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Contents

Borderless December 2021

Editorial

Towards a Brave New World… Click here to read.

Interviews

In Bridge over Troubled Waters, academic Sanjay Kumar tells us about Pandies, an activist theatre group founded by him that educates, bridging gaps between the divides of University educated and the less fortunate who people slums or terror zones. Click here to read.

In Lessons Old and New from a Stray Japanese Cat, Keith Lyons talks with the author of The Cat with Three Passports, CJ Fentiman who likes the anonymity loaned by resettling in new places & enjoys creating a space for herself away from her birthplace. Click here to read.

Translations

Poetry by Jibananda

Translated from Bengali by Fakrul Alam, two poem by the late Jibananda Das. Click here to read.

Shorter Poems of Akbar Barakzai

Translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch, five shorter poems by Akbar Barakzai. Click here to read.

Long Continuous Battle

Written and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

Colour the World

Rangiye Diye Jao, a song by Tagore, transcreated by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Rakhamaninov’s Sonata

A short story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad. Click here to read.

Robert Burns & Tagore in Harmony

A transcreation of Tagore’s song, Purano Sei Diner Kotha, based on Robert Burn’s poem associated with new year’s revelries by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, Dibyajyoti Sarma, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Sambhu Nath Banerjee, Michael Brockley, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, George Freek, Mitra Samal, William Miller, Harsimran Kaur, Jay Nicholls, Sangeeta Sharma, Rhys Hughes

Nature’s Musings

In Lewie, the Leaf, Penny Wilkes explores the last vestiges of autumn with her camera and a touching story. Click here to read.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Trouser Hermits, Rhys Hughes muses over men’s attire and the lack of them. Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices from Life

Kungfu Panda & Matrimony

Alpana gives a glimpse into her own marital experiences through the lockdown. Click here to read.

How I Transitioned from a Desk Worker to a Rugged Trail Hiker at Age Sixty

Meredith Stephens shares the impact of the pandemic on her life choices. Click here to read.

A Tale of Two Houses

P Ravi Shankar travels back to the Kerala of his childhood. Click here to read.

The Voice that Sings Hope through Suffering…

Rakibul Hasan Khan pays a tribute with a twist to a recently deceased Bangladeshi writer, Hasan Azizul Huq. Click here to read.

Canada: A Live Canvas

Sunil Sharma reflects on the colours of the fall in Canada. Click here to read.

To Infinity & Beyond!

Candice Louisa Daquin explores the magic of space travel. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a language and culture. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Statue Without Stature, Devraj Singh Kalsi muses on erecting a bust with a dollop of humour. Click here to read.

Stories

Flash Fiction: In Search of a New Home

Marzia Rahman shares a short narrative about refugees. Click here to read.

Floating Free

Lakshmi Kannan travels with a humming bird to her past. Click here to read.

Driving with Murad

Sohana Manzoor unfolds her experiences while learning to drive with a dash of humour. Click here to read.

Dinner with Bo Stamford in Hong Kong

Steve Davidson has a ghostly encounter in Hong Kong. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In Walls, Sunil Sharma peers into fallacies and divides. Click here to read.

Essays

What’s Novel in a Genre?

Indrasish Banerjee explores why we need a genre in this novel-based essay. Click here to read.

Of Palaces and Restorations

Rupali Gupta Mukherjee visits a restored palace in the heartland of Bengal. Click here to read.

The Incongruity of “Perfect” Poems

Rakibul Hasan Khan discusses Bangladeshi poet Sofiul Azam’s poetry from a post colonial perspective. Click here to read.

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the three Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University. Click here to read.

The Observant Migrant

In When is a mental illness not a mental illness?, Candice Lousia Daquin provides us with a re-look into what is often judged as a psychiatric issue. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885). Click here to read.

Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Aruna Chakravarti reviews Devika Khanna Narula’s Beyond the Veil. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers. Click here to read.

