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Tagore Anniversary, 2021

Celebrating the 160th birth anniversary of the polymath, Kobiguru Rabindranath, we offer our readers a selection of translations of his songs and stories and some essays on and around him. For more exhaustive translations and coverage on Tagore, do visit our new section — Tagore & Us.

We launched this section with the translation of seven of his songs by the gifted Sahitya Akademi winning translator and author, Aruna Chakravarti.

Songs of Tagore: Translations by Aruna Chakravarti

This selection of seven songs has been excerpted from Songs of Tagore translated by Aruna Chakravarti and brought out by Niyogi books. Click here to read.

Tagore Translations: One Small Ancient Tale

Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekti Khudro Puraton Golpo (One Small Ancient Tale) from his collection Golpo Guchcho ( literally, a bunch of stories) has been translated by Nishat Atiya. Click here to read.

Tagore Songs in Translation

To commemorate Tagore’s 160th birth anniversary, we translated five of his songs from Bengali to English. Click here to read, listen and savour.

At Home in the World: Tagore, Gandhi and the Quest for Alternative Masculinities

Meenakshi Malhotra explores the role of masculinity in Nationalism prescribed by Tagore, his niece Sarala Debi, Gandhi and Colonials. Click here to read.

A Tale of Devotion and Sacrifice as Opposed to Jealousy and Tyranny

Sohana Manzoor explores the social relevance of a dance drama by Tagore, Natir puja. We carry this to commemorate Tagore’s birth anniversary. Click hereto read

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Essay

At Home in the World: Tagore, Gandhi and the Quest for Alternative Masculinities

By Meenakshi Malhotra

                    

In exploring the question of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and alternative masculinities, it is important to keep in mind the multiple contexts and registers in which this question can be explored. One is obviously Tagore’s critique of and take on man-woman relationships in his books and stories throughout his life, which he had observed at close quarters in an extended/joint family context. Many of his short stories, like “The Exercise-Book”, and novels like, Chokhher Bali (A Grain of Sand), show a keen sympathy for women’s aspirations and the situation of that unaccommodated woman, the young widow. Tagore demonstrates his sympathy, even empathy, with the young widow, Binodini, while recognizing that she might pose a threat to social stability within the household of Mahendra and Asha, his girl-wife. The second register is the intertwining of creative writing and androgyny (the latter being a necessary attribute for an author, according to Virginia Woolf), and how Tagore in his capacity as a creative writer had qualities of empathy and sensitivity, which he drew upon to forge unusually close emotional bonds with women. This theme  has been discussed by writers and critics under the rubric of Tagore and the feminine or Tagore and women. However, this article seeks not just to explore Tagore’s views on women but his search for a calibrated and balanced way of being in the world without falling into the binaries of imperial and colonized masculinities, and to shape the contours of a self which makes the world its home and is at home in the world.

In his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), we come across a criticism of extremist politics and jingoistic nationalism. A tripartite narrative about the growing political consciousness of Bimala, her failure to understand her liberal husband, Nikhilesh, a landlord and his friend Sandip, a fiery nationalist and a turbulent petrel, who storms the bastions of their household and marriage. Sandip’s brand of militant nationalism appeals to Bimala, who had once harboured feelings of inferiority because of her birth in an ordinary family, and who feels elevated and special under Sandip’s scrutiny. Sandip singles her out for special attention and calls her the “Queen Bee’’ and his muse and inspiration leading her to ignore Nikhilesh’s more mature and balanced views. Early in the novel, Nikhilesh who often functions as a mouthpiece for Tagore’s views in the novel, says that though he loves his country/nation, he cannot place nationalism over humanity. Reflecting Tagore’s views, which espouses internationalism and humanitarianism, Nikhilesh is not understood by his politically immature wife and ignored by his self-serving and unscrupulous friend.

Central to the formation of Tagore’s political views and suspicion about nationalism was his ideological debate with his own niece, his sister, the novelist Swarnalata Debi’s daughter, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani. A keen and fiery nationalist and patriot, Sarala was deeply impressed by the physical culture of imperial masculinities. She was particularly enthused/motivated by the concept of uplifting the nation through encouraging the growth of a physical culture. A statement that resonated with her was the idea of national character and she quotes lines from the ‘Educationist’:

Physical weakness is a crime-against yourself and those who depend on you. Weaklings are despised and a weakling nation is doomed. The decline of ancient Greece and Rome which fell rapidly from the pinnacle of supreme civilization was due to physical neglect and abuse of the inflexible laws of nature. A physically weak nation is drained out mentally, its feet are on the downward path and it will end upon the scrap-heap if it does not act before it is too late.”

She also quotes a proverb which pronounces that the “battles of England are fought and won in the fields of Eton” (Chapter 18,129).  Her interest in and involvement with the politics of the freedom movement led her to initiate the celebration of Birashtami (festival of heroes to celebrate martial prowess, bravery and courage)) to mark courage and martial valour. Her belief in developing a physical culture and strengthening the national character made her revive certain traditions, re-invent rituals in order to paint a glorious version of India’s past. In doing so, she encouraged celebrations of Birashtami and invoked and revived the ‘braveheart’, Pratapditya, a landlord with questionable antecedents since he was also guilty of killing his father. In elevating such a figure to a status of a nationalist war-hero, she elicited mixed responses, particularly from her Brahmo family and her uncle, Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore, among others, strongly objected to Sarala’s invocation of the figure of a parricide as a martial hero. Such a figure could act as a dangerous precedent since it would seem to encourage untrammeled and uncontrolled aggression and blur moral boundaries and ethical codes. This blunting of all moral and ethical codes and boundaries, the danger lurking in a militant and violent nationalism was, as indicated above, represented by Tagore in his novel, Ghare Baire but also in his essays on nationalism. In the novel, the conflict between a rational civic and humanitarian nationalism which eschews violence is embodied by the idealized figure of Nikhil and the primordial reactionary chauvinistic version of nationalism which endorses violence by his ‘friend’, Sandip. After casting a spell (metaphorically speaking) over the impressionable Bimala, whose affection he then misuses to drive a wedge between the couple and then to extract money from her to fund his terrorist activities.

The Scattred Leaves of my Life By Saraladebi Chaudhurani

Rabindranath’s indictment of Sandip could be viewed as his response, a sort of extended debate and dialogue with an ideological viewpoint diametrically different from his own, which was represented by his niece.  The increasing rift and estrangement between the two — Rabindranath and Sarala — might explain the wistfulness and occasionally melancholic and autumnal tone of Jibaner Jharapata (The Scattered Leaves of My Life) Saraladebi’s autobiography. A proud and self-respecting person, Sarala was probably conscious of the slur or aspersion of effeminacy that the British had cast on the Bengali character. She felt the humiliation and indignity too keenly to accept such descriptions and attributions quietly.

Gandhi and the Crafting of Political Masculinity

One common threadthat runs through the work and writings both these towering personalities of Tagore and Gandhi, is a critique of existing, culturally prescribed and sanctioned models of masculinity as they prevailed in the eastern (Tagore) and western (Gandhi) extremities of India. Both these great men, as public personages, were conscious that they were thought leaders and role models and that examples set by them would be emulated.

In the case of M.K. Gandhi(1869-1948), a great national leader who was instrumental in India’s throwing off the yoke of colonialism in 1947, there is a conscious experimentation with the “truth’’, presumably of one’s inner self, to oppose certain culturally sanctioned models of masculinity. Interestingly, his great-niece, Manu Gandhi referred to the ageing Gandhi as “Gandhiji, my mother” in her diaries, which were translated into English in 2019. When we focus on his corporeal politics, we see in Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” a series of experiments to do with the body which express both a consciously crafted gender ambivalence and throws a challenge to the concept of the manly body of the colonizer. Here my point is that Gandhi was consciously deploying his self, his body identity/ies and attendant subjectivities, in order to make a political point. He used his body and body-politics to establish his difference from the colonially attributed native body and also to mark his distance from colonial models of masculinity. While in one sense, this fluid body seems almost gender ambivalent, it is also an invitation to re-imagine and revision stereotypical notions of gender which circulate in cultures.

