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Editorial

Whispers of Stones

When the mountains and grass
had life, stones whispered
how the world came to be…

'Stonehenge', Daily Star

And as the world came to be, there was war — war that seems to rage in some part of the world or other. The British Museum has an exhibit which states the first battle was staged 13,000 years ago… in what is now Sudan, long before the advent of written history. This was even before the advent of people who built the ancient Stonehenge which was constructed around 3000-2000 BCE. And battles still continue to rage. The Jebel Sahaba casualties in Sudan 13000 years ago were less than 100. But the current conflicts claim in terms of tens of thousands which prolonged could stretch to millions. The last world war (1939-1945) which lasted for six years had a total of  75-80 million persons who perished. Ukraine-Russia conflict has within five months had a casualty count of more than 14000. And yet weapons and nuclear arms continue to proliferate decimating humanity, nature and towns, destroying homes, erasing ruthlessly and creating more refugees. The only need for such battles seem to be to satiate the hunger of the warlords secure in their impenetrable fortresses while tens of thousands are annihilated and natural or nurtured landscapes lie emaciated, mutilated and polluted.

What would be a good way of ending such wars?

Tagore sought the development of better instincts in humankind as an antidote. He wrote in the last century: “Any teaching concerning man must have human nature for its chief element. How far it will harmonise with human nature is a matter of time.”

With wars getting deadlier and more horrific, we can only try to awaken, as Tagore suggests, the better nature in man to move towards a peaceful world. What would be a more effective way of doing it than writing with the hope of a kinder and accepting future?

For that let us start with translations of the maestro Tagore himself. We have a song about the season — monsoon, ‘Monomor Megher Songi (My Friends, the Clouds)’, translated by Professor Fakrul Alam, a painting by Sohana Manzoor interpreting the lyrics and a transcreation of Nababarsha or New Rains’ was shrunken into a popular Rabindra Sangeet and reduced to twenty lines in English by Tagore himself. The connect with nature is an important aspect that enables humans to transcend petty concerns leading to dissensions of different kinds as evidenced in the maestro’s humorous feline skit, translated by Somdatta Mandal. A translation of Dalip Kaur Tiwana’s ‘The Bus Conductor’ from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair adds zest to this section. Fazal Baloch has translated a folktale from Balochistan involving the supernatural and Ihlwha Choi has taken on the cry for peace on behalf of Ukraine while translating his own poem in Korean. The Nithari column has a story by Jishan in Hindustani, translated to English by Grace M Sukanya, showcasing the struggle of a youngster during the pandemic – rather a sad narrative, which though fictitious has its roots in reality. 

Our poetry section touches upon the timelessness of dissensions and darkness with Michael R Burch’s poem on Stonehenge and Supatra Sen’s poem on Ukraine. This has been allayed by love poetry by Maid Corbic from Bosnia. George Freek’s poem ruffles with its reflective lines. And in the midst of it all, is poetry by Ryan Quinn Flanagan reflecting on the seven stages of man. Will the process of aging or human nature ever change? I wonder if Rhys Hughes can find an answer for that in humorous verses as he has shared in this issue. In his column, Hughes has written about an imagined anthology of short stories.

Our short story section has echoes of humour around felines by Manzoor, somewhat in tune with the mind frame seen in Tagore’s skit on this issue. Humour rings tinged with an apparition in Erwin Coombs’s narrative – should one call it dark humour or is it just his style? Paul Mirabile goes for gothic darkness in his meanderings around Italy.

