Categories
Essay

A Solitary Pursuit: The Art of Suhas Roy

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium

Suhas Roy = Radha.

Correct.

Suhas Roy = Crows.

Right. 

Suhas Roy = Jesus.

So true.

Suhas Roy = Sensuality.

Yes. Witness the Mistress of the Moon.

For each of these Suhas Roy (1936-2016) was chased by galleries and collectors. His works have been widely exhibited and are well documented. Many of them on view at Mumbai’s prestigious Jehangir Art Galley (January 17 to 23, 2023) are not on sale. The intention is to train viewers on the diversity and skilfulness of the much loved artist from Bengal. In short, to hold up the totality of the artist who enriched Contemporary Indian Art with sketches in Western Academic style, graphics, landscapes; with his series on Crow, Jesus, Radha, The Seductress of Khajuraho; with aluminium paint on glass, acrylic on paper, egg tempera on canvas…

So where do we start? Where did he? There’s a story at every turn in the journey, so let’s start at the very beginning.

A little boy in Tejgaon, now in Bangladesh, had lost his father when he was not even two. One Kaji Saheb, who taught geography in the village school and doubled as the art teacher, took the child under his wings. If the boy learnt to outline India on the blackboard, he could also draw papayas and brinjals. And everything he drew scored 10 on 10. His teacher would say, “It seems you’ll grow up to be an artist!”

The boy loved to spend all his hours drawing and fishing. “How will these pleasures serve you in life?” the family elders would admonish him. The youth would smile in reply and go on, eventually to join the Indian Art College, study new methods of printmaking under Somenath Hore and S W Hayter, visit Paris and Florence to study Michelangelo’s David and Pieta…

Suhas Roy

However, Paris post WWII was an eye-opener for artists like Suhas Roy and, a decade before him, for Krishna Reddy, who had graduated from Santiniketan. Both India and Europe had come out of prolonged periods of turmoil. But, poised on the threshold of an independent existence as a sovereign nation, India was looking back to its roots for defining its identity, whereas England and France and Germany – which were eager to get over the bitterness left by their recent history – were looking for a complete break with the past. For Suhas Roy, returning home meant returning to his cultural roots. And Venus emerging from the Water became kin of the image of goddess Lakshmi emerging from the lotus-laden pond closer home.

*

This Indian-ness was reinforced when he joined Santiniketan as a painting teacher. The lush green environs, the ponds and rivulets, the chirping birds and rustic villagers took him back to the childhood haven snatched away by the politics of religion that had culminated in the Partition of the Subcontinent. Suhas Roy, raised in the British Academic mood, with undying admiration for the values of the Italian Renaissance and the visions of the French Classicists, riding the high tide of Modernism, debating whether to go Abstract or Semi-Abstract, started painting landscapes!

Yes, landscapes. Regardless of what the critics said – just as they did for the Bengal Masters – Suhas Roy was not being ‘regressive’. For, he did not paint any particular spot with fidelity to topography – as John Constable did. Instead, his landscapes were an expression of his yearning for a paradise lost: his place of birth. When he moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan, in a reflection of spatial reality the neighbourhood palm trees started putting their heads up in his paintings. His sensitive foliage, the birds and animals and ponds were all in answer to his quest for the luxuriant green he had left behind, across the Radcliffe Line.

“Santiniketan gave me back the opportunity to go fishing as I used to in East Bengal, and I rediscovered the beauty and calming effect of Nature,” he had said to me when I curated the Living Santiniketan exhibition in Delhi of late 1990s. “It came as a relief to me, burdened as I was with the constant thought of ‘What to paint?’ For, Nature constantly changes.” Additionally, he realised that appreciation of beauty is not confined to a class or profession. “Doctors and poets alike love flowers. So, I decided to go back to landscape, taking no note of whether it was in fashion or out of it.”

*

The crow, very much a part of the Bengal landscape, then became his signature in the 1970s. The scavenger was an attraction because of its black feathers. Japanese water-colourist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) — notable for his role in creating the painting technique of Nihonga — had come to Bengal in early 20th century with scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) and helped Abanindranath Tagore master the medium. He had done a series of Mount Fuji in black-n-white. Chancing upon that in the Santiniketan library, Suhas was so impressed as to reach for the austere palette. The crow readily lent itself to the scheme. Spraying the canvas with acrylic paint before construing the image in watercolour, Suhas would use a Japanese colour stick to create tones and dimensions. The Far Eastern concept of an object in a wide open space came to be highly appreciated and widely collected – including by philanthropist politician, Karan Singh.

In Indian philosophy and literature, Nature is the Eternal Feminine. That could be why, after ten years of doing landscape, Suhas Roy’s imagination sought out the allied image of tribal girls. It was a natural progression, for women – especially tribal women – have a symbolic if not symbiotic link with trees. Often, he would counterpoise a tree with a woman. Taru[1], he titled one done in an art workshop.

From a woman in a landscape to Radha was just one step away. For an exhibition on Krishna organised by Gallery 88 of Kolkata, Suhas Roy played with the concept of the Blue God being the Ultimate Being. Melding Purush and Prakriti – the Male and the Female forces of the Universe – his canvas sported a nude woman against a dark blue background. The painting, titled ‘Radha’, not only sold for an enviable sum, but it also set in motion an astonishing demand for the image that shows no sign of abating.

Truly he basked in the adulation of resolved collectors, one of whom said, “When I am tossed and tired of problems, I look at your paintings. They act like balms.” Yet, for painting these very ‘balms’ the artist had to hear the criticism that he was feeding the appetite for calendar art. His Radha was a concept no better than the ‘mass produced’ icons ubiquitous in Indian spaces.  But the master was far from apologetic. “It is the very definition of icons,” he had pointed out to me one afternoon. “Images of personalities deified by popular imagination, be they mythical, historical or social, are repeated again and again, generation after generation, in different styles and contexts.” If one age worshipped them as bronze figurines and gold paintings, another flaunted them in oleographs and calendars. It has been so with Radha-Krishna, Ram-Sita, Buddha-Jesus, and even with Gandhi-Tagore-Teresa, I realised.

*

Jesus, though, had entered Suhas Roy’s world long before Radha. Sometime in 1969 he had visited Florence to see David. He found the sculpture epitomising masculine beauty “too proportionate”, and wandered into the church next door preserving Dante’s Divine Comedy in parchment. There, in one corner, he saw the last work of Michelangelo – an unfinished Pieta. Such infinite pathos! The artist could not brush it off his memory even after he returned to Calcutta and one day its picture postcard inspired him to paint a Jesus. When he stopped, the canvas was sporting a contemporary pieta – Jesus without the head, his body descending from the heavens.

As a persona, Suhas Roy had deep regards for Jesus. He was, to the Bengali artist, a symbol of forbearance. Perhaps he also saw the serene visage of the Prophet sporting a Crown of Thorns as a reflection of his own self – or was it of his country, that had been crowned with an Independence bloodied by Partition? Somewhere Suhas, a father who in his own lifetime lost both his children to Eternal Sleep, saw Jesus as a redeemer who showed mankind how to bear every suffering and pain that was a mortal’s lot. That is why such palpable love, even when tinged with sorrow, pain or sadness, flows out of His veins. This must have prompted even Vatican to acquire his Jesus in 2006.