  Both of these thinkers were probably conscious of the import of the political masculinities espoused by them, particularly under the yoke of imperialism, at a specific historical conjuncture. This conjuncture is the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the models of masculinity available can be broadly conceptualized as imperial, colonial and ascetic masculinities.

The imperial masculinity model is based on the white imperial ‘master’, the civil servant, the ‘pukka saheb’, the kind extolled by Kipling and criticized by E. M.Forster. Coincidentally, this Kiplingesque masculinity, often caricatured, found its takers in people who extolled the muscular, strong masculinity of imperial cultures, like Sarala Debi, Tagore’s niece. The Forsterian view that the English public school culture shaped “well developed bodies, under-developed minds and undeveloped hearts’’ was not known to her, nor would it have found favour. This model also made its way into Indian discourses where it becomes linked with questions of national character and patriotism. In his book, The Intimate Enemy (1983) Ashis Nandy proffers the view that the Indian elite in the 19th century perceived the British as agents of progressive change and accepted the ethos of aggressive imperial masculinities.

According to historians and critics like Indira Chowdhury, Mrinalini Sinha and Chandrima Chakraborty, there was a developing discourse of de-masculinization and emasculation among the British, where they denigrated the Indian middle class and particularly the Bengali men as weak and effeminate and this also led some political leaders to move in the direction of defining and conscious crafting of alternative masculinities.    

Four Chapters by Tagore

The third or ascetic model is available in Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Char Adhay ( Four Chapters, 1933), the last and thirteenth novel by Tagore along with real life characters such as Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), albeit delineated with some ambivalence. Chandrima Chakraborty in her book on Masculinity, Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India (2011), highlights the “conjunctural alignment of asceticism and masculinity in Indian political history,” in order for its transformation into a strident symbol of Indian nationalism.

Interestingly, there is a further dimension and  addition to this narrative. Jibaner Jharapata is not the only source of Sarala’s life story. She is described in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography as Gandhi’s “spiritual wife”, because he felt strongly drawn to her, seeing in her a woman who possessed a unique combination of education and emotional strength. To Gandhi, she was a woman whose love for the nation was equally strong as his, although it followed and developed along different trajectories. In a peculiar role-reversal, we find Sarala Debi, who spent her formative years in Tagore family mansion at Jorashanko, inverts the models of “colonized masculinity” to promote and propagate militant nationalism. Tagore and Gandhi, whose spheres of influence she existed in, do not seem to have brought about much of a change in her. The great men eschewed and turned away from existing models of masculinity and moved towards the crafting of new masculinities, drawing on asceticism and spiritualism to do so.

References

Chakraborty, Chandrima(2011)Masculinity, Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India. Delhi: Permanent Black

Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra, Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood.Trana Julius Lipner, New DelhiOUP

Chaudhurani, Sarala Debi(2007)Jibaner Jharapata, Calcutta, Dey’s Publishing.(Bengali) All references in the text are to this edition,with translations by the author of this paper

Gandhi, Rajmohan (2006) Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. New Delhi:Penguin/Viking.

Kumar, Radha (1993) The History of Doing: An Illustrated History of Doing. New Delhi, Kali for Women

Malhotra, Meenakshi (2018) A Dark Goddess for a Fallen World: Mapping Apocalypse in Some of Bankim C.Chatterjee’s Novels in Unveiling Desire: Fallen Women in Literature, Culture and Films of the East eds Devaleena das and Colette Morrow. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press

Ray, Sangeeta (2000) En-Gendering the Nation: Women and nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives Duke UP

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.

Categories
Essay

When West meets East and Greatness blooms

Debraj Mookerjee explores how syncretism permeates between the West and the East — how the two lores do meet

Cultural influences travel at the speed of human imagination. In the modern world it is easy to plot the journey of cultural influences across the planet, thanks to the seamlessness created by communication technologies. The Internet links us all. But we also know cultural influences travelled through the globe since the earliest migration of humans.  We know the Chinese invented paper some 2000 years back. We know potato came to India from the new world through the Portuguese and became widely popular only around the 19th century. We know Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. These are things we know. We also know because these are things. But along with things, ideas also travelled, as did poetry and song. Philosophy travelled, and ways of knowing and experiencing the world travelled. How many of us know for example that Ibn Rushid, an Andalusian of Arabic descent born in Islamic Cordoba, Spain, in 1126, translated Aristotelian philosophy into Arabic? Or the fact that these translations were further retranslated to Latin by Thomas Aquinas, a mediaeval scholar who was influenced by, though he differed strongly with, Ibn Rushid? Such is the power of ideas. Ideas are borderless. That is their power.

Within the context of the so-called East-West encounter, there are so many cross-cultural influences we are unaware of. Influences that travelled to and fro the West and India seeped into the cultural experiences of either worlds. History and society can be viewed in many different ways. Politics often invents a vocabulary that insists on differences. Art on the other hand weaves patterns that merge into each other, producing beautiful new forms. Art and the philosophy surrounding it bring different cultures into play with each other. We will walk around some examples of such cross-fertilisation. And in the process perhaps expand the borders of our own minds and how we look at the world. I shall dwell on two such instances of cross-cultural influences. First, I shall look at Gandhi and the influences he shared with the West and the sharing of political ideas and philosophies they produced. I will explore the diverse trajectories his core ideas of nonviolence and civil disobedience took in shaping up to what they eventually became, and even the influences they have had after him. I shall thereafter present Tagore and begin by looking at the shaping of his world view as a thinker and as an artist, reading closely into his specific interactions with particular milieus in England. Finally, I shall look at Tagore iconic music (Rabindra Sangeet) and trace the influence Western (especially Welsh) music had on his works.

 “You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”
“Let us forgive each other – only then will we live in peace.”

Who would you imagine might have spoken these words?

Gandhi? Almost, but not quite. These are Tolstoy’s words. Tolstoy was a writer, a philosopher and a religious thinker. Gandhi was particularly influenced by Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ and his essay on ‘Christianity and Patriotism’. Tolstoy’s ideal of “simplicity of life and purity of purpose” had a deep and abiding impact on Gandhi’s core thinking. In ‘Christianity and Patriotism’, Totlstoy writes: “Patriotism may have been a virtue in the ancient world when it compelled men to serve the highest idea of those days — the fatherland. But how can patriotism be a virtue in these days when it requires of men an ideal exactly opposite to that of our religion and morality — an admission not of the equality and fraternity of all men but of the dominance of one country or nations over all others? But not only is this sentiment no virtue in our times, but it is indubitably a vice; for this sentiment of patriotism cannot now exist, because there is neither material nor moral foundation for its conception.”

Gandhi had carried Tolstoy in his heart for the longest time. But shortly before Tolstoy passed  away in 1910, as Gandhi began the active phase of his fight for human rights for Indians in South Africa, and thereafter his struggle for India’s independence, he wrote to Tolstoy, prompted by the writer’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’, in which he paves a path for freedom sans violence. The letter from Tolstoy was addressed to Tarak Nath Das, editor of Free Hindustan, who advocated the violent approach. Gandhi apprised Tolstoy about the Indians’ ‘passive resistance’ against racial oppression in Transvaal. He wrote that nearly half of the total Indian population of 13,000 in Transvaal had left Transvaal rather than submit to the degrading law, and ‘nearly 2,500 have for conscience’s sake allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times. Tolstoy’s letter explained why non-violent resistance and a resolve by Indians to become free were the only solution. Gandhi sought Tolstoy’s confirmation of the referred to above being written by him, and his approval to his friend printing 20,000 copies of the same for distribution and having it translated. He had ‘taken the liberty’ to write the letter ‘in the interests of truth, and in order to have your advice on problems the solution of which you have made your life-work.’ Gandhi quoted Tolstoy thus, as he introduced his letter, when indeed it was widely distributed: “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil: in the collection of taxes, and in the violent deeds of the law courts and (what is more important) the soldiers. Then, no one in the world will enslave you.”

