On 26 th January, 1950, India was declared a republic, an independent entity with the complete withdrawal of colonial support of any kind. The country adopted an independent constitution. The Republic Day celebrations conclude on 29th January with ‘Beating the Retreat’,where more than seven decades ago the British withdrew all armed support from India.
In this edition, we will explore how the idea of an independent India has evolved over the decades. We have poetry by Asad Latif that celebrates the Indianess across borders. On the other hand, Beni S Yanthan from Nagaland explores the republic in the shadow of displacement, which makes one wonder if cultural hegemony can help make a country? Ukraine is faced with a war over it.
Tagore’s poem builds empathy around human suffering as does Premchand’s story, translated by C Christine Fair — these are texts written at the start of the turn of the last century. Have we come out of that suffering? Perhaps, the answer can be found in Bhaskar Parichha’s review about a book that spans almost the whole of twentieth century in India. He tells us the author, “MA Sreenivasan (1897-1998) lived through almost the entire 20th century and was among the very few people who witnessed at close quarters the enormous changes that took place in India during this period.” This has been recorded in his book and its review. Rhys Hughes’ humour winds up this edition where he recounts the differences in the cultural ethos of India and a region of the country that despite losing an empire where the sun never set, still retains its sense of humour!
Written in 1905, Banshi or flute, was published in Tagore’s collection called Kheya ( translates to boat, published in 1906).
Your flute —
For a short while,
Pretend it's mine.
The sarat* morning flowed by.
The day grew tired nigh.
If you are weary
Of playing your flute,
Then please let,
For a short while,
Your flute be mine.
I will not do much with it.
I will only play
For part of the day.
Raising it high,
I will hold it to my lips
I will express my happiness
By playing many snatches —
In this way losing myself
I will only play
For part of the day.
Then as dusk descends,
I will get flowers in a basket
to make a necklace.
Adorning a garland of juthi*,
Filled with its heady perfume
I will pray with an
Offering of lamps.
That is why in the gloaming,
Fill a basket of flowers
To make a garland of juthi.
A half-moon will rise
Amidst the stars
To gaze at your path.
Then I will come to you
To return your flute.
And you will play a tune
Expressive of the depth of night —
A half- moon will rise
Amidst the stars
To gaze at your path.
*Sarat is early autumn.
*Juthi is a kind of Jasmine
This poem has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial input from Sohana Manzoor & Anasuya Bhar
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Prothom Diner Shurjo or (the sun on the first day) from Tagore’s last collection of poems, called Shesh Lekha (The Last Writings), was written in 1941.
THE SUN ON THE FIRST DAY
The sun that rose
On the first day asked
Newly-fledged consciousness —
Who are you?
There was no answer.
Many eons passed.
The setting sun in the
Silence of the dusk, asked
The Western shore the last question —
Who are you?
There was no answer.
This poem has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial input from Sohana Manzoor & Anasuya Bhar
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.
Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.
Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click hereto read.
Written in May 1914, Tomar Shonkho Dhulay Porey (Your Conch lies in the Dust) was a part of Tagore’s poetry collection called Balaka (A flight of Swans, 1916).
How will I endure
Your conch fallen in the dust?
At this dreaded juncture,
The breeze and light stop — stunned.
Come fight with your flag, be strong.
Sing out loud if you have a song.
If you want to walk, walk along.
Come forward, fearless,
The conch of valour lies long
In the dust, listless.
I was going to pray
with an offering of flowers.
After toiling the whole day,
I yearn for peaceful bowers.
I had thought my wounded heart
Would be a thing of the past.
Washed, I would at last,
Emerge unbruised, untouched.
I saw again in the path
Your great conch lying in the dust.
Is this the lamp lit for orisons?
Are these my dusk’s recourse?
Is this red jaba* garland woven?
Oh, for the chaste tuberose!
I had hoped we could resolve,
Our differences, dissolve
The debts, sort, solve;
Have the numbers accounted.
And then, I heard the call--
Your conch resounded.
