“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour. If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country(1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume(1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.
Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.
The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.
We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.
In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”
As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.
Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.
We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Ode to a Grecian Urn, John Keats, 1819
It was a challenge to interview a poet who does not want to talk of his work or of himself. And yet, here was a person whose poetry moved me and from who, I was sure, we had much to learn. I am talking of an acclaimed poet from America, Jared Carter. He permitted me to introduce him with this: “Jared Carter is an American poet who has published seven books of poetry. His volume of new and selected poems, Darkened Rooms of Summer, was issued in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.” If you are more curious about him, his achievements, education and awards, visit his Wiki Page.
Carter’s poetry is remarkable in giving us glimpses of American life and thoughts, especially as he talks of the wind, the snow and cicadas, as he wrenches poignancy in the hearts of readers bringing out the cruelty in the slaughter of cattle. He draws from the life of common people and their work. At times, he could write of changing a lightbulb and yet create a sense of wonder with his crafting. Despite his obvious Western outlook, he has written of the elusive Yeti – a most beautiful composition. He does tell us in the interview how he wrote it. One would also wonder why he selected to represent ephemerality with such a mythical creature from the East when most of his poems reflect life in America. The poem strangely captures the quality of elusiveness perfectly with extensive crafting.
For him, poetry is more than the first part of the Wordsworthian concept , “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. It is about working on the concept further “in tranquillity” and making it exquisite, like an artifact. We started this interview by reflecting on artifacts that impacted him. Despite his reluctance to speak of himself, Carter does tell us much about his Victorian upbringing and the impact it has had in making him who he is and writing as beautifully as he does. And perhaps, we can also get a glimpse of why he wrote of the “Yeti”. Let us now step into the world of Jared Carter.
You are fascinated by certain artifacts from India and China. Tell us the story around those. Why do they move you?
I mentioned those two heirlooms — a chess set made of ivory, from China, and a carved wooden box, from India — because they provided my first introduction to those two great cultures, when I was a boy growing up in a small town in Indiana, a state near the center of the United States.
My father had purchased the chess set in September of 1945, in a pawnshop in Chicago, when he was on the last leg of his journey home from serving three years in the war in the Pacific. It was a set of delicate white and red figures, in elaborate costumes, the white side in Victorian dress, the red side in traditional Chinese robes, and on both sides, horses rearing and elephants carrying castles.
If my memory is correct, the attire of the pieces was the very embodiment of colonialism. I was told much later that the set was among several that had been made for the export trade in the nineteenth century.
As a child, of course, I had heard the word “China” and the country was mentioned in school, which I was just beginning at the age of six. But in those days, I had no strong impression of China, nor even much interest in it. In contrast, my father’s ivory chess set was a tangible object that I could look at and admire, and sometimes even be allowed to touch. It had traveled many thousands of miles, from the other side of the world, to be in our home, and was held in great esteem by my father and my older brother, who were both avid chess players.
Once a year, on my father’s birthday, as I recall, they would take down the set from the glass case they had built to display it and play a game of chess with those fantastic pieces. This was always a solemn occasion in our household, and a memorable one. In my young mind, it was an almost ceremonial way of being in touch with a mysterious land that lay far across the seas.
If today, almost eighty years later, I try to think back to my first awareness of China — what it was, where it is, what it might be like — I return to my memory of that chess set. I return to the sight of those delicately carved pieces, in their remarkable formality and fragility, arranged in rows on a chequered board. That image is suspended now, and outside of time, and yet in my mind’s eye, the figures are still waiting to be moved, in ways that will begin once more that most ancient and traditional of games. In this way I was first introduced to the very idea of China’s existence.
By our best estimates, chess was originally invented in India, although I did not know this at the time. In a way, as I look back now, perhaps my memory of the ivory chess set puts me in touch, even now, with something great and lasting about the contributions of both of those cultures.
The elaborately carved box from India had a similar effect on my young imagination. It was a box in which my father’s mother kept her few items of simple jewelry. Sometimes she would let me and my two cousins take it down from her dresser and examine it more closely. There were already a few books in my grandfather’s library about India. We were familiar with the name of that country, and we knew it was quite distant. But the box was an actual object that had come all the way from India, we were told, and that made it special.
The box had been given to my grandmother by her only brother, who was an artist, and who had purchased it sometime in the 1930s, along with a great many other art objects and artifacts with which I would become familiar as I grew older. But this box — again, something made in the nineteenth century — spurred my first awareness of India. I could peer into its carvings of elephants and monkeys and exotic plants and imagine that I was seeing into the heart of that mysterious, far-off place.
