Categories
Essay

A Turkish Adventure with Sait Faik

Narrative by Paul Mirabile with photographs by Françoise Mirabile.

The Treewood sculpture by Çağdaş Ercelik of Sait Faik greets the visitor at the Burgaz docks on his or her arrival.

To have sojourned on Burgaz Island was such a marvellous experience. This experience resulted from the fact that I worked twelve years in Istanbul and had rented a small flat on the island from an Armenian woman whose daughter had been a student of mine at University.

I rented the small, rooftop flat for about five or six years. Then I met one of the protagonists of my story, Abi Din Bey, a Turkish Alevite[1] who had been living on Burgaz since the 1940s in his two room wooden dwelling on the beach, opposite Yassi (Flat) Island and Sivri ( Pointed ) Island in the Marmara Sea, which he and his brother had built. He sold coffee or tea with little cakes or grilled cheese sandwiches to infrequent visitors, hikers or swimmers who happened to stumble across his home on the beachhead. That was in fact how he made his living. We got to know one another well, and soon he offered to rent me the smaller room of his lodgings whenever I arrived on the island for week-ends or for the longer holidays at a much more advantageous price than my flat in the village. I took him up on it without a second thought …

Abi Din Bey’s front gardens, peppered with shady fruit trees, under which he had placed long or square tables with benches or chairs for the occasional visitors, touched the stony beach. From those gardens one had a wide open view of the Sea of Marmara. It was truly a place of magic ! In the mornings we would take our coffee or tea in the gardens and contemplate those placid waters lapping the pebbly strand, a slight breeze coming in from the North, the sky and the sea, enamel blue. Hikers or visitors would stop in after eleven, and he would serve them cold beverages and grilled cheese toast, which he prepared in his kitchenette. I would help him on the week-ends when students arrived with their tents to stay on for a day or two on in the wooded areas.

Marmara Sea seen from Abi Din Bey’s front gardens. Pointed (Sivri) and Flat (Yassi) Islands can be seen in the background

Burgaz, the second of the four Princes’ Islands of the Sea of Marmara, known to the Greeks as Antigone, was as popular if not more than the first island Kınalada (Prōtē), the third, Heybeliada (Halki) and the largest Büyükada (Prinkēpos). Their Greek names fell out of use after the Greek-Turkish War in 1921, and following the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Burgaz was a world of poetry, in rhythm wth the movements of steamers coming and going, lapping waves and rough winds … screaming seagulls, the long solitary walks up into the hilly woods and along the sandless beaches, by the evening strolls amongst the white-washed nineteenth century wooden Ottoman-era mansions of Burgaz village, whose fretted pitches mounted from the cornice to the high gabled roofs of the façade. Bougainvillaea and wisteria of bright blues, purples and whites overflowed from the cast-iron balconied façades. Neatly kept gardens hugged the quiet lanes and streets fringed with mimosas and pomegranate trees, pricked here and there with aging trees, one of which near the House of the Alevites, was said to be over six-hundred years of age.

Indeed, life on Burgaz contrasts so starkly with that of Istanbul : no vehicles, no mass movements of people rushing to and from work, no tram, metro or train ; a world of enchantment and marvels, of monasteries, churches and cathedrals, of dancing boats at the piers, of leather-faced fisherman casting nets or having tea ; of forested hills, rocky cliffs, of bougainvillea sagging in great clusters and copses of cypress … of crimson sunsets dipping into the Marmara. Truly, Burgaz is ideal for the painter’s palette …

How I inhaled and exhaled those wonderful visions as I made my way down upon the winding path towards Abidin Bey’s home — splashes of roses, honeysuckles and oleanders blazing orange and crimson through the deep forest greens. And as I did, the voice of my foremost protagonist, the hero of this story, Sait Faik Abasıyanık[2], would implore me to reanimate his presence on this island paradise, to hearken to and bring forth, as if snatched up in some dreamy reminiscence of poetic éclat, that forlorn, melancholic voice :

 Several late evenings I would sit

And write stories ;

Like a madman !

Whilst I wrote the story

The people in my head

Would go out to fish. [3]

Yes, that Sait Faik voice, elliptic, forlorn and melancholic, as if he solicited an unaffected sincere souvenir of his masterful art : the Art of Poetics … of the short-story, a palatable keepsake of his short-lived grandeur :

The wind that bears the salt to the shore,

I hear the swimming of the fish

I listen to the seaweed talking amongst themselves,

To the mussels weeping.

There is a wing of love, it is red

it is pierced,

blood flows,

There is a wing

Poison greenish. [4]

So many journeys into the past borne by that doleful voice of the solitary poet and story-teller of fishermen, wood-choppers, street vendors, birds, steamers, cafés ; of motley dressed street children, long, starry nights meditating the brushing waves of the Marmara Sea along the indented coasts of Burgaz … of insular Freedom …

What exactly is insular Freedom ? A land free of noisome noise; the islanders hear only the laughing seagull in flight, the chants of fishermen repairing their nets, the brays of donkeys, the wheedling of jays and the coarse hawking of merchants on market days, the neighs and snorts of work-horses, the cock-a’doodle doos of roosters at the break of dawn.

A land where the naked eye embraces gold-gilded sunrises and dragon-red sunsets at the not so distant point where the azures of the sky touch those of the briny sea.

