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Review

Tagore’s Cartography of the Imagination

Book review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Gleanings of the Road

Author: Rabindranath Tagore Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Travels formed an integral part of the personae and creative artist that was Rabindranath Tagore. During his travels to England and the America (1912-13 and 1920) Tagore wrote essays for publication in various Bengali journals. Rabindranath Tagore was an inveterate traveller who travelled to the furthest corners of the globe. Detailing his travels in the  colloquial everyday language (also referred to as ‘chalit’ bhasha or language)  during his tour of England and USA in 1912-13, he used to publish regularly in journals like Prabasi, Bharati and Tattwabodhini Patrika. As the translator-editor Somdatta Mandal  informs us, Vishwa Bharati Publication Department in 1946 decided to discard Rabindranath’s own selection. They went back to the earlier formal register and included writings of the 1912 tour, irrespective of whether they were related to his travel.  

 The book blurb says: “In 1939, Tagore selected fourteen of these essays and an appendix containing seven letters he had written to some of the teachers in the Santiniketan ashram while he was on these trips, for publication as a volume. It was at this point that he rewrote the original essays then using the colloquial instead of the formal language; he also revised the texts substantially. Later editions altered the number of essays, sometimes digressing from Tagore’s own selection, sometimes going back to Tagore’s original formal language.”

The travelogue, if it can be called that, provides an insight into Tagore’s perception of the different facets of western life and the diverse philosophical issues that cross his mind as he journeys from one continent to another. Thus perhaps it is more appropriate that the collection is named “gleanings’’ rather than a travel account or narrative. They are philosophical ruminations where Tagore holds forth on various aspects of civilizations and cultures.

In the very first segment, Tagore’s critical observations about Indian society comes to the fore. Thus he comments on what he sees as  cultural differences and civilizational clashes, in “Prelude to the Journey”: “We always comfort ourselves by saying that we are a religious and spiritual race”. He sees this as a compensatory move by Indians to cover up our own sense of inadequacy, about our “weakness”  in the external world.(Tagore was acutely conscious of India’s status as a colonised country). “Many of us boast that poverty is our asset”, dwelling perhaps in a haze of pseudo-spiritualism which balks at admitting that this attitude is merely a kind of bravado.

Tagore’s essay here unpacks the notion of the binary that the West is materialistic while the East is spiritual by lauding certain aspects of Western and European culture. Thus he writes that “if we go to Europe with the aim of a pilgrimage, our journey will not be in vain”. He further explains that  this is not only because of the material developments achieved by Western culture, but their spirit and attitude.

Power, according to Tagore, is more than an external manifestation; rather, it has to do with a sense of real inner strength. He goes on to cite the instance of the Titanic and people’s altruism and self-sacrifice that was in evidence at that time, to interrogate the view, held by many Indians, that the average European is self-centred and self-serving. On the other hand, Tagore also gives plenty of instances where the spiritual poverty of Indians was in evidence. Thus he writes, “I know there has been a clash between our welfare and that of Europe and because of that we are suffering deep anguish and pain. We do not trust their religion and we criticise their culture as being too materialistic.” However, he continues that there are aspects of European culture which are worthy of emulation, which we would do well to follow, without feeling that it threatens our culture. He strongly commends that the path to seek the truth is a pilgrimage on which we should proceed without being blinded by ego, prejudice and false pride.

Coupled with this contrast of cultures, are observations about people and places. Thus he talks about the women of Bombay who are visible on the beaches of Bombay and contrasts it with the city of Calcutta, which according to him, is bereft of women in public places. Tagore also muses on the vast and limitless ocean which to him offers a cornucopia of literal and symbolic meanings. The sea and the ocean signify  vastness, depth, boundlessness and infinitude, as well as the lure of the unknown. In contrast, he bemoans  the loss of man’s ties with nature signified to him by the colonial appropriation of the river. He reflects that the river “Ganges was once one of Calcutta’s ties with nature…It was the one window of the city from where you could look out and realize that the world was not confined to this settlement.” He bemoans the fact that the once natural strength of the Ganga had been dissipated, “it has been dressed up in such tight clothes on both its banks and its waist band has been tightened so that the Ganges seems to be the image of a liveried footman of the city”. In contrast, the “special glory of the sea is that it serves man but does so without wearing the yoke of slavery on its neck.” His evocative description brings to life the various aspects of the landscape in full measure.

Tagore’s ‘travel’ writing is not just a mapping of people and places, but shows him as the supreme cartographer of the imagination. Witness his contrast of the earth and the ocean. The earth is compared to an excessively doting mother who binds her children to her and does not allow them to venture far away; the ocean by contrast “constantly allures him to venture towards the unattainable”. He adds, “Those who responded to that call and moved out are the ones who conquered the world.” Moreover, “that race of people on this earth who have specially welcomed this ocean have also found the unceasing effort of the ocean in their character.” Travelling on the Arabian sea, glimpsing distant shores, he stresses that the union of the two — the land and the ocean — signifying stability and movement are vital to an understanding of the truth.

The urge to travel, to move forward continuously, is forever present in man. In a philosophical vein , the poet muses that the soul “always wants to travel” and that it dies if it does not do so.In a series of similes and metaphors drawn from nature, he reflects: “Let us keep moving on, like the waterfall, the waves of the ocean, the birds at dawn, the light at sunrise.” He even transcends to the next plane when he says that “even the call of death is nothing but just a call to change the dwelling place”. In almost the same breath, he compares himself to a fairy princess who is fast asleep and who cannot be woken from her slumber, except with a golden wand.

Part anthropological study– at one point, the poet reflects that the vastness of the surrounding sea would have elicited devotion among many Indians, unlike the European traveller who is intent on enjoying the comforts and varieties of entertainment on the ship-part philosophic meditation, “Gleanings” represents the quintessential Tagore. His interrogation of Indian claims to spirituality is made in the tone of a concerned father warning his children not to fall prey to false pride and vanity. Deeply patriotic as well as an internationalist, he straddled two contrasting worlds of materiality and spirituality, without succumbing to limiting binaries and stereotypes.

Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.  

CLICK HERE TO READ THE BOOK EXCERPT

  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Review

Geetanjali Shree’s Mai

Rakhi Dalal reviews Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of the Hindi novel by Nita Kumar

Title: Mai, Silently Mother

Author: Geetanjali Shree, Translator: Nita Kumar

Publisher: Niyogi Books

To live in a South Asian country means to grow up with an absolute idea of a mother. A mother is always giving, nurturing, sacrificing and working. Her day begins and ends with looking after the household. In context with India, this notion also seems to be defined by the structures of caste and class. Although an opinion of her position, based upon the ideas imbedded in conscience, takes on different interpretations when seen broadly from the lenses of patriarchy or feminism. With the former, it is more of a responsibility or duty that is taken for granted and in many cases not even given a second thought. In the case of latter, it might be considered as oppression in some situations, where the mothers are deliberately subjugated into drudgery of family grind by the patriarchal structure.

Mai by Geentajali Shree presents to us the complexities brought about by the conflict between both of these ideas in a domestic realm. However more than that it compels us to think when we talk of a mother, exactly whose opinions are being discussed and whether we also explore it from the point of view of the mother herself.

It is the debut Hindi novel of the author and is centred on the world of a mother as observed by her daughter. The English translation of Mai by Nita Kumar had won Sahitya Academy Award in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award in 2001. Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, whose English translation Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell won International Booker this year, also has at its centre a mother.

Shree writes stories and novels in Hindi. Her much acclaimed novels Tirohit and Khali Jagah have also been translated into English. She has written a biography of Premchand in English and is also associated with theatre. Nita Kumar, the translator of Mai, is a Brown Family Professor of South Asian History at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California. She has also authored several books and is engaged in innovative education in Varanasi since 1990.

