Categories
Review

Rising

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India’

Author: Kiran Manral

Publisher : Rupa Publications

Several books have been brought out on Indian women, coinciding with International Women’s Day this year. These books, in their own style tell the story of how women have shattered glass ceilings and have ventured into what had been perceived earlier as ‘men’s domains’. 

In today’s India, women exercise their right to vote, contest for Parliament and Assembly, seek appointment in public office and compete in other spheres of life with men. This inclusivity shows women enjoy more liberty and equality than a hundred years ago. They have gained the freedom to participate in affairs of the country, whether it is science, technology, finance and or even defense.


Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India by Kiran Manral looks at what moulded these women: the challenges they faced, the influences they had, the choices they made and how they negotiated around or broke boundaries that sought to confine them, either through society or circumstances. The book is an ode to inspirational women who transformed India in a variety of ways. It is a chronicle of valiant achievers and also a depiction of stories about those who swam against the tide. 

From diverse backgrounds and different generations, they have risen through sheer grit, determination, bolstered with passion, and are, today, names to look up to, to be mentioned as examples to the next generation, giving them courage to reach out to their dreams. From politics to sport, from the creative and performing arts to cinema and television, from business leaders to scientists, legal luminaries and more, this book features the stories of these much celebrated, fabulous women: Sushma Swaraj, Sheila Dikshit, Fathima Beevi, Mahasweta Devi, Amrita Sher-Gil, Amrita Pritam, Sonal Mansingh, Lata Mangeshkar, Anita Desai, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Harita Kaur Deol, Madhuri Dixit, Bachendri Pal, Rekha, Chhavi Rajawat, Karnam Malleswari, Shailaja Teacher, Hima Das, Naina Lal Kidwai, Shakuntala Devi, P.T. Usha, P. V. Sindhu, Ekta Kapoor, Kiran Bedi, Mary Kom, Menaka Guruswamy, Tessy Thomas, Aparna Sen, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Gayatri Devi, among others. 

Mumbai- based Kiran Manral is a writer, author and novelist. In previous avatars, she has been a journalist, researcher, festival curator and entrepreneur. A recipient of  multiple awards such as the Women Achievers Award by Young Environmentalists Association in 2013 and the International Women’s Day Award 2018 from ICUNR, Kiran has authored  a couple of fictions and non-fictions too. Her interests are eclectic. 

Writes Kiran in the introduction: “Every story is replete with takeaways, lessons to be learnt, not just professionally but otherwise too. These women have lived life on their own terms, becoming a beacon of hope to many others, women and men alike. If after learning about these inspirational women, a young girl, anywhere in the country thinks to herself that could be me! 1f she can do it, so can I, this book would have served its purpose.”

About Fathima Beevi she writes: “Even before the phrase ‘glass ceiling’ entered common parlance, we had a female judge in the Supreme Court already smash it. With a quiet efficiency that defined her career, on 6 October 1989, M. Fathima Beevi became the first female judge in the Supreme Court, a position she held till her retirement on 29 April 1992.For all her achievements, she remains an enigma, shunning the spotlight and living a quiet life in her hometown post her retirement. Her photographs show a determined expression: her head firmly covered with her saree’s pallu, spectacles lodged on the bridge of her nose and her matter-of-fact demeanour.” 

Written in a crispy style loaded with factoids, the book makes for an enthralling read. The story of Hima Das — who rose from obscurity to international acclaim, a journey that took her from a small village in Assam to the podium of international athletic meets — is as absorbing as realistic. 

 “There’s an iconic photograph that encapsulates Hima Das. Her eyes are twinkling with joy, she’s holding the Indian flag aloft behind her, an Assamese gamusa (a piece of red and white cloth, a cultural identifier) draped around her neck. It had been a long journey from the muddy fields she started training in back in her village near Dhing, in Assam. Back then, she ran barefoot. Basic running shoes was an indulgence, branded shoes were a dream. She ran first for her school, then her district, and when she reached the state level, she got her first pair of real sports shoes. They were an ordinary pair of running shoes, but she wrote ‘Adidas’ on them, along with its logo. One day, she would be able to buy herself a pair of Adidas shoes. Years later, Adidas would name an entire line of shoes after her, but she had to earn that, through struggle, sweat and blood.’ 