Keith Lyons reviews CJ Fentiman’s The Cat with Three Passports: What a Japanese cat taught me about an old culture and new beginnings. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews BP Pande’s In the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Towards a Brave New World

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

With Christmas at our heels and the world waking up slowly from a pandemic that will hopefully become an endemic as the Omicron seems to fizzle towards a common cold, we look forward to a new year and a new world. Perhaps, our society will evolve to become one where differences are accepted as variety just as we are fine with the fact that December can be warm or cold depending on the geography of the place. People will be welcomed even if of different colours and creed. The commonality of belonging to the same species will override all other disparities…

While we have had exciting developments this year and civilians have moved beyond the Earth — we do have a piece on that by Candice Louisa Daquin — within the planet, we have become more aware of the inequalities that exist. We are aware of the politics that seems to surround even a simple thing like a vaccine for the pandemic. However, these two years dominated by the virus has shown us one thing — if we do not rise above petty greed and create a world where healthcare and basic needs are met for all, we will suffer. As my nearly eighty-year-old aunt confided, even if one person has Covid in a remote corner of the world, it will spread to all of us. The virus sees no boundaries. This pandemic was just a start. There might be more outbreaks like this in the future as the rapacious continue to exploit deeper into the wilderness to accommodate our growing greed, not need. With the onset of warmer climates — global warming and climate change are realities — what can we look forward to as our future?

Que sera sera — what will be, will be. Though a bit of that attitude is necessary, we have become more aware and connected. We can at least visualise changes towards a more egalitarian and just world, to prevent what happened in the past. It would be wonderful if we could act based on the truth learnt from history rather than to overlook or rewrite it from the perspective of the victor and use that experience to benefit our homes, planet and all living things, great and small.  In tune with our quest towards a better world, we have an interview with an academic, Sanjay Kumar, founder of a group called Pandies, who use theatre to connect the world of haves with have-nots. What impressed me most was that they have actually put refugees and migrant workers on stage with their stories. They even managed to land in Kashmir and work with children from war-torn zones. They have travelled and travelled into different dimensions in quest of a better world. Travelling is what our other interviewee did too — with a cat who holds three passports. CJ Fentiman, author of The Cat with Three Passports, has been interviewed by Keith Lyons, who has reviewed her book too.

This time we have the eminent Aruna Chakravarti review Devika Khanna Narula’s Beyond the Veils, a retelling of the author’s family history. Perhaps, history has been the common thread in our reviews this time. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anirudh Kala’s Two and a Half Rivers, a fiction that focusses on the Sikh issues in 1980s India from a Dalit perspective. It brought to my mind a family saga I had been recently re-reading, Alex Haley’s Roots, which showcased the whole American Revolution from the perspective of slaves brought over from Africa. Did the new laws change the fates of the slaves or Dalits? To an extent, it did but the rest as fact and fiction showcase were in the hands that belonged to the newly freed people. To enable people to step out of the cycle of poverty, the right attitudes towards growth and the ability to accept the subsequent changes is a felt need. That is perhaps where organisations like Pandies step in.  Another non-fiction which highlights history around the same period and place as Kala’s novel is BP Pande’s In the Service of Free India –Memoirs of a Civil Servant. Reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, the book explores the darker nuances of human history filled with violence and intolerance.

That violence is intricately linked to power politics has been showcased often. But, what would be really amazing to see would be how we could get out of the cycle as a society. With gun violence being an accepted norm in one of the largest democracies of the world, perhaps we need to listen to the voice of wisdom found in the fiction by Steve Davidson who meets perhaps a ghost in Hong Kong. Musing over the ghost’s words, the past catches up in Sunil Sharma’s story, ‘Walls’. Sharma has also given us a slice from his life in Canada with its colours, vibrancy and photographs of the fall. As he emigrated to Canada, we read of immigrants in Marzia Rahman’s touching narrative. She has opted to go with the less privileged just as Lakshmi Kannan has opted to go with the privileged in her story.

Sharma observes, while we find the opulence of nature thrive in places people inhabit in  Canada, it is not so in Asia. I wonder why? Why are Asian cities crowded and polluted? There was a time when Los Angeles and London suffered smogs. Has that shifted now as factories relocated to Asia, generating wealth in currency but taking away from nature’s opulence of fresh, clean air as more flock into crowded cities looking for sustenance?

