I first learned of Therese Nagai while listening to a student presentation. I was teaching a class of first year pharmacology students at Tokushima University. Their assignment had been to make a group presentation on something related to their major. One group chose to introduce Nagayoshi Nagai [1844-1929], the Father of Pharmacology in Japan, and the founder of Tokushima University’s Pharmacology Department. My ears perked up when the student mentioned that he had married a German woman.
How was it that I had lived in Tokushima for 26 years, yet no one had ever mentioned her to me? Didn’t ordinary people know of her? I knew of the Wenceslau de Moraes, the Portuguese sailor who’d settled at the foot of Mt. Bizan and who wrote about Tokushima in Portuguese. There was a museum dedicated to him at the top of the mountain. I also knew of the German prisoners of war who’d been interred in nearby Naruto during World War I. Because of these foreign men, the prefecture had established ties with both Portugal and Germany. But what about this woman, Therese? I was determined to find out more about her.
In the photo of Therese and Nagayoshi Nagai that pops up in a cursory Internet search, she is staring off in the distance, her expression determined, resolute. Her hair is pulled back, her Victorian dress buttoned up her neck and decorated with a large cameo pin. She looks serious, sensible. He is wearing Western clothes as well — a suit, and a tie. He gazes directly at the camera, but his head is tilted toward hers. She looks as if she might be lost in thought, thinking of her native Germany, or how to improve upon her life in Japan. He seems to be thinking only of her.
Nagayoshi was born in Myodo District in Awa Province, which is now known as Tokushima Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. His father, a physician, taught him about the medicinal properties of plants, and expected his son to follow in his footsteps. His mother died when he was a child. As a young man, he embarked for study in Nagasaki, at the Dutch Medical College. Nagasaki was the first port of call in a country newly open to foreign trade, and the influx of Western culture, after 230 years of isolation. There, Nagayoshi saw pale, big-nosed Europeans for the first time in his life. He got a job at the first photography studio in the country, where he took photos of foreigners and Japanese, such as folk hero Ryoma Sakamoto. Sakamoto, who was also originally from Shikoku, albeit further south, in Kochi, encouraged Nagayoshi to go abroad and learn from the West.
From Nagasaki, Nagayoshi went on to study at Tokyo University, Japan’s equivalent to Harvard — not bad for a boy from the backwoods. Still, when he was awarded a coveted study-abroad slot at Berlin University, he felt compelled to ask his father for permission to go. His father was afraid he would never come back. “You have a responsibility to become a great doctor,” he told his son. Nagayoshi couldn’t bring himself to tell his father that his interest had turned to chemistry and pharmacology. He had no interest in becoming a doctor.
After getting the go ahead from his father to set out on this great new adventure, he sailed by boat to San Francisco, then took a train to New York, and finally sailed on another steamer to Liverpool. In Europe, everything was shiny and new – the water pipes, the gas lamps, the glass windows. He was also deeply impressed by the architecture in Berlin, declaring in a letter to his father “Everything that is built by humans is finely detailed.”
Although there were several boarding houses that catered to young Japanese men, he took up residence with Frau von Holzendor, where no other Japanese student was living in order to expedite his German language learning. After she passed away, he moved into a boarding house run by Frau Lagerstrom.
The young Nagayoshi was intense and single-minded, too caught up in his studies to bother with a social life. His mentor, German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, suggested that if he was planning on staying in Germany, he should marry a German woman.
“That’s not as simple as you think,” Nagai allegedly replied. “Orientals are still a rarity in Germany. In Japan, foreigners are considered outsiders, and they’re called ‘Meriken’ and held at arm’s length. It will take time to get the consent of my father.”
According to one biographer, Hofmann began plotting to find a German bride for Nagai. He invited his protégé along for an unveiling of a statue of his former teacher, Justus von Liebig, the founder of organic chemistry, the University of Giessen. The proprietor of the boardinghouse where Nagai was staying also accompanied them, perhaps as part of Hofmann’s plan. After the ceremony, Nagai decided to take a trip to Switzerland. On the way, he stopped at the Nassauer Hof Hotel in Frankfurt.
Looking out of his pension window, he spotted an attractive, young German woman, and asked Frau Lagerstrom how he might go about meeting her. She conspired for the two of them to have a meal with young Therese Schumacher and her mother. The Schumachers were visiting from their home in Andermach, a picturesque, medieval town on the left bank of the Rhine. Therese’s father was a local lumber and mining magnate. Nagayoshi was so tongue-tied at breakfast that he could barely manage to get a word out. When he finally spoke, he asked if she would like some honey for her bread. “Yes,” she replied.
After breakfast, Nagai and his landlady ran into the mother and daughter in town.
“Will you be going out somewhere tonight?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m going to the opera,” Therese replied.
Nagai invited himself along.
That evening they went on their first date to the Frankfurt Opera House, chaperones in tow. When asked later what the performance had been, Nagayoshi laughed and said that he didn’t remember. He’d been so mesmerised by the young woman sitting next to him, he hadn’t paid any attention to what was happening on the stage.
The next morning, Therese and her mother departed by boat to Wiesbaden. They continued on a day or two later to Schlagenbad, where the Schumchers had an exclusive contract to provide building materials for a new hotel under construction. When they returned home to Andernach, Therese was astonished to find Nagai, wearing a suit newly tailored for the occasion, waiting on the docks.
For the next three days, he was the guest of the Schumacher family. Therese gave the dapper scholar a tour of the main house, built in 1746, and the stone and lumber works.
“You’ve caught yourself a Chinaman,” Therese’s brother Mathias teased. More likely it was Therese who’d been snared by this polite, erudite Japanese visitor.
The following year, a delegation arrived from Tokyo Imperial University, inviting Nagayoshi to return to Japan head the university’s first Department of Pharmacology. In the film version of their story, Nagayoshi is torn between staying in Germany with the woman he loves and returning to the land of his birth. Of course, he was obligated to return. The university had sent him to Germany to learn for the benefit of his nation, after all.
He proposed marriage to Therese. She said “yes.” After becoming engaged, he returned to Japan alone. He worried that his bride-to-be would be discontent in backwards Japan, where country folk still clattered around in wooden geta clogs, and rickshaws were the choice mode of transportation. In the Japanese movie version of the story, his younger sister assured him that if Therese truly loved him, she would be happy to be with him no matter where they lived. It’s likely, however, that his father and sister were not quite as agreeable as they appear in the film. After all, in that era Japanese men rarely married for love, and Nagai, the only son, was eager for his father’s approval.
In 1885, Nagai experienced a breakthrough in his research, when he successfully isolated the active ingredient of Ephedrine. Later, his findings would be instrumental in the development of medication for asthma and cough suppressant. And even later, he would develop methamphetamine.
Nagayoshi and Therese were separated for months. When he finally returned to Germany, he was 40 years old. Therese was 21. They married on March 27, 1886, in a church in her hometown, Andernach, despite the fact that Nagayoshi was not Catholic. He would convert to Catholicism thirteen years later.
Once in Japan, Therese sent a flurry of letters back home to Andernach. She wrote of homesickness, but also of “standing firmly on two feet in their new life. I feel as if gradually new roots form and I become habituated to this strange way of life, to unusual manners. I’m making progress.”
Broadened by his own experiences abroad, and influenced by his sharp, young bride, Nagayoshi was a strong proponent of education for women. He co-founded Japan’s first college for women, now known as Japan Joshi Daigaku, where Therese was employed as an instructor of German. She was, reportedly, an energetic teacher, enriching her lessons with instruction on manners, customs and German cooking.
Eventually, they would have three children – Alexander, Willy, and Elsa, all brought up to be bilingual, and with an awareness of their German heritage.
In addition to being the Father of Modern Chemistry and Pharmacy in Japan, Nagayoshi served as president and founder of the Japanese-German Society. Therese is credited with introducing German food and culture to the Japanese, and, along with her husband, hosted Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa during part of their visit to Japan in 1922. Therese also helped to interpret for the couple.
Therese died in 1924.
When the eldest son, Alexander, first visited his mother’s hometown, Andernach, he claimed it as his second home. Later, during World War II, Alexander Nagai, would serve as a Japanese diplomat to Germany at the embassy in Berlin. One writer mused that his cross-cultural upbringing made him especially sensitive to the plight of the German Jews. Alexander was a member of a group that resisted intolerance toward Jews and is reported to have helped enable the issue exit visas to Jews who sought to escape Nazi Germany.
In 1994, Teigi Nagai, grandson of Nagayoshi and Therese, donated an ornate chandelier to the church where his grandparents were wed in homage to their legacy and love.
Suzanne Kamatawas born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.
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By Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed
From the world,
silence… intense silence.
I am somewhere between the better and the best in this world. Safe and sound. Breathing. Every morning, I had walked to my job and the evening breeze had wafted me back home. Drifting like this, many times I pondered over penning down a letter to you but was held back…. lack of address ….my own fears…. dread of time…. Therefore, I never quite made up my mind to complete the task.
My Lord! Today I am feeling very dispirited. I have been expelled by the head of the post office from my job. He said, I happen to deliver the letters, orders, registry and parcels on wrong addresses. The recipients receive the wrong mail. He states, for three months I kept reiterating these mistakes.
I had never envisioned this situation.
Giving it some thought, I concluded that this is all because I did not write a letter to you. Thus, today, I am writing to you.
I apologise in advance for any errors in my penning.
The crucial thing is — My Lord! Tonight, is curtained by stillness, the fire is inhaling its final breath. After the fire dies, I remain with taciturnity alone at home. Whosoever obtains more power than others, will press them down, and you know well who is more powerful than me and who….
God Almighty! To say worthily, I love you a lot and very much —
like toys kept on carts,
like whirlwinds on mosques,
like ash that clings tired on jammed wheels,
like wandering cows on streets,
like the daughters of neighbours…
Almighty God! I love you limitlessly. I don’t know how to convince your ears about my profound affections. I love everything about you, I stoop to your every word, and your every creation is beyond examples, wordless and irreplaceable.
But my Lord! This is also true that you left nothing but confusion in this world, everywhere inconclusiveness, lack of fulfilment, no ins and outs but all the edges of incompletion.
My Lord, who are you? What are you?
The pouring light of lamp igniting before the home of Khuda Baksh, I wonder are you
the tyre-prints of police cars,
the pay-day for teachers,
the rock on the pavement of road,
or the first daily paper each morning?
Who are you? Where are you? In the skies…
No, I cannot admit this, how come my friend, my companion is so far? My Lord is not cruel. He is alone, childfree, poor, miserable like me… stricken by hunger, and knows that the most powerful thing in the world is hunger… hunger… ufff…. I cannot explain. But My Lord, what do you think, is the most powerful among your creations —
drug filled cigarettes,
leftovers of bread,
a cold, collapsed lonely road,
sunsets in summers,
or relics of autumn leaves?
As per my heart, these all are powerful, frightening, but tempting.
What do you say my lord?
What is your point of view?
Do you know one more thing Almighty God, you made abundant useless things in your world; they are meaningless, unimportant, but absurdly you are accountable for creating them.
Lord Almighty! Don’t you realise some surplus things remain unnoticed when you look at the world, like —
school going children in the morning,
busloads of travelers to cities,
‘wedlocks’ in marriages,
ventilators of bathrooms,
and traffic police on roads.
My lord!! These all are complaints, all protests. These are our grievances echoing before you.
We are wretched, distressed, dead hearted. Other people are engulfing us. We are being thrown out of the world. Lord, my heart has become the residence of hatred, enmity and envy; I feel jealous of everyone. I suffer in anguish. I am changing into a devil, converting to wickedness. In spite of all these, I am amazed to discover that, My Lord, I love you a lot, in fact, very, very much –
like a healthy fish,
like the last drop of wine,
like a full plate of curry,
like a room filled with water,
God Almighty! There is nothing more vital to pen down except, the fire is dead now. My stomach is screaming, hunger creeps, cold extends, surfeits, magnifies and I am…
My best regards to all.
And… actually…. I am handing over this letter to the breeze; I hope you will receive it.
Everything is pretty well.
(This story was first published in Balochi in Teeran Dask, a collection of stories by Haneef Sharif and is being published in translation with permission from the author and the Balochistan Academy of Literature and Research, Turbat.)
Haneef Sharif, born on December 25, 1976, is a well-recognised author, filmmaker, YouTuber, photographer and script writer. He completed his basic education in Turbat, Balochistan, and received his MBBS degree from Bolan Medical College, Quetta, in 2003. He currently lives in Germany. He has published a novel, Chegerd Poll enth ( The Chegerd Tree is blossoming), and a number of short stories in Balochi. Some of his short stories have been published in 3 collections: Shapa ke Hour Gwareth ( The Night When It Rains), Teeran Dask ( Teeran Dask) and Haneefnaam ( Hey you Haneef). He has also directed four films in Balochi. He also runs a YouTube channel Radio Balochistan where he publishes videos, short stories, interviews and lectures on miscellaneous subjects.
Mashreen Hameed is a fresh graduate of University of Turbat with a Masters’ degree in English literature. She is a writes fiction, poetry and translates from Balochi and English.
