For when your troubles starting multiplying
And they just might
It's easy to forget them without trying
With just a pocketful of starlight
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away (never let it fade away)
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day
'Catch a Falling Star' by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss
Perhaps, it is time to find that fallen star popularised by pop singer Perry Como is 1957. Optimism glimmers faintly, sometimes even conceals itself, in a world passing through a dark phase in history. For instance, few of us would know that we might find more answers to tackle climate change as dinosaur fossils (from the time an asteroid hit the planet) have been unearthed recently. That sounds like solutions can be had to what was perceived as inevitable doom.
Another bit of news that perhaps will cheer some is the first anthology of Borderless Journal will soon be available in market. It has been accepted by a publisher, an old, trusted and reputed name from India, Om Books International. They have bookshops splattered all over — should make it easy for buyers to access the book. Hopefully, you can target the anthology for your Diwali or Christmas gift hampers. Om Books has one of the most iconic editors-in chief, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. A multiple award-winning editor, he has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and is currently churning out wonderful books from Om with a fabulous production team, working with whom has been a pleasure. Ray Chaudhuri is an outstanding film writer and poet. He is part of a group that is creating a film archive online. To know more about him or his views on publishing, you can read our online conversation with him.
The energy one gets from optimism like starlight from a fallen star, lightens the darker shadows that create gloom with the war leading to rise in prices and threats of recession in a post pandemic scenario. Lesya Bakun, the refugee from Ukraine whose story we carried last month, finds her starlight by sharing updates of her story. She added to her narrative with the news that her cousin has been taken as a prisoner of war by Russia from the besieged factory in Ukraine. Though sharing does not alleviate suffering, Bakun’s ability to cling to hope and imagine a future where she gets her dream highlights the strength of her convictions. The other thing that is revealed by her narrative and media coverage is exclusivity and boxes of ideology split humankind, erase families, cities, countries, lives and sanity. The war can appease only the lust of warlords. Against this desolation caused by the devastation, what could be the starlight that would lead to a happier future?
Laughter. Unleashing the ability to laugh at oneself is as potent as laughter that generates relief and lightens our mood, so that we can view differences as whimsical, treat them with tolerance and compassion and not destroy the diversities that add colours to the world. Perhaps, that is why Tagore took to humour too. Somdatta Mandal has translated a series of humorous skits by Tagore. We are featuring one of these called the ‘Ordeal of Fame’. Yet another translation or transcreation of a poem called ‘Lukochuri’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ reflects the playful in Tagore’s oeuvre. These, along with Rhys Hughes humour on the pandemic in poetry and prose, bring good cheer into our journal. Hughes has also used his column to tell us why he curated a new humorous anthology of verses by seventeen poets called Wuxing Lyrical. I wonder if he is serious or joking!
As we trot around the globe, Suzanne Kamata tells us about a Monet museum in Japan where she ate madeleines made with the artist’s recipe! Meredith Stephens sails to Tasmania with her camera and gives us a glimpse of nature’s plenty. Ravi Shankar relates his trekking adventures among the Himalayas in Nepal, with awesome photographs of these mountains, while Kenny Peavy who lives in Indonesia dwells on the value of falling down and getting up in a light humorous vein against the backdrop of nature – though metaphorically perhaps the world needs to do that. We have G Venkatesh’s story about his stay in Johannesburg where he discovers that skin tones do not matter.
Ratnottama Sengupta makes the whole world look like a home with the story of a legendary screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Mahabharata for Peter Brook’s play (1985) of the same name and the subsequent film (1989) — with characters drawn from all over the world. Candice gives us an overview of the pandemic, with more focus on US where she lives.
Mike Smith travels back to another time when an ailment called World War II raged and has revived a writer from the past, HE Bates (1905-1974). We have another essay by Dan Meloche on a legendary book which turned 100 this year — Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Rakhi Dalal revisits more than a century old translation by Devabrata Mukherjee of Tagore’s The Post Office which bears relevance to the present day as it shows how the human spirit endures over even the darkness of death.
Before winding up, I would want to extend my thanks not only to our team and contributors, but also to our publisher who is willing to republish our content with some tweaking. Thanks to our readers who, I hope, will be excited to have selected content between their palms as a hardcopy anthology with 49 of our most iconic pieces. We have more than a thousand published works. This anthology will be an iconic sample that you can carry anywhere with you even if there is no internet – that would include Mars and Moon!
I wish you happy reading, happy dreaming and hope… plenty of it.
In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction published by Niyogi Books, 2022
Tagore (1861-1941) has been celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the world, a great philosopher, a writer, an artist, a polyglot but what did the maestro himself perceive as his greatest ‘life work’?
He wrote: “My path, as you know, lies in the domain of quiet integral action and thought, my units must be few and small, and I can but face human problems in relation to some basic village or cultural area. So, in the midst of worldwide anguish, and with the problems of over three hundred millions staring us in the face, I stick to my work in Santiniketan and Sriniketan hoping that my efforts will touch the heart of our village neighbours and help them in reasserting themselves in a new social order. If we can give a start to a few villages, they would perhaps be an inspiration to some others—and my life work will have been done.” This was in a letter in 1939 to an agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974), who helped him set up Sriniketan, a craft and agricultural development project for the villages which fell under the purview of the Tagore family zamindari.
To Tagore, his ‘life work’ lay in the welfare of humankind and poetry was just one of the things he did, like breathing. He told a group of writers, musicians, and artists, who were visiting Sriniketan in 1936: “The picture of the helpless village which I saw each day as I sailed past on the river has remained with me and so I have come to make the great initiation here. It is not the work for one, it must involve all. I have invited you today not to discuss my literature nor listen to my poetry. I want you to see for yourself where our society’s real work lies. That is the reason why I am pointing to it over and over again. My reward will be if you can feel for yourself the value of this work.”
These are all incidents woven into a book called A History of Sriniketan by historian and Tagore biographer, Uma Das Gupta, who did her post-doctoral research on the maestro and the history of the educational institutions he founded at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. She moved out of Oxford and pursued her studies in Calcutta. She has highlighted Tagore uniquely as an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) operator and also an educator. Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) in her book Our Santiniketan, recently translated by Radha Chakravarty, focussed on his role mainly as an educator who sought to revive values, a love for nature along with rigorous academics to create thinkers and change makers like the author herself.
A History ofSriniketan is about his work among villagers to bridge gaps. Often, his poetry and writing expresses the empathy he felt for pain and suffering, his need to instil beauty and well-being into humankind so that they could evolve towards a better world — an ideal which he described to an extent in poems like ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ and India’s national anthem.
Dasgupta did this by not only delving into Tagore’s own writings but by devoting her life to unearth the depth of the maestro’s commitment and the hard work and money he invested in the project he described as his ‘Life’s work’. She even visited the villages and talked to the beneficiaries and workers. Her book is peppered with photographs of the Tagore in Sriniketan. It is amazing to see pictures of the poet with people from Sriniketan sitting on the ground or celebrating festivities.