Humour is introduced into the short story section with Sohana Manzoor’s hilarious rendering of her driving lessons in America, lessons given to foreigners by migrants. Rhys Hughes makes for  more humour with a really hilarious rendition of men in tea cosies missing their…I  think ‘Trouser Hermit’ will tell you the rest. He has perhaps more sober poetry which though imaginative does not make you laugh as much as his prose. Michael Burch has shared some beautiful poetry perpetuating the calmer nuances of a deeply felt love and affection. George Freek, Anasuya Bhar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Dibyajyoti Sarma have all given us wonderful poetry along with many others. One could write an essay on each poem – but as we are short shrift for time, we move on to travel sagas from hiking in Australia and hobnobbing with kangaroos to renovated palaces in Bengal.

We have also travelled with our book excerpts this time. Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow shuttles between US and Japan and Somdatta Mandal’s translation of  A Bengali lady in England by Krishnabhabi Das, actually has the lady relocate to nineteenth century England and assume the dress and mannerisms of the West to write an eye-opener for her compatriots about the customs of the colonials in their own country.

While mostly we hear of sad stories related to marriages, we have a sunny one in which Alpana finds much in a marriage that runs well with wisdom learnt from Kung Fu Panda.  Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us a philosophical piece with his characteristic touch of irony laced with humour on statues. If you are wondering what he could have to say, have a read.

In Nature’s Musings, Penny Wilkes has offered us prose and wonderful photographs of the last vestiges of autumn. As the season hovers between summer and winter, geographical boundaries too can get blurred at times. A nostalgic recap given by Ratnottama Sengupta along the borders of Bengal, which though still crossed by elephants freely in jungles (wild elephants do not need visas, I guess), gained an independence from the harshness of cultural hegemony on December 16th, 1971. Candice Louisa Daquin has also looked at grey zones that lie between sanity and insanity in her column. An essay which links East and West has been given to us by Rakibul Hasan about a poet who mingles the two in his poetry. A Bengali song by Tagore, Purano shei diner kotha,  that is almost a perfect trans creation of Robert Burn’s Scottish Auld Lang Syne in the spirit of welcoming the New Year, has been transcreated to English. The similarity in the content of the two greats’ lyrics showcase the commonalities of love, friendship and warmth that unite all cultures into one humanity.

Our first translation from Uzbekistan – a story by Sherzod Artikov, translated from Uzbeki by Nigora Mukhammad — gives a glimpse of a culture that might be new to many of us. Akbar Barakzai’s shorter poems, translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi and Ratnottama Sengupta’s transcreation of a Tagore song, Rangiye Die Jao, have added richness to our oeuvre along with  one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Professor Fakrul Alam, who is well-known for his translation of poetry by Jibonanda Das, has started sharing his work on the Bengali poet with us. Pause by and take a look.

There is much more than what I can put down here as we have a bumper end of the year issue this December. There is a bit of something for all times, tastes and seasons.

I would like to thank my wonderful team for helping put together this issue. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious need double thanks for their lovely artwork that is showcased in our magazine. We are privileged to have committed readers, some of who have started contributing to our content too. A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers for being with us through our journey.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful transition into the New Year! May we open up to a fantastic brave, new world!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Stories

Floating Free

By Lakshmi Kannan

 Harshavardhini sat on the swing, like a still, motionless figure. The birds were still around, for it was not too late in the evening.  After the revelry  and the din of an entire  day spent in the Disney Land, Harshavardhini needed the quiet space of this community park at Irvine, California. Her friends pulled her into one last trip to Disney Land before she would leave for Delhi. She spent the day taking thrilling rides, watching shows, shaking hands with a friendly Mickey Mouse, eating endlessly, winning games and losing, all the time looking at things through the eyes of her children. She longed for their company. They would’ve doubled her joy.

Perched on the swing, she looked at the children playing around in the park under the watchful eyes of their parents. On the lanes around the edge of the park, people were walking briskly, some were jogging on a steady pace. Harshi, as she was called by most of her family and friends, counted the remaining days she had in Irvine, before she would take her flight back to home in Delhi in four days from now. I should come to this park again before I leave, she told herself, pushing the uncomfortable thoughts about tidying up the apartment before handing it over, packing clothes, books, and things from the final shopping trip.