But there is a bigger symmetry at work here than just the transfer of wisdom from Totstoy to Gandhi. Thiruvalluvar was the legendary Tamil poet who lived some time between the fourth and first century BCE. His work Thirukkural is an unparalleled treatise on ethics, communicated in verse. The first translation of the Thirukkural in a European language was done in Latin by Constanzo Beschi, a Jesuit Missionary, in 1730. Beschi himself was a Tamil scholar and poet, known as Viramamunivar. Tolstoy is said to have read a German translation of the work. And his ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ was apparently inspired by what he’d read in the Tamil saint-poet’s work. Around the time, Gandhi wrote an article, ‘Tolstoy’s Satyagraha’, showing how thousands, acting on his views ‘advising people not to obey the laws of the Russian Government, not to serve in the army, and so on’, were going to jail. Tolstoy’s writings, though proscribed, were being published, leading to the imprisonment of his agent. Tolstoy thought that ‘my views are true, and that it is my duty to propagate them.’ Gandhi concluded: ‘True freedom is to be found—only in such a life. That is the kind of freedom we want to achieve in the Transvaal. If India were to achieve such freedom, that indeed would be swarajya.’

Gandhi had told Rev. J.J. Doke, his first biographer (1909): “It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as ‘Resist not him that is evil’, I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed when I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You gave it a permanent form.”

When we imagine Gandhi, along with perhaps Asoka and the Prophet Mohammad, as among those historical figures who imagined society and politics through the prism of morality, we ought to know the influence of Tolstoy’s thoughts. Tolstoy thought of morality as a category that steps beyond politics. Gandhi could not afford that luxury. India needed freedom. So he introduced morality into politics. 

Gandhi harvested patriotism through the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha — Non-violence and truth force. The latter was the goal and the former the means. In these he drew influences from ancient Indian philosophy, and from thinkers like Tolstoy and the transcendentalists of America — more on the latter in a bit. So, we find a saint-like figure, a Russian aristocrat and also among the more celebrated writers of his time, conversing across time and space with one whom Churchill infamously labelled the ‘Naked Fakir’, but who went on to become the Father of a Nation.

Here is the interesting thing, and we need to frame this in the context of the Cold War that was to commence soon after the assassination Gandhi – that the other major influence on Gandhi came from, of all places, the United States of America. The Transcendentalists were radical thinkers of the early 19th century who rejected organised traditional religious belief systems. They believed in the ‘oneself’ of the self and the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson, thinker, poet, writer philosopher, and the most famous of the transcendentalists, once wrote: “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

Emerson took interest in Hindu texts thanks to his aunt Mary Moody. His idea of the over-soul, the universal oneness can be read as a derivative of the idea of Brahman – the singular force signified by the chant ‘Aum’. In this poem by Emerson entitled ‘Bhrama’, the oneness mentioned above is emphasised, as an idea subsumed in the concept of ‘Brahman’, which goes beyond this or that or even the specific injunctions of scripture:

 If the red slayer think he slays,
 Or if the slain think he is slain,
 They know not well the subtle ways
 I keep, and pass, and turn again.
  
 Far or forgot to me is near;
 Shadow and sunlight are the same;
 The vanished gods to me appear;
 And one to me are shame and fame.
  
 They reckon ill who leave me out;
 When me they fly, I am the wings;
 I am the doubter and the doubt,
 I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
  
 The strong gods pine for my abode,
 And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
 But thou, meek lover of the good!
 Find me, and turn thy back on heaven. 

A contemporary of Emerson and one deeply influenced by him was Henry David Thoreau, who advocated both self-reliance and civil disobedience, elaborately discussed in his book, Walden Pond, which is an account of his experiments with asceticism. His practices were motivated by his encounter with yoga. Thoreau seldom was ecstatic. And yet he wrote: “What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum, free from particulars, simple, universal.” 

He was fond of quoting from the Bhagwat Gita, as was Gandhi. Gandhi was significantly influenced by Thoreau experiments and ideas. Gandhi, in his 1942 appeal ‘To American Friends,’ wrote, “You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa.”

At the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, the American reporter Webb Miller, a long-time admirer of Thoreau, asked Gandhi, “Did you ever read an American named Henry D. Thoreau?” Gandhi replied: “Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about eighty years ago.” 

Miller noticed that Gandhi, a “Hindu mystic,” adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British Empire. “It would seem,” Miller concluded, “that Gandhi received back from America what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallized in the mind of Thoreau.”  

The back and forth does not end here. We all know how Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by Gandhi. He once wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

So ancient Indian philosophy influenced the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists influenced Gandhi. And Gandhi went onto influence King Jr. Kipling might have written that “East is east, and the West is West. And ne’er the twain shall meet”. At the cost of sounding frivolous, perhaps he had not read Mark Twain’s famous poem, ‘A passage to India’.

Gandhi and Tagore were in conversation in the deepest sense of the term, both captured by the tight frame of history, yet never ever contained by it. It is apposite, therefore, to try and capture within the rubric of the larger argument, the influences and intellectual trajectories of both Gandhi and Tagore. Tagore, India’s iconic poet, the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize, who travelled to England in 1912 clutching a collection of 103 self-translated English poems, became a world phenomenon in a little more than a year. Though Tagore is revered among Bengalis and indeed all Indians as ‘Kavi-Guru’ (Poet Guru, as it were), his development as an artist was syncretic. 

As a young boy, he spent a month in Amritsar with his father and was greatly impressed by the devotional songs sung inside the Golden Temple, with his father often joining in. While a landlord in East Bengal during the 1890s he became familiar with the great Baul tradition of Lalon Shah. He absorbed Western influences, especially in his poetry, but also influences as diverse as the paintings of specific communities in islands as far-flung as New Ireland in Papua New Guinea! Tagore took to painting later in age and was never quite sure of his own work, but they have a magical haunting quality that is all too difficult to pin onto a singular culture.  

One of the first persons whom Tagore wanted to know was Stopford. Tagore, being a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj, which was closely allied to Unitarianism, had heard so much of him, and had perceived an alignment of convictions. Sir William Rothenstein,in his account of Tagore’s days in London, says “Stopford Brooke asked me to bring Tagore to Manchester Square; ‘but tell him’, he said, ‘that I am not a spiritual man’.” Soon Tagore would become quite the toast of young poets, who would seek him out, Ezra Pound being prominent among them. Among others whom Tagore met were Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Andrew Bradley, Sturge Moore, and Robert Bridges. In a 1915 letter to Robert Bridges, Tagore wrote, “I know what this war is to you… Please let Mrs. Bridges accept my heartfelt sympathy and reverence [for one] whose son is fighting for the cause of liberty in one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind.” Bridges included Tagore’s poems in his Anthology The Spirit of Man in 1915. On his part, Tagore was struck by the breadth of view and the rapidity of thought that he found among his new friends. Addressing his English audience, he said: “Those who know the English only in India, do not know Englishmen … All you people live, think and talk while a strong, critical light is constantly focussed on you. This creates a high social civilisation. We in India, on the contrary, live secluded among a crowd of relations. Things are done and said within the family circle which would not be tolerated outside; and this keeps our social standards low.’ 

Tagore famous novel, Ghare Baire (The Way of the World, 1916; tran. 1919) presents his disquiet with insular nationalist sentiments, to the exclusion (of what he believed) larger humanist imperatives. His protagonist, Nikhil articulates liberal universal values and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure peace in his domain (he is a landlord). His fiery friend, the nation (as mother) worshipping ultra-nationalist radical Sandeep, stokes the violence that ultimately consumes Nikhil, but from which he himself stealthily slinks away.