Suhas Roy arrived at ‘Khajuraho’ in the mature years of his well lived life. He was intrigued by the carvings on the walls of the temples in central India that have embarrassed some and outraged some. Considered the descendants of the celestial Moon, the Chandela rulers had celebrated love in every expressed formation. Love, the invincible bonding between man and woman, man and man, indeed between man and all living beings, is made explicit here. Surely Suhas Roy was not equating love with lust. Was there a spiritual pursuit layering the physicality of the actions immortalised in stone?

No doubt there was. For Moon has always been equated with romance, love, passion. The artist was exploring the mysticism that wraps the ascetic deity inside the temple. Much like the sculptors of yore, his ‘Seductress’ is a quest for the sublime. If the ancients believed that you must leave all your worldly longings outside the temple door if you seek moksha, deliverance, the contemporary artist continually sought nirvana, redemption from conflict, in the beauty of peace.

*

Rigidity was unknown to Suhas Roy. The changes in his art came spontaneously, and every good result goaded him to go on. He dwelt on a theme only until another creative urge besieged him, be it Khajuraho, the series he titled Mistress of the Moon, or Cappadocia in Turkey. Never shy of experimenting, his foremost concern – always – was meticulous quality. His temperas would have egg yolk with oil and Japanese porcelain, gelatin with resin and tamarind seed. If it held the promise of a finer texture for details, he would use a watercolour brush for oil paintings. For, he would repeat, “Good art will never lose its demand just as diamond will never lose its market.”

For Suhas Roy, the aesthetic and the spiritual were one and the same. And even the hurly-burly of political turmoil had to adhere to his norms of aesthetics. Did Suhas Roy, then, live in an ivory tower away from social realities? No, he insisted, he “never ran away…” Once, on a fishing trip outside Santiniketan, he witnessed dead bodies being fished out of water following a flash flood in Ilam Bazar. Haunted by that image he had painted the Disaster series, depicting landscapes with shrouded bodies. Indeed, when the Naxalite period gave rise to despondency, he was tossed by the political reality of his land. But he prophesized that “every turmoil, be it social or political – including the ongoing one at Singur – would be short-lived.” So, if contemporary art became mere documentation, then that too would be short-lived!

“Only when it transcends the here-and-now can art have lasting value,” maintained the artist even when disturbed by the dark side of humanity. So, though distressed by cruelty, he chose to decry war by showing not blood-spill but the meditative power of peace and sublimity of love. “I focused on what has lasting appeal. Flowers blossom in the same fields that are crushed by battling soldiers. I speak of the war through the Buddha who transcended war.”

This sublime pursuit of Suhas Roy explains the unending appeal of his Seductress, his Radha, his Jesus.

Bonophul

[1] Translates to tree

*All the photographs have been sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

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

.

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Slices from Life

Keep walking….

Ravi Shankar recommends walking as a panacea to multiple issues, health and climate change and takes us on a tour of walks around the world, including in the Everest region and the island of Aruba in the Caribbean

Walks in Kuala Lumpur where the author is located currently.

The Government Medical College, Thrissur, Kerala, India has a sprawling and densely wooded campus. The old TB sanatorium at Mulangunathukavu (quite a mouthful even for Malayalis) had been taken over and modified to establish a medical college. There were villages on the outskirts of the vast campus. My undergraduate medical education days at the sylvan campus introduced me to the joys of walking. There were several quiet spots, and you could easily get among nature. The campus was rocky in places and may not have been prime agricultural land. The place could reach 40 degrees Celsius during the peak of summer in April and May.       

We occasionally walked to the tea stalls located in the villages and the walk along unpaved roads among blooming nature was interesting. The campus was much less crowded than it is today, and we enjoyed a relatively sheltered experience. Many of us eventually took to jogging in the early morning. Hitting the tarmac early before the activities of the day begin is a cleansing experience.

The Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), a premier health science institution in the city of Chandigarh, north India, hosts a number of attractive sites for walking.  Chandigarh was the first planned city in the country and sector 12 where the institute is located is congested but just across the road, the vast expanses, and the green lawns of Punjab University were inviting. The city is spread out and expansive and offers good opportunities for walking. The rose garden and the rock garden are vast. The heat during summer can be a challenge but even at the peak of summer, Chandigarh is a bit cooler compared to the cities on the plains and lovely to explore on foot.

The lakeside city of Pokhara is situated in the middle of the Himalayan country of Nepal. The city and the surrounding hills offer plenty of opportunities for walking and hiking. I occasionally walked between the two campuses of the Manipal College of Medical Sciences (MCOMS). We had to walk through the Prithvi Narayan (PN) campus and cross a suspension bridge across the milky Seti River. Rivers cut spectacular gorges through the soft limestone rocks in the valley. Later PN campus blocked access to outsiders and we had to take a longer way. There are also magnificent walks to Damside and Lakeside. The walk to the village of Batulechaur from the Deep Heights campus of MCOMS is also spectacular. The city is full of magnificent walks and hikes. Winter is the best time, and the views of the snow-covered Himalayas are spectacular.

Walks along the Himalayas

Hiking in the hills of Nepal is a unique experience. Change is coming slowly to the hills. For city-born and bred folks stepping into the hills may mean stepping out of one’s comfort zone. It can often be a journey back in time to a simpler existence. The ascents and descents are long and steep. The trail can deteriorate very quickly, and landslides are common. New trails have been created and some have eventually become rough jeep friendly roads. The trail to Manang north of Pokhara is now blasted through solid rock. The trail passes very close to Annapurna II and in bad weather, the trail can seem threatening.  Walking through the magical Manang valley provides you with a view of the back side of the Annapurnas. The flat trail is mostly easy but can get very dusty. The trail climbs steadily uphill and after Manang village climbs through barren hillsides.  

View from Pokhara

Weather changes quickly in the mountains and can transform from bright and sunny to cloudy and snowy within an hour. Sunny weather elevates the mood while cloudy and snowy weather seems threatening. A trail with a risk of avalanches is the one to the Machapucchare base camp (MBC). The classical pyramidal fishtail (Machapucchare) seen from Pokhara is seen as two separate peaks from MBC. I had hiked to the base camp in March and saw avalanches coming down on the other side of the river.

The Everest region Nepal

In the Everest region, the hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Gorak Shep is a rocky one along the moraine of the Khumbu glacier. I had done this hike while I was staying at Lobuche for a high-altitude research project. The weather was cloudy and low-lying clouds soon closed in. It started snowing steadily and fresh powdery snow soon covered the rocky trails making walking slippery and difficult. The psychological effect of bad weather and the threatening silhouettes of the highest mountains on earth made me deeply uneasy.

Dusk at Wilhemina Park. Photo Courtesy: Ravi Shankar

The island nation of Aruba like most other parts of the world is becoming increasingly obese and overweight. Aruba created a network of walking paths to encourage physical activity. Aruba advertises itself as ‘One happy island’. I used to walk along the Caribbean coast from Wilhelmina Park to the airport. Rains are rare in Aruba and the paved trail is well maintained.

The Sun can be hot though the trade winds keep the temperature bearable. The plan is to extend the linear park from palm beach in the tourist area to the airport. Aruba has beautiful sandy beaches, and a lot of effort is expended on their maintenance and care. The Atlantic coast is less settled, and the waves crash against the rocky shoreline. There are excellent walks among the barren hills and along the old gold mine.