Tagore, Das Gupta tells us, poured all his Nobel prize money, into the Sriniketan Bank project which was led by his son, Rathindranath. The project hoped to free the peasant from debt. How well were these experiments received by Tagore’s contemporaries? Das Gupta writes in her book: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rabindranath had to encounter all of those things, that is, to ‘overcome opposition’ and to ‘conquer space and time’, in no uncertain measure. In short, he had to drive hard to do anything good for a better village life. As a first step, he insisted that Indians should unite to provide nation-building services to the village and not look to the State for doing what was our own duty towards our people. For him, this had to be the more important function of the Swaraj being sought from alien rule.
“In Rabindranath’s view, what had misled society in our transition to modernity was the introduction of the Western concepts of private property and material progress. What this led to was that mankind, though never free from greed, now crossed the limits, within which it was useful rather than harmful. What came about as a result was that property became individualistic and led to the abandoning of hospitality to our people and loss of communication with them. As a consequence, there was an increasing divide between city and village. He found all that to be the reality, when trying to bring about changes, both in his family’s agricultural estates and in the villages surrounding Santiniketan-Sriniketan.”
To bridge this divide, Sriniketan was created with the involvement of more of the Tagore family, agriculturists, scientists from all over the world, like Leonard Elmhirst whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work, and artists, like Nandalal Bose. It was a path breaking experiment which found fruition in the long run. They adapted from multiple cultures without any nationalistic biases. Rathindranath brought batik from Indonesia into the leather craft of Sriniketan. We are told, “One of the early influences was from Santiniketan’s association with a group of creative thinkers from Asia, who were spearheading a Pan-Asian Movement that questioned Western hegemony in art and artistic expression. A pioneer of the Pan-Asian Movement was Kakuzo Okakura (1863–1913, Japanese scholar and author of The Book of Tea). He came to Calcutta in 1904, when he met Rabindranath, and they became friends. Okakura admired and supported Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school. Nandalal’s Kala-Bhavana syllabus included Okakura’s artistic principles of giving importance to nature, tradition, and creativity, which were the same as Rabindranath’s artistic principles.”
That Tagore’s effort was unique and overlooked by the mainstream is well brought out through the narrative which does not critique but only evidences. For instance, Das Gupta contends: “He (Tagore) wrote the same to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, in a letter dated 28 February 1930, when appealing for a government grant towards agricultural research. ‘I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Lord Irwin had come for a visit to Sriniketan at the time and Rabindranath was told of his favourable impression of what he saw during his visit to Sriniketan. In his letter, Rabindranath wrote how he was doing the work ‘almost in isolation’, without any understanding from his people or from the government.” Does that often not continue to be the story of many NGOs?
Sriniketan by Dasgupta is a timely and very readable non-fiction which brings to light not just the humanitarian aspect of Tagore but the need for the world to wake up to the call of nature to unite as a species beyond borders created by humans and live in harmony with the Earth. It all adds up in the post-pandemic, climate-disaster threatened world. To survive, we could learn much from what is shared with us in this book. I would love to call it a survival manual towards a better future for mankind. Scholarship has found a way to connect with the needs of the real world. The book is reader friendly as Das Gupta writes fluently from the bottom of her heart of a felt need that is being voiced by modern thinkers and gurus like Harari — we need to bridge borders and unite to move forward.
Das Gupta retired as Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. She was Head of the United States Educational Foundation in India for the Eastern Region. Recently, she has become a National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IAAS), Shimla, and a Delegate of Oxford University Press. Her publications include Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography; The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Essays on Education and Nationalism; A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson, 1913–1940; Friendships of ‘largeness and freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi, An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940. In this interview, she focusses mainly on her new book, A History of Sriniketan, while touching on how Tagore differed from others like Gandhi in his approach, his vision and enlightens us about a man who created a revolution in ideological and practical world, and yet remained unacknowledged for that as in posterity he continues to be perceived mainly as an intellectual, a poet and a writer.
You are a well-known biographer of Tagore and have done extensive research on him. What made you put together A History of Sriniketan?
Grateful for your kind appreciation.
Writing a history of Sriniketan has been a priority for me. As a Tagore biographer, my dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. His work at Sriniketan is of prime importance in that perspective. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre, lyric, poetry, narratives, short stories, novels and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since I did not intend to write a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Tagore’s life, equally. My choice was to explore his educational ideas and to examine how he implemented them at his Santiniketan and Sriniketan institutions. His work as an educator and rural reformer is even today hardly known because his genius as a poet and a song writer overshadowed his work as an educator, rural reformer, and institutional builder. That area of research was quite virgin when I started it as a post-doctoral project in the mid-1970s. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre I have drawn on the work of the scholars who know the subject better than I do.
My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in Tagore’s writings and his actions. These were about the alienation in our own society between the elite and the masses, about race conflict and the absence of unity in our society, India’s history, nationalism, national self-respect, internationalism, an alternative education, religion, and humanism as elaborated by him in his collection of essays titled The Religion of Man (1931).
A History of Sriniketan is a detailed presentation about his ideas and his work on rural reconstruction. The idea of doing something to redeem neglected villages came to him when he first went to live in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal. His father sent him as manager in 1889. The decade that he spent there was his first exposure to the impoverished countryside. He was then thirty, already a poet of fame, and had lived only in the city till then. The experience played a seminal part in turning him into a humanist and a man of action. The closer he felt to the masses of his society the further he moved from his own class who were indifferent to the masses. His independent thinking gave him the courage of conviction to work alone with his ideas of ‘constructive swadeshi’.
As a pragmatist he knew there was not a lot he could do given his meagre resources as an individual in relation to the enormity of the needs. But he was determined at least to make a beginning with the work. His goals were a revitalized peasantry, village self-reliance through small scale enterprises, cottage industries and cooperative values. He wrote, “If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”
Disillusioned with nationalist politics he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of his times. Tagore was convinced there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the Santiniketan-Sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He thus brought a different dimension to nationalism by arguing for universal humanity. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed on his country by colonial rule. He had the foresight to sense that the awakening of India was bound to be a part of the awakening of the world.
What is the kind of research that went in into the making of this book? What got you interested in Tagore in the first place?
I am a historian by training. Historians have to back up every statement they make in their analysis by written documents. That is why the historian’s main source is the archives. Likewise, my research for this book has been mainly archival. I searched for written documentation from 1922 when the Sriniketan scheme of rural reconstruction work was officially launched. The documentation included the minutes of meetings, memoranda exchanged among the workers of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, official notes, and annual reports written and filed.
In addition, I used to visit the villages in which the scheme was implemented to get an understanding of the ground reality. The work was started with six villages in 1922, extended to twenty-two more villages in the first ten years, and to many more villages afterwards. When the work was being run on a small scale, the Institute tried to post a village worker to stay in the village itself and work along with the villagers to implement the Sriniketan scheme. Some of these villages actually kept notes and records of their work which I could use as part of my local level research. I also interviewed some of the workers who had retired but who were still living around Sriniketan in their old age though their number was small. I have used those oral interviews in my documentation. Some of the Village Workers had their own private correspondence to which they gave me access.