A land of a myriad flowery perfumed fragrances, free from the toxic fumes of vehicle emission, from chemical discharge and human waste. A land of powerful telluric forces where the islanders’ footfalls tread dirt tracks, sandy or stony beachheads, soft, leafy trails ; where he or she communes with the trees, the sea, tastes the salty air free of pollution. Even the taste of Burgaz coffee smacks of that island brew, a nice commingling of robust richness and timeless tincture ! Freedom which releases all the senses from their ensnared urban uniformity, their artificial, conventional urbanity of foot-shuffling routine and tiresome ennui …

So I descended and descended towards Abi Din Bey’s strand home, winding steeply in zig-zag fashion, alive to that distant but clear, impelling voice :

 Late evening comes

Whilst everyone quits their work.

Amongst the clustering clusters at the tram

A lovely child’s face smiles.

Unchaste, late evening comes.

How I seize it I know not

Preparing to love my beloved

At sixteen years of age

To hold her hand in mine

For a good twenty-four hours

Desiring to hear one warm word … [5]

When reading or listening to these verses I experienced a veil of despondency, a dash of fury that underscores a struggle of consciousness, of surpassing vanity as the principal motivation of solitude within an island envelope. The consciousness may be called nostalgia ; that is, suffering of and from a past, familiar lieu, a stead-sickness of some remote time within the fantastic unfolding of a man’s former existences. And yet, these former existences may not be as remote as I believed. So I continued to lend an ear as I approached the beachcomber’s humble abode :

My whistling at the stern of the steamer,

My song upon the rainy bridge

Are but a pretext to approach you,

Otherwise my darling, not to forget you,

It is evident that only after you

The lies that have been imparted to humankind

It is evident that after you, only

The emptiness of all things

Together with you, the cups are to be filled

The wines with you, revelled

The cigars with you, smoked

The hearths with you, aflame

The meals with you, eaten. [6]

Ah, Sait, you have been my faithful road companion ; the herald of the short story, of the furtive glimpse, of the snap-shot of possible realities which have been the ardent desire of our existential Way … the Flame of Life …

Here, at long last, Abi Din Bey has come to greet me at his welcoming gate — a hearty greeting indeed. Abi Din Bey towers over me in all his nobleness ; he is a descendent of the great Ali, fourth Caliph of the Sunna, first Imam of the Shia.[7] He took great pleasure and pride in showing me his genealogical tree finely printed out on vellum in triptych form as he had done in the past every time  I visited him. He had it done by specialists at the Vatican for a meagre fee. He never fully explained why he had it done at the Vatican.

Noble, humble, ascetic and combative like his distant descendant, he stands erect for his advanced age (perhaps eighty ?), and remarkably lucid when discussing religious matters and Sufi poets. He was well versed in Ali’s conquests as well as Sait Faik Abasıyanık’s life and personality, whom he knew personally in his younger days. How many nights under a speckless sky did my friend and host narrate Saik’s life to me, abridged of course, and oftentimes modified to enfold the atmosphere of that night’s solicitude, the turbulence of the waves pounding the jutting rocks, the scrapings of the pines against the rising cliffs that arched over his diminutive home.

It was the month of May in the year 2006. The mimosas were in full bloom as we sat in his front gardens, breathing in the fresh balmy air of the calm, morning sea. The fragrance of rose attar mounted from the morning dew which clung to the garden trees like hoarfrost. The tea, too, had a fresh taste to it. Abi Din Bey looked out upon the cool blues of the late morning sky and waters :

“Sait was a rebel !” he began abruptly in his deep, coarse voice. “You know, he didn’t look to transform the world like some revolutionary, he wanted to be as useless as possible to the whims and caprices of our political and economic decision-makers, to the ideological escapades of social redeemers or misfits so as to accomplish his own destiny for the benefit of all Humanity.”

“Is that why he wrote ‘The Useless Man’ ?” I ventured, a lovely short story that I had translated several years back.

“Yes, for the whole of Humanity,” he continued excitedly as if not hearing my rhetorical question. “That may sound strange because he lived such a hermit’s life, a socially useless life, especially here on Burgaz. However, if you’ve noticed, and I’m sure you have noticed, he always wrote ‘on the road’ : at the docks waiting for the steamers, on the steamers, in cafés, whilst strolling about the island plunged in his world of creative imagination … even when fishing or rowing. He loved to stroll up the dirt tracks into the forested hills and visit the Greek priest on Hristo’s Hill in his chapel.

“Nothing revolutionary. No message to peddle or to plead, only the solemn and sober cheerfulness of his flamboyant and oftentimes eccentric character which he consciously or unconsciously weaved into his short stories and poetry. His voice was not the authoritative, pompous voice booming from above, but the unfettered voice of pure simplicity, describing simple gestures, simple acts, simple conversations, freed from conventional social and literary shackles. A rebel is neither serf nor master : he is absolutely free from social rank and class …”

Abi Din Bey paused to take a sip of tea. This man, too, lived an unfettered, unconventional life in his two-room cabin on the pebbly strand of Burgaz, alone, besides the occasional visitor. But he was no rebel ; his parents had long since been deceased, and since he had never married had no children. His only brother died many years ago of alcohol in middle age. And so there we sat, alone, the sun rising high on the wooded hills of the Kalpazankaya peninsula bay, Abi Din Bey spinning his own tale of Sait, a timeless reminiscence where story-telling reveals not only the pleasures of listening, of sharing, but more important still, the essence of identification with the Other of that story …