Wake us with the elixir
Of eternal youthfulness.
Like a lamp, let your raga stir,
Illuminate with blissfulness.
Let the darkness fly,
Celebrations reverberate in the sky.
Chase the gloom away by
Terrorising it to distant lands.
We will hold your conch high
Today with our two hands.
I know sleep will not reign
In my eyes any more.
I know arrows will rain
On my chest galore.
Some will join us, weep
Or breathe deep,
Nightmares will chase sleep
Away from cots.
Today, joy will sweep
To your great conch calls.
I found myself shamed
When I sought comfort from you.
Now, adorn all of us with coats of mail
And weapons of war anew.
We will not flinch or bolt
Under any kind of assault.
Even if my heart vaults
In grief, victory will still flow unstaunched.
Our strength will be forged
With the fearless call of your conch.
This poem has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial input from Sohana Manzoor & Anasuya Bhar.
It stretches without borders, without interruptions, without contentions, unifying all under its life-giving ambience. We live nurtured by the sky, the water and the Earth. If we think back to times before humans made constructs and built walls to guard their own, to times when their ancestors roamed the Earth and moved to meet their needs, the population was not huge, and resources were abundant. Our species lived in consonance with nature. People revered natural forces and found trends that evolved into traditions and constructs which eventually made their progeny forget that the sky, water and Earth did not belong to them. These belong or perhaps exist for some reason that we do not comprehend despite the explanations given by science and religions. Being merely transient passers-by through these, humanity, unlike dinosaurs, has an urge to survive and be like the sky — with a past, present and future and a sense of the eternal. Though we all have short lives compared to the sky, Earth or universe, we continue to find ourselves in a homo centric world that considers all else to be made to meet their aspirations. But there was a time, when humans lacked this arrogance. They just tried to survive. And move with shifting rivers in an unbordered world.
Evoking humour is not easy, but we do have a few such writers who manage it very well. Hughes has given us a tongue-in-cheek piece on the dateline, which has more than humour. And Devraj Singh Kalsi has shared his discovery that laughter is the best medicine to shrug off a dentist’s drill. He has also visited the colours of Durga Puja which, with its spirit of inclusivity, transported visitors in one marquee near Kolkata to the iconic Malaysian Twin Towers. Thus, bringing festivals in October into our purview. Candice Lousia Daquin has actually explored why we celebrate festivals and the God gene… Did you know we have a biological need for spirituality?
Suzanne Kamata has introduced us to Mount Bizan, which houses a writer by the surname of Moraes – Wenceslau José de Souza de Moraes, an expat writer who lived in Japan at the turn of the twentieth century. Wonder if he could have been related to the Anglo Indian writer, Dom Moraes? Aditi Yadav has also given us an essay on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi with its world view centred on imperfections and transience. Ravi Shankar has suggested walks for all of us, sharing his experiences in the Himalayas, the Caribbean island of Aruba and in many more places. Meredith Stephens has written of sailing to Tasmania.
The essay that brought back a flavour of home for me is one by Asad Latif, now a journalist in Singapore but long ago, he was an icon in India. We are very privileged to have his writing on what borders do for us… a piece exploring the idea on which we base our journal, also perhaps with a touch of Anthony Sattin’ s asabiyya. ‘Pandies’ Corner‘ starts another run, showcasing women’s tryst for freedom. Amreen’s ‘Moh-Reen’, her own story, translated from Hindustani by Janees, is a brave start to the series. The voices ring out asking for a change, to heal social norms to accommodate love and kindness with the backing of Shaktishalini and Pandies as does the unsupported solo voice of an older woman from Balochistan, Ganji Baloch, brought to our notice by Ali Jaan Maqsood.
We have fiction from Sohana Manzoor – again bringing to fore strange stories of women rebelling against social norms. Paul Mirabile explores death and the sea in a horrific story. Sunil Sharma’s fiction explores madness and ideators, making a social comment on recent happenings. As the sky stretches out to accommodate all kinds of writings, all creatures great and small, we try our best to give voice to a fair cross section from around the world as we have done thistime too.
