Shantanu Ray Chaudhari converses with writer Gajra Kottary, a well-known writer of Indian TV series, novels and stories. Clickhereto read.
A discussion on Samaresh Bose’s In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar, a book that takes us to the heart of the Kumbh Mela, a festival recognised by the UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the translator, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee. Clickhere to read.
Songs of Freedom: Vikalangta or Disability is an autobiographical narrative by Kajal, translated from Hindustani by Janees. These narrations highlight the ongoing struggle against debilitating rigid boundaries drawn by societal norms, with the support from organisations like Shaktishalini and Pandies. Clickhere to read.
Paul Mirabile explores James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and his passion for words keeping in mind the hundred year old Ulysees & the even older, A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. Clickhere to read.
An excerpt from Radha Chakravarty’s translation of Tagore’s Farewell Song. Clickhere to read.
The next year will do the same – we will all celebrate with Auld Lang Syneand look forward to a resolution of conflicts that reared a frightening face in 2022 and 2021. Perhaps, this time, if we have learnt from history, there will not be any annihilation but only a movement towards resolution. We have more or less tackled the pandemic and are regaining health despite the setbacks and disputes. There could be more outbreaks but unlike in the past, this time we are geared for it. That a third World War did not break out despite provocation and varied opinions, makes me feel we have really learnt from history.
That sounds almost like the voice of hope. This year was a landmark for Borderless Journal. As an online journal, we found a footing in the hardcopy world with our own anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: Writings from Across the World, which had a wonderful e-launch hosted by our very well-established and supportive publisher, Om Books International. And now, it is in Om Book Shops across all of India. It will soon be on Amazon International. We also look forward to more anthologies that will create a dialogue on our values through different themes and maybe, just maybe, some more will agree with the need for a world that unites in clouds of ideas to take us forward to a future filled with love, hope and tolerance.
One of the themes of our journal has been reaching out for voices that speak for people. The eminent film critic and editor, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri , has shared a conversation with such a person, the famed Gajra Kottary, a well-known writer of Indian TV series, novels and stories. The other conversation is with Nirmal Kanti Bhattajarchee, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, a book describing the Kumbh-mela, that in 2017 was declared to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Bhattacharjee tells us how the festival has grown and improved in organisation from the time the author described a stampede that concluded the festivities. Life only gets better moving forward in time, despite events that terrorise with darkness. Facing fear and overcoming it does give a great sense of achievement.
In keeping with the festive season is our book excerpt from Rhys Hughes’ funny stories in his Christmas collection, Yule Do Nicely. Radha Chakravarty who brings many greats from Bengal to Anglophone readers shared an excerpt – a discussion on love — from her translation of Tagore’s novel,Farewell Song.
Also touching and yet almost embracing the school of Absurd is PF Mathew’s story, ‘Mercy‘, translated from Malayalam by Ram Anantharaman. Fazal Baloch has brought us a Balochi folktale and Ihlwha Choi has translated his own poem from Korean to English. One of Tagore’s last poems, Prothom Diner Shurjo, translated as ‘The Sun on the First Day’ is short but philosophical and gives us a glimpse into his inner world. Professor Fakrul Alam shares with us the lyrics of a Nazrul song which is deeply spiritual by translating it into English from Bengali.
A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, to the fabulous Borderless team without who the journal would be lost. Sohana Manzoor’s wonderful artwork continues to capture the mood of the season. Thanks to Sybil Pretious for her lovely painting. Please pause by our contents’ page to find what has not been covered in this note.
We wish you all a wonderful festive season.
Season’s Greetings from all of us at Borderless Journal.
Sometimes all it takes is a short break to get away from the stresses of your life to realise you have been too busy to be truly living the life you really desire. Sometimes all you need are some near-life experiences to bring you back to Earth. Keith Lyons escapes city life to find his happy place.
It was almost midday when I finally started to relax and instinctively know that everything was going to be alright. But before then, things had been a little bit rushed. With just 15 minutes before the flight boarding call, the taxi was still spinning a few blocks away on the Uber app tracker. I counted down the minutes, worried not so much about the high fare but about missing the flight.
Still half asleep, I kept a lookout from my window seat at the snow on the ridges of the Alps, finding amid the peaks and valleys an emerald alpine lake, impossible to reach. Half-an-hour later after the plane touched down, I walked from the airport to the neighbourhood where I grew up, locating the supermarket, and assembling my late breakfast with provisions I’d bought for the journey: half a dozen multi-grain bread rolls, a bag of salad greens, and a small block of extra tasty mature cheese. Suitably fortified, I found camping gas sold in the hunting and fishing shop, though when I walked out of Gun City having purchased one canister, I got a nasty look from the mother with her young child, as if I had just bought a semi-automatic rifle to run riot in a primary school. Seeking the best cafe in town to enjoy a cup of coffee, I found it further along the street, a man in a wheelchair mobility scooter leaving with a broad grin as if he had been given a new lease on life a good enough sign for me. The owner gave me a friendly welcome and a cafe latte in a real cup. With blood sugar and caffeine levels now elevated, it was time to hit the road, to hitchhike to the trailhead, but some primitive drive kicked in when I went past the pizza parlour, so I gave in and commenced carbo-loading on a 12-inch pizza, justifying to myself that I’d be walking it off.
And I did walk. First, out of town to the crossroads where I only had to wait a few minutes until a science teacher on her way to pick up her children stopped. She told me about their financial struggles and how a generous government allowance kept their family afloat. She dropped me in the next town, and I ducked into the last supermarket just to cram one more packet of crackers into my day pack.
It was now early afternoon, and the logical part of my brain was asking why I hadn’t started on the hike, which would take four hours. The other part of my brain reassured me that it didn’t really matter what’s ahead, what was here and now was more important. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun felt hot on my skin. I walked to the edge of town, but with not so much traffic I was tempted to have a handmade ice cream with local frozen berries. By the time I cleaned my sticky hands with sanitiser, I looked up to see another car had stopped for me. A man with no legs. I moved the wheels of his chair further over in the back seat; later I worried he might not be able to reach them when he arrived at his destination. I was almost at mine.
One final ride, with a former real estate agent who imparted some wisdom: Live your life to the full while you can, don’t wait till you are old, for then it might be too late, and health problems might blight your life.
Inside, I felt that I needed this. To be on the road. To be travelling again after Covid lockdowns and fears about venturing out. I needed this to look beyond my day job, my family concerns, and my dilemmas with what to do to secure a long-term future. It seems ages ago, but when I woke up in the morning, the first email I had seen through bleary eyes was a quote from George Addair: “Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.”
I felt buoyed by the interactions, the sharing of truths, and the lifelong lessons. I almost wanted to continue this hitchhiking, this random experiment, at the mercy of the road and its drivers. But I had a reservation for a bunk bed in a park hut, and the holiday I’d planned at the start of the year was now taking shape.
The trail, the Abel Tasman National Park ‘Great Walk’ (in New Zealand’s South Island) was familiar enough that I felt like I was coming home. I recalled walking part of this track as a child and in recent years I’d hiked sections, including the first four hours. Despite its familiarity, I saw new things, noticed details, and lingered to take it all in. I was in no hurry. So much depended on your mood, your pace, and your company. I took detours down to sandy beaches. I got breathless climbing and climbing and climbing to viewpoints. I stopped to drink the water still cold in my bottle. I sat at strategically placed seats to marvel at the panorama of sea, sand, forest and the horizon. From dazzling sunlight, the route drops into the gloom of forest cover, where I could smell the earthy sweetness of honey-dew on the breeze. The landscape was scenic, but there was more it was doing for my soul. Moving through it was to be immersed in it, to be nourished by the sight, the colours of life, the contrasts, and the abundance of nature. In my head, my soundtrack had songs on repeat, repeat, repeat. Then it skipped to another, to repeat a few times. I needed to upgrade my internal Spotify. I noticed my breathing, and how it deepened. I still had some tension, but slowly it was seeping away, dissipating. Yes, I would like some more of this. Yes, please.
Every few minutes walkers heading out from day trips or longer multi-day hikes passed by, with ‘hellos’. The Europeans and North Americans invariably walked on the ‘wrong’ side of the trail. Some were seeking suitable places for Instagram pictures. Others clutched the cardboard containers that once held their packed lunch from the ferry operator, looking for a trash bin, despite the notices that everyone must take out whatever they bring in.
At the hut, most had larger packs than mine, apart from an American who seemed to be staying overnight without any food. We watched him sitting outside using the free wifi, as if he was Googling ‘nearest store’ or finding out if any delivery services worked there. They don’t. The wood fire was lit in the main dining area, and exhausted souls sat around eating camp food and sipping hot drinks. And laughing. It was only just 9.30pm but already half the 30 or so guests had retired to their bunk rooms. There was talk about the need to rise early to take advantage of the low tide crossing, saving an hour or so of extra slog.
