 regions and the temporarily occupied Republic of Crimea in Ukraine have their own centuries of history and their own distinct story to tell — which is not Russian at all.

“They came to ‘liberate the people of Donbas’. Apparently, by creating multiple mass graves, burning thousands of civilians in moving crematoriums and deporting tens of thousands to Siberia without documents and means of communication.”

She draws from the past and tells us, “I am not a historian but a linguist. But the stories that my family have lived through and passed to me are a work in history. The story of Ukraine has not started by breaking away from Russia in 1991. It has started much earlier than Keivan Rus’ (882-1240). Ukranian history began more than one million years ago when the first Ukranian settlers began to inhabit the terrain of Ukraine. Long ago, the first horse was domesticated in Ukraine along with wheels. The first metal was developed in Ukraine.”

Lesya explains from a linguist’s perspective. “We have many ethnoses living in Ukraine for centuries. Our Constitution has been protecting all of them since Independence. We have local minorities of Romanians, Hungarians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Karaims. We have a local minority of Crimean tartars (an ethnos native to Crimea). They had been deported by Stalin to Siberia — thousands of people dying in trains travelling to this cold place. Some survived and continued to live in Siberia. Imagine, for example, all people from Spain being sent to Greenland, with barely any clothes or food. Stalin banned the return of Crimean Tartars to their native, warm Crimea from Siberia — and only when Ukraine got its independence, we allowed them to come back. People returned home, after generations to see their homes taken by the Russian military or people exported from all over Soviet Union into their empty homes. This tragedy has been depicted in Jamala’s Eurovision-winning song “1944”. Ukraine had given Crimean Tartars the status of ‘nation local to Crimea’. While the Soviet Union and Russia as its heir had expelled them from their homes and deported them, without the right to return home, for three generations. This is why Crimean Tartars are so loyal to Ukraine as a country, and vocal in support of Ukraine after Crimea was forcefully taken. And this is one of the reasons why the tale ‘Crimea has always been Russian’ is a blatant lie.

Jamala’s song — the 2016 Eurovision winner

“We have many Jews. Belorussians. So, there are many more languages spoken in Ukraine other than Ukranian, Russian and English. Some people in Transcarpathia speak a mix of languages, you can see traces of Hungarian and sometimes Romanian — not pure Ukrainian. Ukraine is a huge country, geographically the biggest in Europe. Historically, unfortunately, our territory has been often split between different countries, each with their own policy about ethnic minority nations and languages. Russia had been very efficient trying to exterminate the Ukranian language, history and culture for centuries. And downgrading our sense of self-worth and installing in us a feeling we are not anything. Also installing a myth that Ukranian language and nation does not exist. In my part of Ukraine, Russian has been spoken widely just because they have a policy of destroying other languages. Also, sometimes people who speak Ukranian switch to Russian because they want to ‘fit in’ and be perceived as ‘higher rank’ or better educated — all because of centuries of conditioning that if a person speaks Ukrainian, they are an uneducated villager, and Russian is ‘high profile’ and overall better.

“When the Soviets came to the western part of Ukraine, they were very repressive. People were executed just for speaking Ukranian, or simply having the blue-and yellow (Ukrainian) flag. The place in which thousands of people were tortured and executed by the Soviets, is now Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum (the National Museum-Memorial of Victims of Occupation Regimes) in Lviv. And that is why people in the West of Ukraine fought against the Soviets during the  World War II and till 1956 when the Ukranian Rebel Army was totally destroyed — the rebels called ‘Nazists’ by the Soviet propaganda in Ukraine for the fact they were fighting against Soviet oppressors — a lie that had lived on for dozens of years and manifested in war now.”

Some of this may sound unreal or perhaps surreal to the world that continues entrenched in their everyday existence where the pandemic protocols continue a major concern along with having enough money to sustain oneself. Perhaps, the majority of people are most hit by the rise in oil and food prices, a threat of widespread hunger and stocks going awry. But for Lesya, it is her very existence as she recounts how she got out of Ukraine to the safety of Lithuania. Her choice was made because a friend from Lithuania warned her about the upcoming war and offered her a place to stay three days before the bombing. She adds: “Also, Lithuania has had a lot in common with Ukraine historically — the countries being together in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236-1795), old Ukrainian being one of the official languages there. Lithuania had also suffered under the Soviet occupation. When I finally reached Lithuania, I found that the country was very supportive of Ukrainians. Many Lithuanians were volunteering, gathering humanitarian help. There were lots of Ukrainian flags and messages of support everywhere.”

Her escape to Lithuania was an adventure that lasted for eight days. When asked if she could relate her experience, this is what she had to say: “I can disclose part of the escape — not all because it will put others at risk for no reason… Actually, for the first five days I was trying to convince my mum to leave, to pack. But it was almost impossible. One of the reasons is she is still connected to the Oxygen machine. She can stay only for some time without the machine, but a long time would not be a good idea. And then she could not find her documents. And she was definitely not in a psychological condition to pack and go somewhere. Neither was I — but she was in a worse condition than me. I had been trying to convince her for five days, but she did not budge.

“My mother was the first one who saw smoke really close to her home and she called her friends and acquaintances to find out if they knew anything about the source. That did not convince her to leave. But it convinced me. It was the day after the Kharkiv administrative building had been bombed. The next day the neighbourhood in which we lived, in the centre of the city, was bombed. That is when I started to blog and do Face Book live — something that I almost had never done before – to document my trip to carry some food to my mother from my home.”

She continued her narrative explaining how she got help to leave the country from a voluntary group formed by citizens to take people to safety out of Ukraine: “There are several organisations. In Kharkiv, I know of two. Probably there are more. They are helping people get out of Kharkiv. One organisation was taking people to Poland or wherever the person wants to go but it would have to be outside the city. There is also a group of volunteers who help people reach the train station to leave by the evacuation train because it is hard to reach the train station without public transportation. Public transport is no longer functioning. And the taxi drivers were asking for absurd prices — like a month’s salary where earlier it was a hundred now, they wanted 5000 or 7000 hryvnias. I did not know what to do, for it would take me about three hours to walk to the train station under normal circumstances. Now with my backpack and belongings under constant shelling, it seemed pretty much impossible.

“At that juncture, I got to know there is an organisation which I will not name till the war stops, that helps people out and I registered with them in a google form writing where I wanted to go. In the form, they asked us to fill the number of people who needed evacuation, the number of children, pets. Their priority was to get whole families out. I was just one person — that was one of the reasons why it took me so long to get to the border as families were a priority.

“One of the people affiliated to this organisation is a friend of mine. She is also a writer who used to document war crimes in the Donetsk region for eight years. So, that day she called me at 7 am and asked me if I could be ready in fifteen minutes, I said I could not be ready in fifteen minutes as I was at my mum’s. Then I rushed home and packed whatever I could. There was a chance that the cars with the fleeing residents would be bombed. The most important things needed to be in the backpack — money and documents and in my case, the laptop. Because even though I do not use it much, you can work anywhere if you have your laptop. I had thirty minutes to pack to leave.”

“One or two days before that, the electricity got cut for the evening. I was afraid the meat would be ruined. I did not know when the electricity would be back. So, I boiled all the meat from the fridge. Before leaving, I gave the two bowls of boiled meat to my neighbour who at that point had not planned to leave. I also gave her my massage cover that I had bought in December. In our tradition, leaving something behind is a sign you will return.

“At that point my neighbour did not want to leave as she had family near Kharkiv. But now, she is in Germany. When the war started, she was wondering when it would all end. I was looking at her and thinking how our grandparents faced war for four years during the Second World War. I bet they did not ask when will it all end! I knew that it will not be quick, that is not how wars are fought. At that point, it was the third day of full-scale war, and it was weird that she constantly asked, ‘When it will all end?’ and was eagerly waiting for the result of peace talks between our diplomats. I knew no peace talks were really possible: they would demand half of Ukrainian territory, we would not agree, end of discussion, the war continues. What peace talks? On the basis of what? Us surrendering? ‘Demilitarisation’? Why would we do that? There was no common ground for discussion. We want to be left alone, to continue being an independent country with a path towards NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the EU (European Union), and we want Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions back. They want Ukraine to cease existing (what they call ‘demilitarisation’), Ukrainians as a nation assimilated (what they call ‘de-Nazification’). These are their demands. There is no ground for discussion here.

“I took the dry food which would not go bad during the trip. I did not know how long the trip would take and what I would face. I took only the food that did not need to be cooked.

“I packed what I could and then I found my friend calling me. I had not heard the phone ring. I am really thankful she did not leave without me because people really need to leave the city very early as the bombing would start early, maybe at 9am, and then it repeats with pauses — every two hours, about five times a day. You hide in a self-created bomb shelter while the shelling continues. When it stops, you sit there for some time, trembling and unsure; and by the time you get your guts together to go buy some food or supplies (in my case, medicine or pulse oximeter batteries for mom), the shelling begins again, and you cannot leave. You just sit at home, frozen, in the constant state of crippling fear.

“My trip to Lithuania was nothing special. But I have never been not able to travel as I want. Also, I never had to travel with bombs and outside of curfews. I live fifteen minutes by bus from the airport. But the biggest airports of Ukraine were closed the night before the war started. That is why it took so long. Each city, each neighbourhood have their own curfews. You cannot be outside the curfew. 

“I started my journey as, first, an internally displaced person, and then, a refugee, on the sixth day of war. My friend picked me up. I got in the bus and put my luggage aside. All you needed was your money, documents and your smart phone.

“I thanked my friend for taking me, but she said, ‘My dear how would I leave you?’ And I whispered under my breath, ‘I love you.’ I felt relieved. We started driving. Within five minutes, I saw several bombed buildings. I saw with my own eyes how real it all was.

“After that we went to the house of my friend’s parents, outside Kharkiv. That had been converted to a refugee shelter. It was a point where you waited for the next part of the transport. More people were waiting there.

“We made plans for our trip. My friend also arrived. She apologised that she could not take me as the next two buses were loaded with families and they do not part families. So, I stopped there with her family. I waited two days for the next transfer. It was nerve racking as it was close to Kharkiv and we heard warplanes flying. The bombs were exploding in our part of the town.

“You made connections with the people in the house because you do not know how long you would have to wait. You do not know if the bus would be bombed, if the bus driver will be alive. You do not know. You are in the complete dark. I managed to make friends with the people there. I slept on the sofa in the same room. My friend’s mother cooked for us free of charge. The people in the village had to stand in a queue for one and a half hours to buy food. The good thing was that at least there was food in the shops.