Tagore absorbed more than just ideas from the West. His music, especially the scores of many of his songs, was influenced by his interactions with the West. On his 2012 visit he’d heard the music hall songs and folk tunes that he later incorporated into his distinctive musical genre, Rabindra Sangeet. As a child, he’d heard his siblings play myriad instruments. His older brother Jyotirindranath, significantly, played the piano and violin. From him, Tagore developed an early ear for western musical lilts. Lively English, Irish, and Scottish folk tunes impressed Tagore, whose own tradition of Bhramo hymnody was subdued. Tagore confesses: “At seventeen, when I first came to Europe, I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.”

Of particular note is Robert Burns, whose poetry and music were quite widely known in metropolitan Bengal. His work was particularly popular with Bengali students in the early days of Hindu College (now Presidency University), Calcutta. The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Kolkata’s Hindu Collge) discussion group reciting Burns’s poetry and singing his democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. Two of Burns’s sons served for many years in the Company army, and one of them, James Glencairn Burns, was later appointed judge and collector of Cachar (in Assam), and became an expert in Hindi, instructing company cadets in the language on his return to England in 1839. Burns’s songs pervaded 19th century British India and were well known to many Indians: Rabindranath Tagore adapted at least three of them and set musical scores to the Bengali versions of the original melodies.

Tagore created one of his most popular songs, ‘Purano shei deener katha’, on the model of the old Scottish folk song collected by Robert Burns: ‘Auld lang syne’ (1788). Whereas the Scottish is in dialect, its Bengali counterpart in the standard tongue. There can be no literal translation in songs transcreated, as it were in a different language, since the nature of the two languages is different. And yet, there are great similarities between the songs. The original communicates the eternal sentiment of nostalgia for old friends, memories of good times and longing to revive the same. Tagore communicates the same basic sentiment. One should remember that even though Tagore adapts the tune of the western songs, he very often varies the tempo and the rhythm to suit his own creative needs. The mention of ‘dola’ (swing), ‘banshi’ (flute) and ‘bokuler tolay’ (beneath the bokul tree) introduces interesting indigenous cultural symbols. These words introduce the concept of the god Krishna and his worldly amour divesting them of both divine and erotic connotation. The Bengali song stands as an eternal paean to reunion of friends of all categories.

Tagore’s ‘Phule phule dhole dhole’ is a transcreation of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon’ (1792), the tune of which is based on ‘The Caledonian Hunt’s delight.’ The first four lines of Tagore’s song evokes faint sweet breezes, rippling gurgling stream, cuckoo song and an undefined longing. It is close to the mood of the ‘Ye banks and braes,’ though more mystic and abstract. In Burns’ original version, the nostalgia and longing are rooted in unfulfilled love. In the Bengali, there is no hint of narrative, though the narrative is obviated when sung in its proper context. Sung independently, it appears as a universal romantic desire for an unattainable ‘something,’ intensified by the beauty of nature. 

But Burns was not the only one to influence Tagore’s music.  In 1885, much before his heydays, Tagore composed ‘Kotobar bhebechhilnu’, using the tune of Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’. The tune of the original English song is adapted to his original Bengali lyric. Tagore’s song raises interesting cultural issues. The words are radically different, though the mood of love is dominant in both, the English song is much more sensuous, redolent of physical and Petrarchan appeal. Tagore’s Indianisation is romantic, idealistic and self-effacing, but with a witty twist in the last two lines: “Now that you yourself have come to ask me/ How can I explain how much I love you?” Another Irish folk song that inspired Tagore was ‘Go where glory waits thee’ (1807), which was collected by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and was based on ‘Maid of the Valley.’ Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ (O Kind One and It is Spring Today) are based on these two originals. 

There is a general consensus that Western and Indian songs are essentially different in that in the former the rhythm may change many times within the same song, while it remains the same in most Indian songs. Tagore nevertheless finds the change of rhythms ideally suited to express different facets of feeling (see Tagore’s essay ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). One cannot be entirely sure as to the exact source of his musical preference, whether it comes from Western music, or even from his ear for ‘kirtan’ (popular Bengal devotional music associated with the Vaishnavite tradition). But what is certain is that his music comes from a syncretic imagination, which was able to discern beauty and form beyond the restrictions of nation and culture.  

Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.

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

Categories
Editorial

The Heart of Non-violence

“God is Truth”

That is what Gandhi believed and this month, we celebrate this soul who would have loved a world without borders but was forced to be part of drawing boundaries that still lead to violent dissensions and bloodshed. Gandhi himself dissented but with non-violence.

This I understood well when I completed reading My Experiments with Truth from cover to cover. In the process, I uncovered a man who despite his idiosyncrasies had a lot to offer the world — his outlook and his persistence, his organisational skills, his ability to analyse a solution, his ability to forgive, his presence of mind.

I wonder how many of us understand his ultimate weapons Satyagraha, action based on truth, and ahimsa or non-violence. Is that why often our protests are ineffective as opposed to his protests, only some of his worked in his estimation, like the ones in South Africa? Because people listened and learnt his system. But what happened in India? Bapu’s autobiography cleared up much for me, though only a small portion of the book is devoted to his life in India. He was in South Africa for twenty-one years. I, perhaps, have understood a bit on what he said about protest, about a practitioner of Satyagraha, a Satyagrahi:

“A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and off his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him to the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances. My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had does qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seem to me of Himalayan magnitude.”

(An Autobiography or My Experiments with Truth, Penguin, Pg423)

Gandhi realised his error and withdrew civil disobedience. But I wonder if every protester across the world understands this definition or accrues more to Malcolm X’s school of getting one’s way by “any means necessary”, a reflection that I borrow from the interview of the writer who wrote Gandhi’s life in ballad form, Santosh Bakaya. The other interview we are carrying is of a journalist who upholds the truth — perhaps someone who Gandhi might have admired, like he did Mrs Besant or Gangaben Majumdar (the woman who helped him realise his dream of Khadi) — Teresa Rehman. An award-winning media person, she has spoken of her journey as a “reporter” or a “chronicler” of people’s lives.

This month we had given a call for writings on Gandhi and humour. Some of the responses were a pleasantly surprised. It was amazing to have a surprise essay from New Zealand by Keith Lyons. I only understood what an impact Bapu has had all over the world after reading Lyons’s essay. This time our essay section is filled with writing on Gandhi — Rakhi Dalal’s essay on the relevance of Gandhian values in the present context and Dustin Pickering’s essay, again on My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi’s autobiography. He has even managed to apply some of Gandhi’s outlook to American politics.

Pickering has also given us a spoof on Trump in the future, which brings a smile to your lips as does Bakaya’s spoof on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr in Heaven. We have lot of stories this time, flash fiction and otherwise, few exhibiting Gandhian values. Our fiction columnist, Sunil Sharma has given us a story that revolves around finding the creator of Alice. Also centring around the theme of Alice’s Wonderland is a review we carry on a translation by Arunava Sinha of Sukumar Ray’s Haw Jaw Bo Ro Lo ( Habber Jabber’s Law in English) by an academic who has worked on Bengali Children’s literature, Nivedita Sen.

The other reviews are that of Bhaskar Parichha — essays brought out on Gandhi as part of his sesquicentennial celebrations last year — and Moiank Dutta, who has given a glowing review of Bakaya’s the Ballad of Bapu. Debraj Mookerjee has reviewed a book called India Dissents and has identified Gandhi as the giant of all dissenters. Here is what he says, and I do not think I could have said it better: “He (Gandhi) was a devout Hindu who was secular to a fault, and against the evils inherent in Hindu society. It is precisely because of this that Gandhi was so successful in mobilising India both politically and socially.”

Varied thoughts on a man who is a major contributor to world change, thought and philosophy with his simplicity and stubbornness have been captured in Borderless this month.

We have a couple of musings on Bapu too, including one which attempts to bridge gaps between the different ‘castes’ in New Delhi.

Our columnist, Devraj Singh Kalsi, has given us his trademark poignant cum humorous non-fiction down the memory lane. Veering more towards humour is our book excerpt of Rhys Hughes new book, Corybantic Fulgours. Do pause by to see what this humorist has to say on evolving a new form of artistic expression, that started out with a doodle any one of us could attempt but leads up to an impossibly named book! More humour in verse has been provided by Mauritian poet, Vatsala Radhakeesoon. We are absolutely delighted that she and Hughes have agreed to contribute humour to Borderless on a monthly basis.

