The Caged Birds Sing

...Don't you know
They're talkin''bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper...
-- Tracy Chapman,'Talkin 'Bout a Revolution
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
— Bible 

We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?

Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?

That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.

“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”

Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’.  Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?

 Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.

In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices?  We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.

We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.

Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!

While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?

Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares, and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.

We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.

Have a beautiful month!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal


The Road to Nowhere

Translated from Odiya by the author, Satya Misra

Like every city or village, every road too has a character of its own. The road which has spread out its clumsy, uncouth body here, aiming to touch some distant point in the south of town, has no character to speak of.  It is ugly and chaotic. It has let its coarse surface to be abused daily by scores of vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, rallies, wedding processions, hearses and more. Humans and their automobiles mingle with stray cattle and dogs in a sad spectacle of urban confusion. Pedestrians have surrendered their right of walking to assorted vendors whose unauthorised shops have blocked the footpath. Anybody bold enough to walk on the remaining part of road is under constant threat of being hit by vehicles zooming past in both directions.  

Our protagonist here is not the road but a person walking alone on the road. His name is Narottam Chowdhury. His destination and intent are both extremely unusual. Tragic and extreme too. He is on his way to commit suicide by jumping before a moving train. He is aware that the road on which he is walking doesn’t touch the train line, so he has planned to leave this road and enter into a narrow lane on the right side after about half a mile.  The lane ends at a shrubbery which has the look and feel of a small jungle. He will find his way through the bushes to the open expanse where he will find two silvery lines of steel on which the trains pass. He has no idea where these two parallel train lines originate and where they end. Narottam will throw himself in front of a passing train today, which he has planned meticulously. This is going to be his last walk on this road. This same road may be used to bring his mangled, lifeless body from the railway track, possibly in an ambulance, after an hour or two.

He has been contemplating suicide for a long time. Once he had accidentally blurted it out before a few friends, but couldn’t come up to the stage of actual implementation. Although almost five long years had lapsed since that date, he was still hanging on to his meaningless life shamelessly. But he was determined to accomplish the task today. His life was becoming unbearable with every passing day. He was not so immature as to die just to honour his word. He had to die because he was unable to live the life available to him.

He gently touched his chest while walking, but not to check his heartbeat, which is steady. He wanted to ensure that his cell phone was intact in his chest pocket. He was not in favour of carrying this device up to the point of death, but realised afterwards that it was an essential accessory for anyone dying outside home or hospital. A phone in the pocket of a fresh corpse would quicken the intimations to his kin. The body would get identified fast. He had also placed a neatly folded note in his pocket which contains just the basic information about himself, including relevant phone numbers. It would come in handy for the finders of his body. He wasn’t too sure if either the cell phone or the paper can be salvaged from the mangled corpse, but it would  always be  better to carry both in order to improve chances. He also carried some money in his pocket. His spectacles were in place on his nose. His old wrist watch stayed at its rightful place, his left wrist. These were the only earthly possessions he was carrying with him, apart from the modest clothes he was wearing. The noisy erratic traffic on the road did not bother him. He did not mind being hit today by a passing vehicle on the road, although he will be terribly disappointed if the accident left him maimed but not dead. It would be very difficult to plan a decent suicide again if he wer maimed.

Did he hear something? Some vague distant voice seemed to reach him in spite of the din and bustle of the busy road. He would have dismissed it as a disturbance in his own mind, but it actually sounded like some announcement through a microphone. Had he been caught? His secret exposed? A public announcement asking people to capture Narottam before he did something foolish? He chuckled at his own silly thought.

How could anyone even guess what he was up to? He had been extremely careful; knowing well that even the slightest slip from his side could abort the mission. True, he had once blurted it out before four friends; but that was five years ago.  He had let his intent slip in a moment of carelessness, purely by accident. He was neither hungry for sympathy nor did he want to deliver a shock. His announcement had not jolted anybody. Nor had anyone asked him to desist from such misadventure. They just asked him not to blabber like a mad man and veered away from the topic which, in their judgement, didn’t merit any further attention. Narottam wonders whether any of those friends still recalled his intent. Or perhaps, they were silently waiting to see whether Narottam really meant what he had said.  

