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Does this Make Me a Psychic?

By Erwin Coombs

Shark’s Teeth. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The credibility of a writer is important. Of course, anyone’s credibility is important because without it, you are keeping time with someone who is a phantom of a personality if they can’t be believed for one reason or another. One must trust that the person telling a story is not sitting in a Starbucks for hours at a time nursing a small coffee and babbling away about things that never happened or didn’t happen that way. Just to put your mind at rest, I’m not currently in a coffee shop, I never linger over coffee and everything I say happened, more or less as I describe.

Here’s where my credibility might be called into question: I am psychic. There, I said it, it’s on the page, a frank admission that makes most people start to wonder where the nearest exit is, or perhaps you are now looking for the nearest recycling bin for this peice. I remember saying this to a fellow at a party once and his expression froze. Not being the most socially adept creature, he was looking for a way to get away from me before I put a hex or curse or whatever it is psychic people do.

He grabbed his cell phone and said, “Sorry, I better take this.”

And as he backed away his phone began to ring. So, either he was pretending to have a call, or he was the psychic — one who knew it was coming. But he found an almost smooth way out of a conversation with someone who might just be an oddball. You do not have to fake a call and presumably you’re reading this with open eyes and an open mind, so let me tell you a bit about this nether, dark world that both fascinates us and repels us like standing naked before a mirror once you’re well into middle age. Here is a story that might not be spooky in the other world sense, but it certainly gave me pause.

It was an overcast fall day in an old room in an old school. How’s that for a spooky, atmospheric set up?  I was teaching another class of basic level grade 10 boys. These poor devils have been committed opponents to English classes likely since their first day in kindergarten. Again, it’s not that they’re dumb, at all. But they sure didn’t like English class.

I came up with a brainchild of an idea to get them to work. I could always keep them quiet and seated, which is a feat in itself. But to get them to work I thought I would go right back to a depression era technique and told them I would give the best student of the day a prize. Now these poor working-class sods were not used to prizes. Mostly at home they got slaps across the head for transgression both real and imagined on the part of parent(s) whose only embrace of parenthood involved forgetting to bring a condom. Their faces lit up at the prospect of a prize. An award! They had spent their school years running into punishments, but a prize!

I felt a little bad when they immediately grabbed their pencils (this time not as a weapon), opened their books (this time not for a pillow), and began to read and write. There is no more stirring or heartbreaking sight for a teacher who cares than watching students try so hard to do something well for which they have no confidence. I sat at my desk and began to wonder.

The first thing I wondered was what could I give for a prize. I assumed they would scoff and make some kind of a sucking noise with their teeth. In 1991, this was a favourite of rappers to display dismissiveness. I had encountered it many times as a teacher. My defense was to ask, in a sincere voice, if they wanted some floss.

“Floss? For what, man?

“Sorry, I thought you had something stuck in your teeth from lunch. I do have some floss in my desk. It’s been there for a while, but it might just do the trick of dislodging that bit of food you feel the need to suck out.”

With a lot of teachers this might well have resulted in a small-scale riot. But my kids knew I liked them, and I tease and, as I said, they might not be bookish smart, but they knew sarcasm when they heard it and they usually just laughed.

But back to the problem of offering a prize that I didn’t even have. I cast a quick look around the room for possibilities. There were some posters on the wall of an educational bent that I could use. There was a lovely one of a parachutist drifting down to earth with the caption below saying: “The mind is like a parachute. It only operates when open.”

I could imagine telling some poor slob that they could take that home for a hard day’s work. I imagine I would eventually make it out of the class, but not in one piece. The pounding I would take would put me on long term disability. Not a terrible idea but the journey to get there would be hard.

I thought about the money in my pocket, full five dollars and some change. But wouldn’t that be a bribe or some form of prostitution? And the next class all behavior and production would come with a price tag. And when the principal got word that I was paying my students, it would mean a different route to long term disability.

I rummaged through my desk drawer when I saw it. My salvation! It was a glass jar of shark’s teeth. Now why in God’s name would a teacher have such a thing on his desk. Simple. It cost me nothing and was a gift. My wife’s uncle was this eccentric but genuinely nice man who collected things. It didn’t matter what, he would collect them. He had scoured the countryside looking for Indigenous arrowheads and tools and guess what? He found them by the hundreds. His collection was so impressive that the Royal Ontario Museum gladly took them when he offered them up out of the goodness of his heart. So, one day we were in his cavernous basement, strewn with rocks and fossils and bits of metal and God knows what else. It was a summer day, and his hay fever had the better of him. He let out a sneeze that no doubt shattered an arrowhead or two.

He blew his nose into a handkerchief that would likely never be used again for any human purpose. He looked down at the contents and said,

“Oh, I thought my nose was bleeding, but it’s snot (instead of it’s not, you see).”

That was exactly the kind of joke this guy made and one of the reasons I found him so much fun to be with. The odd thing was he had survived a German work camp as a teenager during World War II, one in which his brother had died. Yet here he was, in his seventies, bent and old and so full of life and always finding a reason to laugh. How could I not like him?  And now was he related to some of Tina’s family? They were people who could find a dark cloud in the second coming of Christ.

“You know he really should have called first. This is really not convenient.”

Anyway, this jolly old fellow saw me admiring his countless bottles of shark’s teeth lined up on a shelf.

“Geez, just take one. I got plenty.”

“That’s awfully good of you, Bill. But all the work you took yanking them out of their mouths. It just doesn’t seem right.”

He would never laugh at my jokes, but I know he liked them.

“Here, you keep ‘em. Mostly they were lost in bar fights anyway.”

So, thank you very much, Bill. Now I could give my winner a reason to not add my teeth to the collection.