India and China of course constitute much, much more than what was suggested by those two objects. But we are speaking of first impressions here, which are precious to a child, and which, in my case, have proved to be lasting.
You had an interesting story about your aunt being in India. Can you tell us about that?
The artist mentioned, my grandmother’s only brother, took as his second wife, in the 1930s, after the death of his first wife, a teacher of English literature, who taught for the Baltimore school system. She had been brought up in India and was evidently the child of missionary parents.
She may actually have been born in India, and most likely left it in about 1923, to attend an American university. She lived until 1959, and I was taken to visit her on several occasions, and when I was old enough to drive, I would ferry my grandmother down to visit her, in a summer studio located in southern Indiana. She spoke with a British accent — perhaps the first I had ever heard — and preferred tea rather than coffee. After the artist’s death, in 1946, she would speak knowingly of his own works of art, and of the various items and artifacts he had collected during his lifetime.
Those things were from many cultures, many eras — a handsome 15th-century refectory table from Italy, a pair of large, nineteenth-century ceramic jars from China, an unglazed wine vessel that may have been Etruscan, a variety of pieces in English pewter, and so on. The spacious, high-ceilinged, two-story building had been a lodge hall before it was converted into the artist’s studio by my father and grandfather. It was utterly chock-a-block with beautiful objects and gorgeous paintings.
On a number of occasions I was allowed to wander through those rooms on my own, and to consider those different objects. There was no teacher, no guidebook, except for the widow’s occasional comment about where this or that artifact had come from, or when he had acquired it. I simply looked at what was there. This was a part of my informal introduction to art, and exotic places, a tutelage that had begun with the chess set and the carved box. If nothing else, the experience may have made me into a lifelong museum goer, especially when museums of art are available.
But you asked about my Aunt Carolyn, as we called her, and her origins in India. She sometimes referred to that Indian childhood, although unfortunately I remember little of what she said. I do recall her speaking of a time in the early 1920s when she witnessed a crowd of Indian nationalists demonstrating in a non-violent manner. Raj policemen carrying lead-weighted wooden cudgels waded into the crowd, shattering the kneecaps of the demonstrators with their clubs. The authorities knew, she said, that a broken kneecap was not a mortal injury, but that it would render a demonstrator unable to walk for months on end, thus preventing that person, for a time, from joining future demonstrations. To say nothing of discouraging him from joining any demonstrations at all. Aunt Carolyn seemed to have a very low opinion of the British.
Are you familiar with Indian and Chinese literature?
Only as a reader and an amateur. In about 1961 a younger sister brought home from college, as a houseguest, an Indian student she had met. He was very polite and serious, and generously gave me a copy of a translation of the Gita, which I still have, and which was my first introduction to the classic literature of India. I’ve been sampling that literature ever since, reading essays and an occasional book, attending a lecture or two, taking in a traveling exhibition. So, I have a layman’s understanding of subcontinent history and culture, but it is no more than that, and I am far from being well-versed.
My introduction to the history, art, and culture of China came slightly earlier and has been a bit more extensive. As an undergraduate at Yale, I studied history of art with the scholar Nelson Ikon Wu. It was an introductory course, but he placed special emphasis on landscape paintings of the Southern Song, and with that influence, in later years, I seem to have gone on to develop an interest in many things Chinese, especially art of the T’ang dynasty.
Also while an upperclassman at Yale, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of a young graduate student from Clare College, Cambridge, named Jonathan Spence, who subsequently became a well-known scholar of Chinese history and culture. Over the years, my conversations with Jonathan, and my having read his numerous books, have formed an important part of my informal education.
For two semesters in the 1980s I served as a visiting writer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I met and talked with Professor Sanford Goldstein, the eminent Japanese scholar and specialist in tanka, who for many years now, following his retirement, has resided in Japan. Thanks to Professor Goldstein, and one of his students with whom I am still in touch, and not immediately, but gradually, my awareness of Japanese literature in translation has increased, along with my curiosity about haiku and tanka in English. I have published a few haiku and tanka, and have corresponded with other scholars in that field, such as Professor Bryce Christensen, who is only recently back from a year of lecturing in Taiwan. By virtue of my acquaintance with these talented individuals, I hope I have developed a better understanding of both Japanese and Chinese literature — especially the poetry of the T’ang dynasty, in translation, for which I have a great liking.
Do you read translations? What is your opinion on the role of translations?
Without translators and translations, we would be utterly lost. For example, whatever I am privileged to know about the poetry of Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770, also spelt as Tu Fu) and all of their marvelous contemporaries, I know their poetry only because they reach me through various translations. So, I have accumulated a small library of translated works by the major world poets — Sophocles through Dante, Basho to Neruda. Every serious poet does this. I would like to think we are perhaps the wiser for it.
