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Contents

Borderless, July 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

Whispers of Stones… Click here to read.

Translations

Tagore’s Mono Mor Megher Shongi (‘The Clouds, My Friends‘)has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

The Welcome, a skit by Tagore, has been translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

The Bus Conductor, a short story by Dalip Kaur Tiwana has been translated from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair. Click here to read.

Hasan Sol: A Balochi Folktale from Geedi Kessah-4(Folktales Vol: 4) compiled and retold by Gulzar Khan Mari, has been translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi. Click here to read.

Cry of the Sunflower written in Korean and translated to English by Ihlwha Choi, a poem for Ukraine. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Nobobarsha (or ‘New Rains’) has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Pandies’ Corner

This narrative is written by a youngster from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. Lockdown had been written in Hindustani by Jishan and translated to English by Grace M Sukanya. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, Supatra Sen, Jenny Middleton, Pramod Rastogi, Ron Pickett, George Freek, Devangshu Dutta, Candice Louisa Daquin, David Francis, Raja Chakraborty, Michael Lee Johnson, Ashok Suri, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Sutputra Radheye, Maid Corbic, Rhys Hughes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In The Anthology in my Mind, Rhys Hughes talks of a make believe anthology. Click here to read and find out what he imagines.

Conversations

Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, converses with legendary actress, Deepti Naval, on her literary aspirations at the Simla Literary festival, Unmesh, in June 2022. Click here to read.

Keith Lyons interviews Steve Carr, a writer who has written 500 short stories and has founded the Sweetycat Press. Click here to read.

Stories

A Cat Story

Sohana Manzoor leaves one wondering if the story is about felines or… Click here to read.

My Christmas Eve “Alone”

Erwin Coomb has a strange encounter at night. Is it real? Click here to read.

Bus Stop

The story by Rinu Antony focusses on chance encounter at a bus stop. Click here to read.

Murder at the ‘Pozzo di San Patriza’

Paul Mirabile travels to 1970s Italy to experience a crime inside a sixteenth century well. Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices from Life

Grune Point and an Inkling of Eternity

A poetic account by Mike Smith as he explores the area that hovers between England and Scotland. Click here to read.

Olympic Game Farm: Meeting and Greeting Animals from Disney Movies

Hema Ravi visits a farm that houses animals that had a past in Disney. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In A Visit to the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Suzanne Kamata visits a Museum dedicated to an American Japanese artist. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Shopping for my Funeral, Devraj Singh Kalsi goes on a bizarre spree. Click here to read.

Mission Earth

In On a Bamboo Bicycle from Thailand to Indonesia, Kenny Peavy revisits his trip across Asia exploring the biodiversity and conservation efforts. Click here to read.

Essays

Discovering Books and Places: The Voyage from Eden

Meredith Stephens sails the Australian coastline, recording her experiences with words and her camera. Click here to read.

Trekking to Tilicho Lake

Ravi Shankar treks up to Tilicho Tal at 4940 m. Click here to read his trekking adventures.

A Modern-day Animal Fable with Twists

Dan Meloche visits a contemporary Canadian novel written as an animal fable to draw an unexpected inference. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

Is it okay to be ordinary? by Candice Louisa Daquin explores the responses of people to being accepted as ordinary. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from The Mendicant Prince (based on the Bhawal sannyasi case) by Aruna Chakravarty. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of the Hindi novel by Nita Kumar. Click here to read.

Indrashish Banerjee reviews Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Explaining Life Through Evolution. Click here to read.

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Editorial

Whispers of Stones

When the mountains and grass
had life, stones whispered
how the world came to be…

'Stonehenge', Daily Star

And as the world came to be, there was war — war that seems to rage in some part of the world or other. The British Museum has an exhibit which states the first battle was staged 13,000 years ago… in what is now Sudan, long before the advent of written history. This was even before the advent of people who built the ancient Stonehenge which was constructed around 3000-2000 BCE. And battles still continue to rage. The Jebel Sahaba casualties in Sudan 13000 years ago were less than 100. But the current conflicts claim in terms of tens of thousands which prolonged could stretch to millions. The last world war (1939-1945) which lasted for six years had a total of  75-80 million persons who perished. Ukraine-Russia conflict has within five months had a casualty count of more than 14000. And yet weapons and nuclear arms continue to proliferate decimating humanity, nature and towns, destroying homes, erasing ruthlessly and creating more refugees. The only need for such battles seem to be to satiate the hunger of the warlords secure in their impenetrable fortresses while tens of thousands are annihilated and natural or nurtured landscapes lie emaciated, mutilated and polluted.

What would be a good way of ending such wars?

Tagore sought the development of better instincts in humankind as an antidote. He wrote in the last century: “Any teaching concerning man must have human nature for its chief element. How far it will harmonise with human nature is a matter of time.”

With wars getting deadlier and more horrific, we can only try to awaken, as Tagore suggests, the better nature in man to move towards a peaceful world. What would be a more effective way of doing it than writing with the hope of a kinder and accepting future?

For that let us start with translations of the maestro Tagore himself. We have a song about the season — monsoon, ‘Monomor Megher Songi (My Friends, the Clouds)’, translated by Professor Fakrul Alam, a painting by Sohana Manzoor interpreting the lyrics and a transcreation of Nababarsha or New Rains’ was shrunken into a popular Rabindra Sangeet and reduced to twenty lines in English by Tagore himself. The connect with nature is an important aspect that enables humans to transcend petty concerns leading to dissensions of different kinds as evidenced in the maestro’s humorous feline skit, translated by Somdatta Mandal. A translation of Dalip Kaur Tiwana’s ‘The Bus Conductor’ from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair adds zest to this section. Fazal Baloch has translated a folktale from Balochistan involving the supernatural and Ihlwha Choi has taken on the cry for peace on behalf of Ukraine while translating his own poem in Korean. The Nithari column has a story by Jishan in Hindustani, translated to English by Grace M Sukanya, showcasing the struggle of a youngster during the pandemic – rather a sad narrative, which though fictitious has its roots in reality. 

Our poetry section touches upon the timelessness of dissensions and darkness with Michael R Burch’s poem on Stonehenge and Supatra Sen’s poem on Ukraine. This has been allayed by love poetry by Maid Corbic from Bosnia. George Freek’s poem ruffles with its reflective lines. And in the midst of it all, is poetry by Ryan Quinn Flanagan reflecting on the seven stages of man. Will the process of aging or human nature ever change? I wonder if Rhys Hughes can find an answer for that in humorous verses as he has shared in this issue. In his column, Hughes has written about an imagined anthology of short stories.

Our short story section has echoes of humour around felines by Manzoor, somewhat in tune with the mind frame seen in Tagore’s skit on this issue. Humour rings tinged with an apparition in Erwin Coombs’s narrative – should one call it dark humour or is it just his style? Paul Mirabile goes for gothic darkness in his meanderings around Italy.

Strangely, we seem to have a focus on short stories this time. Keith Lyons has interviewed Steve Carr, a journalist, a publisher and writer of 500 short stories who is questing to create a ‘perfect short story’. Reading out excerpts from her short story at a literary festival in Simla, Bollywood celebrity, Deepti Naval, was in conversation with eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta. She spoke of her literary aspirations while unveiling her autobiography in verse, A Country Called Childhood. This conversation has been shared by Sengupta with Borderless. It is interesting to see how Naval’s reactions to social malaise contrasts with that of the film director, cinematographer and actor, Goutam Ghose, who was present during the unveiling of her book. He had responded to communal violence by making a film on Lalan Fakir extolling virtues of love and kindness, called Moner Manush (2010) and then made a book on the film called, The Quest (2013) which has beautiful translations of Lalan Fakir’s lyrics by Sankar Sen.  

Our non-fiction sections seem to be hosting multiple travel stories across UK by Mike Smith, along the Australian coastline by Meredith Stephens, on the Himalayas with Ravi Shankar and an unusual visit by Hema Ravi to a farm in US where animals that had been used in Disney films in the past are homed. Our environmental columnist, Kenny Peavy, actually wrote about his cycling trip from Thailand to Indonesia on a bamboo cycle made by a Singaporean! And from Japan, Suzanne Kamata explored a museum in the neighbouring town of Mure. The museum on a hill hosts the art of American Japanese Artists, Isamu Noguchi.

We do have non-fiction that moves away from travel: noir humour by Devraj Singh Kalsi and an essay by Candice Louisa Daquin on a very interesting subject – ‘Is it Okay to be Ordinary?’ Is it?  Dan Meloche has written a literary essay on Canadian novelist Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel, Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015). While Meloche spoke of how the novel departed from Orwell’s Animal Farm, his narrative brought to my mind a novel closer to our times set in England by Jasper Fforde called Constant Rabbit (2020) – this a science fiction while Alexis’s was an apologue or an animal fable. Fforde did use the rabbits rather well to highlight the current times.

We have book excerpts of two recent books that I would call really outstanding. One of them is Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, which is being released this week, and is based on the evergreen contentious case of the prince of Bhawal that has even been explored even in cinema. The other, Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar by Nabendu Ghosh, has been published posthumously and is not a translation from Bengali but written in English originally by this trilingual writer.  

Called ‘Dadamoni’ affectionately, iconic actor Ashok Kumar is regarded as “the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood”.  This book has been reviewed by Indrashish Banerjee, who calls it ‘a reflection on the Hindi film industry’ as well as a biography. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Booker winner Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of her Hindi novel by Nita Kumar, reiterating the dialogue that had been kindled on motherhood last month by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao’s The Oldest Love Story (2022). Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Explaining Life Through Evolution plotting how life evolved on earth. Parichha tells us: “Meaningful, wide-ranging and argumentative, this is a must-read book. It will propel us to imagine and reimagine life around us.” Another book that sounds like a must-read has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road, translated by Mandal. She tells us: “ ‘Gleanings’ represents the quintessential Tagore…Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.”

There is more to tempt. Please stop by on our contents page and take a look.

We would like to hugely thank all our contributors and readers for being with us and helping us grow. I would like to thank my team, who despite hurdles they face, always lend a helping hand and wonderful words from their pens or computers to get Borderless on its feet. I apologise for the delay and thank you all for your patience. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fabulous artwork.

I wish you all a wonderful July and peace in a war-torn world. We are all affected by the ongoing conflicts. Let us hope for peaceful and just resolutions.

Thanks.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

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Stories

Murder at the ‘Pozzo di San Patriza’

Paul Mirabile travels to 1970s Italy to a crime inside a sixteenth century well

A visit to Italy would certainly do me wonders; I hoped my migraines and other aches and pains would disappear, and my academic life regain its habitual vitality and éclat. Yet, in spite of my joyous resolution, I couldn’t see myself going alone to a country so different from my own. I thus decided to bring along a girlfriend of mine, a colleague from the university who had been working with me on various projects both at the university and at my summer home. She would be an excellent companion for such an excursion; the long distances by bus and train would be spent in ardent conversation, the sites and experiences could be discussed with a sympathetic companion. Also, if my health would fail at any given moment, she could surely offer her fine qualities as a physical and spiritual healer.

We left at the end of June, taking a night train through sunny France then directly to Rome. After spending a stimulating week there, bathing in the glory and debauchery of the Roman Empire, exalting the works of the great Renaissance artists, strolling through the still present Pasolinian streets of proletarian squalor, we took a bus to Orvieto, a mediaeval town located in the lush green hills of Umbria, noted especially for its white wine. I like a good white wine, and I was sure this ancient Etruscan town would revive and rejuvenate my spirits. Rome had plunged me in a numbing, cultural lethargy ; it was much too theatrical for my tastes, too saturated in enormous works of art for me to assimilate. I needed a stimulus less exacting, less pompous, more submissive. Orvieto was just that submissiveness …

The cathedral drew me towards her like a lascivious hussy. The queenly black and white columns and the lightly faded frescoes depicting scenes from the ‘Apocalypse’ painted at both ends of the transept[1] heightened my appetite for the imaginative and the unknown. The ceiling towered ever so high above me. At times the long and lofty naves appeared like soaring prehistoric animals, zebra-coloured, ready to devour their squealing prey below. At these awesome moments, I forgot that my colleague was close at hand, a hand so tender, fresh. Her presence became unreal, fading away beyond the muslin ramparts of my intimate sanctuary.