The class came to an end, and I knew I had my top student. I would have liked to have given them all something because they had all tried, and I was very proud of them. But if you give a prize to everybody then it takes away from the very idea of a prize which is a celebration of accomplishment in a field of others. It reminded me of the increasingly bizarre notion that had come up in education in the last few years, namely that everyone is special and stands apart and should be recognised as such. I am all for increasing students’ sense of self-worth but here’s the trick: if everyone is special, then nobody is special. If every child is recognised and labelled as having poor behaviour or attitude because of their genetics or how they were raised or because they weren’t tucked in at night in order to maximise their potential, then they all have an out.

Unfortunately, it gives every kid a playing card that they can pull in any situation. I remember breaking up a fight and as I guided the hulk along to the office, he looked at me wide eyed and said, “It’s not my fault…I have anger issues.”

This was a kid that was not exactly a future student of psychology. A future as a study model of aberrant psychology possibly. But he had been told by teachers and counsellors and no doubt his parents that his ‘acting out’, to put it mildly, was the result of this syndrome. It is to laugh for.

Though I wanted to reward them all, I knew that I had to choose just one. Bobby Mack (yes, it did sound vaguely like a cosmetic line) was the one. I don’t think anyone ever made fun of his name to his face. He was very tall and naturally very strong. His strength wasn’t achieved from holding big books in the library. His love of academics was an empty love. He was, however, a very good future plumber. That’s why he was at school. He was a likeable fellow with a good sense of humour, I knew this because he laughed at my jokes. 16 years old in grade 10, turning his life around to pursue his love of plumbing. It would also help him support the two children he had with two different girls similarly young. Ah, well, he had a goal and I felt he could do it.

With a few minutes to go before the end of class I stood before their expectant faces and said my piece.

“Well, after careful consideration, and after having fed data into the computer, it has been calculated who is student of the day and thereby the winner of a prize that will change their lives.”

I love a big build up, but the faces in front of me told this young teacher that they didn’t use computers, only had calculators for projectiles and didn’t think lives could change. I cut to the chase and told Bobby to come on up and get his prize. He lumbered to the front of the room with a shy smile as the class applauded.  I’m sure the guy never won a prize in an English classroom in his life. When I say applauded, I mean a few did, several whined that they should have won. One fellow called out,

“Oh, sir, that’s not fair. You’re a racist.”

I looked down at this white face, back to Bobby’s white face and wondered where he got that complaint from.

“No, it’s not racist. For one thing I didn’t even know you were Chinese.”

“I’m not Chi…!”

He cut himself off realising that there was both a joke as well as a jab in there for him. Bobby stood in front of me and I slowly, for even more dramatic effect, took out my little bottle of shark’s teeth, took one out and put it in his outstretched hand. The smile didn’t run from his face, it sprinted. He looked hard at the tooth and held it as though he were holding a turd.

“What the hell is this?”

As he was genuinely angry and outraged, I let the swear word go. It floated up into the air not to be addressed by the tough teacher I usually was. It fled the room along with his smile and his joy at having won. He was angry. He was big. I was scared.

“That, my friend, is a shark’s tooth from Florida!” I said, pumping up the item like a door-to-door salesman.”

“I thought I was getting chocolate, or money or something not weird.”

“I want you to know why that is such a prize, far more valuable and lasting than chocolate.”

He still looked angry, but I sensed he would listen. I figured I better talk fast and good or start running. At the Faculty of Education, they taught us that running away from threatening students can chip away at one’s credibility in the classroom. I addressed the whole class as well.

“A hundred years ago there was a shark swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t know about death; it didn’t know about anything. It simply existed. That’s all it wanted, to eat and swim and make little sharks, not because he thought those were good things to do. He just did what came naturally to him…stay alive and make more life. But he died, in some way we will never know. And now Bobby here is holding one of his teeth in his hand.

This is a reminder to all of us that life is beautiful, but it doesn’t last. That shark had a last day on this earth and so will we. We don’t know how or when. But one thing we do know is that we should treasure every day we have, and remember, always remember, this is the only life we have and today is the only day we get, so make the most of it. Value it. That shark, though he didn’t know it, has taught us that lesson.”

Bobby now had the tooth between his fingers and smiled.

“Yeah, that’s kind of cool sir…thanks.”

He tucked the tooth into his pocket and took his seat. The bell went a minute later, and I was pleased to see several kinds around Bobby as he showed off the prize that had meant less than nothing to him moments before. I was proud of myself for having taught a lesson, a life lesson that would hopefully stick with those kids for their whole lives.

I know it stuck with Bobby for the rest of his life. For his life ended that night. He was at a party, a drunken argument and another kid came back with a gun and shot Bobby in the head. I like to think he had the tooth in his pocket and that maybe his last day on earth, he might have valued the little things a bit more, his child’s smile, his mother’s farewell hug. I even fool myself into thinking he looked up at the sky for once, not to check the weather, but just to be happy.

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Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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

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Essay

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.

Zohra Sehgal. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Zohra Sehgal[1] mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.

Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western  dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.

So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.

But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘A Biography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.

Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe[2] and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.

Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan[3]  in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…

So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI[4].

Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.

It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…

Young Zohra. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”

All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!

Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier[5] – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”

When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.  

Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.

With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan[6], Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.

On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…

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When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara[7] and Chandralekha[8]; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.

Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.

Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.

Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi[9]’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement[10] started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed.  Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”

*

However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.

Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.

But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.

Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan[11], writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.

Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef[12] – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor[13], to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.

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Prithviraj[14], although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla [15]sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”

Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.

The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.

Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.

The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!

In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day[16] riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.

And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.

Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.

When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallas[17]and hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”

Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.

Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”

As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”

Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?”  People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.

However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.

Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?

In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.

The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.

All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.