There is also extensive personal correspondence in the Rabindra-Bhavana Archives between the leaders of the Sriniketan work. Among them first and foremost are Rathindranath Tagore and the British agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst, whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work. Elmhirst had been to India earlier as a Wartime Volunteer during World War 1. When Tagore came to know of him through another British agriculturist working in Allahabad, Sam Higginbottom by name, he contacted Elmhirst with a request to come to Santiniketan and to lead the Sriniketan work. One of Tagore’s prime targets was to implement Scientific Agriculture in the villages. In fact, many years earlier, in 1906, he had sent his son Rathindranath and another student of the Santiniketan school, Santoshchandra Majumdar, who was Rathindranath’s classmate, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to study Agriculture with the view that they would bring back the expertise for the Sriniketan work at the completion of their studies.
Elmhirst was in Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924 after which he returned to his work in England. He worked closely with the Sriniketan team even from far through the letters they exchanged. Rathindranath consulted Elmhirst regularly over Sriniketan’s work in progress and this correspondence is in the archives.
There is also a very charming body of personal letters between Tagore and Elmhirst. Tagore’s originals are among the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartinghall Hall Trust archives in Devonshire, UK, and Elmhirst’s original letters are in the Rabindra-Bhavana archives, Santiniketan. This correspondence has been published.
Another very important source of documentation is available in the Diaries of Leonard Elmhirst which he wrote from the start of the Sriniketan work in 1922. Elmhirst’s Diaries were published by Visva-Bharati titled Poet and Plowman. There are some day-to-day accounts of how the work was being done on the ground by a group of senior students from Santiniketan who had chosen this field for training and of course by the Village Workers who had been appointed by the Institute. There were other leaders who helped with the work throughout like Kalimohan Ghose who later carried out the pioneering Surveys of the Villages. I have included some of these path breaking Surveys in the Appendices of A History of Sriniketan.
Last but not the least important for my research were Tagore’s ideas of education and rural reconstruction about which he wrote several essays in two important collections, namelyPalli-Prakriti(Countryside and Nature) and Sikshya (Education). Some of the essays were autobiographical as to how he started the rural work in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal where his father sent him in 1889. He stayed at Selidaha, the Estates’ headquarters, with his family till 1900 when he moved to Santiniketan in South Bengal’s Birbhum district where his father had founded an ashram and called it Santiniketan, the ‘Abode of Peace’. It was not a monastic ashram but one for householders to spend some days in prayer and meditation away from their household responsibilities. This is where Tagore and his young family moved in 1900-01 with his plans to start a school for children in the heart of nature. It was to be a school where the children could learn to creatively assimilate the knowledge imparted to them instead of in the classroom that characterised colonial education. This was how his Santiniketan school was founded in 1901.
Santiniketan was located within two miles of the Bolpur Railway Station on the East Indian Railway Line. It was situated on high ground, in the middle of a wide plain, open to the horizon on all sides. There, father and son had planted noble groves of mainly mango and sal trees. There, in the heart of nature not far from a big city, Tagore had the advantage of being able to draw upon both raw materials and cultural products in equal measure as it were. There was the influence of trees, open fields, and the seasons changing so starkly on the one hand; on the other hand, there was the inspiration of artists, science teachers, libraries, and hand-made, machine-made, equipment.
You ask why I got interested in working on Tagore. There is a very personal story to share. When our son was born in Oxford where my husband and I were working with University Fellowships during 1972-73, we decided to move to Visva-Bharati on an invitation from the then Vice-Chancellor, the eminent historian Pratul Chandra Gupta. We were of course attracted to the possibility of being at Tagore’s institution and also to the prospect of raising our child in its pastoral environment. We did thus move to Visva-Bharati in 1973 leaving our Calcutta jobs at Presidency College, where my husband was Professor of History, and Jadavpur University, where I was teaching. Once we went Visva-Bharati, I began to explore the possibility of doing post-doctoral research on Tagore rather than on colonial history as was the area of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford.
What would be the purpose of such a book? Do you think Tagore’s model would work if multiple NGOs adopted his ideas?
As I have already mentioned I am a biographer of Tagore’s educational ideas and the history of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. To me writing this book on a history of Sriniketan was an integral part of my research. But at a personal level, I was concerned that the history of that practical and experimental work that Tagore did under the most difficult of circumstances might get completely forgotten if it were not documented. That was a genuine concern because of two reasons. Firstly, while Santiniketan has retained its charm as a popular tourist spot, and as Santiniketan’s oldest buildings of exceptional architecture had become heritage buildings, Sriniketan did not have anything to show or display for outsiders to connect with its one-time strident presence in bringing life and action to the villages. Secondly, Sriniketan never reinvented the wheel but just carried on from the 1950s as a unit of Visva-Bharati University to fill in for routine bureaucratic and funding purposes. Even its beautiful and thriving craft work that brought acclaim to Sriniketan from well beyond its precincts, would slowly but surely erode.
Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to document a pioneering humanistic enterprise for posterity, and also for the next generations who were expected to be engaged in the field of rural development even though the original model was not necessarily practically and theoretically viable in today’s socio-economic scenario. The book is also for the scholar and for the generally interested person. When I was starting my work in the mid 1970s, there was no doubt in my mind that Sriniketan was becoming less visible.
As for whether multiple NGOs could use the Tagore model is for the NGOs to tell us, but I do know that in its neighbourhood, Sriniketan remains an important inspiration for mobilizing villages non-politically. There have been one or two such movements in the vicinity of Santiniketan-Sriniketan which are continuing to work actively at grassroots. One is Pannalal Das Gupta’s ‘Tagore Society for Rural Development’. Founded in 1969-70 as a registered society, the Tagore Society specialises in motivating villagers to take on environmental self-help projects. There is also the ‘Amar Kutir Society for Rural Develoment’ located very close to Sriniketan which was once a shelter for runaway political prisoners. Founded in 1923 by Susen Mukhopadhyaya, a young revolutionary freedom fighter then, who was attracted to Tagore’s work in rural reconstruction. We learn from his writing that he kept observing the work while coming in and out of jail himself. ‘Amar Kutir’ developed the work of organising local crafts persons, upgrading their skills, training them in design, and in marketing their products for economic rehabilitation. The Birbhum district had several families of traditional weavers. Some of them had been engaged in trade by the East India Company.
Another such non-governmental private initiative for rural development has come up more recently in 1984 in the outskirts of Sriniketan called the ‘Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies’, (EICS), whose members are working mainly in the areas of women and child development including family counselling, family adoption, de-addiction and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS education and intervention. They were started with substantial moral and financial support from Elmhirst who was interested in spreading Sriniketan’s pioneering enterprise and taking the ideas further to meet the needs of the later day.
