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Contents

Borderless May 2022

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

Catch a Falling StarClick here to read

Interviews

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: In Search of Serendipity: Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an iconic editor and film writer from India, converses on his own journey and traditional publishing. Click here to read.

A Wonderer Who Wanders Between Waves and Graveyards and Digs Up Ancient Tales: In Conversation with Amit Ranjan, a writer-academic, who is trying to redefine academic writing, starting with his book, John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostan, Lawyer for the Ranee. Click here to read.

Translations

Jibananda Das’s All Afternoon Long, translated from Bengali by Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

The Colour of Time, Korean poetry composed and translated by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

The Ordeal of Fame, a humorous skit by Rabindranath, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Fazal Baloch translates a retold folktale from Balochi, The Precious Pearl. Click here to read.

Tagores’ Lukochuri has been translated from Bengali as Hide and Seek by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Pandies’ Corner

These narratives are written by youngsters from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. The Story of Rajesh has been written by Yogesh Uniyal in a mix of English and Hindi, and translated fully to Hindi by Nirbhay Bhogal. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, Ron Pickett, Abin Chakraborty, Tohm Bakelas, Mini Babu, Sudakshina Kashyap, George Freek, Shailja Sharma, Allison Grayhurst, Amritendu Ghosal, Marianne Tefft, S Srinivas, Rhys Hughes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Rhys Hughes shares why he put together an anthology of humorous poetry with seventeen writers, Wuxing Lyrical. Is his logic funny or sane? Click here to find out.

Stories

Intersleep

Nileena Sunil gives us a flash fiction. Click here to read.

Ants

Paul Mirabile tells a strange tale set in Madrid. Click here to read.

Mausoleum

Hridi gives us a poignant story on the banks of the river Seine. Click here to read.

The Persistence of Memory

Vedant Srinivas reflects on a childhood lost and a career found. Click here to read.

Viral Wisdom

Rhys Hughes finds humour within pandemic sagas. Is it dark or light? Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

Sea Days, Sea Flowers

Mike Smith uncovers the wonders of British writer, H.E Bates. Click here to read.

Ruleman Ngwenya and Johannesburg

G Venkatesh shares the experience of his first trip out of India long, long ago. Click here to read.

“You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live”

Shubha Apte muses on a book that taught her life lessons. Click here to read.

Mission Earth

In Falling Down and Getting Up, Kenny Peavy explores how to raise resilient children. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In An Encounter with the Monet on Naoshima, Suzanne Kamata writes of snacking on Claude Monet’s hundred year old recipes while savouring his art and that of the famed artist who makes bold art with polka-dots, Yayoi Kusama. Click here to read.

A Special Tribute

In Jean Claude Carriere: A Writer for all Directors, Ratnottama Sengupta pays homage to Jean Claude Carriere (1931-2021), the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Click here to read.

Essays

Hesse’s Siddhartha: Towards a Shadowless Present

Dan Meloche revisits a hundred-year-old classic by Herman Hesse that is based on Buddhist lore. Click here to read.

Himalayan Stories: Evenings with Nuru at Pheriche

P Ravi Shankar takes us to a trekkers’ life in the Himalayas. Click here to read.

Living up to my Seafaring Name in Tasmania

Meredith Stephens explores Tasmania on a boat and with hikes with a gripping narrative and her camera.Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In A Post Pandemic Future …?, Candice Louisa Daquin takes a look at our future. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Villainy. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, translated from Arabic by Isis Nusair, edited by Levi Thompson. The author was born in a refugee camp. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Rakhi Dalal revisits Tagore’s The Post Office, translated from Bengali in 1912 by Devabrata Mukherjee. Click here to read.

Indrashish Banerjee reviews Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Villainy. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy reviews Sunil Sharma’s Burn The Library & Other Fiction. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Radhika Gupta’s Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Catch a Falling Star…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

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Tribute

Down the Stairs by Nabendu Ghosh

Translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay, edited by Nabendu Ghosh’s daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta, to mark his birth anniversary, Siri Beye Nichey (Down the Stairs) was first published in the Bengali weekly, Sharadiya Bartaman (1998) and subsequently in the anthology, Paresh Mandaler Laash ( Paresh Mandal’s Corpse, Publisher: Mitra & Ghosh).

“This does not feel like Bangur Hospital, Jibu,” Judhistir said to his son.

Jiban was leading the way. Sunayani was following with her husband, holding his hand to lend him support.

Jiban replied in a very low voice, “This is Bangur…”

“Can you again see with your eyes?” Sunayani snubbed her husband. On hearing this Judhistir fell silent. 

But he was right: it was not Bangur, it was Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital.

Jiban and Sunayani did not utter ‘Cancer’ lest the word put a scare in Judhistir and he refused to go for the required tests. Of late Judhistir would cough continuously and groan, feeling pain on the right side of his back. So initially he was taken to Bangur Hospital. After the preliminary tests they referred him to this hospital for the final detection. That’s how they were all here this morning.

Judhistir was not blind by birth. He lost his eyesight when he was sixty — a fallout of Glaucoma. But he has implanted in his mind whatever he has seen over the last sixty years, so he can still make out where he is and which way he is going.

It took about four hours to finish all the tests. The results would be known to them in another three days. They all came out of the hospital.

At around two in the afternoon, they returned to their single bricked home in a Jadavpur shanty. A rented space where they’ve been living for the last thirty years, paying Rs 50 a month. 

Their poverty set in when Judhistir went blind some fifteen years ago. That’s when they rented out two of their rooms and a small corner of the veranda to Shibnath for Rs 30 a month, to supplement their income.

Jiban’s four-year-old son, Nantu, was playing in the courtyard with Shanti’s eight-year-old daughter, Ritu. As soon as he saw his grandparents he ran up to them, hugged his grandma and asked, “What have you brought for me Thamma?”

With a smile Sunayani brought out a small parcel of sweets from her bag and gave Nantu and Ritu a piece each. She had bought these on her way back. It made both the kids very happy.

Judhistir coughed a couple of times and flopped on the bench in the veranda.

Shibnath’s widowed sister Shanti came out. Casting a glance at Judhistir she asked Sunayani, “What did the doctors say, Mashima?”

“They carried out the tests,” Jiban answered. “Nothing serious or to be scared of.” As he spoke, he looked at his mother, then at Shanti. Eye to eye they had a silent communication. Then Shanti said, “Well then Mashima, finish your bath and have your lunch. It’s already very late.”

“Yes Ma, I’m going in,” Sunayani said stepping towards her room. “Let me arrange for your Mesho Mashai’s bath first.”

When Jiban and Sunayani were by themselves she whispered to her son, “I’m scared for your father Jibu…”

“If you fear from now Maa, how will you survive?” Jiban smiled. “We will worry about fear after three days.”

*

After lunch when Sunayani brought the medicines to her husband, Judhistir said slowly, “Because of me both Jibu and you had to skip work today.”

Sunayani placed a hand on his shoulder as she said, “One of us stayed away for his father, another for her husband, so don’t you worry.”

Judhistir smiled. And repeated the words he always uttered, whenever he was happy or sorrowful: “Hari Hari Hari!”

*

Judhistir had been blind for the last 15 years but before that he had seen and enjoyed life. So even now, when the light was switched off he could feel the darkness deepen and when the sun rose he can feel that too, and his dull eyes shimmered with life. Slowly he rose from his bed and called out, “Jiban’s Maa, d’you hear me?”

“Coming dear,” her trembling voice answered.

The sweet smell of something frying in the pan entered his nostrils — it signalled that a new day had started.

Sunayani came and stood by him. The heat of the stove imparted a blush of pink to her fair skin. Her forehead gleamed with beads of sweat. Her face, though lined with wrinkles, showed that she was once a beautiful lady.

“Awake? Are you feeling well?”

“Yes dear, I am fine.”

Combing his unruly hair with her fingers, Sunayani said, ” Wait, I’ll get you your tea.”

“Is Jiban up?”

“Still lying in. I will wake him up with his morning cup.”

“Where’s Nantu?”

“Sleeping in Shanti’s room, next to Ritu.”

“Hari Hari Hari!”

*

The clock hands were racing. Judhistir realised that Jiban was up. Shanti’s brother Shibnath, his wife Jaba, Nantu and Ritu were all awake. 