The city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia also has good walking paths. The Bukit Komanwel (Commonwealth hill) near my apartment has inviting walks. Due to the constant rains, the trail can be slippery in places, and caution is needed.

The city is green and the Perdana Botanical Garden in the heart of the city is well-maintained and has several walking trails. The pavements are usually maintained though due to the constant heavy rains they may be wet and covered with moss.  

One of the most difficult cities for a walker in my opinion would be the city of Mumbai, India. It is crowded, the traffic is chaotic, and the pavements are blocked by hawkers, stalls, and parked vehicles, and most shop owners keep their goods on the pavements. The concept of the pavement as a protected area for pedestrians seems to be lacking. The pavements are often dug up and the perpetually ongoing metro railway projects ensure more than half of the road may be unusable. Most open areas and woodlands have long been converted into housing projects and/or slums. The situation has steadily deteriorated during the last four decades.

The modern age has several conveniences and labour-saving devices. With increasing prosperity most people now own cars. Families have multiple cars. Cars can be a double-edged sword in reference to health. I think cars are addictive and the convenience makes you take them everywhere. You end up waking less and less unless you properly plan and stick to your exercise routine. Studies now indicate that all steps taken by a person are useful and can add up over the course of a day. In Malaysia recently there have been several virtual races motivating people to accumulate steps over the course of a day and month. The university where I work has a corporate wellness program and several virtual races are held over the course of a year.      

We are facing one of our biggest challenges in the form of climate change. A steady increase in carbon dioxide emissions since the start of the industrial revolution has caused global temperatures to rise. Sea level rise, super hurricanes, extremely heavy and concentrated rainfall, forest fires, and scorching summers are all being experienced. We seem set for at least a two-degree celsius rise in global temperature and we are still learning the catastrophic changes this can bring. Walking results in insignificant carbon dioxide emissions and helps us do our bit to save the planet. We are only taking care of planet Earth for future generations as, currently, humanity does not have a planet B.

Though I am a teetotaller a good quote promoting walking may be the one provided by Johnnie Walker, the whisky distillery. After the shutdown due to the pandemic, they launched a new campaign to get the world moving again. Keep walking!

.

*All the photographs have been provided by Ravi Shankar.

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

.

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

Categories
Review

An Aesthetic Rebellion set in Mumbai

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Half-Blood

Author: Pronoti Datta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Half-blood by Pronoti Datta is a gripping noir-fiction that speaks about the harsh realities of urban settings, morally negotiated characters, dysfunctional families, and atypical individuals with dark secrets and surprises. Pronoti Datta was a journalist for about a decade and a half, covering culture and society in Bombay, the city from which she draws inspiration. She resides in Bombay and works as an editor of digital content. Half-blood is her debut novel.

The novel starts with a letter from Burjor to Moonie (Maya), the two main characters of the novel. In the letter, Burjor clandestinely explains his reason for disappearance by writing, “You see, Moonie, I did a terrible thing for which I had to leave Bombay. I don’t want to burden you, in this letter, with the details of my deed – or my life. It’s a long story and I’m not a man of words.” The prologue with this letter sets the tone for the story. The book has thirty-two   chapters with an ‘Epilogue’ that gives the new order of things and “a sense of having created meaning” to life, or rather to newer ways of looking at life.  

The story gives a glimpse into the lives of the dwindling Parsi population of Mumbai. The narrative spanning generations, time and space is a perfect read for those who love city stories, or love to know more about multicultural India. Most importantly, it is a fascinating story for those who love crime and suspense with a touch of history and culture. Datta brings to fore snippets specific to the lives of people and places in the then Bombay and now Mumbai. The author successfully addresses the failures, shortcomings, and the uglier side of life with wit and humour.

Maya, a journalist, who is young, talented, confident, ambitious, and disillusioned with life suffers from an existential crisis. She resurrects the past in search of her roots and meaning in life. Through the limited clues left in the “letter” from her biological father, she traces her bloodline. She embarks on a journey, stumbling upon unexpected facts and fiction on the life of Mumbaikars and Parsis some of who are poor and sometimes half-blooded or of mixed ethnicity. This is a story of rags-to-riches, underrated heroes and people in the sidelines. Burjor Elavia, a half-blood, a “fifty-fifty” is an “Adhkachru” — an illegitimate child of a Parsi man and a tribal woman. He accepts poverty and bondage to resist being pushed aside as a non-existent bastard.

Through the story of Burjor and Maya in Mumbai from the seventies, at the time of the prohibition till the 26/11 attack in 2008 in recent times, Datta weaves the  less explored facets of history of the city into her fiction. The characters in the novel range from different religions, language backgrounds, and communities residing and crisscrossing paths to give voice to the culturally diverse mega-city.

Maya, born to Mini and Burjor, is adopted by an unusually matched Bengali parent. Brought up in Mumbai, she grew up in a locality with a good mix of residents from different communities and religions. Moved by stories of those who “persisted in their beliefs, fielding scorns and disapprobation, and emerged victorious,” she goes on to study Philosophy in Delhi and mingles with friends from across the country. Datta presents a realistic picture of a young girl of mixed descent from Mumbai, pursuing her path of self-discovery by connecting the past with the present. In this quest, she unravels smaller plots that add to the larger picture. As she unravels her own past, Maya describes her situation as similar to that of the Prince of Denmark — Hamlet. She says, “I am Hamlet looking into my father’s ghost.” Datta grinds a story that carries a peek into the time and gives a space to those at the margins and the unconventional like the infamous “Aunty Bars,” savage liquor barons, Adivasi women, scandalous navjotes[1], and children growing up in multicultural society

The novel is an aesthetic rebellion as it delves into the Parsi way of life including that of poor Parsis, good-hearted rogues, crime and punishment in defiance of pigeon-holes and labels about a community or group. Half-blood as the title suggests, reveals wider horizons and deeper nuances of identity. A fiction about modern India, this book takes us on a tour of less revealed nooks of history and culture to unearth beauty in diversity. Elegantly presented with a cover design by Maithili Doshi Aphale, which speaks for itself, the Speaking Tiger book, Half-blood breaks through stereotypes and clichés to win your heart.


[1] A religious initiation to Zoroastrianism, the religion followed by Parsis

.

Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. 

.

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

Categories
Poetry

My Mantra

By Ashok Suri

MY MANTRA

In the mesmerising twilight, 
I see untapped sources of delight.
There are no regrets,
But a new awareness, a new insight.

My prayers are now warm,
Not mere words uttered in haste.
My enthusiasm never fades
Even if I’m not ideally placed.

I cannot remain unmoved,
If I see the poverty-stricken in plight.
In the world torn by wrongdoings,
Clashes and mutual distrust,
My jivan mantra* is simple:
‘Trust in God and do the right.’


* Jivan Mantra: Guiding principle of life 

Ashok Suri is a retiree and is settled with his family in Mumbai. He tries to convey in simple words what he wants to say.

.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Pizzas En Route to Paradise

There is the import and export of desires in one of the oldest cities in the world, beside one of the most revered rivers, as Keith Lyons discovers in Varanasi.