Any poet writing in English is immeasurably indebted to Arthur Waley for his masterful translations. Another translator I might mention is the American, Kenneth Rexroth, who happens to have been a fellow Hoosier — which means he was born in the state of Indiana. Rexroth emigrated eventually to California, where after World War Two he became an eminent poet, scholar, and translator of poetry from both the Chinese and Japanese traditions.
I possess a number of Rexroth’s books, and thanks to them, and to other translations by many different hands, I have come to have a great admiration for the T’ang poet Du Fu. He is my favourite, perhaps the poet that I return to, most frequently, in my own reading. In the following quotes, Rexroth, in a book published in 1971, employs a transliteration of the poet’s name different from the one in general use today. Rexroth alleges that Du Fu is
in my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of those qualified to speak, the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language. Sappho, for instance, can hardly be said to have survived. He shares with her, Catullus, and Baudelaire, his only possible competitors, a sensibility acute past belief.
I agree with that, except the part about his competitors, since there are a few more who might be mentioned. But the remark about Du Fu having “sensibility acute past belief” — surely that is apt. And for me, as for Rexroth, there is even more to Du Fu. It is something almost personal. Rexroth attempts to sum it up:
Tu Fu comes from a saner, older, more secular culture than Homer and it is not a new discovery with him that the gods, the abstractions and forces of nature, are frivolous, lewd, vicious, quarrelsome, and cruel, and only man's steadfastness, love, magnanimity, calm, and compassion redeem the night bound world. It is not a discovery, culturally or historically, but it is the essence of his being as a poet.
Rexroth goes on to say how Du Fu’s writing has affected him as a person, an admission with which I happen to agree, and have found to be true in my own life:
I am sure he has made me a better man, as a moral agent and as a perceiving organism. I say that because I feel that . . . the greatest poetry answers out of hand the problems of the critic and the esthetician. Poetry like Tu Fu's is the answer to the question, "What is the purpose of Art?"
What writers do you read? Why?
As a young person, in university and later, dreaming of becoming a writer, I read a great many novels and short stories, and was initially drawn to the work of the American novelist, William Faulkner.. The world he created seemed recognizable to me, and authentic. I hoped to create a similar world. Other American authors I have admired, and tried to learn from, have been Sara Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Sherwood Anderson. But there are dozens more, and dozens more European and world writers whom I admire.
I have been fortunate, too, in having known Joseph Love, a prominent historian of Brazilian history, and author of a splendid study of a remarkable moment in Brazilian history, The Revolt of the Whip. He and I were undergraduates together (he was at Harvard), and I have known him ever since, and through his many gifts and thoughtful recommendations, I have been introduced to a great deal of the literature and culture of Central and South America.
In the last few years most of my reading has been in history. I am a great admirer of the British historian Richard J. Evans, whose history of the Third Reich is unrivaled. Another of my favorites is John Julius Norwich and his history of the Byzantine Empire. I am extremely fond of Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War. And at the moment I am reading the late Tony Judt’s Postwar, a history of Europe from 1945 to the near present and am finding out how little I knew about that period, even though I lived through it.
These days I spend much more time reading history than either fiction or poetry. I have a large bookcase full of nothing but books about classic Egyptian history and art, and I have a smaller group of books about Meso-American prehistory and culture, and particularly Mayan art. I am simply curious about such matters.
Which are your favourite poets? Why?
I would have difficulty naming even a few. I have attempted to read them all, which of course is impossible, since new ones appear every day, and one is constantly discovering earlier ones. It has never seemed acceptable to me to list the names of poets who “influenced” me or the way I write. There are a few poets whose work I keep at my bedside, and whose books I still read. Two in particular are poets writing primarily in German, Rilke and Hölderlin. Among Americans, Frost. Among the English, Hardy and Larkin.
What do you learn from these writers? Do they impact you in any way?
I really don’t know. They’re just writers that I particularly like, and find myself re-reading, over the years. Kafka is another. So is Flaubert. I continue to read Henry James and Turgenev — all of those persons on whom, as James pointed out, “nothing is lost.”
Why is it you are reticent to talk of your work and poetic sensibilities?
I seem to be naturally reticent, even introverted. As a child I spent a certain amount of time with my grandmother and with a great-great aunt, both of whom were born in the 1870s. Both were thoroughgoing Victorians who exemplified the traditional virtues — thrift, honesty, industry, steadfastness. And perish the thought of anything vainglorious. I think a bit of that rubbed off on me.