Shibnath worked as a salesman in a stationary shop at Gariahat. He was ready to leave. Jaba served as a maidservant in three houses in Jadavpur itself. She too would leave to be back by five in the evening. Sunayani would finish her cooking and go to one Sanjay Chatterjee’s house where she supervised the kitchen. Jiban, a peon in an advertising firm, was also preparing to leave. Sunayani and Jiban respectively brought home Rs 500 and Rs 800. This 1300/- was their total source of livelihood.

Sunayani helped her husband to wash up and take a bath. Then she fed him some roti and tea. She finished all her chores and kept lunch ready for him. Shanti had become like their daughter. All through the day she took care of not only Judhistir but also of Nantu. In her spare time she made paper bags. Every Saturday a man stopped by to collect them. The  profit wasn’t much but even Rs 100 was not to be sneezed at.

By this time Jiban and Sunayani were ready to leave. “I’m off Baba,” he said to his father. “All right son — Hari Hari Hari!” “I’m off too — you take care.” 

“Hyan, you too. Hari Hari Hari…”

*

Mother and son headed out of the house together. Once on the main road, they took a bus to Lord’s Crossing. Within five minutes they arrived at the junction. From there they reached the Lake Gardens Super Market where Sunayani sat down under a leafy tree near the eastern gate.

“Okay Maa, I’ll carry on now,” Jiban said to her.

“Hyan,” Sunayani nodded to him, “but be very careful while on work.”

“Yes Maa,” Jiban went his way.

Sunayani had come in a worn out, soiled sari. She pulled the pallu over her head and sat down. The bindi on her forehead was bright crimson. She leaned against the wall with the palm of her right arm stretched out. The passers-by, in a rush to get to the market, didn’t even cast a glance at her. But those coming out with their hands laden with purchases all noticed her saddened, poverty stricken beautiful face. Some of them stopped to drop ten paisa, 20 paisa or a quarter too in her outstretched hand. At times some of them moved on and then came back to give her something. 

This was a daily occurrence. Sometimes two or three shoppers dropped even a rupee each while five-six others happily parted with 50 p coins. “May God bless you!” Sunayani gratefully muttered. Or she varied the blessing: “May you be victorious!”

In other words, Sunayani neither cooked nor supervised the kitchen in any house. She had taken to begging because she did not get a suitable job. But she did not tell this to Judhistir whose self-respect was intense although Shibnath, Jaba and Shanti were aware of this. This job easily earned her 300 to 400 rupees every month.

*

By now it was around 8 am. Jiban could be spotted in Lake Gardens. He had come out of the house wearing a dhoti and kurta. Now he had put the kurta away in a plastic bag and in its place, covered himself with a thin white cotton drape. His hair was ruffled. He’d not shaven since the previous day. In his underarm he was holding a rolled straw mat. He had grief writ over his face.

He entered a three-storeyed building and climbed up the stairs. 

There were three flats on each floor. He pressed the first bell. 

A lady opened the door. “What d’you want?”

“I’ve lost my mother Madam! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of mourning.”

With sharp eyes the lady looked at Jiban. The sadness on his lean and tender face touched the mother in her. “Wait,” she told him and went indoors. A minute later she emerged with an almost-torn two rupee note.

Jiban bowed low as he took the money and slowly walked towards the staircase. As soon as the lady shut her door he turned around and pressed the bell on the second door.

“Who’s there?” A heavy voice floated out moments before the door opened. A thickset Punjabi gentleman in his mid-fifties came out.

“What do you want?” The gentleman asked with a frown, then repeated the question in Bengali, “Ki chai?”

A charming teenaged girl came and stood behind him. Jiban repeated what he’d just phrased: “I’ve lost my mother Sir! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of Matridaay.”

“Matridaay?!” The Punjabi gentleman could not comprehend the term. 

“Papa, his mother is dead,” the girl helpfully interpreted. “He needs money for her shraddha. He seeks some help.”

“Rubbish!” The man uttered and went in. 

The girl stepped forward and asked in unaccented Bengali, “When did your mother die?”

“Day before yesterday sister.”

“What happened?”

“She had cancer.”

“Oh!” she said, and shouted, “Papa, his mother died of cancer.”

“Okay okay…” Once again the man stood framed by the doorway. He handed his daughter a two-rupee coin and said, “Go give it to him.”

The girl gave him the two rupees and said, “Our sympathy is with you.”

“Thank you sister, thank you.”

The girl closed the door. 

*

Now the third flat. The door was opened by a bespectacled Bengali gentleman in pajama kurta. He would be in his forties. 

The moment he saw Jiban he harshly demanded, “What d’you want? Help? Money?”

“Yes sir, for my mother’s last rites I need some help.”

“Help? No hope of that here.”

“Have pity on me sir!”

“No, I never pity anybody. Asking for pity is your business but not showing pity is my belief. Go, get lost.”

Jiban looked at the man as if crestfallen. He shut the door with a bang.

Defeated, Jiban slowly started to walk away. Just then the same gentleman opened the door again. 

“Hey, come here.”

Giving him a rupee coin he ordered, “Scoot!”

Again the door closed with a bang.

*

Jiban climbed one floor down.

The door to the first flat was opened by a Bengali youth. He smiled as he asked, “Mother’s dead, isn’t that so?”

“Yes sir, my mother…”

“Oh what a truthful Yudhisthir!” he mocked. “Get lost!”

The door closed on Jiban’s face.

The next flat was opened by an elderly lady. She was saddened by Jiban’s mourning uniform and grief stricken appearance. “Wait,” she said before disappearing inside. She returned with a five rupee note.

The lady in the third flat also gave him a rupee.

Finally Jiban came to the ground floor. An elderly Marwari opened the first door. Patiently he listened to what Jiban parroted, then with a stern face and a quiet voice he said, “You cheat! Bolt – or I’ll call the police.” The door banged shut.

The next flat yielded Re 1, and a paan-chewing Marathi in the last flat also parted with a rupee.

Coming out of the building he counted his earning — Rs 13. 

From one building to another, Jiban roamed about in the Lake Gardens area till 12.30 pm. Then he halted – “All the ranting will start now,” he thought to himself. So he counted his net collection of the morning – Rs 30.50. Not bad at all. Satisfied, he returned to the supermarket where his mother was waiting.

*

“Had your lunch?” Sunayani asked.

“No. What about you?”

“No. Come let’s eat together.” Both of them took out their tiffin boxes filled with three rotis each, some dry vegetables, and molasses. They ate, then had their fill of water. Aah! Deep satisfaction. 

“How much did you earn this morning?”

“Good intake Maa, about Rs 30. And you?”

“Rs 11.”

A moment’s hesitation, then Sunayani said, “Sometimes I fear for you… This profession…”

“Maa, people are still kind,” Jiban reassured her, “if they hear something has happened to your parents they take pity on you.”

Sunayani fell silent. Then both of them rested under the same tree. It was 4 pm but the market was still dozing, the shops had their shutters down. Sunayani would stretch out her arms again at 5 but Jiban carried on. He tried his luck in ten-twelve other houses and stopped after sunset. This round fetched him another Rs 15. It would take another week to complete Lake Gardens. This was a classy area, and people still respect the word ‘Maa’. So his earning was bound to be good despite all the abuses.

*

It was late evening when Jiban returned home. Shanti was at the door, she gave him a sweet smile. At about twenty eight Shanti was lean, carelessly dressed, had no time for grooming and still was nice looking. They stared at each other for a few seconds, conveying their feelings to each other through their eyes. Then Jiban went in.

Judhistir heard Jiban’s footsteps and asked, “Jibu, hasn’t your mother come home yet?”

“No Baba but she will any minute now.”

“I was just a little worried. It’s a bit late today, isn’t it? Past 7…”

“No! It’s just 6.30…”

Judhistir kept quiet.

Jiban washed, bathed, put on a rather old but cheerful lungi and a fresh shirt. Cautiously he went out of the house, came to the main road and sat in Anil’s Tea Stall. “Come friend!” Anil invited him in. Jiban sat in a corner, picked up the day’s newspaper and started going through the headlines.

Half an hour later he asked his friend for a cup of tea. Like every other day Anil put two cups of tea next to him at one go. Jiban sat there till 9 pm. In between he lit up a cigarette, his one luxury. He sat there listening to all the conversations between the other customers. He set out for home when Anil closed shop for the day. This has become his daily routine.