A sadhu watching over the early morning activity on the banks of the Ganges at Assi ghat. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

Most who come to Varanasi, deep down, are seeking peace. The ancient city formerly known as Kashi and Benares is the holy site for three religions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. For Hindus who flock to India’s spiritual capital from all over the country, bathing in the sacred Ganges is said to wash away all sins.

For me, as a non-religious outsider, I was also seeking inner peace, and perhaps a deeper understanding of the questions of life and death. But amid the surrealness of the labyrinthine old city, with its wandering bulls, revered shrines, marauding monkeys, and burning bodies, one thing I found was a place to satisfy my earthly material needs. 

“It’s to die for,” exclaimed an American bohemian I’d met a few weeks earlier in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. I ran into him strolling along the ghats — steps down to the Ganges that line the western bank of the curve in the wide river. Despite the 1256-page heavy Lonely Planet India, TripAdvisor and social media, there is nothing like word-of-mouth recommendations from fellow travellers. “So you are already at that party,” said Brad, impressed that I too had made it that far along the waterfront almost 2km from where I was staying. “Well, you can’t miss it, can you,” I replied. “It’s probably the only place of its kind right at the water’s edge, and if you don’t see it, you probably smell it.”

For many travellers who don’t want to be seen as sightseeing tourists but are in search of the authentic and the local, Varanasi seems to offer quite an array of experiences, some beyond the comfort level of leisure tourists who keep to the beaten path. Of the 88 ghats of Varanasi which are used for bathing, washing and ceremonial worship, there are two which are synonymous with the spiritual centre. Those two are exclusively used for cremations. 

The same reason for bathing in the sacred waters to obtain forgiveness for transgressions applies, but for the recently deceased, it is believed that if their ashes are scattered into the purifying Ganga, their reincarnation cycle will end — and they will reach nirvana.

As the one of the ‘seven sacred cities’, the place supreme deity Shiva (known as ‘The Destroyer’) brought into being by meditation, Varanasi and its cremation ghats represent the ultimate ‘geographical cure’. There are rest homes and ashrams where the elderly and terminally ill wait to die, believing that if they die in the old city, they will be redeemed of all their sins by Lord Shiva on the cremation pyre. 

Varanasi straddles the known world and the hidden, with the Ganges a crossing point between earth and heaven. For tens of thousands of foreigners who have Varanasi on their itinerary routes, it is fair to say many are seeking peace, but definitely not of the kind that involves the death of their current material existence. Instead, there is a curiosity about the openness of death and its rituals, and the chance to bear witness to the process which can be at the same time sad and soul-destroying yet also joyous and life-affirming. 

For those that don’t share the faith that propels people to this city, perhaps any visit to Varanasi could be described as macabre or dark tourism, fueled by the antagonism between testimony and voyeurism. The epitome of this is the quest by foreigners to get as close as possible to take photos of burning bodies. As if normal travel isn’t stressful enough, the macabre tourist seeks out encounters that have the potential to be emotional and even traumatic. 

I must admit, I did have a certain curiosity about witnessing wooden pyres where corpses were placed to be burned. And I did have a fear that I might identify a limb or hand being consumed by the fire, or even that somehow a writhing contorted face might emerge from the flames and snarl at me menacingly. 

That didn’t happen. What did happen is that I passed the cremation grounds numerous times during my walks up and down the riverbanks, occasionally pausing to observe from a distance, but the sight didn’t stir me as much as the reflection that this was how a culture and a religion farewell their dead. Having been an altar boy in the Catholic Church, I’d seen my fair share of embalmed bodies in coffins at teary sad funerals, but there was quite a different feeling at Varanasi. Anyway, I didn’t want to intrude as a gawking foreigner. 

I was just as interested in the negotiations for firewood between relatives and the lower-caste Doms. The price for 400 kg of wood can be around Rs 4,000 (around US$52), a visiting insurance broker from Mumbai tells me, as we stand on the steps beside towers of split logs from the Himalayas. “The better wood is more expensive, but the government is trying to encourage using things like coconut shells and cow dung cakes instead of cutting down more trees,” he says, before the discussion turns to cricket, and a New Zealand cricketer I’d never heard of who played for his beloved Mumbai Indians. Later that evening, to make up for my lack of patriotic sporting knowledge, I impress some local boys playing cricket on the uneven surface of a terrace by catching a whizzing ball with one hand. 

Wood merchant stack wood for cremations. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

I noticed that after the initial shock of seeing dead bodies, and after a few days, the constant exposure to these late rites meant that I could be sitting in the open-fronted government-approved 70-year-old Blue Lassi Shop and I wouldn’t even look up when a procession march along bearing a body destined for the Manikarnika ghat. Everyday hundreds of bodies are burned on the riverbank, with the no-frills natural gas crematorium operated 24/7. 

I had already taken on board — and possibly ignored through denial – the message of Varanasi: Death is unavoidable. One day, I will die. My body will be destroyed. Life on earth is finite. Make the most of it. 

I reflected on this as I stood sipping my tea at Dada ki Chai, or as I sought out the best kachori sabzi[1], or the sweet and sour channa1, dahi vada [2]on the crooked and crowded streets. 

So what else did I discover among the maze of alleyways, the crumbling palaces and the riverbank steps down to the river? Don’t dismiss me as a lousy traveller who can’t be without the comforts of home, but I have to admit one of the finds of my waterside wanderings was a red tent erected on the wide path, where a family had recently set up a low-key pizza eatery. 

Pizza? Yes, hand-made, wood-fired pizza. When I first visited, Sunil has only just started the venture. He was going to get some pizza boxes and a label for Euro Pizza and arrange a takeaway and delivery service. The only seating was a few plastic seats. 

Diners waited patiently in the cool evening, not so intent on breaking the cycle of death and rebirths but wanting respite from the hot spicy food served up in train stations and roadside dhabas.[3] 

In the distance, only a few minutes’ walk away, flames could be seen from the Maharaja Harishchandra ghat, Varanasi’s second, and smaller burning ground. Further along, sounds from the evening ceremony could be heard. But none of that mattered really. There was always a friendly grin from Sunil or a nod of recognition from his family members who cranked out the vegetarian pizzas. It was Rs.150 (US$2) for a ‘small’ pizza, but it was large enough to share. Which people did, with fellow travellers they’d just met, the whole of life made up of many triangle segments, their Varanasi stories to be told later about the burning corpses, the ashes scattered into the river, and the weirdest yet most wonderful thing: a pizzeria perched by a crematorium and a crossing to paradise.

Euro pizza’s humble red tent on the banks of the Ganges. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

[1] Savoury snacks

[2] A yoghurt-based snack

[3] Roadside eateries

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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

Categories
Review

Re-deciphering the Human

Book Review By Basudhara Roy

Title: Burn the Library and Other Fictions

Author: Sunil Sharma

To embark on a relationship with a meaningful collection of short fiction is to hone one’s awareness of the world that shapes us and is, in its turn, shaped by us. A well-conceived short story is a sharp ray of light that undertakes to illuminate a particular plane of the compound and poly-faceted experience that reality will always be. Urging us to concentrate on that angle alone,  the short story crucially assists in peeling off our familiarity with life at that point of being and invites us to locate new meaning in what we might have long known.