When I returned to the real world, I took my girlfriend by hand and pressed it firmly. She appreciated those penetrating instances, although I will confess they were few and far between.

After our visit to the Duomo, we stopped for lunch, and had some lovely Orvieto wine. I ate and drank like I never had before, gobbling down plates of pasta that I never dared touch at home. I felt like I was in a reverie, drinking, eating, laughing … even joking ! I had never joked in my life: Was I possessed by some spirit, or simply by the trellis of polychromatic vines creeping up the trattoria[2]walls that emitted the most sensuous perfumes?

We stopped off at our hotel to change after lunch. I threw around my neck my favourite silk scarf stained a violent red. As to my companion, she too dressed very smartly for the occasion, draped in a long, milky white muslin skirt, a resplendent black satin blouse and sporting a large hat with crape rose. Yes, it would to be a most rewarding plunge into the underworld, I thought cheerfully.

We left the hotel. Arm in arm we strolled like two young lovers towards the famous Pozzo di San Patrizia, a curiosity that attracted me for its absolute banality: a well dug out of volcanic tuft, hellishly profound, spiralling down and down into the bowels of the earth, where the coolness of its universe preserves and petrifies all that stumble into and within its dark, dank apertures. Are all wells similar ?

We descended the cool, glistening, humid steps, smoothed over by moss. Oddly enough, we were the only visitors. My colleague, startled by our chilly surroundings, grasped my arm tightly in an almost man-like grip. She slipped, nearly sliding over the low stone wall that separated the steps from the brackish waters far below. I peered down into them ; a diminutive bridge connected the two spiralling stairways on each side of the darkened waters. The bridge seemed so far away, so distant from our weary lives spent on the surface of the earth, working like slaves to earn a meagre living. I had been toiling so much, trying to gather new ideas for a book or short-story. But nothing emerged, no matter how deep I sounded ; only a spittle of words drooled on paper without meaning, and oftentimes, without form.

My mind wandered nervously from the moist walls to the lightless, stagnant waters … A story would surely form out of those dank elements, a murder committed on the spur of the moment as the killer descended ever deeper into the bowels of Hell … Yes, Saint Theresa’s Hell as she so vividly depicted it in her autobiographical writings; a depiction that I had memorised to comfort me during long sleepless nights, twisting and turning in moist, smelly sheets :

 “…Whilst she knelt in prayer, she suddenly found herself amongst demons in a place which appeared to her like the entrance of a long, narrow small street, a sort of low furnace, obscure and anguishing. The floor seemed to be of a very foul-smelling muddy water, swarming with terrible vermin or worms. At the end of this road appeared a cavity with a sort of closet, cabinet or store-room where the saintly nun felt cramped. Here she felt as if she were imprisoned. Hence, I reiterate that the descent into Hell was one of the greatest boons that the Lord granted me because I gained greatly from it, losing thus my fears of the trials and contradictions of this life, so as to strengthen myself to endure them ; and I thank the Lord who delivered me from what appears to me to be such terrible and perpetual evils …” 

How comforting did those words ring in my tortured ears under the weighty silence of starless nights. A murder, yes a murder … without premeditation, without vindictiveness … without meaning ! A murder pure in act, taintless of any scrupulous criminality to which mankind has been accustomed. A murder to be executed in this very well, in its unholy, hellish, malodorous enveloping coil. Its slimy aureole would indeed produce a horror-filled effect.

 As I turned to my colleague to expound my budding thoughts, a hard, clanking noise disturbed us from above. It sounded like a rotating, iron machine, grinding, pounding, droning … droning like a million wasps or hornets. A torturing engine, perhaps, twisting and tearing the limbs of its hysterical victims. The weird cranking sounds made my head spin. I felt a pang of involuntary emotion for its victims, his or her sorrows and misfortunes, trials and tribulations. My girlfriend stared at me out of empty orbits. Above the cranking din, the droning wasps and hornets, now receded now grew louder. I poured out my soul to her about the imagined murder. My animation caused her to laugh meekly, albeit I sensed in her voice an anguish that if magnified would have echoed off the well walls. She noted my need to expurgate this relevant project, the desire to couch it on paper, the need to fulfil its account. She realised this tale could only be discussed in whispers, here in the bowels of Hell. Yet, how delighted, how encouraged, how spellbound even was I to enlist her sympathy.

Our footfalls were endless. The sun’s rays had long since left us to grope our way along the smooth, rounded walls. The clanking and droning had ceased for an instant, but again took up its place amongst the horrors of my imagination, in rhythm with the melodious words of Saint Theresa, still drumming inside my temples. And my tale thickened with obsolete details amongst those uncanny rhythms. The cranking lent it beauty and balance, the drake-like light, ruddy and rutilant, form and volume. But the tiny bridge still appeared so remote, so aloof, far below us. Would we ever reach the damn thing ? Its razor-sharp crossing? The descent … the razor-sharp bridge : “ ..it was the bridge over cold water … it was strong and stiff like a sword … and it had the length of two lances..…” murmured creepily into my ear a fey voice from some remote, unearthly Time and Space; one that I could not fathom for the life of me. I shook my head, ridding it of that vexing nuisance …

The story that poured out from my entrails would surely please my future readers. But did it have to occur at the bridge ? Could it not, for example, happen elsewhere, along the slimy passage downwards, high above the stinking waters ? Could the killer, anxious to carry out his crime, impatient of the countless steps, not throw his victim to a watery death from the smooth, slimy, low, protecting, stone wall ?

I submitted these new image-filled details to my colleague who merrily agreed to the novel developments. She deemed it amusing, and even cautioned a detail or two, apropos the way in which the murder was to be effected. Was the victim to be strangled or merely thrown over the stone wall ? I shook my head fiercely, no violence would be condoned, a simple push over the side. The killer would observe the frightened face of his defenceless prey as she plunged over the stone wall. Yes ! It had to be a woman ! One who was easily terrified, especially of well deaths ! I laughed so loud that its echo clanged above the clanging, iron clamour … the droning hordes of wasps and hornets. My girlfriend stepped back against the low wall, noticing that the laugh resounded far greater than the gyrating engines. She turned a ghastly white, her eyes frozen in their sockets. Her sudden soft smile eased my inner tensions, soothed my painful need to perform a physical achievement. Yet, I had to do something to alleviate the mounting tension in my chest and temples : that spiralling Theresian plummet into Hell …

I touched her arm, absorbed by the intensity of her presence. She suddenly slapped me away as if the torturous pounding had been impounded in the palm of my hand. Her face transformed into a mutilated horror, her lips stretched bloodlessly across her already livid, pallid face. Those lips curled into a snarl and sneered at me. Those hollow eyes tunnelled out two fiery rays in the inky darkness. Her slow and steady transformation, along with the droning machines drove me back a few steps. The well seemed so much deeper ; and where was that bridge ? The iron clanking and wasp-like droning came to a sudden halt … The silence grew unworldly, and as it did, all the terrors of the subterranean world began to jump at me in tainted colours. Indeed, the Luciferian world would soon gain on my own. I wanted to run back up those long steps, back to light and hope.

She caught my shoulder. I lashed out to protect myself. Who’s side would she be on ? There would be no turning back now, my mind was running amok. My story was not evolving any further, and there I was trapped within the entrails of Hell in company not with Saint Theresa but with a witch-like demon. A strong impulse grew terribly painful and seized my heart, a killer’s impulse that shot adrenalin through my arm as it involuntarily stretched out to grasp the witch’s leathery neck … to wring it to death. But ever so gently, as not to leave any ungainly marks on that creamy, pasty, ashen skin. Those marks never attracted me in the least ; they were done in the most barbaric fashion, passionately and without reflexion.

We are not savages, are we not ? We are children of mild words and sober acts. And here I was forced to perform such undistinguished rituals … I deemed it repugnant to prostrate before these base and besmirching deeds. Her lips touched mine. They were dry, wilting like the dying petals of a black tulip, no longer tempting, but welcoming infectious lust. My strength, however, did not yield, and lifting up this mindless, mirthless creature, I threw it over the wall, its screams in perfect harmony with the churning machines, the droning hornets. The screams vanished with a distant thud … and splash … I peered over the low stone wall : the body floated listlessly upon the calm, clammy waters. Suddenly it disappeared, and only the large hat with crape rose lay stiff on the oily surface waters like some dead gelatinous marine creature …

I continued to peer into those waters, so still, so tranquil, like my nerves, still and tranquil. A decomposing odour soon filled the air. Already ? It made me think of a slaughter-house on the edge of a polluted river-bank. Perhaps even of a burial vault. I searched for my colleague but she was nowhere to be found. Had she returned to the surface? She did seem so distraught at the stillness and profoundness of that Hell-hole. Someone did caution me about her oftentimes awkward, even odd, unpredictable behaviour.

Apparently she was capable of standing you up at any time for any given reason. I now believed it. She had left me to wane alone in Saint Theresa’s realm. But I was undaunted, unafraid of what others would say if they should find me amongst the dead. Their words could never pierce my brazen heart. I had been there before and knew how to handle poisonous platitudes. And besides, I could at last write my story… my beloved story that would earn me a grand reputation amongst my so called peers, they who, to tell the truth, were no more than the lackeys of market-targeting editors and courtiers of government officials. Perhaps they would all laugh at my naivety, at my indefatigable efforts. But I feared not their calloused mockery. I would not lock myself up like some raving maniac and let them tear me to pieces. Let them come ! The dark walls of Hell had welcomed Saint Theresa … They shall welcome me ! They shall be my lichened ramparts, my spiralling stairway to fame and fortune ! Hell will transform the cranking machine and droning nests of wasps and hornets into a deadly weapon of defence … cranking and droning my enemies to atoning tears. Had the goodly saint not whispered to me the bitter but bountiful benefits of Lucifer’s diabolical gardens ?

There on the diminutive bridge, razor-sharp (I finally gained the bridge), I waited for them, my indistinguishable peers, cranking my neck high up to the creamy waxing rays of a lunar light ; waited at that precipitous bridge for the great Crossing. Ô Theresa ! Ô Theresa ! Will my story rise to the dawn of rosy day, expurgated of its entombed overweening bondage ?


[1] Either of the two sides of a cross-shaped church that are at a perpendicular angle to the main part

[2] Italian eatery

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

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Categories
The Observant Immigrant

A Post-Pandemic Future …?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Having been a reluctant fan of apocalyptic fiction since I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), I had studied virology when the AIDS pandemic struck and read a great number of virus-related books on infectious diseases. Despite this preparedness and the knowledge that it was not a case of IF, but WHEN, the next virus would strike, I think I speak for most of us when I say we were still all unprepared for Covid-19.

What the pandemic has taught us thus far is immeasurable and I believe it will last several generations, or I hope so. That said, it’s our human nature to want to move on. Not because we don’t care, but part of being alive is putting trauma and suffering behind us and ensuring those who survive, truly survive, which means living. Is that insensitive or just the nature of the beast? It can be insensitive, especially to the millions who have lost loved ones, but it’s also how humans generally operate.

