Categories
Notes from Japan

A Ramble on Bizan

By Suzanne Kamata

        “The mountain in Awa rises in the sky like a nicely curved eyebrow
            Seeing it above the horizon, a boat is heading toward it
                     Where will it stay tonight?”
                  -from the Manyoshu, 8th century

In his 1919 essay, “Impressions of a Walk,” the Portuguese expatriate Wenceslau de Moraes [1]wrote of hiking up Bizan during koharu, “the small spring” – “a delightful and rapid transition from the suffocating heat of summer to the cool breeze of the winter.” After sailing around the world, Moraes settled in Tokushima for the last sixteen years of his life. He purportedly hiked up Bizan, the prefecture’s most emblematic mountain, every day.

I have lived in Tokushima Prefecture for over twenty years now, but it’s been a while since I’ve been on the mountain. A recent popular movie, “Bizan,” was filmed on its slopes as well as at the hospital where my children were born, and the university where I teach part time. Some of my students appear as extras in the festival dance scene toward the end. It is this movie that has spurred my own outing.

My excursion to the top of Bizan begins on a day between seasons as well.  A week or so ago, I was scraping ice from my windshield.  Now I am getting ready to set out without a jacket under a clear blue sky.  My plan is to drop my daughter off at school, and then walk to the ropeway station at the base of the mountain.  Caught up in the usual frenzy of morning preparations, I cannot seem to locate my backpack.   I stuff a field guide, my notebook, a photocopy of Moraes’ essay from his book Oyone and Koharu: Essays of a Portuguese Recluse in Japan, a novel, and sunglasses into a cavernous Louis Vuitton handbag my mother-in-law had given me as a gift. Then I load my daughter and her stuff into my car, and off we go.

Bizan, or “Eyebrow Mountain,” is visible from almost any point in Tokushima City. I see it every morning, off to the right, as I drive along the Yoshino River. It’s there, glimpsed through tall buildings, as I wait at a traffic light in the city. And it looms at the end of the main road stretching in front of the train station. Jackucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun, and the most famous and prolific Tokushima-born writer, concurred in her book of autobiographical fiction Places, writing, “If I was playing by myself on the Nakazu wharf, or in the open field where once a year a circus came and set up tents, I could turn around and there was Mt. Bizan. I would look up to it in mild wonder.”

As mountains go, it’s not all that spectacular. Moraes referred to it as a hill. It is actually part of the Shikoku Mountain Range that stretches into southern Tokushima and is separated from the Sanuki Mountain Range by a river valley. There are taller peaks in the prefecture – Tsurugi-san, at 1955 meters, is the highest, but Bizan (294 meters), with its gentle slopes and more or less flat top, is perhaps the most distinctive. And the mountain is rich in culture and history.

After I drop my daughter off, I walk through Tokushima Park, then through a flurry of cars, blinking neon, and traffic signals chirping for the blind. I pass the shopping arcade, the headquarters of the religious cult Kofuku no Kagaku, and the red gates of a Shinto shrine to arrive at the Awa Odori Kaikan, which houses the ropeway station. From the base, the mountain appears easily surmountable – less than an hour to the top. But I’m not in the best of shape, and I have this heavy handbag, so I decide to take the gondola as planned.

The ride lasts about fifteen minutes. Up at the top there is a profusion of vending machines and small buildings – a café, a cell-phone transmission tower, and a white pagoda in the Burmese style. I recognise the pagoda from a scene from the movie. There is also a small museum devoted to Wenceslau de Moraes, perhaps Tokushima’s most famous expatriate. I make this my first stop.

Hiraoka-san, a small, genial grey-haired man in a jean jacket, gives me the grand tour in English.  The exhibit includes some of the many books written by Moraes – both the original Portuguese versions and Japanese translations – as well as photos, his writing desk, smoking implements and bowler hat.

On the wall there are scenes from the puppet play based on the life of Moraes. The script was written by Setouchi[2]. Under glass, I see a pamphlet from a Japanese movie inspired by the bushy-bearded European sailor.

Hiraoka-san shows me the letters of appointment Moraes received from three Japanese Emperors – those of the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras – for the position of Portuguese consul in Kobe. Moraes met with Emperor Meiji three times. There is also a model of the ship Moraes sailed on which Hiraoka-san says, “is like the one in Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp.”

Moraes first came to Japan as a member of the Portuguese navy. He’d been to other places – Mozambique, where, according to his translator Kazuo Okamoto, he’d fallen “violently and foolishly in love” with Arrussi, a woman referred to as “Miss Africa”; and Macao, where he’d bought and married Atchan, the mixed race daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, with whom he’d had two sons and then deserted– before he took on the position of Portuguese consul in Kobe in 1899. Moraes married 25-year-old Oyone, in 1900, when he was 45 years old. She died at the age of 38, and her ashes were entombed at Chonji Temple in Tokushima, where Moraes took up residence in 1913. He visited her tomb daily, but her relatives denied his request to have his own ashes buried with hers. He later lived with Oyone’s cousin, Koharu, who became his common law wife. She, too, died young.

Moraes lived in a house at the base of Bizan, where he enjoyed gardening and, presumably, writing. He published two collections of essays about Tokushima in his native language – Oyone and Koharu and Bon Odori in Tokushima: Essays of a Portuguese Hermit in Japan.  With his long white beard and kimono dyed with the locally grown indigo, he must have caused quite a stir among the locals. His first impression of Tokushima was “that along the way to the modest domicile which had been destined for me was a dominating and agreeable impression of – green. Green plunging into my aesthetic eyes! Green that rushed into my nose. Green, nothing more – an impression so strong, so all-inclusive that I could scarcely pay attention to the details of the scene spread in front of me.”

And yet he did manage to write in great detail and with much feeling of everything he observed around him. From the mountain, he saw “the houses thickly clustered together – small houses, and of wood of course — extend over a vast plain of silt on the complex waterways of the river Yoshino, from the coast to the foot of the hill ranges which bound it: a population of nearly seventy thousand, including four or five Europeans of whom I am one, but this, of course, is not mentioned in the books.”

From the top of Bizan, one can still see an expanse of greenery, the harbour adrift with boats, and ships in the Kii Channel. On a clear day, Awaji Island is visible. Down below, while wooden houses remain, white concrete apartments, schools, and office buildings tend to dominate. Shikoku is still the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands, but Tokushima Prefecture now has a population of approximately 810,000, of about 6,000 whom are foreigners.

I am one of them, a woman from the United States. Like Moraes, I seek to convey the atmosphere and culture of Tokushima to the people of my native country, most of whom have never heard of this place, through my writing. Like Moraes, I have settled here with a spouse.  But of course, I am not nearly so conspicuous as he was. In twenty-first century Tokushima, my blond hair blends with the dyed hair of the youth of the city. And I’m not a hermit, not hiding from the world.

Thinking to fortify myself before heading off on one of the designated walking trails, I duck into the Bizan café just outside the gondola station.  I stand before a vending machine offering tickets for the usual fare – curry rice, pilaf and udon – but a woman bustles out from a back room and makes an “X” with her fingers.  The shop isn’t open for business yet.

I meander down to a weathered wooden bench shaded by walnut and bayberry trees.  Off in the distance, I can hear a train rumbling over the tracks; closer by, birds twitter and chirp and the brush rustles with life. I’m told that there are rabbits and monkeys on this mountain, as well as a fair share of stray cats and dogs. Here and there, signs warn of mamushi, a reddish brown snake with leopard spots whose bite can be fatal. In the early 1900s, residents sought to ward off the snakes with exorcisms written on paper. Moraes himself wrote, “My humble house is completely defended with these pieces of paper.”

I wander until I come across a white gazebo, complete with weathervane. According to a plaque, this structure was a gift from Saginaw, Tokushima’s sister city. It reminds me of a bandstand in Michigan where I grew up, of sitting on a blanket with my grandparents in summer, listening to a small orchestra. In a few months, it will offer a retreat from the blazing sun. Now, I stand under its roof and gaze out at the ribbon of river. Straight ahead, on the opposite bank, I can see the school where my son is learning to write Chinese characters.

I walk a bit more, past the statue of Moraes and his dog, past the rhododendron bushes with their first intimations of spring, a hint of red, and down the hill to – what’s this, an apartment building? No, it’s a government-sponsored hotel – the Bizan Kanpo. My daughter’s kindergarten once had a sleepover at this place.  I remember now that we walked up this hill for a night-time festival. The parents and teachers supervised while the children played ring toss games by lantern light. In the morning we performed “radio exercises” in the park.