The household in Mai is a typical middle class in a small North-Indian town where the patriarch set the diktats rolling for a joint family. Governed by the binaries of outside and inside, the roles of each member are clearly defined. ‘Outside’ is a world to be conquered by the men whereas the confines within the house are to be looked after and cared for by the women. Three generations of a family living under the same roof offer resonance with confirmations and contradictions inherent to the structure they are bound by.

With this backdrop, the author successfully pulls strings to present an image closer to the familiar realities of such a household. Silently mother, the subtitle of Mai, is the identifier which Sunaina, the third generation daughter, associates with her mother. From her early childhood, she has watched her mother attending to the call of her family silently. Always bent, always working, from behind her purda, the mother seemed weak. Slowly however, and with much subtlety, Shree offers the reader certain glimpses into the character of silent Mai. Instances which, as Kumar suggests, mean that her silence does not equate with being speechless. At the most crucial points, we witness the mother speaking up for her children, even if it is only a single word or sentence is being uttered. She never questions their choices or decisions, thereby giving them freedom to get on with their own lives, something which makes them closer to her than to their father or grandparents.

The reader also finds that mother does have her own moments of joy when she retires at night to the bedroom she shares with her children, lets go off her veil and laughs at their jokes, when she appears in the forbidden courtyard humming a song or when she takes on the responsibility of entire house after her husband meets a tragic accident.  

For Sunaina and her brother Subodh however, her silence equates with oppression. They are obsessed with the idea of rescuing her from the fetters which they believe are afflicted upon her. So much so that it becomes the sole purpose of their lives. With passage of time, their mission nevertheless remains unaccomplished as they realise in frustration that their mother doesn’t need to be saved. It is only towards the end that they realise her strength and contribution in building their lives.

In the afterword, Kumar says, “We do not know ‘what’ mothers are, we do not know if a given mother is ‘fulfilled’ in what she does, or what else she ‘wants’. But we could progressively know whether to ask certain questions, how to ask some others, what any of them might imply, how to refrain from asking and retrack, how to pause and begin to comprehend little glimpses better. We could start evaluating silence differently from what we do in our dichotomous, rationalist world, like Subodh and Sunaina’s tells us to. We could question agency, strength and weakness anew.” 

With an impressive 50 page critique of Mai, the afterword is an added treat to the reader. Kumar writes on the matter of mother and looks at it from the point of history and anthropology. She discusses the challenges associated with the task of translation and her discourse engages the reader, bringing focus on her work which is done exceptionally well. 

This splendid novel by Geetanjali Shree, with its nuanced portrayal of sensibilities across class, gender and age, invites the reader to look closely into the preconceived as well as acquired notions around ‘mother’. It stresses profoundly that the mothers are not only made invisible by the veil which patriarchy forces upon them but also by the partial and opinionated understanding of their desires. Maybe if we try to catch the little glimpses better, we may start seeing her coming out of shadows.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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Categories
Excerpt

Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road

Author: Rabindranath Tagore 

Translator: Somdatta Mandal 

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Chapter 1 – Prelude to the Journey

Our ashrama school is situated in the midst of a meadow, a place where both the old and the young, students and teachers all reside in the same room. We also have other playmates; we do not have a concealed relationship with the blue sky, the light and the breeze. Here the early morning rays of the sun fall directly upon our eyelids, the evening stars in the sky directly stare at our faces. When the storm comes, its dusty stole warns us from a very long distance. The arrival of a new season is first heralded through the new leaves on our trees. It is as if Nature does not have to wait for a moment outside our doors. Our desire is to share this kind of a relationship with the people of the world as well. The desire of our heart is to see clearly all the seasons that come and go in the history of mankind, the rising and setting of the sun or the tumult that storm and rain create. This is possible for us because we stay far away from human habitation. Here all the information of the world is not received in a particular cookie-cutter mould; if we want we can receive them in an unadulterated form.

In order to make the relationship of our institution to the rest of the human world an open one, I feel it necessary to explore the world. We have received the invitation of that larger world. As it is not possible for all the 200 students of this school to accompany me in this grand tour, so I have decided that I shall alone attend the invitation on your behalf. Through me I shall complete all of yours travel. When I will again return to your ashrama I will be able to capture a lot of the external world in my life and bring it for you. Once I come back I will share my experiences at leisure, but now, before departing, I want to clearly explain some of my thoughts to you. Many people ask me why are you going for an Europe travel? I cannot find an answer to this question. If I give a simple answer that I am going because I simply want to travel, then people will think that I am dismissing the fact lightheartedly. Man is not at peace until a result is declared and an assessment made of the profit and loss involved. Why should man venture out of home without any need is a question that can be raised in our country only. We are oblivious of the fact that the wish to venture outside is a natural instinct in man. Home has bound us up in such a manner that we are tied by many superstitions and tears once we decide to set our feet across the threshold. Thus the outside is totally beyond us while its connection with home has been completely severed. Our friends and relatives enmesh us so closely that outsiders are outsiders in the true sense of the word.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Travels formed an integral part of the personae and creative artist that was Rabindranath Tagore. During his travels to England and the USA (1912-13 and 1920) Tagore wrote essays for publication in various Bengali journals. In 1939, Tagore selected fourteen of these essays and an appendix containing seven letters he had written to some of the teachers in the Shantiniketan ashram while he was on these trips, for publication as a volume. Tagore rewrote the original essays then using the colloquial instead of the formal language; he also revised the texts substantially. Later editions altered the number of essays, sometimes digressing from Tagore’s own selection, sometimes going back to Tagore’s original formal language. The travelogue provides an insight into Tagore’s perception of the different facets of western life and the diverse philosophical issues that cross his mind as he journeys from one continent to another. Translated from Bengali for the first time, Pather Sanchoy would be of interest to all those who enjoy exploring unknown territories geographically and psychologically.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rabindranath Tagore, sobriquet Gurudev, was a Bengali polymath who reshaped Bengali literature and music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali and its “profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.He is sometimes referred to as “The Bard of Bengal”.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Somdatta Mandal is a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.

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Categories
Editorial

‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’

Art by Sohana Manzoor
‘Why does education in love not feature in today’s curriculum?’
— Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan (Translated by Radha Chakravarty, 2022, Seagull Books)

As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago. 

This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.

Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?

He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.

“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”

All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.

Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.

A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud by Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.

Translations have thrown up interesting colours this time with a Tamil story by a Sahitya Akademi winning writer, S Ramakrishnan, translated on our pages by B Chandramouli, one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi and of course a transcreation of Tagore’s songs where he sings of the meeting of horizons. A beautiful poem by eminent Balochi poet Atta Shad (1939-1997) has been translated by Fazal Baloch. We are again privileged to host an original translation of Jibananda Das(1899-1954) by Professor Fakrul Alam. We also managed to get permission to share some of Professor Alam’s fabulous translations of Jibananada Das from UPL (United Press Limited) and are starting it out by excerpting two of his poems on Banalata Sen, which were till now restricted to readership who only had access to the hardcopy. Rakibul Hasan Khan has given us an essay on these translations. An interesting essay on Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) by Rebanata Gupta and personalised tribute to the first Booker Prize winner from New Zealand, Keri Hulme (1947-2021), by Keith Lyons, who had many non-literary encounters with the sequestered author, add to the richness of our oeuvre.

Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.