 She would miss Susan Green, who had not only enrolled for the same course, but also shared Harshi’s nice apartment on the campus. Susan offered to share the rent and  both of them could put the money saved to good use. They each had a room of their own and met only in the living room, the kitchen and dining room in that comfortable, sunny and spacious two-bedroom apartment. Sure enough, Susan spelt her name as Hershey, after the famous chocolate in the US  and justified it by saying it sounds much the same as ‘Harshi’. She became Hershey to everybody else in her course, including the professors. It was a happy surprise to find that Susan was equally earnest in giving her full focus to this rare course on Hermeneutics for which the university had hand-picked a galaxy of faculty from the rest of the US – some of the best minds from Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and Chicago and a culturally diverse bunch of participants both overseas and American, whose paper publications were the main criteria for selection.

Before the program started, Susan, Harshi and the others were in awe of the professors and their fame. All of them were star academics whose books they had read and admired in print,  and who had influenced their methods of teaching and thinking. Now they were going to see them in flesh and hear them. What would they look like?  And their voice, would it touch them?   

The professors arrived like a proverbial breath of fresh air and put them through a breathless pace of course work. Susan, Harshi and most of the others loved it, every moment of it.

Harshi bought some of the books written by these academics, got them inscribed by the authors and sent them home by surface mail, as most of the books were heavy, hard back editions. It was unlikely that she would find them in the book shops in Delhi. Now she was left with  only a few light paperbacks to pack along with her clothes and the shopping she had done for Siddharth, her husband, and their children. She was anxious to return home and relieve him of all the additional work he had taken on. It was so brave of him to take care of their kids and home in her absence.

 If only her mother had been around, she would’ve been the first one to reach their home to take complete charge of running the house and managing the kids who got along with her very well. But Amma left this world and for the first time in their lives, Siddharth and Harshi had to manage their travels out of the country and other professional contingencies without her. It was tough. As they struggled hard to cope with their work, their home and kids, they realized how much Amma had taken upon herself selflessly, to let the two of them function smoothly and peacefully. Harshi couldn’t have got her Ph.D., made some career moves, pursued creative writing and taken Indian writing to other parts of the world without her. Thanks to Amma, both Siddharth and Harshi could be away from home with a sense of security that their children were looked after by their doting grandmother. 

 Now, there was the reality of the next few days. The apartment had to be thoroughly cleaned before she handed it over, and there was the packing.   

 Let me not think of that, let me just listen to the restful sounds of this evening, thought Harshi, closing her eyes. She continued to sit still on the swing when she heard a faint buzz near her face. Oh God, that was probably a honeybee! It would surely sting! Slowly, she opened her eyes to avert the bee. It was a hummingbird fluttering its delicate wings that had caused the sustained drone. It now hovered very close to her face, almost making eye contact with her.  It can’tharm me, I’m wearing my specs, so that’ll protect my eyes. Rather, I shouldn’t harm this darling little bird by my hard stare. Let me just pretend that it’s not there, even though it’s hovering near my nose now. Let me not scare it away by my jerky movements. I’ll sit absolutely still and just listen.

Harshi froze like a statue. This dainty little bird with tiny feet, it doesn’t seem to sit anywhere to rest, but just hovers around so joyfully. It’s blowing gusts of happiness on my face with its small wings. It’s telling me something.  

She closed her eyes to absorb the beauty of the moment. It was only in California that she got to see the famed humming birds. It was also interesting to read about them. She recalled a legend that was wrapped around this bird. The lines came across as sheer poetry!  

                                             Humming Birds

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

 Slowly, Harshi opened her eyes. The bird flew away from her, made a large arc to hover over the flowering plants nearby, and then returned to circle around her face. It  moved close to her ears and was saying something with its flapping wings. Harshi nodded.  

 I know, little bird. I know you’re my Amma who has come back from the other world to talk to me for a while,’ whispered Harshi, her eyes going moist. Amma, I know this is you, flapping within the tender little body of this humming bird. Yes, I hear you clearly. You’re my fragile, underweight Amma with innumerable health issues that were unmatched with your immense reserves of strength.

 “A hummingbird being small, it’s logical that its egg is also small, it’s just the size of a pea,” said an article in National Geographic. But Amma, to everybody’s shock, you gave birth to me, an overweight baby, 4 kg. 536 gms (10 lbs.) at birth,  instead of the usual 3 kg. 175 gms (which is 7 lbs.)! The doctors and the family found it miraculous that a thin, emaciated, undernourished, underweight young woman like you, who never kept well for long, would deliver a baby like me. You told me that the newborn baby dresses that were made for me wouldn’t fit, that new dresses were ordered and that there was a permanent mark of black kohl on my left cheek close to my ear that my grandma had applied, to remove kann drishti.

