Reach for the Stars

Courtesy: Creative Commons
“Nothing can be unconditional: consequently, nothing can be free.”

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” 

-- George Bernard Shaw,  Maxims for Revolutionists, Man & Superman (1903) 

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a great writer and playwright, used these epigrammatic lines to bring focus on what people thought was liberty or freedom from oppression, from regimes that were dictatorial. While discussing concepts of freedom, one does wonder if political freedom solves all humane issues, occasions we celebrate with great aplomb, like the birth of a nation.

This month started with the observance of July 4th, the date of the American Revolution in 1776 and the publication date of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855. In between these two years, in 1789, ten days down the line, on July 14th, another significant occurrence has been handed down by history to be celebrated as the Bastille Day— the day prisoners were freed from Bastille, a major event that led to the overthrow of the insensitive monarchy in France, a symbolic resurgence of the common, exploited man that has often been seen as an inspiration for later uprisings to reinforce the concept of democracy or liberté, égalité, fraternité.

As we move forward in time, towards August, one wonders if liberty attained by these means was good for all fellow humans? France was part of the Allied Forces that with America taking the lead dropped not one but two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, to end the Second World War. Did the ends justify the means? Reflecting the cry and suffering of these victims, we have poetry from Suzanne Kamata, a well-known writer from Japan. Michael Burch on the other hand has shared poetry with us which shows how the nuclear programme continued unrepentant despite the devastation it caused. One must give kudos to the descendants of the victims of the nuclear blast that they have forgiven the perpetrators, admitted their own hand in the Second World War and moved ahead. In that spirit, we have an essay on peace by Candice Louisa Daquin, who joins the Borderless team as a writer-in-residence.

We have much happening in poetry this time with an interview of American poet Jared Carter, a recipient of number of awards and fellowships, including the Walt Whitman Award and the Guggenheim fellowship. He walks us through how he created the poem ‘Yeti’ (first published in the May edition of Borderless) and talks of the impact of artifacts from China and India on his own thought processes, the impact of Du Fu (712-770) and much more. We have a poem in Du Fu’s style this time by George Freek and an interesting poem with a Chinese title by Carter, a title that can have multiple connotations and yet each seems to fit the poem perfectly.

Rhys Hughes has brought humour into our pages with both his poetry and essay on William Mcgonagall, who bore the sobriquet of the worst writer in the world through his life and had things thrown at him when he read his poetry in Dundee. Yet, his work survived the beatings, and he lives on known as the ‘Scottish Homer’.

More poetry by Singaporean poet Marc Nair gives us a glimpse of the little island as viewed by someone who has grown up on it. Poetry is always multi-hued, and we have Lorraine Caputo transport us to a Garífuna village in Honduras. Penny Wilkes takes us ‘Down the Path of Nostalgia’ with a mix of old and new photography, prose and poetry on how almost a decade after the end of the Second World War, she started her love affair with photography and nature. It hovers between poetry and musings, and this time we have a rare musing by Jared Carter too. Devraj Singh Kalsi continues cogitating with wry humour while arranging bookshelves. We also have the backpacking granny visiting Indonesia. Post sharing this trip, our granny — Sybil Pretious — plans a little break from publishing to complete her memoirs.

A riveting flash fiction by Kaiyi Tan celebrates the spirit of conquest in these dark times, weaving into the pandemic lore the quest for personal freedom. Stories this time carry a real life one by Jean Kortum on adoption — her own struggle. But then, stories can be real or unreal – draw a bit from both to reflect bigger truths or create alternates that sink into the human mind as a perceived reality and leave an imprint deep inside the heart, like that of Niles Reddick. My conviction is that some lived experiences of writers seep into each story, whether it is from Bangladesh or India or by our literary fictionist, Sunil Sharma. His narrative continues infused by suspense.

We have a complete translated story of Tagore by Radha Chakravarty as our book excerpt this time. ‘The Parrot’s Tale’, ostensibly part of a children’s collection, reflects Tagore’s response to conventional schooling — a reason for him to start Shanti Niketan perhaps. She has also shared two of her translations of Rabindranath’s songs from Bhanusingher Padabali (1884, Bhanusingh’s verses). Chakravarty generously consented to an interview and has given us a glimpse of her journey as a translator and critic.  We also have translated a long poem by Tagore on our pages, a poem that inspires hope, though it was named Dushomoy (1897, Bad Times) finally. The original name had been Swarga Patthe (On the Path to Heaven) as can be seen from a page in his diary. We have been fortunate in finding a recording of his voice reciting the poem in Bengali and the print of a sample page of the manuscript bearing his signature.