“There were no sirens because we were not in the city. The city defence system did not actually cover us. And the city air raid warning system also did not cover us. If you hear the planes and the explosions, you know it is time to go inside as the bombs can hit your house. Sometimes, you take shelter in the cellars which is used to store vegetables. One of the children in the shelter was a special needs kid and therefore restless and would scream. My coat was ripped but I did not have the inner strength to sew it. I had two foreign passports. I used the part that was ripped to hide documents and money, in case I’d need to run with no luggage. It is legal in Ukraine to have two foreign passports. I had some money there which, unfortunately, I could not exchange after the war started.

“Finally, we left early in two buses. In Ukraine you travel between curfews. On the road, we had two stops in local kindergartens or schools on the borders of the region at night for the curfew. The bus driver had to monitor to navigate us safely — watching all the while where the road was destroyed, where the bridge was destroyed.

“We would start around six seven in the morning every day and then stop for shelter at 2 pm or 3 pm or 4 pm so as not to move outside the curfew. We were welcomed in kindergartens or schools. Sometimes we slept on the floor. We were not the first and we will not be the last. Lots of families with children waited. And we were brought to a refugee centre in the centre of Ukraine which is the office of the organisation that was helping us. In the city, I will not name till the end of the war and probably later, we stayed in a very old Soviet hotel with running water but no hot water. We had to hide in the bomb shelters three times a day just in case. It was a hotel full of people from Kharkiv. I have been in Lithuania now for almost a month. And this organisation is still helping people.

“We stayed in the centre of Ukraine. It was not modern, but it was a shelter, and they gave us food on a voluntary basis. So, some people decided this would be their final destination. Some refugees are now volunteering for arranging transportation, giving information, fund raising. They are trying to arrange buses but sometimes, there are buses but no driver, sometimes drivers but no buses, sometimes no petrol — it is war. So, we waited there two or three days. I cannot recall the number of days exactly. We waited for buses to take us to Warsaw as this organisation has an agreement with Poland. There is a hotel in which we could stay in Warsaw.

“They gave us food three times a day and we did not have to pay anything. I spoke to two young women, mother and a teenage daughter. Their home was destroyed near the Constitution Square and they were living in the hotel. They had bombed the Constitution Square and the Independence Square… Those two women have been left without a home and stay in the hotel. I had given interviews to Canada, Romania by then and I went around asking people if they would like to give interviews, but people did not want to. So, in that sense, I am unique.

“Every person deals with stress in different ways. They were not ready to talk of their trauma.  But for me it is natural to talk. So, this woman refused to talk about it. Their experience is their home did not exist anymore. The mother had to be dug out of the rubble when there was an explosion. The daughter was like the Terminator. The cupboard fell on her and she got up and put everything back to order and dug her mother out of the rubble in the bathroom. Her mother stayed in the hospital emergency care for one day as her face was covered with broken glass. Then the next day, their relatives came, helped dig out two suitcases and, mind you, it was February, and they had only two suitcases left. If you live in the centre of Kharkiv, it means your life is good. They lost everything.

“My friend from Lithuania was wondering if I were ready to go. When I told him I would probably have to go to Warsaw, he started searching for ways for me to get to Lithuania from Warsaw. Apparently, there are volunteers who are taking people from the border of Poland to Lithuania but not from Warsaw. So, he told me to go to the border of Poland and find this person and say that I need help.

“We arrived by bus to the border town of Lviv. My friend from Lithuania had a relative there whose wife worked in the school, which was used to house us. This relative’s wife helped me buy some cough medicine, as I was coughing, and a power bank…  We spend the night in the village and started our trip. It was a green corridor bus so I thought it would go faster. They would not check the documents so thoroughly. But there was a huge crowd of buses and people. We had to wait at the border for eight hours.  It was 1 am when we crossed the border. To get from the border to Lithuania was not easy. No one knew how long one has to wait at the border. Some people had been waiting two days at the border. Eight hours later, I got out and I felt my adventure had ended. But actually, it was just starting.”

Lesya Bakun at the Polish border

A special message from Lesya Bakun:

“If you want to help Ukraine in its hour of need, I urge you to donate to Ukrainian military — because if Ukraine loses, there will no longer be need for humanitarian help. You can support local humanitarian actions — things that are really needed in these specific locations in this specific time. You can donate to the fund “Come back alive/Povernys’ Zhyvym“. Please click here to donate. And you can help Ukrainian families, children, and pets get to safety by donating to the volunteers who bring people like me and all the people I met en route.

“I also urge you to support Ukraine by buying Ukrainian books, inviting Ukrainian artists to poetry, musical, and visual arts events – or offering residencies and shelter to Ukrainians fleeing from war, and learning more about the reach Ukrainian culture and the history of its fight for freedom.

“Together, we will win!” — Lesya Bakun

*Updated on 9th May, 2022, from an email message by sent by Lesya Bakun: “My cousin, the defender of Mariupol, has been captured by Russians.”

(This article is based on an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty from voice messages and written texts on the social media platform of Telegram.)

Lesya Bakun has given a list of some places where donations can be made.

BENEFICIARY

RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA273052990262046400929572634

ACCOUNT

5169 3600 1722 8341

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT

0011000080

INTERMEDIARY BANK

JP MORGAN CHASE BANK
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASUS33

Card currency:
USD

BENEFICIARY
Отримувач (П. І. Б. отримувача рахунку латиницею)
RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA513052990262016400929572635

ACCOUNT
Рахунок в банку одержувача (номер пластикової карти або поточний рахунок в Приватбанку)
5169 3600 1722 8358

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT
Рахунок банку одержувача в банку-кореспонденті
623-160-5145

INTERMEDIARY BANK
Банк-корреспондент
J.P.MORGAN AG, FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASDEFX

Валюта карти:
EUR

Riabko Vasyl 095 555 06 58
papakarlowas@gmail.com
For Western Union or PayPal

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

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely that of the interviewee and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Stories

Henrik’s Journey

By Farah Ghuznavi

It was time to give up the fight.

Shifting from the uncomfortable position on her side, Chhaya sat up. There was no way she was getting a nap on this flight.

For her surrender, she was rewarded with a beaming smile from one of her fellow passengers. The man, who had earlier introduced himself as Henrik Something-or-the-other, had not stopped talking – or so it seemed to her – for the past five hours. She was grateful that they had less than two hours of flight time remaining before they landed in Copenhagen.

Reaching the departure gate in Dubai, Chhaya had noticed Henrik almost immediately. Tall and lean, his well-groomed silver hair seemed a little at odds with his flamboyant clothing: a zipper-festooned biker jacket, red tie, white shirt and navy jeans, with a black cowboy hat jauntily perched on the extended handle of his cabin baggage, for good measure.

A short time later, she located her aisle seat, only to find him comfortably ensconced between her and the young Indian man sitting by the window. Curtly acknowledging his introduction, she ignored the twinkle in his eye and dived into a report on refugee relief activities, indicating, she hoped, a total lack of interest in further conversation.

A man dressed like that had to be working his way through some form of midlife crisis, Chhaya figured, albeit one that had arrived late. She had no idea how accurate her assessment actually was. But she was determined not to be a spectator at Henrik Whatnot’s travelling circus. Besides, she was determined to be well-prepared for the donor meeting in Copenhagen.

By the time their meal had been served, Henrik was on first-name terms with all the cabin crew members. He had started by sharing the holiday photos on his phone with Giselle. A tall blonde from Munich, she seemed unaccountably interested in his safari experiences at Kruger National Park. And even Chhaya had to admit that the picture of him bottle-feeding a lion cub was rather cute.

“Was this your first trip to South Africa, sir?” Giselle asked.

“Call me Henrik! Yes, it was, and I am thinking of buying a third home there. Now that I’m retired, my wife and I have more freedom to travel. A doctor’s life isn’t really designed for leisure, but for the last couple of years, we’ve been spending our summers in Denmark and our winters in Thailand, where my wife is from. I’m making up for lost time, so to speak – though my wife’s convinced I travel too much!”

Chhaya concealed an inward shudder at this instance of yet another older white man picking up some young Thai woman on a beach holiday, and taking his submissive Asian flower home to keep him warm in the frozen north. The stewardess, who was probably thinking the same thing, did an even better job of hiding her distaste.

“So you met your wife on your travels, sir – I mean, Henrik?”

“Yes, but perhaps not in the way that you are thinking,” said Henrik, smiling. “I was hiking through northern Thailand, when I stumbled across a village tucked away in the hills. There were no hotels, so I rented a room for the night in someone’s home. The family had a son who was visiting from Bangkok. He was the only one who spoke good English, so he translated our conversation for the others, while we ate the delicious food his mother had cooked for us.

“In the middle of the night, there was a knock on the door, and the young man came in to say that his neighbour’s child was very ill. He asked if I could help. I did what I could, but it was touch and go for a while, because the boy was burning up. I spent the next few days looking after him. He lived with his mother and aunt, who had the unenviable job of plucking and cleaning slaughtered chickens at a nearby poultry farm.

“I ended up staying in that village for three months. That’s how long it took me to persuade the boy’s aunt that I would make a good husband. Even today, my wife Su doesn’t like spending time in Bangkok, so we decided to build a house in her village. You never can tell what fate has in store. My marriage to the world’s kindest woman was built on a foundation of chicken guts, late nights with a sick child, and her determined resistance to the advances of a strange foreigner!”

By the end of his story, they were all smiling, even Chhaya.

She was less impressed when Henrik decided to buy gifts for his beloved wife from the duty-free trolley after dinner. Examining a platinum bracelet stud with diamonds, he asked the steward Jeffery, what he thought of it.

“It’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?” the man said. And then, perhaps remembering that his job was to actually sell things – the more expensive the better – the steward made a quick recovery, adding “Though I suppose it depends on your wife’s preferences. It is a very beautiful bracelet!”

“Yes, but I think you may be right. My wife is a woman of simple tastes. I think she would prefer this one.” He selected a slim gold bracelet cunningly crafted into three interwoven strands, before moving on to the perfumes. “Which of these fragrances do you think she’d prefer?” he asked Jeffery.

“I don’t really know, sir…” he said, hesitating.

“But you must have some preference!” Henrik said. “What would you buy for a woman – for your wife or girlfriend?”

Since Jeffery looked decidedly ill at ease, Chhaya intervened. “Why don’t you ask one of the women Henrik? I’m sure they would be happy to give you some advice.”