In other parts of India individual leaders were drawn to the work of building village self-reliance and a few had dedicated themselves to the cause in post-independence India. For his Ashrams at Sabarmati and Wardha, Gandhi himself kept closely in touch with Sriniketan which he visited several times even after Tagore’s passing and knew it well. Gandhi’s follower, Baba Amte, in Madhya Pradesh was a key worker in the field. More contemporarily one reads of the utopian commune ‘Timbaktu Collective’ in rural Andhra Pradesh where a husband-and-wife team, Bablu and Mary Ganguly, have organised the hapless farm labourers of Anantapur district to work for the regeneration of wasteland and start projects on organic farming, soil conservation, propagation of traditional food crops and have also taken steps for women’s and Dalit empowerment and rural health. Most of these ideas were at one time born and nurtured in the holistic laboratory for socio-economic development that Sriniketan was. Bablu Ganguly acknowledges Fukuoka as his mentor. Being Bengali by birth, it would not be surprising if he was aware of Tagore but perhaps only as a poet and songwriter.
Tagore withdrew from the national movement to develop villages, which is where, he felt lived a large part of India. Gandhi had a similar outlook. So, where was the divide?
With his deepening sympathy for the suffering millions of his country, Tagore became increasingly critical of the changes that Britain had brought to India. But he also felt strongly for the West’s ideas of humanism and believed they were of benefit to Indian society. Revolutionary changes were inescapably entering into our thoughts and actions. This was evident in the proposition that those whom our society decreed to be ‘untouchables’ should be given the right to enter temples. The orthodox continued to justify their non-entry into temples on scriptural pretexts, but such advocacy was being challenged and resisted. The people’s ‘voice’ had put out the message that neither the scriptures nor tradition nor the force of personality could set a wrong right. Ethics alone could do so.
There were important factors that led gradually to this new way of thinking. The impact of English literature was one such. Tagore pointed out that acquaintance with English Literature gave us not only a new wealth of emotion but also the will to break man’s tyranny over man. This was a novel point of view. The lowly in our society had taken it for granted that their birth and the fruits of their past actions could never be disowned; that their sufferings and the indignities of an inferior status had to be meekly accepted; that their lot could change only after a possible rebirth. Society’s patriarchs also held out no hope for the downtrodden. But contact with Europe became a wake-up call. It was no surprise that in his landmark essay Kalantar (Epoch’s End) Tagore recalled and endorsed the British poet Robert Burns’s unforgettable line, “A man’s a man for a’ that”.
It was in that longing to bring hope to the deprived people that Tagore and Gandhi felt really close. They were both carrying out rural reconstruction work because they knew that the majority of Indians lived in villages and wanted to bring awakening and national consciousness to the villages as the prime goal to freedom. Both men focused their attention on the peasantry as the largest class within Indian society who were paralysed by anachronistic traditions and weighed down by poverty and the absence of education.
The major issues on which Tagore and Gandhi differed were debated nationally. Before discussing the specific issues in the controversy, it would be useful to examine their general positions on freedom and nationalism. In The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore developed the position that the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the “perfection of human relationship”. Gandhi applied the same principle to resolving India’s racial conflict. Tagore took the idea further and challenged the credo of nationalism. Tagore argued that the basis of the nation-state was a menace to the ideal of universal harmony or to the “perfection of human relationship”. But to the nationalist leadership all over the country, including Gandhi, political self-rule or swaraj came to be understood as a necessary phase of spiritual self-rule, or swarajya, and nationalism as the first step towards attaining free human fellowship.
Tagore alone spoke out against that trend. He argued that the crucial stumbling block in India’s future lay in the social problems of the country such as the absence of human rights for the masses and the alienation between the educated classes and the masses. He emphasised what the country needed most of all was constructive work coming from within herself and the building of an ethical society as the best way for rousing national consciousness. The rest would inevitably follow, even political freedom.
In his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), Tagore seemed critical of Gandhi’s call for Khadi and burning of mill cloth imported from England. Yet, Sriniketan was a handicraft forum for villagers to find a way to earn a living through agriculture and craft. So, why the dichotomy of perspectives as both were promoting local ware? Where was the clash between Gandhi’s interpretation of Khadi and Tagore’s interpretation of selling indigenous craft?
There was never any conflict in their perceptions or feelings for the poor, Gandhi’s and Tagore’s. Other issues were stirred in relation to the Khadi campaign and the burning of foreign cloth. For instance, the Congress in 1924 moved a resolution under Gandhi’s recommendation enlisting its members to spin a certain quantity of cloth on the charka (spinning wheel) as a monthly contribution. The idea was to give the movement country-wide publicity, and also, to make spinning a means of bonding between the masses and the politicians.
Tagore was wholly opposed to the idea of using the charka as a political strategy for swaraj and explained his position in his 1925 essay titled ‘The Cult of the Charka’. He argued that there was no short-cut to reason and hard work if anything was to succeed; that nothing worthwhile was possible by mass conversion to an idea; that our poverty was a complex phenomenon which could not be solved by one particular application such as spinning and weaving Khadi. Tagore raised the question if our poverty was due to the “lack of sufficient thread”, or due to “our lack of vitality, our lack of unity”?
On burning clothes Tagore’s position was that such a method hurt the poor by forcing them to sacrifice even what little they obtained from selling those clothes. He concluded that buying and selling foreign cloth should be delegated to the realm of economics. In his reply Gandhi wrote, that he did not draw “a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics”. He added that the economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation “are immoral and therefore sinful”.
Is Sriniketan unique? Can it be seen as Tagore’s model for rural development?
To the best of my knowledge there is no parallel institution in India.
I am not aware if Tagore was ever talking of a ‘model’ that he expected others to follow. He was certainly hoping, as he wrote, that his work will help to establish an “ideal” [his word] for the rest of the country.
My own sense is that an “ideal” has been established given that empowerment of the villages through the Panchayats has become a nationwide project. Of course, the government’s approach is not fully in character with Tagore’s holistic vision for the individual’s humanistic development. Today the individual hardly counts, politics and economics are what matter. All the same it has to be said that the villages are getting some attention and are not left to rot as had been the case in the earlier century.
You have said that Tagore faced criticism for the way he used Nobel Prize money. Can you enlighten us on this issue? Tell us a bit about the controversy and Tagore’s responses.
As anyone would surmise the Nobel Prize money was very precious also to the Santiniketan community because the teachers and workers there had to struggle over the resources for the institution. But contrary to the community’s expectation, Tagore decided that the Prize money would be given to the cause of rural credit. He had started the Patisar Krishi (farmers’) Bank in 1906 followed by the Kaligram Krishi Bank. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Pal, the total investment in the rural banks in 1914 amounted to Rs 75,000 of which Rs 48,000 was invested in the Patisar Krishi Bank at 7% interest per annum and Rs 27,000 at the same rate of interest in the Kaligram Krishi Bank. Tagore decided that only the interest from those investments could be used to pay for the maintenance of the Santiniketan school. The actual purpose of the fund was to give loans to the poor peasants so as to relieve them from exploitation by moneylenders and some unethical landlords too. In order to repay their loans, the peasants had to sell their produce at a rate lower than the market price immediately after drawing the harvest. This phenomenon was causing them perpetual indebtedness. The Krishi Banks were to loan money to the peasantry at a lower rate than the money lenders and relieve them from the age-old exploitation.