“You know, he hadn’t always lived on Burgaz ; he had his schooling in Bursa, where he lodged at a boarding school for boys. His father wished him to be a merchant or a diplomat, but this lifestyle suited him not. Deep in his heart, Sait yearned to be a wandering, carefree writer who observes the details of life that wheel and whirl around him. It was in High School where he wrote his first story ‘The Silken Handkerchief‘ (Ipekli Mendil). It aroused much interest from his literature teacher who encouraged him to work harder to flesh out his ideas, rear in his galloping imagination. His father, on the other hand, disliked the route his son was taking, so he promptly sent him to Switzerland in 1931, I think, to study economics. Unstable as he was, the agitated student dropped his studies and left for France, exploring its towns and literature, especially those short stories of Maupassant, the finest of the French short-story writers, which he read in the original, as he developed a solid base in that language. Finally in 1935, he returned to Istanbul via Marseilles by ship, and there took up different employments, ignoring his father’s growing obsessions about lumber merchant opportunities. He even taught Turkish at an Armenian School for orphans …He translated, too. Since he excelled in French, he translated André Gide’s books for the literary journal Varlık (Existence). Translation served as an exercise in style and intellectual perspicacity for his own writings, which by the way, were gaining more and more attention within the small literary cliques of Istanbul.”

Abi Din Bey stopped for a moment to gather his thoughts. This was not the first time he was narrating Sait Faik’s story to me (and assuredly to others!), with of course the usual modifications. I noted, however, that his memory seemed to wane and to compensate for its loses and lapses, he filled in the gaps with judgemental remarks. Oddly enough, his attitude towards Sait became more and more distant, almost academic, as if Sait’s person, long since passed, betrayed Abi Din Bey’s own anguish of passing … His relation to Sait had been casual, not intimate ; yet, there were moments when recounting the events of Sait’s life that Abi Din Bey gave the impression that he was reliving his own past, concomitantly with Sait’s ! This might have explained the urgency in his voice, often broken, the lapses and chronological errors. Did he already know that he would be expropriated in the not so distant future ? I cannot say …

“He never earned a great deal of money from his stories, although they were quickly catching the eye of important literary critics and publishing firms. It was his father’s money that provided his bread, tea … and alcohol. More and more collections of his narratives poured out from his energetic pen, written in every possible place on every possible situation that he experienced. How many I cannot say or remember … I haven’t read them all …”

I interrupted to refresh his memory, “Semaver (The Sarmovar), Lüzsüz Adam (The Useless Man), Alemdağ’da Var Bir Yılan (There’s a Snake on Alemdağ), Son Kuşlar (The Last Birds), Az Şekerli (A Wee bit of Sugar), Havuz Başı (At the Poolside), Mahalle Kahvesi (The Neighbourhood Café), Şahmedan (The Pile Driver).”

“Yes ! Yes, so many stories in those collections !”

“There are twenty or so in each collection,” I added quickly. 

“Have you read them all ?”

The question posed so bluntly caught me off guard. I shook my head : “No, perhaps twenty or thirty. I’ve only translated seven or eight of them.”

“Yes, seven or eight,” he echoed in a flat voice, gazing dreamily out to sea beyond his front garden fence. A few young people were strolling amongst the smooth rocks jutting into the sea.

“You know, Abi Din Bey, his stories are not easy to translate,” I rejoined, observing that my loquacious host remained unusually silent. “His vocabulary jumps from Ottoman word-hoards to Burgaz jargon ; from street talk to poetic solipsism. His syntax, so elliptic at times, coils like a snake on the branch of a tree on others ; to follow this coiling I had to slither like a snake.” Abi Din Bey broke into a wide grin : he enjoyed simile and metaphor. “Saik Fait’s reasoning defies Cartesian logic with his uncanny sounding rhythms and odd visual associations ; he had such an eye for details.” I pursued after Abi Din Bey had withdrawn into his cabin to procure a few cakes and returned to our table. “I’m sure I have done violence to the English language with my translations. Then again, my approach to translation has always been a Poetics one ; that is, a unique adventure by which Sait’s enonciations and utterances, his ‘style’ of writing if you like, are ‘transferred’ to my poetic expression in English. Poetics in translation is not one of language to language, but discourse to discourse …” Abi Din Bey nodded kindly in my direction. He knew nothing about translation, but had been grateful to me for having translated his deceased brother’s poems, a marginal poet amongst the plethora of Turkish poetic writers[8]. Yet, Abi Din Bey refused that I seek out a publisher for them; his brother’s tragic death would not be flaunted and besmirched publicly by the blood-thirsty horde of scandalmongers who called themselves literary critics. His poetry, whatever its worth, translated or not, would remain a ‘family affair’ … which it did … Abi Din Bey poured out some more tea, then resumed his reminiscing. He was drifting into his favourite souvenirs, those to which, I am sure, he identified himself : “Many so-called critics despised Sait. Not his stories but his way of living ! They trumped up intrigues against him, accused him of political incorrectness, of social disorder. But this man never advocated any political ideology, nor did he mingle with criminals, as some imbeciles claimed. How the mediocre can conjure up calamitous falsehoods through jealousy, malice and hate. He reacted badly to these accusations and insinuations, withdrawing from the world’s fair ; it was also then that he began to drink very heavily and lead a very unproductive life.

“His father died, and Sait, fed up with all that puerile scandal-mongering, left for Burgaz, where he inherited his mother’s lovely two-storey house near the Greek Cathedral of Saint John. A whole new existential vista opened up for him on his island retreat, far from vanity and pseudo-intellectualism. On Burgaz, he regained that the freedom of the beachcomber, that artful notion of being humane to all living creatures, confronting Nature’s formidable forces, interlacing his childhood dreams and fantasies with natural surroundings. He explored the psychic of individuals of meagre living and of strenuous trades. Sait Faik’s daily existence transpired on the pages of his stories : modest or tragic family events, streets filled with vendors or motley children, fishing expeditions, prawn catching at midnight, flocks of seagulls on the wing and shoals of fish frolicking in gay abandon. He recorded the voices that echoed off the walls of cafés filled with fisherman, spoons tinkling in their glasses, the crisp sounds of cards shuffled or dominoes tumbling. His was an unaffected world of banal circumstances acted out in harmony or disharmony with roaming wildlife, teeming vegetation or simple, working people.