I was woken by the rustling of plastic bags, the clomping of hiking boots on the deck outside, and the hiss of gas cookers preparing porridge and tea. I rolled over and tried to sleep, as I was still tired, a tiredness residual from late nights, long hours working, and the demands of modern life.
When I finally got out of my sleeping bag and squinted my eyes out at the day, the last of the overnighters were getting ready to leave. I found myself alone. And here I found it. Peace. Stillness. Calm. It is in that place. And it was inside me.
Framed by the gable roof of the dining hall, through the trees, it was misty across the sheltered bay. The water was still and flat, but I could hear the distant breaking on the shore like a lullaby. I slowly sipped a cup of Lady Grey tea to add clarity. I heard just the twitter of birdsong and saw two tiny birds flit here and there. From a treetop, came the chimes and whirls and clicks of a native bird. Light rain was soft on the tin roof. I was content just to sit and gaze out at the scene, reduced to flat grey tones. I was happy enough just to be breathing the air, which was moist and life-giving. My warm scarf wrapped around my neck gave the embodiment of love, while the woollen hat on my heat topped it off. I was complete.
I felt the need to move, but not to go out in the rain which was getting heavier. Instead, I remembered some Qi Gong exercises, my arms flailing out, torso twisting, rotating. I pulled up energy from the earth below. And with that movement, and in that space, there was nothing I wanted. Just being fully present was enough. It was all I could be at that moment.
And you. How about you? When will you stop over-thinking, obsessing, and worrying? Just breathe and believe that everything will work out.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.
Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.
Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click hereto read.
That good things happen despite darkness, despite prognostications of doom, that light glimmers hope if you strive to focus on your strength in hard times is borne true both in fiction and in life. Perhaps, we cannot get back the old ways (but is that what we want?) but new paths emerge. Old gives way to new. And while trying to gather pearls of human excellence — borne not of awards or degrees but of bringing out the best, the kindest, the most loving in human hearts — we managed to create with a team an outstanding anthology. Woven with the writings of old and new — we created a tapestry together that the editor in chief of our publishing house said was “classy, literary, engaging and international”. That one of the oldest and most reputed publishing houses in India with bookshops countrywide took it on was also an unusual event! We are truly grateful to Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri and Jyotsna Mehta along with all our writers and readers who made our anthology a reality, and to Radha Chakravarty and Fakrul Alam for the kind words they bestowed on our effort.
Please greet our first anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles, with love and friendship. It could be the perfect Christmas gift in the spirit of the season! And as the blurb says, “it will definitely bring a smile to your face because it is a celebration of the human spirit.”
The anthology is different from our journal in as much as it has a sample of an eclectic collection that has been honed with further editing and has some new features. Most of the writing is from our first year and showcases our ethos, except for Lesya’s poetry and interview. Lesya Bakun from Ukraine is still on the run, looking for a refuge — she cannot return home like you or I can. Her family is scattered across number of countries. Her cousin, who was guarding the factory at Azovstal, was taken prisoner. We included her story in the anthology hoping to create global empathy for refugees as the numbers will increase not only due to war but also due to climate change.
The reason we felt a hardcopy anthology was a good idea was because nothing beats the joy of having a bunch of interesting reads in the warmth of your hands (especially where internet cannot reach or is unavailable). In any case, books with the feel of paper, the rustling whispers which carry voices of leaves can never be replaced as Goutam Ghose had also said in his interview which is now part of our anthology.
And that is why we celebrate more books… this time we feature Singaporean prima donna of literature, Suchen Christine Lim, with her new book Dearest Intimate, a novel that spans more than hundred years including the harrowing Japanese invasion during World War II. She shared sound advice with writers: “Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy.” And perhaps that is what is echoed through the experiences of the other writer interviewed on our pages by Keith Lyons. This is a writer who not only brought out his own books but was a regular contributor of travel pieces for Frommer’s and National Geographic traveling to unexplored destinations — Christopher Winnan. Another writer Lyon had interviewed recently, Steve Carr, has passed on. We would like to convey our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.
Evoking the genius of another outstanding artiste, Kishore Kumar, who happened to pen thought provoking dialogues in some films, is Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri’s essay, review of a recent book on the legendary actor-singer and an interview with the authors. Infringing the boundaries of literary with popular culture and art and integrating all forms into a wholistic bundle has been part of our ethos. In that spirit we have a musing by Prithvijeet Sinha on Edvard Munch’s famous painting called Scream. We have non-fiction from Australia spanning Meredith Stephens’s recent brush with Covid, Mike Smith visits a Scottish beach in the footsteps of a novelist, Ravi Shankar has given us a poignant piece for a late friend and Candice Lousia Daquin talks of the existence of bi-racial biases. In contrast, Suzanne Kamata sent a narrative that bridges divides showcasing a German wife of a Japanese scientist that draws us to conclude that biases erode over time to create an acceptance of bi-racial people. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings in humour with his funny narrative about a guitarist. Rhys Hughes writes in a lighter vein on Indian cuisine in his column and spouts more funny poetry bordering on the absurd.
Gathering all of your thoughts in strings of words from all corners of the world, we present to you the bumper November issue of Borderless Journal . Thank you all for sharing your thoughts with us. Thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fantastic painting and more thanks to the whole Borderless team for seeing this issue through. We would not have been able to do the anthology or these issues without each one of you — writers and readers.
Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons.
Christopher Winnan is a man of many hats. He has travelled widely throughout Asia, seeking out the latest breakthroughs and emerging technologies; with an uncanny ability to pick and forecast trends. As a travel writer and location scout, he’s explored off-the-beaten-track places; contributing to National Geographic and Frommers. When not consulting or publishing about Asia’s newest frontiers, he has an on-going fascination with past exploration, from the karst landscapes of south China’s opium trails to the ancient tea-horse trading routes across the Tibetan borderlands and eastern Himalayas. He writes on a wide range of subjects, both non-fiction and fiction, transporting guests to worlds old and new. Keith Lyons introduces us to the multi-faceted persona of Christopher Winnan, his past, present and future…
Tell us about growing up in the UK. When did you first get into writing?
The first paid writing gigs that I had in the UK were for top shelf men’s magazines, titles like Mayfair, Knave and Men Only. I was still too young to write the Readers Wives’ Real Stories, and so instead, I would pitch them bizarre subjects that they used as factual fillers. One I remember doing was a deep dive on the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane, and another was about the Sultan’s harem in Constantinople. I used to find obscure books at the library on strange subjects and then compress them into articles. I may not have been Pulitzer Prize work, but the pay was good, and the work was steady.
Before you moved to Asia, what things did you do?
In the UK, I worked as a manager in a pet food warehouse, and I was one of the first casualties in the steady move to logistics automation. Just about everybody I worked with has since been replaced by AI and robots. I was not all that cut up because I had been working almost every hour that God sent, and the great boss that had originally hired me had since moved on a replaced by someone I could not get along with. I was happy to go, just to get away from him. Fortunately, I got a nice redundancy settlement, and decided to spend it on one of those round-the-world air tickets. I always thought that I would be back in twelve months and find another job. I would not have believed that I was never going back.
What first brought you to visit Asia, and where did you go? What was your first impression?
I heard about a big military parade in Seoul, and so I decided to make that my first stop. I was only planning to stay a couple of days before moving onto Tokyo, but an Australian at my guesthouse persuaded me to go for an interview at a local English school. I had never done a days’ teaching in my life, but they did not seem to care, and I was hired on the spot. I started work two days later. The school was a massive Hagwon, a cram school right in the middle of downtown. There were at least 300 foreign teachers, and about two-thirds of us were illegals, working on three-month tourist visas. Back in those days, the authorities did not care. South Korea was an Asian Tiger economy and everybody and their dog wanted to learn English. The Korean won was really strong against the dollar, and so we were all making bank. We would do three months on and three months off. During the down time, we would go off and explore other parts of Asia, and party like animals. Then we would come back and work like dogs for three months. I can remember that it was not long that I knew all the textbooks by heart and was teaching 14 contact hours a day, starting at 6am and finishing at 10pm. I had taught just about every class at least a dozen time so my prep time was minimal, and honestly, I loved every minute of it. The entire country was on a massive growth streak, and everybody had high hopes for the future. It was an amazing time. Eventually, I started dating one of the Korean teachers at my school. Unfortunately, she was not an ordinary local. He father had been an ambassador, she had studied at Oxford, and Papa was now the mayor in Korea’s second largest city. When he found out that his precious daughter was with a dirty foreigner, he hit the roof. The following Monday six immigration officers turned up at the office of my Director of Studies. They were all wearing long black trench coats and dark glasses and looked like the Gestapo.