Brooding on death and suicide is Candice Louisa Daquin essay. This is a topic under discussion as Switzerland might start a resort for abetting suicides. It is rather frightening that while people value life and as technology and humans work in consonance to preserve it, the rich can think of squandering away this unique process that has till now not been replicated. The other strange long literary yarn that is dark in colours is woven by Sunil Sharma as he explores the futility and self-pity experienced by retirees in their existentialist quest to find a meaning to live. It has bits of poetry too. Penny Wilkes has also introduced verses into her photographic tour of dewdrops. Candice’s vibrant poetry this time has joined that of Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Mike Smith, A Jessie Michael, Ananya Sarkar, Jay Nicholls, Saptarshi Bhattacharya, Rhys Hughes and many more I leave you to unfold. Rhys Hughes has also given us a spooky piece which says ghosts might be genies — check it out. Do you agree or is he just being bizarre and funny?

Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsi narrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.

The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.  

Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.

Wish you all a lovely month.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Interview Review

Sriniketan: Tagore’s “Life Work”

In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction published by Niyogi Books, 2022

Tagore (1861-1941) has been celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the world, a great philosopher, a writer, an artist, a polyglot but what did the maestro himself perceive as his greatest ‘life work’?

He wrote: “My path, as you know, lies in the domain of quiet integral action and thought, my units must be few and small, and I can but face human problems in relation to some basic village or cultural area. So, in the midst of worldwide anguish, and with the problems of over three hundred millions staring us in the face, I stick to my work in Santiniketan and Sriniketan hoping that my efforts will touch the heart of our village neighbours and help them in reasserting themselves in a new social order. If we can give a start to a few villages, they would perhaps be an inspiration to some others—and my life work will have been done.” This was in a letter in 1939 to an agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974), who helped him set up Sriniketan, a craft and agricultural development project for the villages which fell under the purview of the Tagore family zamindari.

To Tagore, his ‘life work’ lay in the welfare of humankind and poetry was just one of the things he did, like breathing. He told a group of writers, musicians, and artists, who were visiting Sriniketan in 1936: “The picture of the helpless village which I saw each day as I sailed past on the river has remained with me and so I have come to make the great initiation here. It is not the work for one, it must involve all. I have invited you today not to discuss my literature nor listen to my poetry. I want you to see for yourself where our society’s real work lies. That is the reason why I am pointing to it over and over again. My reward will be if you can feel for yourself the value of this work.”

Uma Das Gupta

These are all incidents woven into a book called A History of Sriniketan by historian and Tagore biographer, Uma Das Gupta, who did her post-doctoral research on the maestro and the history of the educational institutions he founded at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. She moved out of Oxford and pursued her studies in Calcutta. She has highlighted Tagore uniquely as an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) operator and also an educator. Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) in her book Our Santiniketan, recently translated by Radha Chakravarty, focussed on his role mainly as an educator who sought to revive values, a love for nature along with rigorous academics to create thinkers and change makers like the author herself.

A History of Sriniketan is about his work among villagers to bridge gaps. Often, his poetry and writing expresses the empathy he felt for pain and suffering, his need to instil beauty and well-being into humankind so that they could evolve towards a better world — an ideal which he described to an extent in poems like ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ and India’s national anthem.

Dasgupta did this by not only delving into Tagore’s own writings but by devoting her life to unearth the depth of the maestro’s commitment and the hard work and money he invested in the project he described as his ‘Life’s work’. She even visited the villages and talked to the beneficiaries and workers. Her book is peppered with photographs of the Tagore in Sriniketan. It is amazing to see pictures of the poet with people from Sriniketan sitting on the ground or celebrating festivities.

Tagore, Das Gupta tells us, poured all his Nobel prize money, into the Sriniketan Bank project which was led by his son, Rathindranath. The project hoped to free the peasant from debt. How well were these experiments received by Tagore’s contemporaries? Das Gupta writes in her book: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rabindranath had to encounter all of those things, that is, to ‘overcome opposition’ and to ‘conquer space and time’, in no uncertain measure. In short, he had to drive hard to do anything good for a better village life. As a first step, he insisted that Indians should unite to provide nation-building services to the village and not look to the State for doing what was our own duty towards our people. For him, this had to be the more important function of the Swaraj being sought from alien rule.

“In Rabindranath’s view, what had misled society in our transition to modernity was the introduction of the Western concepts of private property and material progress. What this led to was that mankind, though never free from greed, now crossed the limits, within which it was useful rather than harmful. What came about as a result was that property became individualistic and led to the abandoning of hospitality to our people and loss of communication with them. As a consequence, there was an increasing divide between city and village. He found all that to be the reality, when trying to bring about changes, both in his family’s agricultural estates and in the villages surrounding Santiniketan-Sriniketan.”


Tagore, Nandalal Bose & Leonard Elmhirst are together in this picture taken in 1924. Lord Elmhirst, then Tagore’s secretary/assistant stands at the back with Nandalal Bose between him and Gurudev. Courtesy: Creative Commons

To bridge this divide, Sriniketan was created with the involvement of more of the Tagore family, agriculturists, scientists from all over the world, like Leonard Elmhirst whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work, and artists, like Nandalal Bose. It was a path breaking experiment which found fruition in the long run. They adapted from multiple cultures without any nationalistic biases. Rathindranath brought batik from Indonesia into the leather craft of Sriniketan. We are told, “One of the early influences was from Santiniketan’s association with a group of creative thinkers from Asia, who were spearheading a Pan-Asian Movement that questioned Western hegemony in art and artistic expression. A pioneer of the Pan-Asian Movement was Kakuzo Okakura (1863–1913, Japanese scholar and author of The Book of Tea). He came to Calcutta in 1904, when he met Rabindranath, and they became friends. Okakura admired and supported Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school. Nandalal’s Kala-Bhavana syllabus included Okakura’s artistic principles of giving importance to nature, tradition, and creativity, which were the same as Rabindranath’s artistic principles.”

That Tagore’s effort was unique and overlooked by the mainstream is well brought out through the narrative which does not critique but only evidences. For instance, Das Gupta contends: “He (Tagore) wrote the same to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, in a letter dated 28 February 1930, when appealing for a government grant towards agricultural research. ‘I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Lord Irwin had come for a visit to Sriniketan at the time and Rabindranath was told of his favourable impression of what he saw during his visit to Sriniketan. In his letter, Rabindranath wrote how he was doing the work ‘almost in isolation’, without any understanding from his people or from the government.” Does that often not continue to be the story of many NGOs?

Sriniketan by Dasgupta is a timely and very readable non-fiction which brings to light not just the humanitarian aspect of Tagore but the need for the world to wake up to the call of nature to unite as a species beyond borders created by humans and live in harmony with the Earth. It all adds up in the post-pandemic, climate-disaster threatened world. To survive, we could learn much from what is shared with us in this book. I would love to call it a survival manual towards a better future for mankind. Scholarship has found a way to connect with the needs of the real world. The book is reader friendly as Das Gupta writes fluently from the bottom of her heart of a felt need that is being voiced by modern thinkers and gurus like Harari — we need to bridge borders and unite to move forward.

Das Gupta retired as Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. She was Head of the United States Educational Foundation in India for the Eastern Region. Recently, she has become a National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IAAS), Shimla, and a Delegate of Oxford University Press. Her publications include Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography; The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Essays on Education and Nationalism; A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson, 1913–1940; Friendships of ‘largeness and freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi, An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940. In this interview, she focusses mainly on her new book, A History of Sriniketan, while touching on how Tagore differed from others like Gandhi in his approach, his vision and enlightens us about a man who created a revolution in ideological and practical world, and yet remained unacknowledged for that as in posterity he continues to be perceived mainly as an intellectual, a poet and a writer.