Is it possible to move on and live a full life irrespective of this global tragedy without losing our compassion and responsibility to stop this from ever happening again?

The reality is; it will happen again, and for many of us, in our lifetime. What we can do is be better prepared and all that this entails.

What are the steps being taken to move toward the new post pandemic future? What are we doing differently? And why?

The pandemic divided us, it physically kept us apart. Some who were well versed in social skills and true extroverts, struggled when they emerged from the worst of the pandemic. They found it hard to do the things they used to be so skilled at. From lack of practice. I recall sitting at lunch with a friend who used to be the life-and-soul of any social event. She struggled for, as she put it; ‘her words’. Having become so used to speaking less and not being face-to-face, she said it felt ‘overwhelming’, ‘strange’ and she looked forward to going home.

That is a habit we must break. The comfort of the living room and the immediate family is intoxicating. We can rapidly get used to living in a smaller-seemingly safer, changed world where we see less people, go out less, and become accustomed to an intimate circle. For some of us this was always our life, and maybe not as challenging — a shift as it was for those who previously socialised a great deal.

In a way the pandemic was harder on the extrovert than the introvert. Because while introverts aren’t averse to socialising, they can find it exhausting; whereas extroverts gain energy from it. When you put an extrovert in a forced setting without social opportunity, they may struggle more than someone used to their own company.

But it’s not as simple as extrovert and introverts. Many of us are a little of both, depending on the situation. I can go out with a big group one day. But on other days I want to be alone. Few of us are extremes. Most are like ‘ambiverts’ a combination of extroverts and introverts.

For those who do thrive on socialising, the pandemic was particularly challenging, but there are many ways to be affected, not least the tension and anxiety all of us picked up on or directly experienced.

Fortunately, technology became our best friend as we Zoomed more and met via video chats throughout the world. It opened up an international stage more than we’ve ever experienced and gave children a new normal in terms of how they learned online. Learning solely online had deleterious effects on underperformers. This ‘unfinished learning’ [1] particularly impacted youth who might have already been struggling in the educational system.

Having taught Critical Thinking online for years, I genuinely believe online learning cannot replace in-class learning. There are huge draws to learning from the comfort of home, especially for adult learners who do so after work [2]. “In comparisons of online and in-person classes, however, online classes aren’t as effective as in-person classes for most students. Only a little research has assessed the effects of online lessons for elementary and high school students, and even less has used the ‘gold standard’ method of comparing the results for students assigned randomly to online or in-person courses.” [3]The amount of information retained is drastically smaller and the social engagement of a classroom has benefits that are hard to quantify but necessary for social development. When you rob children of the opportunity to socialize with each other you isolate them at a crucial stage in their development.

Some kids with learning disabilities[4] are particularly affected by this, as are those who come from unsafe or impoverished backgrounds, where they may not have equal access to technology or reliable internet. They may not have parents who can help them if they are stuck or be able to work from home or have access to lunch. All those necessary elements to the education system were lost in our need to stay home and protect each other. A generation of children will always remember this time as a result.

On the other hand, they have mastered technology in a way that few older generations can boast of, and they are conversant in all the myriad ways of communicating with a wide range of technologies and devices. They are adaptable, versatile and fearless when it comes to tackling the rigors of online learning. For some who dislike social settings, it may also be a vast improvement[5].

Women left the workforce in droves [6]when the pandemic hit, with 2 million less in the work-force. The inverse of this was men began to return to work having been dropping in numbers whilst women rose. The Pew Research Center found “What accounts for the larger labor force withdrawals among less-educated women than men during the pandemic? It is complex but there seems to be a consensus that it partly reflects how women are overrepresented in certain health care, food preparation and personal service occupations that were sharply curtailed at the start of the pandemic. Although women overall are more likely than men to be able to work remotely, they are disproportionately employed in occupations that require them to work on-site and in close proximity to others.” Jobs men traditionally do like physical labor, were in high demand, whilst many jobs traditionally filled by women, were shut down, often not returning[7].

We can be glad our restaurants are open again; we’re opening borders, we’re flying abroad, we’re living again. But let’s also spare a moment to think of those who lost so much it’s almost impossible to conceive. Covid was the third leading cause of death in America during the height of the pandemic, how did this many deaths become normal? Covid killed an estimated 13% of people over 80. Aside the tragedy of a generation of elderly dying[8] and the loss of grandparents, and parents for so many, we’ve also seen younger people dying from a virus, which has shaken the belief younger people have that they are impervious to viruses similar to the flu, what effect with this have on their sense of safety going forward?

And what of the health consequences of those who technically survived bout of the pademic but developed ‘slow Covid’ or worse, the side-effects and lingering legacy of being seriously ill with the virus?[9] How many lung transplants will occur? How will ‘long haulers’ cope with lingering serious effects? What of those who live in countries where this isn’t an option? How many chronic illnesses will continue for decades as a result of this pandemic? It’s not enough to point to those who have died but also include those who survived but at such a high cost.

Financially we have collectively poured money into research, vaccines, countermeasures and prevention, but where has that money actually come from? And can we feasibly borrow that much money from our coffers without a reckoning? Economist Anton Korinek, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics and the Darden School of Business thinks: “People sometimes frame the policy response to COVID-19 as a trade-off between lives and livelihoods, and they ask whether it’s worth killing our economy to save people’s lives. But what they forget is that people won’t go back to a normal life and consumer demand won’t really recover if the virus is spreading through our country and killing people.” But the result of these hard choices and repeat closures, is they now predict an impending worldwide recession of global proportions, which had already been mounting prior to the pandemic, but promises to be far greater in its aftermath. I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the fall out; it begins with massive inflation but that’s just the start[10].

History tells us when we go through challenging times and survive, ‘the near miss experience’ as it’s known as, we want to live more than ever before[11], but economically this will not be possible for so many who are robbed of their financial security because of inflation, redundancy, underemployment and post-covid illness. We should be mindful that none of us are all right if many of us are still suffering and if we can support those who struggle, this battle with covid should have taught us all that we should care more about each other.

Perhaps these are the steps we can take to move toward a new post-pandemic future, where we consider ways, we may be better prepared for an invariable future of emerging viruses. We can try to find ways to avoid spilling into areas with high disease potential. “According to a group of UN biodiversity experts, around 1.7 million unidentified viruses circulate in animal populations, of which 540,000 to 850,000 have the capacity to infect humans.” So, we can avoid wet markets, and sloppy scientific research, both of which are vectors for the spread of viruses. We can pay more emerging virus hunters [12] to seek out those emerging viruses and begin work on treatments before they devastate countries. We can be borderless in our unanimous approach to equity for all, especially access to healthcare.

In America, we learned we were far from unassailable. In a New York Times article about Covid Deaths, the authors wrote: “For all the encouragement that American health leaders drew from other countries’ success in withstanding the Omicron surge, the outcomes in the U.S. have been markedly different. Hospital admissions in the U.S. swelled to much higher rates than in Western Europe, leaving some states struggling to provide care. Americans are now dying from Covid at nearly double the daily rate of Britons and four times the rate of Germans.” Nothing can diminish that fatal statistic or rectify the unnecessary deaths[13]. Our healthcare system, considered superior, proved to be full of holes. Without some type of socialised healthcare our costs and resources are too high and scarce. We don’t value the front-line workers like nurses, porters, assistants and care staff and we do not pay them for the risks they take, and whilst we do pay doctors good wages, we have severe shortages of knowledge and progress. Finding out we didn’t have enough ventilators, masks for medical staff, PCP equipment and beyond, exposed the shame of putting profit over people. [14]

It is no surprise then that the UK and USA were among the top offenders in the rise and spread of the pandemic and their death rates exposed this. No one ethnic group appears to be at greater risker of dying from the virus based on ethnicity alone, but Hispanic, Black, and native Americans or AIAN people are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their White counterparts and that Hispanic and AIAN people are at one and a half times greater risk of COVID-19 infection than White people[15]. This is caused by social reasons (inequality) not ethnicity, as can be proven by Africa and some AIAN countries having some of the lowest Covid mortality rates. In the article ‘Racism not Genetics’ in Scientific American, the authors point out “the genes that influence skin colour are distributed independently of genes that influence the risk for any particular disease. Given the heterogeneity of groups we call “black” or “white,” treating those categories as proxies for genetic variation almost always leads us astray.”[16]

Even if there are increased susceptibilities related to blood type[17] and age (More than 81% of COVID-19 deaths occur in people over age 65. The number of deaths among people over age 65 is 97 times higher than the number of deaths among people ages 18-29 years). The real risk is how healthy the population is and whether they have safe access to healthcare[18]. Both America and the UK failed because they put profit above people and have large populations of sickly people[19]. Going forward this needs to change, which means redesigning what we prioritise. People need to have access to healthcare and make lifestyle changes that will reduce their risks which they cannot do if they cannot afford to see a doctor or in the case of the UK find it hard to see a doctor because of long wait times and reduced staffing. It’s not as simple as socializing healthcare as the UK proved, this alone doesn’t save lives, what saves lives is considering the larger picture.

But politicians gain from older populations dying, consider what happened in Brazil when the President denied the danger of Covid and for a time Brazil had the highest Covid mortality[20]. This is the harsh truism rarely mentioned: It benefits those in control of a society to lose the most fragile members who will suck up precious resources, much like a form of eugenics, it behooves them to let it happen and there are many examples[21]. For a politician who is looking for ways to reduce healthcare costs, what is better than some of the potentially most expensive ‘customers’ dying? This happened in France where number of elderly people died one Summer, shockingly little was said at the time, but all signs pointed to a collective signal of relief from those in power who benefited from less older people making claim on an already taxed medical system[22].

When Italy [23]and Spain [24] and Brazil [25] became epicenters of Covid 19 deaths, they did so because of ill preparedness and it’s a cautionary tale to witness which countries succumbed to the ravages of covid 19 repeatedly, versus those who learned from them. What we have learned is more, not less, needs to be done and if a country keeps its borders open including air-travel and business-travel, then as much as they hope to save their economy, they do so at the expense of their most vulnerable. For some countries this was a conscious choice (economy over lives) whereas for others it was poor communication and slow response times. For some a lack of money, for others a desire to gain at any cost. All this speaks of the tapestry that is the pandemic’s aftermath (and truly, is it really vanquished?)[26].

I’d love to say a new post pandemic future looks rosy, but the only way that happens is if we learn from our mistakes, which history tells us, we rarely do. The most important thing is empathy, when we saw others take their masks off and simply not care if the vulnerable died, we saw how bad we as humans can fall. But we also saw how wonderful humans can be, including the infinite sacrifice and compassion of thousands who sought to help strangers. If there is a way, we can reward the good and not the bad, if we can get our priorities right and stop paying sports figures astronomical sums but perhaps emphasise on compassion, kindness, and diligence, we can all grow together.

I was particularly moved by youth who in the turmoil of the pandemic created inventions or systems to help others[27]. Believing youth are our future, and thus, our hope, it gives me great faith in the future when I see those too young to vote, care for strangers and seek to do their part. We should always encourage this as we should encourage a continued dialogue into how we can create an international rapid response to emerging diseases. It is not if, but when, and now all of us should know this and have no excuse for putting our heads in the sand again. Yes, it hurts to think of it, yes, we’d rather go off and have fun, but what fun is it if we are only postponing the inevitable return of a lethal virus? Part of being responsible for our planet and each other, is not avoiding the harsh truths; of environmental changes and devastation, global poverty, continued inequality and elitism, and of course, the increasing risk of deadly diseases.