Tagore was firm that the primary beneficiary of his Nobel Prize money would be the poor peasantry of his family’s estates, and the Santiniketan school would be only the secondary beneficiary. He tried thus to balance his two main concerns when settling the future of his Nobel Prize money.
It cannot be said there was a ‘controversy’ over this as Gurudev (which was how the community addressed Tagore) was too revered for a controversy to be raised about a decision that he had taken. But there was disappointment. It seemed strangely that even his inner circle had not realised his deep emotional attachment and ideological commitment to the cause of the impoverished peasantry. Perhaps, my response to your earlier question may explain why.
Tagore had noticed the gaps between the different strata of Indian society. Sriniketan was an attempt to bridge the gap. How far did his ideals succeed?
There was tremendous societal gap between the different strata of Indian society. With all of Tagore’s will and effort, it cannot be said that the Sriniketan ideals could bridge the gap. Even today, a perceptive visitor, who visits Santiniketan and Sriniketan, located only within two miles of each other, can tell the difference between the two. Santiniketan looks bright and thriving, but Sriniketan looks neglected.
Community life in the Indian villages was seen to break for the first time with the emergence of professional classes among the English-educated Indians. The city began to attract them away from the villages. Those Indians were happy to let the government take over guardianship of the people and relinquish to it their own traditional duties to society. The result was a widening gap between town and country, city and village. Tagore knew from his life’s direct experience that none of those who dominated the political scene in his time felt that the villagers ‘belonged’. The political leadership apprehended that recognising this vast multitude as their own people would force them to begin the real work of ‘constructive swadeshi’. They were not even interested to try. That was where the Sriniketan effort was invaluable to Tagore. He saw that the endeavour built at least a relationship with the village, if nothing else.
The Sriniketan scheme sought to bridge the gap by bringing to the village a combination of tradition and experiment. Tagore knew that a civilisation that comprises of only village life could not be sustained. “Rustic” was a synonym for the “mind’s narrowness”, he wrote. In modern times, the city had become the repository of knowledge. It was essential therefore for the village to cooperate with the city in accessing the new knowledge. One such vital area of expertise was in agriculture. His study of “other agricultural countries” had shown that land in those countries was made to yield twice or thrice by the use of science. A motor tractor was bought for Sriniketan in 1927 because he believed that the machine must find its way to the Indian village. He wrote, “If we can possess the science that gives power to this age, we may yet win, we may yet live.”
Your book tells us that Sugata Dasgupta’s publication, A Poet & A Plan(1962) showed that Sriniketan had benefitted the villages it adopted decades after Tagore’s death. Has there been further development of these communities or is it status quo?
No, it cannot be said that it is status quo from the 1960s. There have been changes for sure. There have been benefits to the villages from the Government’s projects. Indeed, the government had adopted some of their early projects from Sriniketan’s original work.
More interventions are needed of course but it has to be said something is being done. Of course, the changes I can mention that have benefitted the condition of the villages and therefore the villagers’ lives came well after Sugata Dasgupta’s publication. The three that I can mention are communications, roads, and electricity. Today there are more long-distance buses than ever before transporting people to and from the villages. Totos and cycle rickshaw-vans take passengers from the bus stands to the interior villages. Roads are another major development. Besides the highways, the mud paths in the villages are now being converted to metalled roads. There is electricity in the villages.
I should mention one other significant change which is that secondary education is now fairly common to the present-day rural populace. College education has also come within their reach.
What is the current state of the present day Sriniketan? What do you see as the future of Sriniketan?
Presently, Sriniketan runs as a department or unit of Visva-Bharati University and works according to the University’s requirements. I am not acquainted with the requirements. I continue to be a regular user of the University’s Rabindra-Bhavana archives even now. But I have not been connected with the University in any official capacity after the 1980s which is a long time ago.
Thank you for your time.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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Title: The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud
Author: Dom Moraes
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Travel books that I have read so far, broadly fall into two categories. One is investigative and the other is a spontaneous account of the author’s experience. If one is analytical, the other is immediate. It’s not necessary that the two styles can’t be combined. V.S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now(1990) is a good example of that: a mix of investigation of a place’s past and present through ordinary people’s lives combined with day-to-day travel details. Bill Bryson’s Travels in Small-Town America (1989) is about Bryson’s experience of visiting the towns of America with occasional dosage of nostalgia.
The Best of Travel Writingof Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud falls into the second category – a spontaneous account of events as seen by the author. However, where it’s different from travel books in general (and the ones mentioned above) is that it doesn’t stick to a singular theme. A collection of essays, some autobiographical, some reports, the book takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic journey spanning continents, lives and topics ranging from when the author takes his first steps into the world of writing as a child to the time he is a mature travelling journalist covering topics as diverse as Suharto’s rule in Indonesia to dacoits in India.
If you are familiar with Dom Moraes ((1938-2004) as a poet, novelist and columnist, you will not be surprised by the sheer finesse of writing you encounter as you move from one essay to another, although you may have your own favourites. Regarded as one of the giants of Indian English literature, Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize when he was just 20 followed by Sahitya Academy Award and a series of other literary awards in England, America and India.
The book starts with an introduction by Sarayu Srivastava recounting the last days of Moreas with detours to his past. The introduction has a morbid element to it, as did Moraes’s life. But, surprisingly, the morbid mood the introduction sets, vaporises in the pieces that follow.
The first two travel pieces are purely autobiographical. ‘His Father’s Son’ (1945) recollects the carefree childhood days of Dom Moraes in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where is father, a reporter with Times of India, was posted. There is a strong visual element to how the natural world of these places has been described. Anecdotes about a child – Moraes – discovering this natural world slowly almost reads like the formative pages of a novel. In ‘Figures in the Landscape’ (1955) Moraes is equally carefree, if a little awkward, going through a range of experiences, some writerly, others potentially amorous, in that global capital of arts, artists and sensuality, Paris.
But there is a tragic and frightening aspect to the pieces, too, which appears and retreats only to reappear as if to remind you that life is not just about gambolling. That aspect is the gradual mental deterioration of Dom Moreas’s mother who was given to violence. Her fits of violence form a recurrent theme until she leaves Ceylon and returns to Bombay to stay with her relatives. But even after she departs, her presence constantly lurks in the background. And when she does reappear, either actually or via recollection, the atmosphere of the essay instantly changes.
She, although absent from many other pieces in the collection, casts a shadow on her son such that some of the actions of the son, particularly his introverted and melancholic personality, seem to be coloured by his mother’s tragedy. One can sense in later essays where the author has grown up, how the derangement of the mother would have affected the son. That almost becomes a subterranean subtheme.
The following opening passage of ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ is a case in point.
“One recalled the oddest things: I remember a toy-shop in a Knightsbridge arcade where I used to go when very unhappy, during my first days in London, in order to buy small delicate glass toys which I later smashed, one by one, in the fireplace of my flat, with a malediction against anything beautiful.”