Uma Das Gupta in the corridors of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), Shimla, where she was visiting as a  National Fellow (2012 – 2014) to advise on a permanent exhibit on Tagore’s life and work. The project was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture in celebration of Tagore’s 150th anniversary. This Institute is housed in the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge of imperial times. Photo provided by Uma Das Gupta

You are a well-known biographer of Tagore and have done extensive research on him. What made you put together A History of Sriniketan?

Grateful for your kind appreciation.

Writing a history of Sriniketan has been a priority for me. As a Tagore biographer, my dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. His work at Sriniketan is of prime importance in that perspective. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre, lyric, poetry, narratives, short stories, novels and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since I did not intend to write a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Tagore’s life, equally.  My choice was to explore his educational ideas and to examine how he implemented them at his Santiniketan and Sriniketan institutions. His work as an educator and rural reformer is even today hardly known because his genius as a poet and a song writer overshadowed his work as an educator, rural reformer, and institutional builder. That area of research was quite virgin when I started it as a post-doctoral project in the mid-1970s. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre I have drawn on the work of the scholars who know the subject better than I do.  

My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in Tagore’s writings and his actions. These were about the alienation in our own society between the elite and the masses, about race conflict and the absence of unity in our society, India’s history, nationalism, national self-respect, internationalism, an alternative education, religion, and humanism as elaborated by him in his collection of essays titled The Religion of Man (1931).

A History of Sriniketan is a detailed presentation about his ideas and his work on rural reconstruction. The idea of doing something to redeem neglected villages came to him when he first went to live in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal. His father sent him as manager in 1889. The decade that he spent there was his first exposure to the impoverished countryside. He was then thirty, already a poet of fame, and had lived only in the city till then. The experience played a seminal part in turning him into a humanist and a man of action. The closer he felt to the masses of his society the further he moved from his own class who were indifferent to the masses. His independent thinking gave him the courage of conviction to work alone with his ideas of ‘constructive swadeshi’. 

As a pragmatist he knew there was not a lot he could do given his meagre resources as an individual in relation to the enormity of the needs. But he was determined at least to make a beginning with the work. His goals were a revitalized peasantry, village self-reliance through small scale enterprises, cottage industries and cooperative values. He wrote, “If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”

Disillusioned with nationalist politics he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of his times. Tagore was convinced there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the Santiniketan-Sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He thus brought a different dimension to nationalism by arguing for universal humanity. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed on his country by colonial rule. He had the foresight to sense that the awakening of India was bound to be a part of the awakening of the world.  

What is the kind of research that went in into the making of this book? What got you interested in Tagore in the first place?

I am a historian by training. Historians have to back up every statement they make in their analysis by written documents. That is why the historian’s main source is the archives. Likewise, my research for this book has been mainly archival. I searched for written documentation from 1922 when the Sriniketan scheme of rural reconstruction work was officially launched. The documentation included the minutes of meetings, memoranda exchanged among the workers of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, official notes, and annual reports written and filed.

In addition, I used to visit the villages in which the scheme was implemented to get an understanding of the ground reality. The work was started with six villages in 1922, extended to twenty-two more villages in the first ten years, and to many more villages afterwards. When the work was being run on a small scale, the Institute tried to post a village worker to stay in the village itself and work along with the villagers to implement the Sriniketan scheme. Some of these villages actually kept notes and records of their work which I could use as part of my local level research. I also interviewed some of the workers who had retired but who were still living around Sriniketan in their old age though their number was small. I have used those oral interviews in my documentation. Some of the Village Workers had their own private correspondence to which they gave me access.

There is also extensive personal correspondence in the Rabindra-Bhavana Archives between the leaders of the Sriniketan work. Among them first and foremost are Rathindranath Tagore and the British agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst, whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work. Elmhirst had been to India earlier as a Wartime Volunteer during World War 1. When Tagore came to know of him through another British agriculturist working in Allahabad, Sam Higginbottom by name, he contacted Elmhirst with a request to come to Santiniketan and to lead the Sriniketan work. One of Tagore’s prime targets was to implement Scientific Agriculture in the villages. In fact, many years earlier, in 1906, he had sent his son Rathindranath and another student of the Santiniketan school, Santoshchandra Majumdar, who was Rathindranath’s classmate, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to study Agriculture with the view that they would bring back the expertise for the Sriniketan work at the completion of their studies.       

Leonard Elmhirst & his wife: Courtesy: Creative Commons

Elmhirst was in Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924 after which he returned to his work in England. He worked closely with the Sriniketan team even from far through the letters they exchanged. Rathindranath consulted Elmhirst regularly over Sriniketan’s work in progress and this correspondence is in the archives.

There is also a very charming body of personal letters between Tagore and Elmhirst. Tagore’s originals are among the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartinghall Hall Trust archives in Devonshire, UK, and Elmhirst’s original letters are in the Rabindra-Bhavana archives, Santiniketan. This correspondence has been published.  

Another very important source of documentation is available in the Diaries of Leonard Elmhirst which he wrote from the start of the Sriniketan work in 1922. Elmhirst’s Diaries were published by Visva-Bharati titled Poet and Plowman. There are some day-to-day accounts of how the work was being done on the ground by a group of senior students from Santiniketan who had chosen this field for training and of course by the Village Workers who had been appointed by the Institute. There were other leaders who helped with the work throughout like Kalimohan Ghose who later carried out the pioneering Surveys of the Villages. I have included some of these path breaking Surveys in the Appendices of A History of Sriniketan.   

Last but not the least important for my research were Tagore’s ideas of education and rural reconstruction about which he wrote several essays in two important collections, namely Palli-Prakriti (Countryside and Nature) and Sikshya (Education). Some of the essays were autobiographical as to how he started the rural work in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal where his father sent him in 1889. He stayed at Selidaha, the Estates’ headquarters, with his family till 1900 when he moved to Santiniketan in South Bengal’s Birbhum district where his father had founded an ashram and called it Santiniketan, the ‘Abode of Peace’. It was not a monastic ashram but one for householders to spend some days in prayer and meditation away from their household responsibilities. This is where Tagore and his young family moved in 1900-01 with his plans to start a school for children in the heart of nature. It was to be a school where the children could learn to creatively assimilate the knowledge imparted to them instead of in the classroom that characterised colonial education. This was how his Santiniketan school was founded in 1901.

Santiniketan was located within two miles of the Bolpur Railway Station on the East Indian Railway Line. It was situated on high ground, in the middle of a wide plain, open to the horizon on all sides. There, father and son had planted noble groves of mainly mango and sal trees. There, in the heart of nature not far from a big city, Tagore had the advantage of being able to draw upon both raw materials and cultural products in equal measure as it were. There was the influence of trees, open fields, and the seasons changing so starkly on the one hand; on the other hand, there was the inspiration of artists, science teachers, libraries, and hand-made, machine-made, equipment.        

You ask why I got interested in working on Tagore. There is a very personal story to share. When our son was born in Oxford where my husband and I were working with University Fellowships during 1972-73, we decided to move to Visva-Bharati on an invitation from the then Vice-Chancellor, the eminent historian Pratul Chandra Gupta. We were of course attracted to the possibility of being at Tagore’s institution and also to the prospect of raising our child in its pastoral environment. We did thus move to Visva-Bharati in 1973 leaving our Calcutta jobs at Presidency College, where my husband was Professor of History, and Jadavpur University, where I was teaching. Once we went Visva-Bharati, I began to explore the possibility of doing post-doctoral research on Tagore rather than on colonial history as was the area of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford.

What would be the purpose of such a book? Do you think Tagore’s model would work if multiple NGOs adopted his ideas?