Now I see a few people picnicking on benches, and I’m sorry that I didn’t bring my own lunch.  I’m famished by this time, so I make my way back to the café, which is now open. I order a bowl of noodles and settle at a table covered with tie-dyed indigo cloth. There are only a couple of other customers – a pilgrim dressed all in white, his peaked straw hat resting on the counter as he takes a break between temples – and a man who works on the mountain. As I eat, I look out upon Shiroyama, a hill hunched at the center of the city, the site of the ancient shogun’s castle, and the town hall where the record of my marriage is stored.

Although I purchased a round-trip ticket on the ropeway, I decide to hike down.  How hard could it be? I find the shortest route on the map, one that I think will take me to my starting point, but almost immediately I wonder at the wisdom of this decision. All morning I have been tramping up and down concrete steps and sidewalks, but this is an actual hiking trail.  The steep, narrow path is strewn with dry leaves, which may be slippery. I don’t have a walking stick, and instead of a backpack, I’ve got this handbag hooked over my arm. There is also the question of snakes.

Nevertheless, I begin to pick my way down the incline, imagining Moraes nearly a century ago in these same woods in his kimono. I grab onto tree trunks and seek purchase on protruding roots and rocks. My thighs burn with the effort.

The forest is so dense that I can’t see the city beyond. No one is on the trail behind or ahead of me. No one knows where I am. It’s an odd feeling, here in this densely populated country where I am so seldom truly alone. All I can hear is the wind in the trees, and what I take to be birds rustling the leaves as they forage for food.

Although I’m tempted to pull out my field guide and try to identify some flora or fauna – were those grey-tailed birds that just flew past starlings or brown-eared bulbuls? – there are no stumps for sitting, no spots for rifling through my bag.  I keep going until I spot a paved road through the trees. The trail seems to suddenly drop off to this road.

It’s a couple of meters to the ground below. I start looking for a sturdy branch that I might be able to use to vault myself down, and then I see a businessman strolling up the road. Maybe he’s out for his daily constitutional. Crouched here on the side of the mountain with my Louis Vuitton bag, I suddenly feel ridiculous. I hold myself very still and hope that he doesn’t notice me. When he’s out of sight, I manage to scoot down without scraping myself on the rocks.

Through the trees I can now see some familiar landmarks, and I know that no matter where I end up, I’ll be able to find my way back. And then I come to a set of stone stairs, and I remember climbing these very steps fifteen or sixteen or maybe seventeen years ago to drink with friends beneath the cherry blossoms.

I see that paper lanterns printed with “Asahi Beer” have already been strung across the path in anticipation of this year’s flower viewing. Soon, it will be time for the azalea festival in the Sako neighbourhood where my husband grew up.

Almost a hundred years ago, Moraes was enraptured by the pink and purple blossoms.  In May of 1915 he wrote, “How beautiful the mountains are! The azaleas, above all, are most delicious, and the charm of this rosy colour, the profusion of blooms, transforms the entire mountain into a garden. I contemplate the spectacle, resting on an old piece of tumulus stone; the mountain where I am is a cemetery, as is almost every slope of this land. And in sight of the graves I want to shout, ‘Get up, you who are sleeping, come and enjoy with me the rapture of these flowers! You cannot be dead when all of nature is awaking!”

I think of these words when I see the jizo along the path. These are stone statues tied with red bibs, which represent the spirits of dead infants, especially aborted or stillborn babies.  Brooms made from twigs have been left beside the shrines for caretaking. Moraes, who lost both his first Japanese wife, and his second common-law wife, Koharu, was often preoccupied with death. Though he wrote of the burgeoning nature on Bizan, he also wrote of the jizo, funeral processions, the tending of the butsudan, posthumous names, and the crematorium on the mountain.

At last, I come out in front of the red-gated shrine next to the gondola station. I pass the stone shishi – guardian lion-dogs – and a statue of a figure performing radio exercises, and then I’m on flat ground.

After I pick up my daughter from school, I drive along the Yoshino River and look to the left, to Bizan. I can pick out the hotel and the cell phone transmission tower, and the slope where I’d made my way down.  This mountain has been here for centuries —   it is the burial site of feudal lords, an inspiration to poets and novelists, a home to small animals, and a film location. 

In a hundred years it will still be there.  I wonder what other expatriates and Japanese will write about Eyebrow Mountain a century from now. Who will Bizan next inspire?

The grave of Wenceslau de Moraes. Courtesy: Creative Commons

[1] Portuguese writer (1854-1929)

[2] Jackucho Setuchi, Japanese nun and writer (1922-2021)

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

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

Categories
Editorial

When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall…

                     “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
                      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…”

                                 — John Keats (1795-1851), To Autumn
Art by Sybil Pretious

For long writers have associated autumn with “mellow wistfulness”. That loss of spring, or loss of youth is not bleak or regretful has been captured not just by Keats but also been borne out by historical facts. Anthropocene existence only get better as the human race evolves … If we view our world as moving towards an autumn, we perhaps, as Keats suggests, need to find the new “music” for it. A music that is ripe and matures with the passage of time to the point that it moves more towards perfection. Though sometimes lives fade away after autumn gives way to winter as did those of  Queen Elizabeth II (April 21st 1926 – September 8th 2022) after a reign of seventy historic years and Mikhail Gorbachev (2nd March 1931 – 30thAugust 2022) with his admirable efforts to bridge divides. Both of them have left footprints that could be eternalised if voices echo in harmony. Thoughts which create bonds never die – they live on in your hearts and mine.

Imagine… ten thousand years ago, were we better off? Recorded history shows that the first war had already been fought 13,000 years ago. And they have continued to rage – but, at least, unlike the indomitable Gauls in Asterix[1] comics – not all jumped into the fray. They did during the last World Wars — which also led to attempts towards institutionalising humanitarian concerns and non-alignment. Yes, we have not had a perfect world as yet but as we age, the earth matures and we will, hopefully, move towards better times as we evolve. Climate change had happened earlier too. At a point, Sahara was green. Continental shifts split Pangaea  into seven continents – that was even earlier. That might have driven the dinosaurs to extinction. But I am sure mankind will find a way out of the terror of climate change and wars over a period of time, as long as we believe in deciphering the sounds of autumn as did Keats in his poem.

Tagore had also sung of the joys of autumn which happens to be a time for festivities. Professor Fakrul Alam has translated three such songs, reflecting the  joie de vivre of the season, The translation of a small poem, Eshecche Sarat[2], brings the beauty of the season in Bengal to the fore. We have a celebration of youth and romance in a Balochi folksong, an anti-thesis to autumn and aging, translated for us by Fazal Baloch and also, poetic prose in quest of God and justice by Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed. Lost romance recapitulated makes interesting poetry is borne out by Ihlwha Choi’s translation of his own poem from Korean. But the topping in our translation section is a story called ‘Nagmati[3]’ by eminent Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, translated by no less than a Sahitya Akademi winning translator – Aruna Chakravarti. This story illustrates how terrifying youthful follies can lead to the end of many young lives, a powerful narrative about the snake worshipping community of Bedeynis that highlights destruction due to youthful lusts and an inability to accept diverse cultures.  

When this cultural acceptance becomes a part of our being, it creates bonds which transcend manmade borders as did the films of Satyajit Ray. His mingling was so effective that his work made it to the zenith of an international cinematic scenario so much so that Audrey Hepburn, while receiving the Oscar on his behalf, said: “Dear Satyajit Ray. I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”

This and more has been revealed to us in a book, Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much, authored by a protagonist from Ray’s film, Barun Chanda. This book brought out by Om Books International reflects not just Ray as a person but also how he knitted the world together with his films and took the Indian film industry to an international level. Barun Chanda has been interviewed with a focus on Satyajit Ray. Keith Lyons has also interviewed a man who has defied all norms and, in the autumn of his life, continues his journey while weaving together cultures across, China, India and Thailand by his ethnographic studies on tribes, Jim Goodman. Goodman says he left America when speaking for a war-free world became a cause for censorship. This makes one wonder if war is a game played for supporting a small minority of people who rule the roost?  Or are these ramblings of a Coleridge writing ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of narcotics?

Poetry also brings the season into our pages with an autumnal interpretation of life from Michael Burch. More poetry from Sunil Sharma, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Gayatri Majumdar, George Freek, Ron Pickett, Sutputra Radheye, Marianne Tefft brings a wide range of concerns to our pages – from climate to the vagaries of human nature. Poetry by an Albanian writer, Irma Kurti, and photographs by her Italian spouse, Biagio Fortini, blend together the colours of humanity. Rhys Hughes as usual, makes it to the realm of absurd – perhaps voicing much in his poetry, especially about the environment and human nature, though he talks of woodpeckers on Noah’s ark (were there any?) and of cows, yetis, monkeys and cakes… He has also given us a hilarious cat narrative for his column. Can that be called magic realism too? Or are the edges too abstract?

