As free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
-- Born Free by Andy Williams
These are lines from a song by Andy Williams, a pop icon whose song was the theme song in Born Free, a film made in 1966 about a lion cub bred in captivity, who had to be trained to live free even though she was born free. Does that apply to all living creatures, including humans? What is freedom? And who is free? Does political independence mean ultimate freedom?
We celebrate political ‘freedom’ of countries as national or independence days. Sometimes, as in the case of India and Pakistan, independent nationhood can be laced with bloodshed and grief . Two new countries were born of a single colonial India in the August of 1947. Pakistan awoke as a country on the midnight of 14th August and India called the late hour 15th August. Nehru’s speech has become an iconic one: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge… At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom…”
Common people while crossing the boundary line between the two new nations lost their lives, homes and lands over the mob violence. The resentment still simmers in a few hearts. In an attempt to find peace and amity, we have put forward a combined selection of writing from across borders, words devoid of angst or hate, words that look for commonality and harmony.
In Conversation with Goutam Ghose, multiple award-winning filmmaker, writer, actor discusses his films, film-books and journey as a humanitarian artiste who makes cross cultural films across all boundaries. Click here to read.
In The Idea of India: Bharata Bhagya Bidhata – The Making of a MotherlandAnasuya Bhar explores the history around the National Anthem of India which started as a song, composed by Tagore. Only the first paragraph of the whole song in Bengali was adapted as the National Anthem. We include the translations of the complete song both by Tagore and by Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read.
Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an upsurge in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule. Click here to read.
On August 8th 2021, the chief of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, pointed out during the closing ceremony that these games were “unprecedented” and brought messages of “hope, solidarity and peace” into a world torn with the desolation generated by the pandemic. It was a victory of the human spirit again, a precursor of what is to come. That the Japanese could get over their pandemic wrought hurdles, just as they did post the nuclear disasters wrought by the Second World War and by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami at Fukushimaya, to host something as spectacular and inspiring as these international games reflects, as the commentators contended, a spirit of ‘harmony and humility’. The last song performed by many youngsters seemed to dwell on stars in the sky — not only were the athletes and organisers the stars but this also reminded of unexplored frontiers that beckon mankind, the space.What a wonderful thing it was to see people give their best and unite under the banner of sports to bring messages of survival and glimpses of a future we can all share as human beings! Our way of doing things might have to evolve but we will always move forward as a species to thrive and expand beyond the known frontiers.
One such explorer of yet unknown frontiers who mingles the historic with the contemporary, Goutam Ghose, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, has honoured our pages with an extensive interview showing us how art and harmony can weave lores that can help mankind survive. This is reinforced by the other interview with Singaporean academic, Dr Kirpal Singh, whose poetry reflects his convictions of a better world. With our intelligence, we can redefine processes that hold us back and grind our spirits to dust — be it the conventional ‘isms’ or norms that restrict our movement forward – just as Tagore says in the poem, we have translated this time, ‘Deliverance’.
…On this auspicious dawn,
Let us hold our heads high in the infinite sky
Amidst the light of bounteousness and the heady breeze of freedom.
As the Kobiguru mentioned earlier in the poem, the factors that oppress could be societal, political, or economic. Could they perhaps even be the fetters put on us by the prescribed preconceived definition of manmade concepts like ‘freedom’ itself? Freedom can be interpreted differently by multiple voices.
This month, on our pages, ‘freedom’ has found multiple interpretations in myriad of ways — each voice visualising a different dream; each dream adding value to the idea of human progress. We have discussions and stories on freedom from Nigeria, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and more. Strangely enough, August holds multiple independence/ national days that are always for some reason seen as days of being ‘freed’ by many — at least from oppression. But is that true?
Indo-Pak independence, celebrated now on 14th (Pakistan) and 15th August (India), reflects not only the violence of the Partition which dislocated and killed millions historically but also the trauma caused by the event. Capturing this trauma is a short story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by his daughter, Amna Ali. Ratnottama Sengupta translates from the diary of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), a woman’s voice from the past that empathises with the subjugated who were subdued yet again after an upsurge of violence during the Quit India Movement (1942) against the colonials. Sinha contends that though the movement frittered away, the colonials were left with an after-taste of people hankering for self-rule. A thought-provoking short story by Sunil Sharma explores the results of self-rule in independent India.
Alluding to Jinnah’s vision for women, Aysha Baqir muses emotionally about the goals that remain yet to be fulfilled 74 years after independence. Moazzam Sheikh’s story of immigrants explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America, immigrants who had to find a new home despite independence. Was this the freedom they dreamt of — all those who fought against various oppressive regimes or colonialism?