“Sometimes I met him at his favourite café, which no longer exists. There we chatted and chatted for hours ; I know he was using me as his first reader, narrating details of his day’s activities, and those of the islanders.

Sait Faik’s house and Gardens on Burgaz facing the façade of Saint John’s Cathedral

“You know at that time very little Turkish was spoken on Burgaz ; many of the inhabitants spoke Greek, Armenian or Jewish-Spanish. Sait savoured these foreign sounds, so exotic to his ears since he none of these languages. But he listened as if he understood them perfectly. Anyway, we would meet every now and then, stroll about or just have tea or coffee in the village. He led a simple, hermit’s life.”

“Like yours ?” I put in slyly.

He turned a bit red, the limpidity of his eyes losing their usual sunset softness. He rubbed his arching nose : “Perhaps. But I never wrote a sentence or verse in my life ; that was my brother’s destiny. And please, don’t publish those poems of his that you translated,” he admonished me in a colourless voice. 

I promised not to do so for the hundredth time. Abi Din Bey, relieved for the hundredth time, resumed rather pedantically : “Sait rubbed shoulders with people of whom he had ignored the very existence, whether in Bursa or in Istanbul, and by all this rubbing, however awkward or uncouth, he came to realise that his Destiny was one of Freedom, a philosophy of Life, an Art of Existence that he gradually cultivated here on Burgaz, and which blossomed out into the most beautiful bouquet of literary flowers.”

“Yes, Abi Din Bey,” I began slowly, pleased at my host’s sudden poetic élan.  “A Destiny of a sovereign being who regards each and every being as equal in value. An equality of value that can be gauged not particularly by choice of theme, but rather in the glimpses of detail that strikes the ear and eye: a miaowing cat, a reduplicated adjective or noun, the howling wind or soft breeze, a bright scarf on a darkening day, a bird hopping among the trees or on the wing ; details that play not a major role in the setting of his stories but should not be regarded as mere rhetorical artifice. They produce not a ‘local atmosphere’ but generate an intensity to his oftentimes plotless narratives or actionless plots. In fact, they rhythm the levels of narrative threads that weave the dramaless narrations no matter how insignificant or banal. I have never experienced a climax or a ‘dénouement‘ in any of his stories.”

 Abi Din Bey agreed, then added : “Unlike most Turkish writing, Saik’s stories are written in plain language, they carry no overweening pomposity.” (Here I refrained from objecting : Orhan Pamuk[9] does not write in any overweening, bombastic language !). “They are unburdened by bloated images. His choice of vocabulary captures the accents of Greek, Armenian, Jew and Turk of Burgaz and Istanbul at that time. You noticed, of course, that there are no proverbs in his writings, so salient in Turkish literature ?” I of course had noted. And it is true that Sait shied away from the Persian and Arabic influences in Turkish literature, still read in modern or contemporary Turkish writers. “You know why ?” I did, but shrugged my shoulders ; I preferred to hear his opinion on the subject. “Because proverbs are associated now with the Ottoman aristocratic literati, the çelebi we call them, now with the folk sayings of the Anatolian Turkish villagers. Sait created a new form of writing in Turkish …”

“On the road writing or insular writing ?” I chanced. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the perspiration from his large forehead. I wasn’t sure whether he subscribed to my viewpoint or simply ignored it. “Sait was not a writer who sought desperately to compose a great œuvre, but one who arranged movement by movement the myriad glimpses of human reality. There lies his universality !”

There followed a profound silence between us. The waves broke against the rocks. The pines scraped against the flat roof of his abode. The seagulls screamed. Abi Din Bey scratched the remaining white bristles on his round head then spoke in a half whisper :“He was such a mild-mannered man, so gentle, so attentive to others, never intrusive, only curious of life’s gifts to mankind.” He shook his big head sadly : “Can you imagine, the literati of Istanbul dared call him a tramp and a vagrant !”

“They were devoured by jealousy, Abi Din Bey. The majority of those critics hardly ever wrote one sentence that could rival with Sait’s whimsical seizing of gestures and conversations, his alacrity and precision in story-plot and transition. Had any one of them ever traced a vision of the world where animals commingle with humans, children with adults, elders with youngsters ? Ostriches and seagulls are compared to human beings; he even compares himself to an ostrich ! Had any one of them ever composed homespun characters who express their inner world of trials and tribulations without the narrator meddling in their affairs, however tragic or exuberant ? Had any one of them ever experienced the insular life as a source of narrative inspiration, then externalise it, touching the sensitive notes on the scale of universality ? His was the open, horizonless, borderless life, in spite of an existence as a ‘recluse’. Instead of sentences written at a desk and smelling of the oil lamp, his literary creations exude the aroma of cypress and spruce, the fragrance of the salty sea, of the fisherman’s catch and the common man’s labouring moils. The rusticity of his new life on Burgaz was in no way condescending, nor the parenthetical plunge of a dilettante.” I concluded.

“Sait never caroused with the literary lackeys and scribblers during his short life.” Abi Din Bey stated emphatically with a bit of harshness in his tone. “He told me that he had found comfort and inspiration here on Burgaz, and that we were all children of a timeless present … of a past fallen into oblivion.”