As I have already mentioned I am a biographer of Tagore’s educational ideas and the history of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. To me writing this book on a history of Sriniketan was an integral part of my research. But at a personal level, I was concerned that the history of that practical and experimental work that Tagore did under the most difficult of circumstances might get completely forgotten if it were not documented. That was a genuine concern because of two reasons. Firstly, while Santiniketan has retained its charm as a popular tourist spot, and as Santiniketan’s oldest buildings of exceptional architecture had become heritage buildings, Sriniketan did not have anything to show or display for outsiders to connect with its one-time strident presence in bringing life and action to the villages. Secondly, Sriniketan never reinvented the wheel but just carried on from the 1950s as a unit of Visva-Bharati University to fill in for routine bureaucratic and funding purposes. Even its beautiful and thriving craft work that brought acclaim to Sriniketan from well beyond its precincts, would slowly but surely erode.  

Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to document a pioneering humanistic enterprise for posterity, and also for the next generations who were expected to be engaged in the field of rural development even though the original model was not necessarily practically and theoretically viable in today’s socio-economic scenario. The book is also for the scholar and for the generally interested person. When I was starting my work in the mid 1970s, there was no doubt in my mind that Sriniketan was becoming less visible.   

As for whether multiple NGOs could use the Tagore model is for the NGOs to tell us, but I do know that in its neighbourhood, Sriniketan remains an important inspiration for mobilizing villages non-politically.  There have been one or two such movements in the vicinity of Santiniketan-Sriniketan which are continuing to work actively at grassroots. One is Pannalal Das Gupta’s ‘Tagore Society for Rural Development’. Founded in 1969-70 as a registered society, the Tagore Society specialises in motivating villagers to take on environmental self-help projects. There is also the ‘Amar Kutir Society for Rural Develoment’ located very close to Sriniketan which was once a shelter for runaway political prisoners. Founded in 1923 by Susen Mukhopadhyaya, a young revolutionary freedom fighter then, who was attracted to Tagore’s work in rural reconstruction. We learn from his writing that he kept observing the work while coming in and out of jail himself.  ‘Amar Kutir’ developed the work of organising local crafts persons, upgrading their skills, training them in design, and in marketing their products for economic rehabilitation. The Birbhum district had several families of traditional weavers. Some of them had been engaged in trade by the East India Company.     

Another such non-governmental private initiative for rural development has come up more recently in 1984 in the outskirts of Sriniketan called the ‘Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies’, (EICS), whose members are working mainly in the areas of women and child development including family counselling, family adoption, de-addiction and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS education and intervention. They were started with substantial moral and financial support from Elmhirst who was interested in spreading Sriniketan’s pioneering enterprise and taking the ideas further to meet the needs of the later day.    

In other parts of India individual leaders were drawn to the work of building village self-reliance and a few had dedicated themselves to the cause in post-independence India. For his Ashrams at Sabarmati and Wardha, Gandhi himself kept closely in touch with Sriniketan which he visited several times even after Tagore’s passing and knew it well. Gandhi’s follower, Baba Amte, in Madhya Pradesh was a key worker in the field. More contemporarily one reads of the utopian commune ‘Timbaktu Collective’ in rural Andhra Pradesh where a husband-and-wife team, Bablu and Mary Ganguly, have organised the hapless farm labourers of Anantapur district to work for the regeneration of wasteland and start projects on organic farming, soil conservation, propagation of traditional food crops and have also taken steps for women’s and Dalit empowerment and rural health. Most of these ideas were at one time born and nurtured in the holistic laboratory for socio-economic development that Sriniketan was. Bablu Ganguly acknowledges Fukuoka as his mentor. Being Bengali by birth, it would not be surprising if he was aware of Tagore but perhaps only as a poet and songwriter.      

Tagore withdrew from the national movement to develop villages, which is where, he felt lived a large part of India. Gandhi had a similar outlook. So, where was the divide?

With his deepening sympathy for the suffering millions of his country, Tagore became increasingly critical of the changes that Britain had brought to India. But he also felt strongly for the West’s ideas of humanism and believed they were of benefit to Indian society. Revolutionary changes were inescapably entering into our thoughts and actions. This was evident in the proposition that those whom our society decreed to be ‘untouchables’ should be given the right to enter temples. The orthodox continued to justify their non-entry into temples on scriptural pretexts, but such advocacy was being challenged and resisted. The people’s ‘voice’ had put out the message that neither the scriptures nor tradition nor the force of personality could set a wrong right. Ethics alone could do so.   

There were important factors that led gradually to this new way of thinking. The impact of English literature was one such. Tagore pointed out that acquaintance with English Literature gave us not only a new wealth of emotion but also the will to break man’s tyranny over man. This was a novel point of view. The lowly in our society had taken it for granted that their birth and the fruits of their past actions could never be disowned; that their sufferings and the indignities of an inferior status had to be meekly accepted; that their lot could change only after a possible rebirth. Society’s patriarchs also held out no hope for the downtrodden. But contact with Europe became a wake-up call. It was no surprise that in his landmark essay Kalantar (Epoch’s End) Tagore recalled and endorsed the British poet Robert Burns’s unforgettable line, “A man’s a man for a’ that.

It was in that longing to bring hope to the deprived people that Tagore and Gandhi felt really close. They were both carrying out rural reconstruction work because they knew that the majority of Indians lived in villages and wanted to bring awakening and national consciousness to the villages as the prime goal to freedom. Both men focused their attention on the peasantry as the largest class within Indian society who were paralysed by anachronistic traditions and weighed down by poverty and the absence of education.

The major issues on which Tagore and Gandhi differed were debated nationally. Before discussing the specific issues in the controversy, it would be useful to examine their general positions on freedom and nationalism. In The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore developed the position that the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the “perfection of human relationship”. Gandhi applied the same principle to resolving India’s racial conflict. Tagore took the idea further and challenged the credo of nationalism. Tagore argued that the basis of the nation-state was a menace to the ideal of universal harmony or to the “perfection of human relationship”. But to the nationalist leadership all over the country, including Gandhi, political self-rule or swaraj came to be understood as a necessary phase of spiritual self-rule, or swarajya, and nationalism as the first step towards attaining free human fellowship.

Tagore alone spoke out against that trend. He argued that the crucial stumbling block in India’s future lay in the social problems of the country such as the absence of human rights for the masses and the alienation between the educated classes and the masses. He emphasised what the country needed most of all was constructive work coming from within herself and the building of an ethical society as the best way for rousing national consciousness. The rest would inevitably follow, even political freedom.

In his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), Tagore seemed critical of Gandhi’s call for Khadi and burning of mill cloth imported from England. Yet, Sriniketan was a handicraft forum for villagers to find a way to earn a living through agriculture and craft. So, why the dichotomy of perspectives as both were promoting local ware? Where was the clash between Gandhi’s interpretation of Khadi and Tagore’s interpretation of selling indigenous craft?

There was never any conflict in their perceptions or feelings for the poor, Gandhi’s and Tagore’s. Other issues were stirred in relation to the Khadi campaign and the burning of foreign cloth. For instance, the Congress in 1924 moved a resolution under Gandhi’s recommendation enlisting its members to spin a certain quantity of cloth on the charka (spinning wheel) as a monthly contribution. The idea was to give the movement country-wide publicity, and also, to make spinning a means of bonding between the masses and the politicians.

Tagore was wholly opposed to the idea of using the charka as a political strategy for swaraj and explained his position in his 1925 essay titled ‘The Cult of the Charka’. He argued that there was no short-cut to reason and hard work if anything was to succeed; that nothing worthwhile was possible by mass conversion to an idea; that our poverty was a complex phenomenon which could not be solved by one particular application such as spinning and weaving Khadi. Tagore raised the question if our poverty was due to the “lack of sufficient thread”, or due to “our lack of vitality, our lack of unity”?