We continue with Akbar Barakzai’s poetry translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi – this time addressed to his daughter reminding for some reason of Nehru’s Letters from a Father to his Daughter — a book I read as a child.  In addition, we have translations from Korea and Bosnia & Herzegovina, from where the young poet, Maid Corbic, has taken up the concept of freedom of the self and of the nation, both together.

Keith Lyons from New Zealand in his very brief essay has quoted American novelist William Faulkner, “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” And perhaps we need to remember this if for no other reason, then, just to maintain our own sanity in these strange, almost unreal times as we attempt to unite as humankind to free ourselves from an unknown and unfathomable virus.

In a more sombre note, last week, untroubled by the virus, a victim of cancer, Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar, aged 98, breathed his last. Ratnottama Sengupta adds an unusual colour to the Borderless Journal with her tribute to this hugely acclaimed actor. In the process, she unfolds for us a brief history of the Indian cinema, and a glimpse of a world that transcends all man made constructs in quest of perfection.

We have an interesting set of reviews this July. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anuradha Kumar’s riveting short story collection, A Sense of Time. A murder mystery for young readers, Murder at Daisy Apartments by Shabnam Minwalla, has been reviewed by Gracy Samjetsabam. The Third Eye of Governance–Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research by Dr N Bhaskara Rao, reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, seems to be a non-fiction that looks forward to bridging gaps between academia and the real world, a truly felt need. Parichha has also given us an essay on a man who inspired Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, to make him a part of his lore, a journalist who moved around all of Asia with equal aplomb and a sense of humour – a truly global citizen called Richard Hughes.

I want to thank all our wonderful contributors for making this edition a reality. And readers, we leave you to explore the unknown… like that place we call outer space. A huge thank you again to not only all our wonderful contributors, our faithful readers but also to the fabulous Borderless team scattered across the world.  

Before I wind up, a little bird trills a song of hope in my ear. Business tycoons have started stepping into the mysterious void of space to eventually – let us hope — create affordable travel for common man, though it has started off as an expensive proposition. Will this be an industry that will generate more jobs on and off Earth and find new places for man to inhabit? After all, when George Bernard Shaw wrote his plays and essays, we had yet to cross the frontiers beyond Earth, had never even thought of flying across the world in budget airlines or mining moons!

Will we have a new world, a new outlook and a new set of hopes and aspirations as we stretch the frontiers of our home planet?

Wish you all a wonderful month of reading and thinking.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty


When Two or Three are Gathered

By Tan Kaiyi

“Are you sure it’s safe for us to be this close?” Anushka asked.

“I don’t know. They said it’s not over,” Rizwan said.

“Who says it’s not over?”

“It’s all over the radio,” Cheng said.

“All over?” Rachel asked.

“It was on every channel I was scanning this morning.”

“You can’t believe everything you hear.”

“It’s from the Ministers. The 6Gs.”

“We don’t even know who they are. All we hear about them is from the radio,” Anushka said.

“But everything they said had turned out to be true.”

“We aren’t sure of that. All we hear is the numbers of people who disappeared from some voice who claims to have the mandate to govern,” Rachel said.

“The voice had been right about the virus,” Rizwan said.

“If it’s a virus.”

“I don’t know what else to call it. It makes logical sense that the government would have a continuity plan, some kind of team after things fall apart.”

If the government was smarter, it wouldn’t have needed a continuity plan, Cheng thought. But then again, no one has seen anything like this. Who would be smart enough to know that people would start turning when two or three were gathered. Physical contact seems to be the main trigger, but reports had come in of people mutating even when they were near each other.

“Hey, watch the distance!” Anushka yelled.

“Sorry, let me move a bit,” Cheng said.

“I don’t want to become one of them, not at a time like this. Sorry, I don’t mean you have it.”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Are you sure this is going to work though?”

“I don’t know,” Cheng said.

“We have to hold hands. I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Rizwan said.