There are as usual pieces that we have not mentioned in this note but they are all worth a read. Do drop in to check out our contents in this October issue. We are truly grateful to our contributors who continue to connect with words and thoughts that waft along with clouds. We would like to thank Sohana Manzoor especially for her wonderful artwork. The journal would not be a possibility without the support of the whole team and our valuable readers who make writing worth the effort. It is lovely to be read and remembered for the words we write.
Anthony Sattin, an award winning journalist and travel writer in conversation about Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, his recent book published by Hachette, India.
A breath-taking narrative that travels with the freedom of nomads, drawing from folklore, history and modern movements to give voice to an idea that might help move towards a more progressive and hopeful future — Anthony Sattin has achieved all this in a single book called Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, a non-fiction that touches the heart with the concept of unifying humanity beyond the borders of ‘isms’ drawn over time. It explores the history of people who often have not been chronicled in conventional texts.
We are living in times where floods, forest fires, wars and divides are ravaging humanity as it wakes up from the coils of a pandemic that had almost stilled all normal interactions and economic activities for more than two years. The unrests and the changes attributed to “climate change” call for “continued solidarity” and a united front from all humanity as indicated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres and global guru Harari. In times such as these, an attempt to revive the concept of asabiyya, or bonds based on felt interests, is laudable and a necessity for the world to move forward. And that is exactly what Sattin has done in his recent book.
He has travelled with nomads; folklores, starting with Cain and Abel, Gilgamesh and Enkidu; history, Gobelki Tepe or Potbelly Hill, the place where he locates what might have been Eden, Achaemenid kings, Persian nomads, Mongols, Mughals to global nomads — spanning 12, 000 years of history.
In his book, Sattin tells us: “We are living at a time when the world — our world — shaped by the age of Reason and Enlightenment, powered by industrial and technological revolutions is faltering. Social contracts are fraying and communications are breaking down. The raw materials and natural resources are becoming scarce, and the consequence of our actions … are written large across landscapes, the climate, the fabric of our lives…Change is needed.”
Sattin “traces the shifting relationships between people who move and those who were settled” to find the concept of asabiyya or the sense of bonding popularised by an Arab philosopher called Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). Perhaps, this is an ideal that could benefit humankind if we were all to see ourselves as one tribe. He has mentioned modern attempts at asabiyya, like the call given by ‘Black Lives Matter’, to contextualise the concept for us and to show how a movement born from within the hearts of people could touch and change attitudes.
The book is divided into three parts after an initial introduction from Mount Zagros, where Sattin was rescued from a bout of sunstroke by nomads: the first part is called ‘The Balancing Act’, where he explores ancient folklore and history, Huns, Hyksos, Scythians, Xiongnu and more: the second part is called ‘The Imperial Act’, from ‘The rise of the Arabs to the Fall of Mongols’ where kingdoms and world history is brought into play and the importance of asabiyya is introduced with historic instances and the last part is called ‘The Act of Recovery’, where changes towards redefining the world in terms of ideals aligned with asabiyya are explored.
The scope of the non-fiction is clarified at the start of the book from Mount Zagros. He starts the first section interestingly in a locale, termed by him as “Paradise” in 10,000 BC with a global population of ‘Perhaps 5 million’, of which he lists the nomad population as ‘Most of the number’. As he unfolds the history of mankind, from the past we find echoes of what could be called mobile or nomadic bonds that embrace to expand and heal civilisations. Sattin has been exploring such bonds for the last forty years.
Described as “a cross between Indiana Jones and a John Buchan hero” and “one of the key influences on travel writing today”, Sattin started his interactions with bedouins at age nineteen and found them nurturing. He elucidates: “After I left school, I went travelling in the Middle East. In the Sinai Peninsula, at that time, there were no hotels or other facilities outside of Sharm el Sheikh. So, I and the friend I was travelling with relied on the Bedouins for many things — they brought us fish and other food, they told us stories about the magical places in the desert mountains and although we had been told that they would rob us, they looked after us.”