“So true,” I rejoined immediately. “The writer explores the many levels of reality which diverge and converge as silently and indiscreetly as dreams, phantasies and musings cohere with daily mundane events. Does this not mark the novelty of the modern short story, of which Sait was one of the initiators, artisans and masters ?”

“I shall not object to that !” he laughed. “He even won a prize for his stories, but I have forgotten the name.”

“The Mark Twain Prize,” I reminded him. “In 1953. I remember it because it was the year of my birth.”

“Mark Twain … an American short-story writer, I think ? Yes. How tragic, he died a year later of cirrohis, like my brother … They both drank too much rakı[10] … Horrible stuff ! It has killed off many excellent Turkish poets. His doctor, the good Selahatin Hanın, warned him about his heavy drinking, but the doctor, too, would indulge in bouts of boozing with Sait ! What a shame … You know, we would sometimes meet. He would chat about the events of the island, his writing, or this or that. Then he would just get up and leave, stroll slowly along the beach, stop to converse with a visitor or an islander. He was not a man who impressed you by his stature or knowledge or personality ; he would just carry on a conversation whilst dreamily looking out to sea, or follow the flight of the seagulls. He never invited me to his home, although I visited it when it became a museum. What a shame …”

With those words said in a broken voice lacking in resonance, Abi Din Bey stood and with a half smile trudged languidly into his lodging to retire for an afternoon nap ; the heat was becoming unbearable. I observed him disappear into his room. I noted that his footfalls had lost that former blithe spring to them, and his hunched back seemed more and more enshrouded in a halo of solitude … of quiet resignation. I turned my attention to the sheen of the sea growing bluer and bluer, the seagulls plunging downwards to fetch their silvery prey. Tonight would be my last night on Burgaz. The next afternoon I had classes at the university …

In fact, it would be my last night spent with Abi Din Bey. For little did I know that in a few months I would begin a three-year teaching sojourn in Siberia. And when I did return to Istanbul, take the boat to Burgaz and amble down that old and winding path to my friend’s humble home nothing appeared to have changed : the steep path, the dense, leafy vegetation, the briny fragrance of the sea, the laughing seagulls. Yet upon reaching the welcoming gate it had been sealed shut by order of the municipality ! The shutters of his home were closed. The tables and chairs in his garden overturned and strewn about. The plants and trees unattended … lifeless. The barefoot islander who, for some unknown reason, would pile up the stones on the beachhead every day into huge cairns here and there, strolled over and informed me that the authorities had expropriated the ‘old man’s’ property, which forced him to leave Burgaz. Apparently he died of loneliness and of a broken heart. So said the bare-footed stone cairn piler of Burgaz …

Abi Din Bey was the last descendant of the great Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the last person to have personally known Sait Faik Abasıyanık, one of the finest short story writers of the twentieth century … 

Portrait of Sait Faik Abasıyanık by Sabri Erat Siyavuşgil hung in Sait’s Burgaz museum-home

[1]  Alevites are a branch of Muslim Shias who settled in Anatolia Turkey during the Middle Ages.

[2] Turkish writer, 18 November 1906 – 11 May 1954

[3]    From the poem ‘Once’ (Bir Zamanlar).

[4]    From the poem ‘Red Green’ (Kırmızı Yeşil).

[5]    From the poem ‘Despair’ (Yeis).

[6]    From the poem ‘Letter I'( (Mektup I).

[7]    Ali ibn Abi Talib was Mohammad’s son-in-law, having married Fatima, the Prophet’s only daughter.

[8]        Ali Ekbar Aksu, and his collection of poems ‘Bir Göz Orda Bir Göz Burda‘ (A Glance There A Glance Here) and ‘Ya Arif Kul Ya Boş Çul‘ ( Ether a Wise Servant Or an Empty Moneybags).

[9]    Turkish novel writer who won the Nobel Price for literature in 2006.

[10]      A strong alcoholic beverage commonly referred to as arrack in English.

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

.

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

Categories
Essay

How Many Ways To Love a Book

By Sindhu Shivprasad

The summers of high school were eight weeks lived between a haze of pages, books borrowed and exchanged (even secreted away) with abandon.

The exchanges were facilitated with much gusto in rooms, parks, benches by the streets, friends looking over shoulders as the item in question was reverently drawn out of the bag. Some sealed the exchange verbally — “I’ll give it back to you in two weeks” — and the deed was done. Others laid out sacrosanct rules. “Don’t fold the corners. Don’t mark the pages. And for God’s sake, don’t underline anything”.

I have an elderly neighbour who keeps two copies of each book — one for reading and the other for lending. When asked why, she said, “my books are sacred”.

“Sacred” has been used as a stand-in for “religion” for so long that it’s become almost synonymous. But there’s a class of ‘sacred” that refers to things set apart with special meaning and not necessarily connected to anything religious, spiritual or metaphysical.

Sounding very much like German theologian Rudolf Otto, American psychologist JH Leuba suggested that the experience of the sacred is characterised by “an element of awe… The sacred object has a hold upon us, we stand in dynamic relation with it, and this relation is not one of equal to equal, but of superior to inferior.”

I like to observe this in others — the reverent handling of pages, the ginger grip over a paperback so the spine doesn’t crease. Much like the devout scrabble to touch the feet of statues or hold hands with holy seers, even the most upright can fall to weeping at the sight of certain books, begging to hold them in their hands. In essence, they feel what author, educator and priest, Andrew Greeley describes: “By the sacred I mean not only the other-worldly, but also the ecstatic, the transcendental, that which takes man out of himself and puts him in contact with the basic life forces of the universe.”