On 31 August 2019, Amrita Pritam was commemorated by Google, her centenary birth anniversary, with a doodle. It wrote: “Today’s Doodle celebrates, one of history’s foremost female Punjabi writers, who dared to live the life she imagines.”

Kiran says in her book: “In her writings and her life, she leaves behind a legacy for women writers in India which urges them to defy social constructs and constraints, challenge them, and to live and write as she did — unencumbered.”  

The book about thirty most successful women makes for an interesting read.It is a glorious tribute to the womenfolk who have shattered all maximums and have spurred others to claim individual space.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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

Categories
Contents

Borderless February 2022

Winter in Africa. Painting by Sybil Pretious.

Editorial

What’s Love Got to Do with it’ … Click here to read.

Interviews

Sriniketan: Tagore’s “Life Work”: In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan, where can be glimpsed what Tagore considered his ‘life’s work’ as an NGO smoothening divides between villagers and the educated. Click here to read.

Akbar: The Man who was King: In conversation with eminent journalist and author, Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar, A Novel of History. Click here to read.

Translations

One Day in the Fog, written by Jibananda Das and translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Mahnu, a poem by Atta Shad, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

A Superpower in the Pandemic, written and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

Eyes of the Python, a short story by S.Ramakrishnan, translated from Tamil by Dr.B.Chandramouli. Click here to read.

Raatri Eshe Jethay Meshe by Tagore has been translated from Bengali as Where the Night comes to Mingle by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Pandies’ Corner

These stories are written by youngsters from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. The column starts with a story, Stranger than Fiction from Sharad Kumar in Hindustani, translated to English by Grace M Sukanya. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Rhys Hughes, A Jessie Michael, Jay Nicholls, Moonmoon Chowdhury, Mike Smith, David Francis, Ananya Sarkar, Matthew James Friday, Ashok Suri, John Grey, Saptarshi Bhattacharya, Candice Louisa Daquin, Emalisa Rose, Ryan Quinn Flanagan

Nature’s Musings

Penny Wilkes explores dewdrops and sunrise in A Dewdrop World. Click here to read.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Rhys Hughes explores the paranormal with his usual wit in Three Ghosts in a Boat. Promise not to laugh or smile as you shiver… Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices from Life

Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata Mangeshkar. Click here to read.

Forsaking Distant Hemispheres for the Immediate Locale

Meredith Stephens introduces us to the varied fauna found in South Australia with vivid photographs clicked by her. Click here to read.

Breaking the fast

P Ravi Shankar takes us through a breakfast feast around the world. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Life without a Pet, Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a humorous take on why he does not keep a pet. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In Bridging Cultures through Music, author Suzanne Kamata introduces us to Masaki Nakagawa, a YouTuber who loves Lativia and has made it big, playing for the President of Lativia at the Japanese coronation. Click here to read.

Essays

Farewell Keri Hulme

A tribute by Keith Lyons to the first New Zealand Booker Prize winner, Keri Hulme, recalling his non-literary encounters with the sequestered author. Click here to read.

Satyajit Ray’s Cinematic Universe: Can Isolation Lead to a New World?

Rebanta Gupta explores two films of Satyajit Ray, Kanchenjunga & Charulata to see what a sense of isolation can do for humans? Click here to read.

‘What remains is darkness and facing me – Banalata Sen!’

Rakibul Hasan Khan explores death and darkness in Fakrul Alam’s translation of Jibanananda Das’s poetry. Click here to read.

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

 In To Be or Not to Be, Candice Louisa Daquin takes a close look at death and suicide. Click here to read.

Stories

Navigational Error

Luke P.G. Draper explores the impact of pollution with a short compelling narrative. Click here to read.

The Art of Sleeping

Atreyo Chowdhury spins an absurd tale or could it be true? Click here to read.

Dear Dr Chilli…

Maliha Iqbal writes of life as a young girl in a competitive world. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In MissingSunil Sharma gives us a long literary yarn. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

Two Banalata Sen poems excerpted from Jibanananda Das: Selected Poems with an Introduction, Chronology and Glossary, translated from Bengali by Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan. Translated from the Bengali by Radha Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Indrashish Banerjee reviews The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud. Click here to read.

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Kavery Nambisan’s A Luxury called Health. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes. Click here to read.