In the company of Sunil Sharma’s Burn the Library and Other Fictions, a collection of twenty dense pieces of short fiction, one is on a riveting journey into the physical and psychological entrails of a society that is blissfully absorbed in plotting the architecture of its own doom. Sunil Sharma is an academic from Mumbai who has relocated to Toronto post-retirement. Acutely conscious of the subtle but definite ways in which social life, interaction and communication are being endangered by stereotypes, prejudices, capitalist strategies, ICT, artificial intelligence, eroding faith, self-doubt and the surrender to myopia, Sunil Sharma attempts, in these tales, to not merely draw our attention to what ails us as a society but also offers valuable possibilities of grace and redemption.

Ranging in form from flash fiction to full-length short stories, the themes in this collection are eclectic. Dreams, conjugal relationships, diasporic intimacy, the plight of migrants, women and elderly people, the breakdown of the family, the disruption of social cohesiveness and harmony, the threat of being transformed from consumers to victims of hyper-functional gadgets, and the consistent search for meaning amidst life’s ruins contour this collection through angst, satire, tenderness and hope. 

What immediately draws one towards Sharma’s style is his capacity for intricate observation and his incisive, almost brutal honesty in his descriptions. Here is a writer who does not hesitate to call a spade a spade without resort to satire, irony or humour to dilute the effect of his statements. In fiction where it is easy to camouflage and refract ideas, Sharma impresses and inspires by keeping critique frank and unencumbered by location, ideology or craft.

In ‘Love: Beyond Words’, the reflective narrator-husband observes:

“Our worlds, exclusive, were held together by an arranged marriage and later on, by the kids only…like rest of the middleclass Indians. Two perfect strangers brought together by common practices who discovered each other in initial years of marriage and then lost by the pressures of work and antiromance conditions of our living in an Indian metro…like others of our ilk.”

In the poignant flash fiction ‘Skeleton in the Attic’, once the skeleton has been identified as that of the paternal grandmother whom the family forgot to unlock from the attic when it left for its vacation in a hurry, the omniscient narrator quietly points out, “Once the shock was over, food was ordered and video of the visit played out and they forgot the skeleton.” In ‘Beware! Migrants are Coming!’, the interrogator minces no words in establishing the migrant’s statistical invisibility and thereby his ontological dispensability:

“You are a scum. A bloody scum. You come first to our holy land. Then you bring your entire hungry village that sucks us dry. We will no longer tolerate this N-O-W. The thieves are disposable. None cries for a thief. You are not human. You are not us, your death will not affect us, or anybody here, or anywhere.”

Concern for the margins remains central to Sharma’s intellectual, emotional and moral vision of a sane and progressive society. In story after story, it is these interstices that he examines, emphasizing their structural importance to the well-being of the centre. The malady, as the writer establishes, is rampant and global. Whether it is women, the poor, the elderly, the disabled or the migrant, the health of the margins directly determines the health of the centre. In ‘Two Black Stones and an Old God’, for instance, faith in divine reward and punishment becomes a device of empowerment for the grandmother and granddaughter both of whom are victims of the family’s neglect. In ‘The Street’, the narrator maps the entire cultural change that has taken place in his native town of Ghaziabad by observing the difference in the metrics of spatial arrangement and communication. The transformation of the public space that once symbolised community, shared concern and active empathy into a space of inequality, indifference and social apathy marks, for the narrator, the apotheosis of postmodernist social fragmentation and alienation.

However, the most stringent and memorable critique of postmodern and posthuman culture is perhaps put forward through the eponymous story ‘Burn the Library’. Though the setting of the story is 2071, around fifty years into the future, the conflict that it explores between information and knowledge, between programmed intelligence and creative thinking and between human growth and entropy is vital to the fabric of contemporary intellectual debate. What is the future that we are enthusiastically chasing, the writer seems to ask. Does it promise an unfolding of our rational and emotive powers or does it seek to arrest and freeze them unconditionally? For Sharma, the possibility of resistance to the omnivorous challenges of technology usurping humanity lies only in and through the circulation of ideas via writing. Ideas alone, for Sharma, are indestructible and even if all libraries were to be burnt and all sources of information were to be destroyed or corrupted, new knowledge could be founded and resurrected in the world through the strength of individual creative thinking alone. The Advanced Homer (AH) virus that seeks to alter “consciousness about culture” says, “Wake up! Find out authenticity. Life. Real life beyond the wired universe. Think – alternatively. Subdue the dominant of technology. It is not our master anyway. Go human. Re-think culture.”

‘Go Human’ is a powerful slogan, lethal in its simplicity as it indicates how far we have strayed from what we were meant to be. For me, it richly encapsulates the vision of the entire collection since it is only by the reclamation of our own humanity and that of others around us that we can battle the evils of discrimination, prejudice, violence and self-destruction.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Author of three collections of poems, her latest work has been featured in EPW, The Pine Cone Review, Live Wire, Lucy Writers Platform, Setu and The Aleph Review among others.

.

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

Categories
Review

Masala and Murder: Sugar & Spice & Not Everything Nice

Book review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Masala and Murder

Author: Patrick Lyons

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Masala and Murder is a tantalising detective novel by Patrick Lyons, who is an Anglo-Indian writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He has had an interest in crime stories since childhood and has been writing from a very young age. His writing reflects his experience as an Anglo-Indian growing up in Australia during the 1970s and 1980s, which paves the way for Lyons to explore broader concepts of exclusiveness, racism, identity, and duality. These notions subtly sprout in his work and fortify the plot and characters in his story.

The whodunit comes in a well-packed set of 40 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. The opening of the murder mystery is at a place called Uluru, or Ayers Rock, a scenic, sacred place for the aboriginal Australians which houses a massive sandstone monolith in the heart of the country’s arid “Red Centre”. On the fateful day, a mix of noise and silence, natural and artificial at the foot of the Uluru after sunrise await the tourists along with the Bollywood crew as they prepare to scale the famous rock. The Bollywood celebrity, Subhani Mehta, is all set to shoot a dance number on the top of the Uluru. As they reach the summit, amidst the heat and dust, the lead lady readies herself. High-pitched music plays. The camera rolls. They all move in unison. All of a sudden, Subhani Mehta gasps for air and falls. She dies in a matter of seconds.      

This makes headlines in India although it was just another crime news in Australia. Aamir Mehta, a well-to-do industrialist, and father of the dead actress, suspects foul play and approaches Samson Ryder, a private investigator in Melbourne to investigate the incident. Ryder, who was not a private investigator by choice, accepts the case for easy money. Ryder also empathises with the helplessness of Subhani’s father as he had lost his only sister and had seen his parents suffer similarly. He still carries the pangs of guilt for not having done enough to save his sibling.

An initial inquiry to Subhani’s case is dismissed as her demise is listed as a “natural death”. What had actually led to her death continues to be a puzzle as the incident was wrapped up in a hurry. Widespread corruption made way to create an easy exit for the case. Little did Ryder know that the task would lead him to unknown territories that would not only give a fair share of closure for the case but also, add to a better understanding of his messed-up work and life.   

Lyons manoeuvres the crime novel with a set of interesting characters that harmonise to make an intriguing tale. Besides the fee, Ryder’s own past and his relationship with his family make him want to bring solace to the torments of the loss of a child to a family. Cross-cultural exchanges on the aspects of beliefs, rituals, taboos, faith, and spiritualism, black magic, talisman, spirits, tantric, curses, exorcism, Kali worship, etc. in the story are ingredients of the masalas that spice the scrumptious murder mystery. Traversing inner lanes of glamour and darkness, the narrative excitingly reveals the rawness of humans in Bollywood. Lyon presents the Anglo-Indian communities in Australia and Mumbai, with more focus on food and lifestyle to create a feeling of universal belonging. Additionally, his experience as a citizen and as an NRI, ultimately shares a greater awareness of stereotypes and realities of identity.