Sattin has several non-fictions under his belt and is an award-winning journalist, who writes in a number of well-known journals, like the Sunday Times, the Conde Nast Traveller and the Financial Times. An editorial advisor to the Geographical magazine, he is also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a founder-member of Travel Intelligence and ASTENE (the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East). He was the director of the Principal Film Company, has written, advised and presented on television and radio productions, including the BBC.
In this exclusive conversation, Sattin discusses Nomads, and tells us how the book came to be.
What made you think of writing a book on nomads, who — you have stated in your book — now constitute only 40 million in a world of 7.8 billion humans?
Every book has its moment, and this is the right time for Nomads. It came out of a lifelong interest in people who live on the move and on the problems of settled society, especially with cities – some of the first thoughts in Nomads occurred decades back when I read Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. But I also have many ideas for books in my head at any one time and they don’t all get written! And some of them sit around for ages and then it seems to me to be the right moment to write. The way our world has changed in the past decade helped shape my sense that this is the moment to write about open borders and freedom of movement. I also wanted to write something that would stretch me more than anything else I had written. Twelve thousand years of history seemed like a big enough challenge…
How long did it take you to research and write the book? What kind of research did you do?
I began shaping the idea nine years ago, after I finished my previous book, Young Lawrence, about how the second son of an anonymous, middle class Oxford family became Lawrence of Arabia. The proposal took more than a year to get right – as my editor at WW Norton in New York pointed out, a subject this big can be about everything and nothing. Then there were years of research, particularly in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the London Library, which is a wonderful place, the largest private library in the world and which serves as my home from home. I had many conversations over the years with scholars, people in publishing, fellow writers, travellers and nomads. And then there was the travelling with nomads, the writing and rewriting.
You travelled and lived among nomads for some time? How many years? Were your travels affected by the pandemic? If so, how did you bypass that?
I have been meeting nomads for more than forty years, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, where I have travelled extensively. When I was 19, I was looked after by Bedouin in the Sinai Desert. In 2010, I was back there on a camel trek with a guide who impressed me because he knew every mountain, every watering place and every cave, including one which he pointed out as the place where he was born.
In Mali, I spent time with Touareg nomads, who came together each year at a place in the desert beyond Timbuktu – these tribes used to be at war with central government (and are again), but a treaty had been brokered and one of the terms was that tribal and government leaders would meet once a year to sort out grievances. They also played music, danced, raced camels… How could one not be swept away?
Specifically for Nomads, I went to Iran to spend some time with the Bakhtiari, a large nomad tribe who I had chosen in part because they claim lineage that goes back millennia, because they had played a part in the making of modern Iran but also because in the 1920s, a movie was made of their annual migration into the Zagros Mountains, amazingly by the director and producer whose next movie was the original King Kong! The Bakhtiari taught me much about the challenges facing nomads today.
Can you tell us of a few interesting experiences while moving with nomads which are not part of the book?
When I first went into the Zagros Mountains to meet the Bakhtiari, I was taken by a guide (being British, I had to have a guide for my entire stay in Iran) and he could not understand why I would waste my money and my time going into the mountains. He was from the city and exhibited age-old prejudices against people who lived on the move, whom he called ‘primitives”. But I am not a nomad and although I don’t find them primitive, I do find some aspects of their lives very challenging: years ago, on a camel trek in the Thar Desert, I caught what I now assume was sunstroke and thought I was going to pass out. My guide – there were just the two of us travelling – got me out of the desert. At the first village we reached, he had someone bring a bed out of a house and placed in the shade of a tree. I lay down and remember no more until about four hours later when I woke to find myself surrounded by the whole village. They had been angry with the guide for bringing me to them – think of all the trouble they would face if I died! When I woke, in the middle of this scene, the whole crowd burst into cheers like a scene out of a Bollywood movie.
You have spoken of ‘asabiyya’ taught by Ibn Khaldun. Can you explain the concept briefly and tell us if this can be of relevance in the current global situation?