Moraes had a complex relationship with his mother. And in the essays that are a throwback to his childhood days, you meet a helpless child unable to make up his mind whether he loves his mother for who she is, or is indifferent to her — seeing her from a distance with a sense of fright and awe.
As the book progresses, the world of Moraes opens up further. ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ (1959) is about a sudden journey to Sikkim and surrounding places. There is a tension in the place that it’s abuzz with Chinese spies, and that China is engaged in incursions and military build-up in the Indian border states. The year is 1959 and developments are admittedly a precursor to the things to come in 1962. Written more than half a century ago, the essay reads disturbingly current. The essay’s narrative is much tauter, almost like a spy thriller, than the other essays.
Since the global brouhaha about climate change is not older than roughly a decade and half, we tend to locate all climate disasters to recent times, having settled into the belief that the past generations were coexisting with nature in peace and harmony. However, the subcontinent has always been home to extreme climate events going back to the 18th century.
“Geography as well as history has always been linked to East Pakistan.” When I read this sentence, the first sentence in ‘Death by Water’ (1970), I thought I was in for an account of the atrocities on the Hindu population of East Pakistan during that period but was surprised to find an extremely well-informed report on a cyclone which had hit the region in 1970. The sea level had risen to a great height creating a ‘water wall’, according to eyewitnesses, which had then crashed on the land raging inland with a monster force and then stopping and moving back into the sea. The next day when helicopters were sent to survey the damage, bodies of humans and cattle were found floating in the sea, river and crevices.
In ‘Dispatches from Indonesia’ (1972), Moraes visits a country under the tyrannical rule of General Suharto. The dictator had come to power seven years before his visit through a military coup, and immediately after, there was a crackdown on the intelligentsia. Some were executed and some sent to prison camps. Moraes travels to one such prison camp outside the city and meets two famous prisoners, Suprapto (Soeprapto), the former Attorney General, and Pramudja (Pramudya Ananta Tur), a famous writer. Their lives are a reflection of the losses and tragedies the critics of the regime suffered.
In ‘The Company of Dacoits’ (1981), Moraes withdraws from the world of dictators and devastating floods and enters the rugged terrain of dacoits. We meet Lajjaram, who is dead and whose body is being constantly mishandled by the police, and Lakshman Singh Rathore, alias Lachhi, an eighteen-year-old boy who was thrust into dacoity by his circumstances, first to seek help to avenge his father being deceived, and then to pay for the help received by becoming a fulltime bandit. The rest of the essay is about Lachhi trying to get himself acquitted of the crimes committed by other dacoits in his group.
Likewise, the other pieces also deal with human conditions in varied settings.
The essays are undoubtedly dated, but the subjects they deal with brim with recency: human disaster, tyrannical govt, national expansionism, inaccessibility of justice. Over a period of time, these subjects, of course, have acquired a new lexicon: territorial conflict, climate change, human right excesses and so on.
The collective time span of the pieces is almost 60 years. Dom Moraes’s gaze is that of a writer, rather than of a journalist, always looking out for human tragedies, helplessness and intricacies within bigger narratives of climate disaster, military coups and national conflicts.
Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;—
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie...
-- Travel, RL Stevenson (1850-1894)
December is often a time when we look forward to a vacation and travel. Through the pandemic ravaged years, moving out of the house itself had become a challenge. Now as the world opens up slowly (hopefully the Omicron variant of the virus will be more benign), travel stretches its limbs to awaken to a new day with new trends and rules. Borderless invites you to savour of writing that takes you around the world with backpackers, travellers, hikers, sailors and pirates — fantastical, imaginary or real planned ones in a post-pandemic world. Enjoy!
Do you enjoy babysitting nieces, nephews on trips and have you ever traveled with ‘hundreds of pieces of luggage, a few coolies, five women and only one man’? Tagore did. Somdatta Mandal translates hilarious writings from young Tagore on travel. Click here to read.
Travel through Bengal with Shorodhoni, a woman dubbed a ‘Daini’ or witch, in her quest to find a home in Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of Tarasankar Bandhopadhyay’s poignant story. Click here to read.
“Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere.” That is what Ratnottama Sengupta concludes as she vicariously travels through the famed route from the past. Click here to read.
“Nothing can be unconditional: consequently, nothing can be free.”
“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”
-- George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists, Man & Superman (1903)
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a great writer and playwright, used these epigrammatic lines to bring focus on what people thought was liberty or freedom from oppression, from regimes that were dictatorial. While discussing concepts of freedom, one does wonder if political freedom solves all humane issues, occasions we celebrate with great aplomb, like the birth of a nation.
This month started with the observance of July 4th, the date of the American Revolution in 1776 and the publication date of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855. In between these two years, in 1789, ten days down the line, on July 14th, another significant occurrence has been handed down by history to be celebrated as the Bastille Day— the day prisoners were freed from Bastille, a major event that led to the overthrow of the insensitive monarchy in France, a symbolic resurgence of the common, exploited man that has often been seen as an inspiration for later uprisings to reinforce the concept of democracy or liberté, égalité, fraternité.
As we move forward in time, towards August, one wonders if liberty attained by these means was good for all fellow humans? France was part of the Allied Forces that with America taking the lead dropped not one but two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, to end the Second World War. Did the ends justify the means? Reflecting the cry and suffering of these victims, we have poetry from Suzanne Kamata, a well-known writer from Japan. Michael Burch on the other hand has shared poetry with us which shows how the nuclear programme continued unrepentant despite the devastation it caused. One must give kudos to the descendants of the victims of the nuclear blast that they have forgiven the perpetrators, admitted their own hand in the Second World War and moved ahead. In that spirit, we have an essay on peace by Candice Louisa Daquin, who joins the Borderless team as a writer-in-residence.
We have much happening in poetry this time with an interview of American poet Jared Carter, a recipient of number of awards and fellowships, including the Walt Whitman Award and the Guggenheim fellowship. He walks us through how he created the poem ‘Yeti’ (first published in the May edition of Borderless) and talks of the impact of artifacts from China and India on his own thought processes, the impact of Du Fu (712-770) and much more. We have a poem in Du Fu’s style this time by George Freek and an interesting poem with a Chinese title by Carter, a title that can have multiple connotations and yet each seems to fit the poem perfectly.
Rhys Hughes has brought humour into our pages with both his poetry and essay on William Mcgonagall, who bore the sobriquet of the worst writer in the world through his life and had things thrown at him when he read his poetry in Dundee. Yet, his work survived the beatings, and he lives on known as the ‘Scottish Homer’.
More poetry by Singaporean poet Marc Nair gives us a glimpse of the little island as viewed by someone who has grown up on it. Poetry is always multi-hued, and we have Lorraine Caputo transport us to a Garífuna village in Honduras. Penny Wilkes takes us ‘Down the Path of Nostalgia’ with a mix of old and new photography, prose and poetry on how almost a decade after the end of the Second World War, she started her love affair with photography and nature. It hovers between poetry and musings, and this time we have a rare musing by Jared Carter too. Devraj Singh Kalsi continues cogitating with wry humour while arranging bookshelves. We also have the backpacking granny visitingIndonesia. Post sharing this trip, our granny — Sybil Pretious — plans a little break from publishing to complete her memoirs.