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The Post Office by Tagore was written, translated and performed in multiple languages throughout Europe, eventually made into a Bengali film by Satyajit Ray (Postmaster, 1961). Rakhi Dalalrevisits the original translation done by Devabrata Mukherjee in 1912.
Title: The Post Office
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translator: Devabrata Mukherjee
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Dakghar was written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. Devabrata Mukherjee, an Oxford University student at the time, translated the play into English in 1912. It was first published in London by Cuala Press in 1914 with an introduction by W.B.Yeats. He, along with Lady Gregory, had also directed its first staging in English in 1913 by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The production then transferred to the Court Theatre, London, later the same year before the Bengali original was staged at Tagore’s Jorasanko theatre in Calcutta in 1917.
This play was translated into French by André Gide and was read on the radio the night before Paris fell to the Nazis. During World War II, there were 105 performances of The Post Office in concentration camps in Germany. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy was its staging by Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator who ran a Jewish orphanage in a ghetto in Warsaw. It was there that the play was organised for children just a few weeks before they, as well as Korczak, were deported to the concentration camps of Treblinka.
The story revolves around a young child Amal, an orphan adopted by his Uncle Madhav, who suffers from an ailment. On the instruction of the physician treating him, he is restricted within the house and is not allowed to go outside. In his quest to explore the world beyond the confines of his home, he sits near a window facing a road and talks to people passing-by. He becomes fascinated by the newly constructed post office near his window and imagines receiving letters from the king. The play presents a vivid picture of Amal, his longings, his ideas of life and the limitations that he faces.
Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, in the introduction to this edition, quotes the bard from the letter he wrote to Andrews in 1921 where he says, “Amal represents the man who has received the call of the open road – he seeks freedom from the comfortable enclosure of habits sanctioned by the prudent and from the walls of rigid opinion built for him by the respectable.”
The narrative traverses through the realms of a mind born free, eager to understand and appreciate the beauty of the natural world and, yet with time, constrained by the ideas fostered as acceptable by societal norms. Amal would rather venture outside and hop like a squirrel than sit at home, toiling at books which his Uncle thinks makes a man learn. He would rather cross mountains and go farther to seek work than be disheartened by their imposing structure. To his Uncle, the hills are barriers whereas to Amal, they are the hands of earth raised into the sky, beckoning people from far off.
The play also explores the nature of human dealings with outsiders, the usual conventions of a society while dealing with persons we may only come across as strangers and seem to emphasise upon the virtue of the sense of fraternity which the otherwise busier life tends to disregard. Amal meets a dairyman, a watchman, a flower gathering girl, a gaffer and a headman while sitting at his window and leaves an impression on each of them. He endears as a persona in harmony with nature as well as in his interactions with other people through his life so that the journey becomes more joyous for everyone.
This play is written in two acts. In the first act, Amal wishes to discover the world outside his restrictions while sitting at his window. In the second act his condition worsens, and he is confined to his bed where he spends his time waiting for the postman to deliver a letter from King. And finally, he sinks into his last sleep.
In its October issue of 1914, The Times Literary Supplement wrote: “This is the first impression that the play gives, as a play should: an impression of actuality, complete within the limits of human life as seen and heard in a real world.” The second act may be seen as a wait for the messenger of God/death which delivers the final fate for Amal. W.B. Yeats says that the “play conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace” which is epitomised by Amal’s character.
This play translated by Mukherjee more than a hundred years ago continues to touch hearts to this date. Given our present context, impaired by the excessive capitalistic tendencies of the age, marred by wars, blurred by frenzies of hatred seeping into the fabric of societies, this comes as a gentle reminder of the necessity to live in peace, to approach nature and humans, even strangers, with compassion and to show more consideration in our dealings with them. It helps us understand that a mind that can live in harmony with nature and with humankind, can eventually embrace the final call in tranquillity.
The Post Office is a splendid play written with a poetic cadence which has elements of tragedy and yet manages to leave the reader with a sense of serenity that seems to be the writer’s message for a life to live in harmony with nature, with humankind and with oneself.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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Lesya Bakun, a poet and writer, tells her story of escape from war-torn Ukraine. Her narrative maps the past and the present.
“I woke up around 4 am with the sound of a loud explosion. And I heard all around me people running. They were leaving as they knew it (war) had started,” said Lesya Bakun, an applied linguist who worked as a youth worker and Non-Formal Education trainer in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This was on 24th February 2022. The offensive that is devastating a huge country with a population of 43,273,062 had started.
Lesya faced bombs as she tried to get food to her mother from her home as supermarkets were not functioning. She went live on Facebook while the shelling continued, using the footage as a defence mechanism. She elucidates: “I have documented my trip to bring my mother some food. It was scary because I heard explosions all the time. I was partly doing that as a security measure so that if anything happened to me it would be caught live on video. I had told my friends, if anything happened to me, they had my permission to disclose it. I had been sharing the overall story of the war. Many followed me on FB live from different countries because I was involved in European Commission’s Erasmus Programme for nine years and I knew people from pretty much all around Europe. I had connections also because I was a moderator for Virtual Poetry Readings. I had friends from every continent. People were following my story. It is one thing to watch the events in news but another to watch someone live through it. Eventually, people started recommending me to journalists in other countries. I gave five interviews to Canada, USA, Lithuania, Georgia and Italy. I became a bit famous. Weird though, not on the basis of who I am but on the basis of where I was and what I experienced. Like I am doing right now.”
Born five years before the USSR was dissolved, Lesya lived the first part of her life in the city that has been ground to pulp with the bombing, Mariupol. She moved to Kharkiv when she was twelve. She has memories of her past growing up in a Ukranian-speaking home, she was exposed to Russian and English together at kindergarten.
She unfolds the story of the current aggression bit by bit. The war this time was anticipated, she tells us. “This (attack) was anticipated because pretty much the whole world warned us that this would happen. And I had been warned by my friends from Lithuania and Latvia. My friend from Lithuania warned me three days before the attack and my friend from Latvia, three weeks before the attack. Russia and Belarus had prepared troops nearby, but a lot of people did not believe it would happen as they believed the Russian propaganda for dozens of years. I could have left earlier but my mum was really ill. She had COVID and pneumonia in January. She was in hospital. Then we brought her home with the oxygen machine.”
She had been going through family crises when the war started. She tells us: “Even though I was warned, I had not packed at all. In December, my grandmother died of a long illness. Then in January, my mum got ill with COVID. I had formalities of the funeral and all that. I was definitely not mentally prepared for war. How can you ever be prepared? I think even Putin was not prepared though he knew Russia’s plan. But he definitely did not understand how the Ukranians would meet him and his troops. Because for some reason, he was sure Ukranians would be happy to meet them. But Ukranians were not happy at all. He anticipated welcome like in Crimea (2014) where people did not fight. Unfortunately, eight years ago, lot of Ukranian troops and Crimea just gave up and changed the flag just like that. So, they have broken their promise to the Ukranian nation.”
She spells out clearly that Ukranians want their identity respected and not annihilated. “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.”
The sense of resentment runs strong. The feeling of being let down is evident. She talks of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994, which led to the denuclearisation of Ukraine, here as she did in her poem. “Budapest Memorandum is an agreement between Russia, USA and UK. It says these three countries will protect us if we are attacked. When Russia took away Crimea eight years ago, no one came to protect us. There was a war with people dying in the East of Ukraine. Now as Russia attacks us, will Russia protect us? The United States and United Kingdom did not protect us from Russia. Thank you for all the help, help to refugees, for weapons. But the world would not need to face millions of refugees if they had respected the Budapest Memorandum eight years ago.”
Lesya gives a backgrounder to elucidate the need to withstand the Russian forces: “Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country, we have ethnic Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Belarusians, Poles, Jews, Tartars, many others — not only Ukrainians and Russians, so it was never about ‘evil Ukrainians want to forbid Russian language and oppress Russian-speakers’ as they said in propaganda for years. Ukrainian Constitution protects the right for every nation and language to exist — but for Russia, just the existence of the Ukrainian language is an insult and a ‘threat to their existence’ (that they apparently need to protect by bombing Russian-speaking cities among others).
“For centuries, massive anti-Ukraine politics have been lead, targeted to wipe out Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, in the Tsarist Russia, in the USSR, and even after the Ukrainian independence. People have been brainwashed, and even our own TV shows often made fun of Ukrainians. A lot of common people (in some regions, up to 50%) believed the Russian propaganda. Films and media were still in Russian despite our breaking away, for years, which made me — a Ukrainian speaker — feel like an unwanted element in my own country. Only Yushchenko — our third President – introduced the law that all movies had to be dubbed in Ukrainian. Poroshenko — our fifth President — introduced Ukrainian-speaking quotas on the Radio — and a lot of business owners opposed that, and from that point, rumours of ‘Ukrainians suppressing Russians’ intensified. Russia wanted Russian to be the sole ‘inhabiter’ of our narrative and media, and the mere existence of Ukrainian media in Ukraine was perceived aggressively as ‘Ukrainian Nazism’ and ‘Ukrainians hating Russians’, ‘oppression of Russian-speakers’ and ‘Russian language needing protection in Ukraine’ (by destroying kindergartens and maternity hospitals, apparently).”
She gives an example of a woman who believed the ‘Russian narrative’ just before the war started. Lesya had gone for a lung check up to the hospital as she was coughing. This is what she says she encountered. “Two days before (the war started), I went to the hospital. I went for a fluoroscopy of my lungs. Then I could not take my results because the war began. But I still went to see the doctor before the war. A patient waiting with me asked, ‘If you do not have the results of the flouroscopy, why are you waiting to see the doctor?’ And I told her, ‘What if tomorrow the war starts?’ And this woman was too scared to believe.”
Lesya comes from a family of academics and intellectuals. She tells us about her mother, who despite the shelling continues to live in Kharkiv. A university lecturer, a Slavist and a dialectologist, her mother researched on language policies. Lesya explains: “My mother researched the Habsburg dynasty language policy in Wien and saw the originals of documents and laws. The laws of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were issued in local languages — among them, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech. There were magazines and books published in Ukrainian — while in the part of Ukraine under Tsarist Russia it was impossible. The existence of Ukrainian press, theatre, education, independent thought was forbidden. While in the Tsarist Russia, there had been a sets of laws that gradually forbade the use of Ukrainian in all wakes of life. Under the Soviet occupation, the situation did not improve. While on paper you could use Ukrainian, but in reality, all ‘other-thinkers’ were executed, sent to Siberia or suppressed and mentally broken until they started writing only ‘Social realism’ and praise of the Soviet regime and Stalin.”
Lesya draws from the past to explain how long Ukranians have faced oppression and why they felt the need to stand up to Russia. “You could not tell the story of Ukranian oppression in USSR because then you would be killed. Both my grandparents’ families have lived through the genocide of Holdomor genocide of 1932-33. Food was taken from the children and sold to the West, creating an artificial famine. Millions of Ukranians died of hunger. My grandfather’s family survived that, but his aunts died of hunger. And my grandmother’s family went through that. Their whole life, they were together, but they only started speaking to each other about the Holodomor genocide and their families’ experiences after Ukraine got its independence in 1991. Speaking about all this was forbidden so that even within the family people were scared to discuss it.”
To explain the current crises, Lesya drew upon the past. “We wanted to exist. Ukranian history, culture and language had been destroyed for centuries. We wanted to exist as a nation. The weak and faulty Soviet economy was another reason why not just Ukraine, but most of the Soviet republics, wanted independence. That was very noticeable even to common citizens despite all the anti-West propaganda and the Iron Curtain. I only have faint memories of it as I was five when the USSR collapsed, but I heard and read a lot of stories, and saw photos of empty shells of Soviet shops — there was this huge deficit of even the most needed things. The ‘planned economy’ was a ‘disaster’. Like if you wanted to buy milk, you needed to wake up at 4 am and stand in queue for two hours. There was the Iron Curtain — citizens of Soviet Union were forbidden to go abroad, or Western products brought in. Only if you were thoroughly screened by the KGB, you would be allowed to go abroad, and that would mainly be to the ‘Socialist block’ countries, on a preliminary very thoroughly planned visit. The KGB would continue to follow each of your steps while you were on a visit abroad. Only several dozen people were allowed to leave USSR for a short period of time, on a route agreed by the KGB — mostly diplomats or huge cultural actors (like ballet dancers). No such thing as ‘travel’ outside of Soviet Union could even happen.
“Of course, we had notion of international friendships, India, African countries, Cuba. We were curious. One of my closest friends is Ukranian-speaking half-Cuban — one parent is Cuban and the other Ukranian. They fell in love when as a student, one of them came from Cuba to study in Ukraine. We have had international friendships but only with socialist countries.”
Lesya tells us more about the suffering within her family in the Soviet Union. “Individual businesses were forbidden in USSR. My grandmother’s uncle was executed for owning a windmill. Being an entrepreneur was impossible. In my family, we have lots of such stories. My grandfather from my father’s side (who I did not know because he died before my parents married) believed in the Soviet propaganda, and he crossed over from Poland across the border with Belarus on foot. My grandfather eventually got married and had a daughter. But he was convicted on false allegations that he was a Polish spy and sent for ten years to Siberia. When he returned, his family had forsaken him in order not to live under the black mark of a ‘family of an enemy of the state’.