You raised me without a nanny, although I gave you a tough time. I was naughty, adventurous, but you saw me through all that and more, and those were my foraysinto sports and athletics. You never once forgot to alert me that I shouldn’t slacken in my studies. Your frequent spells of illness, your inability to eat, or retain anything you eat, cast a shadow on our lives. You continued to lose weight, yet your unconditional love for me and for your family throbbed on your little feathered bird breast.

 You gave me a baby brother at great cost to your life and health. The doctors were amazed to note your high pain threshold. My grandparents were furious that you should have risked your life with another pregnancy, but you pacified them by saying your husband and in-laws craved for a male child.

 When the doctors diagnosed a serious malfunction in your small intestine, you had to go through a surgery. I was in primary school then. I would rush to the hospital as soon as I returned from school and you sat up on bed to butter those long, crisp golden hued imported biscuits for me to eat. Eyes shining, you would ask me about my day and if I had played games after school. As if on cue, you would apply butter on one more crisp biscuit and put it on my plate…and one more… until I couldn’t eat any more.

Post- surgery, the doctors put you on a liquid diet that was to continue for the next fifteen years! Naturally, you lost more weight and became this frail packet of indefatigable energy, love and selflessness that astonished all of us. Still, there were some cruel people in our extended family who took you for granted. I seethed with anger, one of the many other spells of anger I was to experience as a growing girl child. Later, I had to learn a lot about anger management, as did my friends. Some of my anger was directed against you as well. “You’ve internalised patriarchy and that’s regressive!” I would argue hotly, while you looked bewildered by my feminist pedagogy, a new burden I carry now, along with my peers. We fought over issues, like mothers and daughters do, until I realised that you too were quietly evolving as a clever feminist-in-the-making, unbeknownst to the family.  Wisely, you didn’t squander any feminist vocabulary on the resistant family. Instead, you used strategies to grow your wings independently, right under their nose!  

What blossomed through all these travails was your stunning talent for painting. You were a natural! Noting this, my grandfather enrolled you in a professional course on painting in a Fine Arts College. He ordered for the branded imported paints, Windsor & Newton, specially flown all the way from England. Their superior quality glows till date in the rich tints behind the glass of your framed paintings. While your diet was liquid,  your output was solid. In a prolific abundance, you did landscapes, still-life, thematic triptych and portraits that won accolade from your teachers and art critics for their intuitive depth. The water colours, charcoal sketches and oil on canvas drew the attention of visitors in art galleries. Your high point was portrait. You were counted as one of the best artists for your haunting portraits of well- known personalities  such as Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahans, his consort Sarada Devi and the lovely Shobhana Samarth. As for Mahatma Gandhi, commissions rained on you for painting his portraits. Art critics were quick to observe that you excelled especially in portraits of elderly people, and made the wrinkles on their face speak eloquently of all they had endured in life. Portraits became your unique selling proposition. To everybody’s utter surprise, you chose to paint me. Why me, a mere frisky ten-year old, an odd misfit in this gallery of ‘the famous’? I sat for you, thrilled beyond belief, while you chided me for fidgeting on my chair. When an artist, a scion of the Tagore family visited our home to buy two of your paintings, you sat demurely in a far corner with a shy smile on your face, and let my father completely monopolise the conversation with the distinguished gentleman.  

 Amma, you were here, there, everywhere, flying around, looking after us and the large extended family selflessly. You were like seven women put together. And when you left, all seven of you went out of our lives on a single day. The world around me shrank to a miserable little size. Something vital went out of my life. And now Amma, you’re back in the body of this small hummingbird that just doesn’t let me go out of its orbit. Like this bird with its tiny legs, you with your small fragile frame, were a strong woman. Ephemeral, yet eternal. You float on time, so I will always wait for you. You’ll come when I need you, I know. You’re untrammeled by body mass or messy emotions that weigh us down. You lived life the simple way – with love, joy, service and acceptance.

 The bird hummed on near Harshi’s ears.    

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Glossary                                                                                                    kann dhrishti  An Indian belief that one can remove ‘the malevolent eye’ of people by applying a black spot with kohl on the face of a healthy child.  

kohl: Dark substance that people apply around their eyes to make them look attractive.  