He looked at the symbols they have set up for the ritual. Five stars and a moon drawn in blood and white chalk on the ground. The four of them had seen it in their dreams, a city of glistening mirror colossi, glistening with the reflected sun under clean blue skies. It was so vivid that they could smell the aroma of the air and the soothing embrace of the heat. And the people! None of these horrid mutations that flailed and shrieked about. What they would have given to just walk down the street without the risk of getting mauled by their twisted limbs or infected by their touch! If they did the ritual right, that’s where they would be — or at least that’s what they thought.

“We don’t even know if it’s going to work,” Anushka said

“You’ve seen it. You’ve seen it in the dreams,” Rachel said.

“It could be that. Just dreams. Nothing more.”

“We’ve come this far, we’ve got to give it a shot.”

Rachel looked at her friend from secondary school. She wanted to tell her that it was alright, that once it was done, she was sure that the ritual would open up a better world for them. But she wasn’t sure. The legend had been circulating after the mutations spread throughout the world. The sickness was biological, but it was something more. There was talk that it could bend reality, which explained how the virus warped human physiology. When this idea spread through the airwaves, it led to several theories about a hidden gateway to a parallel world — similar to theirs but with a brighter fate.

“Lots of people have died to come to this place. We got lucky, we’re here now,” he said, remembering the many moments in their journey when they narrowly escaped death. Mid-way, Cheng had caught a bad case of fever and breathlessness, and he felt that his body was turning inside out. It was the most fearful experience he had in his entire life. Just put a bullet in my head, he told Anushka. He heard her refusals through her soft sobs, but he didn’t want to end his life as some kind of inflamed monstrosity. No one dared to go near him, and that sense of isolation fuelled his anguish. He didn’t know how they got through it but the fever faded after a week. It delayed the entire journey, and depleted their rations ahead of time.

Johnson, one of their original companions, died of hunger a few days after that. Since then, Cheng hadn’t been able to sleep well. Even if they succeeded in getting out of this place, he knew his feeling of partial responsibility over Johnson’s death would continue to demonise him for the rest of his life. The four of them readied the items. The candles were set around the six symbols painted.

“It looks a bit like our flag, isn’t it?” Rizwan asked.

“A little,” Cheng said.

“What do you think we saw?”

“I don’t know. But it sure looks better than here,” when those worlds rolled out of Cheng’s tongue, he realised how absurd it sounded. It didn’t bode well for hope. He was beginning to think that this was all a mistake. He tried to comfort himself by thinking that that the distance between them and freedom was that one metre which prevented transmission, but his heart began to tremble and he prayed that his fear wasn’t showing.

“That’s it. All we need to do is to hold hands and close our eyes,” Cheng said.

“How long?” Anushka asked.

“I don’t know. What did the stories say?” Cheng asked.

“They say you will hear crackling in the air and the stench of death will be gone,” Rizwan said. He was haunted by hesitations, but they had come this far. If ahead lay death, it was nothing better than what they were leaving behind.

“Are we ready?” Cheng asked.

“I don’t know,” Rachel answered.

“Let’s start with the first step.”

The first step could be the deadliest. They stared at each other for what seemed like lifetimes, before they slowly reached out with their hands. When their fingers touched, an icy sensation crept up their arms and spine. Cheng cursed. The foul words released the tension from his shoulders and throat like a magical incantation.

“We’re still normal,” Cheng said.

“That’s a good start,” Anushka said.

“Okay, then we just keep repeating the chant?” Rachel asked.

“Yes,” Rizwan said.

And they begin to sing. The words and melody filled their minds and the room. The lyrics and music were familiar, they sang it every morning before school started — though the tune of this version was slightly distorted.

Eyes closed, it was hard to tell how much time had passed.

They were lost in the words. As they became more absorbed into the verses, they felt themselves dissolve. But without opening their eyes, they couldn’t know what was going on. A thought came up in Rizwan’s mind. He felt removed from the entire process — like a disembodied eye that watched over them. They were still in the room, he felt.

 There was nothing left to do but to carry on. And so they continued — drowning in the sea of words and time, waiting and waiting, only coming up to grasp the scent of fresh air.


Tan Kaiyi is on a literary odyssey to unearth the wonders and weirdness within the mundane. His poems have appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. He has also been published in Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018), an anthology of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories from the region.