For the People, Of the People, By the People

Painting by Gita Viswanath
"I wish you survival, 
And the closed sky above you."

— Refugee in my own Country/I am Ukraine, Lesya Bakun

Despite this being the season of multiple new years around Asia, we cannot close our eyes to the skies that connect all the world like a blue dome. Though celebrations and humour continue to lighten the darkness of war, while Ukraine is being wrecked, can we turn our faces towards only festivities?

I had an interesting anecdote about how before the onset of the Gregorian calendar, new years in the world were celebrated around March and in some places in September. The Earth would turn fecund and green with spring, a beautiful season sprinkled with love and nostalgia as Michael R Burch tells us in his poetry. However, despite all the opulence of nature, it is hard to watch a country being bombed and families splintered to man a war that supposedly guards a human construct called ideology and blocs. Ukranian refugee, Lesya Bakun, in an interview says: “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.” Listening to Lesya’s stories makes one amazed at the bravery of the Ukrainians battling what seems to be cultural hegemony. It reminds of the war in Bangladesh in 1971. Though incredibly courageous in voicing her experiences, Lesya is traumatised and has a psychosomatic cough as she sends her voice and text messages from her mobile through Telegram. There were times when she was just weeping or angry for the questions asked, and justifiably so, as her home in Kharkiv, where she lived was under attack, and the town of Mariupol, where she was born, has been wrecked by the war.

The refrain of the pain of a refugee continues to reverberate in a book reviewed by Rakhi Dalal, Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, written originally in Arabic and translated by Isis Nusair. The Syrian-Palestinian poet refused to clarify whether his writing was prose or poetry — perhaps these borders and boxes drawn by humankind are breaking down in reality. Perhaps, this new year, the time is ripe to look forward to a new world that transcends these borders. This is also the first time we have had the privilege of carrying reviews of translations from Arabic and also from Turkish. Gracy Samjetsabam has reviewed a translation of a Turkish novel by Iskendar Pala called The Tulip of Istanbul, translated by Ruth Whitehouse. Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed a book by Kiran Manral, Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India while Candice Louisa Daquin has drawn our focus on a poetry collection by Marjorie Maddox, Begin with a Question, where the perceived divisions do not matter while the poet questions the larger issue of faith in quest of answers.

Is it the same kind of quest that has led Strider Marcus Jones to create the Lothlorien Journal, named reminiscently after Tolkien’s elvish ‘Lothlorien’ in Lord of the Rings? Find out Jones’s views and flow with his fluid poetry in the featured interview. Keith Lyons has been in conversation with Ivy Ngeow, an upcoming writer and the editor of a recent anthology of Asian writing where she has retained different styles of English across the world in a single book. While this could be beneficial to writers, would readers be comfortable reading stories with different styles or dialects of English without a glossary?

Our book excerpts are from more Asian books.  The Year of the Rat and Other Poems edited by Malachi Edwin Vethamani has an interesting title poem which has been shared in the excerpt. The other excerpt is from a fast-paced novel, Half-Blood, by Pronoti Datta. We also have a fast-paced story by a writer from France called Paul Mirabile set in Portugal; two that verge on the bizarre from Keiran Martin and Amjad Ali Malik; a poignant story from Sutputra Radheye and another that shows the positive side of voicing a protest against wrongs by Devraj Singh Kalsi. Kalsi has also given us a tongue in cheek musing called When Books have Wings.

On the lighter vein are travel essays by Ravi Shankar and Meredith Stephens. They take us to the Himalayas in Nepal and to Tasmania! Suzanne Kamata has taken us to an owl cafe in Japan! At the end of her column, one feels sad for the owls as opposed to Erwin Coombs’ narrative that evokes laughter with his much-loved pet cat’s antics.

Humour is evoked by G. Venkatesh who with an ability to find silver linings in dark clouds talks of cricket and lessons learnt from missing his school bus. Adnan Zaidi has also analysed his poetic abilities with tongue-in-cheek comments. Kenny Peavy gives a lighthearted rendition in praise of boredom and interactions with nature. It is good to have laughter to combat the darkness of the current times, to give us energy to transcend our grief. Keith Lyons hovers on the track between humour and non-humour with his cycling adventures. Rhys Hughes seems to talk of both his favourite poem and the war in a lighter shades, in no way insensitive but his observations make us wonder at the sanity of war. We have much of war poetry by a number of writers, poetry on varied issues by Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozabal, George Freek, Sybil Pretious, Kisholoy Roy, J.D. Koikoibo and many more.

Candice Louisa Daquin has taken on the onus of bringing to our notice how language can impact us in the long run while Ratnottama Sengupta has explored beggary in films, fiction and fact. The Nithari column runs a real-life story of a young boy narrated by his brother, Sachin Sharma. It has been translated from Hindustani by Diksha Lamba. The trauma faced in 2006 is strangely not discussed in the story though it hovers in the backdrop between the lines. We also have a translation of a Balochi folk story by Fazal Baloch and a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi. Translations from Tagore by Fakrul Alam and Somdatta Mandal have honoured our pages again. Mandal has sent us fun-filled skits by Tagore. But are they just fun or is there something more? We also have a translation of a long poem that explores a different aspect of Tagore, his empathy for the downtrodden which led him to create Sriniketan and regard it as his ‘life work’.

We have a bumper issue this time again — especially for the Asian new years; Thai, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, multiple Indian and more…

We would like to thank Sohana Manzoor for our cover painting and Gita Viswanath for her artwork. I would like to thank our wonderful team who with their contributions make this journal a reality. All the contributors deserve a huge thanks as do our loyal readers.

I wish you all a wonderful start to a non-Gregorian new year and hope that peace prevails over parts torn by wars and dissensions.

Thank you all!

Mitali Chakravarty



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.



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