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Lakshmi Kannan, also known by her Tamil pen-name “Kaaveri”, has published twenty-five books till date that include poems, novels, short stories and translations.  Wooden Cow (Translation, 2021) Sipping the Jasmine Moon: Poems (2019) and The Glass Bead Curtain, Novel (2020, c 2016) are her recent publications. For more details, please visit www.lakshmikannan.in  

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

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Author Page

Somdatta Mandal

Somdatta Mandal is a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.

Interview

Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest

In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal, a translator, scholar and writer who has much to say on the state of Santiniketan, Tagore, women’s writing on travel and more. Click here to read.

Translations

Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

Translated from the original Bengali by Somdatta Mandal, these are Tagore’s essays and letters laced with humour. Click here to read.

Letters from Japan, Europe & America

An excerpt from letters written by Tagore from Kobi & Rani, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Letters from Tagore

An excerpt from Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal, showcasing Tagore’s introduction and letters. Click here to read.

A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das

An excerpt from Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885). Click here to read.

Book reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews Wooden Cow by T. Janakiraman, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan. Click here to read.

Himadri Lahiri reviews Somdatta Mandal’s ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore. Click here to read.

A review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, a translation from a conglomeration of writings from all the Maestro’s caregivers. Click hereto read.

Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  
  
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
‘Beauty is Truth’ : The Potato Eaters(1885) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons

What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour.  If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume (1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.

 Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.

The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.

We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.

In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”

Aruna Chakravarti’s review of Shazia Omar’s Golden Bangladesh at Fifty also stands out embracing the colours of Bengal. It traces the title back to history and their national anthem — a Tagore song called ‘Amaar Sonar Bangla – My Golden Bengal’. Gracy Samjetsabam’s review of Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow, a cross cultural novel with an unusual ending that shuttles between America and Japan, winds up our review section this time.

As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.

The tone of Rhys Hughes cogitations about the identity of two poets across borders in ‘Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?’ reminds me of Puck  or Narada! Of course, he has given humour in verses with a funny story poem which again — I am not quite sure — has a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion or is it someone else? Michael Burch has limericks on animals, along with his moving poem on Martin Luther King Junior. We have much poetry crossing borders, including a translation of Akbar Barakzai’s fabulous Balochi poetry by Fazal Baloch and Sahitya Akademi winning Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom. A Nazrul song which quests for a spiritual home has been translated from Bengali by no less than Professor Fakrul Alam, a winner of both the SAARC award and Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.

We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
Review

Wooden Cow

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: Wooden Cow

Author & Translator: T. Janakiraman, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan

Publisher: Orient Blackswan Private Ltd, 2021

T. Janakiraman (1921-82), affectionately known as Thi Jaa, is an iconic, widely read and revered Tamil writer and one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. Belonging to the Manikkodi movement in Tamil literature, which brought in new ways of writing, with an emphasis on the art of fiction as practiced by the Modernist writers in England, he wrote in a deliberately pared-down style and explored psychological ramifications. It is no coincidence that the hundredth year of his birth is being celebrated in 2021 in a great way. As a tribute to him, Orient Blackswan has just published a second edition of his Tamil novel Marappasu (Wooden Cow) aptly translated by Lakshmi Kannan, the well-known contemporary bilingual writer and poet. A novel quite controversial when it was written, it is basically the portrayal of a strong woman who lives by her own convictions, rejects the institution of marriage, and who remains true to herself, despite social censure.

Narrated in the first person by the protagonist Ammani, it is through her consciousness that the events of the novel are reflected. Divided into two parts, the first section delineates Ammani’s growth from a precocious child to a luminous, spirited young woman. She leaves her natal home for higher education to live with her Periappa and Periamma, her uncle and aunt, and starts living a non-traditional life. The opening sentence of the novel, “Almost anything makes me laugh” vouches for her strange beliefs and behavior. Her headstrong nature coupled with her intolerance of injustice results in her being mired in controversy over and over again. She ‘hardened’ her mind as she “knew there is no meaning in marriage and all that sham in the name of respectability”. She doesn’t wish to steal but wishes to live on her own terms. She spouts communist philosophy and rails against the unjust treatment of the poor by the government. Though financially very poor, she goes and invites the famous singer and musician Gopali to perform at her cousin’s wedding celebrations. Soon Gopali’s charisma draws her into his ambit. He takes her to Madras and also arranges dance lessons for her and moves her into a house he buys for her. Ammani rejects marriage as a bourgeois concept but soon accepts her hedonistic new life and begins her unconventional and volatile relationship with Gopali.