A book excerpt from Hughes’ Comfy Rascals Short Fiction and a review of it by Rakhi Dalal makes us wonder with the reviewer if he is a fan of Kafka or Baudelaire and is his creation a tongue-in-cheek comment on conventions? A book review by Hema Ravi of Mrutyunjay Sarangi’s A Train to Kolkata and Other Stories and another by Bhaskar Parichha of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics, authored by Netaji’s nephew’s wife, Krishna Bose, translated and edited by her son, Sumantra Bose, unveils the narratives around his life and death.

A leader who quested for freedom and roamed the world after being passed over by the Congress in favour of Nehru, Netaji raised an army of women who were trained in Singapore – not a small feat in the first half of the twentieth century anywhere in the world. His death in an air crash remained an unsolved mystery — another one of those controversies which raged through the century like the Bhawal case. In his review, Parichha spells out: “Aiming to bring an end to the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the freedom fighter, the over 300-page book gives a detailed and evidence-based account of his death in one of its chapters.”

Our book excerpts in this edition both feature writers of humour with the other being the inimitable Ruskin Bond. We have an excerpt of Bond’s nostalgia from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hillsedited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma.

Our non-fiction also hosts humour from Devraj Singh Kalsi about his interactions with birds and, on the other hand, a very poignant poetic-prose by Mike Smith reflecting on the vagaries of autumn. From Japan, Suzanne Kamata takes us to the Rabbit Island – and murmurings of war and weapons. We have the strangest story about a set of people who are happy to be ruled by foreign settlers – we would term them colonials – from Meredith Stephens. G Venkatesh delights with a story of love and discovery in Korea, where he had gone in pre-pandemic times. Paul Mirabile travels to Turkey to rediscover a writer, Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906-1954). And Ravi Shankar gives us an emotional story about his trek in the Himalayas in Nepal with a friend who has passed on. Candice Louisa Daquin has written of the possibilities towards integrating those who are seen as minorities and marginalised into the mainstream.

The edition this time is like Autumn – multi-coloured. Though I am not able to do justice to all our contributors by mentioning them here, my heartfelt thanks to each as every piece only enriches our journal. I urge you to take a look at the September edition.

I would like to give huge thanks to our readers and our team too, especially Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious for their artwork. We could not have come this far without support from all of you.

Thank you.

Happy Reading!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com


[1] The men in the indomitable Gaulish village (which the Romans failed to conquer) in times of Julius Caesar loved to jump into a fight for no reason…Asterix was the protagonist of the comics along with his fat friend Obelix

[2] Arrival of Autumn

[3] Snake Maiden

Categories
Review

Orienting : An Indian in Japan

Book Review by Aditi Yadav

Title: Orienting : An Indian in Japan

Author: Pallavi Aiyar

Publisher: Harper Collins

The mention of “Japan” evokes dreamy Instagrammable scenery of Sakura with Fuji-san, serene shrines, grand castles, modern skyscrapers, cute dolls, geishas, bullet trains, cool robots, so on and so forth — a long list of all things ‘kirei[1] and ‘kawaii[2]’. Of late, the world has been swept by the tsunami of Japanese life philosophies of Ikigai, Wabi-sabi, Kintsugi, and Zen. To an outsider, the perception of Japan is mostly curated through social media stories, anime, J-pop and J-drama. However, the first-hand experience as a tourist or resident will have a spectrum of shades to offer.

Orienting : An Indian in Japan by Pallavi Aiyar vibrantly captures this spectrum. Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author of several books including travel memoirs on China and Indonesia. In “Orienting”, she shares her insights on Japanese society, history and customs against the background of her globe-trotting experiences and Indian heritage. The book originally published in English in 2021 has recently been translated into Japanese, a rare feat for an Indian author.

Historically speaking, the “Oriental” depiction of the East has been a West orchestrated exercise.  As a result, the world vision and perception of countries like Japan have been dominantly seen through the lens of Western authors, historians and travelers. Aiyar’s book is a fresh breeze in travel literature — a global Asian writing about another Asian country– especially given the shared culture of Buddhist heritage.  From the get-go, the title stands out for its intelligent word play.

The author has a difficult time orienting herself. A country that’s world famous for its punctuality, hits her as “anachronistic” when she discovers how cumbersome it is to buy a mobile connection, open a bank account or use a taxi app. In neighboring China even beggars are open to e-payments while Japan still struggles with credit card usage in stores and restaurants. Yet, to the average Japanese, “Chinese were lacking in good manners”. The book is delightfully sprinkled with cross-cultural comparisons, insights and of course haikus.

It is common to spot young kids traveling on their own to school on buses and subways, as Japanese society watches out for them with solidarity, ensuring their safety. Talking of awe-inspiring features of Japan, the list is long one– literally convenient kobinis, super-smooth public infrastructure, clean public toilets, vending machines, and most strikingly, the land of ‘what is lost-is-always found’. Aiyar narrates how she and her family members lost their iPhones, wallets, laptops, umbrellas, jackets, tiffin boxes and hats during their four-year long stay in Japan. And, every single item was retrieved undamaged. Yet, despite all the community spirit, safety and solidarity, Japan is home to almost one million hikokimoris, people who have withdrawn from society and avoid social interaction. Patriarchy, high rates of suicide, overtime at workplace and death by overwork (karoshi) are hard facts of life in Japan that take some sheen off its ‘first world-ness’. Just like any other place on earth, the bright and dark sides exist together with multiple shades of gray.

The apparently ‘homogeneous’ society has shied away from discussing issues like ‘racism’ or ‘discrimination’. While historically, indigenous race of Ainus, Korean descendant Zainichies and socio-economically backward Burakumin were dealt second grade treatment, in these globalised times, unlike many rich countries, Japan had resisted multiculturism.  The ‘gaijin’ syndrome (prejudice against foreigners) conspicuously stands out given that Japanese invented a whole new script ‘katakana’ to address anything ‘non-Japanese’. The kikokushijo, the children who return to school in Japan after being partly educated abroad, face bullying and harassment for their foreign association. The half- Japanese peculiarly termed as ‘hafus’, are also subjected to prejudices of various kinds.  However, a mild streak of silver lining is evident in cases of Priyanka Yoshikawa – half-Indian, half-Japanese winner of Miss Japan title in 2016 and Yogendra Puranik, an Indian who won the elections for City Councilor (Edogawa ward) in 2019. Such cases, though few and far between, are indicative of some changes in the Japanese air of insularity.  Comparing discrimination in Japan to its Indian counterpart, Aiyar observes that it almost felt churlish to point it out at all. “Indians were the perpetrators of the ugliest kinds racial and religious discrimination”. While Japan’s racism was “more respectable, less violent. It simmered rather than boiled over, and got mixed in with a general shyness and culture of suppression”.

On gastronomic spectrum, India and Japan are almost diagonally opposite. It is relatable how as an Indian, Japanese food strikes the author as “too cold and polite with too many bonito flakes” — too spiceless and raw for Indian tastes.  On a trip to Tottori, she discovers how some restaurants even discourage Indian groups because they carry their own pickles and sauces, a habit which offends most Japanese. The land of mouth-watering sushi, sashimi and mochi quite amusingly is also fond of fugu, the puffer fish, which is 1200 times more poisonous than cyanide! Curry is by far the most loved Indian food. But its Japanised version would hit Indian taste buds differently. The author details how Rash Behari Bose, the Indian nationalist settled in Japan and introduced authentic Indian curry in Nakamuraya café in Tokyo.

Historically, Japan and India share the common thread of Buddhism. The oldest documented Indian resident in Japan was Bodhisen, a monk from Madurai, who held a very exalted status as a Buddhist scholar in his days. He arrived in Osaka in AD 736, and moved to Nara. He taught Sanskrit and helped establish the Kegon school of Buddhism. Japanese Buddhist pantheon even absorbed several Hindu gods in its fold. Aiyar gives an interesting account of the shared culture of yore and also “not always salubrious” relationship during the colonial era. The latter period saw Indian luminaries like Subhash Chandra Bose, Vivekananda, P.C Mozzomdar and Rabindranath Tagore visit Japan, which deepened the connections between the two countries. But when it comes to doing business together, the practical jugaad-proud Indians and perfectionist shokunin-spirit driven Japanese find it difficult to cope up with this dichotomy. The book analyses it all with facts and engaging experiences.  Anyone who has ever been to Japan will find the book extremely relatable and sincere.

Aiyar writes with enthusiasm of a traveler who has pitched her tent in foreign land to capture the richness of landscape in daily travels, with a keen eye, humour and honest penmanship.  The read is indeed a rewarding journey towards “Orienting”!