We have within us all, the power to effect change. The steps we should take to move toward a post pandemic future must necessarily include keeping our eyes open and not taking the easy road. Sure, governments don’t want to spend the money on research, science, virus hunters, predictions. And preparedness, but I challenge anyone to say this isn’t exactly what they need to do. It is necessary we keep this in mind when we vote and protest. We should be marching about this as much as any other cause, because it affects us all and equally, brings us all together with one cause.

Thinking in terms of one world, we are less divided than ever before and whilst we were separated, I think we also found ways to come together if we choose to. I say, we should. Because, together globally, we learn more than we ever would divided. With the offensive by Russia on Ukraine, we see the lunacy of war, the futility, the devastation and waste. Instead of pouring millions into wars and keeping the rich, rich at the cost of the poor and overworked, we should consider how we can all rise out of the mire and evolve towards a better future. But in order to achieve this we cannot be complacent, and we cannot let our guard down.


[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2021/03/31/the-worst-of-times-for-online-education/?sh=401d57623a5a

[3] https://www.edweek.org/technology/opinion-how-effective-is-online-learning-what-the-research-does-and-doesnt-tell-us/2020/03

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/05/20/students-disabilities-virtual-learning-failure/

[5] https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/how-technology-making-education-more-accessible

[6] https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/over-1-million-fewer-women-in-labor-force.aspx

[7] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/14/some-gender-disparities-widened-in-the-u-s-workforce-during-the-pandemic/

[8] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1191568/reported-deaths-from-covid-by-age-us/

[9] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/covid-long-haulers-long-term-effects-of-covid19

[10] https://news.virginia.edu/content/economist-societal-costs-covid-19-outweigh-individual-costs

[11] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201803/aftereffects-the-near-death-experience

[12] https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20201218-gabon-s-virus-hunters-in-search-of-the-next-covid-19

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/01/science/covid-deaths-united-states.html

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/06/us-covid-death-rate-vaccines

[15] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html

[16] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/racism-not-genetics-explains-why-black-americans-are-dying-of-covid-19/

[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8286549/

[18] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52245690

[19] https://theconversation.com/why-has-the-uks-covid-death-toll-been-so-high-inequality-may-have-played-a-role-156331

[20] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00529-8/fulltext

[21] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/18/china-covid-19-killed-health-care-workers-worldwide/

[22] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/hong-kong-covid-outbreak-rcna20033

[23] https://www.france24.com/en/tv-shows/revisited/20210528-covid-19-in-europe-codogno-the-italian-town-where-it-all-began

[24] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/world/europe/spain-coronavirus-emergency.html

[25] https://www.scielo.br/j/rsbmt/a/8FzbQZY57WRTwYL9MnBKBQp/?lang=en

[26] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03003-6

[27] https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/deeply-affected-pandemic-youth-are-committed-helping-others

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Categories
Interview

A Voice from Kharkiv : A Refugee in her Own Country

Lesya Bakun, a poet and writer, tells her story of escape from war-torn Ukraine. Her narrative maps the past and the present.

“I woke up around 4 am with the sound of a loud explosion. And I heard all around me people running. They were leaving as they knew it (war) had started,” said Lesya Bakun, an applied linguist who worked as a youth worker and Non-Formal Education trainer in Kharkiv, Ukraine. This was on 24th February 2022. The offensive that is devastating a huge country with a population of 43,273,062 had started.

Lesya faced bombs as she tried to get food to her mother from her home as supermarkets were not functioning. She went live on Facebook while the shelling continued, using the footage as a defence mechanism. She elucidates: “I have documented my trip to bring my mother some food. It was scary because I heard explosions all the time. I was partly doing that as a security measure so that if anything happened to me it would be caught live on video. I had told my friends, if anything happened to me, they had my permission to disclose it. I had been sharing the overall story of the war. Many followed me on FB live from different countries because I was involved in European Commission’s Erasmus Programme for nine years and I knew people from pretty much all around Europe. I had connections also because I was a moderator for Virtual Poetry Readings. I had friends from every continent. People were following my story. It is one thing to watch the events in news but another to watch someone live through it. Eventually, people started recommending me to journalists in other countries. I gave five interviews to Canada, USA, Lithuania, Georgia and Italy. I became a bit famous. Weird though, not on the basis of who I am but on the basis of where I was and what I experienced. Like I am doing right now.”

Born five years before the USSR was dissolved, Lesya lived the first part of her life in the city that has been ground to pulp with the bombing, Mariupol. She moved to Kharkiv when she was twelve. She has memories of her past growing up in a Ukranian-speaking home, she was exposed to Russian and English together at kindergarten.  

She unfolds the story of the current aggression bit by bit. The war this time was anticipated, she tells us. “This (attack) was anticipated because pretty much the whole world warned us that this would happen. And I had been warned by my friends from Lithuania and Latvia. My friend from Lithuania warned me three days before the attack and my friend from Latvia, three weeks before the attack. Russia and Belarus had prepared troops nearby, but a lot of people did not believe it would happen as they believed the Russian propaganda for dozens of years. I could have left earlier but my mum was really ill. She had COVID and pneumonia in January. She was in hospital. Then we brought her home with the oxygen machine.”

She had been going through family crises when the war started. She tells us: “Even though I was warned, I had not packed at all. In December, my grandmother died of a long illness. Then in January, my mum got ill with COVID. I had formalities of the funeral and all that. I was definitely not mentally prepared for war. How can you ever be prepared? I think even Putin was not prepared though he knew Russia’s plan. But he definitely did not understand how the Ukranians would meet him and his troops. Because for some reason, he was sure Ukranians would be happy to meet them. But Ukranians were not happy at all. He anticipated welcome like in Crimea (2014) where people did not fight. Unfortunately, eight years ago, lot of Ukranian troops and Crimea just gave up and changed the flag just like that. So, they have broken their promise to the Ukranian nation.”

She spells out clearly that Ukranians want their identity respected and not annihilated. “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.”

The sense of resentment runs strong. The feeling of being let down is evident. She talks of the Budapest Memorandum signed in 1994, which led to the denuclearisation of Ukraine, here as she did in her poem. “Budapest Memorandum is an agreement between Russia, USA and UK. It says these three countries will protect us if we are attacked. When Russia took away Crimea eight years ago, no one came to protect us. There was a war with people dying in the East of Ukraine. Now as Russia attacks us, will Russia protect us? The United States and United Kingdom did not protect us from Russia. Thank you for all the help, help to refugees, for weapons. But the world would not need to face millions of refugees if they had respected the Budapest Memorandum eight years ago.”

Lesya gives a backgrounder to elucidate the need to withstand the Russian forces: “Ukraine is a multi-ethnic country, we have ethnic Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Belarusians, Poles, Jews, Tartars, many others — not only Ukrainians and Russians, so it was never about ‘evil Ukrainians want to forbid Russian language and oppress Russian-speakers’ as they said in propaganda for years. Ukrainian Constitution protects the right for every nation and language to exist — but for Russia, just the existence of the Ukrainian language is an insult and a ‘threat to their existence’ (that they apparently need to protect by bombing Russian-speaking cities among others).

“For centuries, massive anti-Ukraine politics have been lead, targeted to wipe out Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, in the Tsarist Russia, in the USSR, and even after the Ukrainian independence. People have been brainwashed, and even our own TV shows often made fun of Ukrainians. A lot of common people (in some regions, up to 50%) believed the Russian propaganda. Films and media were still in Russian despite our breaking away, for years, which made me — a Ukrainian speaker — feel like an unwanted element in my own country. Only Yushchenko — our third President – introduced the law that all movies had to be dubbed in Ukrainian. Poroshenko — our fifth President — introduced Ukrainian-speaking quotas on the Radio — and a lot of business owners opposed that, and from that point, rumours of ‘Ukrainians suppressing Russians’ intensified. Russia wanted Russian to be the sole ‘inhabiter’ of our narrative and media, and the mere existence of Ukrainian media in Ukraine was perceived aggressively as ‘Ukrainian Nazism’ and ‘Ukrainians hating Russians’, ‘oppression of Russian-speakers’ and ‘Russian language needing protection in Ukraine’ (by destroying kindergartens and maternity hospitals, apparently).”

She gives an example of a woman who believed the ‘Russian narrative’ just before the war started. Lesya had gone for a lung check up to the hospital as she was coughing. This is what she says she encountered. “Two days before (the war started), I went to the hospital. I went for a fluoroscopy of my lungs. Then I could not take my results because the war began. But I still went to see the doctor before the war. A patient waiting with me asked, ‘If you do not have the results of the flouroscopy, why are you waiting to see the doctor?’ And I told her, ‘What if tomorrow the war starts?’ And this woman was too scared to believe.”

Lesya comes from a family of academics and intellectuals. She tells us about her mother, who despite the shelling continues to live in Kharkiv. A university lecturer, a Slavist and a dialectologist, her mother researched on language policies. Lesya explains:  “My mother researched the Habsburg dynasty language policy in Wien and saw the originals of documents and laws. The laws of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were issued in local languages — among them, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech. There were magazines and books published in Ukrainian — while in the part of Ukraine under Tsarist Russia it was impossible. The existence of Ukrainian press, theatre, education, independent thought was forbidden. While in the Tsarist Russia, there had been a sets of laws that gradually forbade the use of Ukrainian in all wakes of life. Under the Soviet occupation, the situation did not improve. While on paper you could use Ukrainian, but in reality, all ‘other-thinkers’ were executed, sent to Siberia or suppressed and mentally broken until they started writing only ‘Social realism’ and praise of the Soviet regime and Stalin.”

Lesya draws from the past to explain how long Ukranians have faced oppression and why they felt the need to stand up to Russia. “You could not tell the story of Ukranian oppression in USSR because then you would be killed. Both my grandparents’ families have lived through the genocide of Holdomor genocide of 1932-33. Food was taken from the children and sold to the West, creating an artificial famine. Millions of Ukranians died of hunger. My grandfather’s family survived that, but his aunts died of hunger. And my grandmother’s family went through that. Their whole life, they were together, but they only started speaking to each other about the Holodomor genocide and their families’ experiences after Ukraine got its independence in 1991. Speaking about all this was forbidden so that even within the family people were scared to discuss it.”

To explain the current crises, Lesya drew upon the past. “We wanted to exist. Ukranian history, culture and language had been destroyed for centuries. We wanted to exist as a nation. The weak and faulty Soviet economy was another reason why not just Ukraine, but most of the Soviet republics, wanted independence. That was very noticeable even to common citizens despite all the anti-West propaganda and the Iron Curtain. I only have faint memories of it as I was five when the USSR collapsed, but I heard and read a lot of stories, and saw photos of empty shells of Soviet shops — there was this huge deficit of even the most needed things. The ‘planned economy’ was a ‘disaster’. Like if you wanted to buy milk, you needed to wake up at 4 am and stand in queue for two hours. There was the Iron Curtain — citizens of Soviet Union were forbidden to go abroad, or Western products brought in. Only if you were thoroughly screened by the KGB, you would be allowed to go abroad, and that would mainly be to the ‘Socialist block’ countries, on a preliminary very thoroughly planned visit. The KGB would continue to follow each of your steps while you were on a visit abroad. Only several dozen people were allowed to leave USSR for a short period of time, on a route agreed by the KGB — mostly diplomats or huge cultural actors (like ballet dancers). No such thing as ‘travel’ outside of Soviet Union could even happen.

“Of course, we had notion of international friendships, India, African countries, Cuba. We were curious. One of my closest friends is Ukranian-speaking half-Cuban — one parent is Cuban and the other Ukranian. They fell in love when as a student, one of them came from Cuba to study in Ukraine. We have had international friendships but only with socialist countries.”