Special Issues

Cry, Our Beloved… Click here to read (For Peace)

Born to be Wild …Click here to read (World Wild Life Day)

Categories
Editorial

‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’

Art by Sohana Manzoor
‘Why does education in love not feature in today’s curriculum?’
— Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan (Translated by Radha Chakravarty, 2022, Seagull Books)

As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago. 

This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.

Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?

He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.

“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”

All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.

Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.

A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud by Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.

Translations have thrown up interesting colours this time with a Tamil story by a Sahitya Akademi winning writer, S Ramakrishnan, translated on our pages by B Chandramouli, one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi and of course a transcreation of Tagore’s songs where he sings of the meeting of horizons. A beautiful poem by eminent Balochi poet Atta Shad (1939-1997) has been translated by Fazal Baloch. We are again privileged to host an original translation of Jibananda Das(1899-1954) by Professor Fakrul Alam. We also managed to get permission to share some of Professor Alam’s fabulous translations of Jibananada Das from UPL (United Press Limited) and are starting it out by excerpting two of his poems on Banalata Sen, which were till now restricted to readership who only had access to the hardcopy. Rakibul Hasan Khan has given us an essay on these translations. An interesting essay on Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) by Rebanata Gupta and personalised tribute to the first Booker Prize winner from New Zealand, Keri Hulme (1947-2021), by Keith Lyons, who had many non-literary encounters with the sequestered author, add to the richness of our oeuvre.

Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.

Brooding on death and suicide is Candice Louisa Daquin essay. This is a topic under discussion as Switzerland might start a resort for abetting suicides. It is rather frightening that while people value life and as technology and humans work in consonance to preserve it, the rich can think of squandering away this unique process that has till now not been replicated. The other strange long literary yarn that is dark in colours is woven by Sunil Sharma as he explores the futility and self-pity experienced by retirees in their existentialist quest to find a meaning to live. It has bits of poetry too. Penny Wilkes has also introduced verses into her photographic tour of dewdrops. Candice’s vibrant poetry this time has joined that of Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Mike Smith, A Jessie Michael, Ananya Sarkar, Jay Nicholls, Saptarshi Bhattacharya, Rhys Hughes and many more I leave you to unfold. Rhys Hughes has also given us a spooky piece which says ghosts might be genies — check it out. Do you agree or is he just being bizarre and funny?

Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsi narrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.

The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.  

Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.

Wish you all a lovely month.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Tribute

Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata

She was a “pint-sized bundel of musical genius,” wrote the TIME Magazine. The melody queen of India was, they said, “a singer with moonlight in her throat.”

Dr Javed Iqbal was the former Principal and HOD (Surgery) in Qaid-e-Azam Medical College, Bahawalpur, the 11th biggest city of Pakistan. Until a week ago I knew its name only because of Bahawalpur House, the mansion of the former monarch in Delhi, which is now the National School of Drama in the Capital’s Mandi House area. But on February 6, 2022, I gained acquaintance with this surgeon courtesy Whatsap. I heard in wonder as he paid a personal tribute to the just demised Nightingale of India. And I bowed my head twice in deference to the legendary singer and then, to the doctor who, by his own admission, was no scholar of music, yet provided a unique significance of Lata Mangeshkar.

Let me translate what I heard him say in Urdu. “As you know, I’m a surgeon. And when I came to Bahawalpur, I introduced a number of new procedures which contributed to my popularity as Principal and professor. So, students came to interview me for the college magazine. They asked me, ‘Sir where did you learn such good surgery?’ I don’t know why but instantly I answered, ‘From Lata Mangeshkar.’

“The students were surprised, ‘How can that be? She’s not a surgeon! How can you master surgery from her?’ ‘Have you heard her sing?’ I asked them. ‘The way she clears the dues of each harf, every letter of the alphabet; the way she conveys the nuances of every word without erring on even a fraction of the note or messing with a beat – this is the artistry that should permeate the work of every artist. Just the way a single stroke of a painter’s brush can make the painting a masterpiece or can mar it, in the same way a single movement of the finger holding the surgeon’s scalpel, a single cut, a single stitch, a single dissection through a cautery can transform the entire operation into an exemplary art or spoil it for life.’