“With time, my grandfather managed to create another family and have my father — I am carrying this grandfather’s surname. My father, despite being born in Belarus from a Polish person, was documented as a ‘Russian’ in order to save him from a similar fate. Now imagine how many people in the Soviet Union were written as ‘Russian’ despite not being such? When he met my mother and he told her the truth, but my mum was okay because she said her father was also ‘an enemy of the state’.”
Lesya’s pride in her heritage is strong. She talks of her city and grandfather, mingling it with the present. “My city of Mariupol is being ruined by the Orcs (as we call the Russians) so much so that now the city almost does not exist. The city is an important cultural, naval (port), technological and industrial centre. It is a city in which my grandfather, Nil Andriyovych Karnaushenko, was a professor of metallurgy. And he has 32 patents that have been used in the local metallurgical works.
You have heard about the tragedy of civilians and the military — sheltered and simultaneously trapped in the metallurgical factory Azovstal. One of them is my cousin, who has been captured by the Russians*. The metallurgical works of Illicha and Azovstal were working non-stop even during the WW2 and the four years it’s been fought on Ukrainian territory – my grandfather said if the blast furnace gets stopped, it takes a lot of efforts and days to start it again, with a risk you could not start it at all. So the furnaces were working even during the four years of war.
“And now – two months of war with Russia – the metallurgical works that used my grandfather’s 32 inventions, all of his life’s work – are being destroyed. The university in which he lectured until his last breath – has lost half if its personnel. The city almost ceased to exist. And this is a primarily Russian-speaking city (despite being created by Greeks and being surrounded by ethnic Greek villages).
“It is not just Mariupol, but multiple cities, towns, villages near the Azov and Black seas, were built by Greeks. We have many ethnic Greeks living in and around Mariupol, we have lot of villages that are mostly populated by ethnic Greeks — that are now either wiped out or seized (after being wiped out) by Russians. We used to have a Greek consulate in Mariupol. It was as important cultural city, and hopefully will be again — after we win and rebuild it. And each of the 24 regions and the temporarily occupied Republic of Crimea in Ukraine have their own centuries of history and their own distinct story to tell — which is not Russian at all.
“They came to ‘liberate the people of Donbas’. Apparently, by creating multiple mass graves, burning thousands of civilians in moving crematoriums and deporting tens of thousands to Siberia without documents and means of communication.”
She draws from the past and tells us, “I am not a historian but a linguist. But the stories that my family have lived through and passed to me are a work in history. The story of Ukraine has not started by breaking away from Russia in 1991. It has started much earlier than Keivan Rus’ (882-1240). Ukranian history began more than one million years ago when the first Ukranian settlers began to inhabit the terrain of Ukraine. Long ago, the first horse was domesticated in Ukraine along with wheels. The first metal was developed in Ukraine.”
Lesya explains from a linguist’s perspective. “We have many ethnoses living in Ukraine for centuries. Our Constitution has been protecting all of them since Independence. We have local minorities of Romanians, Hungarians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Karaims. We have a local minority of Crimean tartars (an ethnos native to Crimea). They had been deported by Stalin to Siberia — thousands of people dying in trains travelling to this cold place. Some survived and continued to live in Siberia. Imagine, for example, all people from Spain being sent to Greenland, with barely any clothes or food. Stalin banned the return of Crimean Tartars to their native, warm Crimea from Siberia — and only when Ukraine got its independence, we allowed them to come back. People returned home, after generations to see their homes taken by the Russian military or people exported from all over Soviet Union into their empty homes. This tragedy has been depicted in Jamala’s Eurovision-winning song “1944”. Ukraine had given Crimean Tartars the status of ‘nation local to Crimea’. While the Soviet Union and Russia as its heir had expelled them from their homes and deported them, without the right to return home, for three generations. This is why Crimean Tartars are so loyal to Ukraine as a country, and vocal in support of Ukraine after Crimea was forcefully taken. And this is one of the reasons why the tale ‘Crimea has always been Russian’ is a blatant lie.
“We have many Jews. Belorussians. So, there are many more languages spoken in Ukraine other than Ukranian, Russian and English. Some people in Transcarpathia speak a mix of languages, you can see traces of Hungarian and sometimes Romanian — not pure Ukrainian. Ukraine is a huge country, geographically the biggest in Europe. Historically, unfortunately, our territory has been often split between different countries, each with their own policy about ethnic minority nations and languages. Russia had been very efficient trying to exterminate the Ukranian language, history and culture for centuries. And downgrading our sense of self-worth and installing in us a feeling we are not anything. Also installing a myth that Ukranian language and nation does not exist. In my part of Ukraine, Russian has been spoken widely just because they have a policy of destroying other languages. Also, sometimes people who speak Ukranian switch to Russian because they want to ‘fit in’ and be perceived as ‘higher rank’ or better educated — all because of centuries of conditioning that if a person speaks Ukrainian, they are an uneducated villager, and Russian is ‘high profile’ and overall better.
“When the Soviets came to the western part of Ukraine, they were very repressive. People were executed just for speaking Ukranian, or simply having the blue-and yellow (Ukrainian) flag. The place in which thousands of people were tortured and executed by the Soviets, is now Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum (the National Museum-Memorial of Victims of Occupation Regimes) in Lviv. And that is why people in the West of Ukraine fought against the Soviets during the World War II and till 1956 when the Ukranian Rebel Army was totally destroyed — the rebels called ‘Nazists’ by the Soviet propaganda in Ukraine for the fact they were fighting against Soviet oppressors — a lie that had lived on for dozens of years and manifested in war now.”
Some of this may sound unreal or perhaps surreal to the world that continues entrenched in their everyday existence where the pandemic protocols continue a major concern along with having enough money to sustain oneself. Perhaps, the majority of people are most hit by the rise in oil and food prices, a threat of widespread hunger and stocks going awry. But for Lesya, it is her very existence as she recounts how she got out of Ukraine to the safety of Lithuania. Her choice was made because a friend from Lithuania warned her about the upcoming war and offered her a place to stay three days before the bombing. She adds: “Also, Lithuania has had a lot in common with Ukraine historically — the countries being together in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236-1795), old Ukrainian being one of the official languages there. Lithuania had also suffered under the Soviet occupation. When I finally reached Lithuania, I found that the country was very supportive of Ukrainians. Many Lithuanians were volunteering, gathering humanitarian help. There were lots of Ukrainian flags and messages of support everywhere.”
Her escape to Lithuania was an adventure that lasted for eight days. When asked if she could relate her experience, this is what she had to say: “I can disclose part of the escape — not all because it will put others at risk for no reason… Actually, for the first five days I was trying to convince my mum to leave, to pack. But it was almost impossible. One of the reasons is she is still connected to the Oxygen machine. She can stay only for some time without the machine, but a long time would not be a good idea. And then she could not find her documents. And she was definitely not in a psychological condition to pack and go somewhere. Neither was I — but she was in a worse condition than me. I had been trying to convince her for five days, but she did not budge.
“My mother was the first one who saw smoke really close to her home and she called her friends and acquaintances to find out if they knew anything about the source. That did not convince her to leave. But it convinced me. It was the day after the Kharkiv administrative building had been bombed. The next day the neighbourhood in which we lived, in the centre of the city, was bombed. That is when I started to blog and do Face Book live — something that I almost had never done before – to document my trip to carry some food to my mother from my home.”
She continued her narrative explaining how she got help to leave the country from a voluntary group formed by citizens to take people to safety out of Ukraine: “There are several organisations. In Kharkiv, I know of two. Probably there are more. They are helping people get out of Kharkiv. One organisation was taking people to Poland or wherever the person wants to go but it would have to be outside the city. There is also a group of volunteers who help people reach the train station to leave by the evacuation train because it is hard to reach the train station without public transportation. Public transport is no longer functioning. And the taxi drivers were asking for absurd prices — like a month’s salary where earlier it was a hundred now, they wanted 5000 or 7000 hryvnias. I did not know what to do, for it would take me about three hours to walk to the train station under normal circumstances. Now with my backpack and belongings under constant shelling, it seemed pretty much impossible.
“At that juncture, I got to know there is an organisation which I will not name till the war stops, that helps people out and I registered with them in a google form writing where I wanted to go. In the form, they asked us to fill the number of people who needed evacuation, the number of children, pets. Their priority was to get whole families out. I was just one person — that was one of the reasons why it took me so long to get to the border as families were a priority.
“One of the people affiliated to this organisation is a friend of mine. She is also a writer who used to document war crimes in the Donetsk region for eight years. So, that day she called me at 7 am and asked me if I could be ready in fifteen minutes, I said I could not be ready in fifteen minutes as I was at my mum’s. Then I rushed home and packed whatever I could. There was a chance that the cars with the fleeing residents would be bombed. The most important things needed to be in the backpack — money and documents and in my case, the laptop. Because even though I do not use it much, you can work anywhere if you have your laptop. I had thirty minutes to pack to leave.”
“One or two days before that, the electricity got cut for the evening. I was afraid the meat would be ruined. I did not know when the electricity would be back. So, I boiled all the meat from the fridge. Before leaving, I gave the two bowls of boiled meat to my neighbour who at that point had not planned to leave. I also gave her my massage cover that I had bought in December. In our tradition, leaving something behind is a sign you will return.
“At that point my neighbour did not want to leave as she had family near Kharkiv. But now, she is in Germany. When the war started, she was wondering when it would all end. I was looking at her and thinking how our grandparents faced war for four years during the Second World War. I bet they did not ask when will it all end! I knew that it will not be quick, that is not how wars are fought. At that point, it was the third day of full-scale war, and it was weird that she constantly asked, ‘When it will all end?’ and was eagerly waiting for the result of peace talks between our diplomats. I knew no peace talks were really possible: they would demand half of Ukrainian territory, we would not agree, end of discussion, the war continues. What peace talks? On the basis of what? Us surrendering? ‘Demilitarisation’? Why would we do that? There was no common ground for discussion. We want to be left alone, to continue being an independent country with a path towards NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the EU (European Union), and we want Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions back. They want Ukraine to cease existing (what they call ‘demilitarisation’), Ukrainians as a nation assimilated (what they call ‘de-Nazification’). These are their demands. There is no ground for discussion here.
“I took the dry food which would not go bad during the trip. I did not know how long the trip would take and what I would face. I took only the food that did not need to be cooked.
“I packed what I could and then I found my friend calling me. I had not heard the phone ring. I am really thankful she did not leave without me because people really need to leave the city very early as the bombing would start early, maybe at 9am, and then it repeats with pauses — every two hours, about five times a day. You hide in a self-created bomb shelter while the shelling continues. When it stops, you sit there for some time, trembling and unsure; and by the time you get your guts together to go buy some food or supplies (in my case, medicine or pulse oximeter batteries for mom), the shelling begins again, and you cannot leave. You just sit at home, frozen, in the constant state of crippling fear.
“My trip to Lithuania was nothing special. But I have never been not able to travel as I want. Also, I never had to travel with bombs and outside of curfews. I live fifteen minutes by bus from the airport. But the biggest airports of Ukraine were closed the night before the war started. That is why it took so long. Each city, each neighbourhood have their own curfews. You cannot be outside the curfew.
“I started my journey as, first, an internally displaced person, and then, a refugee, on the sixth day of war. My friend picked me up. I got in the bus and put my luggage aside. All you needed was your money, documents and your smart phone.
“I thanked my friend for taking me, but she said, ‘My dear how would I leave you?’ And I whispered under my breath, ‘I love you.’ I felt relieved. We started driving. Within five minutes, I saw several bombed buildings. I saw with my own eyes how real it all was.
“After that we went to the house of my friend’s parents, outside Kharkiv. That had been converted to a refugee shelter. It was a point where you waited for the next part of the transport. More people were waiting there.
“We made plans for our trip. My friend also arrived. She apologised that she could not take me as the next two buses were loaded with families and they do not part families. So, I stopped there with her family. I waited two days for the next transfer. It was nerve racking as it was close to Kharkiv and we heard warplanes flying. The bombs were exploding in our part of the town.
“You made connections with the people in the house because you do not know how long you would have to wait. You do not know if the bus would be bombed, if the bus driver will be alive. You do not know. You are in the complete dark. I managed to make friends with the people there. I slept on the sofa in the same room. My friend’s mother cooked for us free of charge. The people in the village had to stand in a queue for one and a half hours to buy food. The good thing was that at least there was food in the shops.
“There were no sirens because we were not in the city. The city defence system did not actually cover us. And the city air raid warning system also did not cover us. If you hear the planes and the explosions, you know it is time to go inside as the bombs can hit your house. Sometimes, you take shelter in the cellars which is used to store vegetables. One of the children in the shelter was a special needs kid and therefore restless and would scream. My coat was ripped but I did not have the inner strength to sew it. I had two foreign passports. I used the part that was ripped to hide documents and money, in case I’d need to run with no luggage. It is legal in Ukraine to have two foreign passports. I had some money there which, unfortunately, I could not exchange after the war started.