In the second part of the novel, we see Ammani as a woman of the world, divested of all her connections with traditional Brahmin society. Wary of marriage, which she sees as a lifelong imprisonment, she travels around the world giving Bharatnatyam performances.  Gradually her relationship with Gopali is strained when he realises that he is not her only male companion. Ammani’s many romantic entanglements provide her with a different view of the man-woman relationship. She gets into a relationship with a man called Pattabhi but laughs it off when he proposes marriage, thus wounding him deeply. Throughout the novel there are many more instances of her waywardness. She poses as a streetwalker in London and picks up a Vietnam war veteran called Bruce with whom she spends three weeks. Initially Bruce is convinced that he “got to know a rare human being”. He tells her, “You may have slept with three hundred people and kissed a few thousand. But you are a very pure woman”. But when he tries to be intimate with her, Ammani states: “I’m a public girl. At the same time, I’m also not public. I can be bought. But I’m also not for sale. It’s possible to stick to me, but it won’t last. Why are you looking at me as if I was an exhibit?”

She explains to him that she has no relations or friends. She drops each friend in their place and moves on. While on a train journey with Gopali, she makes a sardonic assertion that she is not Gopali’s wife and confuses the fellow English passengers travelling with them. Thus, far from adhering to the caste and class hierarchies and morality, the novelist portrays Ammani as a woman who lives by her own convictions and remains true to herself despite social censure. Towards the end of the story however she realises through the marital relationship between her servant Pachiappan and his wife Maragadham that a man and a woman can also be true soulmates, and this renews her faith in the institution of marriage.

The title is based on her perceptions when she sees a dead cow on the street one day. People were wary of the unpleasant task of having to dispose the carcass, even though the cow had provided milk and had borne calves when she was alive. Metaphorically speaking, she perceives herself to be similar to the cow that lacks functionality, and therefore wooden. By disclaiming the institution of marriage, she has been merely a shining curio that has not been of any real value to others.

Translation and its problems are nothing unique and hence critics have even labelled it by terms like ‘transliteration’ and ‘transcreation.’ In Mouse or Rat? Translation As Negotiation, Umberto Eco writes about a postlapsarian movement between different tongues, the perilous attempt to express concepts from one language into another. “Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.” By suggesting that translation is a negotiation’ not just between words but between cultures, whether it be a loss or a gain on either side, Eco emphasizes that a translator’s job is to decide what elements are vital and which may be neglected. In another instance, the problems of translation are put forward by Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest novel Whereabouts (which she self-translated from Italian to English) attests to the fact: “Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways.”

That Lakshmi Kannan decided to re-translate the original Tamil text once again after a gap of nearly forty years vouches for the fact that a translation can never be declared as one and final. What she did in the first edition in 1979 left her dissatisfied and as she herself declared, trying to do a fresh translation of an older piece of work was like wrestling with “a new kind of beast that is hard to describe and difficult to handle”.

By paying more attention to enhance readability for a contemporary audience as well as to preserve the Tamil flavor of the original by retaining many original words in the text and providing a glossary at the end, this revised version has emerged rejuvenated as a new text.

As Anita Balakrishnan rightly points out in her foreword, the author wrote in the distinctive Tamil dialect of the Kaveri delta that created a characteristic style. This made the task of translating even more daunting, for the carrying across of the nuances of the Thanjavur Brahmin register is no mean task. Also, Jankiraman’s technique of interweaving the mellifluous strains of Carnatic music with his pathbreaking themes helped him to ensure his place in the great tradition of modern Tamil fiction. With a good command of both English and Tamil, Kannan’s translation ably captures the nuances of the original text, and she should be congratulated for bringing the works of T. Janakiraman to a pan-Indian as well as global readership. Her unique attempt to re-translate the novel once again by rectifying all the lapses in the earlier translation speaks of her sincerity, integrity and ultimately love for her mother tongue Tamil as well.

Somdatta Mandal is a critic and translator and a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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