Strangely, we seem to have a focus on short stories this time. Keith Lyons has interviewed Steve Carr, a journalist, a publisher and writer of 500 short stories who is questing to create a ‘perfect short story’. Reading out excerpts from her short story at a literary festival in Simla, Bollywood celebrity, Deepti Naval, was in conversation with eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta. She spoke of her literary aspirations while unveiling her autobiography in verse, A Country Called Childhood. This conversation has been shared by Sengupta with Borderless. It is interesting to see how Naval’s reactions to social malaise contrasts with that of the film director, cinematographer and actor, Goutam Ghose, who was present during the unveiling of her book. He had responded to communal violence by making a film on Lalan Fakir extolling virtues of love and kindness, called Moner Manush (2010) and then made a book on the film called, The Quest (2013) which has beautiful translations of Lalan Fakir’s lyrics by Sankar Sen.  

Our non-fiction sections seem to be hosting multiple travel stories across UK by Mike Smith, along the Australian coastline by Meredith Stephens, on the Himalayas with Ravi Shankar and an unusual visit by Hema Ravi to a farm in US where animals that had been used in Disney films in the past are homed. Our environmental columnist, Kenny Peavy, actually wrote about his cycling trip from Thailand to Indonesia on a bamboo cycle made by a Singaporean! And from Japan, Suzanne Kamata explored a museum in the neighbouring town of Mure. The museum on a hill hosts the art of American Japanese Artists, Isamu Noguchi.

We do have non-fiction that moves away from travel: noir humour by Devraj Singh Kalsi and an essay by Candice Louisa Daquin on a very interesting subject – ‘Is it Okay to be Ordinary?’ Is it?  Dan Meloche has written a literary essay on Canadian novelist Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel, Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015). While Meloche spoke of how the novel departed from Orwell’s Animal Farm, his narrative brought to my mind a novel closer to our times set in England by Jasper Fforde called Constant Rabbit (2020) – this a science fiction while Alexis’s was an apologue or an animal fable. Fforde did use the rabbits rather well to highlight the current times.

We have book excerpts of two recent books that I would call really outstanding. One of them is Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, which is being released this week, and is based on the evergreen contentious case of the prince of Bhawal that has even been explored even in cinema. The other, Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh, has been published posthumously and is not a translation from Bengali but written in English originally by this trilingual writer.  

Called ‘Dadamoni’ affectionately, iconic actor Ashok Kumar is regarded as “the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood”.  This book has been reviewed by Indrashish Banerjee, who calls it ‘a reflection on the Hindi film industry’ as well as a biography. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Booker winner Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of her Hindi novel by Nita Kumar, reiterating the dialogue that had been kindled on motherhood last month by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao’s The Oldest Love Story (2022). Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Explaining Life Through Evolution plotting how life evolved on earth. Parichha tells us: “Meaningful, wide-ranging and argumentative, this is a must-read book. It will propel us to imagine and reimagine life around us.” Another book that sounds like a must-read has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road, translated by Mandal. She tells us: “ ‘Gleanings’ represents the quintessential Tagore…Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.”

There is more to tempt. Please stop by on our contents page and take a look.

We would like to hugely thank all our contributors and readers for being with us and helping us grow. I would like to thank my team, who despite hurdles they face, always lend a helping hand and wonderful words from their pens or computers to get Borderless on its feet. I apologise for the delay and thank you all for your patience. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fabulous artwork.

I wish you all a wonderful July and peace in a war-torn world. We are all affected by the ongoing conflicts. Let us hope for peaceful and just resolutions.

Thanks.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Essay

A Modern-day Animal Fable with Twists

Dan Meloche visits a contemporary Canadian novel written as an animal fable to draw an unexpected inference

Apologues, or animal fables, deepen our understanding of aspects of the human experience. In both Richard Adams’s Watership Down and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the authors’ anthropomorphised rabbits and farm animals struggle with class division, malevolent leadership, and violence. Mirroring current or historical political realities, these books remain popular as cautionary tales. Similarly cautionary, Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel,  Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015), provides a twist to the typical apologue genre. Alexis’s animals are not attributed human qualities but become human-like when transformed with human consciousness. Less politically and more philosophical, Alexis’s apologue highlights each dog’s response to the dubious gift of human consciousness and intelligence:

“‘I’ll wager a year’s servitude,’ said Apollo, ‘that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.