The look of relief on Jeffery’s face made Chhaya wonder if perhaps giving away aftershaves was more his style than perfumes. Summoning his co-worker, a petite brunette, to the trolley, Jeffery said, “Marta, this gentleman would like some suggestions about which perfume to get his wife for a special occasion.”

Rolling her eyes at Jeffery, Marta nevertheless obliged. With her more savvy assistance, Henrik finally selected a crystal Baccarat bottle of Guerlain Idylle, spending the tidy sum of nearly 1500 euros on the two items. “I’ve been away a long time, so I have some making up to do where she’s concerned!” he joked.

Appalled at his extravagance, Chhaya couldn’t help thinking about how much better that money could have been spent in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where she and her team found themselves working under increasingly frustrating conditions.

There was no point in making such comparisons, she knew, but it was infuriating when people threw away money like that in a world where others were desperate. And with money to burn, why was this guy travelling economy anyway?

Deciding she had had enough of the strange man and his stories, Chhaya turned on her side, jamming in the earplugs that she had cadged off Jeffery, and willed herself to sleep.

Meanwhile, Henrik turned to speak to the young man on his right, who reluctantly surrendered his headphones and his plans for in-flight entertainment. As Chhaya persisted with her abortive attempt at napping, Henrik proceeded to chat with Sunil, a nerdy youth with well-oiled hair, who was on his way to the US to study Engineering.

“So you’re going on a full scholarship? How wonderful! Your family must be very proud,” Henrik said.

“Yes, they are. I would never have got the scholarship without the sacrifices my parents made for my education,” Sunil said. “But now I am facing some difficulties.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Henrik said.

“Well, it was my mother’s fervent wish that I get engaged before leaving for America, but I just could not find a suitable girl. My parents tried everything. They matched horoscopes, discussed nice girls with my uncles and aunties, and identified a number of prospective brides.”

“But do you want to get married so soon?” Henrik said.

“Oh yes, I have no problem with having the engagement now and getting married after I return from the US,” Sunil assured him. “It is just that none of the girls was right for me. What I mean is, several of them were beautiful, but there was always something I didn’t like about them. And also, too many of them wore glasses!”

“Ah, but you mustn’t be so finicky, young man! You can’t pick a bride simply for her beauty, and think that’ll be enough to keep you happy. Beauty is all very well, but after a while, its effects wear off. The important things in a marriage are humour, and companionship – a wife who is smart enough to understand what you need, and to tell you what she needs. And the girls who wear glasses are probably the smarter ones!”

“But my wife must be beautiful! You see, I am intelligent, but I am not very good-looking. So when we have children…”

“You want them to have her looks and your intelligence?”

“Yes!”

“But Sunil, as George Bernard Shaw famously pointed out, you must realise that it could also work out the other way around! And if they were to have your looks and her intellect, surely you would want her to be intelligent too?” Henrik laughed. “Not that there’s anything wrong with your looks, of course!” he added cheerfully.

With Sunil as his captive audience, Henrik continued to expound on his theories regarding marriage. Trying to sleep, Chhaya ground her teeth as the sub-standard airline earplugs forced her to listen in; though she had to admit that the older man did make a number of good points.

In the end, Sunil reached the same conclusion, saying “Yes, Mr Henrik, I think you are right. I will take another look at the bio-datas of some of the girls with spectacles.”

In the end, Chhaya gave up all hope of sleeping and sat up once again. Marvelling at Henrik’s powers of persuasion, she decided to try for an attitude adjustment. It helped when the object of her ire turned to ask Chhaya what line of business she was in.

“I’m a development worker, actually,” she said.

“Oh?” Henrik’s eyes lit up. ”What’s your area of specialisation? And if you don’t mind my asking, where are you from?”

Some imp of mischief made Chhaya reply, “Well, where do you think I am from?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m having a hard time figuring it out. I want to say Thailand, because you remind me a bit of my wife, but your name doesn’t sound Thai. Are you Malaysian? Or Nepali?” Henrik said.

“That’s what most people think,” Chhaya said. “But actually, I’m from Bangladesh.”

“Well, that’s a country facing some challenges right now!” said Henrik. “I was surprised when your government decided to let the Rohingyas in a couple of years ago. So many of them too. I just wish European governments were half as generous when it came to refugees!”

“Yes, if only!” Chhaya laughed. “But coping with the influx has presented enormous logistical challenges for those in my line of work. As well as for Bangladesh as a country, of course.

“Actually, that’s why I’m going to Copenhagen right now, to address the donor consortium that funds my organisation.” She gestured at the report she was holding, “So I need to sound informed and authoritative.”

“Have you actually been to the camps yourself?”

“Yes, several times. I was there very recently, just a couple of days ago. Things are a mess right now, but we have to deal with the realities on the ground. And there’s also some talk about this new disease, COVID 19, that’s popped up out of nowhere. It could be disastrous if it makes its way to Bangladesh, given our population density. And people are living cheek by jowl in the refugee camps already!

“To make matters worse, China’s pretty close by for us, so the threat is very real. Unless, of course, it miraculously disappears the way MERS or SARS did. Still, I’m actually quite proud of Bangladesh for opening the borders to the refugees from Myanmar despite what it’s costing us.”

Chhaya smiled briefly before continuing, “As for Aung San Suu Kyi — I can’t understand how, after benefiting from the international human rights movement’s support for decades, she could turn her back on the Rohingya refugees like this!”

“I guess her hands are tied, to some extent,” Henrik said. “The military are still in charge in Myanmar, after all.”

“That’s true, but I don’t understand how she can possibly deny what’s happening there. And it infuriates me when she draws a false equivalence between the elements carrying out this ethnic cleansing, and whatever supposed disruption the Rohingyas have caused in Myanmar!” Chhaya said.

“I can’t argue with you there. But unlike her fellow Peace Prize-winner Mandela, Suu Kyi is ultimately a politician. And to politicians, the most important thing is power – regardless of how they get it.”

“I wish the Nobel Committee had never given her that Peace Prize. She certainly doesn’t deserve it!”

“I suspect the Norwegians are thinking the very same thing!” Henrik said.

Looking into those shrewd blue eyes, Chhaya realised that she had underestimated the older man. He was no buffoon, whatever the reason for his gregariousness. Or indeed, what some might call his garrulousness.

His interest in the challenges posed by the Rohingya presence in Bangladesh, and his awareness of Suu Kyi’s fall from grace indicated a surprising knowledge of global events, something she would not necessarily have associated with the average Dane, given the sheltered lives they led.

Though of course, Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize had originated in Henrik’s part of the world, in neighbouring Norway. And she had met enough Scandinavian activists and development workers to know that most of them cared passionately about sharing resources to help create a better world.  

“Unfortunately, there is no precedent for stripping someone of the award. So I think we’d have been better off giving her the Ig-Nobel Prize rather than the Nobel!”

“Is there such a thing?” Chhaya asked in disbelief.

 “Oh yes, very much so. They identify recipients for it every year. Not that anyone is eager to be an award winner for that one! But, on a different note, does your organisation accept private donations?” Henrik asked.

“Yes, we do, actually!” Chhaya replied, surprised. “We have a special PayPal account for this campaign, because it’s a humanitarian emergency.”

Henrik took down the details, before taking out his mobile phone. Even as she gave them to him, a cynical part of Chhaya’s mind wondered if this was more of the man’s posturing, or whether a donation would ever materialise. She did not have to wait long to find out.

Jeffery appeared in response to Henrik pressing the call button. “I wonder if you could help me get online for a few minutes?” Henrik said.

Chhaya knew that it was expensive to use the Internet while the flight was airborne, but it didn’t seem to deter Henrik. Jeffery, happier with this request than he had been with the previous one, helped him navigate the process. As Chhaya watched, Henrik entered the staggering amount of five thousand euro, and sent off his contribution.

The remaining flight time passed quickly, as they discussed the situation. And after she had collected her baggage upon landing, Chhaya looked around to say goodbye to her strange companion, and to thank him one last time.  But by then, Henrik was nowhere to be seen.

Chhaya gave a mental shrug. Henrik had asked for her email address, but she doubted she would hear from him again. He had already made his donation, and a generous one at that. It was surely enough to allow him to wash his hands and his conscience clean of the matter.

*

Evelina Morales was having a bad day. After an exhausting flight from the Philippines, she had landed in Copenhagen to discover that her employer was going to be late picking her up. Not that she cared. Despite being tired, she was in no hurry to be reunited with Mrs. Solgaard. Because though her employer liked to insist that Evelina address her as Anne-Karin, the young woman was under no illusion that it made their relationship any less formal.

Anne-Karin Solgaard’s soaring career trajectory meant that Evelina’s services as an au pair made up a key element of her support system. With two young children, Anne-Karin could not have sustained her meteoric rise as a right-wing politician without Evelina’s help at home.

Nevertheless, Evelina could not shake the sense that her employer viewed her as more of a robotic nanny service than a human being. And although Anne-Karin often touted Denmark as an ideal society where everyone, including workers, had good lives and proper weekends off, Evelina noticed that this did not stop her employer from asking her to work on a Saturday or Sunday if Anne-Karin needed her services, as she all too often seemed to.

Nor was Evelina’s job an easy one. The children, both boys under the age of five, displayed a boisterousness that verged on being hyperactive. Danish permissiveness with respect to child rearing made things even harder. So while Anne-Karin fondly referred to her boys as “chaos pilots”, Evelina could not help thinking that she might have been less indulgent if she herself had to deal singlehandedly with the chaos that they created.

But if Evelina could not quite be sure how her employer viewed her, she was left in no doubt of Anne-Karin’s general dislike of immigrants, particularly those who came to Denmark from Somalia and other hotspots. “If only the Muslims would make an effort to integrate!” she was often heard saying to her admirers. “You’d think they would be grateful to have a new life here, but it’s unbelievable how resistant some of these people are to adopting Danish values.”

Evelina made it a point never to react when Anne-Karin made remarks like that, but she drew the line when her employer suggested she read the autobiography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “She’s a remarkable woman, you know, Evelina. She identified the threat that Muslims pose to Europe long before most of us were aware of the danger. And she knows what she’s talking about — she grew up in Somalia!”

Aware of Ali’s incendiary views on religion from her conversations with a Somali friend, Evelina could not remain silent. “Thank you, but I find some of her ideas too extreme. I mean, according to her, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik felt that censorship of his writings on Christian superiority left him “no choice” but to commit murder! Breivik massacred dozens of children on Utøya. And this vile man actually expressed admiration for her in his manifesto!”