Lesya tells us more about the suffering within her family in the Soviet Union. “Individual businesses were forbidden in USSR. My grandmother’s uncle was executed for owning a windmill. Being an entrepreneur was impossible. In my family, we have lots of such stories. My grandfather from my father’s side (who I did not know because he died before my parents married) believed in the Soviet propaganda, and he crossed over from Poland across the border with Belarus on foot. My grandfather eventually got married and had a daughter. But he was convicted on false allegations that he was a Polish spy and sent for ten years to Siberia. When he returned, his family had forsaken him in order not to live under the black mark of a ‘family of an enemy of the state’.

“With time, my grandfather managed to create another family and have my father — I am carrying this grandfather’s surname. My father, despite being born in Belarus from a Polish person, was documented as a ‘Russian’ in order to save him from a similar fate. Now imagine how many people in the Soviet Union were written as ‘Russian’ despite not being such? When he met my mother and he told her the truth, but my mum was okay because she said her father was also ‘an enemy of the state’.”

Lesya’s pride in her heritage is strong. She talks of her city and grandfather, mingling it with the present. “My city of Mariupol is being ruined by the Orcs (as we call the Russians) so much so that now the city almost does not exist. The city is an important cultural, naval (port), technological and industrial centre. It is a city in which my grandfather, Nil Andriyovych Karnaushenko, was a professor of metallurgy. And he has 32 patents that have been used in the local metallurgical works.

You have heard about the tragedy of civilians and the military — sheltered and simultaneously trapped in the metallurgical factory Azovstal. One of them is my cousin, who has been captured by the Russians*. The metallurgical works of Illicha and Azovstal were working non-stop even during the WW2 and the four years it’s been fought on Ukrainian territory – my grandfather said if the blast furnace gets stopped, it takes a lot of efforts and days to start it again, with a risk you could not start it at all. So the furnaces were working even during the four years of war.

“And now – two months of war with Russia – the metallurgical works that used my grandfather’s 32 inventions, all of his life’s work – are being destroyed. The university in which he lectured until his last breath – has lost half if its personnel. The city almost ceased to exist. And this is a primarily Russian-speaking city (despite being created by Greeks and being surrounded by ethnic Greek villages).

“It is not just Mariupol, but multiple cities, towns, villages near the Azov and Black seas, were built by Greeks. We have many ethnic Greeks living in and around Mariupol, we have lot of villages that are mostly populated by ethnic Greeks — that are now either wiped out or seized (after being wiped out) by Russians. We used to have a Greek consulate in Mariupol. It was as important cultural city, and hopefully will be again — after we win and rebuild it. And each of the 24 regions and the temporarily occupied Republic of Crimea in Ukraine have their own centuries of history and their own distinct story to tell — which is not Russian at all.

“They came to ‘liberate the people of Donbas’. Apparently, by creating multiple mass graves, burning thousands of civilians in moving crematoriums and deporting tens of thousands to Siberia without documents and means of communication.”

She draws from the past and tells us, “I am not a historian but a linguist. But the stories that my family have lived through and passed to me are a work in history. The story of Ukraine has not started by breaking away from Russia in 1991. It has started much earlier than Keivan Rus’ (882-1240). Ukranian history began more than one million years ago when the first Ukranian settlers began to inhabit the terrain of Ukraine. Long ago, the first horse was domesticated in Ukraine along with wheels. The first metal was developed in Ukraine.”

Lesya explains from a linguist’s perspective. “We have many ethnoses living in Ukraine for centuries. Our Constitution has been protecting all of them since Independence. We have local minorities of Romanians, Hungarians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Karaims. We have a local minority of Crimean tartars (an ethnos native to Crimea). They had been deported by Stalin to Siberia — thousands of people dying in trains travelling to this cold place. Some survived and continued to live in Siberia. Imagine, for example, all people from Spain being sent to Greenland, with barely any clothes or food. Stalin banned the return of Crimean Tartars to their native, warm Crimea from Siberia — and only when Ukraine got its independence, we allowed them to come back. People returned home, after generations to see their homes taken by the Russian military or people exported from all over Soviet Union into their empty homes. This tragedy has been depicted in Jamala’s Eurovision-winning song “1944”. Ukraine had given Crimean Tartars the status of ‘nation local to Crimea’. While the Soviet Union and Russia as its heir had expelled them from their homes and deported them, without the right to return home, for three generations. This is why Crimean Tartars are so loyal to Ukraine as a country, and vocal in support of Ukraine after Crimea was forcefully taken. And this is one of the reasons why the tale ‘Crimea has always been Russian’ is a blatant lie.

Jamala’s song — the 2016 Eurovision winner

“We have many Jews. Belorussians. So, there are many more languages spoken in Ukraine other than Ukranian, Russian and English. Some people in Transcarpathia speak a mix of languages, you can see traces of Hungarian and sometimes Romanian — not pure Ukrainian. Ukraine is a huge country, geographically the biggest in Europe. Historically, unfortunately, our territory has been often split between different countries, each with their own policy about ethnic minority nations and languages. Russia had been very efficient trying to exterminate the Ukranian language, history and culture for centuries. And downgrading our sense of self-worth and installing in us a feeling we are not anything. Also installing a myth that Ukranian language and nation does not exist. In my part of Ukraine, Russian has been spoken widely just because they have a policy of destroying other languages. Also, sometimes people who speak Ukranian switch to Russian because they want to ‘fit in’ and be perceived as ‘higher rank’ or better educated — all because of centuries of conditioning that if a person speaks Ukrainian, they are an uneducated villager, and Russian is ‘high profile’ and overall better.

“When the Soviets came to the western part of Ukraine, they were very repressive. People were executed just for speaking Ukranian, or simply having the blue-and yellow (Ukrainian) flag. The place in which thousands of people were tortured and executed by the Soviets, is now Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum (the National Museum-Memorial of Victims of Occupation Regimes) in Lviv. And that is why people in the West of Ukraine fought against the Soviets during the  World War II and till 1956 when the Ukranian Rebel Army was totally destroyed — the rebels called ‘Nazists’ by the Soviet propaganda in Ukraine for the fact they were fighting against Soviet oppressors — a lie that had lived on for dozens of years and manifested in war now.”

Some of this may sound unreal or perhaps surreal to the world that continues entrenched in their everyday existence where the pandemic protocols continue a major concern along with having enough money to sustain oneself. Perhaps, the majority of people are most hit by the rise in oil and food prices, a threat of widespread hunger and stocks going awry. But for Lesya, it is her very existence as she recounts how she got out of Ukraine to the safety of Lithuania. Her choice was made because a friend from Lithuania warned her about the upcoming war and offered her a place to stay three days before the bombing. She adds: “Also, Lithuania has had a lot in common with Ukraine historically — the countries being together in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1236-1795), old Ukrainian being one of the official languages there. Lithuania had also suffered under the Soviet occupation. When I finally reached Lithuania, I found that the country was very supportive of Ukrainians. Many Lithuanians were volunteering, gathering humanitarian help. There were lots of Ukrainian flags and messages of support everywhere.”

Her escape to Lithuania was an adventure that lasted for eight days. When asked if she could relate her experience, this is what she had to say: “I can disclose part of the escape — not all because it will put others at risk for no reason… Actually, for the first five days I was trying to convince my mum to leave, to pack. But it was almost impossible. One of the reasons is she is still connected to the Oxygen machine. She can stay only for some time without the machine, but a long time would not be a good idea. And then she could not find her documents. And she was definitely not in a psychological condition to pack and go somewhere. Neither was I — but she was in a worse condition than me. I had been trying to convince her for five days, but she did not budge.

“My mother was the first one who saw smoke really close to her home and she called her friends and acquaintances to find out if they knew anything about the source. That did not convince her to leave. But it convinced me. It was the day after the Kharkiv administrative building had been bombed. The next day the neighbourhood in which we lived, in the centre of the city, was bombed. That is when I started to blog and do Face Book live — something that I almost had never done before – to document my trip to carry some food to my mother from my home.”

She continued her narrative explaining how she got help to leave the country from a voluntary group formed by citizens to take people to safety out of Ukraine: “There are several organisations. In Kharkiv, I know of two. Probably there are more. They are helping people get out of Kharkiv. One organisation was taking people to Poland or wherever the person wants to go but it would have to be outside the city. There is also a group of volunteers who help people reach the train station to leave by the evacuation train because it is hard to reach the train station without public transportation. Public transport is no longer functioning. And the taxi drivers were asking for absurd prices — like a month’s salary where earlier it was a hundred now, they wanted 5000 or 7000 hryvnias. I did not know what to do, for it would take me about three hours to walk to the train station under normal circumstances. Now with my backpack and belongings under constant shelling, it seemed pretty much impossible.

“At that juncture, I got to know there is an organisation which I will not name till the war stops, that helps people out and I registered with them in a google form writing where I wanted to go. In the form, they asked us to fill the number of people who needed evacuation, the number of children, pets. Their priority was to get whole families out. I was just one person — that was one of the reasons why it took me so long to get to the border as families were a priority.

“One of the people affiliated to this organisation is a friend of mine. She is also a writer who used to document war crimes in the Donetsk region for eight years. So, that day she called me at 7 am and asked me if I could be ready in fifteen minutes, I said I could not be ready in fifteen minutes as I was at my mum’s. Then I rushed home and packed whatever I could. There was a chance that the cars with the fleeing residents would be bombed. The most important things needed to be in the backpack — money and documents and in my case, the laptop. Because even though I do not use it much, you can work anywhere if you have your laptop. I had thirty minutes to pack to leave.”

“One or two days before that, the electricity got cut for the evening. I was afraid the meat would be ruined. I did not know when the electricity would be back. So, I boiled all the meat from the fridge. Before leaving, I gave the two bowls of boiled meat to my neighbour who at that point had not planned to leave. I also gave her my massage cover that I had bought in December. In our tradition, leaving something behind is a sign you will return.

“At that point my neighbour did not want to leave as she had family near Kharkiv. But now, she is in Germany. When the war started, she was wondering when it would all end. I was looking at her and thinking how our grandparents faced war for four years during the Second World War. I bet they did not ask when will it all end! I knew that it will not be quick, that is not how wars are fought. At that point, it was the third day of full-scale war, and it was weird that she constantly asked, ‘When it will all end?’ and was eagerly waiting for the result of peace talks between our diplomats. I knew no peace talks were really possible: they would demand half of Ukrainian territory, we would not agree, end of discussion, the war continues. What peace talks? On the basis of what? Us surrendering? ‘Demilitarisation’? Why would we do that? There was no common ground for discussion. We want to be left alone, to continue being an independent country with a path towards NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the EU (European Union), and we want Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions back. They want Ukraine to cease existing (what they call ‘demilitarisation’), Ukrainians as a nation assimilated (what they call ‘de-Nazification’). These are their demands. There is no ground for discussion here.

“I took the dry food which would not go bad during the trip. I did not know how long the trip would take and what I would face. I took only the food that did not need to be cooked.

“I packed what I could and then I found my friend calling me. I had not heard the phone ring. I am really thankful she did not leave without me because people really need to leave the city very early as the bombing would start early, maybe at 9am, and then it repeats with pauses — every two hours, about five times a day. You hide in a self-created bomb shelter while the shelling continues. When it stops, you sit there for some time, trembling and unsure; and by the time you get your guts together to go buy some food or supplies (in my case, medicine or pulse oximeter batteries for mom), the shelling begins again, and you cannot leave. You just sit at home, frozen, in the constant state of crippling fear.

“My trip to Lithuania was nothing special. But I have never been not able to travel as I want. Also, I never had to travel with bombs and outside of curfews. I live fifteen minutes by bus from the airport. But the biggest airports of Ukraine were closed the night before the war started. That is why it took so long. Each city, each neighbourhood have their own curfews. You cannot be outside the curfew. 