Poetry has an interesting collection this time with three Korean poets, mouthing values that sound like those of Tagore and Gandhi! We also have poetry on and around Gandhi. A poem in which the very well-known Nabina Das reflects on the universality of Shaheen Bagh in being a meeting ground for all believers in democracy would have almost been Gandhian in intent but is it? I leave you to decide for yourself.

Sara’s Selections for young people has a range from butterflies to Gandhi, thanks to Nidhi Mishra and Archana Mohan of Bookosmia. They gave a call for young people to write on Gandhian values too and some of the pieces have been amazing.

Our translations this month have housed a pièce de résistance — Saratchandra’s short story, ‘Abhagi’s Heaven’, translated by no less than Akademi Award winner, Aruna Chakravarti. And we have Fazal Baloch with a translated story from Balochistan. The interesting feature we have had in translations is that two poets from Nepal and Kashmir have translated their own poetry in their respective languages to English! 

I leave you all now to discover for yourselves the rest of the magic provided by writers and I thank you all contributors and readers for making Borderless a part of your lives and thoughts!

Wish you happiness and sunshine always!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Essay

‘If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable’

By Rakhi Dalal

Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je 
Peed paraayi jaane re 
Par-dukhkhe upkaar kare toye 
Man abhimaan na aane re (Vaishnava)

One who is a Vaishnav (Devotee of Vishnu)
Knows the pain of others
Does good to others
without letting pride enter his mind.

Vaishnava-janatho-(With-English-Translation)

It is a 600 years old devotional poem by Gujrati poet-saint Narsinh Mehta and we know it probably because it is known to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan or devotional song. He loved it because it speaks about humanity, truth and empathy among humans; traits which he thought were indispensable for harmonious living and which could create a world living in tranquility and peace. His convictions in these humanist traits make his stance on non-violence more comprehensible and relevant to us today. Especially today, when all across the world we witness the grisly play of vicious might bent on establishing hegemony by creating animosity among people, unleashing violence not only in action but also in thought.

The 2010s saw a rise in fascism across the globe. Characterised by ultra-nationalism, unquestioning adherence to a single party/leader, hostility towards minorities, suppression of dissenting voices and people’s civil liberties, this decade’s worse fears have been made worst by the exploitation of social media to spread fascist propaganda. Over the years, most of the platforms have indulged in giving a free pass to hateful messages simply for the sake of maximum engagement and shareholder return or for the sake of not losing business in respective countries where they operate. Even the mainstream media, including news-channels and newspapers, have resolutely carried out the objectives of such propaganda thereby aiding the spread of hatred in society.

In a recent documentary called The Social Dilemma on Netflix — many individuals, who once worked with big giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter, come forth to talk about the threats that our societies now face in the wake of frightening explosion that media has wilfully abetted. Besides addiction to social media, rise in anxiety and depression among people, what these individuals are really troubled about is the onslaught of fake propaganda on social media, which they worry, could lead to civil wars.

According to The Social Dilemma, fake news or propaganda gets viral six times faster than genuine news. This has given a way to effortless creation of polarised factions of people in the virtual world. As a result, sometimes a carefully engineered hatred, which if escalated, can be easily employed to provoke the factions into indulging in actual violence. It does really make for a very powerful tool in the hands of fascist regimes, which is exactly what we are witnessing around us. Social media has helped escalate it. The othering of people on the basis of caste, religion, class and communities has always existed in societies, even in democracies. Now this list also includes people having different opinions than a majority. It seems we have reached a point of no return. We have lost the sight of what social media had initially really intended to do – to bring people closer and connect them.

We have forgotten that violence only begets more violence.

But perhaps, collectively, mankind was never a kind species. Did we ever believe in vasudhaiva kutumbakam, the world is one family? A look back at history is sufficient to prove that, as a species, we have never lived congenially with each other. Neither World Wars nor the consequences of environmental destruction have been enough to make us realise the value of living in accord with each other or with nature. Perhaps that is why saints like Gautama Buddha, Guru Nanak Dev or Kabir searched for a spiritual path, one that could steer more people towards love   and compassion. That is why Mahatma Gandhi realised that violence could never be an answer to anything, not even to the fight for independence. BR Nanda, a scholar on Gandhi, has confirmed in an essay on ‘Gandhi and Non-violence‘:

“He (Gandhi) objected to violence not only because an unarmed people had little chance of success in an armed rebellion, but because he considered violence a clumsy weapon which created more problems than it solved, and left a trail of hatred and bitterness in which genuine reconciliation was almost impossible.”

And don’t we all know it first-hand? Recall any of your fights with your friends, even as a child, which turned physical. Can you remember what you felt after the fight was over? After one of you lay down on ground, wounded and defeated. And whether you were able to easily reconcile with that friend afterwards, without a feeling of bitterness inside your heart? We know better, don’t we? We do realise that violence is seated in something much more innate. Engaging in violence is always an easier option because it comes from a place of feeling superior, and not equal, with respect to other. Violent action is usually preceded by violent thoughts. And such thoughts never leave a person at peace. Neither the aftermath of a violent scuffle ever leaves us calm.

Jiddu Krishnamurti says: “It is violence when we use a sharp word, when we make a gesture to brush away a person. So violence isn’t merely organized butchery in the name of God, in the name of society or country. Violence is much more subtle, much deeper.”

On the other hand, choosing non-violence requires courage; it requires a sense of equanimity, kindness, empathy and the necessity to stand true to a notion of higher purpose, which we humans believe is our goal in this world. Gandhiji placed satyagraha and ahimsa at the centre of force of life which can sustain humankind and present an approach to curb the world of brute force of violence. These ideas are eternal because they are inevitable in coming to terms with human condition.

Gandhiji did not only postulate the idea of non-violence, including non-cooperation and civil disobedience, as a form of resistance against colonial occupation, but also against long held prejudices in the social system. He understood it too well that it wasn’t only against colonisers that India was fighting. He conceived violence in its elemental form as anything which is inflicted to hurt, whether physically or mentally. Therefore, he emphasised upon ahimsa as a way of life, upon harmony between people of different religions and upon being kind-hearted. He changed his stance on the practice of caste system in Hindu religion, which he once believed in, later in life.

According to Gandhi, non-violence is the greatest and most active force in the world,” writes Subrata Sharma, a scholar. He quotes Gandhi while defining non-violence and explains the perspective of this great leader:”‘Avoiding injury to any creature in thought, word and deed’. It is a positive force, when positively put it means love in the largest sense that means love for all without discrimination of good doers and evil doers. Non-violence does not mean meek submission to the will of the doer. Rather, it inspires man to stand against the will of the tyrant. It not only enables us to conquer the opponent but also unites with all our fellow men.”

In the chaotic times that we find ourselves in at present, Gandhiji’s ideas assume greater importance because we have already suffered the consequences of indulging in violence, even on social media. We are forced towards fascism, towards submitting to brute force of authoritarianism, resisting which, in the most assertive and non-violent way has become an absolute necessity. We stand at the junction where we may either decide to put at stake the future of our coming generations, this country and the world at large by giving in to the violent forces of fascism and enmity or we may decide to follow Gandhian principles of non-violence, truth and humanity. 

“If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving towards a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.”Martin Luther King Jr.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

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

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 Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

Categories
Review

Gandhi & Aesthetics

A review by Bhaskar Parichha

As India celebrated the sesquicentennial of MK Gandhi last year, Marg had come out with a special issue on the lesser-known aspects of Gandhi’s engagement with aesthetics.

Gandhiji’s aesthetics was two-fold: one, it was a quest for exquisiteness and two; it was a set of principles fundamental to the personal practice. Edited by Tridip Suhrud, the nine essays are a fitting tribute to the inventive beauty of Gandhiji and its wide-ranging applicability in present-day society.