If you’ve said— or heard someone say —something to the effect of “I lost myself in a book”, you’ve felt this. If you’ve curled up to read a novel and felt as though there were two of you — one curled up on the couch and one hurtling through the pages — then you’ve felt this sacredness.

But like there’s more than one way to love someone, there’s more than one way to love a book. Of course, some cults and sub-cults declare the other blasphemous, but the truth is simple: one book can be revered in many ways.

The platonic lovers read books and keep them only in their hearts and minds, if at all. They don’t actively disrespect the book, but they don’t leave way-markers to say they were here, either. If one “buys books intending to read them” and “reads books only in certain situations” were a Venn diagram, platonic lovers of books would fall into that overlapped territory. They’re most likely to pack a recent bestseller in their rattan bag for a beach day or optimistically buy one at the airport bookstore but crack open only a few pages before falling asleep.

There are the preux[1] lovers, for whom form is inseparable from message. These are the ones who strive to preserve the purity of a novel assured to them by their first-hand bookseller. They carefully mark pauses with magnetic bookmarks and high-quality post-it notes aligned to the line they stopped at. Not for them the creased spines, dog-eared pages, and watermarks from dropping a V.E. Schwab[2] into the bath one tipsy night.

No, these are for the physical lovers, the ones for whom some books are as familiar as a partner’s skin. Touch breeds intimacy — marks of use are marks of love. They leave their footprint — dried flowers, bus tickets, clean leaves off the floor, demonetised currency, letters from a daughter, strands of hair — behind with the boldness of a graffiti artist in broad daylight. The book itself is but a vessel, and they prop it open with whatever’s within arm’s reach: the dog’s tail, an AirPod, or the wrapper of a Twix bar. These are the people who know what it is like to love something to pieces.

And then there are the intellectual lovers, who care to pry open layer after layer and document what they find. The most permanent way-marker— writing in books — has haters and zealots in equal proportions, and this is the class of the latter. After all, the margins — or “sophisticated information-processing space”, as mathematician-philosopher John Dee calls them — often hold more heart-stirring epiphanies than diaries can hope to match. These people might also prefer to read vandalised books over virginal ones, getting caught as much in the flow of the text as in the passions of the reader that came before them.

When I was younger, I was much like the preux booklover I describe: a young novel for a young girl. Smudges, watermarks and left-over mementoes invoked the same ‘ick’ in me that vaguely disgusting bugs did. When you’re young, it’s customary to assume ageing is something that happened to other people — I, however, extended that belief to my straight-spined, pristine novels.

Cut to now: in my late twenties, grey hairs are shooting up from my skull at an alarming rate (a hereditary disposition I give my father much grief about). My oldest books haven’t fared any better, ravaged as they are by time, bathwater, and a 2-month sea voyage from Nigeria to India in ‘06. My early-edition Harry Potter copies, in particular, are now perilously held together by duct tape and makeshift covers. (I’m yet to find Inkheart’s Silvertongue in the real world, but I continue to hope).

Over time, I became less preux and more physical, choosing secondhand books over pristine copies for the same reasons that I’d once detested them. “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore!” exclaimed Henry Ward Beecher[3] once, and while I can stand strong in a Crossword or an Amazon, before my favourite Church Street antiquarian store, I am weak. My excuse is that it’s a lot more exciting to be the next in line for the throne of a kingdom contained within 600 pages.

I still draw the line at marginalia, though. It feels too much like watching a movie at the cinema while Chris Hemsworth’s[4] dialogues are punctuated by boos, expletives or, if it were Mark Twain sitting beside me, vicious comments like “The Droolings of an Idiot”.

Inscriptions are yet another marker on the long-winding road of time and an invitation to re-imagine what circumstances this book has been through. These are marks that even preux lovers can’t deny because they rank highly in the eyes of a true bibliomaniac, glossing over the worst wear and tear. Even at their briefest, they tell a story, like a lovingly inscribed “To Mom” in a heartbreakingly unused novel on a used-book shelf. Indeed, a stroll through a secondhand bookstore is a study in betrayal, distance, and the melancholy effects of time. A secret taken to the grave is now out in the open for hundreds to witness.

In a Ziploc on one shelf in my library sits a battered first edition copy of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, passed on to me by another elderly neighbour whose home was suddenly devoid of seating space. An inscription on the flyleaf (instead of the title page where only heathens write) reads: “Berhampore, 1908”. This doesn’t hold a candle to most inscriptions out there, including Lord Byron’s 226-word note to Countess Guiccioli, which ends with, “Think of me sometimes when the Alps and the ocean divide us — but they never will, unless you wish it”. But it is a relic of our colonial history, bequeathed to me.

So it’ll remain: the small book’s journey over Hill Difficulty and the Valley of the Shadow of Death ending on this twenty-something-year-old’s shelf, cheek and jowl with other hand-me-down slices of history and mystery.


[1] Gallant in French

[2] American writer

[3] Nineteenth century US minister and speaker

[4] Australian actor

.

Sindhu Shivaprasad is an essayist. Her work has been (or is set to be) published in The Yorkshire Post, Kitaab, The Curator, Thrive Global, and more. When not at her day job or curating for her magazine, Ex Libris, she’s usually curled up in a patch of sunlight with a paperback and lemon tea.

.

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

Categories
A Wonderful World

Can Laughter be Weaponised?