“Tell us which classroom Chris Winnan is in. If you do not tell us we will arrest every teacher you have and close down the entire school.” Clearly, he did not have a lot of choice. I spent a couple of nights in an out-of-town jail and was then on a plane back to the UK. I was not too cut up about it, because at the time, Kim Il-sung in North Korea, was jumping up and down threatening to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire”. A lot of the other teachers were desperate to leave but could not get out of their contracts. Anyway, it had been a good run. I had only planned to be in Seoul for three days, but I ended up staying for nearly three years.
And China, what was your first encounter like, and what made you decide to live and work there?
Like I said, we were doing three months on and three months off in Seoul, which gave us plenty of chance to explore the rest of Asia. Some places were just starting to open-up in those days. We went wreck diving in the largest WWII warship graveyard in the Philippines and ancient coin hunting in Cambodia. Cambodia, for example, was still a scary place in those days. The Khmer Rouge had only recently been ousted from power, and there were still UN peacekeepers everywhere. The markets were full of weapons, and much of the country was still off limits. We went down to Sihanoukville because we heard about an intrepid Frenchman was setting up the country’s first dive centre down there. When we went back three months later, he had been murdered by Khmer Rouge militants. We took the once-a-week train back to Phnom Penh and then just a week later, Khmer Rouge bandits kidnapped a dozen westerners and twenty odd locals off the very same train. Every one of them was executed and ended up in a shallow cave. That was a very close shave. If we had been travelling just one week later, we too would have been on this train, and I would not be talking to you now. Unsurprisingly, there were not a lot of other travellers at the time. Back in the capital, we met a Swiss who was smuggling looted artefacts out of places like Angkor back to Europe. Then there was the young Belgium kid who was trying to buy authentic Khmer Rouge uniforms. He was heading off to Battambang, which was the militants last remaining stronghold. We never saw or heard from him again.
It was dangerous but incredibly cheap. We met an American who had rented a massive nine-bedroom villa out of town for just a hundred dollars a month. It turned out he was a bit of an idiot though. He was petrified of being abducted and so he went to the Russian market and bought a load of land mines. He buried them all around the perimeter of his place, and then that night the monsoons rains came, and washed them all away.
When I was deported from Korea, I was still quite flush with cash and I had really enjoyed my teaching experience, so I decided to do a year-long intensive TEFL course back at university in the UK. The course itself was a waste of time, far too academic to be of any real practical use in the real world, but I was one of the only native speakers, on the course so I had a wonderful time partying with teachers in training from all over the world. Even in those days, the universities were corporate money-making machines. My course had about thirty students and nearly all of them were non-EU residents, which meant that they were paying around four or five times as much we UK residents.
This was long before the influx of mainland Chinese students, but there were at least half a dozen Koreans and Japanese in my class. They could barely speak a word of English between them, but the professors were instructed to give them every possible assistance, in order that they would come back and sign on for even more lucrative Masters and PhD courses. The faculty would bend over backwards to help them and practically wrote their essays for them, while we English students were generally ignored. I can only imagine that universities are far, far worse now that they are full of rich tuhao Mainlanders. At my university, there were only two Mainlanders in the whole place out of about 6,000 students in total, and they both looked as though they had stepped right out of the Cultural Revolution. They were more like a pair of North Koreans than the Chinese students you see today.
Their English was excellent, but they both wore Mao caps, and they talked as if they had come out of a time warp. They wanted to exchange stamps and discuss Marxism, while everybody else wanted to go down to the student union and get drunk. They must have had a tough time of it. Talking to them I realised that mainland China was about the only place in Asia I had not yet visited and so once I finished my course, that was where I decided to go.
What was China like when you first went, and how has it changed?
I initially went to Shanghai and worked at the very first English First language school. I soon saw what cowboys they were at that company, but fortunately, there was an abundance of work in Shanghai at the time, so I quickly jumped ship and went to work as a ‘Training Manager’ at a local five-star hotel. There were only a handful of luxury foreign hotels in Shanghai, and so I was really lucky to have landed such a plum job. I got my own room and ate like a king at the restaurants along with the other executives. My hours were few, especially when compared to that of the interns who had come out from the UK and who had to share rooms and eat in the staff canteen.
Shanghai in those days felt much like it must have done in the twenties nearly a century earlier. In the clubs that we went to at the weekend, famous MTV VJs and Cantopop stars from Hong Kong would fly in to party. There were so few foreigners at that time, that we still had a kind of rock star status, which I fully took advantage of. I ended up dating the Prima Ballerina from the Shanghai Ballet, which gave me all kinds of incredible introductions to the local movers and shakers. For a year or so, I felt like I was living a charmed life.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Shanghai was growing so fast that scores of new five-star hotels were being built. The one where I worked was one of the first, and therefore one of the oldest. Occupancy rates dropped as other more exciting options came online. They had to make cuts and having a full time English teacher on the management roster seemed to be rather extravagant and so I was one of the first to be let go.
I decided to take a job in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Foreign Language University. I went for that option because I had heard that university jobs were becoming more prestigious, even if they were not as well paid. The salary back then was 1,100 RMB per month which was about US$100. Fortunately, I had been earning ten times that at the hotel, and as it was full board, I had been able to save most of it.
I can still remember the staff of the foreign affairs office picking me up at the Railway Station and how we drove though the downtown of Guangzhou. We passed a couple of big five-star hotels, and I immediately felt more comfortable, thinking that this will not be so bad after all. We then continued to drive for another hour, and I found out to my dismay, that I was going to be working out in a secondary campus way out in the sticks.
The teacher apartments had definitely seen better days and the student canteen was like something out of the Cultural Revolution. This time, I was in for a major culture shock. Fortunately, the students were all very keen and enthusiastic. They were mainly from poor second and third tier cities out in the hinterland. Most of them had been delighted to be accepted into this particular big city university, but like me, hit the ground with a bump when they realised that were going to be at an out of town, secondary campus.
Immediately, corruption reared its ugly head. The waiban (the foreign affairs office) had a nice little earner going where they would hire out their teachers to the local joint ventures at the weekend for inordinate corporate rates. I was immediately placed at Coca Cola in a nearby industrial city. The money was good, but it was two hours travel either way and really ate into my weekend.
The other big problem that I was one of only two qualified teachers. All the other foreigners were undercover Christian missionaries from some American church organisation, who actually paid the University to hire them. Most of them were far more interested in preaching than teaching.
After a couple of months of extreme boredom, stuck out in the middle of the Chinese countryside, I started to take the long bus trip downtown to explore Guangzhou. The city itself was amazing and far more interesting than Shanghai, as it really was the Workshop of the World in those days. It was filled with every kind of wholesale market you could imagine. If it was a ‘Made-in-China’ product that ended in the west, it was guaranteed that it had gone through the markets in Guangzhou first. And they were huge sprawling places, as big as any shopping mall back home, and each one focussed on just one range of products. There were vast buildings filled with suppliers of tools, toys, Tupperware and textiles. Every time I ventured downtown, I would visit a new one and it would usually take me the whole day to explore the entire place.
I remember the day I first went to the Toy Market. There was a peasant woman outside with a bunch of plastic Star Trek figures on a piece of battered plastic tarp. Upon closer inspection, I found that they were all stamped with serial numbers on the feet, and most of them were very low numbers indeed. There was a 0001 Captain Picard, a 0002 Commander Riker and a 0003 Mr Data. I quickly realised that these were probably the factory prototypes, the original production batch that had gone up to marketing for displays and presentations before the main quantity was shipped out. I made her an offer and bough the lot, some thirty or forty figures. This was in the days before Ebay, so I went on a few early Star Trek collectors’ forums and told them what I had found and offered them for sale. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling them where I had found these, and everybody immediately accused that the figurines were fakes. China’s reputation was terrible even in those days. I could not give them away, let alone sell them, and so I sent them back to a friend in the UK as a gift. I hear that many of them are now worth hundreds of dollars apiece. This experience got me very interested in export opportunities, and from then on, I bolstered my measly teaching income by buying all kinds of oddities that I would stumble across in my travels and sell them overseas. One day I found the factory who made all the patches and insignia for the FBI and the Secret Service. For many years, I exported vast quantities to collectors in the US. I was buying them for pennies and selling them at high prices on eBay, with the help of a couple of partners in the US.
How was your experience in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai?
Guangzhou was an interesting place to be in the early days. It really felt as though I had been taken back in a time machine. In the decade before the handover, Hong Kong was at its most exciting and vibrant, and crossing the border back into the mainland after a visa run was like suddenly going back fifty years. Bicycles ruled the road, there was no such thing as the internet and there was not even any English language TV. I might as well have been on another planet. Guangzhou was the first city to open up to western business interests, and this had also been the case in the past, and so the people that were drawn there were curious about all things western and what was going on in the largely unknown outside world. The city had been hosting the world’s largest international Trade Fair for more than fifty years, and so twice a year I was able to make friends with intrepid entrepreneurs from the remotest corners of the earth. I remember developing a passion for Yemeni cuisine, partying with Senegalese ambassador and exploring the factory slums with a group of businessmen from Madagascar.