Tagore’s lyrics might procure a few ideas on freedom, especially in the song that India calls its National Anthem. Anasuya Bhar assays around the history that surrounds the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated to English by the poet himself and more recently, only by Aruna Chakravarti. We also carry Dr Chakravarti’s translation of the National Anthem in the essay. Reflecting on the politics of Partition and romance is a lighter piece by Devraj Singh Kalsi which says much. ‘Dinos in France’ by Rhys Hughes and Neil Reddick’s ‘The Coupon’ have tongue-in-cheek humour from two sides of the Atlantic.
A coming-of-age story has been translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal – a story by a popular author, Dev Kumari Thapa – our first Nepali prose piece. We start a four-part travelogue by John Herlihy, a travel writer, on Myanmar, a country which has recently been much in the news with its fight for surviving with democracy taking ascendency over the pandemic and leaving the people bereft of what we take for granted.
Candice Louisa Daquin discusses a life well-lived in a thought provoking essay, in which she draws lessons from her mother as do Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, and Argentinian writer, Marcelo Medone. Maybe, mothers and freedom draw similar emotions, of blind love and adulation. They seem to be connected in some strange way with terms like motherland and mother tongue used in common parlance.
We have two book excerpts this time: one from Beyond the Himalayas by the multi-faceted, feted and awarded filmmaker we have interviewed, Goutam Ghose, reflecting on how much effort went in to make a trip beyond boundaries drawn by what Tagore called “narrow domestic walls”. We carry a second book excerpt this time, from Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon. Keith Lyons has reviewed this book too. If you are interested in freedom and democracy, this sounds like a must read.
Maithreyi Karnoor’sSylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends,is a fiction that seems to redefine norms by what Rakhi Dalal suggests in her review. Bhaskar Parichha has picked a book that many of us have been curious about, Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Parichha is of the opinion, “Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.”One wonders if this is conclusive for all ‘unworldly women’ in India only or is it a worldwide phenomenon or is it true only for those who are tied to a particular ethos within the geographical concept of India? The book reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, dwells on the fierce independence of the early twentieth century women caregivers of the maestro from Bengal. These women did not look for approval or acceptance but made their own rules as did Jnadanandini, Tagore’s sister-in-law. Bhaskar Parichha has also added to our Tagore lore with his essay on Tagore in Odisha.
As usual, we have given you a peek into some of our content. There is more, which we leave for our wonderful readers to uncover. We thank all the readers, our fantastic contributors and the outstanding Borderless team that helps the journal thrive drawing in the best of writers.
I wish you all a happy August as many of the countries try to move towards a new normal.
A story by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali
A peculiar dream replayed itself in my mind recently. I am the kind of man who always thinks deeply about dreams. When I lost and then initiated the arduous task of recalling my memory, I went in search of all those times I could not account for by raking through my dreams. We rarely make sense of the surreal glue that holds dreams together, reconstructing them as if they are stories. Indeed, sometimes they chronicle our longings, other times they unfold our ardent desires reaching fulfilment, as in the union of a man and a woman! In essence, words lay the foundation, not only of the inner world, but also of our dreams. Words illuminate this journey we undertake in the pitch dark. They help us penetrate the maelstrom of existence!
This is how the dream began. I address a seated man, apparently a doctor, I recognize as Shahabuddin. He transmutes into a woman when I sit down across from him. She has the most beautiful eyes. Dark-complexioned, she appears to be Bengali. I find her very attractive. We take a stroll to the front of the Zamindara College in Gujrat. I point out Nawab Sahab’s grave to her. She moves closer to me as we approach the college hall. We continue onward to the back of the college. My heart turns tranquil as the dream fades.
I did not have to venture far to find the rungs that would help me comprehend my dream. Ah, I had recently read the translation of theMusaddas by Sir Shahabuddin. Since Shahabuddin had tanned skin, he visited my dream as a woman with dark complexion. Again, it was he who dissolved into Balo Jati in my dream because he belonged to the Jat caste. I rushed to Balo and narrated the night’s dream. “Lady, I have to remove curtain upon curtain to find you, even in my dreams!” She laughed and explained, “Such a distance lies between an old man and his youth!” I persisted with my interpretation of the dream. “I showed you Nawab Sahab’s grave to indicate that I am old and decrepit, yet I live on, like Nawab Sahab’s name lives on. We went to the back of the college to excavate my youthful days.”
