Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  
  
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
‘Beauty is Truth’ : The Potato Eaters(1885) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons

What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour.  If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume (1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.

 Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.

The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.

We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.

In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”

Aruna Chakravarti’s review of Shazia Omar’s Golden Bangladesh at Fifty also stands out embracing the colours of Bengal. It traces the title back to history and their national anthem — a Tagore song called ‘Amaar Sonar Bangla – My Golden Bengal’. Gracy Samjetsabam’s review of Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow, a cross cultural novel with an unusual ending that shuttles between America and Japan, winds up our review section this time.

As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.

The tone of Rhys Hughes cogitations about the identity of two poets across borders in ‘Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?’ reminds me of Puck  or Narada! Of course, he has given humour in verses with a funny story poem which again — I am not quite sure — has a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion or is it someone else? Michael Burch has limericks on animals, along with his moving poem on Martin Luther King Junior. We have much poetry crossing borders, including a translation of Akbar Barakzai’s fabulous Balochi poetry by Fazal Baloch and Sahitya Akademi winning Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom. A Nazrul song which quests for a spiritual home has been translated from Bengali by no less than Professor Fakrul Alam, a winner of both the SAARC award and Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.

We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
Myanmar Special

Rohingyas, Rifts and Peace

One of the countries often in news nowadays is Myanmar or Burma. George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days (1934), showcased a society afflicted by racism, exclusivity, nepotism and ignorance. Was his depiction accurate? What has changed from then to now? While the international community looks on, waiting for the country to solve its internal crises, citizens are victimised not only by the pandemic but also by a military coup. Some of them have been stateless for some time now, thrown out altogether for being ‘a threat to Buddhism’. Jessica Mudditt, an author and journalist, who spent four years in Myanmar saw fit to voice her experiences within a country with 135 ethnicities. Her memoir, Our Home in Myanmar – Four Years in Yangon ( 2021), showcases a country where anyone can be displaced at any point like the Rohingyas. With 90% of the population following Buddhism, how is the religion, born of the compassionate quest of a prince to alleviate human suffering, being interpreted? Recently, in an interview, Muddit said, “Most people outside Myanmar assume that Buddhism is a religion of peace, so they don’t understand why so much violence has taken place, or that Buddhism can turn militant and be infected with extreme nationalism.”

This special showcases Myanmar from various perspectives: from that of an expat journalist, from a travellers’, a local writer’s and it even has a translation of a Tagore poem that reflects on the compassion of a Buddhist sage revered in Myanmar, called Shin Upagutta or Upagupta. Why should Shin Upagutta’s devotees resort to violence? Seeking answers, we present this selection from our treasury.

Content

The Tryst, a story poem about Upagupta’s mercy by Rabindranath Tagore translated from Bengali. Click here to read.

In Conversation with Jessica Mudditt: Keith Lyons discusses with  Jessica Mudditt her memoir, Our Home in Myanmar, and its current relevance. Click here to read.

Book Review of Our Home in Myanmar by Keith Lyons. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Our Home in Myanmar, describing the trials faced by expat residents and media. Click here to read.

A slice of life in Myanmar from San Lin Tun, reflecting local colours. Click here to read.

In Once Upon a Time in Burma: Land of a Thousand Pagodas, John Herlihy explores the magnificent sites of Mandalay in company of a Slovenian friend in the first episode of his quartet on his Myanmar, set in the pre-covid world. Click here to read.

In Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Babies and Buddhas, John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue. Click here to read.

Categories
Musings

Why I write?

By Basudhara Roy

Lest the title should endeavour to, and not illegitimately so, inspire grandiose expectations of an Orwellian figure articulating a significant thesis intended to shed historical light on a momentous body of work, its humble writer hastens, at the very outset, to clarify that the observations that follow amount to no pretentious authorial manifesto, constituting rather, humdrum, colloquial reflections on her overwhelming predilection for the written word.

Why I write, is a question I have often asked myself. And here, I refer to writing not merely in its grander and more serious manifestation as profession, passion or avocation but also in its immediate semantic sense of being exactly what it is, written communication. I would rather text, mail, or write in longhand to people depending, of course, on my level of familiarity with them and the kind of communication that is intended, rather than personally meet or call them. Neither voice nor physical presence succeeds in offering to me the warmth that a few written lines are able to evoke. Given that I can speak fluently, confidently, effectively, affectively, even attractively on a subject for that matter, why is it that I tend to gravitate towards writing, that universally acknowledged formal mode of expression?

To begin with, the choice, most inevitably, has to do with my fallacy that writing, somehow, is more personal than speech and, thereby, more articulate, more sincere, and more meaningful. It matters to me that written sentences are structured with more concern, written words carefully weighed and chosen, the act of writing itself more considered, less spontaneous, and requiring a degree of attention and premeditation that casual oral communication seems, sadly, to want. If speech is intended for quick communication, writing, I believe, makes way for more nuanced, more thoughtful and more pleasurable exchanges of meaning. Its texture ensures that empathy or irony or humour is not lost and that it is always rediscovered in every reading.

This brings me, secondly, to my faith in the relative endurance of the written word or at least the possibility of it, over its oral counterpart. While spoken words are obedient ghosts that, bidden, disappear into thin air, our written words are the unruly phantoms that inhere and haunt us as long as they please. This is not to say that writing, in its physical or virtual right, is immune to disasters. Note-carrying pigeons may fall exhausted in their journeys and fail to arrive; confessions may, Tess-like, be swept underneath carpets not to be found till it’s too late; poems may be lost to the winds; cards may be smudged and their greetings obliterated by spilled tea; letters may be delivered into wrong hands; newspapers may be used to line racks or dispose soiled diapers; and to top them all is the eternal threat by fire.