Asabiyya is a sense of group feeling, something that binds people together. Ibn Khaldun thought it had shaped the world and found that it was most powerful among nomads and people who lived in the desert, in part because they must rely absolutely on each other. When this group feeling is channelled by a leader – the Prophet Muhammed, for instance – it can lead the group towards extraordinary achievements, as when the first Arabs overcame the might of the better-trained and armed Byzantine and Persian armies. It might all sound like something from long ago but I think there is a sense, in our own time, of someone like Greta Thurnberg having channelled that same feeling to force our leaders to pay attention to the climate emergency.
At a point you tell us that “…cities posed existentialist risks, and their temptations could overwhelm the asabiyya and nomads would lose their identity.” Why was maintaining their identity for the nomads so essential? Do you think this is something that needs revival in the present?
The existential risks I mention are the ones that rob nomads of their asabiyya and therefore of their power. Ibn Khaldun had seen this first hand: in North Africa, several small reformist movements had come out of the harsh desert or mountains to the south and overwhelmed the courts and kingdoms along the north coast. But each of those movements had fallen apart within a few generations as the pure people of the desert found themselves corrupted by living in cities. As for identity, it is important for all of us to know who we are and where we have come from — that was one reason to write the book, because very little is taught about nomads in western schools.
Your book touches upon number of issues — including faith. Given the fact that the great Khan had a Nestorian church, a mosque and a Buddhist temple in his capital city despite following the Shamanistic faith, would you say that an openness or tolerance in beliefs and faiths led to a more strongly tethered kingdom, as they did not really seem to have concepts of permanent national boundaries then? Is this not a dichotomy that you create a strongly tethered kingdom and yet are open to move on, leaving the old capital behind? And is it not wasteful?
I think there are two things going on here. On the one hand, a belief in freedom of conscience, the right to follow any or no religion. This was certainly something the great Mongol khans believed in. They were mostly animists, believing in the Sky Father and reliant on signs and omens, but they were not adverse to being prayed for and blessed by an imam or priest. Even the Ottomans, who came out of a nomadic tradition and were clearly Muslims, thought it important to allow freedom of conscience in their empire. What mattered was not who you prayed to, but whether you were prepared to acknowledge the sovereignty of the khan or the sultan. Some of the most successful periods in human history have flourished because of this idea.
A strongly tethered kingdom is another issue. For nomads, cities and capitals were not as important as lands, particularly hunting and grazing lands. The Mongol khans, like ancient Persian emperors and many other nomad leaders, recognised the need for a pivotal meeting place, a capital, but they were mostly more interested in spending time elsewhere and on the move. A leader such as Attila, the Hun ruler, had no interest in the cities he conquered.
You mention British author,Bruce Chatwin(1940-1989), as having said “we are born to move, that we must move or die.” Can you explain what that would mean? In the current context, people talk of roots and homeland. If they keep moving what happens to their firm conviction in homeland?
It depends what sort of ‘moving’ we are talking about. On a mundane and personal level, research now tells us that we are less likely to get ill and more likely to live longer if we walk 10,000 steps a day. On a national and global scale, we need interaction, we need to live lighter, we need to be nimble on our feet and in our thoughts.
You have divided the world into two groups — nomads and settlers — and said we need a bit of both. Can you tell us how and why?
Humans began to settle and cultivate some 12,000 years ago and since then, like Cain and Abel, humans have broadly been divided into those who stay in one place, usually either cultivating the land or living in towns/cities, and those who live on the move. For most of history they have lived in a state of mutual dependence and often even in harmony. A world without nomads, with everyone fixed in one place – which seems to be where we are heading – is a smaller, less rich, less fertile world.
In a post-pandemic world, would the nomadic lifestyle you have written of be feasible, especially with all the governmental issues creeping in?