“Many years ago, it struck me that the way Lata Mangeshkar does justice to every inflection of her songs, should be the yardstick to measure any art. Every breath should transform your performance into the best of your ability. If you listen to any song by Lata Mangeshkar, you will realise that, if the word is written with a chhoti-ii (pronounced: ‘e’) then you will hear a short vowel; and if it is a badi-ii (pronounced: ee) you will hear a long vowel. If you hear ain you can tell that it is written with ain/ euyin and if it is the Arabic letter qaaf then you will hear the guttural sound. But at the same time not a single demand of the melody will be ignored. I’m not an expert nor a scholar of music – and in the past few years I have not been hearing her often – but I can say that this is one quality that makes her mumtaz – the Best.

“Today when she has passed away, I feel like sharing this: The reason why humans are distinct from other living creatures is that physicality is the dominant need of other animals whereas humans are driven by the combined needs of physicality, intellect, emotion and spirituality. The creature whose life revolves around physicality alone will end when Death comes. But the more a person’s intellect, emotion and spirituality contributes to his/her actions, the greater will be his/her claim on immortality. Death is inevitable, Death is mighty, but Death is only so powerful as to make the 5-feet-something Lata Mangeshkar disappear from the face of the earth. Death is not so powerful as to end her art and erase her voice and make her songs disappear. Because the Lata Mangeshkar who was a khatun, a 5-feet-something lady has passed away. But the Lata Mangeshkar who made her ‘The Lata Mangeshkar’ will never die…”

*

Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), the late Classical vocalist whose signature style refused to be bound by gharana traditions, once said that “Often people ask about Lata Mangeshkar’s place in the pantheon of Classical music. In my opinion, this question is redundant, because there can be no comparison between classical music and film songs. While serious development of notes is the constant concern of one, fast beat and fickleness or agility is the main trait of the other.”

At the other end is Nitish Bharadwaj who is still revered for his much-loved evocation of Lord Krishna in the phenomenal serial Mahabharat. The actor has been like a brother to me since he debuted on the Hindi screen with Trishagni directed by my father Nabendu Ghosh. In his homage to the legend, he said, “Since her childhood Lata Didi has lived her life in pursuit of her art, as upasana, contemplation. Her career has not been to amass wealth, it has been as upasak, a worshipper or sadhak, devotee. Which is why she has succeeded in leaving behind thousands of songs for us…”

It is a fact that Lata Mangeshkar has more recordings to her name than any singer in the world. But it is not merely the number, it is the impact of the songs that astounds the world. I will quote an unidentified fan with whom my generation can easily identify. For she writes, “As a child you woke me up with Jago Mohan pyare (Rise my child, Krishna) and lulled me to sleep with Aa ja re aa nindiya tu aaa (Come, Sleep to rest in my baby’s eyes). You made me feel good as you sang Bacche man ke sacche (Children are born pure, with heart of gold). When you sing Humko man ki shakti dena, (Give us the strength to win over our mind) you take me back to my classroom. Solah baras ki bali umar (Sixteen going on seventeen), I experienced in your voice the blossoming of my first crush. Ajeeb dastaan hai ye (What a strange story, this!) stirred the deepest chord of my heart. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai you gave voice to the abandonment of a spirit freed from bonding. And the countless times I heard Aye mere watan ke logon (Cry, O people of my land) tears flowed down my cheeks…”

Three days after Lata Mangeshkar bid adieu to sunlight, Rabindra Sarobar – close to my house in Lake Gardens – offered a unique proof of her abiding life. Let me share it in the words of Mudar Patherya, my secularist friend who initiated a revival of the lake by hosting morning concerts and inculcated pride in one’s neighbourhood by painting icons on otherwise defaced walls.

“DEAR LATA AUNTY,” he wrote on his FB wall, “this morning, for a change, we sang for you. Beginning with Allah tero naam, Ishwar  (God are your names too) – we feel you are that too. Then, we went on to Naa jeyo naa (Do not go away), Lag jaa gale (Come, hold me in your arms), Rahein na rahein hum (If I’m there or I’m gone), Piya tose (My eyes have met yours, beloved) and others. We ended with Ai mere watan ke logo

“We were a few. We took kalam, printouts of the lyrics. We read the words. Emphasised the huroof, letters of the alphabet. Sang from deep within.  

“‘Singing for you,’ we said.  

“Nobody said Wah wah, Well done. Nor kya gaaya, encore.  

“But…  

“One Sarobar walker stopped and joined us.  

“Another doing his press-ups did not rise, easing into restfulness after the fourth. 