“I haven’t heard her views on Breivik,” Anne-Karin replied, unruffled. “But she is right to talk about the need to combat Islamic terrorism.”

Despite her own worries about the Muslim separatist struggle in the Philippines, Evelina despised people like her boss, whose populist rhetoric recycled tired stereotypes to score cheap political points. So, though she allowed the statuesque redhead to have the last word, the young Filipina left the book untouched where it lay.

To make matters worse, Evelina knew that quite apart from her hostility to immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, Anne-Karin’s identity as part of a tiny minority of Danes attending evangelical churches meant that she often viewed other Christians – especially Catholics like Evelina – with a degree of suspicion. And as a Christian herself, Evelina could not help thinking that Anne-Karin and her Pentecostal friends held views that would not pass the litmus test that they were so fond of applying to key life questions: namely asking, “What would Jesus do?”

That this group’s political opinions reflected the general hardening of Danish attitudes towards foreigners did not make her employer’s racist comments any easier for Evelina to swallow. No matter how much she worked, Evelina was regularly subjected to Anne-Karin’s assertion that Denmark was too soft in letting in the migrants “flood in” to exploit its admittedly-generous welfare system.

Evelina’s friend Aaden, a young Somali man who had fled the brutal civil war, certainly had little time for people like her employer. “How’s Ol’ Sunshine today?” Aaden would ask, smiling. It was a long-standing joke that her sourpuss employer’s surname included the word for sun, “sol” — even if it was because she had taken her husband’s name. Such merriment at her expense was probably not the outcome Anne-Karin had in mind when she packed her nanny off to the introductory language course where Evelina had met Aaden.

“If I knew what would make her happy, Aaden, I would do it just to get that look of disdain off her face. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, but nothing you can do is likely to change anything! Let’s face it, she just hates foreigners. What’s worrying is that someone like her is doing so well in Danish politics!”

“I guess she represents all the people who think like her. Such nasty people shouldn’t be the ones making decisions that impact other people’s lives…”

“Well, she certainly seems to have no problem having foreigners around when they’re changing diapers and ‘airing’ the dog!” Aaden said, referring to the literal meaning of the Danish term used for dog-walking.

“That’s because she can’t afford to hire a Dane to do the work that I do!” Evelina retorted.

“Don’t forget, most of them think they’re too good to be doing this kind of work. I’ve never seen so many people who want all the crappy jobs done for them, but don’t want to let in the workers who’re willing to do those jobs,” Aaden replied.

Now, nursing the overpriced cup of coffee she had bought in order to occupy a table at the airport snack bar, Evelina reflected on how unhappy she felt being back in Denmark.

Nobody at home understood. For them, it was a great opportunity to travel and earn good money for what was, after all, a relatively simple job. Too simple, Evelina thought. Was this all that being a straight “A” student throughout school and college was worth?

To add insult to injury, Aunty Nancy kept telling her, “You might even meet some nice Danish man. And then you could stay on there!” Evelina did not have the heart to tell her that marriage was probably the last thing on the average Danish man’s mind. But letting her family down by quitting her job was just not an option. And it did at least allow her to save some money towards a university degree.

Her despondent musings were interrupted by a smiling stranger. As the silver-haired gentleman standing in front of her enquired if he could share her table, Evelina looked around at the lack of available spaces and assented with whatever grace she could muster.

“Are you okay?” the man asked her, after a moment. “You look a little tired.”

The concern in his eyes prevented her from taking offence. “I’m all right. It’s just been a long flight…” And before she knew it, Evelina found herself telling a stranger what she had been unable to share with her family.

He listened patiently, before saying, “I’m so sorry you’re having such a difficult time. This is certainly not the best time to be an outsider in Denmark. But you know, there are many Danes who feel exactly the same way that you do. Especially people working in the development sector, like me, who’ve seen more of the world.”

“Oh, do you travel a lot for work?” Evelina asked.

“Yes, or at least, I have done more of that recently. I’m a doctor, you see. Once I retired, I wanted to do something useful. So now I volunteer to work in countries that are experiencing humanitarian crises – though I’ll admit that I wasn’t brave enough to help with the Ebola outbreak.”

“So where have you been?” Evelina asked.

“All over the place, really,” her companion replied. “In fact, it’s caused a lot of trouble in my personal life. My wife is, understandably enough, fed up with my absences! Still, I didn’t expect…” he paused.

“Is something wrong?” It was Evelina’s turn to ask.

“Yes, well… I was expecting my wife to pick me up, you see. But I just received the text message she wrote last night. She says she’s leaving me. So there won’t be anyone to meet me at the house now – and I was so excited about coming home.”

“I’m really sorry!” Evelina didn’t know what to say. He seemed like a nice man, but she could understand that his wife might get tired of waiting for a husband who was always travelling to faraway, and potentially dangerous, places.

“It’s alright,” he said. “I’ll manage. It’s not entirely unexpected, but I did hope that things wouldn’t come to this. I’ll just go on to my next assignment straightaway. I’m volunteering at the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they’ve been dealing with the Rohingya people, who are fleeing persecution in Myanmar. ”

“Of course, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Evelina said, feeling awkward. She didn’t even know the man, but it made her oddly sad to think of him returning to an empty house with a broken heart. Still, it was good to be reminded that not all Danes were as unfeeling or self-absorbed as Anne-Karin.

“This would never happen in your country, would it?” her companion said, making an attempt at humour. “I suppose people aren’t often lonely in cultures like yours – not unless they want to be alone, of course”.

“You’d be hard put to find yourself alone in the Philippines, even if you wanted to be!” Evelina said.

They smiled at each other briefly, before the man continued, “I should head home now. But before I go, could I ask you for a favour?”

Evelina nodded, a little wary. He didn’t look like a creep, but you could never tell.

She waited.

“I bought a present for my wife, you see – and I just can’t bear to carry it around. You’d be doing me a great favour by taking it off my hands…” he said, looking at her hopefully.

Evelina was in a quandary. She did not want to accept a gift from a stranger, but she could understand why the poor man might find the poignant reminder of his changed circumstances too painful.

“Please!” he said, “I would be very grateful.”

Reluctantly, Evelina agreed. Straightening to his full height, the stranger handed her a small duty-free bag. Then he turned and walked away, disappearing into the excited crowds that had gathered to greet their friends and families.

*

Well, that took care of one thing, Henrik thought. He had observed the sad-looking young woman for a while before deciding that she would be the recipient of his duty-free purchases.  Hopefully Evelina would enjoy the bracelet and perfume.

Poor girl, what a nightmare her employer was! But what could you expect from a member of the Danish right-wing? The rising tide of hostility to immigrants in Denmark was part of a wider global picture that Henrik struggled to understand, though he was familiar with the othering rhetoric of “us” versus “them”.

Muslims in particular were often demonised, and when you got down to it, were about as welcome to most Europeans as the Rohingyas were to the Buddhists in Myanmar. It bothered Henrik that his fellow Danes’ commitment to the egalitarian values underpinning their society did not seem to extend beyond their borders.

On the other hand, human beings were complicated creatures, full of contradictions. You just had to look at him to see that, after all.

He had gone from being shy Henrik Ahlberg, to a globetrotting sophisticate capable of talking to complete strangers at great length – even when he wasn’t speaking a word of truth!

Actually, that was not entirely fair: it was true that he was a doctor. And the life story he told was, after all, the life he could have had. If only he had been brave enough to go in search of it before…

As for his imaginary Thai wife, Henrik gave himself points for coming up with such a highly believable detail. His countrymen’s weakness for Thai women was well-known, though Henrik himself would have been happy with a woman from any country, if she had only loved him in the way that he had longed for his entire life.

He had waited patiently for years to meet the woman of his dreams. Preoccupied by his work, and distracted by fantasies about the future, it was too late by the time Henrik realised that the love of his life had stood him up. Unlike him, perhaps she had got tired of waiting. Which meant that now, the woman who should have been his wife was probably having a great life with someone else.

There was nothing Henrik could do about those lost opportunities. But when the unexpected remission from his illness materialised, he decided to use whatever time he had left – and nobody seemed to know exactly how long this could be, since estimates ranged from ten months to as many years – to make up for all the time he had wasted. The South African safari was just the first step in that process.

It was a pity, he thought, that he had never lived up to his dream of working for Doctors Without Borders. Helping people survive disasters in the darker corners of the globe would have been a worthwhile use of a life, and probably far better than what he had used his life for, at least to date.

He had felt a pang when he was describing his dream retirement career to Evelina. But to his younger self, viewed from the safety of Scandinavia, that kind of work had seemed too dangerous. It took his diagnosis to show him just how close to home danger could lurk.

It was inspiring to see people who cared so much about their work, like that girl on the plane, Chhaya. She had been so offended by the extravagance of his duty-free purchases! It was written all over her expressive face, reflected in the furious knitting of those dark brows set over her long-lashed brown eyes.

She had no way of knowing that he was “in character” at the time. Or that money was the one thing that he did have, since both love and time were in short supply.

She was a feisty little thing, that one, Henrik thought, chuckling inwardly. Not that she would thank him for describing her as “little”, he suspected. Even if he did tower over her five foot frame. The encounter with her reminded him of something that his Indian friend Jayesh had said, about a proverb to the effect that small chillies often pack the biggest punch.

And meeting people like her also validated his choice to travel economy, which he preferred because of the diversity it offered, in comparison to the comfortable predictability of business class.

Remembering that he still had Chhaya’s card tucked away in his wallet, Henrik had the sudden thought that medical volunteering might not be such a far-fetched idea, even now. After all, he suspected they needed all the help they could get in those refugee camps.

And if he followed through with his plan, then perhaps on some future flight he would even get to tell his fellow travellers a true story or two.

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Farah Ghuznavi is a Bangladeshi writer, whose work has been published in Germany, France, Austria, UK, USA, Canada, Singapore, Nigeria, Nepal and India. Her story, ‘Judgement Day’, was awarded in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010. She was also the writer in residence with the Commonwealth Writers website in 2014.

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

Categories
Review

A Luxury Called Health

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: A Luxury Called Health

Author: Kavery Nambisan

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

India is a country of staggering inequality. It is a fact which is much more apparent in the general ward of a government hospital. The author says that a brief visit to one will tell you everything about the healthcare available to poor. In a country where getting two square meals is arduous for most of them, can they manage when struck by grave illness? Or is health, perhaps their only resource, also a luxury unaffordable for them. 