[1] Clean, beautiful

[2] Cute

Aditi Yadav is a public servant from India. As and when time permits, she dabbles in translation works.   She is an alumnus of Yokohama National University, Japan and  a  devout Japanophile.

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

Categories
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

Categories
Mission Earth

On a Bamboo Bicycle from Thailand to Indonesia

Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist, revisits his trip across Asia, exploring the enormous biodiversity and conservation efforts.

Bamboo Bicycle. Photo provided by Kenny Peavy

An idea is born

Like all good adventures, it started in a pub.

I was attending a weekend workshop on service learning and how to implement service projects with students. One of the other participants, Jamie, had come into Kuala Lumpur from Japan. We’d partnered on a few of the activities during the day and hit it off immediately. I was eager to get to know him better so invited him out for a beer to show him around town. I always liked sharing local restaurants and watering holes with visitors and this time was no exception.

Jamie agreed and we visited a few trendy spots in Bukit Bintang, downtown Kuala Lumpur.

After a walking tour of a few famous walking streets, we hit the town for a bit of street food. As Fate would have it, we soon ended up sharing a couple of drinks at Little Havana, a cool hang out spot on the corner with live music and, pub grub and nice draught beers.

After a couple of drafts of Guinness Stout, I boldly announced to Jamie my intentions to leave classroom teaching and set out on an adventure. I was burnt out and needed a break.

Hiking across Malaysia was being floated around as an idea. Being from the USA, we have plenty of cross-country trails such as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail that, in my youth, had inspired me as bucket list adventures I would aspire to complete someday.

Now was the time. I needed play time. I needed adventure time. I needed to explore and roam for a spell. Hiking across a rainforest didn’t seem as feasible since there really were no trans Malaysia trails to be found. Cycling was also tossed about as an idea. Cycling across Asia had been done before. It seemed a more achievable adventure.

Back in 2012, I was not very Internet savvy and the number of blogs, vlogs and social media sites with information about how to cross Asia on a bicycle was scarce. As a result, we had to rely on our imaginations, grit and a bit of pragmatic know-how and determination to figure out what we would do and how we would do it.

During the excited and rambunctious discussion in the pub we let every wild idea and notion fly. I could ride across China. I could ride around Thailand. Maybe I could venture into Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. All sorts of options were tossed about and floated around.

After the weekend workshop, Jamie returned to Japan. We stayed in touch.

More ideas were thrown about, and we eventually decided that a trip from Thailand to Bali would be a good course of action and something that could be achieved. Soon thereafter, Jamie announced that he’d join me!

The plan was coming together slowly but surely. An idea was taking shape.

We wanted to do something centered around conservation or environmental issues. We could focus on that during our bike ride. The idea fit because cycling is eco-friendly. No fossil fuels. No pollution. Since Jamie was joining me, it would have to be done during the school holidays which meant we had approximately six weeks to complete the adventure in July and August. Yes. We could do it!

I talked to people in my network. Someone knew someone and they sent the word out to bike shops, cycling enthusiasts and adventurers. Shortly, Sunny from Singapore reached out to us and said he made bamboo bicycles. He asked if we’d like to try them out on our Thailand to Bali adventure.

Sure, why not?!

Sunny himself had ridden a bamboo bike across China and was designing and building bamboo bikes for long haul trips. We’d get to test one out and provide feedback. The experimental science guy in me said YES!

He sent us images and catalogues and we picked a mountain bike model since we figured the roads would get a bit messy at some point and we would want fat tires for any back roads, dirt roads, palm plantations, or gravel we might encounter.

We finally had bikes! Now we just needed a route!

We’d make our way through Thailand on to Malaysia across into Singapore and then onwards to Java and eventually end up in Bali for the grade finale.

We finally had a route! Now we just needed a name!

I honestly don’t remember how the name came about but I do remember quite a few failed attempts.

I wanted something that made us sound like superheroes! Green Warriors! Eco-Adventurers!

Eventually we settled on Green Riders.

It had a superhero kind of feel. Simple. Easy. Explained our mission. Done.

Yay! We finally had a name.

We were set.

On the road

We started at Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand for two reasons.

Firstly, it was one of the oldest and most biodiverse rainforests in southeast Asia. Secondly, I knew a guy that had a resort, and he could sponsor our first night by giving us accommodation and food!

We spent the first night in a small bamboo chalet next to a gorgeous turbulent river amidst the sounds of cicadas, swirling rapids and a myriad of jungle critters making their nightly sojourn throughout the forest by moonlight. It was paradise on Earth. The next morning, the sound of gregarious chirping birds welcomed the morning through the open-air bamboo chalet and mosquito nets.

With brand spanking new bamboo bikes, way too much gear, an adventurous spirit, and no idea on how the adventure might play out, we hit the road. Within a hundred meters my bike rack fell off and eagerly dispersed its burdensome contents onto the rich humus of the rainforest floor! Apparently, the marriage between an overburdened metal bike rack and a bamboo bike frame was not a match made in Heaven.

With plenty of laughing onlookers from the launch of Green Riders, Jamie and I made short work of the repairs and set off on the road.

During the six-week adventure we saw numerous indescribably beautiful and wild places.

We made acquaintance with numerous interesting and intriguing people and immersed ourselves in a wide array of cultural diversity ranging from the village life of rural Thailand and Malaysia to the hyper-developed modern city state of Singapore on to the chaos of the port of Jakarta and finally the super touristy island of Bali. With a tip from a local at a roadside food stall and coffee kiosk, we ended up visiting the first rubber tree planted in Thailand. Apparently, the rubber sapling had been stolen from the botanical gardens in Singapore and smuggled across borders in 1899 that eventually resulted in the booming and habitat destroying rubber industry of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

We spent the night in a pristine an efficient locally run Eco-village situated in a mangrove on the Isthmus of Kra which lies on the border of Thailand with Malaysia. There children roamed freely playing, exploring, and jumping in the brackish water as part of their daily free time. A place where a deep connection with the rhythms of the tides, the moon and the daily fishing harvest are intimately woven in the psyche of the Thai villagers that inhabit that ecosystem.

With yet another tip from a local in a pizza joint in Krabi, we made an unplanned sidetrack to see a very cool playground in a small village in Thailand that had been built from recycled and repurposed tires pulled from their local river. We ended up helping a nearby village copy the design and build their own playground and plant shade trees at a local school.

We ferried from Singapore to Jakarta aboard a defunct cruise ship, full of deportees and work permit violators from Java and Sumatra that were being deported back to their country of origin. Another crazy adventure we could not have planned.

We learned the hard way that Baluran National Park in East Java was dry and had not even a single measly roadside stall to sell water or food, making an arduous trek uphill even harder. Within the first hour of that particular day, we quickly depleted our supplies and road around for six sweaty, throat parching hours in search of liquids and sustenance. On the last leg of the ride, we sprinted as fast as we could to exit the park and crashed into the first shop to empty their barren stock of the bottles, water and soft drinks!

When we finally landed on the shores of West Bali National Park, we stood in amazement of all we had seen, done and accomplished.

We spent the last days wallowing in the company of Menjangan deer, water monitors, mangrove trees, wild boar, ebony langurs, various shore birds and the coveted Bali starling, an endangered endemic species of gorgeous bird in its protected habitat. Green Riders provided more explorations and adventures that we had counted on or even imagined!

On the road, we became absorbed in a Zen like trance that comes from 8 to 10 hours of singular focus on pedaling and riding. We learned the value of clearing the mind through the monotony of riding all day every day with a single purpose to keep pedaling.

The experience of being connected with self, with others and with Nature were priceless and life changing.

Photo provided by Kenny Peavy

Kenny Peavy is an environmentalist who has a memoir called Young Homeless Professional. He has co-authored a pioneering environmental education handbook, As if the Earth Matters, and recently, an illustrated book, The Box People , was re-released digitally to enable children, young people and their parents and educators anywhere in the world to use the book. He also created Waffle House Prophets: Poems Inspired by Sacred People and Places

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

Categories
Editorial

We are All Going on a Summer Holiday…

Yes! It is vacation time, and we are all able to travel at last. Though the pandemic which had closed borders for us seems to be evolving as an endemic, another huge human crisis, a war which cannot be justified in any way, stares us in the face. Loss of lives, homes, towns, cities and threats of global recession follow in the footsteps of refugees wandering into our lives. Lesya Bakun, the Ukrainian refugee whose story we have been following, told me four of her relatives’ homes in Mariupol have been erased out of existence and her extended family has scattered where they found safety as her cousin continues a prisoner of war, captured while defending the iron and steel factory at Azovstal. While majority of the world expresses solidarity with the Ukrainians, another set of refugees remain in shadows. They have completely lost their country in which they had lived from ancient times. I am referring to the Rohingya of Arakan. CNN world states:

“The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, thought to number about 1 million people.

“Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens or one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country.”

 We are privileged to host a powerful poignant translation by Arifa Ghani Rahman of Shaheen Akhtar’s short story about such a voiceless Rohingya child in a refugee camp. Though this is a fiction inspired by Akhtar’s visits to such shelters, we hope at some point these children will be able to build new lives to create a world free of violence, intolerance, hatred and greed.

One of the questions that springs to one’s mind, watching such atrocities destroy innocent lives is that should one accept bullies and give in to their pressure tactics? Bullies can be found among world leaders as well as perpetrators of decadent societal norms which are often critiqued by satires. Somdatta Mandal has translated one such satirical playlet where social conventions are targeted in a lighter vein by Tagore. In the same spirit, the maestro’s iconic poem about a palmyra tree called Taal Gaachh has been transcreated to bring the joy of innocent wanderings back into the narrative, creating an island of healing thoughts. We continue with our translations of Jibananada Das by Professor Fakrul Alam, a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi and a magical Balochi folktale by Fazal Baloch. Let us read such translations to connect with varied cultures so that compassion and acceptance of diverse perspectives end horrors like wars, starvation and hunger.  

Tagore’s writings translated to English by Mandal in Gleanings of the Road, a collection covering the maestro’s travel to the West, is part one of our book excerpts and highlights Rabindranath’s perspectives on the need to connect with the larger world. The other book excerpt, from Waiting, poetry by Suzanne Kamata, takes up the theme of victimisation, crime and murder. Dwelling on no less horrific narratives, though justified as non-criminal, is a review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre. Gracy Samjetsabam’s assessment of Half-Blood by Pronoti Datta informs about the greyer areas of a whole community in Mumbai. Indrashish Banerjee reviewed Keki Daruwalla’s stories on human relationships anthologised in a collection called Going: Stories of Kinship while Bhaskar Parichha has acquainted us with Deepti Priya Mehrotra’s Her Stories –Indian Women Down the Ages — Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens, a non-fiction that visits inspiring women.

Inspiration can also be drawn from Rinki Roy Bhattacharya’s and Maithili Rao’s The Oldest Love Story, featuring a medley of men and women writing on the theme of motherhood along with some narratives about their mothers or on the experience of being one. The medley includes well-known names from films and literature like Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, Shashi Deshpande, Nabanita Dev Sen and more. We interviewed Roy Bhattacharya to find out more about this impactful book. Achingliu Kamei, an academic and writer, has conversed with Naga writer, Veio Pou, whose award-winning book, Waiting for the Dust to Settle, was reviewed earlier — a book that gives a glimpse of conflicts in the Northeast of India.

Taking on the theme of conflicts at a personal level, Atreyo Chowdhury’s and Banerjee’s stories create a sense of disquiet as Paul Mirabile’s explores crime, madness and its impact on humans. G Thomas takes a relook at heroism and bravery as a concept. His story set in Kerala shakes our complacency, upending traditional concepts of heroism and bravery just as Candice Louisa Daquin has upended the cult of positivity in her essay. Notes of discord and accord seem to ring through this edition and the undertones of greys spread out towards an exploration of life and death. We have multiple ghost stories this time, even from the Nithari column written by Kiran Mishra, a youngster who got over the trauma of violence in the community and discovered her place as a bilingual writer and educator.

Our poetry section is honoured to host Walt Whitman Award winner, Jared Carter, again with his poetry on a Japanese artefact as George Freek’s continues to be inspired by the style of Song dynasty poets. Michael Burch writes beautiful love poems. We have a vibrant poetry section with Daquin, Sutputra Radheye, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Antara Mukherjee, Rhys Hughes, who has also revisited ‘The Penguin Café Orchestra‘. This band started a new kind of musical trend with nothing but passion and conviction. Hughes of course cannot escape the bonds of his tongue-in-cheek style, also adopted by Devraj Singh Kalsi while he pretends to be an ant.

Keith Lyons has got the bug of tongue-in-cheek too as he gives us a piece on his travels in Varanasi that well captures the dichotomies we find in India. Dwelling on social dichotomies also is Ratnottama Sengupta’s powerful tribute to Swatilekha Sengupta, a film and theatre doyenne who brought to life Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985). An essay by Mozid Mahmud exploring both the syncretic elements in Tagore’s and Kabir’s works, the medieval poet’s impact on the Nobel laureate and a dispute over Rabindranath’s own translation blends with the tone of greys in this edition.

Travel narratives and photographs by Meredith Stephens sailing the seas in Tasmania and Ravi Shankar trekking on the slopes of the Himalayas to get a view of Mt Everest make for perfect holiday adventures. From Japan, Kamata has given us a narrative set in the pandemic. And environmentalist Kenny Peavy dwells on reconnecting with nature in Mission Earth.

We have a fair deal from across the globe in the June issue. But, as usual, some of the treats in the content have not been mentioned though they are wonderful pieces of writing too. We look forward to your continued support as you delve into our treasure trove of gems from across the oceans. A huge thanks to our fabulous team, to the contributors and readers. I especially want to thank Sohana Manzoor for sharing her lovely artwork and wish you all a wonderful read!

I hope you have a fabulous summer.

Thank you.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Stories

Pagol Diaries

By Indrasish Banerjee

Courtesy: Creative Commons

I never knew Maa had developed such a filial attachment with Pagol* until I found her diary the other day. Probably to dispel her loneliness, Maa had started maintaining a diary. The diary had all the usual entries recording her day-to-day activities. Some about daily humdrum activities. “Today Anita came late again…the third day in a row….” Some on past recollections trigged by something with a tinge of melancholy. “Today morning the big glass jar slipped from my hand, raced to the floor and shattered. It was an antique dear to Gogol’s father.”

What took me by a pleasant surprise were Maa’s diary entries on Pagol. In Sweden those days lot of experiments were being carried out with robots. Robots were gradually replacing humans in various jobs. People were both excited and worried about them. Robots were being seen as a solution to many human problems as well as a threat to human existence. People felt the time when robots would completely take over humans was not very far.

Like many, I used to read a lot on the latest advancements happening in the world of robotics on my phone. One day I received an advertisement alert on my phone about a robot exhibition happening in the city. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I visited the exhibition.

It was a noisy place. There were kiosks of companies from different parts of the world. Salesmen were demonstrating robots of different kinds to curious visitors and answering their questions. Most were basic robots which could perform singular tasks, and some were not for domestic use but meant for factories. They hardly looked like humans; in fact, some resembled snakes and even zombies of different shapes and sizes depending on the purpose they were made for. This disappointed many visitors, particularly children who had a very romantic notion about robots acquired from sci-fi comic books, TV serials and movies that were becoming very popular with youngsters.

It had been a few years since Baba had passed away when I finally left India, taking a job abroad. I had spent a few years in the West, in Germany, when Baba worked there. Since we returned to India, I always had a yearning to go back to the West. After working in India for some years, finally when I got a job abroad, Maa’s happiness was dampened by a trace of melancholy. I was the only son, after all. Initially I had plans to take Maa with me after I had settled down a bit, but it never came to pass.

When a Japanese kiosk drew my attention, a wave of euphoria gripped me. A boy was demonstrating a robot to some onlookers. The robot looked very close to an actual boy not much older than the demonstrator. The robot could have basic conversation with humans and perform basic tasks to assist elderly people. When one of the listeners referred to the contraption as robot, however, the boy immediately corrected him: “It’s a humanoid, sir.” I was familiar with the term, roughly meaning a combination of robot and human.

I tentatively approached the demonstrator, probably in his early twenties, and asked if I could take it to India. “We can completely dismantle it and put it in a suitcase for you, Sir.”  After some deliberation, I purchased the humanoid.

Later that month, I would travel to India and surprise Maa with it.

Gogol called from Sweden today. He will come to Calcutta next week. He said someone is going to come with him. He didn’t reveal anything about the person. I didn’t insist.

This morning Gogol arrived from Sweden. The first sight of him suggested he had lost some weight since he visited last time but when I complained he said he had actually put on weight and has to drop some. Apart from his usual paraphernalia, he had a metallic suitcase in hand. Once the initial euphoria was over, I asked him about the other person he had talked about on phone. He didn’t reply but I realised he was thinking about something and didn’t repeat the question. Gogol is a very absentminded boy especially when his mind is on something.  It could be the new company he has joined which is a little smaller than his last one, but he has more responsibilities, he said. Later in the day he had a telephonic meeting with his boss and immediately after the meeting his sat down to work – and remained with his laptop the rest of the day.