“Finally, we left early in two buses. In Ukraine you travel between curfews. On the road, we had two stops in local kindergartens or schools on the borders of the region at night for the curfew. The bus driver had to monitor to navigate us safely — watching all the while where the road was destroyed, where the bridge was destroyed.
“We would start around six seven in the morning every day and then stop for shelter at 2 pm or 3 pm or 4 pm so as not to move outside the curfew. We were welcomed in kindergartens or schools. Sometimes we slept on the floor. We were not the first and we will not be the last. Lots of families with children waited. And we were brought to a refugee centre in the centre of Ukraine which is the office of the organisation that was helping us. In the city, I will not name till the end of the war and probably later, we stayed in a very old Soviet hotel with running water but no hot water. We had to hide in the bomb shelters three times a day just in case. It was a hotel full of people from Kharkiv. I have been in Lithuania now for almost a month. And this organisation is still helping people.
“We stayed in the centre of Ukraine. It was not modern, but it was a shelter, and they gave us food on a voluntary basis. So, some people decided this would be their final destination. Some refugees are now volunteering for arranging transportation, giving information, fund raising. They are trying to arrange buses but sometimes, there are buses but no driver, sometimes drivers but no buses, sometimes no petrol — it is war. So, we waited there two or three days. I cannot recall the number of days exactly. We waited for buses to take us to Warsaw as this organisation has an agreement with Poland. There is a hotel in which we could stay in Warsaw.
“They gave us food three times a day and we did not have to pay anything. I spoke to two young women, mother and a teenage daughter. Their home was destroyed near the Constitution Square and they were living in the hotel. They had bombed the Constitution Square and the Independence Square… Those two women have been left without a home and stay in the hotel. I had given interviews to Canada, Romania by then and I went around asking people if they would like to give interviews, but people did not want to. So, in that sense, I am unique.
“Every person deals with stress in different ways. They were not ready to talk of their trauma. But for me it is natural to talk. So, this woman refused to talk about it. Their experience is their home did not exist anymore. The mother had to be dug out of the rubble when there was an explosion. The daughter was like the Terminator. The cupboard fell on her and she got up and put everything back to order and dug her mother out of the rubble in the bathroom. Her mother stayed in the hospital emergency care for one day as her face was covered with broken glass. Then the next day, their relatives came, helped dig out two suitcases and, mind you, it was February, and they had only two suitcases left. If you live in the centre of Kharkiv, it means your life is good. They lost everything.
“My friend from Lithuania was wondering if I were ready to go. When I told him I would probably have to go to Warsaw, he started searching for ways for me to get to Lithuania from Warsaw. Apparently, there are volunteers who are taking people from the border of Poland to Lithuania but not from Warsaw. So, he told me to go to the border of Poland and find this person and say that I need help.
“We arrived by bus to the border town of Lviv. My friend from Lithuania had a relative there whose wife worked in the school, which was used to house us. This relative’s wife helped me buy some cough medicine, as I was coughing, and a power bank… We spend the night in the village and started our trip. It was a green corridor bus so I thought it would go faster. They would not check the documents so thoroughly. But there was a huge crowd of buses and people. We had to wait at the border for eight hours. It was 1 am when we crossed the border. To get from the border to Lithuania was not easy. No one knew how long one has to wait at the border. Some people had been waiting two days at the border. Eight hours later, I got out and I felt my adventure had ended. But actually, it was just starting.”
A special message from Lesya Bakun:
“If you want to help Ukraine in its hour of need, I urge you to donate to Ukrainian military — because if Ukraine loses, there will no longer be need for humanitarian help. You can support local humanitarian actions — things that are really needed in these specific locations in this specific time. You can donate to the fund “Come back alive/Povernys’ Zhyvym“. Please click here to donate. And you can help Ukrainian families, children, and pets get to safety by donating to the volunteers who bring people like me and all the people I met en route.
“I also urge you to support Ukraine by buying Ukrainian books, inviting Ukrainian artists to poetry, musical, and visual arts events – or offering residencies and shelter to Ukrainians fleeing from war, and learning more about the reach Ukrainian culture and the history of its fight for freedom.
“Together, we will win!” — Lesya Bakun
*Updated on 9th May, 2022, from an email message by sent by Lesya Bakun: “My cousin, the defender of Mariupol, has been captured by Russians.”
(This article is based on an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty from voice messages and written texts on the social media platform of Telegram.)
Lesya Bakun has given a list of some places where donations can be made.
RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27
5169 3600 1722 8341
BANK OF BENEFICIARY
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X
JP MORGAN CHASE BANK
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASUS33
Отримувач (П. І. Б. отримувача рахунку латиницею)
RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27
Рахунок в банку одержувача (номер пластикової карти або поточний рахунок в Приватбанку)
5169 3600 1722 8358
BANK OF BENEFICIARY
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X
Рахунок банку одержувача в банку-кореспонденті
J.P.MORGAN AG, FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASDEFX
Riabko Vasyl 095 555 06 58
For Western Union or PayPal
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely that of the interviewee and not of Borderless Journal.
Candice Louisa Daquin explores war and peace pausing over the attack on Ukraine
War is among the main stays in human history. Is anything more instinctive than to go to war? I’ve never been able to relate to this but perhaps that’s because I have the advantage of living in a society where we’re protected from the literalisms of war. Or perhaps it’s because I’m female, although I don’t think it is as simple as being a male prerogative (though we can never be sure until a history of women making decisions proves this). To the outsider, war always seems futile. But what we must always do in order to fully understand something is to understand the other side. Not our own opinions but those we do not comprehend. As French philosopher Albert Camus said: “We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realise that we know where it lives…inside ourselves.”
Why would anyone ever want to go to war?
Imagine the first reason war was enacted. Was it as simple as Cain and Abel? Or one village attacking another village? One child attacking another child?
War tends to be on a larger scale, but perhaps it begins on a smaller scale.
It is said murderers have ‘symptoms’ of evolving as killers as do rapists and predators. If this is true, then watching children and seeing them skinning a cat as a predictor to future violence, could also be applied to war-mongering behaviour. Or conversely, could we establish what experiences that child has that engenders him/her to favour war?
If children who become violent often witness violence, then it stands to reason children who support wars or encourage wars, may witness something that in their minds is pro-war. What could it be? If you grow up in a war-torn country, surely you are more likely to seek peace and an end to violence, than to crave it? The fifth century famed military strategist Sun Tzu is quoted as saying: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Is war about the appearance of bravery or perceptions of strength? Ironically, Sun Tzu also said: “The wise warrior avoids the battle.” But do we follow this wisdom?
Studies show wars are committed by groups who are cohesive and decide (on invasion) and groups who defend. In essence, there is an aggressor and a protector. Sometimes wars start with two aggressors, but rarely with two protectors (this would cancel the desire for war out). Therefore, the thing everyone has in common who enters a war, is they are either seeking to invade or protect.
If people did not seek to protect, the invader would arrive and receive no resistance, and thus there would be no war. Sadly, it wouldn’t stop the invaders from say, raping and pillaging, so laying down arms and hoping for fairness, may lead to slaughter and oppression.
If people did not seek to invade, there would be no need to go to war.
What are the main reasons historically people have warred? Over land. Religion is a close second. The historic wars were over disputes of land or religion or other reasons related to both of these. The seizure of assets is related to greed/wealth/power, same as seeking to enslave people or promote an agenda (social control – another form of power). Essentially then all invasions can be reduced to one sentence: Seeking power.
One group believes they should have (more) power over another group. They invade. The other group defends or capitulates. This is the essence of war.
If we assume then most wars are enacted over a need to gain power of one sort or another, the next question becomes; Are all humans as likely to war? Or do certain societies promote war more than others? Throughout history there have been wars, many times one group did not want to go to war but were forced to in order to defend themselves. It implies there are those who are (warmongers) and there are those who are not (peacemakers or pacifists) and possibly while the latter may not seek war, they get involved if there is no alternative.
War then is to some extent – a luxury. Odd that if this is so, it’s often during the hardest times in human experience that a war begins. Wouldn’t you think if war is a luxury (by being a choice, as no war is enacted because the invaders have no choice), they’d choose not to go to war during hard times? Yet, the reverse is true.
We’re still in the struggling with the pandemic, but instead of seeking reconciliation and safety, Vladimir Putin has started the invasion into Ukraine. On the face of things this makes no sense because Russia must be hurting economically post the pandemic. To go to war when you are struggling seems madness.
Yet if this is often the case, maybe it’s like when everything is hard, people are less balanced and considerate than when things are easier? People are more charitable when they feel they can be, versus when it’s an emergency. That’s when they start looting and trampling over others. There is an inherent selfishness to humanity where they feel. “If I am alright I might be charitable but if I’m not alright you’re on your own’. It takes a really truly charitable person to stay behind and help others. Most people flee.
If we use this ‘typical’ personality trait and then apply it to a megalomaniac leader, it becomes less surprising they would choose an inopportune moment to strike. Perhaps it’s as inconvenient for everyone else as it is for Putin, therefore they have the element of surprise and inconvenience. They strike when the iron is hot, so to speak. The other impact of war is misdirection. If everyone believes something won’t happen (the invasion of Poland by Germany 1939 in WW2) when it does happen, everyone’s so surprised that they have a delayed reaction (which adds to the invader’s strengthen).
War strategy aside, do some people actually relish war ‘games’ and enjoy the enactment and planning of war? Boys are taught culturally to play with guns, war-gaming, mock-battles etc. If they were not, I suspect they would be no more inclined to go to war than a woman. Then again since we cannot prove or disprove this, we can only guess what is nature and what is nurture. Without doubt, the machinations of the war ‘machine’ promote an ideology of war – not unlike the machinations of a religion to promote an ideology. It’s a form of brain washing. Perhaps, one can agree that “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
When countries encourage a percentage of their population to join the military and have a robust army, they tend to be primarily pro-war – in that – they may not wish to die fighting nor encourage a war, but if one happens, they’re ready and, perhaps, they want it to happen because that’s what they have trained for. If you spend billions on war machines, would you wish them never to be used? Or would you see them as more than deterrents? Would you want to manufacture all this impressive battalion equipment only to see it do nothing? The problem with the creation of tools of war is then someone wants to use them. It is much like the debate raging in America over whether the ownership of guns perpetuates violence. On the one hand some believe if we didn’t have (access to) guns we’d have less violence or gun-deaths. They point to countries with lower rates of gun-ownership to ratify their beliefs. On the other hand, people say it’s not the gun but the person who wields the gun; if they don’t use a gun, they will use something else. They point to the rates of stabbing deaths and other forms of violence endemic in countries with low gun-ownership and to countries with high gun ownership (Switzerland/Canada) who have low gun crime.
There is no easy answer here. Guns have caused countless futile deaths, and gun ownership is a hot topic not likely to be resolved. But if we had less machines of war, would we be less inclined to go to war? Critics point to this as a reason to scale back the US military, whilst others say without such deterrents there would be more attacks on America (or any country without a robust military) because peace is actually wrought by both sides having enough machines of war (and nuclear weapons) that neither side feels they can strike without the other side striking back – and this is what enables us to avoid war. It’s a pretty twisted scenario that makes sense until someone in power decides – I’m not going to play by those rules. In non-interventionist theory, there was a drive to establish international courts to adjudicate disputes between nations and an emphasis on war contributing to moral decline and brutalisation of society in general. Whether true or not, it hasn’t stopped millions signing up for war.
In considering whether being anti-war is realistic, we must analyse the history of war, why humans go to war, what war means to us and what provokes it, as well as whether we can realistically avoid it? It’s one thing to wish for no war, I think a great many of us would share that perspective. But there is an old joke about this: A woman meets a genii and she gets one wish, she wishes for world peace. The world grinds to a halt. Why would the world grind to a halt? Do we depend on war so much? Personally, I don’t think war keeps us ticking over but if we consider our history, much of what we have done revolved around war of some kind (or the prevention of) and thus, we’d have a very different planet earth today if we had world peace. Classics like All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, have become part of a canon of anti-war media, that enduringly influences the pacifist movement. Perhaps without knowing war, we cannot know why war is such a terrible price to pay.
I am utopian in that I would like to see world peace. Imagine a world where people received funding for healthcare and food rather than bullets and violence? But is that like wishing human nature should have been different? Can we ever hope to become enlightened enough to actually stop wars from occurring? In 2022 as with history thus far, humanity as a whole has not been enlightened sufficiently to stop war from occurring. America, as a developed nation, is the only country to have used nuclear bombs on another country in our entire history. A less developed country that has historically been a trigger for war, may have more growing pains and therefore more wars. But let us not believe in ‘developed’ versus ‘developing’ to judge the pacifist intent of one country over another. Historically, we’re all guilty.