[1] Born Sahibzadi Zohra Mumtaz Khan Begum (1912-2014)

[2] From the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

[3] Pathans of Afghan origin who migrated to Uttar Pradesh in the 1700-1800CE

[4] Communist Party of India

[5] A famous French dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe

[6] Allaudin Khan(1862-1972)

[7] Nayantara Sahgal

[8] Chandralekha Mehta

[9] Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s husband and son-in-law of Nehru

[10] The Quit India Movement started on 8th August 1942

[11] All film stars

[12] Writers

[13] Film stars, directors, composers

[14] Prithviraj Kapoor(1906-1972)

[15] Hindu or a Muslim priest

[16] 16th August, 1946

[17] Colonies

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

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

Categories
Stories

My Christmas Eve “Alone”

 By Erwin Coombs

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Years before I became a teacher, I found myself in the sad position of having a four-year BA and being in the middle of a recession. The recession was the economy. On a personal level, I had a pretty good depression going. Not being able to get into a Faculty of Education and not being able to find a decent job, this newly married fellow was forced to take the only job he could find as a security guard.

Now I don’t mean to disparage security guards. They have a nasty job with a nastier pay. But you’ve seen these people. They are usually on the cusp of what we might term the unemployable. When I say cusp, I mean they are leading the parade of that group. And it’s not their fault. Many are new immigrants whose education credentials have not been recognised. Or they are retired men who cannot stand to watch their lives fritter away at home so come to malls and office lobbies to wear a uniform and do the same. And then there are young people, as I was, who are caught in hard times and have no other choice.

After a couple of humiliating jobs waiting tables in chain restaurants where I would remarkably come home with less money than what I would take to my shift, I jumped at the offering of a job as a security guard. The next time you’re in a chain restaurant, I want you to look kindly on those employees too. They are usually bright and assigned the all-important tasks of making sure the salad bar is inviting. And while you’re in there take a closer look at the salad bar. It is old and crusty and sprayed with oil to make it look shiny. But we had to make it look less toxic. Any idea how few employees eat that salad? Lots and lots.

Okay, when I say jumped at the job, that might be an overstatement. One doesn’t jump at that sort of employment. One stumbles, slithers or falls into it. But here I was offered a job at $5.75 an hour!! It was an olive branch. That very phrase has a biblical origin, apparently. But there was nothing biblical or God giving in a job like that for those wages. Don’t get me wrong. I was raised in a white trash upbringing where one didn’t expect anything necessarily good. Instead, one only hoped very hard that nothing too bad would happen that day that might lead to a poor night’s sleep — such as the arrest of a family member, an eviction from your apartment, or the like. As a survivor of this sort of upbringing, the prospect of a job didn’t seem that bad. What, after all, was I going to do with a specialization in English Lit. and a major in history? Apparently, I was going to guard office buildings in the wee small hours of the morning.

But while that might seem a sad conclusion to years of study, there were some perks. Imagine, for example, the sheer utility of having to wear a tie that clips on! Think of the minutes, and in the totality of a year, the hours saved not having to struggle with said tie. Pop it on and you’re ready to do whatever it is that fellows with clip on ties do. Oh yeah, that would be security work. The assumption being giving workers like me, those ties in the event of an altercation, you wouldn’t be choked with that tie.

When you are making $5.75 an hour, and you are brandishing what has appeared to be a useless university degree over your head, what’s going to happen if an altercation does occur? Let me tell you, you are going to, to put it politely, not intervene. There was no chance of my tie ever being touched by anyone except my sad, trembling hands before a sad, trembling shift at wherever they put me.

And for my second shift of what was to be my “permanent placement” I was assigned to a tall office tower in downtown Toronto. It was a plumb job, high end lawyers, businesses that made obscene amounts of money doing God knows what God knows where. And they had entrusted me to keep it safe throughout the long dark winter nights. Was I honoured? No, I wasn’t honoured. I only felt deflated. And to make matters worse, my first shift was on Christmas Eve, the graveyard shift, from nine p.m. to nine a.m. Christmas morning. Envisage if you will a bleaker prospect. Here I am, a young man, head full of ideas (granted, not his own) and lines of poetry and hope for the futures of his world and the world in general, newly married and, yes, making minimum wage, working on Christmas Eve. Gradually the poetry and the hope faded.

But to be fair it wasn’t entirely without a bright side. My wife had gone to visit her family outside of Toronto for Christmas. Had I not had a shift to cover, I would have gone with her. Her family were a small-scale variation of a war zone. Nobody got along and there was never a peaceful moment, instead there was only a lull between battles. There were tears and accusations and more tension than one might find in a tightly strung tennis racket. When I told her that I was expected to perform my duties as a poor imitation of a cop for this special night, and that she would have to go enjoy the majesty of her family without me, I was not as sad as one might think. In fact, I had a novel to read, a thermos of tea and the prospect of 12 hours of not watching a family engage in a bench clearing brawl over two days.

But fate had other plans for me. Other plans of a Christmas Carol variety.

I showed up early to get the very precise instructions of how to get through the night. My boss, a veteran of many years, who commanded all the respect one might command when sporting a polyester jacket uniform, was very specific.

“There’s no one in this building tonight. Except you. There is a fellow on the second level parking garage, but he never leaves his cubicle. And, uh, between me and you, that should make you feel safer.”

“Safer. Why?’

I started having visions of a madman on some kind of a parole programme given parking duty having committed the most heinous offences.

“Well,” my boss continued…” he’s one of them.”

He let that comment hang in the air for me to absorb and be shocked at. Of course, I knew what he meant. This was 1987, and the world was still in the throes of homophobia and misogyny and racism and all the other features of Neanderthal thinking that was, thankfully, about to be knocked on the head by people with fully developed brains. But I wanted to have a bit of fun with this monkey boss.

“You mean, he cheers for the Montreal Canadians?” I tried to sound both outraged and frightened that such a man would be my workmate through this long night.

Bob, the Neanderthal boss, was a little shocked that I hadn’t picked up on his primitive subtlety.

“NO… he’s a fag!”

I pretended that it would take me a while for that to sink in and put on a shocked face.