On burning clothes Tagore’s position was that such a method hurt the poor by forcing them to sacrifice even what little they obtained from selling those clothes. He concluded that buying and selling foreign cloth should be delegated to the realm of economics. In his reply Gandhi wrote, that he did not draw “a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics”. He added that the economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation “are immoral and therefore sinful”.     

Is Sriniketan unique? Can it be seen as Tagore’s model for rural development?

To the best of my knowledge there is no parallel institution in India.

I am not aware if Tagore was ever talking of a ‘model’ that he expected others to follow. He was certainly hoping, as he wrote, that his work will help to establish an “ideal” [his word] for the rest of the country.

My own sense is that an “ideal” has been established given that empowerment of the villages through the Panchayats has become a nationwide project. Of course, the government’s approach is not fully in character with Tagore’s holistic vision for the individual’s humanistic development. Today the individual hardly counts, politics and economics are what matter. All the same it has to be said that the villages are getting some attention and are not left to rot as had been the case in the earlier century.       

You have said that Tagore faced criticism for the way he used Nobel Prize money. Can you enlighten us on this issue? Tell us a bit about the controversy and Tagore’s responses.

As anyone would surmise the Nobel Prize money was very precious also to the Santiniketan community because the teachers and workers there had to struggle over the resources for the institution. But contrary to the community’s expectation, Tagore decided that the Prize money would be given to the cause of rural credit. He had started the Patisar Krishi (farmers’) Bank in 1906 followed by the Kaligram Krishi Bank. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Pal, the total investment in the rural banks in 1914 amounted to Rs 75,000 of which Rs 48,000 was invested in the Patisar Krishi Bank at 7% interest per annum and Rs 27,000 at the same rate of interest in the Kaligram Krishi Bank. Tagore decided that only the interest from those investments could be used to pay for the maintenance of the Santiniketan school. The actual purpose of the fund was to give loans to the poor peasants so as to relieve them from exploitation by moneylenders and some unethical landlords too. In order to repay their loans, the peasants had to sell their produce at a rate lower than the market price immediately after drawing the harvest. This phenomenon was causing them perpetual indebtedness. The Krishi Banks were to loan money to the peasantry at a lower rate than the money lenders and relieve them from the age-old exploitation.     

Tagore was firm that the primary beneficiary of his Nobel Prize money would be the poor peasantry of his family’s estates, and the Santiniketan school would be only the secondary beneficiary. He tried thus to balance his two main concerns when settling the future of his Nobel Prize money.  

It cannot be said there was a ‘controversy’ over this as Gurudev (which was how the community addressed Tagore) was too revered for a controversy to be raised about a decision that he had taken. But there was disappointment.  It seemed strangely that even his inner circle had not realised his deep emotional attachment and ideological commitment to the cause of the impoverished peasantry. Perhaps, my response to your earlier question may explain why. 

Tagore had noticed the gaps between the different strata of Indian society. Sriniketan was an attempt to bridge the gap. How far did his ideals succeed?

There was tremendous societal gap between the different strata of Indian society.  With all of Tagore’s will and effort, it cannot be said that the Sriniketan ideals could bridge the gap. Even today, a perceptive visitor, who visits Santiniketan and Sriniketan, located only within two miles of each other, can tell the difference between the two. Santiniketan looks bright and thriving, but Sriniketan looks neglected.    

Community life in the Indian villages was seen to break for the first time with the emergence of professional classes among the English-educated Indians. The city began to attract them away from the villages. Those Indians were happy to let the government take over guardianship of the people and relinquish to it their own traditional duties to society. The result was a widening gap between town and country, city and village.  Tagore knew from his life’s direct experience that none of those who dominated the political scene in his time felt that the villagers ‘belonged’. The political leadership apprehended that recognising this vast multitude as their own people would force them to begin the real work of ‘constructive swadeshi’. They were not even interested to try. That was where the Sriniketan effort was invaluable to Tagore. He saw that the endeavour built at least a relationship with the village, if nothing else.

The Sriniketan scheme sought to bridge the gap by bringing to the village a combination of tradition and experiment. Tagore knew that a civilisation that comprises of only village life could not be sustained. “Rustic” was a synonym for the “mind’s narrowness”, he wrote. In modern times, the city had become the repository of knowledge. It was essential therefore for the village to cooperate with the city in accessing the new knowledge.  One such vital area of expertise was in agriculture. His study of “other agricultural countries” had shown that land in those countries was made to yield twice or thrice by the use of science. A motor tractor was bought for Sriniketan in 1927 because he believed that the machine must find its way to the Indian village. He wrote,If we can possess the science that gives power to this age, we may yet win, we may yet live.”

Your book tells us that Sugata Dasgupta’s publication, A Poet & A Plan (1962) showed that Sriniketan had benefitted the villages it adopted decades after Tagore’s death. Has there been further development of these communities or is it status quo?

No, it cannot be said that it is status quo from the 1960s. There have been changes for sure. There have been benefits to the villages from the Government’s projects. Indeed, the government had adopted some of their early projects from Sriniketan’s original work.

More interventions are needed of course but it has to be said something is being done. Of course, the changes I can mention that have benefitted the condition of the villages and therefore the villagers’ lives came well after Sugata Dasgupta’s publication. The three that I can mention are communications, roads, and electricity. Today there are more long-distance buses than ever before transporting people to and from the villages. Totos and cycle rickshaw-vans take passengers from the bus stands to the interior villages. Roads are another major development.  Besides the highways, the mud paths in the villages are now being converted to metalled roads. There is electricity in the villages.

I should mention one other significant change which is that secondary education is now fairly common to the present-day rural populace. College education has also come within their reach.

What is the current state of the present day Sriniketan? What do you see as the future of Sriniketan?

Presently, Sriniketan runs as a department or unit of Visva-Bharati University and works according to the University’s requirements. I am not acquainted with the requirements. I continue to be a regular user of the University’s Rabindra-Bhavana archives even now. But I have not been connected with the University in any official capacity after the 1980s which is a long time ago.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Review

Growing up Jewish in India

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin

Editor: Ori Z. Soltes 

Publisher: Niyogi Books

This is a wonderful anthology of non-fiction on Jews in India. The gorgeously produced book offers a historical account of the primary Jewish communities, their synagogues, and unique customs. It traces how Jews arrived in the vast subcontinent at different times from different places, both inhabiting diverse locations within the larger Indian community, and ultimately creating a diaspora within the larger Jewish diaspora by relocating to other countries, particularly Israel and the United States.

Edited by Ori Z. Soltes, who teaches art history, theology, philosophy and political history at Georgetown University and who is also a former Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum having curated more than 85 exhibitions on history, ethnography and modern and contemporary art, this book gives a veritable account of the Indian Jews who have retained their distinctive physiognomies. He shows Jews have been integrated into the larger Indian diaspora because of their receptive, flexible and inimitable traits.

The text and its rich complement of more than 150 images explore how Indian Jews retained their unique characteristics despite being well-integrated into the larger diaspora of Indians and have continued to offer a synthesis of cultural qualities wherever they reside. Understandably, the editor Ori Z. Soltes, contends not many communities feel a sense of belonging with two countries they view as their own — the Jews call India their motherland, and Israel, their fatherland.

The Bene Israel Jews are the largest Jewish Indian community and there are a number of theories regarding the timing of their arrival on the western coast, some dating back to the reign of King Solomon, 3,000 years ago. Another theory is that they were part of the lost 10 tribes that disappeared from north Israel and from history in the aftermath of the conquest of the Israelite kingdom by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. And there are other theories too on which Soltes elaborates to bring clarity to the matter.