Living conditions were most definitely in the hardship category, but the opportunities were immense. I left the university and went to work for an American corporate training company right in the heart of downtown, and fully immersed myself in what was, at the time, the most exciting city on earth. I had always felt myself to be somewhat of an ugly duckling, but here I quickly transformed into a tall, handsome swan. While I was coaching the eager new managers at the world’s biggest multi-nationals, I had a nice little sideline in modelling gigs. One year, I played the role of visiting businessman in an advertisement for the first state-owned five-star hotel in the city, and suddenly, my face was on TV all over Guangdong and Hong Kong, twenty times a night. I could not walk down the street without people recognising me and wanting to talk to me.
It was ironic that I was so popular downtown because my name was mud back at the University that I had just left. I was talking to some of my old students, and they told me that one of the missionary teachers had been caught in bed with one of the students. Rather than fire and deport the missionary, they expelled the student. They then announced at a student assembly that it was me that had been caught en-flagrante, and that I had been fired for this indiscretion. This was of course a lie, but I was no longer there to defend myself, and it also meant that they got to keep a missionary teacher that they did not have to pay.
I later landed a short-term six-month contract at the brand new computing campus of BeiDa, Beijing’s most prestigious university, and I hated just about every minute of it. I had been looking forward to working with the crème de la crème of Chinese education, but the students turned out to be robotic study machines, superb exam takers, many with photographic memories, but barely a shred of imagination between the lot of them. Nobody ever asked any pointed questions, contradicted what I said or suggested interesting alternatives. All that they were capable of was rote-memorisation and mindless regurgitation of the textbook.
Obviously, any discussion of current affairs, geo-politics and domestic issues was completely off the table. Here I was, with what was supposed to be a few thousand of the brightest young minds in China, and not one of them wanted to discuss anything of consequence. To make things worse the climate was appalling, the freezing temperatures made worse by industrial smog that was so thick that you could cut it with a knife and spread on your toast for breakfast. I did a little bit of sightseeing on my days off, but everywhere had been so thoroughly transformed with revisionist propaganda that I soon gave up. Even the food was appalling. Chinese cuisine is disappointing at the best of times, especially if you have spent any length of time in any other Southeast Asian countries but coming directly from Guangzhou where Cantonese really bucks the national trend, being in Beijing was like being on prison rations. After six months, I was going crazy and incredibly relieved to leave.
What has it been like to be in China at its peak in terms of energy, growth, dynamism?
I am not really sure I saw China at its peak, not by a long shot. You have to remember that China was way ahead of the rest of the world back in the days of Confucius and then again back in the Tang and Ming Dynasties. When I was there in the nineties, China was still reeling from a series of the worst man-made disasters that the world has ever seen, including the Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution. It was not surprising the Deng Xiaoping era was a period of rapid growth. They were after all starting from almost nothing and just about every other country on the planet was years ahead of them. People talk about the Chinese economic miracle, but in hindsight, which other way could it have gone? They were already at rock bottom in terms of economy and technology. From there the only way was up.
I was very lucky that I was living there as a foreigner with all the advantages that entailed, but it was still pretty unpleasant to be a Chinese citizen, especially a female. For ordinary Chinese people, life was not much better than it is in Iran, Russia or even North Korea. It was slightly better for a few years after Deng’s reforms, up until, say the Beijing Olympics, but it was not some Golden age of equality and mass prosperity.
As foreigners, we were somewhat isolated from the most unpleasant aspects. In fact, many existed entirely inside an expat bubble of privilege and protection, not even wanting to know what was going on in the real China. As an explorer, I saw with my own eyes what life was like in the mega-city slums, or back in the quasi-medieval villages of the hinterlands, and it was really grim. I can only imagine what it is like now, with the mass lock downs and large-scale crackdowns.
Most of the expats I knew enjoyed the exoticness of their existences, but it is not like we lived like the British colonials of the Raj. Yes, occasionally you met the kind of expat businessman who live in a gated villa and threw away a thousand dollars a night on karaoke whores, but most of us were teachers who lived in regular apartments and shopped at local wet markets. The fact was that life in China was so unpleasant that the really rich folks simply did not want to go there. I can remember briefly doing some consulting work for the heir to the VW fortune, who was planning to invest millions, if not billions in green technology and environmentalism. Once he arrived, he found that he hated the place so much that he immediately flew back to Tokyo permanently and handed off all responsibility to his subordinates. Once his initial enthusiasm disappeared, so did the funds and the whole thing came to nothing.
I can also remember meeting an eighty-year-old who was backpacking his way around Yunnan, staying in hostels and guesthouses with youngsters that were around a quarter of his age. It turns out that he had been stationed in Shanghai as a Marine, just after the war when he was still in his twenties. For me, that would have been a much more interesting period to experience China, or maybe even earlier, in the days of Chiang Kai Skek and the gangsters that ruled the city.
How did you get into researching and writing travel articles and guidebooks?
I was on a visa run in Hong Kong, browsing through the China travel books in a bookstores in Tsim Sha Tsui. I was quite proud of the growing body of knowledge that I was slowly accumulating on the growing megalopolis of Guangzhou, and I wanted to see what the existing guidebooks said about the place.
I was very disappointed when I saw that the writer for Frommer’s claimed the entire city was a complete waste of time. He talked about a few lacklustre tourist sites, but this was completely unfair as Guangzhou was never a tourist city. It was an international business hub. He practically ignored all the wholesale markets, and the vibrant restaurant culture. I was very disappointed and wrote to the publisher telling them so, and that Guangzhou deserved much better. They agreed and asked me if I would contribute to their forthcoming edition, and could I cover another eight provinces at the same time.
When did you venture into Southwest China and how did it contrast with other parts of coastal city China?
It was when I got that first commission that I really started venturing into the Hinterlands. Obviously, I was required to cover all the coastal cities, but honestly, most of them were just provincial versions of Guangzhou filled with pop up factories and very little else. Huizhou Hangzhou, Fuzhou, Wenzhou and every other bloody Zhou were almost all identical. A few fake temples to replace everything that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but otherwise all pretty similar and boring. I was glad to get out into the sticks and explore the mountains and the countryside. Of course, this also had its downsides.
The second time I worked for Frommers’, I recommended a guy that I had met on the road who had been working for Rough Guides. They gave him Shanghai, Beijing and Xinjiang, all the places that I did not want and so it worked out really well. I had just had a meeting in Shenzhen with the new Director of PR for Shangri La hotels, who had been incredibly gracious and offered to comp me at any of her properties all over the country. I was grateful, but back in those days there were only about two Shangri Las in all the provinces that I was covering, so it was not really a big deal. Anyway, I told my friend Simon from Rough Guides to get in touch with her, and she quickly offered him the same deal. There were so many Shangri Las in his patch that over the next twelve months he enjoyed more than 200 free room nights completely at her expense. She was so happy with all the free coverage that he gave the brand, that she put him and his entire family up for a two-week, all-expenses-paid vacation at the company’s flagship hotel in Hong Kong. All meals included, unlimited bar tab, limo, everything. It must have been the holiday of a lifetime. As for me, I can remember turning up at the Shangri La in Beihia, and it was a worn-out shell of a state-owned enterprise dump that had yet to be renovated. I took one look at the place and decided to pay for a guest house in town out of my own pocket instead.
What’s your fascination with things like the ancient tea-horse routes or opium trails?
I was very lucky working for Frommers’, as the editor encouraged me to explore and find new places. She gave me a freedom that most other guidebook writers did not enjoy. If you work for Lonely Planet, you have to cover the three must see sites, the three most popular eateries and three of the most well-known hotels. They cover so much that there simply is not room for anything else.
With Frommers, I had much more autonomy. For example, the first edition that I did they asked me to go and cover the up-and-coming destination of Hainan. It was so disappointing that I told them if they insisted that I go back, I would not be doing another edition for them. Fortunately, they agreed.
I was fascinated by the real history of China, not the propaganda that the official guides had to memorise in tourism school. I knew that there were stories that were being suppressed, fascinating takes of history and adventure that deserved to be told. The Opium Trails was a great example. For hundreds of years opium has been the main cash crop in Southern China, and much of the North too. Not only was in popular domestically as a recreational drug, but it was also exported to feed the habits of all the coolies that worked in the Chinese enclaves that existed all over Southeast Asia and beyond. So much of it was grown by the greedy landlords that it often led to regional famines and conflict. When the Communists took over, they changed the names of most cities, but if you start looking at the old records, you soon see that opium was the key commodity of the domestic economy. In Kunming alone, there were more than 120 opium distilleries.