“You mean, he….?”

“That’s what I mean.” He said, almost in triumph of having gotten his point across. “But don’t worry, as I said, he never leaves his cubicle, thank God.”

Within ten minutes, Mr. Meathead had left the building and I was alone. Except, of course, for the serial homosexual rapist that I had been warned about. I went right down to see him two floors below to introduce myself. And there he was, sitting in a tiny cubicle with classical music playing and reading what looked to be a fairly serious book.

“Hi, I’m Erwin, tonight’s security guard. It’s my first shift so if there are any problems please don’t call, I’ll likely be napping on an office couch somewhere.”

He laughed and we joked about Bob the Ape man and how if were both in this job one year from now we would have a mutual murder/suicide pact. I left him alone and went upstairs to begin my action-packed shift of watching. And watching. And, if there was time later, watching.

Now as this was my first shift, I thought I should probably do some of what was expected of me. We were told to go on perimeter patrols. These were walks around the out and inside of the building looking for narcotics dealers and nuclear terrorists and generally the sort of high-end criminals who intrude into empty offices in the night. And we were to record in our little make belief police notebooks where we had patrolled and at what time and what we had discovered. After a couple of weeks, it dawned on me that the patrols were not necessary. But I was dedicated enough to still record the patrols in my book. Had I been a little more honest I would have recorded the following:

10:15 p.m. went to office lounge and took delicious 15-minute nap

11:00 p.m. found cookies in staff lounge… ate same

12:30 a.m. finished latest novel…surprise ending quite good

2:00 a.m. considered the merits of suicide as I peered over 15th floor balcony onto atrium…. otherwise, no unusual activity

4:00 a.m. wondered why my cat sleeps so damn much

But as I said, this was my first shift, so I dutifully walked about and scribbled down my report. All had been very quiet until I got to the first level of parking. There were literally no cars in either lot, everyone with lives being at home while I celebrated Christmas Eve in their empty building. But it was not as empty as I thought it was. There, across the lot, I spotted what was obviously a homeless old man who had broken in no doubt to escape the frigid outside. My several hours of rigorous training had taught me what to do in this situation, so I called out the lines I had learned that might save my life one day.

“Hey! You!! You shouldn’t be here!!” I yelled in my deepest, most authoritative voice. The old man, who was shuffling more than walking turned his head to look at me and gave the most peaceful smile. And then he hid behind a concrete column in the middle of the lot.

I have read enough detective novels to know what my next step should be. I must go to the other side of the column to find him. That’s the kind of skill set one acquires from reading. I did, but the shuffling old fellow was a bit faster than I imagined, for he had run around the column to avoid me. I followed. He ran, I followed. Before long I was running around the column chasing no one, and the image of the dog chasing its’ own tail came to my mind. There was no way he could have escaped my most professional pursuit, but he had. I stood there, out of breath and dumbfounded. There was an intruder in the building, and I had let him, somehow, get away. And now I had to report it.

I jogged down to the serial rapist one floor below. He was surprised to see me, perhaps because I was not the same calm looking fellow who couldn’t give a flying damn about this job. I looked worried. Mostly because I was.

“Listen, Mark, not to alarm you, but you should know, there’s an intruder in the building.”

“An intruder?” he looked concerned enough to put down his book.

“Yes, I think it’s a homeless fellow. I’ve got to call it in to headquarters and then notify the police.”

This all sounded very by the book and what ought to be done. Naturally, I was making it all up. I had no idea what procedure was, and I had never read “the book”. And as far as headquarters went, I knew it was staffed by the same South African lunatic who had trained me, if he was even awake. And as for the police, I supposed that made sense as this guy was, strictly speaking, a break in sort of fellow. I was hoping for some guidance from Mark who looked, sadly, like this wouldn’t be his last year at this cubicle. He must have had a lot of great books he wanted to read.

His attitude became casual.

“So, what did this guy look like?”

“Well, he was old, with a gray beard…”

Here is where he cut me off.

“Long gray coat, shuffled when he walked, pleasant smile, fairly short…?”

“Christ, you saw him too! Did he come up to you?’

“No, he never does. He just walks and smiles and disappears.”

Now at the idea that Mark allowed this guy to walk about at his leisure my security guard instincts (never very sharp) kicked in.

“Did you report it??” I asked accusingly.

“Oh, Erwin, you can’t report a ghost. Well, you can, but why bother?”

I looked at him in a predictably stunned way.

“A ghost?”

“Oh yeah…I see him every so often and he just comes and goes and just goes. He has disappeared before my eyes more often than first dates I’ve had. But unlike my first dates, he always comes back with a smile. Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”

Now here’s something else to imagine. You are alone in a big building, you’ve seen a ghost, you have the prospect of many more hours alone and you are told you’ve seen a ghost and that you might see him again but not to worry as he’s harmless. I don’t doubt that ghosts exist and never have. I also believe that they are harmless.

Does this mean that I want to be with one overnight in a building alone? Nope.

I can also tell you that security guards do several things most people aren’t aware of. They pilfer little things, like pens, staplers, cookies (as I hinted at earlier) and they sleep. Sitting alone for a long time and trying to stay awake, it’s tough. Sure, you can play a radio, you can read, you can make plans for an escape from this life that you couldn’t have had nightmares about when you were younger. But ultimately sleep stampedes towards you and you nestle your red eyes into your polyester shirt sleeve laid out on the desk and sleep. But not when you expect the old ghost of Parking Level Two to come by for a Christmas visit. That was the only night I stayed awake for a whole shift. And it was purely from fear, not dedication to my profession. The paltry pay was compensated for with this experience, so I have no regrets about having taken this job. Who knows what adventures lie in the most seemingly bland corridors we travel through!

Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Getting My Nemesis

By Erwin Coombs

You might be wondering how on earth Dusty, the cat, played such a huge role in my downfall. I suppose I should use the defence that the title of this piece is nothing more than literary license because for one thing, I have never had a downfall. Oh, I’ve had many falls and stumbles, but no major catastrophic tragedy that cast me into the pits of despair. I suppose rather than the pits of despair, I have just visited the suburbs of despair. And having lived in the suburbs, I don’t mind equating these two. That is one of the many wonderful things about life, that we can fall, but invariably we rise again, as it is said in a part of the Bible I can never remember, though I fall I shall rise. Confucius said it as well: that our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. The title of this book is misleading, to an extent. I never fell, absolutely, and Dusty had nothing to do with my stumbles. In fact, she was a factor in helping me to get up again and again. A cat? Yes, one might be amazed at the soothing companionship that pets offer generally. I don’t mean all pets. I can’t imagine a turtle, for example, offering solace at the end of a rotten day at work or after your partner has just told you that you are now a lone wolf and good luck with your future. But let me get back to when I finally decided to get a cat.

I was on my own and had rented a bachelor apartment. I was determined to have a pet, particularly a cat, as cats had been a big part of my life since I found the stray Dickens twenty years ago. It was the first of the month, moving day, and as I had not a lot to move for reasons to long to go into, I thought I wouldn’t go a day without company, so I asked my daughters to come with me to the Humane Society to pick one out. My eldest daughter was a little hesitant as she and her boyfriend had adopted a dog few months earlier and had to return it, for reasons once again too long to go into. As a result, she felt that she was blacklisted and that her picture was up on screens and walls and would somehow be subject to abuse at the hands of the workers there. I tried to explain that these people were very well intentioned and likely not wanting to seek revenge for the return of an animal. I mean, I asked her, what could they possibly do? Shame her in front of the other caged animals? Sick a wild pack of rabid pooches on her? But she was nervous enough that she left the choosing of my cat to me and Josie.

My other daughter and I went cruising through the rooms looking at the imprisoned beasts. Any visit to one of these places can be sad. They really do look like prisoners as they pace their small spaces and when you pass by a cage, they seem to do their best to be alluring, realizing on some level, that this stranger might just be their ticket out of Sing-Sing. They rub up against the bars and look at you with these pleading eyes that seem to say, “Please like me, take me home.” It’s every meathead’s dream of what a single’s bar should be like but isn’t for meatheads. My daughter finally found one that she connected with and told me to come over and have a look. It was an American Shorthair, grey and with lovely kind, green eyes. The assistant opened the cage for me and let me put my hand in to have a pet. It was a lovely meeting until the blood was drawn. Mine, I mean, not hers. She lashed out not too fiercely at my hand and I pulled back too late. Josie looked up at me and said,

“Dad, you moved too quickly!”

My argument was that the quick move was the result of having been assaulted and not the cause, but she was intent that this was the one for me and so, naturally, I agreed, as I held my hand up to prevent my life’s blood from escaping.

“There not used to being touched, poor things.” said the worker.

I looked at my gash and wondered if there would be any pity for me, or only another condemnation at having been doing jazz hands in a cat’s cage, but there was none. Nevertheless, I agreed to take this one home and started the paperwork. The woman across the desk took my particulars and my cheque and told me, quite casually.

“And we won’t charge you for the cream.”

“Cream?” I asked, “What cream?”

For a moment I thought that they were going to offer an antibacterial tube for my hand given that one of their inmates had attempted murder on me. But not even close.

“The cream for her backside” came the “as if you didn’t know” response.

“Why would I need cream for her backside?” I asked bracing myself for an answer I knew wouldn’t be pleasant. I mean, any conversation around creams and cat’s backsides is not going to work out well, and this one didn’t.

“As you probably noticed, the kitty is a little bit bigger than she should be.”

A little bit? This was one fat cat. Cats as a rule are about as sedentary a creature as you’ll find so being a little bit chunky is par for the course, but this one was two pars for the course. I didn’t mind as I thought I’ll get her slimmed down with a gym membership and controlled diet.

“And the cream on her anus will help her lose weight?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh no, it’s just that she is so big she can’t really reach her anus to clean it, so she has a wee bit of an infection. The cream will help clear it up. Twice a day, but I suggest you wear a glove as you do it.”

If there was one thing I didn’t need a suggestion about as to when to wear a glove it was that. I didn’t relish the idea with a glove anyway. We took her back to my sparsely furnished new apartment and put her down on the floor while I set up the all-important pooh box and, more important to her, the food and water bowl. She was still a nameless cat, so I asked the girls as I was busying myself rushing about, as much as one can in a bachelor apartment, setting up for my new roommate,

“Well girls, what should we name her?”

“Dusty.” Came the immediate response from Josie. And it made sense as she was a gray furred kitty with lovely white bits as well.

“Because she’s gray?” I called out from the bathroom as I scooped kitty litter into the target box.

“No.” said Josie. “Because she’s eating a fluff of dust.”

And that is my cat, Dusty. As if being so obese that you can’t clean your own backside wasn’t evidence enough, she has an eating compulsion that will not stop, even at dust. But we forged strong bonds and became good friends. As a matter of fact, there is a gay theatre in Toronto called Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Company, and they are quite good. So, from day one I would refer to Dusty and I as just that, buddies in bad times. Of course, the times weren’t bad exactly, but they were certainly getting better.

Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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Categories
Slices from Life

It’s Amazing the Things We can Do

By Erwin Coombs

That’s the title of a narrative that needs explaining. I have to start off by being quite honest: I was raised in a cloud of cynicism and despair. As I’ve already hinted — my upbringing was classically dysfunctional with a broken home at age six and all kinds of attendant problems. Poverty was one. Actually, poverty is never one problem because it has a ricochet effect like shooting a gun in a metal room as it leads to a whole bagful of treats that make life that much more difficult. Apart from the outward signs of misery, there were all kinds of internalised ones.