Back home he played with Nantu and Ritu, he chit-chatted with Shibnath and Jaba, had small talk with the others. Then came dinner. After washing up, it was time to go to bed.

But for some reason Jiban couldn’t sleep. As on other days he woke up in the middle of the night. The fears that were buried deep within now started to haunt him. Images of his past life surfaced on the screen of his mind like scenes from a movie.

Jiban had studied up to class nine when he landed his first job — in a decent steel factory. In four years he mastered the job but just as he was to be made permanent in employment the Employees Union declared a strike. Jiban had played an active role in the strike. The labourers won after a month of striking work but six months down Jiban was laid off for a small mistake. The Union sympathized with him but did not come to his help as he was a “casual worker.” He was twenty six then.

After this he got a job as a peon in an office at Dharamtala. Around this time he married Shipra from his neighbourhood. His mother did not consent to the marriage but he was adamant. A year later Nantu was born and two years later Shipra eloped with the local hooligan, Paresh. What shame! No one knew their whereabouts now.

From then on his life changed. Unsuccessfully he tried his hand at different jobs and several businesses — all in vain. At last when he found no other way he took to earning by deceiving others. But now what?

His blind father’s condition was deteriorating by the day, his mother’s health was failing yet she had taken to begging on the streets under the open sky. And Nantu was growing up. What does the future hold for him? 

The thought made him restless. Edgy. He got out of his bed and lit a cigarette — the second luxury of the day.

*

Old people don’t easily fall asleep, either.

From his bed Jiban could hear his parents talk.

Judhistir was whispering to his wife, “I feel nervous when you are gone from home for so long. I get depressed. I can’t see you even when you are at home but I feel…”

“Don’t I know that!” Sunayani placed a hand on his mouth. “And am I happy staying away from home for hours on end? But now please be quiet. Sleep…”

*

The next morning Jiban went to the Cancer Hospital to collect his father’s test report.

A long queue.

After about half an hour the doctor summoned him.

“Who are you to Judhistir Das? Any blood relation?”

“Yes, I’m his son.”

The doctor was sympathetic. “I’m sorry to inform you,” he shook his head, “your father has cancer in his right lungs and it has reached the terminal stage. You should have started the treatment long ago. Now he has a very limited his time span.”

Jiban gulped twice before speaking, “Even so, how many more years doctor?”

With a sombre face the doctor replied, “Six to seven months, at the most a year.”

It took Jiban some time to find his voice, “Any possible treatment?”

“Your father is beyond any treatment,” the doctor said, “but if, for your peace of mind, you wish to go for an operation, it would cost approximately Rs 20-25,000 here in Kolkata and about Rs 60-70,000 in Mumbai. It is for you to decide. Anyway, here are the reports and a prescription of the medicines he will need right away.”

As he took the reports Jiban felt as helpless as his blind father. When he staggered out of the hospital it was 11 am. It was late, still he went about his business as usual. He did the rounds of 10-12 houses in Lake Gardens repeating the same story of his mother’s death and managed to earn Rs 16.

Sunayani was anxiously waiting for her son. The moment she sighted him she eagerly asked, “Got the report?”

“Yes Ma,” he flopped next to his mother.

“What is ailing him?” 

Jiban could not utter the ‘Cancer’ word.

“Why aren’t you answering? What’s wrong?”

Jiban recounted everything he’d heard from the doctor. Sunayani stared vacantly at him, then lay down on the ground.

“Maa!”

Sunayani did not respond.

“Maa it won’t do to break down. Oh Maa!”

“Let me get my breath back son…”

“Don’t breathe a word of this to him,” Jiban said, “not even by mistake.”

“But we must try to save him.”

“Yes Maa, we must. But if we break down who will try?”

Sunayani nodded, “Right.”

*

As soon as Sunayani entered the house in the evening Shanti rushed out and told her, “Mashima some relative of yours had come today — he saw you begging in the Lake Gardens Super Market and gave the news to Mesho Mashai. Since then he is livid and ranting like a madman.”

Sunayani thought it would be better not to face Judhistir then. She wanted to talk to Jiban first and decide how to deal with the situation. 

Judhistir’s voice could be heard calling out, “Shanti! Ma Shanti!”

Shanti walked up to his room, “What d’you want Mesho Mashai?”

“Isn’t your Mashima home yet?”

“Shanti looked at Sunayani who shook her head to say “No.”

Shanti replied, “No Mesho Mashai.”

“And Jiban? He isn’t back too?”

“No Mesho Mashai, Jiban Da isn’t back either.”

“Hari Hari Hari! Oh god, please take me to you!”

Hearing his anguished cry Sunayani was reminded of the report from the hospital and tears welled up in her eyes. Somehow she controlled herself.

Nantu and Ritu were still playing in the courtyard. Shibnath returned from work followed by Jaba. In a low voice Shanti told them not to ask Sunayani anything.

After a while Judhistir again called out, “Shanti! O Ma Shanti!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai?”

“Your Mashima…”

“Still not back — nor is Jiban Da -“

“Why is Jiban’s mother so late today?”

At that very moment Jiban entered the house. Sunayani gestured to him to be quiet, drew him aside and told him all the developments. “What will happen now Jiban?” she asked him in despair.

Jiban thought for a while, then said, “We’ve lied to Baba all these years but now it’s time to tell him the truth.”

Again Judhistir called out, “Shanti! O my Shanti Ma!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai, tell me…” She came out of her room and spotted Jiban.

“Aren’t they home yet? Jiban? His mother?”

“Yes we’re home!” Sunayani spoke up. “What’s the matter? Why are you so agitated?”

“Both of you come to me right away,” the blind man’s voice resounded with sternness.

“Yes we’re here,” Sunayani came and stood near her husband.

Judhistir couldn’t see her but his sense of smell recognized her presence. Rudely he asked her, “Have I ever sinned against anyone? Have I committed any crime? Did I ever steal or pick any pocket?”

Sunayani stiffened, “Why? What happened?”

“Answer me first!”

“No you’ve not. True to your name you are truthful, pious.”

Jiban came and stood behind his mother, behind him stood Shanti. “Indeed!” Judhistir’s stern voice rose a pitch higher, “now you’re spewing sarcasm! Tell me, did I ever beg before anybody on the streets?”

“Never.”

“Then why do you?”

“Who gave you this news?”

“Sudhir, my first cousin. He saw you with outstretched arms. Tell me, is that true?”

“Yes, I was begging. But not just today, I’ve been doing that for the last two years, stretching out my hands to arouse pity in passers-by. Every human has God inside him, I spread my arms to that God. Because I want to live. I didn’t get any other job and I don’t have the strength to roam about in search of a new job. I have done no crime. If begging was a crime, people would not give me any money.”

Judhistir was dumbfounded. He remained speechless for some time, then said, “You… Are you preaching to me?”

“No, only you men can preach — tell us what to do and what not to do. You taught me all these years, and I lived the way you wanted me to. Now I will do as my conscience dictates. Yes I will beg — and you don’t say one more word on this.”

Judhistir suddenly screamed out, “Jiban!”

He stepped forward, “Yes Baba?”

“Do you know about your mother’s job?”

“Yes I do,” Jiban replied. “I also beg but in a different way, to earn our upkeep,” he went on. “We didn’t tell you because it would not be to your liking.”

Speechless, Judhistir stared vacantly into air.

Jiban continued to speak, “Baba don’t carry on like this, don’t be angry. This is where Fate has taken us. Now even if you want us to stop, we’ll carry on doing the same work.”

“What are you saying?!! You…y-o-u…”

“Yes, we’ll continue to do whatever we’re doing. I haven’t done what so many others are doing out of sheer necessity — hooliganism, thievery, hijacking, murder…”

Judhistir saw red. “Go away, get lost!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “You too go away, go away. I will not say a word more, not a word..”

Jiban moved out of the room, Shanti too returned to her room.

Sunayani stared at her husband for a few seconds, then she too slowly walked out.

*

Jiban didn’t care. Like every other day he put on his cheerful old lungi and a fresh kurta; went to Anil’s Tea Stall, stayed there till 9 pm and returned home. 

Judhistir now started on a new track — hunger strike.