“Just war theory has been converted into a form of apologetics for whatever atrocities your favoured state is carrying out,” says Noam Chomsky in his book What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World. It’s not ethnicity, income or development that causes war. It’s human beings. Within us is a penchant for going to war, that cannot easily be explained but clearly has existed since the beginning of (human) time. Until we can come up with alternatives to war, this destructive cycle shows no hope of ending. We can reason ourselves to death, but it only takes one unpredictable leader, the right speech, and we’re at war again. What we know if nothing else is, humans go to war. What we don’t yet know, is how to remove that impulse.
Is it an impulse like sexual attraction or hunger? Something as intrinsic and hard-wired or more of a defense mechanism for men? Again, I think without proof of this, it makes more sense to assume this is a human predilection and not a gender-driven one. Would women go to war as gladly as men? We may not have enough historical precedence to substantiate this issue. It could be argued they were working with a masculine model, but we have no proof either way. Rather than entering the ‘blame game’ what would be a way to avoid war altogether?
Negotiations only go so far. What one country may wish another country to do, doesn’t mean they will. If that country feels that is a deal breaker, then war is on. How can you ever alter that outcome when it’s as common place as two people disagreeing? This will always occur and if those two people are world leaders, then war may be the result. Is it unavoidable even if so many of us wish for peace? What are the ‘necessities’ of peace? German philosopher, Immanuel Kant was one of the earliest exponents of the idea that “perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation.” Democracy isn’t a save-all and has severe down-sides, making ideas in reality, less like their philosophical ideal. Novelist Victor Hugo contended, “Peace is the virtue of civilisation. War is its crime.”
I feel fortunate I did not grow up in war-torn countries, but even in my lifetime, I have heard of so many wars. All wars are a huge waste of money. Even the World Wars, where nearly every country entered in order to fight off the invading fascists. Whether anti-imperialism, an end to totalitarianism or nuclear disarmament, are the answers for enduring peace, they’re complicated and don’t explain the enduring penchant for violence and war within humanity.
One thing I noticed when I immigrated to America was how many people believed being pro military meant being pro war. People would say things like; ‘they are defending our freedom’ and I would ask; ‘how are they defending our freedom if our freedom was never in jeopardy?’ I felt most of the wars in America since WW2 were completely unnecessary. Not a single one of them was really justified (in terms of it being necessary to defend America against a true threat). Most were born out of paranoia and a need for control (anti-communism) or greed and a need for control (Afghanistan and beyond). They were not ‘as advertised’ meaning the average American thought America invaded countries for one reason but it was often a completely different reason.
When 9/11 happened, the entire world was shocked. America did not have a history of being attacked on their soil since the Civil War (and that, by their own populous). The outrage with a staggering death toll of about 3000 was so stunning that a need for vengeance or rectitude was experienced. The result was the longest drawn war in American history which led to billions being spent and weapons getting into the hands of ‘the enemy’ which so often has been the case. How can this be a good thing? Anymore than creating a generation of young men who seek vengeance for what was done to their countries in the name of ‘freedom.’
The polarisation of religion, culture, politics and ethos seems more acute than ever before. There is no universal agreement and those who sue for peace, must realise that just wishing for it, isn’t going to resolve those long-standing fractions. Maybe it’s simply not in our nature to want to all get along, to avoid war and seek peace. Maybe humans are warmongers and we’ve replaced the hunt of big game with fighting each other. Maybe the veneer of our so-called civilisation is very thin and waiting for any excuse to implode. That said, I’m an optimist. As such I believe there are ways to gain peace and avoid war. I don’t think it’s as simple as putting our weapons down, because someone will always cheat. Trust must be earned and even then. But if we seek the same goal, that’s a start. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it is my hope with every generation we come closer to a rejection of war. There are quite simply, too many other needs and just imagine — if we poured our collective funds into helping those in need, we could live in a paradise instead of buying bullets that erase life. Ultimately every single one of us is responsible for what happens going forward, collectively.
Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.”
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely. She has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press is called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.
Rabindranath Tagore’s selected letters to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis had been published in 1938 under the title Pathe-O-Pather Prante. The sixty letters included in this volume had been personally selected by him from among the five hundred plus letters he had written to her. This volume was translated by Somdatta Mandal and included in the book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (Bolpur: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammilani, 2020). Selections from some of these letters had been included in borderless journal in its September 2021 issue. A few more letters have been selected here for the benefit of the readers.
Yesterday I reached the Japanese port named Moji. Tomorrow I will reach Kobe. A bird builds its nest with straw and twigs; it does not take long for it to leave that nest and go away. We build our nests mainly with things of the mind, with work, studies and thoughts and an invisible shelter starts growing around us. Just as the seat of the plane moulds itself according to the pressure and shape of the body, the mind while moving along also creates differently shaped holes, and when it sits in that hole it gets stuck there. Later when it has to leave it does not like that at all. Something like that happened to me on this ship. In this cabin there is a writing desk on one side, and a bed on the other. Apart from this, there is a chest of drawers with a mirror, a cupboard to hang clothes and an attached bathroom. After crossing these, there is another cabin where my boxes, trunks etc. are kept. Within this my mind has arranged its own furniture. Because there is little space, my shelter is very intense and every necessary item is within my reach. After getting down from here, I was in Hsu’s house in Shanghai for two days; I did not like it, it made me very tired. The main reason was that the mind did not get the measurements of the body in a new place; it was being hit on all sides and to add to that there was hospitality, welcome and chaos day in and out.
There is newness of thought and imagination everyday but the external newness tries to prevent them. We have imbibed new substances of life in their entirety and have understood that the newness exists within them. I have known for a long time that we do not have to leave them to look for something new. Like other valuable things one has to mediate to seek the new. This means you have to make it old and then attain it. If you think that you have suddenly found something, then that is not true because within a few days its actual emaciated state is revealed. Nowadays man is engrossed in securing this cheap newness and that is why he wants change at every moment. Science is helping him in this obsession for change, so he does not get the time to sink deep and search for the forever new. This is why a base knowledge from text-books has spread everywhere in the education system. No one has the time to seek the ultimate truth in its real form. This is why obscenities that affect the mind in a strong way are being found in literature. Those who lack the time and have less power find this to be a cheap means of getting quick entertainment. The mind that has grown inert and has had its life strength reduced requires strong stimulation – its roots are starving.
9 Chaitra, 1335( B.S.)
You will be surprised to know that when I was writing this letter I was feeling very sleepy. I was warding it off and progressing with my writing. Even now I have not overcome that drowsiness. But it is morning now, it is eleven o’clock – let me go and take my bath.
I have come to Tokyo last night and have put up in a famous hotel. It is not that less famous hotels are cheap or unsuitable for relaxation, but since it is my misfortune that I am also famous, I have to tolerate an equal amount of oppression. It is easy to hide in a small place, but the places to hide in this world are closed for me. Once upon a time I could not even imagine that it would be essential for me to hide from the public for self-defence. Those were the days when I was alone in the boat on the shoals of the Padma. So I haven’t developed the habit of warding off people and anyone can come and keep on pulling me. This morning when I was tired and was sitting down someone came and convinced me with a lot of words. He made me sit in a car and took me to their house inside the lane. In the end I realized that all this excitement was because they wanted to be photographed with me.
In our house we were first born amidst a simple lifestyle and were encircled by love and care from our own people. Then I was a totally private person and there was a very personal thing called a barrier. Gradually with age the relationship with the outside world started to increase. But however much it increased it had a simple measure and there was a balance between the private and the public self. Ultimately through the hands of fate my fame as an exceptional person began to grow and I became more public than I was private. The barrier which I was entitled to became insufficient now. Like an extremely ripe fruit the hard upper shell of my body has split up into seven pieces, and now any kind of bird with any sort of motive can come and peck at me and there is no one to prevent them. There is no harm if they really benefit from it. If they want to satiate their own greed through me, let them do it; but if you think about it, this creates a serious harm not only for me but also for their own selves. My heart is upset by the little demands, and I waste my strength available for doing sufficient work. Moreover, when I realize that I have become the vehicle of other people’s interests, and that those interests are trivial, then I feel reproached. I keep on wishing to return to my traditional and non-famous small house and take shelter among people who are willing to pay a price just for my existence. But at the same time I often meet people who are unknown to me, but who have accepted me within their heart even from a distance. They do not ask anything from me, do not judge me according to my fame, but accept me out of their own happiness. There is nothing more fortunate than this. This time when I was being tortured by my fellow countrymen with a cheap reception in the city of Kobe, then the wife of the English consul here came to meet me. After speaking to her a lot of my sorrow disappeared. I realized that for some people my work has been deeply successful and they do not want anything more than whatever they have received from me without my knowledge.
Today I have three invitations in Tokyo and it will extend from one o’clock in the afternoon till dinner at night. I will then travel to Yokohama by car. After that tomorrow I will have lunch with the Indians who invited me and then leave for Canada at three o’clock. After that I don’t know.
27 March, 1929.
Throughout my life I had to inwardly keep hold of a pursuit. That pursuit is to remove the veil, to keep myself far away from everything. It is the pursuit of releasing me from myself as a person. Stationing myself at one place, I often try to realize that each day this person is troubled with both sad and happy thoughts of work, which is equivalent to letting myself drift within an uncountable flow into another sphere without any fixed destination. This can be seen clearly when it is identified as an independent object, but if we try to associate and become one with it then that knowledge becomes false. I desperately need this realization and that is why I desire it so much. My mind is situated at the crossroads and all its doors are open, so all kinds of winds reach it and all kinds of guests enter the inner chambers. There is a place within man’s life which is that of pain, and all the feelings are located there. That is why only intimacy can enter it. Part of our domestic existence is to spend life with them both in pleasure and pain. Everything has to be tolerated within its limits. But my God, my jeevandebata, decided to make me a poet and that is why has kept my inner chambers unguarded. I don’t have a back door and there are main entrances on all sides. That is why both invited and uninvited people keep coming and going within my inner chambers. Therefore, the chords of the instrument of pain are always tuned to the highest pitch. If the music stops, then my own work would be left undone. I have to know the world through painful experiences; otherwise, what should I express? Unlike scientists and philosophers I do not have vast knowledge and my expression is that of my heart. Though these feelings are the tools of expression for a writer, it is necessary to leave them behind and move away. This is because if we don’t move to a distance, we are unable to perceive the whole at once and reveal it. Being too much engrossed in the world gives rise to blindness and guards the object that is to be seen. Besides this, the small object becomes large and the large one is lost. The great advantage of the domestic world is that it carries its own weight, but the small objects do become a burden. They are the most meaningless things but they create the greatest pressure. The main reason is that their weight rests upon falsehood. When the mind seems to be overwhelmed by bad dreams, it is also an illusion. If we encircle the world with that little ‘me’, then in that small world the small wears the mask of the great and creates anxiety in the mind. If whatever is really great, meaning that its boundaries cross that little ‘me’, is brought in front of the small, then the smaller one’s false intensity is dismissed and shrinks into littleness. Then one feels like laughing at what causes one to cry. That is why removing the big ‘me’ from my life becomes the greatest thing to pursue; and if that is done, the greatest insult to our existence is lost. The humiliation of existence is to live in a small cage that befits birds and animals. In this cage called ‘myself’ we are tied and beaten up, and that becomes a useless burden. That is why it is essential for Rabindranath to seat Rabindranath Tagore at least at a distance: otherwise, he gets to be humiliated by himself at every step. The sorrow of death brings in stoicism, and I have felt the freedom of stoicism several times, but the real stoicism is brought about by accepting the great truth. There is greatness within me and he is the observer; what is small within me is the consumer. If both of them are combined, then the pleasure of vision is destroyed and the happiness of consummation is spoilt. If you keep pushing your work externally like a pushcart then it moves smoothly, but if you carry that pushcart on your shoulders then you get exhausted. I have taken up a work called Visva-Bharati, and it becomes simpler if I don’t bear the burden and dissociate it from myself. A work is either a success or a failure depending upon the circumstances but if it does not touch ‘myself’ then that work brings in freedom for itself and also for me. Our greatest prayer to the one who is the greatest is asato ma sadgamayo (take me away from whatever is false and lead me towards eternal truth). How will this prayer be successful? If His arrival within me is complete, if I see Him truly within me, then the torture of that ‘me’ can also be pacified.
I don’t know when you will receive this letter. I will be happy if you receive it on your birthday. If you don’t get it there will not be much harm in stretching your birthday by another day. It is not possible always to express all the innermost thoughts but they have to be spoken for the sake of myself. That is why I wrote this letter on the occasion of your birthday; because freedom is the main mantra of every birth, and it is freedom from darkness to light.