How do you feel as a guidebook writer knowing later others will use your expertise to make it easier, but also that it might change a place?
Nowhere stays the same forever. Brigadoon is not real. Everywhere changes, whether I write about or not. In fact, it would be incredibly arrogant of me to assume that I can do anything alter the vector of a specific location. I agree that tourism can cause irreparable damage to pristine environments, but that is a problem that is caused by the many flaws of capitalism, not by me writing about it. To be honest, most of the very best places that I ever discovered are still relatively unknown even by the most adventurous travellers. For a while I did consider keeping them a secret, but I soon realised that was completely pointless. The real damage is caused by mass tourism, not by a few adventurous backpackers trying to get off the beaten path. From what I have seen, even the most remote locations were pillaged and plundered long before I was even born. Occasionally, I would find a remnant of what existed before, but it is usually just a brief glimpse of what was there previously.
How have you managed to stay at the cutting edge of ideas, new places, trends etc?
I love to read old guidebooks that have long been out of print. One time, I found an eighties paperback that had been compiled by a couple of overseas language students who wanted to explore the provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou during their summer vacation. Much of what they had written was tips on how to avoid the local authorities and visit places that were usually off limits to foreigners. Back in those days, nearly everywhere was forbidden and those two guys seemed to have spent half their holiday being escorted onto buses by local policemen who really did not want them to be there. Their explorations were long before the first Lonely Planet, and so their guidebook was filled with places that I never heard of before. This is the main problem with guidebooks. They establish well-travelled routes, which then receive so much traffic that everywhere else is usually ignored, even if the places recommended in the book have gone so far downhill that they are hardly worth considering any more.
I was always on the lookout for new places that I had never heard of. Whenever I arrived in a new town, the first place that I would check out was the local Xinhua bookstore. In the days before mobile phone and even owning a GPS device was completely illegal and likely to get you arrested as a spy, locally printed maps were always a treasure trove of information. Libraries are few and far between in rural China, but everywhere has a state-owned bookstore that disseminates all the government propaganda and school textbooks.
Sometimes I would really on local expertise. I remember one time I was travelling through Yunnan with a really glamorous Shanghai socialite. I think that she was slumming it with me, probably to enrage her parents. While we were in Kunming, she insisted on visiting one of the most expensive hairdressers in town for a suitably elegant coiffure. I asked her to quiz the head stylist on the trendiest new restaurants in town, and he gave us some amazing leads. One of the best was an amazingly innovative new place that had set up shop in what was previously a retail outlet for the local, state-owned Chinese medicine factory. It was full-on oriental apothecary in style, wall-to-wall with all those tiny wooden drawers that they used to store all the herbs and tinctures inside. The menu was a bamboo pot full of temple shaker sticks, the kind that are used by Chinese fortune tellers. You shake the sticks and depending on what falls out they tell you your future. In this case, we shook the sticks in order to decide what to order. All the food had medicinal ingredients like Lion’s Mane mushroom, gingko nuts and goji berries. It was a unique experience, that I would never have found by myself. Sometimes, insider information is essential.
How glamorous is being a travel writer and how does the reality compare with the perception?
As I explained before with regard to my friend from Rough Guides and all his free comps, it can be extremely glamorous. I imagine that if you are working for the New York Times and writing about the Caribbean, it must be a non-stop life of luxury. If, on the other hand you are out in the back of beyond in rural China, working for an English language guidebook in a place where absolutely zero percent of the population speaks any English, it is more of a challenge. In a place like China, in terms of finding interesting places, you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you ever meet any princes. Unfortunately, I can never be absolutely sure of that fact until I had actually been there and had a good look around for myself.
There again, some of the most spectacular discoveries come from the most uncomfortable conditions. The further you get away from civilisation, the more unspoiled the nature becomes, but the harder the travel becomes. I can remember spending endless hours in a horribly cramped minibus to reach a remote one-donkey mountain village that probably had barely changed in the last five hundred years. The accommodation would have been considered hardship conditions even by Mary and Joseph. There was no heating, the bed was carved into the bare rock and the toilet was a couple of planks over the adjoining pig sty. Despite all of this, the terrain was some of the most spectacular karst that I have ever seen, ancient stone staircases cut directly into the side of the mountains surrounded by vistas straight out of a Tolkien epic poem.
What’s the process of writing for you? How do you find topics or get ideas?
I try to keep abreast of interesting new developments by dipping into a wide as range of media as possible. Fortunately, this is easier than ever with the modern internet. I especially like websites that have very active comments sections, where people express a wide range of opinions and add valuable insights to the original article.
It is only when you dig into sites that have very active comments sections that you start to get some contrary opinions and interesting leads to follow up. Reddit is obviously one of the most useful resources, while Youtube videos have by far the most comments.
I recently watched a video about the future of resin 3D printers, and the presenter asked his viewers to share their thoughts on the way that that the industry was heading in the comments. The result was a selection a very knowledgeable individuals offering some very valuable insights that would have been difficult to find anywhere else. Good videos can often have thousands of individual comments and so in that case, I find that it is always good to sort them by the most replies received. That way you can start with the most active conversations and avoid all the mundane monosyllabic comments.
I recently found an interesting website called Exploding Topics. They have a regular newsletter where they highlight the most searched for trending topics on Google. Most of them are quite obscure but it is still interesting what is going viral before it hits the mainstream.
With subjects that I am especially interested in, I will do a regular Youtube search every month or so and sort the results by date uploaded. This way I can see all the latest content since I last searched and see for myself what is trending. For example, I regularly search for new 3D printing related videos, and recently discovered that the field of 3D musical instruments is suddenly taking off. Some wind instruments, such as clarinets can be extremely expensive, often requiring rare tropical hardwoods and craftsman engineering for all of the finger controls. Seeing and hearing some of the 3D printed versions showed me that the technology is rapidly catching up, and it probably will not be long before we see the very first entirely 3D printed orchestras. A 3D printed violin might not sound like a Stradivarius, but open-source designs are being improved on all the time and are vastly reducing the cost of entry for any aspiring musicians.
The general media is slowly being eviscerated and they simply have not got the resources to cover all the interesting stories out there. Even with the field of 3D printing, there are so many new areas opening up. Mainstream media cannot be expected to cover niche topics such as 3D printed firearms, 3D printed clockwork mechanisms or 3D printed crossbows, but all of these are making very rapid advancements and are fascinating subjects to watch develop.
What satisfaction do you get from being an expert in your many fields, getting positive reviews, gaining acknowledgement?
I am not sure it is possible to really become an expert these days, especially when so many fields are advancing so rapidly. It is good to try and keep an overview over a broad range of topics. Anyway, that is where the most interesting breakthroughs come from. From people in different fields making imaginative connections between topics that would otherwise seem completely unrelated. Hopefully, one day I will be able to make one of those world-changing cross-fertilisations that nobody else had ever considered before.
How vital are language skills, contacts, connections and your own drive to help find the latest?
The world has become such a huge place that I am not sure that personal networks are really of all that much value as they were in the past. If anything, I would say that social media is a distinct disadvantage in this sense. It is too much of distraction and too often becomes an echo chamber. Look at Wechat in China for example. Everybody is separated out into their little special interest groups which really makes it difficult to get an accurate view of the bigger picture. It is for this reason that I choose not to have a phone, and I notice that slowly, more and more people are starting to see the advantages of this choice. Not many at the moment, admittedly, but I recently found out that both Alan Moore and Andy Hamilton both choose not to have mobiles. These are two great examples of amazing writers, and so I am tempted to believe that I am following the right path.
How do you stay disciplined for your writing?
My last job in China was as the director of Marketing with a Chinese travel agency. The Chinese owner had very little clue of what was involved in the creation of quality content. Towards the end of my contract, she signed a contract that would have required me to write about 400,000 words in a matter of months. In the end, the project never came to fruition, but for a for weeks, I found myself under enormous pressure and realised that I was quite capable of writing 10,000 words per day, something that I would never have dreamed possible previously. I would not like to have to maintain that kind of output on a regular basis, but it is very useful to know that you can do it when push comes to shove.
These days, I like to get at least a thousand words out of the way first thing in the morning before I check my email or get sucked into Reddit. This gives me a sense of achievement early in the day and means that I can be more productive for the rest of the day.
How has the guidebook industry changed from the days of Lonely Planet/Frommers to now in the digital age?