In an art project organised by Sahmat in 1994–95 as a continuation of a program called Artists Against Communalism that emerged in response to the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya and as a part of a year-long series of events, artists — from KG Subramanyan to Atul Dodiya, from NS Harsha to Nilima Sheikh, A Ramachandran to Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, PT Reddy, Nand Katyal, Shamshad Hussain, Orijit Sen, Parthiv Shah — were invited to create postcards that could later be displayed as artworks in galleries and also be circulated among the general public as boxed sets. Ram Rahman’s essay   ‘Thematic Ad-Portfolio: Postcards for Gandhi’ deals with these postcards.

In the editorial note, associate editor, Latika Gupta, gives an overview of the underlying themes of this volume and how they explore Gandhi’s conceptual understanding of art which combined the ideas of truth, beauty, and utility. The Mahatma is also placed in the context of the current times when his legacy is being put to different political uses.

It is a widely held belief that the Mahatma had no place for art, music, and literature in his ascetic life and ideas about national regeneration. In the introductory essay ‘Art as Namasmaran: The Aesthetics of Gandhi’, Tridip Suhrud unravels the various human and natural artistic elements that moved and influenced Gandhi, the concepts and patterns that guided and came to be reflected in his choice of attire, living spaces, and discipline.

‘In the Footsteps of Spectres: The Aesthetics of Gandhi’s Walks’ by Harmony Siganporia, we get to see how walking was an integral part of Gandhi’s private and public engagements with politics and truth. Gandhi embarked on several important walks throughout his life. They served as forms of pilgrimage, mass agitation, and individual protest. This essay explores various aspects of Gandhi’s walks by revisiting his writings and the photographs of these historic events.

Sudhir Chandra in his article ‘Gandhi’s Hindi and His Aesthetics of Poverty’ dissects Gandhi’s appreciation of minimalism and purity, which is evident not just in his sartorial style but also in his use of language. Convinced that Hindi alone could be India’s national language, Gandhi attempted to transform it into a more inclusive language, incorporating certain words from regional languages and others of Urdu-Persian origins.

‘Music for the Congregation: Assembling an Aesthetic for Prayer’ by Lakshmi Subramanian explores Gandhi’s adoption of musical prayer as an important tool for shaping ashram life and community at Sabarmati. For Gandhi, music was a useful prop to make prayer a joyful experience and prayer was crucial for character-building among satyagrahis. His taste for music was shaped by his exposure to the church choirs of England, and the larger repertoire of devotional recitation and music that had been popularized by V.D. Paluskar and the Gita Press. These influences eventually guided his choices as he approached Pandit N.M. Khare to lead the prayer sessions and public meetings at his ashram and created a collection of songs — Ashram Bhajanavali.

In ‘Architecture as Weak Thought: Gandhi Inhabits Nothingness’. Venugopal Maddipati looks at two houses inhabited by Gandhi in Segaon (Sevagram), Wardha —Adi Niwas and Bapu Kuti. While the former is very simple and minimalist, the latter is more elaborate in design with clearly partitioned rooms. Though it would seem that architecture played a secondary role in Gandhi’s life and was relegated to the marginal spaces of domesticity and interiority, Maddipati has an alternative viewpoint.

‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ by Jutta Jain-Neubauer brings into focus a lesser-known aspect of Gandhi’s personality as a designer and maker of chappals. Gandhi saw in handmade sandals an aesthetic route to eradicate the stigma that had been associated with the communities of skinners, tanners and leather workers. Inspired by the Trappist Roman Catholic monastic order who were staunch believers in austerity and manual labor, Gandhi set up a shoemaking unit at the Tolstoy Farm and later replicated the model at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Made from the skin of animals that had died a natural death, this iconic ashram Patti Chappals also came to be known as ahimsa slippers.

‘A Biography in Prints: Gandhi and the Visual Imaginary’ by Vinay Lal studies the evolution of the representations through a range of prints that offer a chronological rendering of his life, charting his transformation from a law student in England to a satyagrahi in South Africa and finally the architect of India’s independence. Lal discusses the subtler meanings and politics conveyed in the compositions.

Throughout his long political and spiritual career, Mahatma Gandhi frequently stated that his life goal was to reduce himself to zero. This was a goal that he variously pursued by shedding worldly attachments, declaring celibacy, adopting abstinence, and periodically undertaking to punish bodily fasts, all for the sake of meeting his ideal of aparigraha or “non-possession”. ‘Reducing Myself to Zero: The Art of Aparigraha’ by Sumathi Ramaswamy reflects on the aesthetic dimension of this key Gandhian aspiration.

‘Ark, Saint, City, Cipher: The Gandhi of Gulam Mohammed Sheikh’ by Ananya Vajpeyi focuses on the Baroda-based artist’s engagement with the Mahatma and his ideals. Looking at a series of paintings made by the artist from 2000 to 2019, the writer analyses how Sheikh draws on references from various older texts and images and places Gandhi as an interlocutor across different periods and philosophies.

A fitting tribute by the Marg foundation to the father of the nation.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based  journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of  subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies. His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books. 

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

Categories
Musings

Travels with Gandhi

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha meanders through the passages of Aga Khan Palace…

Places have always fascinated me. They say so much, about lived experience, about people and about culture. There is so much of history and life in places, known unknown and little known. Some waiting to be discovered, some familiar. Tucked in the familiar lanes and by lanes of the city I live and places that I have been to are moments of history, of lives, of stories that need to be heard, places and buildings that need to be discovered. Even familiar places throw up new stories and new histories.

Living in times such as these when COVID_19 has kept us locked in, at times I see some picture, a news item, a small story somewhere that takes me back to a place, a memory,  a slice of history and the past. Travel writing has taken up quite a bit of my time in the past few months as I sat editing my manuscript, an edited volume, a collection of travel essays. So, even though I was physically in one place, at home, I was able, at least, for some time to visit and re-visit places as I read the essays that my wonderful contributors had crafted.

 I thought of going back in time too, to speak of a place, a city that I had visited some years ago. Of a monument, a building that stood majestic, of a hot summer day when I decided to put to use a couple of hours that I had at hand before I had to catch my flight and head home. Those were times when travel was not a big issue and we travelled for various reasons. Moreover, we could travel when we felt like it, or wanted to. The pandemic has pulled the plugs on that, life has now become restrictive and as I try to make the most of it,   I decided to scribble some thoughts that came to mind. Especially, as October was knocking around the corner and being imprisoned was something that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi often experienced. I refer to him as the monument that I speak about has a connection to him and to an important aspect of his life.

On a trip to Pune I encountered a small part of history. This was my first trip to the city and a very short trip at that. I was hoping to make the best of the few hours of leisure I had. A city that had been growing at a fast pace for some years due to the software industry, Pune seemed at first sight very much a modern city that is ever growing and expanding. The older part of the city is crowded with a lot of traffic. The dirty Mutha river, mostly dry, the Shaniwar Wada close by and the very popular Dadushth Ganesh temple are crowded with tourists and locals. I did check them out too. I did write about my visit to Shaniwar Wada some years ago too.  In this essay I will write of my experiences of my visit to the Aga Khan Palace. One of the reasons for my choice of it is its connection with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi whose birthday falls in this month.

A short auto ride took me to the Aga Khan Palace that is located in Samrat Ashok Road on a scorching day in May.  Built by Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan III, the spiritual leader of the Nizari Ismaili Muslim, this palace was built to help the poor in the region badly affected by famine in 1892. According to popular lore, the Sultan built the palace to provide employment to villagers of the surrounding region. About a thousand people worked on it and it was constructed in five years at a cost of about twelve lakh rupees. For many years the palace housed a school till it was handed over by Prince Karim Aga Khan to the Gandhi Smarak Samiti in 1972 as a mark of respect to the memory of Gandhi.