The word nomad comes from a very old Indo-European word meaning pasture or a fixed area, which suggest the right to graze. But if you take a broad view of what it means to be a nomad in the 21st century, you might also include digital nomads and others who move to work or just because that is how they want to or have to live. That might not have been possible during the pandemic, when we were all locked down, but the number of people on the move now in many parts of the world is right back up and that can only be a good thing – we need to mix and meet, to exchange experiences and opinions.
If we opt for a mobile lifestyle, would we need to redefine borders as of old? Would that take us back to a pre-nationalistic era? Do you think we should be redefining our mindsets and our isms? Do you suggest we all go back to an intermittent nomadic lifestyle?
We should always be questioning mindsets and isms! Happily, we are living through a golden age of revisionist history shaped by a number of forces, decolonialism, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo among them. We also live in an age of misinformation on a massive scale. Nomads has come out of a need I had to shine some light on a way of life that is either entirely missing, or misrepresented in our histories.
Are you planning to write more on this issue or move on to something else? Would you share with us your next project?
There is much more to be written about this issue, but after spending most of the past eight years working on Nomads, it is time for me to look elsewhere. I hope I have stimulated a debate about nomads that will encourage others to look further. Meanwhile my thoughts are turning to Egypt — and to Italy, from where I am writing today.
Thanks for giving us your time during your travels.
Aalo Amar Aalo (Light, My Light) was part of Tagore’s collection titled by him as Bichitro (Amazing) which appeared in 1911, and later as part of Geetabitan(1932)
Light of mine, O light, the universe is filled with your effulgence,
My heart is yours; my eyes drown in your refulgence.
The light danced — danced amid my being.
It sings — sings amid my heartstrings.
The sky awakens, the breeze flits, the Earth laughs.
As luminous currents surge, thousands of butterflies take flight.
Mallika-Malati* dance in waves of light.
The clouds are coloured with gold, infinite gems glitter.
The leaves laugh intoxicated with elation.
Your nectar floods the shores by the river of tunes.
*Names of fragrant flowers
We present the song in Bengali by Chinmoy Chatterjee (1930-1987), also known as Chinmoy Chattopadhyay, an eminent singer from the past.
This song has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial input from Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar.
A conversation with VR Devika, author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, Niyogi Books.
“Education, Freedom and Responsibility bring out the best from the individual and race. This will apply to all men and women irrespective of caste, creed or colour.”
—Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muthulakshmi Reddy:A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights
Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights by VR Devika is a biography of a woman who shouted out to demand reforms among devdasis ( women who had been ‘married’ to lifelong service of a deity or a temple) and prostitutes in the nineteenth-twentieth century. The biographer, V R Devika, is a storyteller, educationist and Gandhi scholar.
Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was born to a devdasi mother and transcended the system that had deteriorated from when a devadasi was considered ‘auspicious’ as she would never be widowed or married, and she could maintain her status quo, the book informs, adding a historic perspective to this ‘norm’. By Reddy’s times, these women had been reduced to become mistresses to rich men. In ancient times, before malpractices set in, a princess is said to have opted to become a devdasi. The decline started in the sixteenth century when devdasis were transferred from temple to temple.
The narrative is simple and straightforward but what stands out is the value of the content, the strength of the woman who could speak up boldly and demand reforms — even have some of them instituted. She spoke out for reforms with searing words. The author quotes from many of her speeches.
“Muthulakshmi used strong language to explain her position on the Devadasi question. ‘Of all the laws, rules and regulations which down the centuries have helped to place women in a position of inferiority, none has been so very powerful in creating in the minds of men and people a sentiment of scorn and contempt for women as the degrading idea of the double standard of morals.’
“She thundered, ‘From this double standard that has sprung that worst attack on women’s dignity, that safety valve theory that a certain number of women should exist, should sacrifice their self-respect, their honour, their comforts, their health and happiness to satisfy the lust of the other sex. At the present day, the continuance of such a doctrine and of the laws which are founded on it, is a shameful anachronism unworthy of our civilisation. Both in the past and in the present, women have disproved their inferiority, and how then can we at the present day tolerate or connive at a system which transforms a woman of whichever caste or class she may be, into a mere chattel, a piece of tainted merchandise? The inequity of the system is too deep for me to give expression, and further under that inhuman and unjust system the innocent children of a certain caste or community are trained to become proficient in all the arts of solicitation that they become captives to vice.’”