Sunayani came asking him to have his dinner and he declined. The more she asked him to have his meal the more vigorously he refused it, “No – no – no.”

Then Shanti came to plead with him, “Mesho Mashai don’t be angry, not with food!”

Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “No!”

Shibnath and Jaba came with the same request, and got the same reply, “No.”

“Oh Mesho Mashai…”

Before they could say anything else Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “My dears, please don’t ask me to eat. Why worry? I am not committing hara kiri — but I simply can’t swallow a morsel today.”

*

Only Jiban didn’t utter a single word.

Like every other day he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. The chronology of his failures danced before his eyes like a movie and then evaporated in thin air with his cigarette smoke.

Today he tried to listen in but couldn’t hear his parents talk. Instead he could hear his father cough. He was coughing incessantly. He must collect money for his father’s treatment. By hook or crook. He has made some friends in Anil’s Tea Stall — three of them were daredevils. They’re crazed by want — poverty — and greed. What if he planned with them to rob a bank in the suburbs of Kolkata? 

But what if he could not do that? His father’s death would draw closer. It would be sooner, faster. “But what can be done?” Jiban thought philosophically. Humans came into this world and, like any creature big or small, like mosquitoes, house flies, cockroaches or ants, they die…

Irrelevant, but he also thought, “Will it be appropriate to marry Shanti before robbing the bank?”

*

In the morning Sunayani brought a cup of tea and sat next to her husband. Judhistir turned his face away from her. “What happened? You won’t have tea? Still angry?! Okay,” she said, “if you don’t, I’ll stop eating and drinking too. But do remember that I will not stop doing the work I do, because I’m doing it for our grandson.”

Sunayani stood up to go. Suddenly Judhistir reached out and caught hold of her hand. “Give me the tea,” he said.

Though Judhistir started to eat he didn’t speak with anybody. He simply couldn’t accept the fact that his wife was begging on the streets for a livelihood.

*

For ten days Jiban begged with everyone to help him in his ‘mother’s death’. After ten days he shaved off his beard. Now started another chapter of his life: he was collecting money for ‘Sri Gourango Ashram of Basirhat.’ 

This time around he was to be spotted in the Paikpara and Lake Town areas of North Kolkata. He was donning a white dhoti and a handwoven khadi kurta. He had a namavali – a folded stole printed with the name of gods – over one shoulder and on the other a white cotton sling bag. Inside the bag he had two receipt books and a pen. He sported a sandalwood tilak on his forehead and was singing the Vaishnav chant in praise of ‘Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam’.

In this avatar Jiban collected donations from more or less everyone — even aetheists give him a rupee! When he plays this role Jiban went by the name of ‘Gobinda Das.’  He was very professional about the job: he signed a receipt for whoever donated some money, big or small. Then he folds his hands and humbly salutes like a born Vaishnav, “Jai Nitai Gaur!” 

He spent ten days in this manner and then stopped. Next Jiban thought of another way to earn money. With his father’s cancer report and the prescriptions for medicines he went from door to door in the aristocratic area of Alipore. And he collected quite a bit of money. On the last day he did not shave. The next day he went back to the original strategy of seeking money on the pretext of “Matridaay”. “Mother’s funeral… Please help!” This time he chose to operate in the upper crust area of Ballygunge.

*

Jiban pressed the bell on the first door. It was opened by a handsome man in a dressing gown. “What d’you want?” he asked in Bengali. Jiban lowered his head, “My mother passed away the day before yesterday. I’m in mourning…”

“Silent!” The man roared like a blood hound. “Not a word more — just go out!”

The next door was opened by an aged lady. She heard Jiban out and handed him Rs 2. 

A sober Punjabi gentleman emerged from the third door. On hearing what Jiban said he sighed. “Mother! Oh! Hold on son.” He went indoors and came out with a fiver. Handing it over he said, “May your mother find peace.”

The fourth door was opened by a Bengali youth in his twenties. Soon as Jiban uttered the word ‘Maatriday’ he lost his cool. “You cheat! Aren’t you tired of lying?” he shouted.

“What’s the matter Apurbo?” Another young man of his age came out.

This guy who lived in the Lake Gardens area recognized Jiban — he’d seen Jiban in his house in the same attire. “Yaar this man had come to our house a month back. What’s he saying now? His mother’s dead and he needs money for her funeral?”

“Correct. He’s saying he needs help for her shraddha.”

“No Apurbo, we must do a funeral for this cheat,” the boy angrily spewed out. “His mother’s been dying through an entire month!”

“No sir, you’re mistaken,” Jiban said with an innocent face.

“Cheat! You’ve the gumption to say I’m mistaken!” The Lake Gardens boy came out aggressively.

Sensing trouble, Jiban retreated and broke into a run. Now the Ballygunge boy came out.

“Grab him! Don’t let the cheat get away…” The Lake Gardens boy chased Jiban saying, “He deceives people by saying his mother’s dead and swindles them out of money!” 

As the cousins ran after Jiban some boys on the street also joined the chase. Before they could lay their hands on him Jiban felt a stab of pain in his chest. He stopped running, tumbled, fell on the road and lost consciousness.

*

Jiban did not return home that night. When he remained missing the next morning Shibnath set out to lodge a ‘Missing’ diary at the Police Station. Just then a young man came with the news that Jiban was admitted in Dr K Basu’s private clinic. He’d suffered a heart attack but at present he was stable.

This worried Sunayani. She joined Shibnath and they followed the youth to Dr Basu’s clinic at Gariahat.

On seeing his mother Jiban gave her a wan smile.

Sunayani and Shibnath met Dr Basu. Before they could reveal their identities Dr Basu explained, “Yesterday I witnessed some commotion on the road and then saw this man lying on the footpath. I went to him and realised he’d had a heart attack. He would have died on the spot if he’d not been taken to a hospital. Since the government facilities were at quite a distance I brought him here to my clinic. Now his condition is under control. You can take him home after two days.”

The doctor continued to speak, “From his attire I can see his mother’s dead. I can also make out from his condition that he’s not well off. So you don’t need to pay me anything. But make sure he gets complete rest for at least two months. And he must be given proper food and medicine. He must undergo some tests as well.”

After two days Jiban came home in a taxi. He entered to see Nantu and Ritu playing in the courtyard. He kissed them both, went to his room holding Shanti’s hand and lay down in his bed.

Judhistir rushed out of his room to meet his son and collided against the wall. Sunayani led him by his hand and made him sit on Jiban’s bed. Judhistir scrambled around and placed his hand on his son’s head.

Two days passed.

Sunayani returned to her normal routine. She gave Judhistir and Jiban their morning tea, and their medicine; she finished cooking, fed her husband, gave some instructions to Shanti, then stood at the door of Judhistir’s room. “We’re in need of money,” she told him. “So I’m going to work, okay?”

Judhistir did not reply. Sunayani turned around to leave. But before she could cross the threshold Judhistir suddenly called out, “Listen Jiban’s Maa…”

*

Two boys in late teens were entering the Lake Gardens Super Market. Suddenly one of them started searching his pocket for his shopping list. 

” Did you misplace it somewhere?” the other boy asked.

“No, here it is. Got it.”

Hearing their voices a beggar spoke from the corner, “Have mercy on me sons!”

The boys turned around to see the beggar.

“New face?”

“Blind.”

“Is he really blind or just acting?”

“Yes sons, I’m really blind,” the beggar said.

“Really?!” Suddenly the first boy swished out a knife and made to strike him on his nose. But the beggar did not react. He didn’t draw back or turn away his face. No expression.

“Oh, he’s really blind,” the second boy said.

” Then we must give him some alms.” The boy fished out a coin, “Here grandpa, stretch out your hand.” 

They placed the coin in his palm.

Judhistir felt a deep satisfaction as he held the 50 p in his hand. It was his earning after long years, he sighed. And he thought to himself: “All these years my wife and my son have begged for my sake. Now on I will beg for my son and grandson.”

Glossary:

Thamma — Grandma

Mashima — aunty

Mesho moshai — uncle

Hyan — Yes

Pallu — the loose part of a sari, can be worn over the head or just left hanging over the shoulder like a scarf

Maatriday, Shraddha — Death rituals

Judhishtir or Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas in Mahabharta, was known for his legendary honesty.

Nabendu Ghosh & his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta.
Photo shared by Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabendu Ghosh’s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Sarmishtha Mukhopadhyay is a retired teacher who has taken to translations and to writing travel blogs.