On-line Travel Agencies such as Agoda, Tripadvisor and Booking.com killed the guidebook publishing industry stone dead. I hear that there are still a few Lonely Planet guidebooks being published, but they do not really count, as that company never paid a decent living wage in the first place. I read that that the brand has been sold twice in the last couple of years and are now a major money sink. Unfortunately, the OTAs are no better, and in many ways much worse. Having worked in the travel industry for such a long and having experienced all the tricks that hotels and travel agencies get up to, I would estimate that at least 90% of TripAdvisor reviews are fakes. They might not be paid for in cash, but are usually part of some quid pro quo deal, like a kind of insider trading within the hospitality industry. The remaining 10% that might be genuine are usually for the most popular, well-travelled places that everybody already knows about. The end result is that there are plenty of reviews of five-star business hotels that are paid for with points or exchanged air miles, but hardly anybody is going out finding new routes, and discovering new places.
The other main problem is the fact that the OTAs charge 20% or 30% per booking which has put huge financial pressure on a lot of the smaller accommodations. Admittedly, this was also partly true for Lonely Planet. In any location, the three places that got included in the book usually had more business than they could handle, while everybody else struggled to find customers. The OTAs have only made the situation far worse and have caused endless numbers of smaller operations to simply give in and shut up shop completely.
Still, what grates me most about about the OTAs is that they did away with one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Anybody that was paid to be a professional travel writer literally had their dream job. I am all for automating as many of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs out of existence as possible, but why do away with the most exciting jobs on the planet, just so that another Internet company can improve its bottom line by a few bucks? The demise of the paid guidebook writer is the end of an era, amazing job opportunities that future generations will never even know existed.
How different is factual writing from writing fiction?
Writing fiction is far more difficult because you need to be constantly creating an original storyline. Either you need to be a natural born storyteller, or you need to do a lot of drugs. I have been working on a solar punk novel for many years now but it requires much more effort than non-fiction. Rather than repackaging facts, you have you come up with truly novel ideas and then back them up with believable facts anyway, which makes it at least twice the work of producing non-fiction. Some of the more prolific novelists seem to be able to channel stories from another dimension. I remember reading that Robert E Howard, for example, would just sit down at the typewriter and the character of Conan the Barbarian would just flow out of him, like he was possessed by some literary spirit. Only very occasionally have I had that kind of experience, but I sure wish it was something that I could turn on and off at will. Now I understand why so many fiction writers struggle with writer’s block. At least when you are writing about real world facts for a work of non-fiction, you can always go out and do some more research. It is really frustrating when you are halfway through a fictional plot line and suddenly the inspiration just dries up and will not come back.
What is travel like post-Covid? What have been the best places you’ve lived in, and where are you now?
Honestly, I have not yet done any post Covid travel. It is still too much hassle to consider at the moment and anyway, I am lucky that I have spent the lock downs in a very pleasant Thai beach resort, and I could not have been more comfortable if I had tried.
As for the best places that I have lived, well I always found that tourist locations were a better bet than solely industrial or commercial centres. Tourist towns are usually popular with good reason, and as long as you find one that is not too developed, then they are often quite affordable. Obviously, this does not apply to the Bahamas or Tahiti or Monte Carlo. While I was living up in the Himalayas, I would often bump into fellow guidebook writers who were there on vacation, but who like me had chosen to live full time in one of their favourite discoveries. I met an Australian who had relocated to Thimphu in Bhutan, a Kiwi that was living up on the terraces of Ubud above Bali, and a couple who were enjoying the high life in Hong Kong. This was shortly after the handover but still long before the descent into despair, back when Hong Kong was still a world class city.
What was interesting was that most guidebook writers would choose to settle somewhere that had been a highlight in their travels, and that these places were often far more attractive than any of the places that you see in these entirely fabricated Top Ten Places to Retire articles. The only exception was the Lonely Planet writer who was compiling the latest China edition. It turned out that he lived in Ulan Bataar of all places, the capital of Inner Mongolia. It turned out that he had married a Mongolian girl and that is why he was stuck in Bataar.
These days, there are far fewer places to choose from than before. Most countries have clamped down on long term visas, and the end of the globalisation era will see far fewer long-term expats than I have experienced in my lifetime. A worldwide wave of fear and xenophobia prevails all over and the only foreigners that are welcome are those with huge amounts of disposable cash, even though they often end up wrecking the housing market and the economy for the locals.
I was very lucky to experience as much travel as I did, and it is sad to see that current generations will not have the same opportunities. When I was young it was easy to travel and find work as an English teacher or in the tourist industry, but those days have rapidly come to a close, and in the future, I think that if you really want to travel to exotic climes, you will probably have to go with the military as part of an invasion force.
How about air travel in the age of climate change? Is it better to view documentaries?
Oh yes, definitely. I gave up flying in the early part of my writing career, but I was lucky in that I had plenty of time to travel, and so going everywhere by boat and train was an adventure that I could justify. These days the new cost of flying is so prohibitive that it is going to be restricted mainly to the very wealthy from now on. The good news is that you can explore many of the most amazing parts of the world through travel documentaries. When I was young, we were lucky to see the occasional show about the rain forest or the outback, but these days, there are amazing films of some of the most remote places on the planet. These guys that jet around the globe with the aim of visiting every single country on the planet, honestly make me sick. What utterly narcissistic excess, when you can now travel all the way around the globe from the comfort of your very own armchair!
What future travel plans do you have?
Not many at the moment. Covid has put pay to just about everything and it looks like we are entering into a global recession that will make travel expensive and difficult for a long time to come. Still, there were not all that many places left on my bucket list anyway. It is ironic that most of the places that I really wanted to tick off were locations that most people had either never heard of or would never dream of actually visiting. For example, Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, has been at the very top of my list for a long time now, and yet the UK government only considers it a place to forcibly deport unwelcome refugees. In truth, Kigali was one of the fastest developing cities in Africa, attracting lots of high-tech investment and with a wonderfully cool climate and beautiful countryside. Admittedly, it was not ideal when it came to democracy and freedom of speech. I really wanted to experience the urban chaos and incredible opportunities of Lagos in Nigeria.
I always wanted to see the Tepuis of Venezuela, and I always fancied the idea of living in one of those medieval tower blocks in Sana’a in Yemen. Unfortunately, more and more of these places are now becoming off limits to even the most intrepid of travellers, and so maybe I will have to wait until my next life before I get chance to experience their charms.
The good news is that life in Thailand is really not so bad.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
There is good money to be made on Amazon, but only if you approach writing as a business. This means putting in long hours and hard work when you are getting started. It means having a wide selection of attractive products for your potential customers to choose from and making sure that they are up to date and relevant. I took all the unique experience that I built in Guangzhou and created the world’s only guidebook to the city and its hundreds of specialist wholesale markets. Unfortunately, as soon as the Chinese economic miracle began to grind to a halt, so did my sales. Although I had recommendations from embassies, consulates and chambers of commerce, I could not get any official backing at all from the local government or tourist authorities. Then, on top of this I had to deal with assassination reviews from local tour guides and interpreters because my work was so thorough that it negatively impacted their business. Finally, Covid struck and by now, my book is probably completely out of date.
Initially it took years of adventure and exploration to compile, and now I doubt that I could ever afford to update it, even if I could get back into the country in the first place. Therefore, my advice is to try and make sure that your writing has a long shelf life. If you want to create an evergreen title that provides you with a long-term passive income, then you will need to choose your subject matter very carefully. Find a good cover designer on Fiverr or develop the necessary skills yourself. A good cover sells your work and a bad cover will quickly consign it to Amazon oblivion. Find a fellow author who will help you with proof-reading and editing. You will never catch every single spelling mistake by yourself, no matter how many times to go over your work, and this will be the first thing that readers will complain about in their reviews. Professional editors are very expensive, so find someone who you can share the task with.
Always be looking for new subjects to write about. Your breakthrough book will very likely be the title that you least expected to succeed, but the more you publish, the more you increase your chances of it happening.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was an ordinary man who became extraordinary in quest of a just world. With his strong belief in non-violence and truth, Gandhi set out to find freedom, dignity and respect for his compatriots with peaceful weapons he evolved reading greats like Tolstoy, Thoreau and many more. He named these; Ahimsa or non-violence, Satyagraha or the way of truth and civil disobedience or peaceful protest by disobeying an unjust law.
To use these wisely, we needed a certain amount of education and preparation — not in terms of degrees from universities but in terms of spiritual growth. In his An Autobiography or My Experiments with Truth, Gandhi wrote: “A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and off his own free will, because he considers it to be his second duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him to the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances. My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seem to me of Himalayan magnitude.” Have we done anything to rectify his self-professed oversight?
Now as we commemorate his 153rd birth anniversary, in the midst of war, violence, hatred, intolerance, where do we stand in terms of Gandhi’s ideology? For a man lives on only if his ideals survive.