Technology has, thankfully, worked hard to ease one’s fears here but the threat to the written word still looms large. Recalcitrant CDs refuse to be read by unfamiliar drives; storage devices go corrupt; messages are absentmindedly deleted; mails may lie unopened for days at a time; and worse, network issues may inhibit the process of communication altogether. All this, notwithstanding, the fact remains that the spoken word, unless eminently memorable, is eminently forgettable. What is written is capable of being read as many times as one pleases and in tandem with its greater effect is its freedom to be paused at will and to be picked up, to no disadvantage, when one has regained the time or the appetite for it.

Thirdly, what excites me about the written word is that for it, the act of interpretation never ceases. Speech is lost eggresively with the breath and cannot be recalled or revisited for meaning in exactly the same context whatever one might do. Besides, intonation constitutes an important semantic factor in it so that words, often, are dressed in meanings not strictly their own. In contrast to this, the written word remains forever genuine, forever open, inviting one in the same way to linger, ponder, consider and re-consider.

But most of all, it seems to me, that my obsession with writing stems from the intimacy that is built into the verb, the intimacy of putting thought to word, pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. It matters to me that the word ‘writing’ etymologically traces its roots to verbs like ‘carving’ and ‘drawing’ and involves, thereby, a labour of love that seems absent in speech. To write is to pay attention; to carve a message thoughtfully in words that have been summoned exclusively for the act is to be personal. Again, writing is an act of survival in a bewildering world. It is an anchor to one’s sanity, an agent of existential signification, a promise of cathartic salvation. To write is to attempt to surface from the sea of anonymity and resignation. It is to protest against time’s transience, against life’s tyranny. It a world that losing all, one would rather win; a mirror in which one sees oneself as one is; a gift one bestows upon all those one chooses to write for.

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Basudhara Roy is Assistant Professor of English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. She is the author of a monograph, Migrations of Hope: A Study of the Short Fiction of Three Indian American Writers (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, 2019) and two collections of poems, Moon in my Teacup (Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 2019) and Stitching a Home (New Delhi: Red River, 2021). She writes and reviews from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, India.

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

Categories
Bhaskar's Corner

Oh, That Lovely Title: Politics

Bhaskar Parichha debuts his column with a witty collection of quotes that he has picked up with his wide reading, arranged in a way that they take the reader through a series of thought-provoking comments on contemporary issues

Cartoon by Mario Miranda in the November 8th,1987 issue of Illustrated Weekly.
Photo courtesy: Bhaskar Parichha

We, in India, are in the throes of a big political churning right now. No one knows who the victor and who the vanquished will be. But politics — and obviously elections in India — are as multi-hued as they are rancid.

Adore it or loathe it, politics has its own share of quotable quotes. From the funniest quotes to the dumbest one, here is an uplifting list of famous lines said by equally famous people. 

Niccolo Machiavelli, a fifteenth century florentine philospher, has a very pertinent line for the present day politics. He said, “Politics have no relation to morals.” Charles de Gaulle’s take on politicians is so sensible! “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.” Two other famous literary figures — the Irish George Bernard Shaw and British novelist George Orwell — too were scornful of politicians. Shaw said, “He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”

Orwell remarked, “In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” 

American comedian George Carlin had a terse remark on that country’s politicians: “Now, there’s one thing you might have noticed I don’t complain about: politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out.”

There is so much of coaxing and wheedling to take part in elections. Plato, the great Greek philosopher, observed, “one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Elections in India have become so expensive that ordinary mortals like you and me can’t think of fighting them even in our dreams. Will Rogers said, “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” Gore Vidal has a different take on this issue: “Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” 

US President Calvin Coolidge once said, “Politics is not an end, but a means. It is not a product, but a process. It is the art of government. Like other values it has its counterfeits. So much emphasis has been placed upon the false that the significance of the true has been obscured and politics has come to convey the meaning of crafty and cunning selfishness, instead of candid and sincere service.”

What New York City writer Christian Nestell Bovee who relished the intimate friendship of Washington Irving, Longfellow, Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes believed politics is interesting: “Political aspirants make too much of the people before election, and, if successful, too much of themselves after it. They use the people when they want to rise, as we treat a spirited horse when we want to mount him; — for a time we pat the animal upon the neck, and speak him softly; but once in the saddle, then come the whip and spur.”

Finding the right candidate in elections is next to impossible. Cartoonist Kin Hubbard too had the same dilemma when he said, “We would all like to vote for the best man but he is never a candidate.” Edmund Burke’s caution on gentlemen despising politics is worth the while. Eighteenth century statesman and thinker Burke said, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” NOTA (none of the above) has been added to the preference for voters in the EVMs (electronic voting machines) these elections. American comedian, WC Fields , once said, “Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.” 

Why there is widespread abhorrence of politics is easy to fathom. According to radio commentator, political commentator, author, columnist, Cal Thomas, “One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s aim. Election and power are.” Lord Acton’s famous quote hardly needs mention. He said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It was Henry A. Kissinger who rather pithily observed: “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.” Groucho Marx , a humorist, opined, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”  

What essentially should a political party have? According to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.”

Winston Churchill’s famous take is worth remembering today ever than before: “Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous … In war, you can only be killed once. But in politics many times.”

American Novelist Edgar Watson Howe thought, “If you have sense enough to realize why flies gather around a restaurant, you should be able to appreciate why men run for office.”

According to the former US president Barack Obama, “We’ve come to be consumed by a 24-hour, slash-and-burn, negative ad, bickering, small-minded politics that doesn’t move us forward. Sometimes one side is up and the other side is down. But there’s no sense that they are coming together in a common-sense, practical, nonideological way to solve the problems that we face.”

And, finally, Columnist and Editor Doug Larson has this warning against the political class: “Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.”

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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