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. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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Categories
Poetry

Poetry of Michael Madhusudan Dutt

Ratnottama Sengupta translates Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Bijoya Doushami (the last day of the festival of Durga Puja when the Goddess is supposed to return to her own home from her visit to her parents). This poem is a lament of Durga’s mother, who addresses her daughter as ‘Sati’ in the poem.

Bust of Michael Madhusudan Dutt at his memorial in Jessore, Bangladesh. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) was a poet and dramatist who was a prominent precursor to Rabindranath Tagore. In his youth, he converted to Christianity (1843) and wrote in English and later turned to writing in Bengali. A product of Western education and the Bengal renaissance, he challenged the traditional literary systems and with his multilingual knowledge in several Indian and European languages including Bengali, Tamil, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. Meghnadbadh Kavya (1861) was his most important composition, an epic on the Ramayana theme and a tribute to Milton’s Paradise Lost. His repertoire includes Sarmistha (1858), based on an episode of the ancient Mahabharta, Brajangana (1861), a cycle of lyrics on the Radha- Krishna theme; and Birangana (1862), a set of 21 epistolary poems on the model of Ovid’s Heroides and much more.

DEPARTURE

“Do not, O Night sky! leave
tonight, with your lot of stars --
Once you go, Blissful Night!
So will my Heartbeat!
Once Merciless Sun is up
in the East,
The apple of my eye will lose her shine!

“Full twelve months Sati shed tears
before Uma came home. What a balm!
In mere three days, tell me
Oh starry-tressed,
can one have a fill
of delight?
The golden glow of brass lamps
has driven afar darkness
within and without.
Words, the sweetest of creation!
have circled my ears.

“Darkness twice as thick, I know
will engulf this homestead
once you blow out this lamp...” 
Entreated Sachi, the Queen of Girish,
at the close of the Ninth Night...

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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Categories
Bhaskar's Corner

Fakir Mohan: A Tribute

By Bhaskar Parichha

Fakir Mohan Senapati. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The 19th century Oriya novelist Fakir Mohan Senapati was a most oblique writer — he hardly said or meant anything in a straightforward manner. Much of his work is ironical and satirical, and of course irony and satire work through indirection, by way of the meaningful glance rather than the plainspoken word. Yet irony, while aiming to surprise, can sometimes be applied too predictably, and then it becomes as unsubtle as the more homespun narrative mode it disdains. Thankfully, this is not the case with Senapati: he worked with a very light and delicate hand.

-Chandrahas Choudhury (Author of ‘My Country is Literature–Adventures in the Reading Life’)

Father of modern Odia literature, Fakir Mohan Senapati’s birth anniversary is around the festival of Makar Sankranti (mid-January) every year. There are a bevy of festivals by various names celebrated across India during this period.

As a novelist, short story writer, poet, philosopher, social reformer and forerunner of Odia nationalism, Senapati (1843-1918) played a foremost role in establishing the distinct Odia identity. But for his sweat over a lifetime, Odia — which is today India’s sixth Classical language — wouldn’t have survived the onslaught by adjoining vernaculars. The life of Fakir Mohan is undeniably the story of the “resurgence” in Odia literature. He protected the Odia language from near extinction.  

Mallikashpur village of Balasore district neighbouring West Bengal is where Senapati began his formal education — when he was nine years old. Since he could not pay for his tutoring, he is said to have even worked at his teacher’s house to pay the fee. Balasore’s Mission School was his Alma Mater, and he went to become a teacher where he served until 1871. Still later, he rose to become the headteacher. Around this time, he started teaching Odia to the Balasore Collector John Beames. 

Fakir Mohan learnt English all by himself with the help of a dictionary. He readto read several famous classics — Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, the English Bible, and Bengal Peasant Life by Lal Behari De — he started learning English at twenty-three. Fakir Mohan’s instinctive wisdom was recognised even by foreigners. 

The early life of Fakir Mohan was one of courage and dexterity.  His accomplishments were amazing. A multi-tasker, Fakir Mohan, even worked as a labourer in a port. He ventured into the wood and paper business having worked in a press only to become an editor. Besides being a teacher, Fakir Mohan became a dewan of Athagarh and later of Tekkali in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.

In the second phase of his life, Fakir Mohan worked as administrator in the princely states of Nilgiri, Dampada, Dhenkanal, Daspalla, Pallahara and Keonjhar. As a manager, Fakir Mohan was very efficient and successful. During Keonjhar Praja Meli (people’s agitation against the feudal lord), he escaped cleverly writing a symbolic letter to the king. 

Mayadhar Mansingh, another celebrated, Odia called Fakir Mohan the ‘Thomas Hardy of Odisha’. He had the ability and expertise in whatever arena he laid his hand on. These prodigious abilities were reflected in his later-day writings as well. Although Senapati translated from Sanskrit, wrote poetry, and tried numerous forms of literature, he is known primarily as the father of modern Odia fiction. His four novels, written between 1897 and 1915, mirror the socio-cultural conditions of Odisha during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

The time in which Fakir Mohan lived was the darkest period in the history of modern Odisha. The infamous ‘Naanka’ Famine of 1866 — which one third of the region’s population — hurt the economic and social condition of Odisha beyond recovery. The deprivation during this period has been documented in many of his stories and novels. In course of time, he emerged as a novelist of rare caliber not only in Odia but also in a pan-Indian setting.

Senapati’s Rebati (1898) – recently translated into thirty-six Indian and foreign languages — is widely recognised as the first Odia short story. It is the tale of a young innocent girl ‘Rebati’ whose desire for education in the context of a backward conservative society went beyond the ordinary. The village where the protagonist lived was hit by the killer epidemic, cholera. Rebati’s grandmother – the last survivor — believed that it was the craving for education that brought misfortune to the family. In fact, ‘Rebati’ was one of the earliest stories in the realm of world pandemic literature.

‘Randipua Ananta’ is a story of a very notorious, errant youth who in the end transforms himself. While the flood water entered the village through a hole of the river-embankment, Ananta pulled the wooden door of his house and covered the hole standing as the supporting pillar and asked villagers to pile soil onto it. Gradually, his body heaped-up up and at last he was buried. Ananta dedicated his life to the welfare of the village and was a rare character in the Odia short story genre. 

Dak Munshi (The PostMaster), ‘Sabhya Zamindar‘ (The Educated Feudal Lord), ‘Patent Medicine’, ‘Adharma Bitta‘ (The Ill-gotten Money) are the other famous stories for which Senapati is known far and wide. But, it is the   three novels — Chha Mana Atha Guntha  (Six and a third Acres,1902), Mamu (Maternal Uncle, 1913)and Prayaschita (Penance, 1915) — which have made  Senapati immortal because they explored the realities of community life in its manifold dimensions.

Chha Mana Atha Guntha is the first Indian novel to deal with the exploitation of landless peasantry by the feudal system. The importance of this novel is that it was written much before the October revolution and even before the emergence of Marxist ideas in India. Set in Orissa in the 1830s, it is about village politics, caste oppression, social malpractices, and land-grabbing under the zamindari system in colonial Odisha. Both a literary work and a historical document this novel provided a unique ‘view from below’ of Indian village life under colonial rule. Ten years after this novel came Mamu.

Prayaschita was the last of Fakir Mohan Senapati’s  ‘trilogy of crime and justice’ novels — to use the epithet coined by the eminent Senapati scholar John Boulton. It was published just three years before the death of Fakir Mohan. The novel is unique because it sheds light on Senapati’s increasingly dark and tragic perception of colonialism. The novel was a defender of the traditional values and the Hindu way of life which the writer saw was gravely threatened by an alien value system of the British which had made huge inroads into Indian society.

Lachhama is another novel by Senapati dealing with the anarchic conditions of Odisha in the wake of Maratha invasions during the eighteenth century. It narrates the historical romance of Rajput lady Lachhama and her husband Badal Singh, in the backdrop of the political disturbances between the Mughals and Marathas to gain supremacy in Odisha. The story is set in a period of early advent of the British in India during which Nawab Alivardi Khan was Governor of Bengal. The depiction of love, honor, courage and revenge of the woman protagonist Lachamma is significant.