“Lahore, Chaudhry Sahab, is overflowing with young lovers. My most prized beloved, though, remains this old man. He is a parent and lover rolled into one. People need conversations to share our joys and sorrows, no? Who would I converse with if I don’t see you Chaudhry Sahab?” Balo’s words lifted my spirits. My dream bestowed its blessings and then was forgotten. Two months passed.
Yesterday, as I sat reading the biography of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti – the Consoler of the Poor*, Bundu dhobi* appeared in my thoughts out of the blue. Consider that one of Khwaja Sahab’s miracles or the secret of caring for the crushed! My mind was reminded of the two-month-old dream. I pictured the dark-skinned woman’s eyes. Ah, exactly like Bundu’s! So, the woman was in fact Bundu the washerman! Bundu is the only person I remember fondly from my two-year stint as a professor at Gujrat’s Zamindara College. He transformed me into a Sahab during those youthful days of surviving on the pittance I was paid as a novice professor. I wore the best starched and brightest white shalwar kameez in the entire college.
I also happened to be the college hostel warden. One day, Bundu appeared with a plea.
“Sahab, it is impossible to find accommodation in the homes seized after the exodus of the Hindus from the city. The Neighborhood of the Untouchables too is under the police’s control. They have escorted so many women there, turning it into their own personal cantonment. It is indeed not befitting for real men to spend nights at the police-station! Please if you get me a place at the hostel, I will manage.”
I arranged lodging for him at the hostel. Meanwhile, I found it hard to manage my expenses after sending two hundred and fifty rupees home each month. I had rashly jumped on the marriage bandwagon too. I ended up renting a house in Madina village situated on the outskirts of the town. Bundu would walk the two miles to my place. I had a bicycle at least.
Bundu never learnt to ride. “It has a mind of its own! What if the damn machine decides to carry me to Momdipur from Madina village?” Bundu would tease.
The marriage ceremony and monthly expenses drained us of all our money within a month of marital bliss. One day, my wife announced, “Someone named Bundu dhobi is asking for you.”
I stepped outside to meet him. “Sorry Bundu, I am penniless this month. I won’t be able to pay you,” I told him.
“Sahab, I am not here to receive my payment. I am here to pick up the dirty laundry. Moreover, I haven’t even congratulated you on your marriage. Your wife is one lucky woman. A good man usually finds a good match.” Little by little, Bundu developed the routine of picking up our laundry from my wife multiple times a week, instead of once a week. Thanks to the care he showered upon our clothes, my wife and I climbed up the social ladder. When the college let him go, he managed to rent a small place that used to belong to Hindus in Muhammadi village. We remained broke.
One day, my wife took out some old bills. “Bundu heard us fighting about the expenses. He left thirty rupees with me.” I expressed my anger. We didn’t have a penny. How were we going to repay him given how impossible it was to borrow from anyone in our village?
“He said we could repay him after one month. He placed the money in my hand,” My wife tried to allay my worries.
Bundu played an important role in my transfer to Lahore when our principal accepted a position at the university and took me along. “You are the best-dressed man in all of Gujrat!”, the principal had said. From Lahore, I went on to Dhaka University in 1965. My children and I took to Dhaka, but luck was not on our side. We were spared the perils of detention in 1971 as we had returned to West Pakistan for the summer holidays. But I remained affected by 1971. I became very ill. I lost my memory during my treatment. Once recovered, I made a trip to Gujrat after a gap of twenty-five years. Bundu had passed away by then.
Today, Khwaja Muinuddin, the Consoler of the Poor, reminded me of my Consoler of the Rich, a most loving and kind-hearted man. Perhaps even Khwaja Sahab had been softened by such love from people! After all, a poor person can also be a benefactor of the rich! Such are the links of love. The foundational bond, too. As in the love between a man and a woman! In my dream, he appeared as a beautiful, dark woman. He was a very handsome man. How can I ever forget his deeply telling eyes?
*Also known as Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz (Consoler of the Poor), he was a sufi saint and founder of the Chistiya Sufi order in the early 13th century
*A dhobi is a washerman
Nadir Ali (1936-2020) was a Punjabi poet and short story writer. In 2006, he was awarded the Waris Shah award for his collection Kahani Praga. Coming late to writing, particularly fiction, Nadir Ali is credited with spearheading a unique style, blurring the boundaries between significant and petty, artistic and ordinary, primarily due to his preference for and command over the chaste central dialect understood by the majority of Punjabi speakers. He is also noted for writing and speaking about his experiences as an army officer posted in East Pakistan at the height of the 1971 war.
Amna Ali is Nadir Ali’s daughter. She is currently translating a selection of Nadir Ali’s short stories into English. She is a librarian and lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.
(Published with permission of the author’s family)
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