Lyons beautifully brings up the idea of dreams in relation to our state of mind through Ryder. Themes of minority, infidelity, jealousy, ego, vengeance, depression, grieving, trauma, death threats, abuse – physical and drugs — are touched upon as the story meanders to figure out who murdered Subhani.

Was it the Singhs, Nair, Nadar or Ms. Khan, or was it just a natural death? The suspense interestingly lingers till the end. There is a tussle of love and hate, good and bad, atheism and faith, fear and strength, an exploration of identities bringing to life the duality in characters and unraveling stories within the story. That people cope with personal loss in different ways is subtly shown. Ryder’s father and his godmother, Mabel, resort to faith and worship and his mother keeps herself busier with cooking.

Lyons brings in timely wit and humour. The romantic grids with Rebecca, Ryder’s love interest, and conversations on the unfolding of the crime with Mabel are the lighter shades in the story. Through the descriptions of  traffic, lanes, scent and sights of the cities of Melbourne and Mumbai, Lyons also captivates  with  glimpses of  relatable beauty and distasteful sides of the cityscape. Throughout Ryder’s investigation that unravels as he takes taxi rides, walks, runs, making smart moves, breaking laws or flying across cities, there is not a dull moment in the novel.  

The mystery behind the murder trickles from one circumstance to another making a string of unbelievable coincidences. The protagonist advances to the core of the investigation to be stuck with the question — was it all mere coincidence or planned? With every turn of the page, suspense is in the air right from the start to the end. The plot mingles the mysteries of murder with masalas that throw light on love and loss, blatant racism, complexities of identity and belonging, tradition and beliefs across cultures, and the constant battle of good and evil that we play out as human beings. Patrick Lyons’ Masala and Murder (2021) published by Niyogi Books is a crime novel that is refreshingly told and is a compelling read with content that is contemporary and relatable. A beautiful cover design complements the thrill of the narrative.  

.

Gracy Samjetsabam is a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. 

.

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

Categories
Poetry

Retirement

By Ashok Suri

RETIREMENT

Happier times descend,
Hectic ones come to an end.
Time to be with your family,
Relax like leaves on tree.
Time to pursue nobler passions,
Extend yourself to your fellow men.
Time to see how the sun rises, how it sets,
How the stars wander, how they rest,
How the moon sails and comes out of clouds,
Like a young prince moving out of crowds.
And times to know
Who is behind this eternal show?
Lord brings you the best,
A sky to fly and a warm nest to rest.

Ashok Suri is a retiree and is settled with his family in Mumbai. He tries to convey in simple words what he wants to say.

.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Canada: A Live Canvas

By Sunil Sharma

Can a patch of foreign sky and Earth speak to you in the manner it earlier did to the lost tribes guided by the bright stars, suns and moons?

The way it spoke to the early Greeks or the Vedic-era folks — among other pre-industrial cultures — that created marvelous odes, arts and regions that still appeal to a new-millennial audience hooked to gadgets as their reality?

A Homer that continues to inspire!

Possible?

The trance where natural elements convey profound truths; enabling the viewer to recover a lost innocence and old mode of perception.

Could such a luminous past be re-lived?

Could it recur?

Yes.

Here is the how of this communion.

.

In Canada, escaping colours is impossible.

In Mumbai, finding colours, impossible.

The contrast shocks. Toronto is dressed up in multi-splendoured gown.

 You are participating in a romantic landscape.  

.

October morning. We walk down along a trail in the heart of a busy neighbourhood.

The sky is dotted with daubs of grey and white against the brilliant blue— reminiscent of a Monet.

In countries like Canada, to a large extent, you enjoy the sensory wealth and free interaction with the dales and meadows and lakes…and trails that make you discover surprises after a sudden bend, a leafless tree; ducks in a pond; the luxuriant trees and shrubs, and, a protean sky; journeys that make you negotiate  not only the turns and twists of solitary pathways, the physics of the urban planning but also, the metaphysics of space by diving into the inner self; the internal landscape, on clear, crisp mornings or even dim nights, getting luminous, transmitting silent codes to an awakened self — glued into an ancient map.

Nature is your new interlocutor, releasing routes, inner and outer, with a switch of a button.

It is Maud Lewis out there in full glory.

Nature in Canada makes a compact with the sensitive seeker; it changes the viewer into an artist, a co-creator of the aesthetics of colours, spaces and patterns!

The dialectics of nature and praxis operates — a walker stops and takes selfies against a tree in bloom or against a pond full of ducks, as mementos.

Such moments of serenity are rarely found in Mumbai or Karachi or any other stifling mass city.

Oddly I hear Wordsworth humming in a glen off the Highway 50.

It is a collage curated by an invisible force. The air is pure. The solitude borders on the spiritual.

The background is fascinating: Electric scarlets. Grays. Oranges. Reds. Yellows. The trail takes you deep inside self. The internal calmness is matched by an external silence.

Uplifting!

The magnificence induces a reverie.

The elements merge seamlessly into a heightened consciousness, an extraordinarily lived experience.

A Joycean epiphany! All staged within a moment.

A hungry mind absorbs the altering spectrum. The sky transmits a message that folks like Paul Coelho decode for a mind craving for another dimension of a drab one-dimensional existence.

It is a strikingly different reality.

Nature — enabling philosophy.

You are aware of its presence.

In developing nations, it is the absence that is hardly missed. You are stuck in a development-dystopia there. In such locations, citizens have to fight against the degradation of nature through liberal media, courts and advocacy groups, on the broad themes of having the right to breath easy, clean air and inhabit liveable cities. Yet walls of indifference keep on rising and cases of mangroves being destroyed, hills plundered, trees hacked, in the name of urban development and growth, under the patronage of corrupt bureaucracy and political class, go unreported, thus leaving honest taxpayers only layers of smog, pollution and bronchial diseases that reduce productivity…and creativity. Trapped inside a dull and deadening grind of a daily routine of long commutes in overcrowded public transport and hours hunched over small screens in airless cubicles, the professionals are reduced to nothing but robots, androids, cut-off from their scorched Earth and a dark sky, self-enclosed atoms, unaware of the romance of a full moon in a wintery sky or the power of a red rising sun, giving hope to the millions of  workers…

.

Back in the trail, thoughts rush out and form into whole units of novel poetics, symbols and artistic meanings.

A kind of radicalisation has been executed by a natural scene carefully preserved by the civilly conscious fathers of a huge land worked on by immigrants and other settlers.

In the sky, I see messages and patterns that take me back to the happier times of the concord between humans and nature, now disrupted.

The colours of fall are staggering in range, impact and variety.

You have become a part of a dynamic natural landscape—and feel elevated!

And feel privileged to be a witness to the preserved bounty of Mother Nature here in Canada, much better than in India.

You breathe easy.

Oxygen hits the lungs directly — not the smog that produces cough and cold.

No noise — refreshing from the mad cacophony of the noisy overcrowded unplanned ungovernable cities of Asia.