Fakir Mohan also wrote the first-ever autobiography in Odia – Atma Jeevan Charita. It gives a socio-cultural account of Odisha along with the novelist’s own life spanning over half a century and makes for prodigious reading.

Senapati wrote a long poem, Utkal Bhramanam, in 1892. Literally meaning Tour of Odisha, this poem is not a travelogue but a commentary on the state of affairs of that time, written satirically. He has also translated the Mahabharata, the Gita, the Ramayana and Boudhavatar Kavya into simple Odia verse.

Fakir Mohan’s innovative technique, ineradicable characters, humour, imaginativeness, and the insights into the rural milieu had few parallels. His contribution to Odia language and its revival was immense.  

Senapati was a great genius, a versatile personality and an ardent literary artist who breathed his last on June 14, 1918, when Odisha hadn’t become a separate province for which Senapati fought relentlessly. He is unsurpassed and commands great respect among the authors. In the words of Dr. J.V. Boulton, Fakir Mohan is the Gorky of Odisha. The  Dhammapada estate conferred on him the enviable title Saraswati. He was also endowed with the title of Katha Samrat (Emperor of Fiction) and is rightly called Vyasakavi

His fiction and short stories reflected the theme of social realism, societal reform, and preservation of cultural values. Fakir Mohan dedicated his whole life to the development of the native language in the late 19th and changed the course of Odia literature.

Fakir Mohan is to Odia what Prem Chand is to Hindi and Rabindranath Tagore is to Bengali literature.

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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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Categories
Editorial

Colours of the Sky

A riot of colours starts the day
with happiness, vibrancy and hope,
dispelling the winter of discontent
with whispers of new lores…
Courtesy: Sohana Manzoor

Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Satyajit Ray film, based on a story by a writer called Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, that showcases nineteenth century India, where the silence of a young girl who is deified, wreaks havoc in her home, village and life. In an interview, Satyajit Ray contended that the film was to make people rethink ‘messiahdom’. The exact words he used to state this was that the film was against ‘religious dogmatism’ as the film and story literally dealt with the deification of a young bride. Tagore had similarly questioned blind deification in a number of his poems and plays. These (as Ray spelt out in his interview) did not address religion per se but malpractices, among them, the tendency to worship an idol to a point where flaws are justified, accepted and emulated. Satyajit Ray and Tagore were both Brahmos — which can be seen as a reform movement. These two were not criticising religion but talking of rising above gawky hero worship to think logically and arrive at logical conclusions. When we talk of characters from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, other mythologies or substitute the adulated with stars, writers, politicians and businessmen who run huge concerns, we tend to idolise them. But these were and are all characters with flaws, whether fictitious or real. We can well learn from their mistakes, rather than deify and worship them to justify bad behaviour by quoting instances from lives of past legends or prominent persons in the current world.

Akbar Barakzai, a poet exiled from Balochistan, talks in a similar vein in his interview. You can see it in his poetry too — some of which can be found translated by Fazal Baloch in our pages. Barakzai talks of transcending barriers we draw for ourselves in the real world, of writing with honesty and sincerity. He has shared vignettes of his life as he changed countries to continue his work. Baloch has also brought to us another excellent poet in translation, Munir Momin. A major poem by Nazrul (the ‘bidrohi kobi’), ‘Bidrohi or Rebel’ has wound its way to our pages translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. We are honoured and grateful that Prof Alam chose to share this excellent translation with us. We have more translations: Jibonananda’s ‘Motorcar’(1934) by Rakibul Hasan Khan, a Korean translation by Ihlwha Choi, another short story from Nepal and Tagore’s powerful poem,Morichika or Mirage’, which is a wake-up call for the inert affluent who hold themselves aloof from common masses. We have also interviewed a major prose translator of Tagore, Professor Somdatta Mandal. With much to share on Santiniketan, Nabanita Deb Sen and many interesting anecdotes, Mandal talks of her extensive work with her translations spanning many more writers from the past.

We have a colourful ensemble this time almost as vibrant as the autumnal colours that have invaded nature in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Michael R Burch has given us beautiful poems on autumn, including the autumn of life. We have a poem in a similar vein by George Freek whose work continues influenced by Liu Yong (1719-1805), an influential minister and calligrapher in the Qing Dynasty. Ryan Quinn Flanagan touches on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in his poetry. Rhys Hughes has given us humour in both his poetry and his column. Our other humorist, Devraj Singh Kalsi has given us darker, more caustic black humour in his narrative. We have lovely photographs from Penny Wilkes with her verses in Nature’s Musings. It is amazing the way she photographs birds in flight. Stories from Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and America add to the richness of our oeuvre. Sunil Sharma has given us an avant-garde telling of Odysseus’s voyage in the modern world, transcending the borders of time and ethnicity.

A well-known senior journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, has also travelled through time to give us a recall of her experience at the 35th Cairo Film Festival one November, nine years ago. Her narrative about the time that the Shariat law was adopted by Egypt reminds me of the way things moved in Afghanistan few months ago and what is even more stunning is the way in which organisations dubbed extremists earlier are allowed to run countries now. Is it really not yet time to get rid of messiahs and look for one world?

We conclude our travels in Burma with John Herlihy and his friend, Peter, this month. And start a column with Candice Louisa Daquin, The Observant Immigrant. Her essays always draw much discussion. An experienced psychotherapist, she has looked into our value systems. We have books excerpts from Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves and CJ Fentiman’s award winning book, The Cat with Three Passports. Himadri Lahiri has done an in-depth review of Somdatta Mandal’s ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore. It is amazing how much we can learn about a person from their letters. Suzanne Kamata has shared her review of Iain Maloney’s Life is Elsewhere/ Burn Your Flags. Reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Shylashri Shankar’s Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes, sounds like an erudite read that spans thousands of years of history. Anita Agnihotri’s Mahanadi –The Tale of a River, translated from Bengali by Nivedita Sen, has been reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha. The narrative sounds like a powerful voice weaving together the lores around the river.

Do pause by and find many more authors who dot our November edition. As usual, naming each one will keep you away from our delectable reads for longer. We thank all our readers for their continued patronage, and I would like to thank my fabulous team who are now even providing visuals to brighten our pages. A huge thanks to Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious, who write as well as they paint. Thanks to all our wonderful contributors for making Borderless a reality.

Wish you all sunshine and laughter!

Best,

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Essay

Renewal

By Jayat Joshi

“…most lawns within
the limits of the municipality
are to be grown
on billiard tables—
fertilized by the organic matter
that is commonly
trapped in pinball machines
when the marbles
sit on their commodes.”
-- Marjorie Hawksworth, Urban Renewal

When my home grew old, its windows started chattering in the wind like teeth. My younger siblings would remember it only as they would a distant grandparent near twilight years. They would remember the impressions of dusted off termite nests looking like brown, dried-up river routes on a map. I was impatient with such memories. I liked to reminisce the angsty drawings I painted at whim in my teenage years on the walls, or scribbles made by my sister when she was five, both of which had gotten layered over with whitewash. In memories younger than mine, home was a description of what it would turn into.

Even neighbours who came to live in houses vacated by older neighbours from my childhood had relatively young memories. There was a real estate dealer who remembered everyone’s homes in terms of what they would fetch when the nearby flyover to the highway was constructed. When he saw someone strolling in the street, he would hint the value he put on their plot with the width of his smile. There were also other people concerned with this make-believe flyover. Some folks whose ancestors had missed out on the land grab of the early years in the city and who had now been compelled to build up from benami land as a collective, and who had now declared this place a small ‘village’ with its own municipal councilor, were preparing to lobby shifting the flyover by a few yards, so it just missed stomping out someone’s house. The optimal outcome was to make the construction cut through a nearby square plot which made everyone suspicious. This patch had a boundary circumscribing it with names of four different owners in white chalk on each side. Benami: under no one’s name. Here, under more than one name.

Most real estate projects in the city had an underbelly that lay bare like a demo surgery for medical freshers, but concealed in plain sight. The underbelly of our home, the surrounding apartments, the real estate broker’s house, and the old and new neighbours’ homes was the settlement along the bottom edges of the area of migrant labourers from faraway states, dragged here on the same wind that entices investment in real estate.