“I started my journey as, first, an internally displaced person, and then, a refugee, on the sixth day of war. My friend picked me up. I got in the bus and put my luggage aside. All you needed was your money, documents and your smart phone.

“I thanked my friend for taking me, but she said, ‘My dear how would I leave you?’ And I whispered under my breath, ‘I love you.’ I felt relieved. We started driving. Within five minutes, I saw several bombed buildings. I saw with my own eyes how real it all was.

“After that we went to the house of my friend’s parents, outside Kharkiv. That had been converted to a refugee shelter. It was a point where you waited for the next part of the transport. More people were waiting there.

“We made plans for our trip. My friend also arrived. She apologised that she could not take me as the next two buses were loaded with families and they do not part families. So, I stopped there with her family. I waited two days for the next transfer. It was nerve racking as it was close to Kharkiv and we heard warplanes flying. The bombs were exploding in our part of the town.

“You made connections with the people in the house because you do not know how long you would have to wait. You do not know if the bus would be bombed, if the bus driver will be alive. You do not know. You are in the complete dark. I managed to make friends with the people there. I slept on the sofa in the same room. My friend’s mother cooked for us free of charge. The people in the village had to stand in a queue for one and a half hours to buy food. The good thing was that at least there was food in the shops.

“There were no sirens because we were not in the city. The city defence system did not actually cover us. And the city air raid warning system also did not cover us. If you hear the planes and the explosions, you know it is time to go inside as the bombs can hit your house. Sometimes, you take shelter in the cellars which is used to store vegetables. One of the children in the shelter was a special needs kid and therefore restless and would scream. My coat was ripped but I did not have the inner strength to sew it. I had two foreign passports. I used the part that was ripped to hide documents and money, in case I’d need to run with no luggage. It is legal in Ukraine to have two foreign passports. I had some money there which, unfortunately, I could not exchange after the war started.

“Finally, we left early in two buses. In Ukraine you travel between curfews. On the road, we had two stops in local kindergartens or schools on the borders of the region at night for the curfew. The bus driver had to monitor to navigate us safely — watching all the while where the road was destroyed, where the bridge was destroyed.

“We would start around six seven in the morning every day and then stop for shelter at 2 pm or 3 pm or 4 pm so as not to move outside the curfew. We were welcomed in kindergartens or schools. Sometimes we slept on the floor. We were not the first and we will not be the last. Lots of families with children waited. And we were brought to a refugee centre in the centre of Ukraine which is the office of the organisation that was helping us. In the city, I will not name till the end of the war and probably later, we stayed in a very old Soviet hotel with running water but no hot water. We had to hide in the bomb shelters three times a day just in case. It was a hotel full of people from Kharkiv. I have been in Lithuania now for almost a month. And this organisation is still helping people.

“We stayed in the centre of Ukraine. It was not modern, but it was a shelter, and they gave us food on a voluntary basis. So, some people decided this would be their final destination. Some refugees are now volunteering for arranging transportation, giving information, fund raising. They are trying to arrange buses but sometimes, there are buses but no driver, sometimes drivers but no buses, sometimes no petrol — it is war. So, we waited there two or three days. I cannot recall the number of days exactly. We waited for buses to take us to Warsaw as this organisation has an agreement with Poland. There is a hotel in which we could stay in Warsaw.

“They gave us food three times a day and we did not have to pay anything. I spoke to two young women, mother and a teenage daughter. Their home was destroyed near the Constitution Square and they were living in the hotel. They had bombed the Constitution Square and the Independence Square… Those two women have been left without a home and stay in the hotel. I had given interviews to Canada, Romania by then and I went around asking people if they would like to give interviews, but people did not want to. So, in that sense, I am unique.

“Every person deals with stress in different ways. They were not ready to talk of their trauma.  But for me it is natural to talk. So, this woman refused to talk about it. Their experience is their home did not exist anymore. The mother had to be dug out of the rubble when there was an explosion. The daughter was like the Terminator. The cupboard fell on her and she got up and put everything back to order and dug her mother out of the rubble in the bathroom. Her mother stayed in the hospital emergency care for one day as her face was covered with broken glass. Then the next day, their relatives came, helped dig out two suitcases and, mind you, it was February, and they had only two suitcases left. If you live in the centre of Kharkiv, it means your life is good. They lost everything.

“My friend from Lithuania was wondering if I were ready to go. When I told him I would probably have to go to Warsaw, he started searching for ways for me to get to Lithuania from Warsaw. Apparently, there are volunteers who are taking people from the border of Poland to Lithuania but not from Warsaw. So, he told me to go to the border of Poland and find this person and say that I need help.

“We arrived by bus to the border town of Lviv. My friend from Lithuania had a relative there whose wife worked in the school, which was used to house us. This relative’s wife helped me buy some cough medicine, as I was coughing, and a power bank…  We spend the night in the village and started our trip. It was a green corridor bus so I thought it would go faster. They would not check the documents so thoroughly. But there was a huge crowd of buses and people. We had to wait at the border for eight hours.  It was 1 am when we crossed the border. To get from the border to Lithuania was not easy. No one knew how long one has to wait at the border. Some people had been waiting two days at the border. Eight hours later, I got out and I felt my adventure had ended. But actually, it was just starting.”

Lesya Bakun at the Polish border

A special message from Lesya Bakun:

“If you want to help Ukraine in its hour of need, I urge you to donate to Ukrainian military — because if Ukraine loses, there will no longer be need for humanitarian help. You can support local humanitarian actions — things that are really needed in these specific locations in this specific time. You can donate to the fund “Come back alive/Povernys’ Zhyvym“. Please click here to donate. And you can help Ukrainian families, children, and pets get to safety by donating to the volunteers who bring people like me and all the people I met en route.

“I also urge you to support Ukraine by buying Ukrainian books, inviting Ukrainian artists to poetry, musical, and visual arts events – or offering residencies and shelter to Ukrainians fleeing from war, and learning more about the reach Ukrainian culture and the history of its fight for freedom.

“Together, we will win!” — Lesya Bakun

*Updated on 9th May, 2022, from an email message by sent by Lesya Bakun: “My cousin, the defender of Mariupol, has been captured by Russians.”

(This article is based on an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty from voice messages and written texts on the social media platform of Telegram.)

Lesya Bakun has given a list of some places where donations can be made.

BENEFICIARY

RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA273052990262046400929572634

ACCOUNT

5169 3600 1722 8341

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT

0011000080

INTERMEDIARY BANK

JP MORGAN CHASE BANK
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASUS33

Card currency:
USD

BENEFICIARY
Отримувач (П. І. Б. отримувача рахунку латиницею)
RJABKO VASILIJ 64703, Ukraine,region Kharkivska,city Kharkiv,street Akhsarova,building 15a,flat 27

IBAN:
UA513052990262016400929572635

ACCOUNT
Рахунок в банку одержувача (номер пластикової карти або поточний рахунок в Приватбанку)
5169 3600 1722 8358

BANK OF BENEFICIARY
Банк отримувача
JSC CB PRIVATBANK, 1D HRUSHEVSKOHO STR., KYIV, 01001, UKRAINE
SWIFT CODE/BIC: PBANUA2X

CORRESPONDENT ACCOUNT
Рахунок банку одержувача в банку-кореспонденті
623-160-5145

INTERMEDIARY BANK
Банк-корреспондент
J.P.MORGAN AG, FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY
SWIFT CODE/BIC: CHASDEFX

Валюта карти:
EUR

Riabko Vasyl 095 555 06 58
papakarlowas@gmail.com
For Western Union or PayPal

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

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely that of the interviewee and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Slices from Life

‘When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn?’

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) lamented about the futility of war, but he also imparted hope, says Ratnottama Sengupta, as she recalls her memorable meeting with folk legend Seeger, in a tete-a-tete with friends

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Last week, as people crowded the Kiev railway station to flee the Ukrainian capital, visuals started trending of the giant staircase inside the pedestrian bridge over the Yauza River to the Kiev Railway Station, the deepest station in the world. It reminded Sonia, my batchmate from Elphinstone College, of the hours she’d spent on the fabulous stairs that take you all the way down with her father who had an attack of trachycardia as they arrived in Kiev by a train from Moscow. “With great difficulty we made our way to the waiting hall from which you have to descend by this enormous staircase. I remember all the Ukrainians helped us, just as all the Russians would help us. And father kept taking Calmposes until I supported him down the stairs into a cab that took us from the station to the hotel.”

Only after that Sonia had called for an ambulance. But why not do that two hours ago? “Because father did not want me to engage with the local health authorities as we didn’t know whether they would have the drugs he used and had forgotten in India,” she explained. “And as soon as I made that call, within five minutes the ambulance was there – with that drug.” Only after that Sonia found out that Kiev has the fastest ambulance service in the world – “and the finest,” she added – “because of what they faced in WWII…” 

All through those few hours Sonia felt so supported by the local people. “I didn’t have to explain anything to the cab driver or the hotel staff – we were whisked into our room and then I went back to check in!” So today Sonia wonders how people in the bunkers are coping with small necessities such as brushing their teeth. Even as she sends Kiev her love and prayers, she feels that “peace keeping forces have to go in rather than arming Ukraine.”

“But who will stand in the line of fire?” quips Liz George, another college mate. “So, may God help the people who are facing such terrible times!” she echoes Sonia. “May god protect everyone in Kiev,” Bhamini Subramanian’s heart goes out to the innocent civilians who lost their lives and the countless families displaced, fleeing and seeking shelter to save their lives…

Watching images of the bizarre war at Kiev opens a floodgate of memories amongst us. “Yet, put aside politics and people anywhere in the world are ready to go out of their way to help people in dire situations,” Sonia sums up. And, like her, I have seen from my travels around the world that people are the same everywhere – they just want the humdrum of a normal, peaceful day to day life. But circumstances – “and policies,” Sonia adds deny a whole lot of them that. “Wish we could find a less harmful way to settle disputes,” we sigh.

*

The mention of the staircase made me think of the Potemkin Steps – the giant stairway in Odessa, another landmark habitation in Ukraine. Originally known as the Boulevard Steps, or the Giant Steps, these are considered the formal entrance into the city from the sea. Odessa, perched on a high steppe plateau, needed direct access to the harbour below which was, in days of yore, connected only by winding path and crude wooden stairs. A hundred years eroded ‘the monstrous stairs’ built with greenish grey sandstone shipped from Italy – and so in 1933, the sandstone was replaced by granite and the landings by asphalt. And in 1955, the Soviet government renamed it as the Potemkin Stairs to honour the 50th anniversary of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. After Ukraine gained independence it restored – as it did with many other streets and landmarks — the previous name of Primorsky Stairs.

But why did I recall this bit of history? Because of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin . “That silent 1925 film is a handbook for every editor!” –  Hrishikesh Mukherjee had said to me as he must have to hundreds of other students of cinema in India. And just seven years ago, in 2015, the European Film Academy put a commemorative plate on the stairs to indicate that the Potemkin staircase is a memorable place for European cinema.

*

Watching the news unfolding tirelessly on the idiot box my friend Shireen Elavia is reminded of the Hindi film Airlift (2016), which had dealt with the evacuation of the Indian expatriates stranded in that state bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia, at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, when the soldiers of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had walked into Kuwait and run over it… “In a massive rescue operation in which our friend Raji had also participated, Air India under its regional director Mascarenhas had airlifted 170000 people…” Sonia pitched in. “I was at that time posted in Moscow.”

“It is not a question of the negativity of war,” again Sonia recounted what a dear friend of hers – Polish by birth and Indian by marriage – has said. “Ukraine suffers because of its geopolitical position.” History repeatedly shows that “Countries suffer either because they have a certain geopolitical position or because they sit on earth filled with riches.” How very tragic! For, if they now forget they are all still in East Europe, we all forget that we are inmates of the same home – this planet.