Today the whole day the suitcase lay in a corner of his room next to a book rack. My mild enquires about the content of the mysterious case, which looks a little unlike normal suitcases, failed to make me any wiser.

Last night, sleep arrived a little late and until it did the suitcase kept me worried. It felt like a trivial matter but somehow, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It is an unusual looking suitcase. A modern-day version of our old-day trunk, a little smaller and stouter of course with big knob-like pins lining its sides, giving it a tough and impregnable appearance. Is it a memsahib Gogol is hiding inside? I didn’t bring up the topic at the breakfast table. We discussed humdrum things.

This afternoon, Anita came running to the kitchen when I was frying fish Gogol likes to eat with rice and daal. Panting, Anita mumbled something unintelligibly looking at our dining table. I held her arms and then leaned to check what it was. My heart missed a beat. A boy was standing in the passage. It had a very un-humanly chiseled looks – everything was too perfect as if it had walked out of some fairy tale book. But what would have scared Anita took me by surprise, too: its lifeless eyes, its gaze fixed in one direction. It looked like a human, but it wasn’t quite. When I stepped out of the kitchen, the boy robotically moved towards me: “Good afternoon, Maa.”

 I screamed. Gogol was standing next to the door of his room wickedly smiling as if sadistically observing what was going on and congratulating himself for his prescience.

 “Is it your surprise?” I asked now a little calmer realising that if Gogol was smiling the way he was it was part of his design.

“Yes, Maa. And now onwards it’s your companion. You have to give it a name, Maa.”

“Name? What name? What is it in the first place? Is it a live human?”

“It’s a humanoid which can do several things to assist you. It will make you feel less lonely when I am not around, Maa.”

Maa named the robot Pagol rhyming with my name, Gogol.  Until Maa became used to Pagol, there was a stiff carefulness. She had dealt with high technology in the past, particularly when we were in Germany, but not without close supervision of Baba until she became quite sure she could handle it herself. Anita learnt how to operate the robot very quickly and once she became comfortable Maa learnt things from her.

There wasn’t much to learn, though. Pagol was a fully automated robot with the intelligence of a two-year-old kid which helped it learn things by seeing them and then perform them with some basic assistance. It could perform four to five household chores, like reminding Maa of her daily medicines at the time she had to have them, bringing a tray to her with anything of moderate weight placed on it and having a basic conversation.

Slowly I’m forgetting Pagol is a robot. When Gogol visited me the next time, from Sweden, he did some tinkering to Pagol to make him more responsive to our needs and idiosyncrasies – and seeing me upset with him when he took Pagol apart to work on him, Gogol said: “Maa, you have become emotionally attached with Pagol. It’s only a contraption.” But it’s not the technological aspect of Pagol which has got me used to him but the fact that he has filled up a void in my life, one that had been left behind not so much by Gogol’s father’s sudden death in a road accident in Poland because there was Gogol to be brought up and other challenges that his passing way exposed me to, to be handled; as much by Gogol’s leaving India. Of course, Gogol does his bit to minimise the loneliness by phoning frequently and there is Anita, but the bouts of loneliness return nonetheless. I have fewer of those nowadays, thanks to Pagol.

You may find it strange that someone can develop emotions around a robot — a machine. Pagol is not many things that a normal human is. He can speak in, as Gogol calls them, preprogrammed scripts but you can’t have a conversation with Pagol. Nor can Pagol do things that come so naturally to us, like making meaningful eye contact or, say, a spontaneous chuckle or laugh or smile. But then doesn’t emotion, like beauty, lie in the eyes of the beholder?

But to Anita, Pagol was always a robot. Anita used to take care of all the mechanic needs of Pagol, setting the robot up on its charging station once every three days, calling me up in Sweden whenever Pagol needed technical attention.

But that wasn’t to be for too long.

                                                              *

When Maa called me in Sweden and very affectionately described how Pagol had ‘hit’ her gently, as if it had made the robot more endearing to her if anything, it reminded me of Edda. She had expressed her misgivings when I had told her that I was going to gift Maa an assistive robot. “There are lot of ethical concerns around these robots,” she had warned me. The concept of assistive robots for elderly people was widely known by then and so were the concerns about them. The popular concerns partly owed themselves to the sci-fi films and children’s books exaggerating these but also some incidents that had been reported widely in the media. Thanks to them, people saw robots as having a sinister side to them. What if a robot hit the elderly person it was assisting! Worse still, what if its functionality was sinisterly tweaked by someone to do so? Such were the concerns.

But Edda being a studious type was not the one to be swayed by popular beliefs. When she warned me, she had the real incidents reported in the media in mind. In one of them, an assistive robot helped an elderly person from his hospital bed to the balcony by holding his arms suddenly left the old man’s arms leaving the old man to himself and the old man, who couldn’t walk steadily without assistance, lost his balance, wobbled and fell down on a table injuring himself. 

On another occasion, an assistive robot had locked a bathroom door from outside locking an old woman in….And it took a long time for human help to arrive. The elderly woman was found in a state of panic and profusely sweating.

                                                         *

But we had to finally get rid of Pagol for entirely different reasons.

For a few days Pagol seems to have developed human qualities, a will of his own. He does things without being told to do them. This started since Gogol installed a new program in him to improve his cognitive abilities. I haven’t told it to Gogol because he would get worried and doing anything from so far is difficult anyway.

But since what Pagol did the other day, I have been a little concerned. Before Anita leaves for the day, which is generally late evening, she switches off Pagol and places him on his battery stand. It means Pagol is completely dysfunctional at night. That day I had dozed off while reading a Sunil Gangapadhay novel. After sometime, I woke up and realised I had slept off without switching off the lights and taking my medicines. I got up, finished my rituals, I retired for the day.

Sleep was hard to come by. I looked at the rafters thinking desultory thoughts until gradually the sleep god relented. Suddenly I felt the presence of another person in the room. When I looked up, I was startled. Two bright eyes were looking at me. For a moment I was paralyzed by fear, then I recognised the eyes — they were Pagol’s. I turned on the lights. I was right: Pagol was standing facing me. “Maa, you have not taken your medicines today,” he said.

But how did Pagol know this? During the day, when it is time for my medicines, he brings them to me on a tray. But at night, I take my medicines myself. And in any case Anita had put him to sleep for the night.

“What are doing here, Pagol? Didn’t Anita Di put you to sleep for night?” Pagol can respond to such simple questions nowadays, but he remained quiet, looking at me. Trying to move him to a corner of the room would be futile — Pagol was too heavy for that. The sudden surprise had dispelled my sleep. But, after sometime, I dozed off.

Next morning another surprise awaited me. When I got up, I didn’t see Pagol in the room. I rushed to the place where Anita keeps Pagol before leaving for the day — he was there exactly how Anita left him the previous day.

Today Pagol dropped a glass jar from his hand. He had taken the glass jar in his hand of his own volition; no one asked him to do it. When the glass slipped from his hand to the floor, Anita and I rushed to the kitchen. We were surprised. Not so much by the shattered jar as much by the expression of guilt on Pagol’s face. Anita shouted at Pagol: “Who asked you to play with that jar?” Later Anita saw Pagol standing in the balcony, looking at the lane below as if thinking something.

I knew very little about all this until I received a call from Anita one day. “Dada, lately Pagol has started acting strangely. It does things you don’t expect a robot to do.” She told me about the glass jar incident and what Maa had told her about finding Pagol standing in the middle of the room in the middle of night.

I was worried but I didn’t know what to do. I searched the net and found some short stories on robots developing human agencies. Finally, I mailed the Japanese company I had purchased Pagol from. After a few days, I received a response from a Japanese person by the name of Akinari, a robot engineer as per his mail signature.

Akinari said he had received similar complaints from customers before and had asked them to keep the robots under observation for some time to find out if there was any error of judgment on their part. He said he remembered almost everyone responding and confirming his doubt: that the complaints were the figment of imagination of the elderly persons receiving assistance from the robots.

I replied:

‘The robot assists my mother, and she is the person it spends most of its time with apart from Anita who takes care of my mother. It’s Anita who told me about the robot’s exploits. She wasn’t privy to some of them. She heard them from my mother, so I reluctantly ascribe some of the activities to my mother’s figment of imagination or error of judgement but Anita herself was witness to the other things the robot did.’

I want to mainly check with you if the robot can harm its benefactor.

Akinari wrote back:

‘I discussed it with other experts. Ordinarily we would have dismissed it as we have never heard anything like this before. But since you seem to be sure that your people back home have closely observed the robot for some time and are quite sure it is displaying behavior it is not programmed to, we would like to commission a special study of the robot in our lab.’

A week later a Japanese man visited our Calcutta house. Assisted by Anita, he dismantled the robot and took it with him.