I am a huge optimist by nature and why I don’t know. It might have to do with a faulty IQ or some brain injury suffered in youth that I can’t recall, for obvious reasons. Mind you, I did fall out of my highchair when I was a toddler in Cairo, Egypt. I don’t know if the highchairs at that time were substandard or perhaps my mother didn’t bother to do up my safety belt, but I went down like a ton of bricks to the non-carpeted floor. I’m sure there was no permanent damage, except for the fact that there is an indent in the middle of the top of my head.

When I was young and had hair, I remember occasionally coming across that indent and thinking “Thank God I have hair to cover THAT thing up with!” But God has a delicious sense of irony and between Him and gravity, or rather with gravity working as his foot soldier, time chipped, or rather pulled away at my hair. And as my hairline receded like a Maple Leaf fan’s playoff hopes, that deformity became a feature of mine. I’m not a vain man, by any stretch, but this was a bit to deal with. Over time, I got used to it.

I recall one day I was helping out in one of my daughter’s grade two classrooms. I was sitting reading a story to several cute little kids when one of the girls asked, in a completely good-natured way, “What’s that big lump on your head?” I wanted to explain that rather than a big lump it was actually a crevice which gave the appearance of a big lump, but how lame would that have sounded? Instead, I did more of that thinking on my feet thing and said, “You see, Ariana, I have so many smart thoughts that I don’t have room for them in my brain. So, I store them there.”

She looked wide-eyed at this new marvel she had never heard of before and I could tell she was impressed. I had turned what could have been a potentially embarrassing deformity for my daughter into a point of admiration. I had new cache as the really smart guy. Score one for Dad.

Thinking back on that highchair fall, there was another potentially brain damaging incident that took place in Cairo. Given that there were two such events it’s amazing I can even remember them. But I guess the damage was fairly minimal, though I’m sure several former teachers of mine would claim otherwise. We had just arrived in Cairo as my father was posted at the Canadian embassy, but our house wasn’t ready yet. That meant a two week stay at the Cairo Hilton on the public coin. Being a toddler, I couldn’t entirely appreciate how cool this was, but my family did and when Dad was at work we spent a lot of time at the pool. I couldn’t walk then but neither could a lot of the guests who made good use of the pool-side bar. My Mum no doubt did, and my siblings were busy playing childish games. I was plopped on the steps of the shallow end of the pool to bake in the sun and hopefully not teeter into the water. Hope is a fine thing, but you don’t want to risk a toddler’s life on it. And sure, as shooting I did the teetering and as with the highchair, toppled to the bottom. The landing wasn’t so bad, it’s just that there was no resurfacing to go with it and so I sat comically at the bottom, no doubt waving my arms and looking wide eyed.

Meanwhile, on terra firma, someone thought to look for me.

“Has anyone seen Erwin?’

If I had a toddler that was missing poolside, I would have phrased it a little more urgently. But the whole family circled the pool until my brother Eddy spotted me at the bottom, now fairly blue through lack of oxygen and called out.

“There he is!” I believe he said it like a child finding a hidden Easter egg in a hunt instead of a drowning sibling. But for all that they did pull me out, dry me off and I was not much the worse for wear. Here’s a funny follow up lest you think that our childhood experiences don’t have some kind of resonance in our adult years. I was never told of this almost drowning incident until I was well into my teens, for some reason. Yet my whole life I had been, and am still, subject to a recurring nightmare where, you guessed it, I am at the bottom of a pool, gasping for breath and I wake up panting. As the song says, take good care of your children. If you don’t they might end up with misshapen heads and poor sleeping habits.

There was a third incident in Cairo involving a camel and the pyramids. My God, but it sounds like I’ve had this exciting life but really most of it has been spent holding onto a channel changer and dreaming of better days. While in Cairo the family decided to take a tour around the pyramids riding camels because, hey, that’s the thing to do there. And it would have been a grand idea except that my Mum had just strapped the baby me onto the camel before she got on when the camel decided that one passenger was enough, and it bolted. Camels are ornery beasts and when they get a mind to something they do it and apparently kidnapping the blonde baby was a bee in its bonnet so off it went. Soon one of the camel instructors leapt onto another camel and chased me down in the Sahara after a few minutes. Had he not, I might well have wound up as a Bedouin being raised in the desert as some sort of a poor man’s Lawrence of Arabia. Looking back on my time in Egypt, it seems clear that my parents had decided to do away with me but lacked the foresight for a proper plan or the energy to keep at it. But I hold no grudge. They did have three other mouths to feed, after all.

Despite all those damages to my brain at an early age I have managed to negotiate this old world with some degree of success. And one of the points I want to make in this narrative is that people are extraordinarily able to do things they think they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, if that doesn’t sound too convoluted a sentence. In other words, we can accomplish things under the most enormous pressure and under terrible conditions that we think we might not be able to do even under ideal circumstances. What this says about human beings is that we are to be marveled at and not despaired over, as we so often do. We look down on our species and God knows we look down on ourselves countless times a day.

The old ‘pop’ psychology of examining the self is not just a cutesy way of filling up self-help books with advice. Self-help books are generally, a dark alley to visit. They are great at momentary inspiration but generally don’t last beyond the initial reading. That’s why people keep poring over them again and again. And here is one of the problems with self-help books; they tell us what we already know to be true and what should be done. The advice is common-sensical. But following advice is much more difficult than just seeking it out and so we repeat the patterns of dumb behavior. And as long as we are seeking advice from a friend or a book, we get the feeling we are doing something. It calls to mind the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who said, “No longer talk about what a good man should be. Be one.” Or in the words of my father, “shit or get off the pot.” I’ve always thought a good title to reveal this problem with self-help books would be Breaking the Self-Help Dependency Cycle: Volume 8.