A riveting flash fiction by Kaiyi Tan celebrates the spirit of conquest in these dark times, weaving into the pandemic lore the quest for personal freedom. Stories this time carry a real life one by Jean Kortum on adoption — her own struggle. But then, stories can be real or unreal – draw a bit from both to reflect bigger truths or create alternates that sink into the human mind as a perceived reality and leave an imprint deep inside the heart, like that of Niles Reddick. My conviction is that some lived experiences of writers seep into each story, whether it is from Bangladesh or India or by our literary fictionist, Sunil Sharma. His narrative continues infused by suspense.
We have a complete translated story of Tagore by Radha Chakravarty as our book excerpt this time. ‘The Parrot’s Tale’, ostensibly part of a children’s collection, reflects Tagore’s response to conventional schooling — a reason for him to start Shanti Niketan perhaps. She has also shared two of her translations of Rabindranath’s songs from Bhanusingher Padabali (1884, Bhanusingh’s verses). Chakravarty generously consented to an interview and has given us a glimpse of her journey as a translator and critic. We also have translated a long poem by Tagore on our pages, a poem that inspires hope, though it was named Dushomoy (1897, Bad Times) finally. The original name had been Swarga Patthe (On the Path to Heaven) as can be seen from a page in his diary. We have been fortunate in finding a recording of his voice reciting the poem in Bengali and the print of a sample page of the manuscript bearing his signature.
Keith Lyons from New Zealand in his very brief essay has quoted American novelist William Faulkner, “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” And perhaps we need to remember this if for no other reason, then, just to maintain our own sanity in these strange, almost unreal times as we attempt to unite as humankind to free ourselves from an unknown and unfathomable virus.
In a more sombre note, last week, untroubled by the virus, a victim of cancer, Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar, aged 98, breathed his last. Ratnottama Sengupta adds an unusual colour to the Borderless Journal with her tribute to this hugely acclaimed actor. In the process, she unfolds for us a brief history of the Indian cinema, and a glimpse of a world that transcends all man made constructs in quest of perfection.
We have an interesting set of reviews this July. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anuradha Kumar’s riveting short story collection, A Sense of Time. A murder mystery for young readers, Murder at Daisy Apartments by Shabnam Minwalla, has been reviewed by Gracy Samjetsabam. The Third Eye of Governance–Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research by Dr N Bhaskara Rao, reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, seems to be a non-fiction that looks forward to bridging gaps between academia and the real world, a truly felt need. Parichha has also given us an essay on a man who inspired Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, to make him a part of his lore, a journalist who moved around all of Asia with equal aplomb and a sense of humour – a truly global citizen called Richard Hughes.
I want to thank all our wonderful contributors for making this edition a reality. And readers, we leave you to explore the unknown… like that place we call outer space. A huge thank you again to not only all our wonderful contributors, our faithful readers but also to the fabulous Borderless team scattered across the world.
Before I wind up, a little bird trills a song of hope in my ear. Business tycoons have started stepping into the mysterious void of space to eventually – let us hope — create affordable travel for common man, though it has started off as an expensive proposition. Will this be an industry that will generate more jobs on and off Earth and find new places for man to inhabit? After all, when George Bernard Shaw wrote his plays and essays, we had yet to cross the frontiers beyond Earth, had never even thought of flying across the world in budget airlines or mining moons!
Will we have a new world, a new outlook and a new set of hopes and aspirations as we stretch the frontiers of our home planet?
Wish you all a wonderful month of reading and thinking.
Sybil Pretious concludes her adventures this round with a fabulous trip to a country with islands and ancient volcanoes
A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. The way to do, is to BE.
In 2011 (aged 69), I decided to challenge myself and travel alone to Indonesia. I also looked at alternative accommodation to backpacking so I joined Couch surfers. CouchSurfing is an organisation that connects people who wish to find accommodation in other countries while offering to host travellers in their own country. You offer just a couch where you live and can ‘surf’ to find a ‘couch’ with a resident of the country you want to visit. You do not pay for the ‘couch’ and you must supply your own meals and transport. The big advantage of this accommodation apart from no cost is that you get information from a person who is local and loves where they live plus it’s a base to travel from.
Indonesia is a country that spans the equator and consists of at least 17,000 islands. I would only touch on this extended land by visiting Java and Sumatra and yes, I was interested in the people, volcanoes, dance, puppets and woven fabric that I had heard so much about. My Couchsurfing host was Arianne who had written a couple of travel books about Indonesia – perfect.
I flew into Jakarta in the evening and wondered about how I would get to Arianne’s as I didn’t have her address. As so often happens when I leave events to unfold without trying too hard, they do so in a much better way than if I had been more diligent. Without informing me my lovely hostess had sent a chauffeur driven car with refreshments. Her welcome and the help and caring throughout my stay were definitely not included in the description of CouchSurfing hosts.
Her home had wide open spaces with pillars and floors of red concrete so that air flow was optimal in this hot, steamy climate. My ‘couch’ turned out to be an ornate four-poster bed in a bedroom with my own ‘en suite’. The toilet was typically Asian with a bucket of water for flushing. The ‘bathroom’ held a large concrete cube open on top and filled with cold water. A very large scoop was provided. To ‘bath’ I stood naked on the concrete floor, soaped myself and scooped out the water, throwing it in the general direction of my body. It was a bit hit and miss but I did feel cool and refreshed for a short while. There was no hot water. It just wasn’t needed. Every morning, I was woken with the long loud call to prayer.
I mentioned to Arianne as we chatted that I wanted to make a trip to Sumatra and was busy looking for flights and that I wanted to stay on the island of Samosir in the centre of the volcanic lake Toba. The island and lake are the result of a super volcano eruption 75,000 years ago.
“Let me book the flights for you. I do this often and will get the best prices and I can also arrange for someone to meet you.”
I couldn’t refuse her kind offer so it seemed once more that I had a guardian angel at my side. She efficiently took over and booked flights, arranged for people to meet me and take me wherever I needed to go. I would explore Jakarta and possibly go to Bali when I returned.
On arrival in Medan, I was met by Argys, a young Indonesian man who had brought his friends along. They were so attentive and concerned that I wouldn’t like the accommodation they had arranged for that night in Parapat before we took the ferry from a small village called Tuk Tuk across to Samosir Island where we stayed at Samosir Cottages.
It was hard to believe that an angry volcano had created this stunningly tranquil Lake. I got up early for the sunrise, a perfect place to meditate and feel grateful. I was ready for the day ahead.
I wanted to see more of the island and was offered a motor bike tour by a local entrepreneur, Banyu. I didn’t give it a second thought, but Argys wasn’t too sure about this and gave Banyu a lecture before we set off. I promised him half the fee at the beginning of our ride and the other half when we returned and after a wonderful trip. He finally got more than he had asked for. It was a good feeling to be supporting local people rather than large touring companies. I have found that trust and acceptance is a must if you are to experience life through the local people’s eyes. Lack of knowledge of the local language is not necessarily a disadvantage.