The final entry on Pagol in Maa’s diary read:

It’s been six months since Pagol went missing one morning. He has not returned since. Anita assures me he will. The silly girl doesn’t seem to understand I know what they did to Pagol.

*

I never heard about Pagol again. I wrote to Akinari a few years after he sent a person to collect Pagol from our Calcutta home. But I didn’t get any reply from him. Did they completely dismantle him, and then dump his remains in a yard located somewhere in a third world country to add to the mounting pile of discarded gadgets abandoned because their utility to humankind had expired? I read on the net the other day that discarded robots are being recycled, also being used as fertilizer in some parts of the world. So, has Pagol ended up nourishing the food on the plate of someone?

I had expected Maa to react to Pagol’s sudden disappearance with the delirium of a mother who has suddenly lost her child. I had asked Anita to keep a tab on Maa in the days, weeks and months that followed Pagol’s sudden disappearance. But Maa never said anything about Pagol again. She continued with her life as if nothing had happened. Did she internalise the grief not expressing it lest it was trivialised by others? Or did she finally make peace with the fact that Pagol was a machine, after all.

After so many years I can only guess.

*Pagol in Bengali means mad or crazy.

Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

.

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

Categories
Editorial

Catch a Falling Star…

Art by Sohana Manzoor
For when your troubles starting multiplying
And they just might
It's easy to forget them without trying
With just a pocketful of starlight

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away (never let it fade away)
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day

'Catch a Falling Star' by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss

Perhaps, it is time to find that fallen star popularised by pop singer Perry Como is 1957. Optimism glimmers faintly, sometimes even conceals itself, in a world passing through a dark phase in history. For instance, few of us would know that we might find more answers to tackle  climate change as dinosaur fossils (from the time an asteroid hit the planet) have been unearthed recently. That sounds like solutions can be had to what was perceived as inevitable doom.

Another bit of news that perhaps will cheer some is the first anthology of Borderless Journal will soon be available in market. It has been accepted by a publisher, an old, trusted and reputed name from India, Om Books International. They have bookshops splattered all over — should make it easy for buyers to access the book. Hopefully, you can target the anthology for your Diwali or Christmas gift hampers. Om Books has one of the most iconic editors-in chief, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. A multiple award-winning editor, he has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and is currently churning out wonderful books from Om with a fabulous production team, working with whom has been a pleasure. Ray Chaudhuri is an outstanding film writer and poet. He is part of a group that is creating a film archive online. To know more about him or his views on publishing, you can read our online conversation with him.

The energy one gets from optimism like starlight from a fallen star, lightens the darker shadows that create gloom with the war leading to rise in prices and threats of recession in a post pandemic scenario. Lesya Bakun, the refugee from Ukraine whose story we carried last month, finds her starlight by sharing updates of her story.  She added to her narrative with the news that her cousin has been taken as a prisoner of war by Russia from the besieged factory in Ukraine. Though sharing does not alleviate suffering, Bakun’s ability to cling to hope and imagine a future where she gets her dream highlights the strength of her convictions. The other thing that is revealed by her narrative and media coverage is exclusivity and boxes of ideology split humankind, erase families, cities, countries, lives and sanity. The war can appease only the lust of warlords. Against this desolation caused by the devastation, what could be the starlight that would lead to a happier future?

Laughter. Unleashing the ability to laugh at oneself is as potent as laughter that generates relief and lightens our mood, so that we can view differences as whimsical, treat them with tolerance and compassion and not destroy the diversities that add colours to the world. Perhaps, that is why Tagore took to humour too. Somdatta Mandal has translated a series of humorous skits by Tagore. We are featuring one of these called the ‘Ordeal of Fame’. Yet another translation or transcreation of a poem called ‘Lukochuri’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ reflects the playful in Tagore’s oeuvre. These, along with Rhys Hughes humour on the pandemic in poetry and prose, bring good cheer into our journal. Hughes has also used his column to tell us why he curated a new humorous anthology of verses by seventeen poets called Wuxing Lyrical. I wonder if he is serious or joking!

We were fortunate to have a tongue-in-cheek online discussion with an academic with a witty sense of humour who started a book based on his PhD research with a limerick, Amit Ranjan, author of John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostan, Lawyer for the Ranee. While Ranjan brought to us a narrative of an Australian who challenged the colonial mindset, went to court representing the Rani of Jhansi, wrote for Charles Dickens in Household Words and moved around the world just like one of us, hopping jobs and looking for a life, we have diverse cultural streams woven into the journal with translations of a Balochi folktale from Fazal Baloch, a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi and Professor Fakrul Alam’s translation of Jibananda’s poetry, an ongoing project in Borderless.

The Nithari column has yielded us a story that was written in a mix of Hindi and English by Yogesh Uniyal and translated fully to English by Nirbhay Bhogal. We have strange stories this time. Nileena Sunil’s short narrative and Paul Mirabile’s longer one set in Madrid explore the unusual. More stories delve into the intricacies of the human mind.

As we trot around the globe, Suzanne Kamata tells us about a Monet museum in Japan where she ate madeleines made with the artist’s recipe! Meredith Stephens sails to Tasmania with her camera and gives us a glimpse of nature’s plenty. Ravi Shankar relates his trekking adventures among the Himalayas in Nepal, with awesome photographs of these mountains, while Kenny Peavy who lives in Indonesia dwells on the value of falling down and getting up in a light humorous vein against the backdrop of nature – though metaphorically perhaps the world needs to do that. We have G Venkatesh’s story about his stay in Johannesburg where he discovers that skin tones do not matter.

Ratnottama Sengupta makes the whole world look like a home with the story of a legendary screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Mahabharata for Peter Brook’s play (1985) of the same name and the subsequent film (1989) — with characters drawn from all over the world. Candice gives us an overview of the pandemic, with more focus on US where she lives.

Mike Smith travels back to another time when an ailment called World War II raged and has revived a writer from the past, HE Bates (1905-1974). We have another essay by Dan Meloche on a legendary book which turned 100 this year — Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Rakhi Dalal revisits more than a century old translation by Devabrata Mukherjee of Tagore’s The Post Office which bears relevance to the present day as it shows how the human spirit endures over even the darkness of death.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Radhika Gupta’s Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential, by his assessment a book that inspires youngsters to take charge of their future. On the other hand, there are books that explore the darkest in humans. Basudhara Roy has reviewed a collection short stories by Sunil Sharma called Burn the Library & Other Fiction. Indrashish Banerjee reviews Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest novel based on modern day crimes, Villainy, from which we are carrying a book excerpt too. The other excerpt is from a narrative written from a refugee’s perspective, Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, translated by Isis Nusair from Arabic. Born in a refugee camp in Damascus, this Syrian-Palestinian poet defies all genres to touch hearts with brutal honesty. No less sincere is Michael Burch’s poetry on summer that ushers in the season as much as Sohana’s beautiful painting that we are using as our cover photo. We have poetry from not just Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri but also by George Freek, S. Srinivas, Tohm Bakelas, Abin Chakraborty, Marianne Tefft and many more. As usual, I have not mentioned all the treats in store for you. Delve into our contents page and browse to find out more.

Before winding up, I would want to extend my thanks not only to our team and contributors, but also to our publisher who is willing to republish our content with some tweaking. Thanks to our readers who, I hope, will be excited to have selected content between their palms as a hardcopy anthology with 49 of our most iconic pieces. We have more than a thousand published works. This anthology will be an iconic sample that you can carry anywhere with you even if there is no internet – that would include Mars and Moon!

I wish you happy reading, happy dreaming and hope… plenty of it.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Editorial

For the People, Of the People, By the People

Painting by Gita Viswanath
"I wish you survival, 
Health
And the closed sky above you."

— Refugee in my own Country/I am Ukraine, Lesya Bakun

Despite this being the season of multiple new years around Asia, we cannot close our eyes to the skies that connect all the world like a blue dome. Though celebrations and humour continue to lighten the darkness of war, while Ukraine is being wrecked, can we turn our faces towards only festivities?

I had an interesting anecdote about how before the onset of the Gregorian calendar, new years in the world were celebrated around March and in some places in September. The Earth would turn fecund and green with spring, a beautiful season sprinkled with love and nostalgia as Michael R Burch tells us in his poetry. However, despite all the opulence of nature, it is hard to watch a country being bombed and families splintered to man a war that supposedly guards a human construct called ideology and blocs. Ukranian refugee, Lesya Bakun, in an interview says: “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.” Listening to Lesya’s stories makes one amazed at the bravery of the Ukrainians battling what seems to be cultural hegemony. It reminds of the war in Bangladesh in 1971. Though incredibly courageous in voicing her experiences, Lesya is traumatised and has a psychosomatic cough as she sends her voice and text messages from her mobile through Telegram. There were times when she was just weeping or angry for the questions asked, and justifiably so, as her home in Kharkiv, where she lived was under attack, and the town of Mariupol, where she was born, has been wrecked by the war.