Returning to my narrative highlighting the amazing things people can do and not even realise they can do it. I have a life and death example from World War II. I knew an old woman whose life had been a series of tragedies. Sure, she had had some joy. She was born in the First World, had children she loved and grandchildren, had friends and all manner of hobbies from knitting to crocheting and everything in between. Mind you knitting and crocheting are close so there might not seem a great deal in between, but there is, and she pursued them, getting a joy out of the little things in life. This despite the fact that she was raised in Nazi occupied Holland, had a brother who died in a Nazi work camp, one of her children was killed in a traffic accident while just a boy, her husband had died of cancer, she had defeated cancer, well, the list goes on. But despite the list of reasons to give up and surrender to despair she found joy where she could, displaying a strength of character that people who have suffered much less and whined much more would do well to learn from.

Here is her story of doing what you think you can’t when circumstances demand you step up and find a solution instead of an excuse. This lady, Gail, was living on a farm near some woods during the Nazi occupation of her country. One of her two brothers had died in that German work camp so the other one who was at the same camp, decided that he was not going to stay. He escaped from Germany and somehow made his way home to the farm. His family hid him, but he had to spend a lot of time living in the woods to avoid the SS (Shutzstaffel) who knew he was there but couldn’t catch him. One day he was at the farm splitting wood when word came that the SS were coming for him. He naturally ran to the woods. Here was the trouble. The Nazis arrived and demanded to know where he was. Gail was the only one home and denied that he had been there for over a year. The crafty head of the unit spied the partially split pile of wood and asked who had been doing this job. Gail calmly said she had, and as the Nazis had taken away the men, she had no choice, now did she? The head of the unit nodded calmly and in an equally calm manner took out his revolver.

“You are doing a very good job. You’re pretty skilled for a little farm girl, aren’t you?”

He looked at her smilingly and gestured to the pile of logs.

“Show me how it’s done. If you can prove it wasn’t your brother who did this, well, that will be fine. If you cannot, you die here and now at the hands of an officer that you’ve lied to.”

He stepped back, keeping the gun pointed at Gail. She told me she had never picked up an axe in her life, but she knew that if there was ever a time to do it and to learn how, this was it. She said that she was trembling inside but knew that that fear had to be kept hidden. She also knew that if she failed and was killed it would redouble the SS man’s commitment to track down her brother. Even when her life was hanging by the swing of an axe, she was concerned with the fate of someone else. And this also speaks to me about the true nature of humanity. Despite the fact that whatever selfish tendencies we have can be played upon to act in more selfish ways by people who make a profit out of selfishness, we are fundamentally a caring species with streaks of unselfishness that are not merely streaks but represent our true colours.

Gail stepped up to the pile, picked up the ax and said a silent prayer of desperation and hope while she put on a brave face,

“Dear God, please, just let me swing this axe true, just this once.”

She had seen others do it and tried to replicate their movements, placing a log on the stand, shifting her hands down the shaft and giving a mighty swing. The log split in two with the softest sound. She hid her own amazement and looked at the man holding his gun and her life in his hands with a bored “See?” sort of expression. The Nazi uncocked his gun and placed it back in the holster.

“Couldn’t have done better myself. Carry on,” and he and his men walked away to continue the search for the brother that I’m happy to say was never successful. That’s the brother whom I knew as a delightful old man who had given me those sharks teeth all those years ago. He, like his sister, was so full of life and happiness despite all they had gone through. Or perhaps not despite but because of all they had gone through. From the wonder of a hundred-year-old shark’s tooth to the smile of their babies in their arms, they loved all that life had to offer because they knew how precious and, surprisingly, readily available joy is in this world.

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Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These narratives are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.

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

Categories
Editorial

Colours of the Sky

A riot of colours starts the day
with happiness, vibrancy and hope,
dispelling the winter of discontent
with whispers of new lores…
Courtesy: Sohana Manzoor

Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Satyajit Ray film, based on a story by a writer called Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, that showcases nineteenth century India, where the silence of a young girl who is deified, wreaks havoc in her home, village and life. In an interview, Satyajit Ray contended that the film was to make people rethink ‘messiahdom’. The exact words he used to state this was that the film was against ‘religious dogmatism’ as the film and story literally dealt with the deification of a young bride. Tagore had similarly questioned blind deification in a number of his poems and plays. These (as Ray spelt out in his interview) did not address religion per se but malpractices, among them, the tendency to worship an idol to a point where flaws are justified, accepted and emulated. Satyajit Ray and Tagore were both Brahmos — which can be seen as a reform movement. These two were not criticising religion but talking of rising above gawky hero worship to think logically and arrive at logical conclusions. When we talk of characters from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, other mythologies or substitute the adulated with stars, writers, politicians and businessmen who run huge concerns, we tend to idolise them. But these were and are all characters with flaws, whether fictitious or real. We can well learn from their mistakes, rather than deify and worship them to justify bad behaviour by quoting instances from lives of past legends or prominent persons in the current world.

Akbar Barakzai, a poet exiled from Balochistan, talks in a similar vein in his interview. You can see it in his poetry too — some of which can be found translated by Fazal Baloch in our pages. Barakzai talks of transcending barriers we draw for ourselves in the real world, of writing with honesty and sincerity. He has shared vignettes of his life as he changed countries to continue his work. Baloch has also brought to us another excellent poet in translation, Munir Momin. A major poem by Nazrul (the ‘bidrohi kobi’), ‘Bidrohi or Rebel’ has wound its way to our pages translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. We are honoured and grateful that Prof Alam chose to share this excellent translation with us. We have more translations: Jibonananda’s ‘Motorcar’(1934) by Rakibul Hasan Khan, a Korean translation by Ihlwha Choi, another short story from Nepal and Tagore’s powerful poem,Morichika or Mirage’, which is a wake-up call for the inert affluent who hold themselves aloof from common masses. We have also interviewed a major prose translator of Tagore, Professor Somdatta Mandal. With much to share on Santiniketan, Nabanita Deb Sen and many interesting anecdotes, Mandal talks of her extensive work with her translations spanning many more writers from the past.