Kavery Nambisan, a doctor and an author, who has been a rural surgeon for most of her life, through this book attempts to bring our attention to the basic healthcare that must be the right of every citizen of this country irrespective of class. She studied medicine and surgery at St. John’s Medical College in Bangalore and then went onto get a Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons from London. This book, her memoir, is her first work of non-fiction.

This book is not just a memoir. It is also a commentary on and a critique of the state of healthcare in India. Nambisan’s decision to return and then to serve as a surgeon in the rural areas of her own country is a testimony of her commitment towards the service which demands complete devotion. Her words echo with integrity, exemplifying her allegiance to her vocation. When she expresses concern over the low percentage of budget allocated to health care or the dismal infrastructure available in government run hospitals, the urgency of her call finds its way to the reader.

Being concerned about the increasing corporatisation of Medical Services in India, which has made good health services much expensive and out of reach of the middle class and the poor, she advocates the concept of Universal Health Care. Her suggestions are based on the system of National Health Scheme as offered by Britain to its citizens as well as on the efficiency of health care systems of countries like Germany, China, Russia, Spain, Cuba, Malaysia and Sri Lanka who seem to be doing better than countries like US and India. Her anxiety over miserable condition of health system in India reverberates with an earnestness which is sadly missing from the present national discourse. Though COVID did bring some attention to the terrifying reality of our incapacity to tackle pandemic like situations, it still hasn’t transformed into any visible effective change.

In the current times when private hospitals have more or less become business ventures focusing mainly on profits, there are few exceptions one may find. Nambisan tells us about her own heroes in the medical field. She talks most admiringly about the Dr Banerjees, a couple who after studying in UK set up Rural Medicare Centre in the outskirts of Delhi. They are the founder member of Association of Rural Surgeons of India (ARSI) which comprises of a spirited group of surgeons who have opted to practice in the rural areas of the country. It is heartening to note that nearly thousand surgeons are its members.

Account of her own experience as a surgeon is frequented by patients from every walk of life, whether it is a gun wielding youth from Mokama in Bihar or close aide of a Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, a daily wage laborer or an upper middle class working women. Their appearance, accompanying the realities of their social lives, is also followed by the struggle and hardships which the doctor sometimes went through while treating them. She writes about the management of everyday affairs at different hospitals she worked in, about the frustration and vulnerability she was exposed to at times or the complete discipline of a hospital which would become much effective in managing a day.

Though in most of her writing, it is her practice in different rural areas of the country which takes the center stage, she does talk about being on the other side of the table. When her husband, the late poet Vijay Nambisan, was diagnosed with cancer she took the role of care giver. She writes about her nervousness and her apprehensions, about her helplessness and anger while watching him suffer. Her pain, subtly woven in her sentences, is like a palpable rap which makes the reader ache with an intensity unspeakable.

During the course of her narrative, Nambisan also gives the reader a peek into the history and evolution of medical practices. She emphasises the need of team work, touches upon the gender biases in the medical field, talks about the struggles a working woman grapples with and focuses upon the huge class divide much evident in the unequal accessibility to health care facilities.

A Luxury Called Health bravely courses through impeachment and defence as the writer compassionately tries to write about what she feels needs to be done. Sincere and spirited, candid and captivating, this book makes a compelling appeal for equity through the strengthening of India’s public health system by bringing in a national health scheme in operation. A timely and relevant advice the country may ignore at its own peril.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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

Categories
Musings

The Great Freeze

P. Ravi Shankar shuttles through winters from Everest to New York to Kerala to Aruba in the Caribbean

My friend and colleague was turning blue. The cold wind hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. We both had on all the warm clothes we could bring. I had on me a woollen blazer, a full sleeve sweater, my shirt, a half sleeve sweater, and underneath it a thermal. The freezing wind cut through these layers like the proverbial knife through butter. I was beginning to lose sensation on my nose and extremities. We were in freezing weather for less than a minute crossing the road to where the car was parked. We were inadequately dressed for a February morning in New York city. A nor’easter had hit a day before and the temperature was below minus 24 degrees Celsius. The news channels mentioned it was the coldest day in over two decades. Luckily for us, the car was heated, and the seats could also be warmed. We slowly thawed after the flash freeze.  

We had flown from sunny Aruba (Dutch Caribbean) the previous day. Miami had perfect weather, but New York was freezing. Manhattan is full of skyscrapers. There is no direct rail line from the airport to Manhattan. New York has a decent public transport infrastructure but no airport metro. The city’s infrastructure does need some serious investment on upgrade and maintenance. The hotel room was warm and toasty. Outside, it was snowing. I saw the homeless on the freezing sidewalks trying to shelter from the bitter cold. Poverty amid opulent wealth.

I have mostly lived in warm places where your major concern is staying cool in the humid heat. In Kerala, in the south of India, a mundu or a lungi wrapped around the waist was the common male attire. The mercury in most areas never goes below 20 degrees Celsius. In New York during winter, the major concern was staying warm. Suddenly, common English expressions began to make sense. Warm welcome, warm greetings make sense when you are coming in from a freezing weather. When you are all hot and sweaty, the warmth seems unwelcome. Also, the European style of dressing was designed to minimise heat loss. Socks, hats, gloves, coats, tie, scarf. The buildings all had double doors to keep out the cold and keep in the warmth. Central heating kept the inside warm.

Keeping warm is expensive. I did some rough calculation and worked out that I would have to spend USD 1500 on winter clothing and over USD 250 monthly on heating bills. The tempo and rhythm of life changes in the northern latitudes with the change of seasons. Winters mean short days and time spent mostly indoors. The wily COVID virus is capitalising fully on this human behaviour. Summers translate to warm temperatures and long days. With global climate change, the highs in summer and the lows in winter are becoming extreme.  

On another occasion I was strolling by the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago enjoying the early morning view. There were gardens and walking paths by the shoreline. Suddenly a cold wind blew across the lake from Canada. Despite all the winter clothing I donned, I was frozen. In cold weather, it is important to have a waterproof and wind proof outer shell. These are expensive however, and as occasional visitors to cold climates, we were unwilling to invest in such clothing. Upstate New York is even colder than New York city, and Rochester is said to be among the snowiest cities in America.

New York city is relatively well-prepared for snowy weather with double doors, central heating, winter clothing and snow ploughs. So is Chicago. Some of the southern cities in the US also experience snowy weather due to climate change and are not prepared for occasional winter storms. The plains of northern India experience cold weather from December to March. A thick layer of smog blankets the plains. Trains and planes are delayed, and driving could become hazardous. Air pollution rises and the air becomes dangerous to breathe. The sun succeeds in clearing the fog only after ten in the morning. Kathmandu in Nepal also experience fog and increased pollution during winter. Pokhara is a Nepalese city without fog in winters. I have often wondered why. With beautiful views of the Annapurna range, winter mornings in Pokhara are occasions to be savoured. In these places there is no central heating. Quilts are widely used. I enjoy the quilt which slowly warms you up using your own body heat.

In the mountains of Nepal, external heating devices are common. In the Everest region, there is the yak dung burning cast iron stove in dining rooms. In the Annapurna region north of Pokhara, wood burning stoves are common. In Thak Khola, charcoal burning stoves under the table are used. The bedrooms, however, are unheated and freezing. I had stayed in Lobuche in the Everest region, at around 4900 m for over a month for a research project and the nights were freezing. The water bottle used to freeze. If you wanted something to not freeze, you kept it beside you on the bed inside the quilt.

Watching snow fall is relaxing. The snowflakes glide down and blanket the trees and the ground in white. The cold reduces a bit. Rain is more noisy and violent and often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Walking on snow is difficult. Soon the snow melts during the day and refreezes again at night and turns into ice. Ice is extremely slippery and dangerous to walk on. Snow is a rare treat for persons from tropical climates. However, living in snow covered regions is challenging.

Near the equator the climate is constant throughout the year. The rains cool down the atmosphere, but the hours of sunlight do not vary much. Life is not influenced by the seasons. The further north or south you go from the equator, seasons begin to colour your life. Summer brings long days, sometimes extreme heat and more time spent outdoors. Winter brings longer nights, snow, and more time indoors. In both New York and Chicago, in winter, the trees were totally bare, bereft of leaves. I could not believe they were still alive. With the coming of spring the green twigs would sprout again and the cycle of life resumes. The writing of poets and authors from temperate countries about the dreariness of winter and the warmth of spring and summer began to make sense to me — a person from and living in the tropics.      

      

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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

      

Categories
Editorial

Towards a Brave New World

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

With Christmas at our heels and the world waking up slowly from a pandemic that will hopefully become an endemic as the Omicron seems to fizzle towards a common cold, we look forward to a new year and a new world. Perhaps, our society will evolve to become one where differences are accepted as variety just as we are fine with the fact that December can be warm or cold depending on the geography of the place. People will be welcomed even if of different colours and creed. The commonality of belonging to the same species will override all other disparities…

While we have had exciting developments this year and civilians have moved beyond the Earth — we do have a piece on that by Candice Louisa Daquin — within the planet, we have become more aware of the inequalities that exist. We are aware of the politics that seems to surround even a simple thing like a vaccine for the pandemic. However, these two years dominated by the virus has shown us one thing — if we do not rise above petty greed and create a world where healthcare and basic needs are met for all, we will suffer. As my nearly eighty-year-old aunt confided, even if one person has Covid in a remote corner of the world, it will spread to all of us. The virus sees no boundaries. This pandemic was just a start. There might be more outbreaks like this in the future as the rapacious continue to exploit deeper into the wilderness to accommodate our growing greed, not need. With the onset of warmer climates — global warming and climate change are realities — what can we look forward to as our future?

Que sera sera — what will be, will be. Though a bit of that attitude is necessary, we have become more aware and connected. We can at least visualise changes towards a more egalitarian and just world, to prevent what happened in the past. It would be wonderful if we could act based on the truth learnt from history rather than to overlook or rewrite it from the perspective of the victor and use that experience to benefit our homes, planet and all living things, great and small.  In tune with our quest towards a better world, we have an interview with an academic, Sanjay Kumar, founder of a group called Pandies, who use theatre to connect the world of haves with have-nots. What impressed me most was that they have actually put refugees and migrant workers on stage with their stories. They even managed to land in Kashmir and work with children from war-torn zones. They have travelled and travelled into different dimensions in quest of a better world. Travelling is what our other interviewee did too — with a cat who holds three passports. CJ Fentiman, author of The Cat with Three Passports, has been interviewed by Keith Lyons, who has reviewed her book too.