The refrain of the pain of a refugee continues to reverberate in a book reviewed by Rakhi Dalal, Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, written originally in Arabic and translated by Isis Nusair. The Syrian-Palestinian poet refused to clarify whether his writing was prose or poetry — perhaps these borders and boxes drawn by humankind are breaking down in reality. Perhaps, this new year, the time is ripe to look forward to a new world that transcends these borders. This is also the first time we have had the privilege of carrying reviews of translations from Arabic and also from Turkish. Gracy Samjetsabam has reviewed a translation of a Turkish novel by Iskendar Pala called The Tulip of Istanbul, translated by Ruth Whitehouse. Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed a book by Kiran Manral, Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India while Candice Louisa Daquin has drawn our focus on a poetry collection by Marjorie Maddox, Begin with a Question, where the perceived divisions do not matter while the poet questions the larger issue of faith in quest of answers.

Is it the same kind of quest that has led Strider Marcus Jones to create the Lothlorien Journal, named reminiscently after Tolkien’s elvish ‘Lothlorien’ in Lord of the Rings? Find out Jones’s views and flow with his fluid poetry in the featured interview. Keith Lyons has been in conversation with Ivy Ngeow, an upcoming writer and the editor of a recent anthology of Asian writing where she has retained different styles of English across the world in a single book. While this could be beneficial to writers, would readers be comfortable reading stories with different styles or dialects of English without a glossary?

Our book excerpts are from more Asian books.  The Year of the Rat and Other Poems edited by Malachi Edwin Vethamani has an interesting title poem which has been shared in the excerpt. The other excerpt is from a fast-paced novel, Half-Blood, by Pronoti Datta. We also have a fast-paced story by a writer from France called Paul Mirabile set in Portugal; two that verge on the bizarre from Keiran Martin and Amjad Ali Malik; a poignant story from Sutputra Radheye and another that shows the positive side of voicing a protest against wrongs by Devraj Singh Kalsi. Kalsi has also given us a tongue in cheek musing called When Books have Wings.

On the lighter vein are travel essays by Ravi Shankar and Meredith Stephens. They take us to the Himalayas in Nepal and to Tasmania! Suzanne Kamata has taken us to an owl cafe in Japan! At the end of her column, one feels sad for the owls as opposed to Erwin Coombs’ narrative that evokes laughter with his much-loved pet cat’s antics.

Humour is evoked by G. Venkatesh who with an ability to find silver linings in dark clouds talks of cricket and lessons learnt from missing his school bus. Adnan Zaidi has also analysed his poetic abilities with tongue-in-cheek comments. Kenny Peavy gives a lighthearted rendition in praise of boredom and interactions with nature. It is good to have laughter to combat the darkness of the current times, to give us energy to transcend our grief. Keith Lyons hovers on the track between humour and non-humour with his cycling adventures. Rhys Hughes seems to talk of both his favourite poem and the war in a lighter shades, in no way insensitive but his observations make us wonder at the sanity of war. We have much of war poetry by a number of writers, poetry on varied issues by Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozabal, George Freek, Sybil Pretious, Kisholoy Roy, J.D. Koikoibo and many more.

Candice Louisa Daquin has taken on the onus of bringing to our notice how language can impact us in the long run while Ratnottama Sengupta has explored beggary in films, fiction and fact. The Nithari column runs a real-life story of a young boy narrated by his brother, Sachin Sharma. It has been translated from Hindustani by Diksha Lamba. The trauma faced in 2006 is strangely not discussed in the story though it hovers in the backdrop between the lines. We also have a translation of a Balochi folk story by Fazal Baloch and a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi. Translations from Tagore by Fakrul Alam and Somdatta Mandal have honoured our pages again. Mandal has sent us fun-filled skits by Tagore. But are they just fun or is there something more? We also have a translation of a long poem that explores a different aspect of Tagore, his empathy for the downtrodden which led him to create Sriniketan and regard it as his ‘life work’.

We have a bumper issue this time again — especially for the Asian new years; Thai, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, multiple Indian and more…

We would like to thank Sohana Manzoor for our cover painting and Gita Viswanath for her artwork. I would like to thank our wonderful team who with their contributions make this journal a reality. All the contributors deserve a huge thanks as do our loyal readers.

I wish you all a wonderful start to a non-Gregorian new year and hope that peace prevails over parts torn by wars and dissensions.

Thank you all!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Notes from Japan

Owls in the Ginza

Suzanne Kamata visits an ‘owl café’ in Tokyo

The last time I had found myself in Tokyo with some free time and the freedom to move about, I had tried to drop in at an owl café. However, after making my way to such an establishment on the heels of a couple of Chinese tourists, I discovered that a reservation was necessary. The place was booked weeks in advance.

A few weeks ago, I again had some business in Tokyo, so I contacted an old friend and suggested we do a bit of sightseeing together.

“What do you want to do?” she asked me.

I replied that I wanted to visit an owl café. She messaged back that she didn’t like birds.

We had lunch in a sushi restaurant that normally had a queue as early as seven a.m. Due to the coronavirus, we waltzed right in and had a leisurely lunch. After that, we went to a museum that normally required reservations, or at least a long wait. And since there had been so little time wasted standing in line, my friend agreed to take me to an owl café. She found one by using her phone and called the place up. Sure, we could visit, the owner said. No reservations were needed.

The Mofu Mofu Owl Café Ginza was down a side street in Tokyo’s tony shopping district, steps away from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel. As we climbed the three flights of narrow stairs, I wondered what it would be like inside. It would be dark, I imagined, because owls are nocturnal. But no, when we pushed open the door, we were met with light.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the place, and others like it, a café. Coffee is not served, nor is there cake or any other kind of food. There were no tables, no young women with aprons or maid costumes, just a guy wearing a T-shirt in a roomful of owls tethered to perches.

The owner seemed happy to see us. We were the only customers. He instructed us to disinfect our hands, and then showed us how to touch the owls – a gentle rub on the top of their heads, much in the way that my cat liked to be caressed. The owls were big and fluffy, like cats, and I wanted to hug them, but I figured they would probably try to bite me if I did.

My friend, the bird-hater, hung back while I went around looking at each owl. They were of various species from around the world. I wondered if they were bored, sitting on their perches all day, with nothing to do. Maybe our being there was their entertainment.

“They wouldn’t survive in the wild,” the owner said. “They have been raised from eggs by humans.”

He told us that they might live for thirty years in captivity, but only half that in nature. What was worse, I wondered? Thirty years of boredom, or fifteen years of being stressed out about their next meal, and where they would build a nest? Was keeping owls in this room any worse that keeping a parakeet in a cage? Or not allowing my restless cats to go outside, even when they meowed pleadingly at the door? (Actually, I sometimes did allow them to go out, knowing full well that they might be dodging cars, picking up fleas, and murdering songbirds and mice.)

The owner explained that before the pandemic, he’d operated two cafes – this one, and another in Roppongi — but due to the travel restrictions which prevented tourists from overseas from visiting, he’d had to close that one. All the owls were now gathered here. They’d been given names of nearby shops. Gucci was a Japanese Northern White-faced Owl, while the Little Owl from Belgium was named Bottega Veneta. There was also a Tawny Owl, born in 2016, named Tiffany.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of foreigners came here,” the owner said. Some famous people, too. He showed us a photo of the singer Akiko Yano, ex-wife of internationally renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, with one of the owls. Yano lives in New York City and had heard about the café while abroad. I looked around at the empty space. Apparently, Tokyoites didn’t have an urge to commune with owls. I worried about what would happen to them if the tourists weren’t welcomed back to Japan soon.

The owner let me pick out an owl and settled it on my hand. My friend finally got up the courage to stroke one of the owls between its eyes. The phone rang, and the owner went to answer it. I heard him booking another customer, and I felt a bit relieved. Apparently, this one would come at mealtime and watch the owls consume dead mice. That was probably an exciting part of the owls’ day.

Part of me thought that the birds might be happier in an atrium somewhere. But while they were here, I hoped they would be well looked after. I wanted to contribute as best as I could, so I loaded up on souvenirs – a pen encasing an owl feather, made by the owner’s wife; a handful of chopsticks with owl motifs; and a bottle of Hitachino Nest beer, which had an owl on the label. And I promised to post some photos on Instagram so that more tourists would come.

An owl in chains

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

Thanks to the columnist Suzanne Kamata for the photographs. 

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