The book has an elaborate discussion on the unique art of Siona Benjamin, who grew up in the Bene Israel community of Mumbai and then moved to the US. Her work reflects Indian and Jewish influences as well as concepts like tikkun olam (Hebrew for ‘repairing the world’).

In a sense, the book is a memoir on growing up Jewish in India with essays on Siona’s Fulbright work in India and Israel, plus her other series of works. It offers a portrait of a unique slice of the Indian world for readers interested in history, art, religion, and culture, worldwide.

In combining discussions of the Indian Jewish communities with Benjamin’s own story and an analysis of her artistic output, this volume offers a unique verbal and visual portrait of a significant slice of Indian and Jewish culture and tradition.

The book begins on an existent note: “Indian Jews have historically lived across diverse parts of the Indian subcontinent over the centuries without experiencing the sort of anti-Semitism that has been so common in many other parts of the world, particularly Christian Europe, which exported its anti-Jewish sensibilities into the Muslim world eventually, particularly in the context of European colonialism and post-colonialism in the Middle East, culminating with World War I and its aftermath. Indeed, the most obvious exception to the rule of Jewish experience in India arrived with the control of Goa in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, who brought with them not only anti-Jewish feelings, but the specifics associated with the development of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition that would affect New Christians suspected of secretly continuing to practice Judaism-and continue until the formal abolition of the Inquisition authority in 1812.”

The introductory chapter throws light on the non-violence Hindu culture in India which allowed Jews to live in harmony with other communities as opposed to European countries: “The general lack of hostility and persecution may be understood in part as a cultural phenomenon, but also as a function of the nature of Hinduism, by far the dominant religion across India, and its embrace of diverse perspectives regarding how, specifically, one might understand and address divinity. Within the singularity of Brahman-Being-what we term ‘Hinduism’ recognises a nearly infinite possibility for divine manifestations: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Krishna (and many other more minor figures) are both separate from each other and all understood to be part of each other and subsumed into a singularity that is Brahman.”

It further contends that India is as diverse with religions as it is linguistically. It is, as most people are aware, the country in which Hinduism was born, in fact the word ‘Hindu’ refers to the place, India, not to the form of faith. According to the author, “Hinduism’ is also a misnomer in being used as if there is a monolithic form of faith that goes by that name, just as it is often misunderstood to be polytheistic: there are, after all, any number of gods and goddesses, it would seem, that occupy its pantheon. In truth, (to repeat), an Indian who is part of this spiritual tradition understands all of these ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ to be particularised manifestations of a single god of Being.”

What is Hinduism? Soltes argues: “Hinduism’ may be understood by Westerners as a more complex version, in a sense, of Christianity in its understanding of God as triune, for instead of a threefold, Father/Son/Holy Spirit Godhead, ‘Hinduism’ offers a poly-une Brahman (Being) expressed as Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Devi, and others. So, one is typically a Saivite, say, or a Vaishnavite, believing that Siva or Vishnu represents the consummate expression of God, but embracing the legitimacy of other expressions, as well. Moreover, among the 10 avatars assumed by Vishnu over history, one of them is as a dark-skinned (blue or black) anthropomorphic, Krishna, and over time, a growing community of Krishna’s followers or Krishnaites views him as the consummate manifestation of God-not as an avatar of Vishnu: on the contrary, Vishnu is viewed as a manifestation of Krishna.”

The book has in all six chapters with a foreword by Ralphy Jhirad. There’s a chapter on Kerala synagogues by Orna Eliyahu-Oron and Barbara C. Johnson; another on the synagogues of Calcutta Baghdadi Jews by Jael Silliman. Silliman weaves her narrative around the three synagogues of Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, giving deep insights into the lives of the city’s Jewish community whose numbers have dwindled from 4,500-odd in the mid-20th century to 700 or so in the 1970s and about 20 now. Benjamin writes a memoir, ‘How I Turned Blue and Other Stories I Remember Growing up Jewish in India’.

 Benjamin’s piece gives a snapshot of the life of a diasporic Jew. She writes about her grandmother Elizabeth’s long and interesting life journey. Born in Quetta in Pakistan, Elizabeth’s family later migrated to India’s west coast. Her children dispersed to Asia, Africa and North America, perpetuating the idea of the diasporic Jew. The distance between the families seemed to widen with her parents in India, most of the family in Israel, a few relatives in the U.S. and Canada, and some in Africa. Soltes writes on ‘Refocus and Return’. Benjamin’s multi-layered art dots the book. Soltes also pens the epilogue on the community’s past.

The book is a must read for all as it addresses a complex issue in a rich scholarly way while making it eminently readable. It would be of interest to Jews and non-Jews, Indian and non-Indian alike, as well as to history enthusiasts and the general reader interested in art and culture.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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

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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.  

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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. 

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

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A Wonderful World

What do We Need?

 “It is not enough to try to remove wants; you can never remove them completely from outside; the far greater thing is to rouse the will of the people to remove their own wants.” — Rabindranath Tagore, A History of Sriniketan by Uma Das Gupta, published by Niyogi Books.

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Does political freedom eulogised by masses ensure housing, clothing, food, love kindness, self respect and education to all the beneficiaries of a newly structured country? Centring around this theme, we bring together writing around India’s Republic Day, when the country adopted its new constitution and called itself an independent republic with its own self-defined preamble. This happened on 26th January, 1950. Here we carry writing that reflects on the then and now of the people who have lived by that constitution defined in 1950. Some of the issues had been voiced centuries ago, by Akbar, the grand Mughal, subsequently by greats like Tagore who died long before India became an independent entity and more recently by Nabendu Ghosh. These issues, ranging from the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, education, health have been variously taken up among people by NGOs and writers who have come forward to voice and act to awaken the majority to make a change. Are people then better off now than they were in the past?

Past Reflections

An excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History detailing his interactions with Surdas and Braj, showcasing syncretic elements in the past, where homage to power clashes with spiritual aspirations. Click here to read.

Morichika or Mirage by Tagore: An early poem of the maestro that asks the elites to infringe class divides and mingle. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read

Current Musings

For the Want of a Cloth: Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.

Among Our People: Devraj Singh Kalsi gives a fictitious account of a common man’s quest for security in a country that is one of the world’s largest democracy. Click here to read.

We Consider Faith by Dibyajyoti Sarma: A poem that takes a look at the medley that defines faith in the current world. How has it evolved from Akbar’s times? Click here to read.

Potable Water Crisis & the Sunderbans: Camellia Biswas, a visitor to Sunderbans during the cyclone Alia, turns environmentalist and writes about the potable water issue faced by locals. The support often comes from beyond the border lines and from people who live through the ordeal. Click here to read.

The Malodorous Mountain: A Contemporary Folklore: Sayantan Sur looks into environmental hazards due to shoddy garbage disposal and describes how it can be resolved. Click here to read.

Dramatising an Evolving Consciousness: Theatre with Nithari’s Children: Sanjay Kumar gives us a glimpse of how theatre has been used to transcend trauma and create bridges. Click here to read.

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Review

John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha 

Title: John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee

Author: Amit Ranjan

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Retracing colonial history is always fascinating. And, if the characters are out of the ordinary, that re-examination is even more interesting. This book revisits the life of John Lang, an Australian writer-lawyer settled in India in the 19th century. 

John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer of Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee by Amit Ranjan is about Lang’s life, his accomplishments and his literary works. Lang (1816-1864) was a fiery journalist and novelist who constantly annoyed the establishment of the East India Company with his vituperative and pathogenic humor. He had lived in India since the age of 26. 