This time we have the eminent Aruna Chakravarti review Devika Khanna Narula’s Beyond the Veils, a retelling of the author’s family history. Perhaps, history has been the common thread in our reviews this time. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers, a fiction that focusses on the Sikh issues in 1980s India from a Dalit perspective. It brought to my mind a family saga I had been recently re-reading, Alex Haley’s Roots, which showcased the whole American Revolution from the perspective of slaves brought over from Africa. Did the new laws change the fates of the slaves or Dalits? To an extent, it did but the rest as fact and fiction showcase were in the hands that belonged to the newly freed people. To enable people to step out of the cycle of poverty, the right attitudes towards growth and the ability to accept the subsequent changes is a felt need. That is perhaps where organisations like Pandies step in.  Another non-fiction which highlights history around the same period and place as Kala’s novel is BP Pande’s In the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, the book explores the darker nuances of human history filled with violence and intolerance.

That violence is intricately linked to power politics has been showcased often. But, what would be really amazing to see would be how we could get out of the cycle as a society. With gun violence being an accepted norm in one of the largest democracies of the world, perhaps we need to listen to the voice of wisdom found in the fiction by Steve Davidson who meets perhaps a ghost in Hong Kong. Musing over the ghost’s words, the past catches up in Sunil Sharma’s story, ‘Walls’. Sharma has also given us a slice from his life in Canada with its colours, vibrancy and photographs of the fall. As he emigrated to Canada, we read of immigrants in Marzia Rahman’s touching narrative. She has opted to go with the less privileged just as Lakshmi Kannan has opted to go with the privileged in her story.

Sharma observes, while we find the opulence of nature thrive in places people inhabit in  Canada, it is not so in Asia. I wonder why? Why are Asian cities crowded and polluted? There was a time when Los Angeles and London suffered smogs. Has that shifted now as factories relocated to Asia, generating wealth in currency but taking away from nature’s opulence of fresh, clean air as more flock into crowded cities looking for sustenance?

Humour is introduced into the short story section with Sohana Manzoor’s hilarious rendering of her driving lessons in America, lessons given to foreigners by migrants. Rhys Hughes makes for  more humour with a really hilarious rendition of men in tea cosies missing their…I  think ‘Trouser Hermit’ will tell you the rest. He has perhaps more sober poetry which though imaginative does not make you laugh as much as his prose. Michael Burch has shared some beautiful poetry perpetuating the calmer nuances of a deeply felt love and affection. George Freek, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Dibyajyoti Sarma have all given us wonderful poetry along with many others. One could write an essay on each poem – but as we are short shrift for time, we move on to travel sagas from hiking in Australia and hobnobbing with kangaroos to renovated palaces in Bengal.

We have also travelled with our book excerpts this time. Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow shuttles between US and Japan and Somdatta Mandal’s translation of  A Bengali lady in England by Krishnabhabi Das, actually has the lady relocate to nineteenth century England and assume the dress and mannerisms of the West to write an eye-opener for her compatriots about the customs of the colonials in their own country.

While mostly we hear of sad stories related to marriages, we have a sunny one in which Alpana finds much in a marriage that runs well with wisdom learnt from Kung Fu Panda.  Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us a philosophical piece with his characteristic touch of irony laced with humour on statues. If you are wondering what he could have to say, have a read.

In Nature’s Musings, Penny Wilkes has offered us prose and wonderful photographs of the last vestiges of autumn. As the season hovers between summer and winter, geographical boundaries too can get blurred at times. A nostalgic recap given by Ratnottama Sengupta along the borders of Bengal, which though still crossed by elephants freely in jungles (wild elephants do not need visas, I guess), gained an independence from the harshness of cultural hegemony on December 16th, 1971. Candice Louisa Daquin has also looked at grey zones that lie between sanity and insanity in her column. An essay which links East and West has been given to us by Rakibul Hasan about a poet who mingles the two in his poetry. A Bengali song by Tagore, Purano shei diner kotha,  that is almost a perfect trans creation of Robert Burn’s Scottish Auld Lang Syne in the spirit of welcoming the New Year, has been transcreated to English. The similarity in the content of the two greats’ lyrics showcase the commonalities of love, friendship and warmth that unite all cultures into one humanity.

Our first translation from Uzbekistan – a story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad — gives a glimpse of a culture that might be new to many of us. Akbar Barakzai’s shorter poems, translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi and Ratnottama Sengupta’s transcreation of a Tagore song, Rangiye Die Jao, have added richness to our oeuvre along with  one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Professor Fakrul Alam, who is well-known for his translation of poetry by Jibonanda Das, has started sharing his work on the Bengali poet with us. Pause by and take a look.

There is much more than what I can put down here as we have a bumper end of the year issue this December. There is a bit of something for all times, tastes and seasons.

I would like to thank my wonderful team for helping put together this issue. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious need double thanks for their lovely artwork that is showcased in our magazine. We are privileged to have committed readers, some of who have started contributing to our content too. A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers for being with us through our journey.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful transition into the New Year! May we open up to a fantastic brave, new world!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Interview

Bridge over Troubled Waters

In Conversation with Sanjay Kumar, the founder of Pandies, a socially responsible theatre group

Some members of Pandies, with Sanjay Kumar sitting in the right hand corner.

Festivals often involve pageantry where people connect, reach out and have fun through performances. These can range from high class shows in halls to entertaining performances in street corners, individual buskers or theatricals at home. Brecht (1898-1956), often taught in universities,  popularised socially responsible epic theatre.  Epic theatre connects the players, imbued with welfarism and a sense of social responsibility, to educate the audience, subsequently encouraged to question and move towards altering their present reality to a more egalitarian one. Add to this students who look for more than just academic growth in universities and a young dynamic professor in the 1980s, and the end result is a volunteered ‘institution’ that has blossomed over three decades into a strangely named group – Pandies.

Sanjay Kumar

Founded in 1987 by Sanjay Kumar, an academic from Delhi University with residencies in Italy and the United States for the welfare of exploited children, the group evolved into a major voice trying to reach out to all strata of society. Kumar evolved a form of theatre to channelise the energy of students towards creating an awareness for the need to grow by helping the less fortunate. He tells us by the way of introduction: “We have been working with twenty slums or bastis in Delhi, have had interactions with a hundred schools and about twenty-five colleges. A minimum of hundred presentations are held each year. The major issue till 2000 was gender-sensitisation. Each year, pandies’ latches on to a different theme. After performing in the proscenium theatre, it takes adaptations of the same to diverse places. The group also works on issues related to environment. The adaptable, flexible, bilingual (at times multi-lingual) scripts are totally ours. The group is constantly exploring, searching for better modes to get its meaning across. Songs, dances, choreographed sequences are all a part of its repertoire. One of the most successful modes is an extremely interactive discussion at the end where the activist even narrates relevant anecdotes to get its audience to talk. The group has evolved a mega network in and around Delhi consisting of women, HIV activists, environmentalists, school and college teachers and students, progressive women from various communities including slums, victims of rape, attempted murder.” His work has reached across to multiple countries, universities (including Harvard) and has found credence among number of hearts across the East and the West.

The most impressive performance I saw was online with young refugees from Afghanistan and migrant workers in slums. They have worked with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)  that work with children, sex workers and women, thus educating and learning from them and exposing them to our, more secure world where the maximum need a young student has, is to score well to get into the right university and for their family and friends to travel, to have freedom of speech and better lives. Perhaps, the best way to comprehend this kind of drama is to let Sanjay Kumar take over and introduce the work they are doing, bridging gaps at multiple levels.

Tell us about the inception of pandies’. How old is the group?

The incipience of the group goes back to college really to the year 1987 when we did the first play from Hansraj (a college under Delhi University), though we registered later in 1993, as we broke away. As I got free from MPhil, I decided to start theatre in the college in a way that steers it clear of the festival circuit of doing 25-30 minutes plays and winning small cash awards at various college fests. The College Drama Society was revived in 1987 and under that banner we did six plays, one each a year on the trot: Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1933), Ngugi’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1974), Strindberg’s The Dream Play (1901), Vicente Lenero’s The Bricklayers (1976), Genet’s The Balcony (1957)and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944).  Each was a full-length play of at least 100 minutes.

We were doing plays at a semiprofessional level, all having a run of five to seven days in Delhi’s leading theatre halls. The bookings were being done in the name of the college but from the beginning no money was put forth by the college. The funding was collected by the students from small donations. The group was getting too big for the college. There was a constant targeting from many in the administration and the faculty, accusations of the openly sexual content of the plays, of the insubordinate behaviour of the students, of classes being bunked. And then as the group evolved, there were many students who had graduated but still wanted to be there and as the reputation grew with the choice of plays and quality of production (contemporary reviews read us at par with professional groups), many students from other colleges wanted to join us. Things came to a head with the college administration in 1993. We had already booked at the auditorium in the name of the college and were rehearsing for Macbeth. We decided to launch our own group (the work normally took about six months) and in two months we registered and collected money enough to go under the new banner — Pandies’ theatre.   The relationship with structures of the university remains tricky, there are those among the younger teachers and of course students who love us but the old and orthodox are still a bit wary.

Was this theatre started for the needs of the students/ teachers or to create an interest in academic curriculum?

Yes, at that time the syllabus had a totally first world bias (the bias is still there but less), to get in plays that speak to us. They may be first world, but they critique our oppressor — Brecht,  Rame, Genet.

 What was the gel that bound the group together ? Was it used to satisfy the needs of  the students, teachers or society. Can you elaborate? 

The first thing was the love of theatre. It’s like a bug, and the heady thing about a collectivism trying its own thing, charting paths not done in college before. And then the activism took over and went way beyond the love. We started pandies’ with a view that our world is not the way we want it. We wanted to make it better for more people. Even the plays from 1987 to 1993 were exploring non-canonical theatre. 

The first point of attack was the huge gender bias. We felt we were living in a misogynist, rape friendly society. Series of proscenium plays attacked that. We tied up with the feminist NGO, Shakti Shalini. Our ties go back to 1996, with LGBT movements and women’s movements. Veils had more than hundred shows, theatres, colleges, schools and markets and slums and villages. We were asking for  change in rape laws in the country. She’s MAD took stories from women’s organisations about laws of mental illness being consistently used against women to label them mad to take away their property rights, custody of children and provide a veneer over patriarchal violence. Again a play that sought legislative reform was Danger Zones. It explores what happens when you are lesbian and do not have a big wallet or parents to save you — forced marriages, sale into prostitution. 