Travelling by motorbike gives an uninterrupted view of the lush vegetation and local scenery. My guide stopped at regular intervals delighting in showing off the wonderful textiles and weaving that local people were demonstrating. I couldn’t resist buying some of the colourful pieces after a demonstration by the weaver who looked delighted at the sale.
A museum displayed wonderful crafting on a ship, using minimum tools while creating intricate, colourful decoration. We laughed at black pigs foraging and then went to talk to a man who was looking after a ‘castle’. He was happy to demonstrate just how a prisoner would be beheaded. Many hand signals flew between us until he figured I had not understood and finally looking resigned, laid himself down on a specially shaped stone, leaning the massive sword towards his head and laughing when I got agitated.
Banyu was ever attentive but refused to share the fruit and water I had taken with me. He had not eaten during the tour. At the end I thanked him profusely. I slept well that night dreaming of battling to get through a gate. I woke feeling vaguely disturbed.
The following day was the one I enjoyed the most.
“We want to take you to the Sipiso Piso Waterfall.”
“That sounds wonderful. I could do with some cool water in this heat.”
Argys looked a little worried.
“It’s really high up. It is a waterfall that comes from very high in the side of the lake. We have to go over rivers and rocks and climb through a very muddy forest to get there.”
“I will be okay. I haven’t had the chance to climb any mountains here so this will be good.”
I later found out that the waterfall fell from a height of 120metres above the lake gushing from a cave in the Lake Toba caldera.
I packed the usual things in my small backpack – water, fruit, biscuits, a first aid pack and an extra blouse as I knew how hot and sweaty I got when climbing. I wore open sandals and the loose top and light slacks I had worn on Kilimanjaro. I was glad I didn’t have to cover my head as the two girls in our little party did. It looked very uncomfortable in that humid heat, but they assured me it wasn’t. The guy’s clothes looked cooler.
The way up was through a forest of giant trees with lush foliage, taking us over a river, rocks and through thick, slippery mud. Bright orchids flowers graced some trees, and a musty smell pervaded the air. Leaning against one of the trees when we stopped for a short while, I felt very small, so tiny. I closed my eyes and gave thanks for the beauty and gifts that trees give us. My back against the thick trunk felt supported and strong, so I harnessed the strength to continue. The going was steep, and I found myself slipping and slowing down. Argys had offered to take my camera so that I would have many pictures without having to stop so often. He literally leapt around snapping photos from every angle — yet another thoughtful gesture.
Finally, we could hear voices amid the sound of rushing water. As we broke through the trees I was awestruck. A bright slither of water plunged in a narrow silver-white ribbon down the steep, rocky side of the caldera splashing into a shallow rocky pool below. The pool was filled with people, laughing and joyful as they cooled themselves in this beauty.
I was soon soaked and feeling thoroughly refreshed. Several local people came to ask Argys and the girls what I was doing there. I told them that I was living my life to the full and loving Indonesia and its peoples.
In the morning I downloaded all my photos onto my outside hard drive (no tiny memory sticks then) and promptly left it in the hotel computer. It was only at the airport that I remembered. I was devastated – my life was on that piece of equipment. True to form, Argys said he would go back for it and send it to Arianne’s. I was overcome with his selflessness.
I arrived back in Jakarta mid-morning and Arianne, knowing I would need it, after my exertions at the waterfall with the young people on Sumatra, had thoughtfully arranged a day of luxury and beauty. I could not have afforded that if I had been staying in paid accommodation. I languished with a scrub, massage and green tea soak, feeling thoroughly refreshed and pampered.
Arianne had arranged for a guide in Bali, and I was shepherded by Dewa. I explained my interest was not the beaches, but the culture and he obliged.
I was entranced with the story telling by dance and puppetry. I have used puppets so often in my teaching especially with young, shy children and children learning a new language. They might not want to respond to me, but they will willingly interact with the puppets. In that way, I gleaned many insights into feelings and thinking. I was determined to buy a Wayang Golek rod puppet. They were so beautifully made with spectacular clothing. At that time I had not known the story behind these puppets. They are always sold in pairs. I fell in love with a pair but felt I couldn’t afford two. The vendor did not want to sell one.
Dewar interpreted for me.
“They belong together. They cannot be parted.”
But I stupidly insisted and eventually I bought a female one. A strange thing happened when I was at the airport. I accidently left the puppet and a painting on the seat as I rushed to catch the plane. Sitting on the plane I felt sad and knew that the puppet had not wanted to leave her partner and I had not listened to local lore and story telling. I hope she found him again and I hope that I will listen to those that know the ancient stories of their culture, more closely in future.
My encounter with Barong and The Kris Dance was enthralling. The dancers in vibrant costumes seemed in a trance as the story unfolded and the dance became more hypnotic. I was drawn in as the Kris, a formidable sword was wielded. Precision and drama could not have been more pronounced.
Dewar couldn’t resist taking me to view some paintings and batik. I fell in love with a batik featuring fish swimming. It was extraordinarily intricate.
After a long day and feeling completely saturated with culture Dewar asked if I would like to meet his family the next day. I told him it would be my privilege and his face burst into a big grin.
His mother and three of his brother’s wives met me. How privileged I felt. They had been at their sewing machines making traditional ceremonial garments, an industry that his mother had started in 1976. There were four houses round a central place for worship and a small temple. Dewar’s parents lived with him and his wife as he is the eldest. There were 20 people living in this family complex. That family is so important was so evident here.
Having flown back to Jakarta Arianne arranged for me to stay with a writer friend of hers who also lives in a traditional home. Tita, like Arianne was a very busy lady. At forty two, she had written four books and ran an advertising agency and had a one year old daughter. The surroundings were tranquil, only the faint sound of insects floating on a zephyr breeze.
That afternoon I went out on my own to explore. The bus stops are lovely – there are at least two people manning each one to help with selling tickets and advice. On the bus the conductor helps passengers off at the correct stop ticking them off his list as they alight!
Just wandering down the streets was special. I got to eat street food – Nasi Goreng which was quite delicious – rice, meat, and curry flavours. A group of young students asked if they could interview me, and I obliged. Tita knew of my interest in puppets and arranged for me to buy a pair of the Wayang Golek. This time I knew I had to buy the pair and very beautiful they were. They didn’t fit in my backpack, so I carried them under my arm all the way on the plane back to Suzhou.
Finally, back with Arianne and getting ready to leave she said she had arranged for me to wait in the Emerald Sky Lounge at the airport. I felt very self-conscious sitting on luxury chairs and able to select from a variety of delicious food and drink all for free.
My solo journey turned out to be a travel experience of trust and delight in Indonesia. I felt blessed to have encountered many Indonesian people and places at a local level. Most importantly I had been able to support ground level community in my travel experiences instead of relying on tourist companies.
Travel is not about the sights you see but the people you meet.
Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.
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