He was satisfied that during the half hour since he left home, not for a moment did he waver or vacillate in his resolve. Sometime back, he had stopped briefly at a stall selling hot snacks on the pavement. A sweaty man with a balding forehead was passing on hot samosas on round paper plates while collecting cash with remarkable speed and efficiency. Narottam stood and watched silently as balls of yellowish brown dough, with fillings of cooked potato, were moulded into tiny pyramids and dipped in a cauldron of boiling oil perched on a huge hissing stove. The samosas were allowed to sizzle and dance in oil a few minutes before a large slotted spoon would fish them out and heap in a basket, for onward transmission to the paper plates. The entire process, right from making of dough to eventual annihilation of the end products in hungry mouths, presided over by the balding man, was taking place in full public view.  Narottam saw life pulsating at every segment of this activity, but scampered away from the spot, afraid that such open display of life might weaken his resolve to die. He wouldn’t allow some silly distraction to interfere with his tryst with death.

Narottam could vaguely hear the public announcement which had become a bit louder by then. Slightly louder but still indistinct. He strained his ears but could not make out what it was about. He would have been happy to hear every news, gossip, message circulating in his world during his lifetime, but what was the point now? Even if the government was announcing a ban on use of this road for walking towards train tracks, it wouldn’t affect him. He would have gone before the dictum was enforced. 

An assessment of his age and health had convinced him that number of years he could reasonably expect to live was by no means small. He could not wait so long for a natural death with his unbearable life, with every passing day renewing a blow to his desire to live, which was already at its lowest point.  

He had even weighed all alternate modes of suicide to choose the method most suitable to his condition and temperament, with zero risk of failure. Swallowing some strong insecticide, or any other dependable poison, in solid or liquid form, would have been easier but with uncertain results. He had heard of people surviving such attempts with severely damaged organs. Jumping from the terrace of a high-rise had never appealed to him, for fear of hitting some innocent person or dog or car on the ground. He preferred his corpse to be delivered undamaged at his home; but he had to abandon that preference when his secret attempt to hang himself failed by a wide margin of error. That was almost a year back. He had rolled his wife’s sari into a coil, secured one end around stem of a ceiling fan just above the blades; but the art of making a proper knot eluded him. The sari was retrieved with a thick film of dust collected from the ceiling fan. Cleaning it secretly, folding neatly and placing it back in his wife’s wardrobe was no mean job.

Slicing a wrist to allow his blood to drain out was an option, but his research showed that the success rate was only about forty percent. Even swallowing handfuls of powerful sedatives, with its fifty one percent success rate, didn’t meet the rigorous, zero-error standards he had set before himself. Finally he was left with only the train line, widely followed and highly popular among the suicide aspirants. Easy availability of open train tracks in his town came as an additional incentive.

Not far from the rail lines stood the small temple of Shiva on right side of the road. Narottam suddenly decided to have a last glimpse of the deity. It was not a part of his plan, but why not? Like all Hindu temples, this too expected devotees to remove their footwear outside. But Narottam didn’t go in. Gaining an unhindered view of the deity from the road itself, he folded his hands, closed his eyes and muttered a brief prayer: “I haven’t come to seek anything, Oh God. I am leaving. This is our last meeting! Goodbye.” 

As he descended back to the road, he halted briefly, training his ears to listen to the announcement which was now audible clearly. A rickety van came slowly , with a large funnel shaped amplifier repeating one sentence ad nauseam : “Please be informed that electricity will be cut off tomorrow from seven o’ clock in the morning to five o’clock in the evening , on account of urgent maintenance  work.” 

How did that matter to a person who would not be around tomorrow?

But no, he made a quick reality check. What would happen if  the news didn’t reach his home that day? The next morning there would be no water in the overhead tank, no electricity for any work whatsoever, not even for charging a mobile phone – and all this while a mutilated body would be awaiting cremation, not to speak of the fast arriving crowd of friends and relatives.  This piece of news had reach his home immediately. His hand reached his pocket for the mobile phone, but he stopped again. Could he call at this point just to pass on this information? He would surely subject himself to the obvious question: why couldn’t he wait till he returned home. Could he say he had no plans to return home? He surmised that a public announcement as loud as this must have reached his home too. So his cell phone went back to the pocket.