Equally important, in fact more so in later years has been the attack on religious bigotry. Gujarat was a breaking point. We had years of series workshops with impoverished youth in slums exposing the rhetoric of  bigotry. We start with the Sikh pogrom of ’85 and go on to dissent against what our society has evolved to under a right wing dispensation, the religious supremacism of our world.

When you work with young boys, drug peddlers and sex workers, aged eight to fourteen, you return home a wreck and in need of therapy. But if you keep that fire alive inside you, you know how to take on the oppressors.

It is about a naked politics. We seek to rouse people from slumber, awaken a critical understanding of the world we live, of the forces that govern us — patriarchy, capitalism and, the tying factor of all oppression — religion.

The need was and remains the need of our times and our ethos.

How did the name evolve? And your group evolve?

It goes back to 1993 and is fully in keeping the with ‘play’ aspect of the group which likes to play with politics with its audience. It emerged from collective decisioning that has been the hallmark of pandies’ functioning. The name is a take ‘off’, ‘away’ from Mangal Pandey and the revolt of 1857. Actually, from the inability of the British to get Indian pronunciations correct. Pandey became Pandy, a hated expletive for the British commanders and continued in their letters even 50 years after the suppression of the revolt. ‘Pandy’ was one who was a part of the British structure, in their employ (Jhansi’s soldiers were not Pandies for instance), earned from them and rose against them. The hatred conveyed by the word was many times higher than in the simple expletives of  traitor or the Hindustani ‘gaddaar.’ While it has a historical solidity, it also has a playful aspect just beneath, for many of the young in the group it was also deliciously close to panties and pondies (slang for pornographic literature), the sexual aspects for which the group was falsely castigated while in college, and what we loved to grin and laugh at.

We broke away in 1993, four teachers and about thirty students. Starting as a proscenium English group with an activist leaning in 1993, by 1996 we had turned totally activist. Starting with about thirty-five members (still the core for each project), the group soon acquired more than hundred members (today it has more than that, people go away and many return, even after a decade or fifteen years, to do that “better thing”).  A strong presence of young, motivated women gave the group a feminist essence. And seeking overtly to make our ethos better, the group stressed a Left Feminist Atheist core as the law of its work from the very beginning. Activism, simply the overt statement that we are not okay with our world the way it is and seek a systemic change and are willing to do our bit as theatre enthusiasts for it.

Our three primary areas of work are : a. Proscenium: The plays are always activist and many of our own scripts and many adapted, some activist plays (Brecht, Rame and other activist scripts including agit prop) in the original; b. Theatre outside proscenium: What is usually called street theatre, nukkad natak, guerrilla theatre, the group has done actually thousands of performances and c. Workshop theatre: Where activist facilitators create plays with communities, staying with them or visiting them regularly — razor’s edge work has been done with young boy sex workers picked from platforms and housed in shelters, in the cannibalised village of Nithari, in women’s shelters, with refugees and in Kashmir.  The process consists of getting ‘stories’ from the margins and creating theatre from them, performed usually by the community members, and at times along with Pandies.

Were you influenced by any theatre/art forms/writers or any external events to evolve your own form?

From the international activist tradition Brecht has been the most solid influence, his mode of showing what is obvious but we refuse to see it. Boal, Franca Rame, Dario Fo. The entire traditions of left swinging realism and alienation. In our own traditions the influence is more subtle, Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) itself and Janam (a  more contemporary people’s theatre group). We also borrow from the political and popular traditions of the subcontinent — Dastaan Goi, Jatra, Tamasha and Nautanki to name a few.

What impacts us most is the politics. Theatre is about critique, it’s about my ability to say ‘no’ and my desire to ask ‘why.’ We look back through history, history that tells us nothing can be permanent, that is record of those who stood and fought tyranny and authoritarianism. Gujarat 2002 was difficult and so was Babri Masjid but so was the emergency of 70s and never forget the anti-Sikh pogrom of the mid 80s at the heart of the country where I live.

Yes, and what is happening today, here and all over the globe cries for activist intervention.

What were the kind of content you started with? I heard you even adopted out of Aruna Chakravarti’s novel (Alo’s World?) to make a play. So, what was the content of your plays? Were you scripting your own lines?

We started with adaptations of plays with explicitly activist content which could be made more activist and imposed on our reality. Ibsen’s Ghosts, inspirations from Simon de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing. And post-1996, we were creating more and more from our own scripts, often containing multiple plays tied with thematic thrusts. And again, in times of repression one reverts to adaptations, of those who stood up to the challenge of their times, specially at the doors of gender, religion and class (the three themes of Pandies).

What we did for Aruna was akin to what we have done for other friends of Pandies, fiction writers, create small dramatic enactments based on parts their novels/short stories to go along with the launch and publicity of their works.

Have you moved away from your earlier models? What is your new model?

From proscenium to (while retaining proscenium) community theatre to (while retaining proscenium and community) workshop theatre that was the trajectory of Pandies before the pandemic struck our world. 

The pandemic thrust us into a new model of cyber theatre. The group meets every Sunday but with Covid and the lockdown, we all went hibernating for a few months, awestruck by what struck us.

And then we started meeting online. It was amazing, we were able to connect with members in US, in Philippines, in UK and in different parts of India. There was the frigidity of the online mode but the ability to converse with so many people in their respective bubbles was just great. We met every Sunday. And started with storytelling for each other. With around thirty people that process took some Sundays. And then we started thinking of doing online plays using zoom. These were live online, no recording and each ending with a question-and-answer session with our audiences.

What was happening around us, the pandemic, and the equally deadly forays of our right-wing rulers made us look for avante garde activist plays from the past. We turned deliberately to the American tradition (important to let it be known that even the most decadent capitalist center has a solid activist theatre tradition) and did one agit prop and one proto-feminist play. Subterfuge was important and it was also important to say that even in the darkest of hours people have stood up to tyranny and fascism. Clifford Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1935), an anti-Nazi play of the agit prop tradition is aimed as much at Hitler as at McCarthy and relevant against all fascist governments. Broadcast simultaneously on Zoom and Facebook, the play got over 7000 hits. Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928) was the second, a proto feminist play it raised issues of mainstream violence and suppression of ‘other’ voices. We were making quite an impact. Our audience was not confined to people from one city but spread internationally as friends all over the world who had wanted to see our plays (we have travelled and performed abroad twice, once in Manchester with an anti-fascist play — Cleansing in 2002 and in New York in 2012 with Offtrack, based on the lives of young boys ‘rescued’ from platforms in India).

We decided to connect with communities that we work with at least in and around Delhi through zoom. And we discovered the horrors for ourselves. While the rich had actually been ‘worried’ over the lockdown, the poor had taken an unfathomable hit. The incidence of domestic violence was at a peak (lockdown, problems getting ‘booze’, little help from cops and NGOs). Our young friends — now in late 20s, with whom we had been performing since 2006 since the Nithari (slum outside Delhi) pogrom had been thrown out of their meagre jobs, belonging to families of migrant labour — had seen it all and refugees from Afghanistan — in a bad state anyways — were really hit. And they were all artists, performers and storytellers par excellence. So, we decided on a storytelling festival where people from these sectors would narrate their stories in the same cyber format. And we asked our audience to put in some money and that was entirely distributed among the participants. The stories that emerged, personal and fiction derived from personal, were simple exhilarating.

What and how many languages do you use and how do you bridge linguistic gaps?

Language is highly political. We set out as an English group but with Macbeth itself some crucial scenes were being rendered in Hindustani (the opening scene and the porter scene). By 1996, as the group was going totally activist, a multi-language form had evolved. We were still keeping a section of English in the proscenium (had to be translated or made easier in the slums and villages shows) but sections of Hindustani and diverse languages of North India are being introduced. A recent example is an adaptation of Manto’s(1912-1955) stories and writings (Saadat Hasan Manto: Pagaleyan da Sardar), about 60 percent in Punjabi and 40 in English with no other language used (Punglish). We do a lot of translation work, including at times on the spot.

Who does your scripting? How do your scripts evolve?

The original scripts are a collective, collated exercise and emerge after months of workshopping on an issue within the group. Most of the Scripts are written by me or my colleagues from Delhi University, Anuradha Marwah and Anand Prakash.

Who are your crew members and how many team members do you have? How many did you start with?

The total number is above 100. Many leave for a while and return from careers and families. It is strictly volunteer group. The group has tried variously models and the one that works and keeps it activist intent intact is the one where we do not pay ourselves for our time. A project involves a total of about thirty people.

What was the reaction of your colleagues when you started Pandies? Did it find acceptance/ support did you receive from among your colleagues, the academics, and the media?

I would like to add that the reactions from colleagues and academia have been interesting and mixed. Pandies is the first and possibly the only story, of a group tracing its origins in college society theatre and move on without a break to establish not just a national but an international reputation. Even as the model evolved from proscenium alone to in-your-face activism, from seeking and getting funding to putting in your own money and/or collecting it from the audience but never compromising on the political content of what you do. It makes people uncomfortable, especially in the early years, say the first decade — “is this theatre at all?” Today it is seen a story, as an experiment that worked  — the sheer survival of the group from 1987 to 2021 and beyond creates a space for admiration. Students spread across this university, over other universities in India and abroad have been the most ardent support system.

The media has been supportive, quite a bit actually. Over the years, the Pandies’ fan club has extended there too. We got some adverse reviews to begin with but more from those from the academia, who were writing in papers and journals, who had problems of simply — I cannot see activist success stories from the university itself.

What has been the impact on the people who are part of the Pandies? What has been the impact on the audience?

When you do political theatre the impact is on all sides of the spectrum. And the best place to measure the success is your own side. The empathy, the killing guilt and the desire to do more manifest in the group members, especially after series of tough workshop theatre evidences the impact.  

I saw your play in an on online forum. What exactly made you move towards what you called cyber theatre?

Basically, the pandemic. But it has been a good experience, sheerly in terms of reach and numbers (the first play had 7000+ hits though we never got near that again, also we were ticketing plays after the first). We always crib about the reach of market theatre and how activist theatre falls by the side. The cyber medium actually gives an international access to live theatre. Think the potential is huge.

How would others access these plays?