An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.’”

Only three dogs embrace the gift of human consciousness that leads to a “new language flowered within them”. This new language is most significantly embraced by Prince, the only dog that is happy at the end of his life. Throughout the novel, Alexis traces Prince’s journey and the path that leads to his happiness. His path begins with exile after defying pack leadership by refusing to curb his desire for language expansion and poetic expression. Also separated from the pack are two other human consciousness embracers, Benjy and Majnoun. When Benjy and Majnoun die, Prince becomes the lamplighter of their endangered language. Until his death, Prince carries with him Hermes warning: “if you die, your way of speaking dies with you.” By passing on his poetry, Prince abides the warning, saves the language, and ensures his happiness in his darkest hour.

At the outset, Prince revels in his expanded consciousness in the face of threatening forces. Following their escape from the veterinarian clinic, the dogs gather in a coppice to begin the sorting out of dogs wishing to stay “dog” and dogs willing to explore their new expanded consciousness., Atticus, the “crumpled-face” and “natural hunter of small animals,” assumes pack leadership and encourages his fellow canines to stay “dog” and deny the gift of human consciousness. For Atticus and his sycophants, denying human consciousness means denying language development and other ‘non-dog’ behaviour. According to Atticus, dogs already have a language of barks and growls sufficient to communicate basic need and social standing. To Prince, who “entirely embraced the change in consciousness,” language expansion is necessary to express the “new way of seeing, an angle that made all that he had known strange and wonderful.”

Overwhelmed by the wonder of his heightened consciousness, Prince moves beyond his old ‘dogness’ to declare his expanded awareness and express himself in verse:

“The grass is wet on the hill.

The sky has no end.

For the dog who waits for his mistress,

Madge, noon comes again.”

In the last line, Prince plays on the name of his friend Majnoun, a similarly awoken dog. This connection with Majnoun affirms Prince’s poetic spirit and establishes fidelity to the new language. However, Atticus’s henchmen Max, Frick, and Frack are more interested in affirming pack order and want to tear Prince to pieces. Oblivious to Frack and Frick’s menacing postures, Prince, encouraged by from Athena, Bella, and Majnoun, indulges his small audience with more verse:

“Beyond the hills, a master is

who knows our secret names.

With bell and bones, he’ll call us home,

winter, fall, or spring.”

With his cryptic suggestion of a new order of things, Prince’s words are enlightening to some and enraging to others. This second poem entrenches the pack’s two camps: those wanting more poetry, thereby embracing the gift of consciousness, and those unsettled by the “strange talk.” Threatened by Prince’s poetry, the latter camp acts to secure pack order.

After a murderous pack cleansing, Prince escapes into exile to revel in his expanded consciousness. With that comes more poetry, more language. Yet, what good is a language in solitude? Rambling through Toronto’s urban expanse, Prince craves reunion with his pack mates: “But what am I without those who understand me?” Also exiled, Majnoun and Benjy remain psychically connected to Prince. Inspired by Prince and his artful musings on his expanded consciousness, Majnoun tries his hand at poetic expression. Despite its curious subject, Majnoun’s verse is presented as love poetry to his master Nira:   

“In China, where wild dogs are eaten,

I am dismayed to be in season.

I curse men who think of me as food

and dream of rickshaws, and lacquered wood.”

Also inspired by the poet dog, Benjy draws on Prince’s courage to ponder what is seen through their new human lens. Looking across the limitless expanse of Lake Ontario, Benjy wonders: “Why should this bluish, non-land be? And how far did it extend?” Benjy’s philosophical rumination then causes the poet dog, Prince, to magically appear.