Exploring this issue is an essay by Debraj Mookerjee, who wonders if the man and his values will face complete erasure? Reinforcing this thought is a Manipuri poem by Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom, and a review of a book by Bhaskar Parichha on the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Gandhi. On the other hand is Keith Lyon’s essay on Gandhi’s ‘enduring vision‘ and winding up the prose is Rakhi Dalal’s essay urging us to pursue Gandhi’s vision, titled after the words of a man who did live by Gandhi’s ideals, Martin Luther King, while Aminath Neena gives us an inspirational poem along those lines.
“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
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 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, 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’ 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 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 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.
 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
Jim Goodman, an American traveler, author, ethnologist and photographer who has spent the last half-century in Asia, converses with Keith Lyons.
Jim Goodman is something of a legend in Southeast Asia and Eastern South Asia. His definitive guide to southwest China’s Yunnan province was the most sought-after travel book for any intrepid backpacker wanting to get off-the-beaten-track in the ethnically-diverse province bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Tibet. That’s how I first came across Jim, through the well-thumbed pages of his The Exploration of Yunnan. Back then, I marvelled at his ability to venture into areas that were only just opening up to foreign travellers, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge of different ethnic minorities. It was almost 20 years later that I finally met Jim in person in a cafe inside the old city gates of northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where he has been based since 1988. Later, on a media trip to the Golden Triangle’s eastern Shan state hill-tribe villages, I saw how Jim’s interactions, appearance (and conversation in ethnic language) endeared him to local minorities.
He has published books in Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, China and Vietnam, and also worked with ethnic minorities, including on textiles with Newars in Nepal and northern east Indian Mizos, and on traditional handicrafts with Akha in northern Thailand. “Besides acquiring new labour skills—I was the dyer and designer—the work gave me valuable insights into the different cultural norms and ways of thinking of traditional societies in this region,” he once wrote. “My writing, research and photography reflect my fascination with history, traditional cultures and ethnic minorities, not just in the ethnologies, cultural studies and histories I’ve published, but in my fiction and poetry as well.”
You were born in the US capital Washington D.C. and raised in the Midwest in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up in the US, what do you think contributed to your interest in different countries and cultures?
As a kid I was fascinated by American Indians, especially those from the western plains and the southeast. My father taught Latin American history at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He and my mother were members, later chairmen, of the Foreign Students Welcoming Committee. Every American holiday — 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc — we had foreign guests. They were from India, Nepal, Tunisia, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria. They aroused my natural curiosity.
How were your first experiences of ‘foreignness’ in the US and then overseas?
I stopped believing in my parents’ Catholicism by the time I was in high school and for the next few years felt like a foreigner in my own family and neighbourhood. In later years, when I was living in Europe or Asia I was always conscious of being foreign, especially in things like double pricing, but I integrated socially enough not to let it bother me. Occasionally, that worked in my favour. In Korea in the 70s, males were forbidden by law to grow their hair over their ears or past the collar. Every four or five months the police carried out widely publicised roundups. But foreigners were exempt.
What was it like growing up in the 1960’s in the US?
It was very exciting. Thanks to the civil rights and anti-war movements it was easy to challenge the system intellectually and practically. The drugs and music, a very new kind of music, also contributed to this sense of the times are changing everywhere and lots of options were possible. It was an amazingly optimistic decade.
How did you come to be in the army, and what was your experience as a soldier in Germany and later South Korea?
I got my draft notice in the summer of 1967, at the peak of the Vietnam War, when 80% of those drafted were sent off to Vietnam after training. So I took the enlistment option, signing up for an extra two years, with one year at the language school studying Arabic. War might be over by the time I finish the course, I thought, and anyway they wouldn’t need an Arabic translator in Vietnam. But the Army inserted a little clause in every contract, “subject to needs of the Army,” that let them do what they liked. When I arrived at the language school, after basic training I was told my orders had been changed. I had to go back and wait for new ones. Eventually they put me in a tank training unit, but by the luck of the draw I was in the company sent after training to Germany, while the other three were dispatched to Vietnam.
In Germany, I served in an armoured unit which was very often in the field. However, this was 1968 and I managed to get a pass to go to Paris in early June and marched down the avenues with the students and workers singing L’internationale over and over. I still know the first stanza, in French. I also met Arab officers from Jordan and Libya and took a month’s leave in the autumn to have my 21st birthday in Beirut. On my first night in Beirut, a South Yemeni staying in the same hotel told me there were three good reasons to travel. The first was to meet the different kinds of people living in this world. Second, was to try the various local foods and drinks. And third, was to appreciate the scenery and historical monuments. I never forgot the order in which he listed those attractions: people first. Throughout my trip, I wore a button on my shirt that said Restore Palestine to the Arab People, which guaranteed a good reception everywhere in Lebanon and Jordan. I was very active politically by then and the following spring published the first anti-war newspaper by a soldier in Europe. That later got me transferred to Korea, the only place there was no organised anti-war soldier activity. In Korea, I was in charge of the Photo Lab, where I learned the basic principles of photography. Also joined rock bands as a singer, so I wasn’t very political in Korea, except for some of the song lyrics.
After your time in the army, how did you get back to Asia?
I was discharged in Seattle in January 1972, went to San Francisco to live and later got a clerk-typist job with General Services Administration. Then my boss recommended me for a low-ranking administrative position. I would have been in charge of the installation of furniture in the California offices of the state’s two senators. Not exactly exciting work, but anyway I had to get a security clearance, starting with answering a questionnaire with things like ‘are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party’ and ‘do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by force or violence’.
I answered no to everything, but within 24 hours the office got back a disapproval of my application “for security reasons”. After that news got out, everybody in the building thought I was a terrorist, and that was before terrorist was a household word. It was doubtless my activity as an anti-war soldier but it meant I would really have no future in my country. I went to Korea that autumn on a one-way ticket without enough money for a round-trip. (I don’t think that’s even possible anymore.) I met other ex-GI’s in Seoul who gave private English lessons, so I did, too. In the second year, I got hired by Language Teaching Research Center, which didn’t use textbooks and so I made up my own lessons. I spent free time among soldiers on the army base and in off-base bars and would listen carefully to their conversations. Whatever they said that I thought my students wouldn’t understand, I wrote down and worked it into my lessons. It was a wonderfully creative job and made me especially conscious of my own language.
What happened for you to leave Korea and ending up almost dying and in jail in Nepal?
My last summer (1976) in Korea, I met travellers who had been to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. Later that year I got busted for a small amount of grass and, near the end of the year, was expelled from Korea. India and Nepal seemed a natural place to go next. It wasn’t easy in the beginning and once in Calcutta, I got robbed of everything and went over three weeks without eating. I was kind of resigned to dying by starvation but a Muslim street merchant recognised the situation, paid my bills and lent me enough money to get back to Kathmandu. Everything seemed fine but when I finally ate a meal I vomited it all a few minutes later. Body won’t take food, eh? Guess I’m going to die after all. He said don’t worry, wait a little and try again. He had witnessed the same thing with starving Bengali refugees during the break-up of Pakistan. He was right. The next meal was fine and ever since then, I’ve not worried about, for one reason or another, missing a meal or two. I missed meals three and a half weeks and got by.
And you spent some time in jail, not just in Kathmandu but in Korea?
I was three weeks in Korean solitary confinement until my girlfriend bailed me out. Longer, about four months, in the holding centre in Kathmandu, where those arrested awaited trial. I was busted for a lot of hash but charged with both possession, 10,000 rupees fine, and exporting, 100,000 rupees fine (about 70 to a dollar then). I pleaded guilty to possession only. The judge dismissed the exporting charge because the hash was found in my home, not at any border. However, to save face, the prosecutor appealed the acquittal for exporting. The appeal had to go to the special court, which only met once a week, so cases piled up. In Nepal, you don’t bribe the judge. You bribe the clerk to put your case before a sympathetic judge. I wasn’t going to hurry up the case because then I would have to leave the country afterwards. The prosecutor wasn’t going to speed up the proceedings because he still would have no evidence and would lose again. Meanwhile, I was free to continue my Nepal life. For over a year the government’s attitude to me was like a joke. They thought I had figured out how to beat the system. The following year, I became an embarrassment and the year after that, with a new government, it became an issue and I finally got a new passport and left Nepal for a month’s holiday in Thailand.
What took you to Assam, and what made you later leave?
It was one of the few places in India I hadn’t visited yet. It had an interesting separate history from the rest of the country and was surrounded by many fascinating ethnic minorities. My first trip was in the autumn of 1979, when I was paid to take an American woman and her daughter, whose tutor I was, to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kaziranga, the rhinoceros park in Assam. The Assamese anti-immigrant demonstrations had already begun, so I kept up on news then and afterwards. In 1980, I made two trips to cover the movement for newspaper articles. I only got to visit hill people (Khasi) in Meghalaya, as the other states, and parts of Assam were closed to foreigners. I bought a lot of books about them, anticipating freer travel sometime soon. Instead, I got blamed on my third trip in May by the Delhi government for organising the Assam movement (as if they couldn’t organise themselves) and banned from re-entry.