Successive winds had made these populations denser, trickling their living spaces down precarious slopes where land descended into ravines of seasonal rivers. These rivers overflowed with mud and plastic in the monsoon, taking with it a limb or two of these makeshift settlements, like the sea dilutes the durability of a sand castle with every wave. From them, our homes sourced domestic helpers and those who wanted to build more homes sourced their workers. They were the gears of going-on-ness. A well-intentioned administrative servant had, before retiring, laced the margins of the enclave with bamboo plantations. Bamboo roots kept soil steadfast. Bamboo was a mute saviour for informal settlements. Below the bamboo shoots, iron rods jutted into the ground to lay foundations of large infrastructure, like a bed of a thousand arrows from the Mahabharata. The imposing character of Bheeshma breathed his last on a similar bed amid the battlefield. He had the boon of dying only when he willed. 

When my home grew old, the sight outside its windows became weak. The eye could not wander far without colliding into a concrete block, manifestly an apartment structure called either ‘Mountain View’ or ‘Mount View’. Most of the flats in these apartments came in the way of each other’s view. For a couple or more square kilometres, residential complexes grew competing for the remaining thin sliver of sight of the nearby hillock.

Higher-end, dissatisfied customers then began shifting closer to the mountains to catch a better glimpse. Younger memories are not tempered with the punitive side of things. Between widening smiles of brokers and narrowing views of mountains, the remembrance of harrowing disasters is dissolved. In fact, the dissolution is all the more profitable. The aftermath of a natural disaster is a levelled playing field for real estate and repair to begin its game anew. Its anticipation marks the desire for a smarter city, a renewed city, a resilient city, a city that has gone on record trying to be the best version of itself.

Old houses in this city are nails in the imagination of the future. The people who own them refuse to ‘develop’ them—adding a floor, remaking the shape, clubbing two plots, encroaching extra space through a fence, rejigging the drainage, and so on. The view, finally, can be of state-of-the-art high-risers as good as the mountains themselves, often a cause of envy for them because they house more greens, lawns and gardens.

Bamboo, and many species of trees growing on sloping land have a packed network of rhizomes in the soil. These roots ought to tell us something; when the land yawns and shifts, all these interconnected rhizomes cling and stay. For narrow rods that penetrate deep, like flimsy taproots, the slightest tremor will send up magnified vibrations that reinforced concrete may be too rigid to bear. It could move when shaken. Or stand still and fall.

The city bureaucracy is like Mahabharata’s Bheeshma—of lofty character, having trained in the academy not far from here, and unwavering in commitment to the law, the Dharma, the golden rule of do unto others. The Dharma calls for moulding a supercity out of this virgin land, this plot-sized town at the scale of the nation. Uproot these cobweb-like rhizomes from the soil, make some fancy wood-furnished cafés from the barks, provide them with a natural aesthetic, and carpet the remains with rubble and concrete. Chase away the birds and install some ambience music, pigeons can stay, and someone will need to be employed to clean their droppings from the massive glass windows. Someone not from here, preferably — who share no votes here. The visionary gentle people who gave us ‘Mount View’ can give us our own sequestered enclave, replete with trees so our domain is secure at least.

Land title is presumptive in India. No one knows if you do own a plot, if you do, you may have some papers, these may be real or fake. The public record registers a few transfer transactions. The rest is too hard, too long, too complex, too silly. There is no land to give and take. Everything is already transacted. Unless the government seeks to flatten another forest. Land is assembled by real estate, by law, by settlement, by business, by the bureaucrat, minister, broker, resident, worker, shopkeeper, caretaker, priest and peddler. No one knows if someone else owns a plot, yet everyone continues to own more. When my home grew old, many people started pouring in to see if in fact they were the ones who owned it all along. Or if they could. Or if they couldn’t but wanted to. When my home grew old it became a thing to be cross-checked with our older memories, to see if it had been there at all. The second-guessing might prove too much for us.

Jayat Joshi is a researcher of urbanisation, especially the politics of land in India. He is pursuing a Master’s in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Essay

A Season of Magical Mellow Wistfulness

Meenakshi Malhotra demystifies the autumnal celebration of Durga Puja as a time of homecoming for married daughters through folk songs that are associated with the festival

It is that time of the year again… a time of magic and enchantment when the air comes wafting with the fragrance of shiuli flowers, a species of night-flowering coral jasmine also known as the parijat. Legend has it that this flower is from a heavenly tree  that was brought to Earth  by Lord Krishna, one of the central gods in the Hindu pantheon. Interestingly, in a somewhat unusual twist, this tree is considered so sacred that its flowers picked up from the ground are also deemed appropriate for worship, to make sacred offerings. This is rare, given that flowers offered for worship are usually to be plucked from the tree and not picked up from the ground.

In Hindu mythology, the parijat tree is the tree of the universe which is owned by Indrani, the consort of Indra or the king of the Gods in Hindu mythology. Apparently Krishna stole it from Indra’s consort, Indrani and planted it in a region located between heaven and earth. The tree, also known as “kalpa-taru” or wishing tree, is one which grants all objects of desire.

From the sacred texts like Bhagawat Purana, the Vishnu Purana and the Mahabharata, we  learn that the elaborate process of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean of milk) yielded the  parijat tree as one of the three valuables.  This tree is said to have blossomed atop Mount Meru, the garden of paradise. It was claimed by Indra when  it rose to the surface and emitted its fragrance.

Krishna steals the Parijat tree from Mount Meru. Water colour India, app 1525-1550 CE. Courtesy: Creative commons

This is only one of the many gifts of nature, the exquisitely fragrant flowering tree which sheds blossoms and carpets the Earth  around it. Autumn, that season so famously invoked as the time of “mellow fruitfulness”, carries hints of ripening and a mature fecundity. For many sections of Indians, it is the time of the goddess, a time that a lot of us associate with the advent of the goddess Durga, who signifies the triumph of good over evil. In Durga, we have the divine represented both in terms of mythic abstractions and the material everyday, as power and poetry, as divine and human, as mother and daughter. Similarly the goddess Durga’s descent on Earth for the days of the festival, is also the advent of the daughter to the house of the mother, a moment which overflows with affection, feelings and emotions.

The event happens at a certain time in the Hindu calendar and participates in linear time, as well as being a part of time imagined as part of a larger ongoing cycle of temporality. Similarly, it  participates in mythic and magical time or eternity as it were. For the daughter, longing to be enfolded in the mother’s arms, who counts  the days till she can go back to her natal home, albeit for a few days, this is also a special time indeed.

It is this note of longing, dispossession and exile that is captured in the folk songs in the Bengali or Bangla language, which were documented in the 18th century. These songs are called Aagamoni which translates into advent, here referring to one who arrives. Why this gains a certain poignancy is that girlhood in Indian and many traditional cultures was viewed as a fleeting and fugitive time, haunted by transience. Female children were in the past often regarded as temporary occupants in their natal homes and were  characterised as ones who do not belong or belong to someone else, whose real home is with their in-laws.

Durga Puja celebrations
Courtesy: Creative Commons

In the Hindu pantheon, Durga, Uma or Parvati is a prominent mother goddess, the consort of Shiva. Her names refer to split roles of the feminine imaginary. As Durga she is the fiery slayer of demons. But– and this is the central theme here– she is also the gentle daughter Uma. It is in her form of the daughter who is separated from her parents, that the songs of Aagomoni and Bijoya emphasise. Bijoya translates as victory and starts with the return of the Goddess to her spouse, Shiva. Aagomoni and Bijoya are genres of Bengali folk songs celebrating the return of the Goddess Durga/Parvati to the home of her parents on the eve of the autumn festival of Durga Puja. The Aagomani songs describe the return of Parvati to her home in rural Bengal, not as Goddess but as daughter, and are followed by Bijoya songs which describe the sorrow of parting three days later as Parvati returns to her husband ShivaAagomoni songs can be interpreted as an expression of collective feelings, experiences and aspirations, another way of rethinking or reimagining the self-inscription of a collectivity.

In one of the best known and common Aagomoni songs, ‘Ogo amar agomoni’ (‘The Advent of Durga’):

The Advent of Durga

I herald the advent of the Goddess 
With the lighting of my lamps 
During the autumn whirlwinds.
At the end of night, the sun bursts forth.

In the swirling storm, 
At the end of the night,
The light in my path is turned off.
The beacon of my life has turned off. 
I herald the advent of my Goddess.