6 Kartick, 1336 (B.S.)
I am writing this letter to you from Copenhagen, after having fallen into a whirlwind that does not let me pause even for a while. I am moving along garnering knowledge about strangers, but there is no time to store that knowledge. Moreover, I have a forgetful mind, and there is no lock and key in the storehouse of my memory. As soon as something accumulates, instantly something else comes and replaces it. Some just sink in, some get distorted and become hazy. I do not of course consider this to be a complete loss – if you cannot discard then you cannot earn; if you have to store it then you will have to sit firmly without any movement. For a long time, I have constantly ridden the chariot of my mind from one road to another and did not have the time to lock it up in the garage. Instead of fame, I would have found a lot of things if I had gone and sat firmly at the entrance of the museum. Just think of this simple fact: If I had the intelligence to remember everything then at least I would have passed all my examinations and could have left with pride by saluting the world and by gathering accolades. If I want to speak about something, I cannot quote references and so in intellectual gatherings I try to overcome the deficiencies of my education by covering them up naively with my own talk. Since I cannot think of paraphrases and parallel passages in seminars where poetry is being discussed, I try to retain my prestige by composing poems myself. I can clearly visualize that you are reading this and laughing out loudly both physically and also in your mind. You are saying that it is just empty politeness, a bundle of pride. There is no way out. Due to societal norms one can truly praise others but not oneself. So one has to praise oneself in the mind and instead of reduction it leads to more sin. The fact is that once you come abroad from your homeland your self-glorification becomes enhanced a great deal. Someone who doesn’t even have the fortune of having cold water is suddenly given champagne. Then I feel like calling your professors and telling them, ‘O, you masters! Don’t make the sudden mistake of considering me as your student. Don’t mark the papers that I have written in the same way as you mark your examination scripts, because they are demanded by the professors here.’ You know that by nature I am very polite but my tutors at home have beaten me to make me feel proud. This is why I often feel ashamed in my mind. But let me tell you the truth. I have received a lot of fame and respect, but even then my mind always looks across the Indian Ocean. Khuku has written from Santiniketan, “Yesterday there were heavy showers and this morning the sunshine is like liquid gold.” These words were like the sudden touch of a golden wand. My mind became agitated; it said, all right, this is acceptable. I will go to those teachers again. If they make me stand up on the bench, then at least that ray of sunlight like liquid gold will come in through the open window and fall upon my brow and that will be my prize. In the meantime the letters of Bhanusingha have been published once again and I have received them. The letters are full of the monsoon clouds and autumn sunshine of Santiniketan. Reading the letters in such a far off country makes them even clearer. For a brief while I forgot where I was. What a vast difference! The difference between what is good here and what is good there is like the difference between the music here and there. European music is big and strong and varied. It emanates from the victory of men; its sound resonates from all sides and creates a great impact on the heart. We have to congratulate it. But the raga that comes out from the flute of the shepherd in our country, it calls my lone mind to accompany him on the path which is full of shadows from bamboo groves, where the village belle walks with a pitcher full of water at her waist, the doves call from the branches of the mango trees and from a distance the special song of the boatman can be heard. All these excite the mind and blur the vision with a few unnecessary teardrops. They are extremely ordinary and that is why they can easily find a place in our minds. The letter which I wrote on that day seems to be written for today. But there is no way for me to revoke my reply. That day’s post office is closed. So let me end this letter with a deep sigh. I have several engagements and many other things before me.
8 August, 1930.
There is a word prevalent in Bengali called ‘Samoyik Patra’ that means periodicals. But there is no way by which we can hold back time and send them through letters. I do not know when the news of my painting exhibition in Germany reached you and now I got to know from your letter that all of you did not get the news at all. So probably the time for receiving the news is also over. On the other hand, my trip to Germany will be over today and I will go to Geneva tomorrow. Even before you receive this letter you must have already heard the news that my paintings have been received quite well in Germany. The National Gallery in Berlin has taken five of my paintings. I hope you understand the impact of this news. If Lord Indra suddenly sent his horse Ucchaishraba to take me to heaven, then I could compete with my own pictures. But I don’t know why I am not excited about discussing these things. Maybe there is some hidden hostility in my mind, and so there is almost no relation between my country and my paintings. When I write poems then an emotional link is automatically created with the message of Bengal. But when I paint the lines or the colours, they do not come with the identity of any particular state. So they belong to those who like them. Just because I am a Bengali does not automatically turn it into a Bengali thing. This is why I have eagerly donated these pictures to the West. The people of my country probably have come to know that I am not a special category of a human being and so in their mind they have been antagonized towards me. They do not feel any qualms of conscience about saying bad things about me. Let my paintings prove that I am not a hundred percent Bengali but belong equally to Europe as well.
I visited many places which I had known earlier and also delivered lectures there. But unlike my last trip, this time I have entered the inner spirit of Germany. I have come closer to them. Not that they have sufficient love for nationalism in the world, but by being rejected by other races of Europe, they have become strong nationalists in their hearts. Of course I cannot understand why they have a special liking for me. Whatever it might be, they have extraordinary strength, great intelligence and also the capacity to make all things equal. I feel that no other European race has so much strength in all aspects. I understand why France cannot get over the terror of Germany. These people are extremely irascible. After the nudge of poverty their strength has increased many-fold.
The enthusiasm for world nationalism has been brought forward in Geneva. The right tune has not been played in the League of Nations – it may not be played at all – but on its own that city has become the epicentre of the whole world. Those who believe in the unity of the world will automatically come and get united here. In that case I believe that a great power for the welfare of the world has been inaugurated here.
After planning to leave for quite some time, the day of my departure has ultimately come near. It has been almost one year. I liked it as long as I was in Europe. After reaching America my mind got suppressed and my health was also affected. The external world in America is too bold, aggressive and restless and so after being continuously shaken up, a sort of stoicism creeps in. I am in that condition now, and for quite some time have become eager to get some shelter within my inner self. After many incidents my mind had become outward-oriented, and the truth of the self was growing rusty without use. It was during this period that I came to America and saw how man has tried to develop his society with unnecessary failures. They have decorated rubbish with the glamour of wealth and spend their days and night behind them, thus creating an indecent burden upon the world. Within all this crass materialism, when the mind becomes restless the eternal longings within man express themselves. Just as cows are herded together to be taken back to their shelter in the evening, in a similar way I am calling my scattered self to return to the deep recesses of the mind. Maybe a shadow of the evening has descended on the late afternoon of my life and the strength of my mind, which had disseminated my endeavours in different kinds of work to the outside world, is also coming to an end. The guard at the entrance of the mansion has already rung the bell signalling that the main door will be closed, and so we cannot do without lighting a lamp in the andarmahal – the inner chambers.
I haven’t written anything for a long time and I don’t feel the urge to do so. This means that the power of expression has also reached the end; it doesn’t have any extra portion in its coffers and therefore easily stop all dues from the outside world. I am not feeling bad about it. If the fruit starts growing inside, then there is no loss if the petals of the flower fall down.
I shall begin my journey on the 9th of January in the ship called Narkanda (P&O) and will reach home at the end of the month.
29 December, 1930.
 Hsu-Tse Mu, Professor of Literature at the National University, Peking. In 1924 he had accompanied the poet during his China tour as an interpreter. [Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni, Vol.III, p. 166].
 Khuku was the nickname of Amita Sen, a noted Rabindrasangeet singer; Rabindranath adored her. She joined Sangeet Bhavan as a teacher but died very young.
 Rabindranath wrote a series of letters to a young girl called Ranu Adhikari. He signed the letters as ‘Robi Dada’ or sometimes as ‘Bhanu Dada’ which was the penname of the poet as Bhanusingha.
About the book: Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) included in ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific letter writer and Rani Mahalanobis is the only person to whom he wrote more than five hundred letters, the maximum number written to any individual person. In 1938, in the third volume of the series entitled “Patradhara”, Rabindranath selected sixty letters written at different periods of time to her. This he titled Pathe O Pather Prante and it was published from Visva-Bharati Publications Department in Kolkata.
Incidentally, we find the first ten letters of this series as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shonge Europey ends in 1926. Since it was published much later, Rani has also included some of these letters in her memoir. The rest of the letters selected from those written up to 1938 describe various moods of the Poet for a period of twelve years. They include philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence, and especially his views on his new-found interest in sketching and painting. In other words, unlike those written to Indira Devi and Ranu Adhikari, these letters are interesting because they cover multifarious topics and issues and reveal the Poet’s tone of intimacy with Rani. As per Prashantakumar Pal’s biography,
Rani Mahalanobis used to suffer from a sort of non-infectious tuberculosis, so for her fever was almost a regular affair. Naturally Rabindranath would get worried – he would suggest different medicines – and write innumerable long letters, which according to him would help Rani forget some of her physical ailments. (Rabijibani, vol.IX, p.297. Translation mine)
The sixty letters included in this volume also vary in length. Some are quite short, while others are lengthy. Again some of the letters are dated with the Bengali month and year, whereas others are dated according to the English calendar. A few of the letters do not have any dates at all. Also some of them seem quite sketchy, and do not have the usual beginning, middle or end. The reason for this becomes clear when we get to know that Tagore had drastically edited several sections of these letters, especially places which revealed his innermost self.
About the author:
Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.
About the translator:
Somdatta Mandal is Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships and awards, her areas of interest are American Literature, contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. She has edited three volumes of travel writing —Indian Travel Narratives(2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), and Indian Travel Narratives: New Perspectives (2021) and has translated from Bengali to English different kinds of Indian travelogues, with special focus on men and women in colonial times. Among them are: The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose (2010), Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family (2014), which records vignettes of travel by nineteen members of the Tagore family spanning more than 150 years, A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das, which is the first woman’s travel narrative from Bengal published in 1885(2015), Crossing Many Seas(2018) by Chitrita Devi, Gleanings of the Road (2018) by Rabindranath Tagore, and The Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan and Other Essays (2019) by Hariprabha Takeda. Two other translated volumes on Rabindranath Tagore have been published recently, ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobisand Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).
A life well-lived tends to be interpreted by cultural needs. In China, maybe it is portrayed as the accumulation of wealth and taking care of ones’ family; in Africa it may be about survival, integrity, and hard work; in Italy, possibly about how many friends you have, how often you laugh, if you feed stray animals. No one country shares a defined concept of what a well-lived life looks like, but as we are more homogenized than ever before we’re all cross-influenced by other cultures.
The other day I was watching a travel documentary about The Silk Road. The idea of so many foreign countries we’ve never visited, nor know very much about, can be incredibly humbling. We talk in international terms; we talk as if we alone have the right to proclaim for the rest of the world. Even the most avid traveler hasn’t been steeped in a culture long enough to make those assumptions, nor have they visited every shore, every mountain, every tribe. As that is impossible, no one culture or group should claim to speak for what is a universal truth, there is no such thing. How can meaning being separated from being human, thus subjective?
Growing up I was deeply influenced by my mother. She didn’t live with me, but she wrote me letters from all parts of the globe she visited with amazing letterheads and stamps. Eventually this became more than an expensive hobby, she opened a travel company that published newsletters and books on high end travel. In my teen years, I might not have appreciated what she did from afar because I felt ‘high end’ was exclusionary, and it is. But despite this, I have grown to respect what my mom did, because it wasn’t for a living, it was for passion, and in this, I felt she has always lived her life to the full.
True, who wouldn’t like traveling for a living? In high end hotels? Isn’t she just another example of privilege? But she wasn’t. She created this from scratch, having left a highly successful career in media that she attained on her own merit. I think if it were not for my mom, I would not understand how far people can go if they are determined and hard working. It’s definitely why I work hard. However, my own journey has been vastly different. I found it challenging enough at times, to get through life, let alone to thrive. I recall my mom saying love what you do, feel passion in what you do! I felt I was missing a magical ingredient.
Eventually, health issues seemed to close that door to a passion-driven dimension, and I began to be more pragmatic. My thoughts were more along the lines of: how can I support myself and ensure I will have enough to survive? What can I do to overcome or compensate for my shortcomings in health? I lost the advantage of just being able to dream, because I had to survive, and sometimes for many of us, we simply don’t have the luxury to dream. That led me to understand, a life worth living is necessarily subjective. Unequal life chances versus individual effort play a bigger role in the outcome.
Even so, the question of what a well lived life looks like, is one worthy of examination. In the world there are women who are essentially still indentured to their husbands. There are castes and groups who will never be able to rise above other castes and groups because of their birth. There are those so poor they couldn’t attend school if they wanted to. I think of how the girls of Afghanistan will fare with the UK and US leaving and the Taliban gaining their former foothold. Will girls be safe? It doesn’t seem likely nor permitted their former right to education. I envision a similar outcome to what happened to women in Iran. And then there are the fabulously wealthy and the comfortable middle class. We simply don’t all have the same access to a well-lived life to begin with!
Within all these groups lie many variables, not least, our physical and mental state, our chosen career(s), where we live and how expensive it is to survive there. Then there’s just the fickleness of luck, who gets to live, who does not. To boldly state a life worth living is any one of these options, belies the truth of our differences. A child born with HIV may have a different life than one born healthy; a child born blind might have different outcomes than a child born with athletic prowess. Even then, one advantage may be nothing, we may need more advantages. To proclaim as self-help books and life coaches do, that there is one way, seems redundant and missing out on the diversity of our experiences. You can do everything right and still not succeed.