After moving to Chiang Mai Thailand, what did you concentrate on?
The skills I learned in Nepal were those involving weaving and dyeing. I used natural dyes and designed the patterns for the looms. I had worked with both Mizos from Northeast India, who used a back-strap loom, and Newars, who used a stand-up frame loom, like that of the Thai. I began working with the Karen, who used back-strap looms. But after meeting the Akha, I conceived the idea of making Akha jackets, which were cut like Western jackets, using my colours from natural dyes and bigger to fit Western bodies. I soon dropped the work with the Karen and found enough customers for Akha jackets and shoulder bags to cover the expenses of a modest lifestyle and my research on them.
What made you decide to go to Yunnan and southwest China? When did you go, and what was the experience as the region just opened up to travel by foreigners?
One of the sub-groups I worked with in Thailand, the Pamee Akha, came directly down from Yunnan. I met a relative on one of my trips who was in Pamee to make money picking lychees for a season. He invited me to his village in Xishuangbanna, if I could ever come to China. Not long afterwards a flight opened from Chiang Mai to Kunming. I booked one for July 1992. After a few days around Kunming and Lunan County, I flew to Xishuangbanna and found out from Akha in Jinghong how to find my friend I met in Pamee. After some time there, I returned to Kunming and embarked for the northwest for a quick look that did include the Torch Festival in Ninglang. I couldn’t speak much Chinese then, but in Xishuangbanna, the Akha enjoyed the fact that the first foreigner they ever met could speak their language. People were friendly everywhere and once I started repeating visits for research, I got introduced to English-speaking locals who could assist me.
When you first went to southwest China, did you feel you might be documenting some people whose culture would be wiped out by modernisation, and if so, has this happened?
From the very beginning I felt ethnic cultures were having a true revival but wondered how long that could last, not because of politics, as in the past, but because of the greater exposure to outside modern influences, including mass tourism. Certainly, that has happened, but not to the same extent everywhere. And mass tourism has been more disruptive. Lijiang and Lugu Lake are two obvious examples. I was lucky to have chosen those places to fully research before they completely transformed into tourist traps. In other places, like Ailaoshan, parts of Lincang and Pu’er prefectures and even much of Xishuangbanna, modernisation has been less noticeable and the traditional culture and lifestyles still strong.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences in Yunnan?
After watching two little Lisu girls at Lishadi cross the Nu River on the rope-bridge several times, for their own amusement, without adult supervision, I concluded:
1. It can’t be dangerous.
2. It must be fun.
Next trip to Nujiang I had a Lisu friend in Fugong get me the harness and cable hook. Made my first crossing, just for the fun of it, at Damedi south of Fugong and over the next few years carried my cable hook and rope harness to Nujiang for more rides at more locations.
The other unique, to me anyway, research experience was my repeated visits to Lige village, Lugu Lake. Mosuo culture is matrilineal, the children belong to the mother, but also Tibetan Buddhist and each family has a resident monk. Women were definitely in charge of domestic affairs. At Lugu Lake, my friends, the folks I hung out with, got high and drunk with and had the most experiences with, were mainly women. Many of them introduced themselves to me. I only knew a few men. With every other minority, I only met women because they were my friend’s wives, daughters or sisters, whom he introduced to me. The Mosuo were really special.
From your experiences across Southeast Asia and eastern Southern Asia, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt about hill tribes, their customs, societies, and beliefs?
They are very attuned to nature, with a cultural sense of ecological balance. Most of their festivals are concerned with important junctures in the agricultural work cycle. Their societies are very collective-oriented. Everyone has relationships with everyone else. No one ever has to feel alone.
How has learning languages and assisting local craftspeople enabled you to get inside like an anthropologist?
Learning an ethnic minority language is a clear indication of special interest in them. And they respond very favourably to that. Involving them in handicrafts production shows appreciation of their traditional arts and crafts, like a form of flattery. It also means getting to know them more personally and becoming an accepted part of their existence, making research easy.
What’s your personal approach to meeting new people, and why do you think it works?
As that pertains to my research work I always made clear to the people what my interest in them was and that I was going to write about them. Always had a positive response and when I indulged in their hospitality I followed four rules I set for myself: eat whatever they give me, drink whatever they give me, smoke whatever they give me, and sleep wherever they put me. As a result, I’ve had some really spicy food, very powerful liquor, pretty raunchy cigarettes and even opium and some pretty uncomfortable sleeping conditions. But I figured nothing can hurt me much for a day or so and the effect on them was that they thought I was a great guest. Everything they did for me seemed to work. They didn’t have to make any adjustments.
What’s it like to be the first outsider or ‘white person’ that some groups have seen?
That happened mostly in Yunnan and was never a negative experience. I remember once about to enter a Yunnan village that was definitely off the beaten track and when children spotted me they ran back to the village shouting, “Weiguo pengyou lai!” (“Foreign friend comes.”) And then the adults came out to welcome me. I never found any animosity or impolite, intrusive curiosity anywhere I went. The local attitude seemed to be ‘here’s a chance to make a foreign friend’. Minorities were as curious about me as I was about them. And being American in China or Vietnam, in their context I was a fellow minority person.
For many of the groups you’ve studied and spent time with, they are spread across countries and borders. Are there differences on different sides of the borders, or does close contact mean the groups retain their traditions?
I made my first trip to Vietnam precisely to answer that question. I was researching the terrace builders in Honghe between the Red River and the Vietnam border. Many ethnic groups lived on both sides, so I travelled through the border areas in Vietnam to meet sub-groups I knew in Yunnan. Lifestyles and cultural traits were very similar. The minorities in Vietnam seemed more conservative, more resistant to modern influence, while the same minorities on the Yunnan side seemed better off economically.
Your other interest is Vietnam. What fascinates you about Vietnam?
I was already familiar with Chinese culture when I first visited Vietnam, as well as Southeast Asian culture. It didn’t seem like such a strange place and I was able to discover what was unique about Vietnam, its separate cultural characteristics. The people were uniformly friendly, even though I came from a country that bombed the hell out of it. Yet the Vietnamese I met regarded all that as the past and now it’s different so no time for resentment. I made close friendships there easily (eventually married one) and found new topics to write books about—what was unique about Vietnamese culture, the special history of Hanoi, and how the country became one entity.
Why do you have a fascination and affinity with ethnic minorities, particularly hill tribes?
Hard to really say, but I suppose it was because I like their very different kind of living environment, the way they look and the way they act. Always felt comfortable with them.
How do you feel about the changes that have happened to minorities, such as becoming tourist attractions, or having to move to towns for economic opportunities?
It was probably inevitable. Traditional agriculture, the shifting cultivation type, was no longer sustainable due to population density growth. Roads are better and more numerous, too, so those who do move to cities can still maintain links with their villages. Becoming tourist attractions can be more of a lifestyle change. Everything cultural seems to become a commodity, something to be paid to do. In some places, the culture on display is not even their own. For example, in Sapa Vietnam, many Hmong girls dress up in fancy clothing of the Flowery Hmong because their own Black Hmong outfits are not as colourful or photogenic for tourists, who pay them to take photographs.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
When I first started reading world literature as an early teenager and started fantasizing about one day becoming one of the literary giants.
How do you go about your writing process?
I begin by thinking about it for many sessions, then, when it’s a book or a lengthy article, make an outline and start adding details before I actually write anything. When I do get going I often inspire myself by fantasising what a positive review might say, then add or revise something to justify the imaginary praise.
How has photography integrated with your writing?
Most of what I write requires illustration and some of it was because I had a set of photographs that sort of made a story. When doing cultural research, I photographed anything I thought might be relevant, whether it was photogenic or not, because then I would have a reference. I wouldn’t have to write down or have to remember what I saw. The photo was the record.
Yes. It was set up by a young friend many years ago. I don’t make any money from it. It would have been nice to have sold all the site’s articles, but I continue it because it represents my self-image of contributing to the sum of human knowledge concerning the topics I write about. Regarding books, I have had publishers in several cities: Kathmandu, Bangkok, Singapore, Kunming, Hong Kong and Hanoi.
What projects do you have on the go currently?
This year’s project was Peoples of the Mekong River Basin: The Ethnic Minorities. It covers 23 ethnic minorities and over 100 photos, 90% mine. The publisher is World Scientific Press, Singapore and it should come out in or maybe before October. I would like to do one more book, on Lamphun and its first ruler Queen Chamadevi, the most interesting and accomplished woman in all of Thai history. But I have to find a publisher interested before I start work on it.
*Photographs provided by Jim Goodman
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
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 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 Kumarby 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 Evolutionplotting 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.