Pete Seeger: Courtesy: Creative Commons

A profound truth that we often overlook – or render to oblivion. A truth that Pete Seeger (1919-2014) had driven home to me in Delhi sometime in 1996. “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it. And that is how suddenly a song about the greens becomes a song that takes a step forward. This is what I call the folk process.”

*

The human drama unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, the two countries that have been described by a cartoonist as ‘divorced spouses,’ led yet another of my university friends, Usha Kelkar Srivastava, to re-play Where have all the flowers gone (1955), that old Pete Seeger favourite “which turns out to be a Ukrainian folk song”. The poignant melody was a favourite of ours when we went to university – much like Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) and John Lenon’s Imagine (1964) – and for decades after he’d penned it, regardless of which country he was in, the guru of country singing would sing the peace songs and the audience would sing with him. “They would sing the songs in schools and in summer camps. Some of us sang in churches and unions, some sang in coffee houses and people would gather around us and sing with us old songs and new…” Pete had recounted in the course of the four days I was really fortunate to have spent in his company. The legend who sang in defence of humanity, had come to Delhi at the invitation of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) — and when he returned to America, he gifted me a set of CDs signed to me which are among my prized possessions. 

“Just as a river takes the shape of the land it flows through, a song can echo the raw emotions of a land and people,” said Usha culling from her background in Music History. “Rarely has any song touched the world like the simple Where have all the flowers gone…” It has the cyclic structure of another Hebrew folk song about violence that I’d heard in an Amos Gitai film. Pete, while travelling in air, had come across a few lines in Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don: “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.” 

The lines from a Caucasian folk song “are sung in the Ukrainian countryside as Tovchu tovchu mak and Koloda Duda,” Usha added. Pete had adapted these words, adding the refrain of ‘Long time passing and Long time ago’ almost as a chorus. At some point in time he combined it with the tune of a traditional Irish lumberjack song – “only, I slowed down the energetic and full of vigour rendition,” and thus was born the haunting song. The three verses were later expanded by other country singers who added two more verses that underscore the tragedy thus: ‘Where have all the soldiers gone? They’re in the graves, everyone of them…and Now the flowers have come back, on the graves…’

“My only complaint is that this song is not specific enough,” Pete once said at a live concert in Sweden. “It’s too easy just to say, ‘When will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?’ without saying what you want people to learn.” Yet, how potent this critique of war is can be gauged by the number of recordings, and the spread of languages in which it has been rewritten. 

The Kingston Trio first recorded it in 1961 not knowing it to be authored by Pete Seeger. In 1962 Marlene Dietrich performed it in English, French and German at a UNICEF concert – “and she sings it even better,” Seeger had said. On a tour of Israel, she rendered it in German, breaking the taboo of using that language publicly in that country. The song has versions in Dutch, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, Irish. It has been adapted to the piano, it exists in an instrumental version, and also as a parody! In 1964, Columbia Records released it in the Hall of Fame series and in 2002 Seeger was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in the Folk category. In 2010 New Statesman listed it among the Top 20 Political Songs worldwide.

I had the opportunity to hear the other American icon, Joan Baez, sing the contemporary folk song with operatic flourishes, in Manchester sometime in 1977. The activist songwriter had included the German version in her 1965 album, Farewell, Angelina. The very next year the much-loved voice of Harry Belafonte had recorded it in a Benefit concert in Stockholm. A Russian version was recorded in 1998 by Oleg Nesterov, who founded the Moscow based rock band Megapolis just before Perestroika. In the present century Olivia Newton-John recorded it in her 2004 album Indigo: Women of Song while Dolly Parton recorded it in 2005 for her album Those Were the Days. On August 9, 2009, it was sung at the funeral of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of WW1.

In Kolkata, where I now live, Anjan Dutt had covered “the old but always relevant song” in Rawng (Colour) Pencil, going on to remind us at the outset of the Gulf War, “Ekii chinta Bangla tey korechhe Lalon, Notun korey eki gaan geyechhe Lenon, Shei eki katha aaj gaichhe Suman, gaichhi aami shei eki gaan (The same thought had inspired the Baul Lalon Fakir; the American John Lenon, and Kolkata’s own Suman and me, to ask — When will they ever learn?)” As for Kabir Suman, who penned the Bengali version, Kothay gelo tara: he had himself rendered it on stage with Pete during that India tour of 1996.

Back then Pete was “very happy that the Berlin Wall came down so peacefully”. I distinctly recall asking the self-effacing giant if the wide reach of Where have all the flowers gone indicates that the world is finally learning about not going to war. The Times of India had carried his answer: “I don’t know whether songs really change things. All I do know is that throughout history, leaders have been particular about which songs they want sung!” And then the balladeer sang of a youth who was asked the same question, to say, ‘I don’t know if I can change the world… But I will make sure the world doesn’t change me…’ 

“That was a good song,” Pete had concluded. “When people around the world say that — that’s when the world will be changed.” 

Notes:
Shlokov received the Nobel prize for And Quiet Flows the Don in 1965. The book came out in four parts from 1928 to 1940.

Ratnottama Sengupta thanks the people mentioned here: Both Sonia Singh and Raji Sekhar are her batchmates from Elphinstone College, Bombay (now Mumbai). They worked in Air India. Usha Srivastava and Elizabeth George (then Vergese) were singers in Pranjyoti Choir. Usha Kelkar Srivastava, trained in Western classical music, later went on to give lessons in Music History at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. Bhamini Subramaniam is a designer while Shireen Elavia. Havewala, is a retired banker.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and writes books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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

Categories
Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Poetry

Hybrid Gems

By Mihaela Melnic

An empirical ocean of unmetrical pearls 
rolled and crawled
like a serpentine
fluid of life
from the unconscious
up to the future's nucleus
where millions 
of bifid pens
are now entwined
with planetary algorithms
and dance in a marvelous 
arabesque

alfa - androgynous voices
spring out turning into
liquefied, crystallized hybrid gems 
endlessly 
taking shape and colour

they are meant to startle and soothe
to mesmerize and haunt
like thorny rainbow roses
that never sting
yet they make the spirit 
bleed

Mihaela Melnic, born in Romania, currently lives and writes in Rome, Italy. Her recent work was published at Dissident Voice, Setu, Lothlorien Poetry Journal and Noiqui. Other poems of hers are forthcoming this summer in different venues. Mihaela’s bilingual debut poetry collection Change of Seasons was released in 2018.

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Categories
Poetry

Winter Night & Masks

By Lidia Chiarelli

Winter Night

Very often on winter nights the halfshaped moonlight sees

Men through a window of leaves …

from: A Dream of Winter  by Dylan Thomas

.

Reflections of alabaster

in the winter sunset

droplets of subtle mist

laying on the sea

with the  last games

of starlings in the wind.

.

A crescent moon

makes its way

in the ancient maze,

in the darkness

carved  by the waves

on the sand

.

where also

our words

slowly

fade away.

Masks

 (to Rudolph Valentino)

In Life’s masquerade the disguises are many

from: Cap and Bells by Rudolph Valentino

.

Through the open window

a dull sky hid the stars

when you paused and listened

to the lost language of the night.

.

Under glittering chandeliers

the precious clock ticked endless hours

and your many faces,

reflected in the sumptuous mirrors,

(impassive masks)

slowly dissolved

into another place, into another time

.

Unspoken thoughts words left unsaid

broken phrases vague illusions

dreams of passion vainly chased.

.

Then the dazzling spotlights

switched off one by one

on the set

of your last film

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Lidia Chiarelli was born and raised in Turin (Italy), where in 2007, she founded with Aeronwy Thomas  the Art-literary Movement: Immagine & Poesia.Lidia’s passion for creative writing has motivated her to write poetry and she has become an award winning poet since 2011. Her writing has been translated into more than 20 languages and published in Poetry Reviews and on web-sites in many countries. In 2014, she started an inter-cultural project with Canadian writer and editor Huguette Bertrand publishing E Books of Poetry and Art on line.She is also an appreciated artist, working on installations and digital collages.

https://lidiachiarelli.jimdofree.com/                                               https://lidiachiarelliart.jimdofree.com/

https://immaginepoesia.jimdofree.com/

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

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

Categories
Essay

Countdown to Lockdown: Fear and Loathing in the Trolley Race at the End of the World

Keith Lyons from Christchurch discovers that the big world seems very small when it comes to stockpiling for the coronavirus.

If I had to choose a place to be to sit out the coronavirus pandemic sweeping over the globe, there are probably few places better than the South Island of New Zealand. A significant number of the world’s super-rich have invested in the Southern Hemisphere nation, some even buying residency through a controversial and secretive ‘Investor Plus’ scheme. Tech startup incubator for Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb, Sam Altman, Pay Pal’s Peter Thiel, and the co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman are among those who have invested, buying secluded boltholes and luxury bunkers. One US company has constructed more than three dozen doomsday bunkers in New Zealand. Several of my friends have worked for ‘high net worth individuals’ as staff at remote lodges and on luxury super-yachts.

Kim Dotcom, of Megaupload, is among those who have decided to call New Zealand home. I call New Zealand home because I was born here. And now I’ve returned ‘home’ after more than a decade living in China and spending the last few years in South East Asia.

In February, this year, my route back from India via Myanmar took me through Phuket airport where a taxi driver had already been infected with the coronavirus. Transiting Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2, after an overnight in Denpasar International Airport in Bali, I discovered no tests had been made to determine if anyone had the virus. Then a short stopover in Melbourne, Australia, where there seemed to be no additional measures to combat the spread of the corona virus. Even on arriving in my hometown Christchurch, there were no temperature checks or questioning to see if I had come from China, Italy or South Korea. In mid-February, the most stringent measures encountered were in Central Phuket Festival mall, where the handful of customers going from one half of the normally teeming mall to the other side were stopped for a temperature check.

If 9/11 meant greater security with screening for knives, box-cutters, and nail files, and having to take out water bottles, mobile phones and laptops, almost two decades on, we are now adding to the security screening with thermal cameras and the symbol of 2020: thermometer guns. After the masked official at the Phuket mall held his gun to my forehead, satisfied that I didn’t have a raised temperature indicating fever, he turned it around so I could see the digital reading: 36.8 C. Now, I am not expert on human health, so assumed it was not too hot and not too cold, as I couldn’t make out if the official was smiling or grimacing behind his mask. At least they aren’t taking the readings the old-fashioned way, rectally.

One of the things about the coronavirus is that is it invisible and faceless. Like an imaginary menace. Its presence is only made more tangible and real when we see on TV the patients in ICU units, doctors and nurses in masks and glove hurrying around with beeping ventilators and tubes, maps showing the spread of the new virus which threatens like a hurricane.

The other thing about the coronavirus is the speed at which it moves, spreads, and intensifies. When I travelled back from Asia to Australasia, coronavirus was primarily a Chinese problem, with some possible spread to Italy. But as February turned into March, it became more apparent that this Wuhan wet market virus was going global big time.

I guess we should have all been ready for something like this to happen. It was corona virus — COVID19 — there was bound to be a pandemic which would sweep the world, infecting millions and killing many. After all, such an event has been predicted by everyone from Nostradamus and Bill Gates to author Dean Koontz (see conspiracy theories) and The Simpsons. There are even some among us who believe one episode of The Simpsons foretold the self-isolation of Tom Hanks.