"Against the assault of Laughter, nothing can stand." -- Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger 


A sketch by Edward Lear: Courtesy: Creative Commons

Imagine… if there were a world where laughter could help collapse the human construct of war! If only leaders of opposing factions could meet in a match of laughter and resolve their differences with guffaws instead of weapons that kill, maim destroy… 

Imagine… if each cannon chortled with hilarity, shooting absurd images to evoke fun instead of destroying buildings, nature and fauna, the concept of war could be annihilated. To build a new world based on love and harmony, old harmful constructs need to be erased — and battles, weapons and war are exactly that. Hundred years ago, Nazrul wrote about destroying walls and differences in his famous poem ‘Rebel or Bidrohi’ to create new civilisation based on love and acceptance.

For a world we dream of building with love, peace and hope, here is a deluge of laughter from our treasure chests to help heal gloom, doom and hate, often the tools of warlords. Let us step into the realm of the fantastic where with a dash of humour the pen creates Pirate Blacktarn who sails the Lemon seas to meet strange creatures, mermaids and Gods and battles pollution with catfish! Let us laugh while we battle Gretchums, go on pony rides or drives and pay a tribute to the great Lear who created limericks. On April 1st, 2022, let us with a pinch of humour and lot of laughter thaw warmongers and wall builders by making them snigger away their grouches with the aid of the tickle imp so that battles collapse into peaceful resolutions. Let us cheer war victims and recreate a beautiful imaginary world. To that end, we have the humorous writing of Tagore to start us out on our cheerful voyage towards a beautiful world…

Prose

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

Surviving to Tell a Pony-tale: Devraj Singh Kalsi journeys up a hill on a pony and gives a sedately hilarious account. Click here to read.

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

Lear And Far: Rhys Hughes on Edward Lear who wrote fabulous humorous verses to laugh away our fears and founded the popular genre of limericks. Click here to read.

Poetry

Pirate Blacktarn poems … Wander into the fantastical world of Pirate Blacktarn, terror of the Lemon seas with twelve story poems by Jay Nicholls. Click here to read.

Walking GretchumsSaptarshi Bhattacharya takes us into a land of the fantastical… Do such creatures exist and can we battle them? Click here to read.

Animal LimericksMichael Burch introduces the absurd in the format created by Lear. Click here to read.

The Tickle ImpRhys Hughes introduces us to an imp who tickles… a most powerful weapon. Click here to read.

A LAUGHING LIMERICK 
(With Due Apologies to the Maker of Prufock)

Let us go there you and I...
Where laughter etches out against the sky
To a fun-tastical world of the absurd —
Fun-loving creatures, animals and birds.
Let us replace gloom with laughter. Let us do, you and I...

-- Mitali Chakravarty
Categories
Essay

In Praise Of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent journalist and daughter of Bengali writer Nabendu Ghosh, has been a force behind translating Bengali literature and bringing it to the doorstep of those who do not know the language. In this exclusive, she discusses how translations impact the world of literature.

I have often been asked, “Nabendu Ghosh was a literary figure and a screenwriter. How much importance did he place on translation?” Truthfully, because he was a literary person, my father placed a lot of importance on translations which, as he once pointed out, has given us access to almost all the first books in a bevy of Indian languages.

Let me elaborate. Adi Kavi Valmiki, the harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature, composed the original – ‘mool’ – Ramayan long before the first century BC. But Krittibas Ojha’s 15th century rendition in Bengali ‘Panchali’ style is not merely a rewording of the original epic, it gives a description of Bengal’s society and culture in the Middle Ages. It also explores the concept of Bhakti which later contributed to the emergence of Vaishnavism in the Gangetic belt.

This is said to have had a profound impact on the literature of the surrounding region. In Bihar of 16th century Goswami Tulsidas heightened the Bhakti quotient as he retold Ramayan in Hindi, as Ramcharit Manas. The same happened in Orissa. Earlier it had been adapted, with plot twists and thematic adaptations, in the 12th century Tamil Ramavataram; 14th century Telugu Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam; several Kannada versions, starting in 12th century; Ramacharitam in Malayalam; into Marathi also around this time.

My father had inculcated in us this love for multiple languages when I was about ten. As we all sat around after dinner, he would read from these texts – Valmiki’s Ramayan, Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas, The Old Testament from the Bible, Buddhist Jataka Tales, and Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita wherein Mahendra Nath Gupta recounts, word for Bengali word, the conversations and activities of the 19th century Indian mystic. Published in five volumes between 1902 and 1910, this work summing up the life philosophy of Ramkrishna Paramahans through simple anecdotes and parables, has been translated into English and Hindi.

Before that, at the young age of nine, I was also initiated into the crème de la crème of world literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare too – through translations into Bengali. Abridged versions of Crime and Punishment, Mother, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Blue Bird, and Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were published by Deb Sahitya Kutir — among other Bengali publishers — for young readers. Later in life, as a student of English Literature, I realized that our understanding of the ways and woes of our world would be so much poorer if Iliad and Odyssey had remained confined to Greek readers; if Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had not crossed the frontiers of Norway; if Don Quixote were to be read only in the Spanish that Miguel Cervantes wrote in; if The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant only for those raised in French, or if Faust were to be played only to German viewers.

And, talking of viewers: how would the world have known about the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the French Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Polish Andrzej Wajda, the Czech Jiri Menzel, the Argentinian Fernando Solanas, the Turkish Yilmaz Guney, the Chinese Zhang Yimou, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, or our very own Satyajit Ray? Unthinkable, the world of cinema without subtitles in this day and age when Hollywood films come with subtitles in not just English and Hindi – the two official languages of India – but also in its umpteen regional languages to reach viewers in pockets that speak only Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali…

The importance of translation is best exemplified by the Song Offerings. If Rabindranath Tagore had not translated the poems of Gitanjali, Asia would have had to wait longer for its first Nobel Prize. Incidentally the central theme of this work too is devotion – and it is part of UNESCO’s collection of Representative Works. And it is my belief that no other Nobel for literature has come to India because we have not come up with any worthy translation – say, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? At least, not until recent years, nor in a big way.