People are distant but polite. Fellow nature enthusiasts. The pagans of the post-industrial society, trying to reclaim a bit of humanism and nature, for forging a newer human being full of empathy in a peaceful country.

“Hi!” I say to the passerby.

“Hi! How are you?” answers the tall man.

“Fine! Thanks.” I answer…and move on.

A significant human exchange unfolds, gets executed by a cultural consensus — and the colours of white and brown intermingle in that common gesture of politeness and affirmation, thus confirming the redness of bloodstream of the diverse species of a planet threatened by climate change, ethnic strife, racism and alt-right forces that immediately do the “othering” of the groups not found matching their own.

As we walk away, composed and tranquil, enjoying the cool sun and fragrance in the air, few steps away from the neat bungalows on winding streets, the epiphany strikes, like a gentle rain in the moorland:

No land is bad. Or its hard-working honest lawful people. What is bad is the corrupt and cynical ruling elite that places it above the people. If they do not pay heed, refuse to listen to the rumble on the ground, popular change will follow soon.

Headed home, I realise home is a mobile space, a social unit of a shared collective of similar aspirations and dreams. You keep on searching for an ideal place where dreams and realities coexist as realizable values and make you evolve into a dignified, creative citizen — the main goal of a full and functional democracy anywhere.

Perhaps, that is the main drive for migration, internal or external, for welcoming areas and countries, globally.

Returning, I find I am at home, in Canada, at last. A place where colours of the Earth and sky meet, fuse together to produce newer styles of wholesome aesthetics of meaningful, integrated living, in cosmopolitan setting, with shared systems of beliefs.

The colours of Canada do speak to a harmonious mind.

Canada is a live canvas for sentient beings. You are an element of a dynamic complex of co-existing patterns, producing wholesome meanings!

Thus, you become real and alive, in an animated environment, organic but not yet fully and cynically degraded, unlike in other more commercialised nations.

.

Sunil Sharma, is a Toronto-based academic, critic, literary editor and author with 23 published books. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015. Sunil edits the English section of the monthly bilingual journal Setu published from Pittsburgh, USA:
— https://www.setumag.com/p/setu-home.html  
 For more details, please visit the link:— http://www.drsunilsharma.blogspot.in/

.

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Travel in the Time of Pandemics: Select Diary Entries of an Urban Nomad

By Sunil Sharma

Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

Confucius

The journey is the thing.

Homer

.

Reflections, random

It was a Journey of Faith (JoF).

Most journeys are acts of faith.

A daily commute or a long-distance one, humans undertake movements that affirm the principle of belief. Belief in certain ideals.

The pull of a dream!

Kinesis is the fundamental science of change; it is the force behind the evolution of species.

You want to grow wings — and soar!

Migrations.

Birds and animals do the challenging migrations across geographies and climates –for survival.

JoF involves love. For the dear ones!

.

Embark on the journey of LOVE. It takes you from yourself to yourself.

—Rumi

.

Indeed! It is a similar terrain with similar topography yet varied.

And when love calls, nothing stopping the voyager.

Faith becomes the compass.

.

Similarly, we began a travel across continents, deserts and sea, mountains and plains, stalked by an invisible and silent killer.

Homer could be heard in a recess of the mind:

The roaring seas and many a dark range of mountains lie between us.

Travel in the Time of Covid!

From Mumbai to Toronto via Maldives — a journey of five days.

And Love and Faith are our guiding angels.

.

Exit

September 8, 2021

Kalyan

12.30 pm

It is raining hard. Suitcases are all piled up. The taxi is waiting. Few friends have come to bid us a quick goodbye.

Brief but final.

We spent months together to dismantle a secure life for the “unfamiliar”. You feel nothing. Just a quick bye — a last lingering glance.

It is over– 30 years come unstuck in a gliding instant. Joys, disappointments; tragedies and triumphs; losses-n-gains. Personal narratives unravel and evaporate, simultaneously, in that single gesture.

The anticipated moment arrives as an anti-climax.

No surge of emotions. No sense of loss.

Nothing.

And the ride begins.

.

We arrive at the Hilton in the afternoon. The sky is overcast. Hotels around the airport are not fully occupied. Covid-19 is real. Third wave is expected.

Mumbai is unlocked yet locked up. There is pervasive fear.

Hotels are badly hit. We retire early. Next morning the expedition, our JoF, begins.

.

We are sleepless in Mumbai.

A new home calls from Toronto.

One home traded for another — and a long arduous journey involved in the transition.

Certain things end.

Fresh things begin.

Hope. Fear. In equal measure.

Travel, real time.

No looking back now.

All set.

Foreign shores call.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

― Lao Tzu

.

September 9, 2021

CSM International Airport, Mumbai

6.0 am

We are in the early-morning queue at the counter which is closed. After half-an-hour, a young female executive sits at the counter of the airline, rest are still closed. In fifteen minutes, the queue gets long, and people wait for their turn. Slow. She takes time to check every document. Finally, another staff comes to open the second counter. Nobody complains.

The jostling passengers in the serpentine queue hardly have the mandatory two meters for practicing social distancing. There are official checks but the global safety protocols cannot be implemented due to the crowds and general apathy.

Nobody minds the non-compliance.

It is India, dear!

After a long wait, we get the boarding passes.

Next, we queue for security and immigration checks. They ask some routine questions. Finally, we are cleared. We move to board the airbus. No social distancing is maintained while boarding.

.

Maldives.

Time: 1.15 pm

The small airport is full of tourists.

Maldives is suddenly full of Bollywood celebrities and hapless students on their long and tortured way to Canada.

For the former, it is a luxury getaway — beaches, sun-bathing, the over-the-water cottages; perfect Instagrammable moments, fodder for the paparazzi.

For the latter, middle-class, wide-eyed young adults separated from their small or big-city cages, it is a pricey gateway to Canada, some kind of a Promised Land, a utopia — the western Shangri-La!

Two different sets of travelers in the Corona period.

At this moment, no stars are to be seen in the airport.

Only large number of Indian students, some parents, and workers, all bunched up, bit tense, ready for the official interrogation.

It is smooth sailing for the Indians and few other nationalities, mostly Asians, at that particular hour.

People move and get directed to various counters.

The documents are scrutinized. Faces, uncovered, and covered.

The long lines are quickly cleared. Officers are polite.

Female officers, covered up, are monosyllabic but overall helpful.

There are more female officers visible here than in Mumbai or Delhi airports!

We are relieved.

The immigration officers can be tough. They might ask you reason for transiting via Maldives. Give them the truth. They may detain a passenger but normally will allow the entry.

— Our had agent informed us prior to our departure.

The WhatsApp group discussions had been confusing. Hostile officers! Some claimed. Friendly! Others countered.

That did not help.

The almost two-hour-and-half flight was spent on worrying about which 50 per cent would fall our way!

To be detained in a foreign city can be daunting. Linguistic and cultural differences, poor internet connection, a roaming number that does not work — all these factors add up to the complications in an unknown location buzzing with people from many countries. Anything can go wrong and you are in a modern limbo; incommunicado with the outside world, on your own.

Incognito!

These fears played on our minds, as we land on a sunny and humid afternoon.

Once we embarked on the adventure, there could be no turning back, Covid or no Covid.