There are also those among us who having known something like this was going to happen have made preparations for their survival. This is now an ‘I told you so’ occasion for the smug ‘preppers’ who feel vindicated having lined their shelters with emergency rations, first aid kits and firearms, though this coronavirus thing is turning out to be mild compared to the much-anticipated zombie apocalypse scenario. Instead, it seems the ‘always carry’ list for those fighting the hidden enemy includes wet wipes, hand sanitiser, and N95 masks. The US company Preppi at one stage marketed a special US$10,000 prep bag which included gold bars for bartering.

My hometown, Christchurch, has experienced several traumatic events this last decade. A large earthquake in mid-2010 followed by a more devastating quake in early 2011 damaged nearly 100,000 buildings, half the city’s roads, and killed 185. A year ago, a white supremacist gunman shot dead 51 people at two city mosques. New Zealand is geologically young, and prone to natural disasters including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, so most homes have emergency kits with food and water to last at least three days.

However, the prospect of an infectious pandemic with a lengthy lockdown period has taken most citizens by surprise. When on the second-to-last day of February news broke of the first case of coronavirus in New Zealand, brought by a resident returning from Iran, I was in my local supermarket a few hours after the announcement. There was no flour available, the shelves of the 1.5kg bags and 5kg bags were empty. It was not just the ordinary white flour, it was high-grade flour too, along with self-rising flour and wholemeal flour. On the next aisle of the Countdown supermarket, a Thai woman was posing for a photograph in front of shelves half empty of rice. I mentioned my observations later to friends and family, wondering if there was a shortage or some other reason.

A few days later there was news of a second case, this time arriving from Italy. But even though this virus had arrived on our shores, it seemed like its impact would be insignificant, as it was not spreading, and those returning to New Zealand had mild symptoms, not unlike a cold you pick up during a long haul flight. There were reports that some supermarkets have been swamped by customers buying toilet paper, hand sanitiser and tinned food.

Ten days later, the news was full of events happening far, far away in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The coronavirus had spread to more than 100 countries, and infected more than 100,000 — a few days earlier the World Health Organisation declared it an official pandemic. In New Zealand, the sixth case of the virus is confirmed. This did not deter my parents, who did their regular Saturday morning shopping at their usual supermarket. “Yes, it was quite busy, busier than normal,” my father noted.

During our Sunday dinner, I casually mentioned that maybe this was the last weekend that we would have the freedom to do things as normal, and perhaps from now on, it might be best if I went and did the shopping instead. My parents looked at me as if I have overstepped the line between parent and child. Over-reacting again, they are probably thinking.

An international cricket match between New Zealand and Australia was played in an empty stadium, and then the rest of the tour called off. Cancelled too was the memorial service for the mosque attacks. I visited the neighbours of my parents, bringing them a date and walnut cake I had especially made according to a detailed Iraqi recipe. My visit interrupted an interview with a documentary crew from BBC about their son Hussein who was shot dead trying to stop the gunman.

I felt like I am moving between worlds, from the warmth of the kitchen to the coldness of a massacre, and then outside, there was something sinister and foreboding which was looming bigger than kindness, bigger than tragedy, an acute existential crisis that was unknown in its quantity and impact.

In the following week, I set about sourcing various things from around town, and stocking up on supplies. I got some seeds to plant for autumn and winter harvest. I visited two Indian grocery shops to procure green cardamom seeds, almonds, ready-made chapatis, MTR ready-to-eat meals and dosa flour mix. I loaded the boot and back seat of my parent’s Toyota Ractis until its suspension springs almost snap from 450kg of wooden pellets for their fire. With my mother we did one big shop, making sure we got her favourite brands and the foods preferred by my father who is recuperating from an operation for bowel cancer.

During my daily shopping visits, I noticed that this wasn’t the normal shopping experience anymore. I did not witness any of the stockpiling in the early days of the crisis, though at a store I did overhear a staff member tell his colleague, “We need to bring out the remaining fruit stock we have out back, as it is all selling fast. I am not sure why.”

In early March, there was already a run on particular items, most noticeably and perhaps misguidedly, folks were stocking up on toilet paper. I am not sure the rationale behind this, somehow extrapolating that toilet paper might not be available in the future. It seems many people had the fear reaction triggered, and it was compounded by seeing supermarket shelves already half empty of toilet rolls. Toilet paper is non-perishable and will all eventually be used, so it is not an unnecessary purchase. It also is bulky and takes up space, so its absence in supermarket shelves signals to us ‘shortage’, while having it stocked up at home fulfils some primitive need to be prepared and ready, and also signals that we are smart shoppers, having ample supplies of large 16-roll 4-ply toilet paper, what a bargain and an easy way to relieve worries of not being prepared for the impending doom.

There is a meme doing the rounds with a kid asking his mother, “What is the corona virus?” with the parent replying, “Shut up and eat your dinner” with a picture of a bowl serving a roll of toilet paper. The panic buying of toilet paper was a reaction to the mixed messages about the possible severity of the coronavirus, something of an emotional pacifying purchase to gain control over our hygiene. In other countries where a bidet, bum gun or old-fashioned scoop and water pail is used, there must have been some eye-rolling when stories emerged of Westerners stockpiling toilet paper, price gouging and even scuffles in aisles to secure the rolls of toilet paper.

The government was quick to reinforce the message that was enough to go around, and that essentials would be available. That seemed like the sensible approach. And it was an appeal to people’s sense of community and togetherness in fighting the virus spread. But in times like these, a different mindset kicks in. One of my longtime friends showed me a photo of his partner in the supermarket. After finding the shelves stripped bare of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, they found a whole carton of sanitiser behind other items on another aisle, and much to the shame of my friend, his partner (from South America) loaded the carton into their shopping trolley, later posting on social media of her cache.

That shared image, along with the footage of empty shelves and shopping trolleys piled high with supplies reinforce the panic buying mentality across the world. In Hong Kong, thieves held up a supermarket to steal a delivery of toilet paper. In Australia, a newspaper printed eight extra pages for use as emergency toilet paper in case supplies run out. Now in many supermarkets, there is a limit of two items for these symbolic products along with other essentials, with security guards and supermarket staff patrolling aisles and scrutinising shopping carts.

I noticed during my pre-lockdown shopping excursions quite a range of responses by fellow shoppers. Many were doing big shops, marking off items on a checklist. Some were clearly in unfamiliar territory or were struggling to decipher the list given to them by their partners or friends. “Is tomato puree the same as tomato puree?” one man asked me rather than call his wife again to clarify the differences. In the aisles, it was interesting to observe the interactions of couples, with usually one being ultra-cautious and thorough, while the other (usually a male) being more carefree and unperturbed. “Shouldn’t we get one just in case?” I heard a woman still in her airline uniform ask her husband, who was displaying the typical New Zealand ‘no worries’ attitude. “No, she’ll be right. We can always get it later.”

As well as tension between shoppers, there was also a new dynamic I noticed. Individuals or families were largely in their own bubbles, increasingly aware of the need to stay clear of others who might be contagious. But shoppers were also aware of the goods others had purchased, peering into nearby trolleys, noting what products others were stocking up on, or what items they had secured the last of. On a few occasions, my eyes met others after a mutual trolley check out, and I made a mental note to get a particular item, or even scoffed at other’s purchases.

As well as the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it was the quick sell-out of perishable items which suggested widespread fear of missing out. Bread and milk were coveted items, along with eggs, meat and fresh vegetables.

However, it was the stockpiling of non-perishable items which contributed to the overloaded shopping carts and baskets, and perhaps revealed most about our globalised connected world. Despite the news being full of footage from northern Italy about the horrors of the virus, in New Zealand and Australia, and other countries, shoppers opted for Italian food. Pasta, pasta sauces, tinned tomatoes, risotto rice and olive oil quickly disappear from shelves. On one supermarket run, I found only a few packets of flat lasagna, just the wholemeal and wheat-free varieties, and the following day, nothing except a couple of damaged packets of cannelloni, the pasta meal that requires the most preparation.

But it was not just Italian food we sought for comfort in our emergency supplies and lockdown rations. While most of the fresh produce is still grown locally, increasingly more things are being imported from Asia, in particular China, along with Vietnam and Thailand. Even homegrown brands are sourced from overseas or made of ingredients from as far away as Chile, the USA, Ecuador or Spain. Closely reading the fine print on a bag of mashed potatoes reveals it was made in Belgium, the tuna was canned in Bangkok, while the frozen strawberries hail from Peru. In the dry noodle section, I have to choose between Mamee from Malaysia or Yum Yum out of Thailand. It is a small world after all.

As I shop locally but collect items from around the world, I wonder if it is being sensible or selfish. I wonder about those that can’t afford to stock up, who survive week to week.

As the coronavirus morphed from a foreign plague to a resident contagion, stores imposed limits on some items, increased cleaning and hygiene, and tried tactics to ease consumer’s concerns. My local Countdown placed a pallet of toilet paper just inside the entrance to signal that there was plenty of stock available. Health authorities reinforced the key message that soap and hot water for a 20-second hand wash was better than sanitizer. I started to get emails, some obvious ‘cut and paste’ jobs, from every business about how they were protecting their staff and customers.

Around this time, there was news of a case in Christchurch. The next day, the government announces it was closing its border, to all but citizens and permanent residents. On the following Saturday, 21st March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on a four-level alert system, raising it to Level 2, then a couple of days later raising it to Level 3 and outlining the move to its highest level 48 hours later. Businesses and schools have been closed, everyone had to stay at home, the only reason to venture outside was to shop at supermarkets for essentials, visit a pharmacy, or doctor. It was a lockdown, though people could go out to exercise as long as they did it in their neighbourhood and did not mix with others.

This pandemic quickly changed the boundaries and borders.

It spread. New hotspots light up the world map.

My own personal geography changed too. Other than my local supermarket, less than a 15 -minute-walk, I also factored into my shopping a fresh vegetable market nearby, and a branch store bakery offering bread, milk, savouries and sweets. I figured that this trio of shops within walking distance could be relied upon for my future shopping, along with the pharmacy.

When I first visited the bakery, it was business as usual, and I was rather surprised to see the staff not wearing any additional protective masks or gloves. Three days later, it was a completely different story. I had to wait outside to be called in. There was a station set up with hand sanitizer and blue gloves to be worn (optional) and customers were reminded to keep their distance from others. At the checkout, items had to be placed on the counter, and the customer was asked to step back behind a line so the clerk could price the purchases. The choreography meant the shop assistant would step back and the customer then approached the counter, to pay by card (no cash was accepted), pack their own bags, and then exit, allowing the next person in the queue to go through the routine. On returning home, I described the new shopping behaviour to my parents, who seemed amused at all the fuss. I was half expecting them to say it was all ‘health and safety gone mad’.

The next day I checked Facebook for the store hours and there was a notice that the outlet was now closed to the public. The greengrocer who had reduced hours to ensure more time for restocking also posted a similar notice, not being able to ensure a safe space, and also deemed by the government to be non-essential.

Yesterday I braved the cold winds and ventured out to Countdown (a New Zealand supermarket). Having to wait outside in a long queue, spaced 2m apart, operating on a one-out/one-in rule that meant when I finally got in and cleaned my basket handles, most aisles only had one or two shoppers nervously avoiding each other, and imploring with dagger eyes ‘keep your distance, buddy’. In the chilled food section, I had a moment when I thought I might sneeze, and I worried that if I did, security guards would bundle me up into a bag to be dispatched the hospital. On my list of items to buy was black pepper, but I skipped that, fearing that a whiff of pepper might induce a sneezing fit.

Back home, gloves discarded, hands washed, items sprayed, I pondered the craziness of it all as I savoured my cup of hot miso soup from Japan. All of my shopping could be in vain if I get the virus. One of the first symptoms noted by doctors in Europe is that those with the coronavirus lose their sense of smell and taste.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).