That men and women perpetrate social norms to justify the existence of the so-called ‘world’s oldest profession’ is well brought out in the book. That women forced into the sex trade are not doing this out of choice is conveyed with conviction. Names of Reddy’s associates include Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) and the well-known singer whose mother was a devdasi too, MS Subbulakshmi (1930-1997).
Reddy was one of the first female medical graduates in India, the first woman to enter an Indian Legislature and the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly. A recipient of the Padmabhushan and more accolades, she, as a doctor founded the Addyar Cancer Institute in 1952 after her sister was caught with cancer, and, as a humanitarian, started the Avvai Home in 1931 for those rescued from brothels and streets. Her spirit is well captured by the author when she writes:
“In 1942, during the World War II, soldiers of the British Royal Airforce camping in tents on the banks of Adyar river had made some derogatory remarks about the girls and harassed them. Muthulakshmi stood vigil all night with a stick in her hand and dared any soldier to come near the Home. She even went up the ranks to the commander’s house near Fort St. George to complain to him about the conduct of the soldiers and curb their behaviour.”
VR Devika has extensively shown that Reddy was a force to be reckoned with but she has not given way completely to adulation. She has objectively shown how Reddy over ruled her son’s choices for the well-being of her own institutions. It brought to mind Gandhi’s attitude towards his own family. An established cultural activist, VR Devika has been associated with the inception of Chennai’s Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum and Tamil Nadu INTACH, has been visiting the Avvai Home and in this exclusive she tells us the story of how the book came about and why she visited this home and its impact on her.
Tell us why you felt that Muthulakshmi Reddy’s story needed to be told. What was the readership you had in mind when you wrote the biography?
The dance scholarship [donors] consisting of mainly outsiders who had a hypothesis, got a good grant, employed interpreters and cherry picked to denigrate her in a fashion that took dance academic world by storm after the 1980s. I had also bought into them when I began to learn Bharathanatyam. But when I joined INTACH Tamilnadu and Madras Craft Foundation in 1985 after having been a schoolteacher since 1974, I began a project of English language as a skilling programme and theatre as empowerment for Avvai Home. That is when I began to get the other side of the story that was really fascinating. I kept thinking I must reach this story out. Dr.V.Shanta, chairman of Cancer institute, said I must write her [Muthulakshmi Reddy’s] biography and I decided to work on it after she passed away. I had young people who were studying English but had no access to English other than their textbooks as the target audience but I am a story teller and I just began to tell the story in simple way as I always do.
You tell us in the authorial note that you went on ‘work’ to the Avvai home. Tell us about the home. Why were you there?
Geetha Dharmarajan and I lived near Avvai Home. I had no idea about the history of the home etc. But I knew very poor girls studied there. Geetha had spoken to them and I went along but Geetha relocated to New Delhi and started Katha and I stayed on helping Avvai Home in many different ways. I have written a full story of Avvai Home in the book. It was volunteer work. Rajalakshmi of Avvai Home requested me to help them on a production on Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy. I interviewed Sarojini Varadappan, Dr.Shanta, and several others to write the script for the production. I am now on their school advisory committee.
For me, the most interesting aspect was how Muthulakshmi Reddy made the transition from being born a devadasi to empowering herself enough to outlaw the custom. Did her parents ever marry?
No there was no way they could marry as a girl born in the system was barred from ritualistic marriage according to Hindu custom. She was his companion.
Your narrative is direct and eulogistic of great names and associations of/ developed by Muthulakshmi Reddy and the lady herself. The personal is largely left out, except to emphasise her achievements. Why?
I cannot [describe that] as I never met her. I had to sketch a portrait from her writings, her achievements and her son’s writing.
Would you regard the devdasi system as a social ill that has been erased or is it an ongoing battle?