As one enters the compound one notices a plaque at the entrance that announces that this building is a monument of national importance. It is in this building that Gandhi was imprisoned along with his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, his secretary, Mahadev Desai and political activist and poet, Sarojini Naidu after he began the Quit India Movement, from August 1942 to May 1944. This monument is also important as it is here that both Kasturba Gandhi (February 22, 1944) and Mahadev Desai (August 15, 1942) died. In a corner of the premises of this monument is a Samadhi, a memorial to both of them, marking the place where they were cremated. Two tulsi plants mark the spots. A calmness pervades the whole place. A lone gardener cleans the dry leaves as I stand there for a while transported to another time.

The palace is now a museum with the rooms used by Gandhi, Kasturba and Mahadev open to the public. The rooms are spartan revealing the simple life that its inhabitants lived. A few personal items of Gandhi are on display too – utensils, slippers, clothes and letters. As one enters into the big hall at the entrance there is a large statue of Gandhi. The museum has large paintings which present various aspects of him during the struggle for freedom. There is one that has Gandhi with a begging bowl in front of a big crowd. One image is that of Kasturba lying in Gandhi’s lap, a canvas that presents an intimacy in their relationship. A painting titled “New Hope for Rural India” reveals Gandhi’s engagement with the “Constructive Programme”- a programme that envisaged an agenda for a revolution that would bring about a change in the individual and in society, a programme that Gandhi undertook to prepare the people for a post-independence India. Another painting is titled “A Crusader for Humanity.

The imposing palace has Italian arches and lawns and has five halls. With a magnificent structure, the two storied building has a corridor that encircles the entire building. This building is now the headquarters of the Gandhi National Memorial Society. I recall walking through the building taking in every aspect of it, pausing to observe and note as I move through the rooms and corridor. I remember sitting under one of the large trees and gazing at this building that had been witness to a major part of Indian history. As I revisit the place with words and emotions, in times that are so different, I am reminded of the relevance of Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence in a world that is increasingly becoming violent — in action, in deeds, in words. It is time, to ponder about his ideals that are needed now more than ever.

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Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University, Rabindra Bharati University and the University of Calcutta. She is the Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata (IPPL). She writes on travel, film, short stories, poetry and on Alzheimer’s Disease. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in Prosopisia, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Kitaab, Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The World Literature Blog and Setu. She guest edited the June 2018 Issue of Café Dissensus on Travel. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019). She is now working on her first volume of poems and is editing a collection of essays on travel.

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

Categories
Poetry

To Thee O Gandhi

By Soumik De

Round glasses and a cane stick

A loin cloth and a pair of clogs

Mark thee O mark thee!

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Truth and triumph

Struggle and stride

Shape thee O shape thee!

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Bold and bald

Bend but strict

From thee O from thee!

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Wheels and whiffs

Text and textiles

Spins thee O spin thee!

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Glamour and Glory

Great yet gentle

Merge into thee O merge into thee!

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Thou art the other name

Of India

Salute thee O salute thee!

Soumik Kumar De, a teacher   by profession and a poet by passion, likes to write both in Bengali and English. His creative compass includes poetry, short-story, flash-fiction etc. Adrika Ke Niye is a collection of Bengali modern creative poems . His poems have recently been published in Aulos: An Anthology of English Poetry and in Caravan. His Bengali poems has also been included in the anthology Sangshaptak . Besides he has to his credit several other academic writings. The areas of his interest include cultural studies, diaspora writings, Dalit studies etc. He also passes his leisure by playing guitar occasionally.   

 

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

 

Categories
Stories

When Bapu met MLK Jr…


By Santosh Bakaya

A skeletal man, almost half-naked, was sitting under a tree next to a charkha* reciting something from a piece of paper while tiny birds hopped around, at their twittering best.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
like a forest close and mute
with folded arms and looks which are
 Weapons in unvanquished war 

And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash and stab and maim and hew
What they like, that let them do …….

Then they will return with shame
the place from which they came
And the blood thus shed will speak
in hot blushes on their cheek. 

One audacious one perched on his shoulder, looked around and whispered something into his ears, the other birds chirped themselves hoarse.

“Bapu, Bapu, look someone is coming to meet you, chirp – chirp – chirp.” The birds were in a frenzy of excitement.

The skeletal man, contemptuously called the half- naked fakir on Earth, who, was indeed Mahatma Gandhi; stopped spinning and sprung up, nudging away a candy floss cloud which was very keen to tickle him. Then, arms outstretched and wearing a toothless smile which brightened the surroundings, he headed towards the dapperly dressed man and remarked, happily: “Oh, you are Martin, are you not? I came up here in the year 1948, on 30 January, to be precise, and in 1955, I heard about a young man in the USA who was doing a lot for civil rights in the USA.   Ah, so I get to see you finally. I remember hearing about the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was a tremendous success,” he remarked.

 “Ah, that was the beginning if it all, and the Bus Boycott was inspired by you, Bapu. Initially started for a day, it lasted for 381 days and we carried on despite the stones and insults flung at us.”

“Oh, you succeeded in instilling a new sense of dignity in your brethren.”

“Yes, our community woke up after a long period of slumber. Oh, I just heard you reciting from The Mask of Anarchy by Shelley but, you know, the opponents are still slashing and stabbing, maiming and hewing – and there are no hot flushes on guilty cheeks.”

“But, mark my words, Martin, they will feel ashamed of their actions, one day, just wait and watch.”

“Yes, I am still waiting for the realisation of my elusive dream….” King remarked with a distant look in his eyes.

“I am told, down below hugging is not allowed! What a dystopian world it is turning into, unimaginable! No one is hugging or even shaking hands.” King said, inadvertently pulling away his hand which he had extended.

“Oh Martin, Don’t be funny, tactility is not taboo here, and we are at liberty to shake hands. No social distancing here. It is high time people shed their mammoth egos — look what they have reduced the world to — it is so scary.”

They hugged and shook hands warmly, their eyes twinkling merrily and the birds once again burst into a happy crescendo of chirps.  

“I love this spinning wheel,” Martin said, casting appreciative glances at it. Bapu chortled in mirth, which was almost juvenile.

“You know, Martin, Gurudeb, my great friend, laughed at me for my charkha obsession, chuckled at what he thought were my idiosyncrasies, but I stuck to them – I was known for my obstinate nature, you know, and continue spinning here. It is just a symbol, actually. We need to be self-sufficient. This is what I was trying to prove.”

“Yes, you spoke the language of symbols, even your clothes symbolized the rampant poverty in your country. But no one seems to be bothered about poverty and homelessness even in the USA.”

“You know, that reminds me of an incident. It was the year 1916 and I had been invited by Annie Besant for the inauguration of Banaras Hindu University, I was shocked to see the bedecked princes sitting on the dais, giving me cold looks when I walked up to the stage, almost half- naked.” He again chuckled, looking affectionately at King.
“I gave them a piece of my mind, when they started talking of India’s poverty. Feeling humiliated, some of the princes left the dais.” He added with a naughty grin. King smiled too, with a wistful look in his eyes.
 
“Bapu, you taught me a lot of things; it was because of you that love and forgiveness became the bedrock of my life. It was long back that I had decided that hate was too heavy a burden to carry, so I also stuck to love and tried to spread it, even when the odds were heavily loaded against us.

“You know, when the segregationists bombed my house on January 30, 1956, (Oh, it is quite uncanny – the date is also the date when they had killed you in 1948) almost killing my wife and seven-month-old Yolande, I seethed in rage and the whole night tossed and turned in bed, waiting for the morn, so that I could get a gun permit and kill the person who had tried to destroy my family. The next morning after a lot of mulling over, I had emerged from the dark night, a true Gandhian.”

“Well, you embarrass me, Martin. I did nothing, I still maintain that there is no such thing as Gandhi-ism. Love and Truth are as old as the hills.  Yes, I remember hearing here that when Izola Curry tried to stab you, you forgave her too.”

“Well, she needed the healing touch, Bapu. She was unwell. And this virtue of forgiveness, I always maintain, has been your inspiration. You know, Bapu, it was in the year 1950 that I had been introduced to you — the man Gandhi — by Mordecai Johnson, I was so impressed that I immediately bought half a dozen books on you — you were responsible for removing all the confusion in my mind.”