We get older and we think back and wonder, did I make the right choices, was this the direction I intended? Am I satisfied or disappointed? When we’re very young, these considerations are rarely as important, as such we simply experience. Maybe in youthful hedonism, we miss the very moment we should be thinking of the future. Some cultures do a better job of forcing their young to consider the future, such as Germany, who asks the very young to pick a career before they are even in their teens, to help mold an often vocational direction rather than leaving them to decide many years later when it could be too late?
For example, if you had a child, would you wish for the child to take philosophy or neuroscience in university? Which would be more likely to land them a secure job? This surely is part of our role as parents, to ensure our children will be financially safe when growing up. At the same time, we know the potential value of philosophy, but how translatable is that value in today’s world?
I grew up very aspirant-minded because my mom was very successful. Even as I didn’t live with her, I saw her as a role model and believed naively I could follow in her footsteps. There were many reasons I did not. The locations and cultures had changed. The times had changed as in her day it was easier to walk into jobs. By the time I was looking for work, there were thousands clamouring for fewer positions. Often people cannot understand this change because they only have their experience to refer to, but things change a lot, including what was possible and what is no longer possible.
One might argue, then you just must be better, to do better. This is true in India, China (a Confucian principle) and many other Asian countries, where an excellent and high achieving work ethic coupled with a huge population, causes young people to be under more pressure than ever to attain those coveted positions. This causes one of the following two things as en masse more people do excellently, the bar gets pushed higher, and people from such countries can often cherry pick jobs in other countries because they excel; or a greater division between those who succeed (the minority) and those who traditionally speaking do not (the majority). It’s about sorting out the reality from the stereotype.
America, a country long thought to possess no caste or class system, perpetuates other countries’ histories by having a quiet class system that is denied by the mainstream but very alive. For many families with money, sending their kids to schools that will guarantee the best universities and thus, the best networking and jobs, there is an obvious bias. We talk of ‘The American Dream’, but for the majority, the advantages they are born into, play an equal if not larger role in determining their outcome.
This is partly why discussions about reparation exist, because if families that were traditionally exploited are now generationally paying the price by not having generational wealth and influence to hand down to their children, they come from a position of inequality and inequity even as the American dream continues to be touted. And if those families are mostly families of colour, even more so, as you must consider the racial injustice of the past, which has been carried into the future by this ongoing inequity. The same is true in other countries, the idea we’re born equal and thus, we all have the same chance at a dream is naïve at best.
But how much does this play into a life well-lived? Is it essential to be conventionally successful to achieve such a goal? I would argue it is not. Whilst there are basic essentials coined by Psychologist Abraham Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) that must be met to even be in the running. In other words, if you cannot afford the basics such as healthcare, economic security, education etc, you’re still stuck on trying to survive. In that sense, it’s a luxury for most to even consider a life well lived, because they are too busy surviving.
Let’s assume however, some of us reach that position of being economically sound enough to consider beyond the mechanisms of survival. Then let us ask ourselves what is a life well lived? Should it be like that of my mother? Being somewhat hedonistic but, true to myself, by doing exactly what she wanted and traveling the world where she could expand. When she passes, will she have felt her life was well lived? I’m guessing she will.
That’s because of a process called reconciliation. One must reconcile one’s regrets or things we were judged for, and if we are able to do this (many of us fail), then we find inner peace. With peace comes a sense of no matter what, we did the best we could, we gave it all we could, we’re glad for the life we lived. In a sense, this summation of a life well lived, is rooted in our self-perception and then that perception projected into a larger context. It takes a lot to consider more than our immediate circle. Perhaps if we could, we would be less fractured as a planet. Less liable to turn the other cheek when atrocities occur, or put our head in the sand and not think of future generations.
By coming together, universally, thinking in terms of all of us, not just as an individual, as touted so long by the West, we consider wholeness. Can we be whole if others are not? Should we be? And at the same time, not going so far as to lose a sense of ourselves or be merged into a homogenised, possibly too socialised loss of self? In other words, balance.
As you age you realise what mattered then doesn’t matter as much now. Or maybe, you come to realise that what you have always cared about, still matters. For myself, I am very different from my 15-year-old self, where I lived relatively hedonistically, caring about animals and injustice, but not doing enough about it. I see that at 15 , I thought mostly of having fun and generally being a little unrealistic about life. Some 15-year-olds aren’t that way. Why do some children grow up responsible and mature before their time, whilst others can be 30 and still fail to launch?
We can blame parenting, modern society, all sorts of things, but it’s probably more complicated than that. In Japan, many young people are literally shut-ins, (known as hikikomori) living on the cud of their parents income, rarely leaving their room, immersed in an unrealistic life, mostly online. Why do so few Japanese marry or have relationships comparatively speaking? Did the parents mess up? Or is this a symptom of a bigger sense of futility and despair felt by the young because some do think of the future?
I recall as a child I was unrealistic in my expectations, I truly thought I could do anything, be anything and this just wasn’t an honest evaluation of my situation. For some children, they knew they would be dentists at fifteen. For others, they did drugs and lived lost lives, before reinventing themselves. That’s the luxury of youth. But it’s not a permanent state. When you are older you realise, there isn’t as much time to ‘do anything / be anything’ and maybe that’s why I find some self-help/life coaches a little jarring. How long can we ‘do anything’ for realistically? Especially now, where different types of jobs are less than ever before, we’re being asked to homogenise into ever decreasing employment options. Many graduate law schools, formerly considered the pinnacles for employment, find no openings in an already saturated market, but should we doom a child’s dream if that’s what they want to do? The labour market doesn’t have a skills gap, it has an opportunity gap.
Many young people want to be famous, emulate some truly scary people, be unrealistically rich and have celebrity status. Less people want to heal, they want to make big bucks. Maybe they have it right. After all, when we do altruistic things but remain poor, how good does that feel when we can’t afford a car? With price hikes, standard of living seems to be improving because people have technology, but actually, we’re more in debt, without savings and living on a razor’s edge. Which might work at 25, but at 45 with children ready for college?
Again, I hark back to ‘balance’ and the need to live within one’s means, to have dreams that are capable of being pursued, and to help our kids dream up realistic jobs. The younger generations do not have the inherited wealth of the older, and immigrants often come with nothing to a country, depending upon the charity of that country, which is shrinking as our social services are overwhelmed and underfunded, even as immigration is on the rise.
Is the answer to print money? As has been discussed among Democrats? Or tax the rich and risk them leaving? Or is that a myth? With Covid 19 recently closing everything down, many formerly low wage workers were given monetary Covid compensations due to extended unemployment, which ended up being more than they were making as a badly paid waitress or shop worker. With some of those jobs vanishing forever, those that do return, see no employees willing to work for those wages again, and rightly so. But can we sustain a country if we pay what economists would consider a living wage? When $15 is already too little for someone to live on once tax and benefits are removed.
Increasingly we’re seeing a rise in people who fall through the cracks, they are the invisible workers whom we don’t know about, the underemployed, the fragile self-employed. That micro economy might not even show up on official statistics but look around, it exists. How likely can those people consider retiring in 30 years’ time? Can we blame those generations who are trapped by a system that doesn’t make it very likely to find an American Dream and what of the rest of the world, where survival comes long before the luxury of dreaming?
Where in this do we find concepts of lives well-lived? I think no such thing exists fundamentally but individually as we age, we should consider are we congruent to our concept of what a life well-lived means to us? Can we do anything to get closer to it? If so, what?
Recently I thought about this a lot and realised struggling with my health was my tipping point. For some that’s not their tipping point. A friend of mine said hers was losing her home. For me it was being told I was developing premature Macular Degeneration and with no treatment for Dry MD would lose my sight whilst still young. Facing those kinds of things forces us to consider what matters, what does not, and really think about how we value existence.
When I talk to people today, I recognise the value of clarity of purpose. When we know how best to direct our lives, we can spend more time on being the kind of person we want to be, rather than picking up the pieces from a series of failed impulses. If we remember how lucky we are to even have choices, when so many do not, even reading this on a computer puts us in a position of privilege, so rather than lamenting about what you do not have, consider what you need to live a life worth living and then do your best. Even half-way there might be enough to one day say, I have lived a life well-lived.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
We’ve all heard the adage, those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. Maybe like any good saying, it’s been over-used and we’ve forgotten to consider its core truism. But think about it. If we don’t remember, we tend to repeat former mistakes, because human-beings are very alike in their actions and reactions, and we have a horrible habit of thinking we’re so unique when we’re anything but that. The ego of is young. Occasionally, ignorance shields us from historical realities. When we get older, we sometimes stop caring and leave it to those younger to us. But both approaches have deep flaws. They abdicate the responsibility of living in this world.
What reason could any of us have for truly abdicating responsibility to our grandchildren, and those who will invariably come after we are gone? Is being young an excuse? Is being old? Or are we intrinsically fond of passing the buck, as American’s say, and not believing we’ll make enough of an impact in this world to even bother? I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s apathy and a childish belief someone else will do it for us. Just look at people who drop litter in the ocean, they don’t care that it will cause havoc on sea-life, they are not thinking of the future repercussion, they are thinking only of now. They don’t see how that one act has this deleterious knock-on effect that reverberates throughout our planet.
If you’re rolling your eyes and are about to give up reading, consider this: What is your value? What do you stand for? If you died tomorrow what would have been your legacy? Don’t think wealth or children, but your place in the chain stretching from the beginning of humanity to now. What have you done to help that chain? If you don’t think that is relevant, consider why this isn’t important to you and why being self-interested is justifiable to you when so many suffer, and the world is damaged by those like yourself who don’t care.
Maybe that sounds judgmental because of course, it is. Too often we can look back in time and see these pioneers and campaigners who try to make a change and be swallowed by disinterest on the part of the masses. Literally speaking then, the masses are the problem, because whilst a few good apples stand out and speak to things we need to do, the majority are thinking of just their survival and their immediate gratification. The concept of immediate gratification has taken deep roots in the current times.
Psychologists and thinkers have many ways to explain why the majority do nothing and seem apparently not to feel they have any obligation to improve the world we live in. Some say, it’s about human development; few attain that stage of self-realization where they feel a need to contribute beyond themselves. Others point to the hardship of life, and how when you struggle, you often do not have enough left over to help others. Of course, we all know notable examples of those who despite a hard life, gave in abundance to others.
If we remove religion and its dictate that people should help each other as part of being a good (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist) would we have a lawless approach to giving and caring, that made social concerns null void? I would say it has less to do with dogma and religion and more to do with personal ethics. There are plenty of atheists who do a great deal for others and this planet, without any desire for recompense or a place in heaven. Therefore, it seems to be a deeply personal choice or evolutionary step.
If so, why do some evolve more than others? What do we need to do to achieve that selflessness and why do not many not want to achieve it? Those questions many never be answered, but they are part of a larger picture, that of our place in this world, and what we do to ensure there is a decent world for our progeny. I’ve been told this is a utopian way of thinking and human nature is baser, seeking only to procreate and thrive, sometimes at the expense of others. I am an idealist in that I believe there is intrinsic good in many (not all) people and that’s what gives being alive its deepest worth. Without helping make the world a better place in some way, we are just oxygen users, having too many children, using too many resources and trying to kid ourselves this won’t affect the future.
Growing up I was familiar with the peace sign so popular in the sixties, and we touted many of those symbols without really considering their history or how ‘working toward peace’ had actually played out through history. Maybe like many words, ‘peace’ is over-used and we don’t consider what it means in relation to today’s world. It’s as relevant as ever. If we think we’re not needed to increase peace, we’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Peace is one of the only consistent needs we have, aside food and water. It is the erosion of peace that causes the majority of our concerns, and the dismissal of peace that leads to some of our greatest strife.
So many continue to live in a part of the planet where peace doesn’t ever reign. Let’s stop and really think about that for a moment. Those of us who don’t live in those parts often try not to think about it, because it makes us feel guilty. What can we really do? Yet if we watch the news, almost nightly politicians debate about how best to deal with this issue. Or that’s what we’re led to believe.
What if we’ve been lied to? What if major world governments and thus, the puppet political system, do not wish for peace but thrive on discord because it permits them to do what they really want, which usually has to do with power, domination/control and profit. Think of all the wars since the second World War America has been involved in. Not one of them has brought peace, not one of them has ensured or guaranteed peace. The money spent is unfathomable and would have been enough to resolve many countries crisis’s forever. The profit is hidden and often in the sole possess of those who really pull the strings and many lives are lost. For what? Peace?
The idea of going to war to promote or guarantee peace is not a new concept. Traditionally however wars were fought for one reason only, one side wanted to conquer the other side to gain something (profit, land, slaves, control) and war was typically a male endeavor and one that seemed to exist in every society where human beings existed. You could say, war was uniquely human. Similar fighting has been witnessed in other primates, and animals, and they often share the occupation or protection of territory as their prime objective, so perhaps it’s an instinctual thing within our animal psyches to go to war. However, wars in the modern sense of the word have not been as basic, and their motivations have increased with the complexity of our societies, to make what we understand by war, a thoroughly human concept.