A visiting fellow at University of South Wales, Sydney, a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Miami and who teaches English at NCERT , New Delhi Ranjan’s earlier books  include poetry collections Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty

A lawyer, John Lang picked up Persian and Urdu quickly to argue cases in lower courts. He mostly fought against the British and won a few well-known cases in the company’s own court. Also, Lang represented Rani Laxmibai in her legal battle against the annexation of her kingdom of Jhansi by the East India Company. 

In about five hundred pages, Ranjan looks at the personality of Lang rather vividly. Also Australia’s first native-born novelist, John Lang had a remarkable life. Coming from a family of ten children (including half- and step-siblings), he went to Cambridge to qualify as a barrister. When he represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, he documented his impression of the queen. 

Amusingly, this became the basis of some scenes in an Indian television serial depicting a fictitious intimate relationship between them. Lang flamboyantly fought yet another case of Lala Jotee Persaud for his due as a provisioner in the British army. Persaud won 2 lakh rupees, which was, in 1851, a princely amount. 

It is not because Lang was the first Australian writer or was among the first writers of English prose on India, or because of the historical place where Lang lived in the politically volatile 19th century that propelled Ranjan to write the book. The motive behind the book is clear:  Lang was a fine writer.

In his short life of 48 years, Lang produced 23 novels, one travelogue, some plays and five volumes of poetry. His novels were mostly in the romance genre and were set in India. His themes were typically bold and very much so somewhat rebellious. After his death in 1864, he remained a well-known writer and his books continued to sell for another 40 years. Lang’s novels were found to be too feminist for Victorian comfort, and his white male protagonists were often described by the narrator as ‘India he loved, England he despised’.

Lang also pursued a career as a journalist, producing The Mofussilite from Meerut — editions of which came out from Ambala, Calcutta. Apparently, as it carried anti-government reports, its file copies were destroyed. 

 “Lang can indeed be viewed as the father of Indian tabloid journalism. The tabloid, of course, had its equivalent of what is now known as ‘Page 3’, but it was very different–in that it was very literary, with an overdose of Lang’s Latin, Boccaccios and Byrons,” Ranjan writes in the book. 

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Indophile spoke at least five languages and produced works as a translator. There were numerous fictional works presumed to have been written or co-authored or significantly inspired by Lang. 

Lang’s versatile talents and established scholarship were surpassed by the colourful life that he led. His escapades and misadventures — landed him in a Calcutta jail for libel and in Vienna on suspicions of being a spy. He won the bets. His divorce and love affair even led to an illegitimate child. 

Lang had a rationalist’s curiosity about phrenology — a pseudoscience that correlated measurements of different parts of the skull with race and mental ability that was fashionable among Europeans in his times. All these are explored and commented upon. 

The book also captures some interesting episodes in Lang’s life like this one: There was a party in progress at John Lang’s house in Mussoorie as he died. Lang had frowned upon the idea of truncating it merely on account of his illness. Bronchitis was the immediate cause of this unforgettable personality’s demise. 

Writes Prof. Saugata Bhaduri in the foreword: “Far from being just another piece of sound academic literary-historical work and a well-researched biography of a lesser-known author who needs to be repatriated to the canon, this book is an exuberant exercise in passion – a passion that set one off on a late-night foray into the unknown just to look up some obscure tomb, or to pick up some obscure discursive thread. Amit’s is an exercise that demonstrates how variegated, yet connected, our little histories are.”

Part history and part literary pleasure, this book is captivating. It will be a delight for history and language buffs as also aficionados of wordplay. Ranjan’s book is well researched, with plenty of reference and end-notes. Witty and interweaving, the narrative makes for an interesting read.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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

Categories
Review

A Sagacious Tale of Oppression & Turmoil

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Two and a Half Rivers

Author: Anirudh Kala

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

How do we understand a land and its people? How do we look at its history, at a phase of turbulence which once ravaged the lives of its people? At the social structures rarely talked about? And how do we make sense of it? Can the perception be whole if only selective truths are voiced?

The Partition of India in 1947 had left Punjab with only two and a half rivers out of a total of five. From the early 1980s onwards, a state which had witnessed much violence and bloodshed at the time of Partition, began to be devastated by the spread of militancy again. This period of unrest spanning almost a decade was the time when common people, who had yet not recovered from the trauma of partition, faced the torment of not only terrorism but also counter insurgency. And though there are numerous reports on the violation of Human rights during counter insurgency in Punjab, both the Central and the State Governments have continually refuted such reports.

Two and a Half Rivers is a fictionalised account of those troubled years of Punjab through the lives of three main characters — a clinically depressed doctor, trying to take on life one day at a time, and Shamsie and Bheem, both Dalits, struggling to make their dreams a reality. Writing with keen perception, the author, Anirudh Kala, not only offers a striking account of the many ordeals that people went through that period and the solidarity which helped them keep afloat but also of the less addressed issue of oppression of lower castes and their sufferings.  

Kala is a psychiatrist by profession. His aim is to educate people about mental health and mental illness, focusing on eradicating stigma, labels, and prejudice. His debut fiction The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness was published in 2018. Two and a Half Rivers published by Niyogi Books is his second work of fiction.

In this novel, he juxtaposes the situation of state with that of the mental illness of the doctor who is also the narrator. As the fog of depression descends on his mind, the state is also veiled by the layers of sorrows and anxieties from which no escape seems visible. With the increase in terrorists activities, the rivers start filling with the dead again as if to devour those who had somehow survived the Partition. An increase in extortion, abduction and killing by the terrorists leads to the nabbing of common people on doubt by police. The custody, seldom resulting in the release of those apprehended. Jails become torture centres and those captured subjects of experiments for effective torturing. The unrest that follows compels Shamsie and Bheem to shift to Bombay in search of a peaceful life only to return back few years later in the aftermath of a crackdown on Dance bars.

Following the timeline of those difficult years, the author looks at the tragic events which made the ‘Punjab problem’ worse in succeeding years. He takes into account Operation Bluestar, the assassination of the Prime Minister (who he names as Durga), the pogrom of November 1984 and counter insurgency. The novel offers a commentary upon the inept tackling of the situation by the state including ruling dispensation and police. The narrator minces no words while observing that the State and Army had conveniently forgotten that there were to be a large number of pilgrims in the Golden Temple at the time of that operation as it was the celebration of the martyrdom day of a Sikh guru or that more common people began disappearing after the police chief announced incentives and rewards to curtail terrorism.

While the narrator narrowly escapes the custodial torture after being picked for alleged connection with militants, Bheem isn’t that lucky. His identity becomes the final noose around his neck. Shamsie suffers assault too, a punishment for escaping advances of an upper caste boy in her teenage. Whilst common people die and more disappear, Punjab is steeped in sorrow of losing loved ones from which only the tears of grief bring some respite. We are told that more than eight thousand young people have not come home, and never will.

With the poignant telling of this tale, the author also prompts the reader to ask why the lives of those from lower castes are far more easily dispensable, why are they inconsequential, why this malaise is so deeply ingrained in the minds of upper caste and why is it a normal way of life. In a religion which believes “Awwal allah noor upaya qudrat keh sab banday, aik noor toh sab jag upjaiya kaun bhale ko mande” (All humanity was born from a single divine light, and everybody is born equal. All are the children of nature, and no one is good or bad), how can there really be a discrimination based upon caste?

Sensitive is one word that can be best used to describe Kala’s writing. He writes not only from a place of awareness but perhaps also pain and anguish. His description of the distressed years of Punjab carries a rare sensitivity which warrants a deeper understanding of the place as well as its people. That he chooses to tell it through the lives of two Dalit characters, also bring forward his focus on the otherwise lesser talked about issue of caste discrimination in Punjab. The narrative voice is subtle and sometimes seems distant, which works well for the reason that it gives the narrative a sagacious tenor, making it compelling and very moving.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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