Amazingly the reach of the smart phone is huge. When we worked with communities, we did send out signals to make available smart phones for our performers and their local audience but discovered that not much was required. The internet does at times pose problems, even for us, there are technical glitches at times but then we have glitches everywhere. And technology, as young techie at Pandies told me, is to be used and not feared. If the audience can suspend disbelief in theatre, what’s a glitch or two on screen.

The potential far outweighs the hurdles.

You had interesting pieces (or rather pieces) evolving out of slums and migrant workers. You had an interesting take on why slums develop. Can you tell us?

The ignored margins of our world. Metropolitan cities, and I speak of Delhi — my abode specifically, attract people from all over. The prospects are great, and it is not untrue, as we have seen in our experiences of performing in so many slums and more importantly creating theatre with those who live there, that life is actually better for most. They earn more, eat better and find better school and health facilities. The trajectory is both simple and awful, many villages around Delhi become abodes for migrants, first on rent and then ownership. These margins are also the blot for the rich and famous who live around there in big bungalows and condominiums. They berate the residents for being thieves and drug peddlers and use them for a supply of menial help, maids, drivers, and the same kind of drugs. Working with them and creating theatre one realises that the grievances from the other side are worse — of exploitations, profiling and being treated worse than animals.

What was the impact of this piece on migrant workers and the theatre you had with Afghan refugees among your audience? Who are the people that constitute your audience? How do they respond to these plays? Do you have collaborations with more universities or theatre groups?

In the preceding decades Pandies has performed in practical every college in Delhi University besides performing in universities all over including IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), TISS (Tata Institute of  Social Sciences), Jammu, Bangalore and colleges of Rajasthan and Jharkhand. The tie-ups and collaborations are specific project related. Pandies has over the years been very zealous of guarding its artistic and political independence and anything that seeks to compromise that even slightly is not welcome. We have long lasting collaborations with organisations that work in areas we are in — Shakti Shalini (NGO Women’s group), or Saksham in Nithari (NGO running schools for children).

Can you tell us its reach — universities, theatre halls, small screen? How far have you been able to stretch out in thirty years? Tell us about the growth.

Bourgeois theatre rules the world. It’s connected  and money generates more money. pandies’ endeavour has been to connect not just at the university levels, not just at national levels but at international levels, evolve collectives that deal with exploitation and oppression at diverse levels.

We perform and do workshops. The group’s reach has been wide. Going on a narrower, sharper course over the last decade to be able to work with the severely marginalised, those who don’t even come on the space of development of the downtrodden.

The nature of our theatre enables us to connect with the underserved and more than 80 percent of the work does not come on the page of the dominant middle class. Performances and presentations all over the country and many abroad use the pandies’ template, Syrian refugees in Greece (2018), Gypsy communities of Ireland (2013), communities in NYC (2012) and nooks and corners of our own country including the Muslim valley of Kashmir where angels fear to tread.

What are your future plans?

As the world opens up, all varieties of work have started again. Workshops with our underserved margins and a full-length proscenium production are both long overdue.

At the same time the cyber experience has taught us the importance of reach, that those who go physically away don’t have to opt out of working for the group.

So yes, we seek a malleable form, a hybrid that combines stage theatre with all its power and is available online live, and the online form too will merge together to the performance which will be more far reaching and accessible. Given the group’s depth we will get there and soon.

Thank you.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
Essay

Corona & the Police

By Subhankar Dutta

A policeman wearing a ‘corona’ helmet in India to educate civilians on the pandemic

With the onslaught of the massive pandemic worldwide, state and central police forces’ activities increased significantly in India. From the street corner to the deep alleys, the police became one of the frontline forces having close proximity with the suspected victims and also with communities. While describing the exercise of power by the state apparatus on public, Foucault, the French historian and philosopher asserts, “We should not forget that in the eighteenth century the police force was not invented only for maintaining law and order, nor for assisting governments in their struggle against their enemies, but for assuring urban supplies, hygiene, health, and standards considered necessary for handicrafts and commerce” (The subject and power, p784).

Pondering upon the huge impact of the first wave and the ongoing second wave, we can see a close resonance of Foucault’s words in our present condition: the pandemic, nationwide lockdown, stay-at-home orders, curfew, and the overcrowded vaccination centers. This new avatar of police forces started to be seen, initially, with the awareness campaign during the first wave of the corona. Several creative re-creations of popular songs and dance numbers were performed by the police at the street corners, residential areas, markets, and other public spaces. Kolkata police gave a twist to Anjan Dutt’s iconic song ‘Bela Bose’ and cheered up the citizens staying inside the home during the national lockdown. The initiative taken by the Gariahat police station was acclaimed worldwide and shared by the Kolkata Police Twitter handle. Similarly, the celebrated song from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) ‘O re sahar basi (Oh, the city dwellers)’ was deftly modified by the Rabindra Sarobar Police Station to reinstall patience and faith in the citizens.

Policemen in Kolkata performing Satyajit Ray’s famed film song adapted to create COVID awareness

Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra police also adapted the popular Bollywood number ‘Zindagi maut na ban jaye Yaaro’(Friends beware, life should not become death)’ from the 1999 Amir Khan action-drama Sarfarosh and made it a corona awareness song.

Madhya Pradesh police performing corona awareness song, an adaptation from Bollywood movie Sarfarosh

Few more popular reincarnations of songs like, ‘Ae Mere Humsafar’ from the film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) to “Ae mere deshbaisyo, ghar me hi tum raho. Bahar coronavirus hain, bahar na niklo (O my countrymen! you stay at home. Coronavirus is out there, do not come out)” by the MP Police; ‘Mera mulk, mera desh, mera ye watan (My country, my homeland)’ from the film Diljale (1996) by the Andaman Nicobar Police; and many more were modified and sung by Indian policemen to spread awareness as well as to keep people positive during the new-normal.

The Kerala police went a step ahead in this new creative exploration came up with a unique dance number, and the official uploaded video became an instant hit. Following a similar line, police from Chhattisgarh, Pune, Delhi and other states and cities, also made us experience a new creative side of them: an experience like roadside concert even in the lockdown. Not only in India but also the Spanish policemen were seen singing on the empty street of Majorca during their nationwide lockdown.

Police officers adapting popular song to educate on the pandemic

Holding placards, wearing coronavirus-inspired helmets, donning the attire of the Yamraj ( the god of death in Hindu lore), and the pop-cultural renderings of singing and dancing are the innovative side of the police, directing us towards a new orientation and new conception of the word ‘police’. Owing its origin to the Medieval Latin ‘politia’ meaning citizenship or government, it has changed its significance a lot with time. In the past few decades with growing urban violence, Maoist upsurge in several parts of India, student protest in the premier institutions, and communal combats around events and organisations, the term police and its social significance tend towards a more limited understanding of law, order, and control.

The ongoing pandemic presents before us a new image of police who sing songs, deliver food, campaign for health awareness, assist the migrants with food, water, and shelter; quite a close rendering of the words of Foucault, showing a new compassionate side of them. While we are disturbed, both physically and mentally, watching the viral videos of lathi-charge following the Tablighi Jamaat, huge mass gathering at Bandra (Mumbai) or Anand Vihar, or the farmers’ protest at Delhi, we should also look at the other side of the coin: a new public role that Indian police have been assigned.

Lokmani, a low-income wage-earning woman in Andhra Pradesh, giving cold drinks to the on-duty policeman with affection, was a warm acceptance of this new role: a mutual exchange of respect and care. The Indian police, which is often criticized for rudeness, bribery, and high-handedness, has to be seen from a more humane angle during this ongoing pandemic. A report prepared collectively by Hanns Seidel Foundation and Janaagraha Trust in Bangalore suggests that ninety percent of the surveyed citizens are accepting the police from a new positive perspective. A similar narrative prevails almost throughout the globe.

But what is the new lesson to be learned? It is something that demands mutual consents from both the government and the citizens. What corona taught us is a new image of the police and thus refers to a reformed legal sensibility that we all should bring into existence and carry forward. Our popular Bollywood films have often presented the hero figure or the ‘saviour’ image of police in the hits like Singham, Mardaani, Simba to Article 15, and many others. But when it comes to the real scenario of the police-public relationship, the narrative is quite different.

They are seen as the ‘privileged alien forces’ who are an obstacle to the smooth life conduct of general citizens. Similarly, the police station is also perceived as a place of fear and terror. The different spectacle of ‘policing’ by the police and other contextual brutalities created a fear-figure of them, very authentically. In our childhood, policemen were used to instill fear in us. This was probably the start of imbibing the ‘fearful-figure’ syndrome into our minds. But it is essential to bridge the gulf between reel life and real life, and the corona crisis provides us an idiom for that. This new attentiveness of the police towards the public, their different methods of spreading awareness, helping families in cremation, and other pandemic related help have made them a new emblem of hope and courage. As the Commissioner of Delhi Police, SN Shrivastava tweeted recently, “Policemen are living upto the motto of ‘Service’, even though it entails risk to their own safety. Despite many of them falling sick, it has not dented their morale and desire to help citizens gasping for breath. They are the ultimate saviour.”

On our part, we need to transform our concept of tyranny associated with policemen to a more humane identification of these men as our local guardians or local legal representatives. The government, on their part, should ensure the same by giving a permissible space where the local police and administration can frolic at ease. The police, because of its proximity to the public, can become a significant tool for public health, risk management, and other inclusive public services. The legal system could re-animate its view of law and police, from as an over-autonomous power which is separate and self-contained, to a kinder configuration where they are more constructive, interpretative, and contextual: rooted in the local life, local necessities. It is like giving the police more power: power to become more humane.

However, though this will not change mindsets overnight, it widens the possibility of making the police and the citizens work for each other in the future. Hopefully, corona will respond one day by becoming endemic or disappearing, to either the ‘Go Corona, Corona Go’ chanting at the Gateway of India, or to the vaccination drive (the sooner, the better), but the new affinity that is building up between the police and the civilian should be retained for a better future. As the corona crisis continues to hover, it has proven that we could learn to build a reciprocal sensibility between police and public for the benefit of both.

Go Corona chanting in Mumbai

Whenever the necessity comes, we should again be together with a safe distance and sing with the Chhattisgarh cop, “Ek pyar ka nagma hai, hum sabne ye thana hain, milke ab humko corona ko harana hain (This is a song of love, we have all decided in unison, together we need to defeat corona).”

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Subhankar Dutta is a Research Scholar and Teaching Assistant at Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Bombay. For more details, please visit the link. https://subhankarduttas.wordpress.com/

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