In fact he didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving such a petty problem as a temporary power outage outside of his life span unresolved.  He had listed and attended to every single issue that a man of the world is expected to. All financial and legal issues relating to his home, money, mortgage, insurance etc. were taken care of. Keys, IDs, passwords, codes, ATM pins were all kept neatly and could be easily located. He had also kept an index of all documents clearly mentioning where they could be found. Content with the knowledge that his absence would not cause any material problem to his family, Narottam continued his death walk.

His preparation had been thorough even about action points during his final moments. His mind and body both were well prepared, strong and unwavering. He had planned out where exactly he would stand before his final leap. He had to hide behind the thick foliage nearby waiting for a train to arrive. The wait would not be long because this line, extremely busy in the evenings, had a train passing almost every five minutes.

Last week, he had seen three trains passing in about twenty minutes, two carrying passengers and the third one some cargo in containers. The second train was passing slowly; so he could see a bunch of giggling kids waving their hands through the open window, hollering something he could not hear. He had wanted to ask them why they were so happy while in a moving train.

Today it would not matter what or who were in the train. He would jump not more than five seconds before the train reached the spot, not allowing enough time for the driver to apply brakes. In those few precious moments,   his tormented soul would have been released to heaven. Or hell ; it did not really matter.     

It was entirely up to him on which of the passing trains he would bestow the honour of crushing him.  He might let the first train pass, perhaps the second one too; but not beyond the third, lest his resolve lose steam. His day without a tomorrow would be drawing to a close even as the townsfolks would be preparing for next day’s power outage. The announcement, still audible to him even from a distance, irritated him. He had two questions for the announcer in the van. Had it been announced distinctly near his home? Was the man sitting in the van using pre-recorded audio or parroting the sentence in real time?

Nearing his destination, he made a quick calculation in his mind and realised that in fifteen minutes he would be at point zero. Within an hour he would be dead and within the next one hour, his body would have been located, identified and taken to morgue.

He felt a vibration near his chest and stooped to locate its source. The cell phone. It released a gentle alert, shook a bit and fell silent. A message for sure. Should he read? Let the message also die unseen, unread. He hadn’t brought the offending device with him to receive messages today. He decided not to touch the mobile at all, but could not approve the propriety of dying before reading a message specifically meant for him. He would remain in dark about its content for ever, even though ‘for ever’ for him means just an hour. His curiosity overpowered him. He fished out the phone from his breast pocket and stared at the screen.

Gosh! This? Of all matters on heaven and earth?

It was a shame that such careless, offending words would claim his attention at a sensitive and delicate moment of his life. He would have thrown the cell phone and crushed it in sheer disgust, but he didn’t. It went back to his pocket. Cursing himself for having read the message, he decided to ignore the message and walk on towards his tryst.

But he could not. A sudden feeling of helplessness overpowered him. The moment he read the single sentence, he had understood that he had lost. He could not ignore it and proceed on his own. Not today.

He walked back and entered a market he had left behind. He took out his phone, read the message again and felt like kicking himself for his surrender. ‘Bring flour, sugar and some vegetables on your way back.’ Just ten words.

What does ‘on your way back’ mean? He had no plan to turn back today. Silly. Humiliating. But that was that. His zero-error plan, carefully chartered strategy lay assaulted and shattered by rude, untimely interruption of these shameless words.  

While trudging homeward on the same road, clutching a bag of grocery, Narottam resolved to wait and plan for another day. The setback was temporary, not strong enough to break him.

 A glance at his watch convinced him that nothing would be out of place. This was the normal time for his homeward trek every day. He would reach home at the usual time and nobody would be any wiser.

Satya Misra writes short stories in Odiya , a regional language of India. Some of his stories have been translated into other Indian languages. This was first published  in Odiya magazine, Katha, and subsequently included  in his collection, Miccha  Raastara Sata.