I’ve done a little talking about myself in this interview, but only because you asked. My parents, too, taught me that one should avoid talking about oneself to others. It is also a professional attribute — physicians and attorneys traditionally do not advertise or promote themselves — and although I do not consider myself a professional in that sense, I can understand the reasoning. Professionalism in any undertaking is not a matter of office, title, or entitlement; it is a standard to be lived up to.
At university, it was explained to me that in polite society one does not discuss politics, religion, or how one earns a living. Ezra Pound says somewhere that you can always spot the bad critic if he focuses on the poet and not the poems. Add all of that up, and I seem to have little to say about myself or what I do.
I really loved your poem “Yeti”. You had said that while writing “Yeti” you disposed of a number of lines and picked a few. Would it be possible to share this part of your poetic process with us?
Well, again, “poetic sensibilities,” “poetic process” — I am not a critic, scholar, or professor, and I have no insights to offer about such matters. It is not my business to do so. Instead, I make poems, and I have been privileged to have published a few of them. So that our readers will know what we’re referring to, here is my poem “Yeti,” which your journal kindly published, for the first time, in its May 2021 issue. The poem conjures up the mysterious creature of the Himalayas, whose existence has never been verified, but which continues to haunt the imagination:
Tell me again that nothing’s there,
that never was
At all, except in places where
things slip, or pause,
Yet register, on some high ridge
where something moves
And then is gone. As though a bridge
of snow should lose
Its grip, and drop away, but leave
a shadow where
Such vanishing might still deceive
in that thin air.
The first thing one notices about this poem, which is in a relatively new form called an Alexandroid, are its formal aspects — its lines end with rhymes, and it has repetitive stanzas and lines of a predictable length. A second thing one notices is its brevity — twelve lines in all, and a total number of syllables amounting to half of those in a typical sonnet in English. It is a small poem, then, in a range of length favoured by the American poet, Emily Dickinson. Longer than a haiku or tanka, but still very brief.
A third characteristic, perhaps not immediately apparent, is the way in which the “sh” sound in the closing lines — should, shadow, vanishing — suggests the texture of something slipping away. Or the sound of a bridge of snow suddenly collapsing into a crevasse. In certain cultures, it is the same sound we make when we put a forefinger to our lips to signal for silence — shhhh.
That sound is followed by the stark, icy i’s and e’s, at the poem’s very end, of might, deceive, thin, and air. The trail has gone cold, the Yeti has disappeared. That poetry can suggest strange moments like this, with such minimal input, is one reason why I like it so much.
In the making of such a poem there is, literally, no place to hide. Whoever reads it will be affected, consciously or not, by the smallest detail. It goes almost without saying that to make a poem within these parameters, the writer must, to borrow your phrase, “dispose of a number of lines and pick a few”. This is inescapable. There is simply no room in which to say whatever one likes, or to run on interminably. No room for the vainglorious.
Somewhere there may be a poet who can write a similar poem without hesitation, as though copying it out, not pausing to substitute or change a single word.
I suppose I do the opposite. I experiment and try out many different words, many lines, many drafts, in order to arrive at what I believe to be a poem. In doing this I don’t think I am any different from most other poets.
It has been pointed out that one interesting thing about poems is the way they can talk about one thing while implying something entirely different. “Yeti” is presumably about an elusive, folkloric creature, but at the same time it is talking about poetry, and how it disappears even while you are reading it, and sometimes you are not sure about what you have just read. Something still seems to be there, even while it vanishes into thin air.
What is it you look forward to?
I look forward to making more poems, and more books of poems. There’s an old American saying, from the days of vaudeville, which holds that “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
But clearly I am an old man of the forest now, and I think the best claim from an aging artist, about what can still be accomplished in the years ahead, is by the Japanese painter and printmaker, Hokusai. Since we’re discussing art and culture of the East, I’ll suggest that his marvelous statement, in his colophon to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, is a perfect way to end this interview:
From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.
In some translations, Hokusai adds, at the very end, with reference to what he has just affirmed, this invitation: “I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word.”
Hokusai lasted until he was 88. That final sentence has always seemed to me to be a blessing he is bestowing on readers and admirers — a wish, for whoever might be listening, that those persons too might have long and fruitful lives.
I would hope Hokusai’s spirit still lingers, and that I might join him in wishing that for you, Madame Chakravarty, and for all of your journal’s most admirable readers, there on the other side of the planet Earth. Thanks to all of you for allowing me to come into your world.
Thank you very much Mr Carter for your kind words.
Click hereto read the more from Jared Carter in Borderless Journal.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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