The lamp that reveals my path,
Brightens my life by pouring 
The nectar of your presence. 
I am lost in the blackness of fear. 
When you come in your radiant chariot, 
Your refulgence will shatter the 
Deep darkness in all directions.

Play the aubade of aurora.
It will all be divine. 
I herald the advent of my Goddess 
With the lighting of my lamps.
I herald the advent of our Goddess. 

(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)

The song is full of the imagery of light and refulgence. My goddess “light of my life’’ could be both a reference to the divine mother, as well as to a daughter, who was very often  referred to as ‘Ma’ as a term of affection. While this song maps the emotional link between the mother and the daughter and can be seen in terms of affect, the focus is on her refulgence and divinity. The reference to the goddess in terms of the mother/ daughter trope is much more evident in other songs, which narrates the saga of dispossession — the fair  princess who has to live in disorderliness and poverty.

Go Get Gouri

Go, go Giriraj
To fetch your daughter Gouri
Uma is in deep sorrow
Uma has cried for her mother
Living in misery

Bhang consuming Shiv
Ash-smeared and wild
Sold off her finery
All her jewellery
To fund his addiction 

Bhola revels in intoxication 
He has collected hashish from 
The three realms….heaven, hell and earth.

Bhola put the intoxicant, bhang
Made with crushed
Datura seed on my Uma’s face.

Go lord of the mountains go
Go to fetch Gouri
Uma has cried herself hoarse.

(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)

In another evocative song, the mother cries –“Ebaar Uma ele/Aar pathabo naa ( This time when Uma comes/ I will not send her back)”.

When My Uma Returns…

This time when my Uma comes,
I will not send her back. 
If people call me bad, let them. 
I will not listen to anyone. 
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back, 
This time when my Uma comes.

If the conqueror of death comes
To talk of taking Uma back, 
If Mritunjaya comes
To talk of taking her back, 
We, mother and daughter, 
together will quarrel with him.
I will not agree because 
he is my son-in -law       
 
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back, 
This time when my Uma comes...

The poet says 
Can life tolerate such wounds?
Shiva roams the cremation grounds,
And does not think of his own home. 

This time when my Uma comes,
I will not send her back. 
If people call me bad, let them. 
I will not listen to anyone. 
This time when my Uma returns,
I will not send her back, 
This time when my Uma comes...

(Translated by Mitali Chakravarty)

Here, the mother vows not to send Uma back to her wild and undomesticated husband when she comes visiting. This articulates a resolve uttered by the mother not to jeopardize or endanger her daughter by ‘giving’ her to an undeserving husband. The anxiety, insecurity and fear for the daughter’s safety is clearly evident in these lines. Maternity and maternality is here described as a tortuous and beleaguered  state. In all these lines, we see a shift from the narrative account of arming and empowerment of the goddess to a more human and humble register. Begging, cajoling, importuning-the mother’s pain and anxiety for the daughter, married to that strange and alien  figure, the untamed and undomesticated God Shiva, is evident in every line.

The narrative of mother and daughter pining for each other, appears to have similarities with  the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. In some,  the daughter is imagined as asking her husband for permission to visit her mother: “It has been so many days since I went home and saw my mother face to face ceaselessly… she weeps for me…” (Bhattacharya, in Mc Dermott 2001:132). The men ( both father  Giriraj and husband Shiva ) emerge as emotionally unreceptive. (Kaul 2022:9) We hear Menaka bemoaning an emotionally unresponsive husband who won’t fetch the daughter:

“Whom can I tell
the way I feel for Uma?"

Thus the story of the festival of Durga embraces not only the radiant, refulgent and resplendent image of the goddess; behind it lurks the secret sorrows of generations of mothers and daughters caught in the inevitable dance of life as they play out sagas of dispossession. As autumn is the season of liminality poised between summer and on the cusp of winter, the goddess visiting her natal home, is poised between humanity and divinity, both as a daughter in exile and as a slayer of demons. From this paradox, this spectacle that hovers between the majestic and the everyday, a sublime beauty is born.   

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  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Categories
Review

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History

Author: Wendy Doniger

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021

Horses have a captivating and curious existence in India. Stallions have been graciously carved into the Indian landscape in a variety of ways. To view the subcontinent’s past through the prism of the horse is to be swept back in its power and propriety. Horses have a galactic connection to Indian history, mythology, art, literature, folklore and also popular belief.

The political symbolism of the horse, its vital function in social life, religion, sport and war, its role in shaping economies and forging crucial human bonds is too obvious to point out.

Emergence of local breeds such as the Kathiawari and the Marwari, the Zanskari and the Manipuri is an interesting tale of gallantry. In India’s modern history, there were fabulous horsewomen too, Chand Bibi, Maratha princesses and women polo players among them. Horses have an intimate connection to grooms, blacksmiths, breeders, traders and bandits.

Rana Pratap’s legendary Chetak, Ranjit Singh’s much-contested Laili, Pabuji’s cherished black mare and those horses captured in paintings and equestrian portraits are riveting. This glorious age of the horse met its painful decline with the onset of colonial rule and automation.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares; Horses in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger is an engrossing book not only for the subject but also the research. In this inspiring and scholarly book, Doniger — who has been called the greatest living mythologist — examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history, from the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, followed by the Greeks, the Turks and Mongols (who imported Arabian horses) and the British (who imported Thoroughbreds and Walers). 

Along the way, she delves deep into the rituals of horse sacrifice in the Vedic age. She rummages through the stories of warring horses and snakes in the Mahabharata. She digs into   tensions between Hindu stallion and Arab mare traditions; imposing European standards on Indian breeds; the reasons many Indian men ride mares to weddings; the motivations for murdering Dalits who ride horses; and the enduring myth of foreign horses who emerge from the ocean to fertilise native mares.

Doniger combines erudition with storytelling and gives the reader a persuasive account on the horse in Indian culture just as she does it in her other books on Indian mythology. 

Quoting from the book: “The horse is not indigenous to India, except in a few small pockets. Even after it was brought to the subcontinent sometime between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE by the Indo-Europeans. It played almost no part in the lives of ordinary Indian villagers, being too expensive for all but the most privileged people to own. In India’s folklore, epics and popular culture horse stories abound and there are some brilliant images of the animal.”

Doniger’s ride through four millennia of Indian legend and folklore is full of sacrificial horses, horse-headed gods, transformations and couplings. Like Doniger’s other works on Indian mythology and history, this book  is astonishingly accomplished with the threads of mythical narratives woven into a meaningful depiction of the Indian imagination.

Author of classic works like The Hindus: An Alternative History and Hindu Myths, Wendy Doniger has two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies, from the universities of Harvard and Oxford. She has taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. Her other books include Siva: The Erotic Ascetic; Dreams, Illusion and Other Realities; The Mare’s Trap: Nature and Culture in the Kamasutra.  

The Vedic ritual of the sacrifice of a stallion is balanced by the myth of a goddess who takes the form of a mare named Saranyu (Fleet). Doniger retells the story thus:

“The blacksmith of the gods gave his daughter, Saranyu, in marriage to the Sun, and she gave birth to twins, Yama and Yami. Then the gods concealed the immortal woman from mortals; they put in her place a female of-the-same-kind (Savarna) and gave that look-alike to the Sun. Saranyu took the form of a mare; the Sun took the form of a stallion, followed her, and coupled with her. From that were born the twin equine gods called the Ashvins. She abandoned them, too.”

Doniger takes us on the trail of the horse into and within India. What follows is a surprising and exhilarating journey, covering caravan-trade routes originating in Central Asia and Tibet, sea routes from the Middle East, and the dominions of different sultans and Mughal emperors, the south Indian kingdoms as well as the Rajput horse-warrior states. 

Doniger professes her earliest exposure to India and the horses was in 1963 when she was twenty-two years old. Her meeting with Penelope Betjeman — daughter of Field Marshal Sir Philip Walhouse Chetwode who was the head commander of the British forces in India from 1928 to 1935 — gave her an introduction to these creatures. Doniger has dedicated the book to Penelope who died accidentally in 1986 in the Kulu Hills.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares has about a dozen chapters — most of which have a throwback to the Vedic and Puranic times. It is only in the last two chapters where she writes the horse saga of modern India. With a slew of illustrations and profound research, the book makes for a gripping read. 

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No 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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