Also, it is my own experience that only after Me and I — translated from the Bengali original, Aami O Aami by Devottam Sengupta — was published by Hachette India that a major international publishing house got interested in translating Nabendu Ghosh into French.

*

That brings me to the frequently asked question: “Why are you translating Nabendu Ghosh rather than publishing his Bengali originals?” The answer takes me back to 1940s when Baba’s Phears Lane was translated into Urdu and published in Lahore. Clearly Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ in Bengali literature then. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee, the thespian who we lost so recently and was a Master in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call) was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans.”

But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Thus, when Bimal Roy – a celluloid star after his meteoric debut with Udayer Pathey ( In the Path of Sunrise, 1943) — left for Bombay in 1950 to make a film for Bombay talkies, Nabendu Ghosh joined his unit. However, in Bombay he found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So, he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.

This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, “There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.” But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screen writing, and even in Bengal people thought of him only as the screen writer of successful films. Small wonder, since he wrote more than eighty scripts, for directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Shakti Samanta, Sushil Mazumdar, among others. Most of them are considered classics of the Indian screen: Sujata, Bandini, Devdas, Parineeta, Aar Paar, Majhli Didi, Teesri Kasam, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khan Dost, Baadbaan, Insaan Jaag Utha, Lal Patthar …

But Baba was saddened that even his colleagues in the filmdom did not know his literary pouring as only a handful were translated into Hindi and none into English. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017), and That Bird Called Happiness (2017). Mistress of Melodies (2020) you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after That Bird Called Happiness. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi/ Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.

But above all, the reason for putting my energy in this art is to take a part of my heritage to the world. Because, as the celebrated Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee said about Nabendu Ghosh, he is a writer who deserves to be read. Allow me to finish with a quote from him as he talked about his senior’s continuing relevance, to readers of Bengali literature and outside.

“Nabendu Da’s use of language was remarkable. He starts one of his stories with the word ‘Bhabchhi / (I’m) Thinking.’ It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of the Buddha — uses a vocabulary that is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam.

“He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! So fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… Exceptional is the only word to describe it.

“And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. His ‘throw’ was such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell.

The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition.

“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengal but worldwide.”

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly 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. 

.

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

Categories
Editorial

In Search of Human Excellence

Good morning world! 

Borderless Journal today completes three full months of its virtual existence and will take a plunge towards a refreshed image. We hope to be a monthly from now on to serve you better, to do more justice to our submissions which continue to be overwhelming in numbers.

Meanwhile, in our pages, we have tried to connect mankind with ideas and thoughts that move away from borders drawn to divide humans — we want a world that transcends race, colour, creed or nationality. The only thing we look for is connectivity and coherence. We want to see the best in humans, what makes us strong and what carries us forward into a world that is not fragmented by fears, anger, hatred and marginalised thoughts.

Marginalisation also creates borders because there are humans within the border who for some reason are seen as different from humans without the border. I am not thinking of equality but of equity, where we can all feel we have been treated with justice. 

These few months we had writing not just on COVID 19, lockdowns, quarantines and opening of lockdowns, but also stories of major natural calamities like the Amphan, race riots like that of Floyd’s and more. Perhaps, the latest riots in America, will make us all realise that in every country, every culture, we have our own Floyds. And to acknowledge that we are of the same flesh and blood as the marginalised or underprivileged masses is a mammoth task for all mankind. We need to rise above things that divide and fill the world with love, kindness and tolerance.

Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) has the protagonist who travels back in time to Camelot observe prisoners from the underprivileged masses waiting to be sentenced and he thinks:” …they are white Indians.” Indians, meaning the Red Indians who had their housing and way of life shrunk into reserves in the same year in Minnesota the book was published — 1889. In 1887, their land had been taken away by the Dawes Act signed by the US President Cleveland. Was it just — taking away the land in which they had lived for centuries? Was it just to hate someone for having a different culture or a different way of life anywhere in the world at any point in history? Was it just to have slaves? Was it just to kill Floyd? Was it just to kill in the name of creed, or on the basis of what people eat? Was it just to give people no work, no food and no transport and have them walk till they dropped dead?

To me, all these are Floyds of the modern-day world, people killed in mob violence or for following different food habits, lifestyles, cultures or beliefs. History speaks only the truth. It is heartless and as Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” And the victors to perpetrate their hegemony, create margins for those they dominate — the ruled become the marginalised and non-marginalised as that makes it easy for power brokers to fan differences to maintain their own strength. In the colonial period, they called it divide and rule.

Toni Morrison, another lady with a great deal of wisdom, said in an interview, “Race is a construct, a social construct.” History, Yuval Noah Harari, and more have shown this assertion by Morrison to be a fact. All of these are man-made constructs. 

I have a very basic question: if we can accept the different colours in nature, why can we not find it in our hearts to accept differences not only of skin colour but of beliefs, of creeds and of food habits?  These are questions that Borderless seeks to explore, to find the weaves that connect mankind to help move towards a richer tapestry of humanity. This is just the start of the journey and we can all make it together.

Sara’s Selections in the loving nurture of Bookosmia hopes to integrate these larger values into the younger generation. 

Let us all lead by example with exemplary writing, with exemplary choice of subjects and with exemplary writing skills. We are open to comments and feedback by readers who are as necessary to the existence of writers and journals as air to breathe and live.

Welcome to an exploration of a world beyond borders! 

Mitali Chakravarty

Founding Editor,

Borderless Journal