“Rowers – members of the Rowing Club next door – came close to where we were sitting, lifted their oars and glided lazily for seconds. 

“The lady walking purposefully said ‘Wait a sec’ to her husband and stayed till the end.  

“A yogi, engaged in the specific type of controlled breathing called anulom-vilom,, dropped his fingers halfway and meditated.  

“A lady, who was a part of our audience, closed her eyes and rocked gently. 

“The surgeon who played the harmonium for us shook his head in a gentle parabola as if he’d just comprehended something new. 

“The lady with a DSLR to shoot birds capped her lens and sat down.  

“The stranger who chanced by perched himself on the durrie and asked ‘Gaaitay paari? Can I join in?’  

“Schedules were interrupted, agendas disturbed, focus distracted. 

“At the end, someone suggested something radical.  

“‘Can we have this for the whole day?’ “

*

Don’t worry dear, I would say in reply. We will — for the rest of our lives.

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Glossary

Khatun: A woman of rank

Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai: I want to live again today.

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

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

Categories
Musings

I am a Jalebi

By Arjan Batth

Frying Jalebis

A jalebi, with a name as eccentric as its appearance, is made by a halwai (or a confectionery maker) with skillful etchings of concentric circular shapes of a paste of flour in hot bubbling ghee like a discerning painter with a brush. Oil simmers in unison with Lata Mangeshkar’s filmi voice, price bargaining, and noisy traffic — a distinctly South Asian symphony. The jalebi becomes fully congealed, eventually submerged in syrup and infused with its sweetened spirit. This delicate confection is then put in a basket on the side of a narrow street or in the midst of a chaotic bazaar, appearing as a platter of petite suns, seducing the occasional child like a syrupy siren. There are other mithai or sweets among it — barfis, ladoos, gulab jamun and more besan (gram flour) progenies. But the jalebi, like me, is markedly different from the rest. While it may be quite odd to describe oneself as a confection, I have inevitably come to the realization that I am, quite indubitably, a jalebi.

I am a jalebi not because I am saccharine, nor because of my lingering unpalatable aftertaste, but rather, because I am different, with my intricately eccentric swirls and peculiar oddities — a disorderly collection of twists that spiral infinitely into oblivion. I remain a vibrant enigma that is overtly incongruous, out of place in the world around me, a spectacle that can’t quite be made sense of. Seeing myself as a jalebi seemed the only way to make sense of the various oddities I have exhibited from a young age. It finally offered an explanation for my differences which seemed to have no tangible cause or explicable origin. And while it was a peculiar explanation, it was an explanation nonetheless, one that temporarily ended a search for an answer and brought with it a certain equanimity. Although I may not be appealing in the way a jalebi is, I am indeed the confection — a twisted, swirly, and overly orange one.

It was self-evident from a young age that I was not like most others. It was this feeling of being different that later blossomed into a profound estrangement. Most people are products of their environment and are thus well adapted to their surroundings. However, I seem to be the product of some other, indefinable forces. I feel irrelevant, always having the urge to be somewhere else, where others are more similar to me in a place that would make me feel a little more relevant. I am under the impression that I was born into the wrong life, in the wrong circumstances or context, the subject of a divine blunder and ridiculed by probability. I should be this rather than that. There rather than here. I am frustrated by the immutability of it all, the permanence of the things you are born into — religion, culture, language, and time. While it may seem futile to be frustrated by such things, they didn’t seem to fit in with who I was.

Inevitably, I remain pierced by loneliness. It is a paradoxical loneliness, not one due to physical isolation, but one borne out of my ability to see the world differently than most and my inability to see the world conventionally. One of the most distressing things that I felt knew, or at least believed I knew, that there were others like me, but just that they weren’t where I was, as if they were deliberately staying hidden away from me. While I have had some relationships before, most lack the intimacy and closeness that comes with genuine friendship. Compared to others, my idiosyncrasies and differences seemed magnified to a microscopic level, making me feel that there was something wrong with me clinically. This estrangement created an opaque silence within me, when I could no longer make sense of what was happening around me. I felt completely different, the discomfort and incongruity in the air around me, almost seemingly tangible and graspable, as thick and viscous as sea water. It is this certain “off” feeling, a discomfort, a malaise of some sort, a feeling of deep irrelevance, that I often felt.