Ready for worst, praying for the best!

Breathing easy, we headed for the exit.

Then, the bump!

Our baggage is held up for additional checks. A female officer asks, “Are there idols inside your suitcase?”

“No,” we say. She nods and asks us to leave. Idols and liquor are prohibited items.

Relieved!

“If any other country does this, prohibiting the sacred objects of a given faith, that government will be dubbed as anti-Islamic. Media will call them spreading Islamophobia. What is this? Liberal governance?’’ asks an Indian co-passenger sotto voce.

The hotel is a large property and full of the Indian students. Few whites also. The view of the ocean and sky is terrific!

A picture-perfect venue.

Chain of atolls stretches in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The sky and the ocean mirror each other, twinning in blue that electrifies the senses.

Here we saw a green ecosystem curated by the travel industry for the wealthy. The resort packs up natural beauty into a commercial package — spas; massages; food; liquors; boating and fishing; surfing and snorkeling.

Other side of Male is poor where workers and other classes live in bleak condition. Covid-19 ruined the economy, but things hope to improve now.

The barriers had been lowered. Vaccinated tourists were returning.

The hotel was on the edge of the ocean. Young Indian and foreign women swim and relax under umbrellas. Indian couples unwind. Women in swimsuits roam uninhibitedly, feeling emancipated, free, under an alien sky.

Outside, along the narrow strip leading to the airport– small stretch — women of any age get that malevolent male gaze!

We spent the night and the next day enjoying the breeze, ocean and the short walks.

And get revived.

.

September11

Time: 2.30 pm

The batch of new arrivals is largely from the north of India—Delhi and Punjab. They are sitting in the lobby, bags unpacked, ears plugged in. Some are talking to parents via video calls and reporting their minor discoveries about Male. Eyes are tired but dreams, burning.

“Headed for Toronto?” I asked a strapping bearded man in early twenties.

“Yeah,” he said. “We have to come here for our RT-PCR report. It has cost us a mini fortune!”

“Same here.” I responded.

“They should have set up a lab at the airport in Delhi.”

“Who?”

“The Canadians. They know we will come, the students, via a third country.”

“Yes. No options.”

“Bizarre! We bring skills and money and that is how Canada is treating us! Making us do additional travel for entering the country.”

I nod. “It is a regular brain drain but our country does not care.”

“Yes,” he observed. “1.3 billion! Deaths or migrations, even on a large-scale basis – it matters not. The youth have to re-write their destinies there.’

He was an engineer going to do the data analytics course from Canada.

“Why you want to leave?”

“Well, for better quality of living. What else?”

“It is tough there.”

“Not for the weak, any foreign country. One thing is sure. Merit is recognised in North America. India lags behind. We do not get what we deserve. Hence, the recent exodus.”

He has a valid point.

Same grit is seen on the faces of the young women. They left the security of homes for a dream.

These are the Young Pioneers doing the Journey of Faith. For a dream of equitable society, merit driven.

The young are obsessed to find better versions of a civilization — humane, well-policed and well-regulated.

To escape the grind of a country mired in extreme corruption, casteism, communalism, regionalism, linguistic chauvinism — and subtle racism.

Each one of the group is in search of a Brave New World, mythical or real.

The Talented are exiting.

No policy maker is bothered.

.

The hotel has got staff from India, Nepal and Malaysia. The food is good. Service, impeccable.

We do the PCR tests in the evening and wait.

Next morning, reports come — negative.

We are ready to leave Male for Toronto via Doha.

.

September11

Time: 4.50—7.45 pm

Male airport

 The horror!

The counter at the business class had a long queue. When our turn came, the female staffer went ballistic. She asked for all the documents related to our son based in Canada. Other documents — RT-PCR reports and vaccine certificates, passports and tickets — were ready but not the papers like sponsorship letter, address, and proof of kinship. She was stern, asked us to leave the counter and return with the soft copies of the documents. It was most harrowing! We pleaded. Told her the embassy had given us visas, but she did not relent.

Paperwork.

Bureaucracy.

She was more of a controlling clerk than a sympathetic customer-care staff willing to help tourists.

Cold logic.

We had a mild shock.

Never expected this treatment from a customer-care agent of an airlines.

No relief was in sight. She was deaf to our requests.

The internet link was unstable in the airport. There was a language barrier. No other senior officials were around to help. The time zones were different. We were stuck.

Boarding would commence soon.

We were almost detained. If denied passage, our schedule would go haywire. We would be spending night in the airport till alternative plans could be made.

Uncertainty can be crippling!

We made frantic calls. Somehow, things worked out. Papers were shown. Boarding passes issued.

We rushed, exhausted but happy.

Bye-bye Male, a city of contrasts. Leaves a bad taste.

.

September 12

Doha

Night layover

We tried to rest in the Lounge.  It was a crowded airport and all the lounges full for the business class passengers. It was chilly. I stretch out my legs and try to grab sleep but give up in that lit-up space. The big airport is buzzing with passengers. Few passengers managed to sleep bent over the chairs.

Lucky ones!

Middle of the journey, near dawn, I heard Odysseus singing:

I long for home, long for the sight of home.

.

September 12

Doha

Early Morning

It was 8.50 am.

We had boarded the long-haul flight to Toronto — finally. The bunks were narrow in the business class. The entire flight was full. Families. Young students. Everybody in a hurry to reach their destination. About 14 hours to spend on board. It is a demanding job to remain fully masked in those tiny but pricey cubicles.

The economy class is packed.

We are slightly better in that limited area. Bit secluded and safe.

.

I watched two movies. Lay down. Sat propped up. The food was not very appealing. The crew was a mix of ethnicities. Polite but bored. Most passengers were sleeping. I was unable to take a nap…instead I dreamt of the spires of the city of Toronto beckoning from afar under a bright sun in a clean blue sky, the latter a heavenly sight for the sore eyes.

I waited for that site as a conclusion to the long journey.

Like every journey, this would end soon.

And that was the award.

.

Arrival

September 12

4.0pm

Destination—reached!

Almost on time.

It is sunny outside.

And a magical city springs into a startled view!

It is Sunday afternoon. And we have arrived in a single piece!

We walk briskly across the less-crowded Pearson airport. Minds relaxed. Luckily, the queues were not long. We were cleared fast by friendly officers, collected our bags, came out, tired but delighted…and united with our family, after a long gap.

At last!

It was intoxicating!

.

PS: The ban on the India-Canada direct flight got lifted on September 27th onwards. But we do not mind. It was a long odyssey of love and faith on choppy waters and variegated landscapes.

We enjoyed the thrill of becoming mobile again during the endemic curfews imposed by a monarch called Corona and understood the benefits of a science termed kinesis.

Takeaways

…Third day, morning, I have this gnawing emptiness typical of a traveler: Now what?

— Next morning, the epiphany: The end of a formal journey signals the beginning of the other journey.

— Endings. New beginnings.

–That life is a series of journeys only, some within and some, without– constant flux, transformations.

— Every journey delivers this enduring message: Embrace the change, otherwise die by stasis, stagnation…you are already dead inside, if stuck up inside a black hole!

Adventures! We all need them.

Ask Alice. Or listen to Ibn Battuta:

Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Or, to this shout out by Jack Kerouac for the ones restless for another expedition of body-mind-spirit:

There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.

We plan to do that only.