“Well, I am really touched by your words. You know I was born in India but was made in S Africa. Pietermaritzburg was the turning point in my career. When they hurled me out of the first-class compartment on a very cold day because of my colour, I was devastated by the rampant racism. The conductor called me a coolie.”   

 “When I visited India in 1959, and went to a school in Kerala, the principal introduced me as fellow Dalit from the USA.  For a moment I was flabbergasted, but then realized that is exactly what I was,” grinned Martin.“You know when I put the wreath at your Samadhi* in Rajghat, I had a fuzzy feeling all over.”

“Dalit lives still don’t matter in India. I am indeed devastated.
You know, just the other day, I heard this gut wrenching news of a nineteen year old Dalit girl being gang-raped in Hathras, UP. I am still stunned into speechlessness. I keep hanging my head in shame — alas, this alone is what I can do.”

“This is indeed so heartbreaking. You know, Black lives still don’t matter in the USA. People are brutally kneed into breathlessness. Sitting here I can do nothing but wring my hands in rage. I cannot breathe… I cannot breathe…”

 “It was on 28 August, 1963, that you gave that iconic I have a dream speech at the Lincoln memorial, pleading for an end to racism, but, alas, things still have not changed.”

“Yes, it is so sad. I can still hear the ear-splitting applause as I said, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day be known not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.’ I am still dreaming –dreaming – dreamingHope someday my dream will be realized.”

“I heard your twelve-year-old granddaughter, Yolande Renee King gave a very powerful speech on August 28, 2020, and many organizations joined forces to March on Washington, in a call for justice. This was indeed commendable. ”

“Well, I am indeed so proud of her, I still maintain that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, hope this injustice and unfairness is banished from this earth.” King suddenly wiped a tear which trickled down his cheek as the words, “Papa King, we won’t forget”, fell into his ears.

“I am so proud of my granddaughter Renee. Bapu, isn’t it weird that we were killed because we talked of equality, love and forgiveness?”

“Can love ever be killed? They are deluded if they think so!  Can forgiveness ever be obsolete? NEVER! Hope this vaccine of love is a success. They have no option left, they will have to stick to love, come what may.” 

“I still maintain, over the bleached bones and jumbled remains of civilisations
 are written the words too late- too late – too late
….” Yes, if they don’t follow, love and non-violence, it will be too late …Ah, there comes Coretta*.”

“Ah, I notice she is chatting with Kasturba. What a heartwarming scene!”

Bapu and King were last seen sitting amidst a group of people singing the Ramdhun*, while King tapped his feet, time and again, raising a robust fist, saying, ‘we shall overcome’ and Kasturba and Coretta happily joined the refrain.

The birds and candy floss clouds were in throes of divine ecstasy, excitedly discussing the latest breaking news that the vaccine of love used on the humans down below had been a resounding success.

*Charkha — Spinning Wheel

*Samadhi – Memorial monument

*Ramdhun – Hymns to Rama

*Coretta King – Martin Luther King’s wife

*Kasturba – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s wife

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Dr. Santosh Bakaya is an academician, poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, Ted Speaker and creative writing mentor. She has been critically acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi [Ballad of Bapu]. Her Ted Talk on the myth of Writers’ Block is very popular in creative writing Circles . She has more than ten books to her credit , her latest books are a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Only in Darkness can you see the Stars) and Songs of Belligerence (poetry). She runs a very popular column Morning meanderings in Learning And Creativity.com.

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

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

Categories
Essay

Without Protest : On the meaning of Searching for Truth

By Dustin Pickering

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the root of the verb protest is “to make a solemn declaration” or as a noun it refers to a pledge. Throughout The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Mohandas Gandhi notes the oaths he carried with him at various lengths. In Part One: Chapter VIII, he resolves to never steal again after he began atonement and reconciliation with his father. At a young age, he shows devout courtesy to truth. He dedicates experience of life to the pursuit of truth hence the book’s subtitle.

Later he swears an oath to his mother to not consume meat while visiting England. His Hindu faith, of which he claims ignorance, requires vegetarianism. He studies and reads on his visit to learn dietary regulations on his own that keeps his promise. When he returns home, he learns of her passing. Throughout his life he continues a strict diet without meat or milk, and his wife Kasturbabai, is also expected to abide. Even under severe threat of losing her life, Kasturbabai refused the doctor’s advice to have beef broth. Gandhi demonstrates such commitment to his ideals that he writes, “Let no one cavil at this, saying that God can never be partial, and that He has no time to meddle with the humdrum affairs of men.” His abidance to truth and oath seem to uncover God’s existence within the human sphere.

The land of India has not changed much since Gandhi’s protests and life devotions. What then is the purpose of a man of God? Gandhi notes the lack of sanitation and negligence of the poor. He is appalled that Indians would defecate in the sacred of river Ganges. He opposes the caste system and refuses to wear the sacred thread until Hinduism improves and serves the people’s well being. However he is not a bigot as he notes, “In matters of religion beliefs differ, and each one’s supreme in himself.” Gandhi’s dedication to moral improvement becomes a passion he shares with his fellow countrymen by founding schools to eradicate prejudice and ignorance so that the poor can become stronger in their self-reliance. Gandhi is not just a political activist as we understand it, but he is also a moral leader and a clear signal that God indeed exists and is concerned with human affairs.

India’s national life and character may not have improved according to Gandhi’s liking or expectations. He frequently suggests that God allows his efforts to flounder. He cannot explain why but suffers his disappointment gladly. He offers this piece of wisdom that all religions aspire to express, “The salvation of the people depends upon themselves, upon their capacity for suffering and sacrifice.” The people of India have their leader and learned to love him—however, the next important task for them is to learn to reverence each other in their habitude. It is always up to a people to secure their own blessings and reconcile with the Spirit.

Satyagraha, or passive resistance, is not a tool of destruction or self-interest. In the Autobiography, Gandhi expresses that passive resistance intends to improve the enemy’s well-being also. This is a powerful statement of political reality, that to resist you must hold the deepest compassion for the opponent and maintain moral strength and fearlessness. In the world today, such moral sacrifice and leadership appears to be absent.

In the United States, riots and violence broke out in protest of police brutality and racial injustice. The movement Antifa, a decentralised ideology and tool, wages violence with right-wing counter protests in a display of moral cowardice. Without securing blame, these street battles escalate and small businesses are ravaged. Government buildings are burned to the ground. A legal analyst on CNN requested that the viewers not focus on the destruction of property because the pain of the Black community is of greater importance. This response was in reference to the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia. In his drunk fear of being sent back to prison, Brooks stole a taser from police and resisted arrest, eventually being shot by the officer who then tried to administer CPR.

Some scholars of literature compare Black American fiction to dalit fiction. Dalits are the untouchables of the Indian caste system. Gandhi’s social mission was to unify people of all castes, faiths, and walks of life. Frequently meeting with people of different faiths, his life effort was in understanding and showing compassion even to those with whom he disagreed. The caste system was something he wished to see overcome so that Hinduism could bear equal measure to other faiths. As mentioned earlier, he would not wear the sacred thread because he felt it was a symbol of superiority. He disavowed himself of self-righteousness.

His ideal State is one without violence, yet he maintained realistic understanding of the nature of the State. He wrote, “If national life becomes so perfect as to become self-regulated, no representation becomes necessary.” For this writer, such anarchism is the height of mature political ideals. Gandhi served this ideal of a nonviolent state with utmost clarity and dedication.

Finally I must refer to the great statement in the Autobiography on language. As a poet, I am deeply engaged with the thought presented, “Human language can but imperfectly describe God’s ways.” The devotee of Truth must recognize that our world is predicated on falsehood and deceit. Truth, it seems Gandhi suggests, is a lifelong pursuit in virtuous effort and suffering. Sincere willingness to undergo the difficult pursuit of Truth was Gandhi’s mission: however, in no way has he completed it for us. After all, it is our own choice to renounce the world and defy it’s injustices.

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Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

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

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.