A complex society, invariably thinks of many more strategies related to war than a simple brawl in the old days, with sharpened rocks. The more complex, the more devastating and wide-reaching and drawn-out wars, think of Rome and their stampede across the world, or Alexander the Great’s conquests. Wars have been the cause of so many negatives, not the least; sexual assault, slavery, subjugation of people’s, famine, destruction of land and property and livelihood, physical and mental suffering and the collection of extreme wealth by the minority. Does that begin to sound modern to you? It does to me.
Today’s wars are all about the optics, the phantom, the illusion. Countries go to war to act out their own strength to ensure other countries don’t forget how mighty they are. The people who get caught in these, die or suffer terribly, the displaced cause huge economic fallouts and a minority get rich. It sounds a lot like a pyramid scheme to me. I began to think of the military machine as a pyramid scheme when I began studying the wars America has been in since WW2. One could argue without America half of Europe would be speaking German now. I personally don’t believe this is true, but it’s a common myth that thanks to America, Europe wasn’t destroyed. It might be worthwhile considering how WW2 began, what part America had in it, and the specific strategies employed, because it’s never as simple as it seems, not least this repeated thirst for groups to condemn and persecute other groups. Everyone involved has an agenda, few are as civic minded as they appear, and so a war is, as I said, more complicated.
What we do know is this: The World Wars (which sadly are being phased out of being taught at schools throughout the world, begging the question, if future generations don’t know what happened and why, how can we avoid a repeat?) was a consortium of countries, spearheaded by Germany, seeking to over-run vast parts of the world, and to promote a new ideology. I can resolutely say this needed stopping and at any cost because within that, were persecutions towards groups that led to mass slaughter. This is true in most wars but the difference is, this was on a larger scale (comparatively speaking with the then-populations) and anything less than involvement would have brought disaster.
What’s different about the wars since?
World Wars one and two were world wars, they involved nearly everyone, aside from Switzerland who decided in their neutrality they could make a tidy profit, and Spain, who were having their own civil war, and made a deal to be left out of it. When everyone is involved in a war that involves everyone, we can argue, this is a war that cannot be avoided, defused or worsened by involvement.
Can the same be said of Vietnam? Were the involvements of France and then America beneficial? Could the war have been avoided? Was it necessary?
The same can be said for many other so-called necessary wars, from the smaller (Falkland’s and the UK) to larger Korean or Afghanistan. In every situation, the involvement of other countries that were not directly affected, only worsened the war and suffering, the involvement was not simply to ‘help’ others, that was never the intention, the involvement had many motivations, and only one was a true sense of ‘aid’ with a view to peace. So why is it, when we see the soldiers leaving out, or the declaration of war, we also hear the word ‘peace’ bandied around? Why do people truly believe ‘going to war’ will ensue peace when history tells us, this is rarely the case?
Too often I have heard that people have to go to war for peace, or that peace-keepers will be sent in. I find it hard to find any war that has led to peace and even then, everyone involved would agree, if it could have been avoided, that would have been a better strategy altogether. In truth, WW1 and 2 could have been avoided, if you consider what really caused them. The feelings of helplessness and loss of face, led the German population for example, to vote for candidates who promised them a better future. Nobody knew how bad this would become, but the feelings of resentment and despair were the fuel for why extremism won the vote. In that sense, it’s very much a domino effect.
If then, most modern war begins with issues that can be resolved if identified, isn’t true peace keeping, to deal with those issues, before a war begins, rather than after that? Of course, those people are called diplomats and to be fair to them, many have thwarted worse outcomes through diplomacy, but just as diplomats can be successful, they are also used as pawns in a bigger system, that of the war machine. Certain countries wish to go to war almost at any cost. Consider the war between Pakistan and India and how culpable the English were for their interference with both countries as ‘peace keeper’ when in reality it was all about subjugation, control and imperialism. If we think this is an old-fashioned term, consider the patronizing tone of Western societies when ‘peace keeping’ in other countries, taking the paternalistic approach instead of considering what got them there in the first place. Years of exploitation aren’t easy to undo.
While this is never acknowledged and is hidden behind rhetoric about trying to protect others and ensure peace, we should bear in mind the true motivation. This doesn’t make us conspiracy theorists or negative thinkers, so much as realists who see history and its repetition of such wars and quiet conquests. The homogenization of the media has seemed on the surface, a good thing, but if the ‘facts’ are controlled then it’s more of an illusion of information, although preferable to the situation in those countries where international news is altogether restricted. When I moved to America, I was surprised at how little international news was on nightly TV and of that, how they only glossed over the most salient points. But it seems the rest of the world has followed suit, with the once immutable BBC now expressing opinion rather than fact, it seems they’re all spurred on by the rush to entertain rather than inform.
The outcome of exploitation is today greater than ever. It is the reason why so many refugees seek refuge in countries overburdened with too many asylums for their fragile infrastructures. A no win situation, begun after WW2 where Jews were not permitted asylum and the Geneva Convention acted to prevent this ever occurring again, to displaced peoples, yet countries who do not possess the jobs or social infrastructure like Spain, could not realistically take in the numbers arriving. War is not always the sole determinant for asylum seeking, but it remains the main reasons. Small wars unreported on daily newscasts, prevail in areas ravaged by gangs and corrupt governments. The West might consider themselves far advanced from this desperation but if we consider how many times the West has been implicated (or should have been) in foreign affairs that led to wars, it’s definitely a fully fledged partner in the root cause.
Take the South and Central American refugees streaming into Mexico as I write, seeking asylum in America as a prime example. Thanks in part to years of American meddling in local politics. We can wash our hands of it and say: This is their war! But we should be mindful of what led to the war. It’s never as simple as it seems. Years of erosion, weaponization and drug sales that would not exist if wealthy countries were not buyers, there are so many factors to consider, many of which originate outside of the actual country in question. When civil or border wars begin, they are rarely unprovoked and locally generated, but the result of years of exploitation and meddling from foreign interests.
Maybe we don’t want to admit that. And many times, that’s what politicians do, they simply refuse to see what history proves is true. By stating categorically, ‘this is not our fault or problem’ they tap into those people who desperately want to hear that, rather than take responsibility for something they feel they had no part in. Sometimes they genuinely didn’t have a part in it, but oftentimes we are a part of the problem, even if we aren’t willing to admit it. Every time we buy deeply discounted goods from other countries, we condone through our purchase, the maquiladoras where underaged women work for pittance, displaced from their home towns because NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) created a bigger market and eroded the traditional farmers. They now make our Levi’s jeans which we want at a good price, and therein is our part in the exploitation cycle.
True, we don’t have to admit this. We can turn away from the oceans filled with debris cast off from giant containers routinely sunk poisoning the sea and sea life, even as those containers give us the affordable middle-class existence, we feel we are owed. We can turn away from child labour, gunrunning, drug-crimes, all related to things we set in motion from influential countries. We can say if we specifically didn’t sell Mexico a US gun, we’re not responsible for kids being shot; if we didn’t smoke a joint at college, we can’t be responsible for the drug-trade and its fall out; but the situation is far more insidious. No one trade is in isolation, they are all linked. So, when you smoke a joint from weed coming out of Mexico, you’re not just supporting the drug-trade, you’re supporting the heroin trade, the smack trade, the child-prostitute trade etc.
None of us want to own that kind of legacy, so it’s easier to just say: I have nothing to do with it. I find myself thinking that when I want to buy a cheap dress from a chain store that makes things in China, I should be thinking of the worker who made it and how little they were paid. I feel it when I go for a cheap taco for lunch or expect a Mexican local lawn cutter to charge less for their services, there are so-called levels of ‘innocent’ subjugation we permit because they’re enshrined into our system and only the most moral will ever have the strength to protest them. With regard to peace, we also turn a blind eye, instead of holding people responsible, perhaps because we don’t know how to, we condone non-peaceful interventions throughout the world, in the ‘name’ of peace all the time.
With 9/11 the outrage in the US was at an all-time high. It was the perfect timing for launching a war that in any other setting would have been pronounced doomed, foolish and already tried and failed many times. Yet based on emotion and rhetoric that’s exactly what America did and few protested, because fear, fearmongering and inaccurate emotive rhetoric rules the day. Now with social media, this tendency has run amok and very little fact exists so much as knee-jerk reactions, immediate- gratification and social outrage which is more false outrage than accurate. We feel good if we speak out about injustice as we perceive it, cherry picked by social media as the dish du jour and we don’t ever question how much social media manipulates us.
I find those who are not on social media have the vantage point of not being susceptible to this invariable bias. When we go back and check our ‘facts’ as we perceive them, we run into mine fields of websites littered with inaccuracies and who has the time to truly fact check? Today, the media en mass is less accurate, more reactive, more immediacy-based, and we’re junkies of the like button and click bait more than ever before. In fact, I just finished watching a documentary about how social media is specifically set up to emulate the impulses you have when gambling, with one example being that tempting ‘ding’ we receive when getting a message and how hard it is not to check. This is all psychological programming, and it’s deliberate, but who ever considers that and its far-reaching consequence on truth?
As long as we have our new iPhone (criminally expensive), we’re all good. The modern world keeps us too tired and busy to really muster lasting outrage about anything. In fact, we’re gaslighted if we do. Unless of course it’s the sanctioned ‘approved outrage’ that’s flavour of the week. We’re controlled in our responses more than ever before but believe we are freer than we’ve ever been. What a fallacy and what a stellar job those who control us have done. And before you say, “I’m not controlled!” Think about it – really think about it.
So how can we live in a peaceful world if our very notion of peace is perverted by the long-standing agendas of those who really set the schedule? How do we as individuals have any power for change? If we send our cousin off to war with misgivings and we’re told we’re not patriotic if we question his/her service, how can we ever expose the lies behind the notion of ‘peace keeping’ and what modern-notions of peace really mean? Just like Missionaries who originally might have had good intentions but essentially forced their way into cultures and demanded they adhere to a foreign God, we’re going into countries that have problems, possibly historically caused by the West, and thinking we know best. But there is absolutely no proof we do.
In fact, there is ample proof we don’t and we don’t learn. Of course, there are worse offenders. Iran’s shameful human-rights legacy, their determination to build a nuclear weapon are terrifying. But on the flip side, whilst I will never condone their punishment tactics or human-rights violations, I can see why they would wish to have access to a nuclear weapon if others have. What makes one country have the right to be weaponized and not another? Personally, I wouldn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons but I also think it’s wrong of countries like America, the only country to have used (and some would argue, abused) a nuclear weapon, to dictate which countries can have access. It’s also wrong when you consider it is the very countries with weapons and power who often have sold those weapons to the countries, they then sanction for trying to build said weapons.
Ultimately as a peace striving person, I would wish NO country had nuclear weapons but how realistic is that nowadays? I think it’s like the Smallpox scenario. We can all agree to get rid of our Smallpox because we have eradicated Smallpox but what if one country keeps theirs and then has the upper hand over the rest? Can we ever trust other countries? Ideals aside, history tells us human nature is such, we rarely can trust even those closer, even our own governments. So perhaps skepticism and mistrust aren’t so much a peace-breaker as a natural response?
I’ve never felt there could be an ideal of total peace. I don’t think it’s within our purview as humans to achieve that. I hope I’m wrong and I hope the day comes that’s proven. Meanwhile, with America and Russia acting like stupid cold-war frien-amies again, I pause before I trust any country totally, not least my own. As such, we invariably have weapons of mass destruction to act as ‘deterrents’ as a stale-mate to prevent out-and-out war. Whether this will be our undoing, remains to be seen. It only takes one nuclear accident to prove anything nuclear wasn’t such a hot idea. Surely, we’ve learnt this? I would argue the younger generations haven’t because it’s not being taught and it takes me back to the idea of those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. If you believe your generation is ‘better’ and won’t make that mistake, consider how many generations had the same (wrong-headed) concept and the consequences thereafter.
Is there really an answer? I don’t have it But I think if we all stop hiding from reality and try to figure things out, we have a greater chance. Certainly, having a pie-in-the-sky approach doesn’t work anymore than being too reactionary does. At the moment, America is stymied by its polarization of thought and its reluctance to think. Until those change, we’re just a bunch of fussy children wishing bad things didn’t happen. I believe we can be more than that. Even if we don’t attain total peace, we can get closer.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
(First appeared in the volume Cât de departe a mers/ How Far Have I Gone, 2008)
Vasile Baghiu (b. 1965) is a Romanian writer, author of eight books of poetry, a collection of short stories and three novels published in his country. He has been awarded a few writers-in-residence grants, in Germany, Austria, Scotland and Switzerland. Some of his works have appeared in translation in magazines and anthologies such as Penmen Review, Magma Poetry, Southern Ocean Review, The Orange Room Review, Stellar Showcase Journal, L.A. Melange, Poetry Can, Banipal, Cordite Poetry Review, The Aalitra Review, Bordertown. Co-author of the poetry collection Transatlantic Crossings: The Constant Language of Poetry, (TJMF Publishing, USA, 2006). Vasile had in the past diverse work experiences as a nurse, including a sanatorium. A psychologist and a teacher now, married, he has a daughter and a son. He currently is working simultaneously on a new novel, a new collection of poems and a non-fiction book.