My condition seems to be mirrored by the big jalebi in the sky, the Sun, the suraj, who like me, exhibits much jalebi-ness. The Sun’s interstellar solitude reminds me of my own alienation. It is the only star of its kind in the solar system; the next nearest star is 4.25 light years (24.9 trillion miles) away. And quite significantly, both of us are seemingly encumbered by the weight of the universe.

While I may seem outwardly peaceful because of my superficial reticence, I actually remain quiet because of the turmoil within me. I am pensive while my thoughts attempt to make sense of the confusing world around me. My mind is a spiraling jalebi that tightens and tightens, swirls and swirls, twirls and twirls into neurotic rumination. I often feel disordered, like a faulty machine. I am anxious and apprehensive about some things, fastidious about minor aberrations, and often despondent.

Some days, everything seems to be tinged in a certain sadness. A certain understood, yet unspoken hopeless injustice. My melancholy springs from a fusillade of realisations about the world.  Being exposed to the world’s harshness and its lack of hope and reason, my reality seems to have a propensity, an innate tendency, to be brutal. I anachronistically experienced the Romantic ennui that French teenagers felt in the 19th century, trying to find meaning in our capitalistic, success driven world. Like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I am a ghost of sorts, a specter of vicarious and passive living. But beyond my nihilism, I am disturbed by the unfathomability of concepts that govern our universe: the concept of time, the size of the universe, death, the sun’s brightness, human consciousness. But as a single living organism, the universe has no obligation to make sense to me and holds no obligation of any other kind.

I am also a jalebi because of my South Asian background. Even though I have grown up thousands of miles away from India, it infuses itself into my life, an  every day, colouring of a distinct shade of Indianness. It is in the food I swallow. The thoughts I think. The genes that materialize my body. Yet, there is a disconnect to “my homeland” not only due to the seemingly interminable physical distance, but because I have spent my entire life in the West. As such, I perceive India and the world through a unique lens. I see it as a Westerner, yet also as an Indian, making sense of the world through a complicated, paradoxical mosaics. 

The boundaries of a culture are always delineated by an “us” and “them”. But I struggle to define the “us” and the “them”. In India, the borders between ethnic, linguistic, and religious identity all simultaneously converge and diverge. In the modern post-colonial era with the ancient civilization partitioned and shattered, the definition of Indian is constantly questioned and changing. As technically a minority in India’s extremely diverse cultural landscape, I feel like a decimal point, a fraction not a whole, in a country with over a billion people. And in the US, I am not just American, but an Indian American — another “doctor” trying to uphold the coveted model minority status.

I have long felt like an outsider, a conspicuous jalebi, in both places, perpetually stateless and displaced, like a refugee devoid of a nationality. As I don’t know what to think of my culture, I don’t know what to think of myself. There is no dictionary that contains my name as a word entry. No particular space to define me or explain who I am. It is absent. Unwritten. Blank. And so, in an attempt to define the indefinable, I define myself as a jalebi.

Rather than ponder upon my loneliness, I muse on the big jalebi in the sky, my constant companion. I try to find the sun in other things. The suraj meets me. Sometimes in the grass. In a busy city. Or near the ocean. On a windy day. Or on a walk. In my mind. In my dreams. Wherever really — sometimes among the surajmukhis (sunflowers)thatsprout out of the ground, with the grimming expression of the sun. The suraj is in the juicy, citrus fruits hanging off verdant trees. And of course, the sun is in every jalebi. I realize that because of the sun, all colours exist. Because of the sun, I am able to see. And while the sun does illuminate a brutal world, there are some things that my eyes can find worth looking at. I try not to think of the sadness that everything is tinged with, but rather the colours of our world. People wear sunglasses to dim the radiance of the sun, but I fully embrace its blinding light — I find solace in the sol. I sit there, a petite sun myself in the light of a large sun, wistfully wondering.   

And while I may feel quite alone right now, I think that other jalebis in other places are waiting for me. Somewhere on this spinning planet. Under the radiance of the big jalebi in the sky. Somewhere in this jalebi-shaped galaxy.

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Arjan Batth is a student from California. He has recently written a children’s book, ‘Dear Humans’, that tackles the issue of climate change. As a young South Asian-American, he is determined to represent Asians more in the writing field and has a passion for writing and literature. He can be reached at arjanbatth@gmail.com

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