There is no social evil that has been erased completely. Nostalgists for devdasi system denigrate her [Reddy]. But there is the social evil of discrimination against Dalits still, but should Ambedkar be blamed for giving a legal handle for those who wanted to come out and achieve something of their own despite the caste hierarchy? Those who benefited from the abolition of dedication are in thousands while those who bemoan the loss of culture in the way they want it are in hundreds.
The devdasi system is a generic system in a number of states in India. Did Reddy’s reforms benefit all the states? Was the Avvai Home open to all devdasis or only from her state?
Avvai Home never claimed to be only for devdasis but for girls who needed protection and access to education. No reform benefits everyone. Her law was for the Madras Presidency of the time which consisted of parts of Andhra, Orissa and Karnataka too as part of it.
Muthulakshmi Reddy started a number of things, including the second oldest cancer hospital in India. But all these were reactions borne of personal experiences. Do you think if she had been born into a regular family, and her sister would not have had cancer, would she have striven for these institutions too?
I can’t answer a hypothetical question. How do we know what she would have done?
What was the driving force behind the reforms instituted by Muthulakshmi Reddy?
Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly.
Would you justify the “emotional blackmail” on her son to fulfil her own dream by giving up his own? Do you think that it is right of a parent to impose their will in this way?
I am not justifying it. It happened that way. Just telling the story. She did not force her elder son who went into Electrical Engineering. Her second son never resented the “emotional blackmail” He went along whole heartedly.
What for you was the most endearing quality of Dr Reddy?
I have many who worked with her telling me she was very kind, but she was also a tyrant and would not bend. Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly. She was a mother (Amma) was the unanimous opinion.
Wherever I look, a golden light
Suffuses a vision of holidays,
The festive sun rises in the woods
Of puja* blossoms drenched in gold rays.
-- Tagore, Eshechhe Sarat
This has been a favourite poem of many who grew up reading Tagore, lines that capture the joy and abandon of the spirit that embodies the celebration of Durga Puja, a festival that many Bengalis deem as important as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Diwali or Eid. It is a major celebration in Bengal and large parts of the sub-continent, though not in all parts.
The reason that reviving the lore associated with this fiesta has become very important is that it centres around women. Given the situation in Iran, where the battle over how to wear headscarves has turned bloody, murderous and violent, celebrating an empowered woman, even if mythical, takes precedence over all else. Mythology has it that Durga was empowered by weapons given to her by various deities, all of who were men, and then, she did what all the male Gods failed to do — destroyed a demon called Mahisasur. Rama too prayed to Durga for victory around this time. And on Bijoya Doushami, the last day of the Durga Puja, some celebrate Rama’s victory over Ravana and call it Dusshera or Dashain.
To bring to you a flavour of the Puja, we have translations of poetry by Tagore describing the season and of a poet who was writing before Rabindranath, Michael Madhusdan Dutt, by Ratnottama Sengupta, verses exploring the grief of parting Durga’s mother expresses as her daughter returns to her husband’s home. This is also a festival of homecoming for, like Durga, those living far from their homes return to the heart of their families. Rituparna Mukherjee has woven a story specially around this aspect of the festival. Journals in Bengal, traditionally, brought out special editions with writings of eminent persons, like Satyajit Ray. We have an interview with a writer who wrote a book on Satyajit Ray, an actor called Barun Chanda, to bring a flavour of that tradition along with the translation of a celebrated contemporary Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, by Aruna Chakravarti. We hope you enjoy savouring our Durga Puja Special.
Eshechhe Sarat(Autumn) , describing the season of Durga Puja, by Tagore has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.
Bijoya Doushumi, a poem on the last day of Durga Puja, by the famous poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, has been translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.
Homecoming by Rituparna Mukherjee is a poignant story about homecoming during Durga Puja. Click here to read.
Nagmati by Prafulla Roy has been translated from Bengali as Snake Maiden by Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read.
Meet Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the lead protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International,Satyajit Ray:The Man Who Knew Too Much in conversation Click here to read.