We have a colourful ensemble this time almost as vibrant as the autumnal colours that have invaded nature in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Michael R Burch has given us beautiful poems on autumn, including the autumn of life. We have a poem in a similar vein by George Freek whose work continues influenced by Liu Yong (1719-1805), an influential minister and calligrapher in the Qing Dynasty. Ryan Quinn Flanagan touches on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in his poetry. Rhys Hughes has given us humour in both his poetry and his column. Our other humorist, Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us darker, more caustic black humour in his narrative. We have lovely photographs from Penny Wilkes with her verses in Nature’s Musings. It is amazing the way she photographs birds in flight. Stories from Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and America add to the richness of our oeuvre. Sunil Sharma has given us an avant-garde telling of Odysseus’s voyage in the modern world, transcending the borders of time and ethnicity.

A well-known senior journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, has also travelled through time to give us a recall of her experience at the 35th Cairo Film Festival one November, nine years ago. Her narrative about the time that the Shariat law was adopted by Egypt reminds me of the way things moved in Afghanistan few months ago and what is even more stunning is the way in which organisations dubbed extremists earlier are allowed to run countries now. Is it really not yet time to get rid of messiahs and look for one world?

We conclude our travels in Burma with John Herlihy and his friend, Peter, this month. And start a column with Candice Louisa Daquin, The Observant Immigrant. Her essays always draw much discussion. An experienced psychotherapist, she has looked into our value systems. We have books excerpts from Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves and CJ Fentiman’s award winning book, The Cat with Three Passports. Himadri Lahiri has done an in-depth review of Somdatta Mandal’s ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore. It is amazing how much we can learn about a person from their letters. Suzanne Kamata has shared her review of Iain Maloney’s Life is Elsewhere/ Burn Your Flags. Reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Shylashri Shankar’s Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes, sounds like an erudite read that spans thousands of years of history. Anita Agnihotri’s Mahanadi –The Tale of a River, translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen, has been reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha. The narrative sounds like a powerful voice weaving together the lores around the river.

Do pause by and find many more authors who dot our November edition. As usual, naming each one will keep you away from our delectable reads for longer. We thank all our readers for their continued patronage, and I would like to thank my fabulous team who are now even providing visuals to brighten our pages. A huge thanks to Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious, who write as well as they paint. Thanks to all our wonderful contributors for making Borderless a reality.

Wish you all sunshine and laughter!

Best,

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

Yesterday Once More?

Renowned film analyst Ratnottama Sengupta revisits a page from her past, weaving history and films into an eyewitness account of events that had occurred as chaos reigned on the streets of Cairo, Egypt. 

Cairo Film Festival, November 27 – December 6, 2012

Cairo.

“This one week will change everything,” Amir told Farah in The Winter of Discontent. Ibrahim El Batout’s recapitulation of the Arab Spring had inaugurated the 35th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on November 27 of 2012. “It will take them one week to find out who uploaded the protest on the net,” the activist tells the journalist, “but one week later this government may not be there.”  These words were borne true in January of 2011. They had sounded ironic when the festival was flagged off on the sixth day of Tahrir Square 2 — by Egypt’s Minister for Culture, Mohamed Saber Arab. He had hugged festival director Ezzat Abu Ouf who was in tears as he said, “In difficult times, it is important to protect one’s freedom of expression.”

It surely must have been difficult to host the festival that was paused following the Revolution. “I am Positive” was the slogan of CIFF that urged ‘positive thinking’ on revolution and freedom. Besides the inaugural film by Ibrahim El Batout, who mastered shooting in war zones for international channels, there was an entire section devoted to cinema of revolution. These documentaries included Good Morning Egypt that displayed people’s mixed emotions on the eve of dismantling Mubarak’s regime. The Road to Tahrir Square searched for the roots of the Egyptian revolution in the country’s labour movement. Eyes of Freedom and Street of Death documented the demand to speed up Presidential elections and handing over of authority from the Military Council to a Civilian government. By the end of the day in January 2011, the police and army had attacked the demonstrators and forced them to evacuate Tahrir Square, outraging the world by the human rights violation.    

All this would have been perfect material “to express the heritage of the past, the reality of the present and the dreams of the future” – to quote the city’s Governor, Osama Kamal. For, “cinema records and relays to the world stories of our lives, our thoughts, feelings, social issues, principles…” And “meaningful art is one of the basic pillars of struggle and progress of a people,” he declared. That is why the logo of the revived CIFF depicted the hawk, a symbol of the pharaohs, perched on the metal arm of the revolutionaries in the precious metal of gold.

But it had turned ironic as the awards were cancelled due to the reality outside the Opera, close to the Square and venue of the festival that seeks to empower the youth by providing a platform for their talents. On Thursday, Qasir el Niel bridge leading to Tahrir Square had been blocked off. The museum housing the treasures of Tutankhamen was closed as it was on the turbulent Square. People — reportedly paid by the Brotherhood — were being trucked in for Saturday’s show of strength. Deaths were being reported from outlying areas where the Opposition was more restive as the channels were agog with news that the draft of the Constitution was ready and “any hour now” President Mohamed Morsi would sign it, pre-empting the opposition by the judiciary, intelligentsia, and the liberals who would lose much of their freedom if the Shariat laws would be enforced in Cairo’s open society.

The “action replay” on Tahrir Square was protesting the President’s move to arrogate himself extraordinary powers “until the new Constitution is in place.” Their objection was that he had pushed out the Christians and liberals from the Constituent Assembly, in order to ensure a smooth passage of the Constitution and present it as fait accompli before its expected date.

Yes, that one week in November 2012 had once more changed the course of history on Tahrir Square.

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

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