Overcome with joy and “tongue lolling out,” Prince revels in his delight in seeing Benjy. Mostly, Prince is happy to affirm that their pack language lives on in at least one other dog. With hope renewed, Prince circles the embarrassed Benjy: “It was as if he were chasing the delight that animated him.” His animation is quickly deflated when Benjy tells Prince of the pack’s obliteration in the Garden of Death. For Prince, the dwindling pack size threatens preservation of the pack’s language: “And his cries were such an unfettered expression of grief that even the humans in the distance stopped to listen.” To affirm the language’s vibrancy, Prince offers a poem as balm:     

“With one paw, trying

the edges of the winter pond,

finding it waters solid,

he advances, nails sliding,

still far from home.”

Nonplussed, Benjy shows no interest in Prince’s description of a dog’s tenuous existence: “He knew no word for boredom, but the feeling was accompanied by a nearly palpable desire to have Prince stop talking.” Less interested in the pack language, Benjy is more interested in reciting Vanity Fair to his master. For Benjy, this party trick secures home and comfort better than a dying language. When Benjy brings Prince home with him, the English speaking, literature quoting Benjy receives an enthusiastic reception while Prince is shown the curb: “In this way, as suddenly as he’d regained a pack mate, Prince lost the dog he believed was the last to share his language.” As the three remaining dogs approach death, the fate of their pack language moves closer to extinction.

While Prince dies happy, his consciousness embracing counterparts, Benjy and Majoun, share crueler fates. After killing off most of the pack (Atticus, Rosie, Frick and Frack) by leading them to a “garden of death,” Benjy invokes a retributive Zeus. Fulfilling Atticus’s final wish, Zeus punishes Benjy with a horrific death: “as if a fire were moving deliberately through the den of his body”. In his moment of death, Benjy “conjures hope” for a place where a just world establishes “balance, order, right and pleasure”. Although Hermes pleads his case that hope is a manifestation of happiness, Apollo dismisses hope as “a dimension of the mortal, nothing more.”

After a five-year vigil pining for his missing master, Majnoun approaches death heavy with the ravages of unreciprocated love. Tormented with more than just a broken heart, Majnoun struggles with unresolvable questions: “What, he wondered, did it mean to be human?” As Hermes tried to explain to Majnoun, a dog will never understand love the same way as a human. Unable to square his canine-human experience, Majoun rests uneasily “adrift between species.” Bearing witness to Majnoun’s philosophical torments, Zeus strong arms the Fates to mercifully cut short the thread of the lovestruck dog’s life.  Heart-broken, philosophically perplexed and, consequently, unhappy, Majnoun makes his transition.

How, then, is Prince’s response to consciousness different from the experiences of his awoken confederates? Benjy’s final appeal for a just world can only be followed with the unhappiness that results from recognising that such a thing is impossible. Also given to unreasonable expectations, Majnoun cannot find happiness as he’s unable to neither bridge the canine-human divide, nor mend his broken heart. While Benjy and Majnoun base their happiness on things over which they have no control (the entire world and Nira’s love), Prince’s goal is to preserve the pack language: “There was at least one thing he loved, one thing that would be with him always; his pack’s language.”

By saving the pack language, Prince saves himself from misery. In his death throes, Prince loses his sight. Fearing the same fate for his language, “in a heroic effort to preserve his language, Prince began to speak his poems to the woman.” When Prince hears his human guardian repeat his poetry, happiness comes: “Somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed.”

For Hermes and Apollo, that seed represents access to the eternal. As they both agree to the indisputability of Prince’s happiness prior to death, the sons of Zeus acknowledge the notion claimed by all immortals that “all true poetry existed in an eternal present, eternally new, its language undying.” By preserving the language and passing on his poetry, Prince gains access to the eternal. As his poetry exists eternally, so will he, thus overcoming the greatest fear of those governed by human consciousness. In a uniquely human way, Prince’s happiness comes from realising that the surest antidote to the fear of death is the most transcendent and eternal of emotions: “In his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return.”

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English and economics, he reads widely and writes literary criticism, reviews, poetry, and personal account essays.

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