Categories
Editorial

Elephants & Laughter

Run, Painting by Sybil Pretious

Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …

Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.

The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.

Hughes has of course, given some writerly advice not just in the interview but in ‘Making Something of Nothing’ – pretty much the advice that God had probably been given when he asked an unspecified friend on how to create the universe and multiple realities. Hughes has also added to our galaxy of poets where Michael Burch, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Anasuya Bhar, Vernon Daim, William Miller, Pramod Rastogi, Mike Smith, Jay Nicholls and many more continue to sparkle. Taking up the theme of God’s creations, Devraj Singh Kalsi has added to more humour with a dream of divine intervention to make the ‘New Normal’ in 2022 – a plan for this year. Will it ever be real?

Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’s Akbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.

While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years.  Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.

Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.

We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.

We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.

Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’s John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”

I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.

I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.

Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.

I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Tribute

The Thrice Born

Commemorating fifty years of Bangladesh which struggled for the right to freedom from oppression and succeeded finally on 16th December, 1971

Landscape in Bengal. Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Bengal went through three Partitions, the final one being in 1971, when Bangladesh came to be its own entity. The first Partition of Bengal was in 1905, when Lord Curzon sliced it along the lines of faith, which as Ratnottama Sengupta points out in her musing was the result of the colonial policy of divide and rule implemented along religious lines for earlier when Hindus and Muslims had combined forces against colonials, it took a year to quell the revolt of 1857. Due to opposition from many, including Tagore, the colonials were forced to revoke the Partition in 1911.

In 1947, the subcontinent was again divided along religious lines. So, technically, there was Pakistan and India. Pakistan included East (Bengal) and West. As Fakrul Alam tells us in his essay, the Bengalis resented the imposition of Urdu by Pakistan. After a struggle of three decades, and a war in which India supported East Pakistan and America supported West Pakistan, Bangladesh gained complete independence in 1971 with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the country, at its helm.

We present to you a glimpse of this part of history as told by various contributors on our forum.

Interview

Professor Fakrul Alam, the translator of Bongobondhu (friend of Bengal) Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography, to takes us on a journey to the inception of Bangladesh and beyond. Click here to read the interview.

Translations

Poetry & Prose of Nazrul extolls the union of all faiths. Known as the ‘rebel’, now the national poet of Bangladesh, he has been translated by Fakrul Alam, Sohana Manzoor and Shahriyer Hossain Shetu. Click here to read.

Prose

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the three Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures vignettes from her past, from across the border where the same language was spoken, some in voices of refugees from East Pakistan to India. Click here to read.

The Voice that Sings Hope through Suffering…

Rakibul Hasan Khan pays a tribute with a twist to a recently deceased Bangladeshi writer, Hasan Azizul Huq, a writer who wrote of the Partition victims. Click here to read.

Golden Bangladesh at 50: Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti

Aruna Chakravarti reviews Golden Bangladesh at 50: Contemporary Stories & Poems edited by Shazia Omar, bringing to focus the Partition between 1905-1911. She also explains the story of the creation of Aamar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal, the Bangladesh National Anthem) by Tagore around this period. Click here to read.

Flash Fiction: In Search of a New Home

Marzia Rahman shares a short narrative about refugees in Bangladesh. Click here to read.

House of the Dead

Sohana Manzoor gives us a glimpse of contemporary Bangladesh in a poignant short story. Click here to read.

Categories
Essay

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University.

In Dhaka University: the Convocation Speeches, a volume compiled with an introduction by Serajul Islam Choudhury in 1988, we read that the university was established by the British as a “splendid imperial compensation” for the Muslims of East Bengal (Choudhury, 26). They had wanted the current rulers of India to make up through it for the loss, they felt, they had suffered because of the reunion of Bengal in 1911. Delivering his inaugural speech as the Chancellor of Dhaka University (DU) in 1923, Lord Lytton had not only made this point but had also expressed the hope that it would soon become “the chief center of Muhammadan learning” in India and would “devote special attention to higher Islamic studies” (26). However, Lytton had ended his speech by urging graduands to conceive of the institution “as an Alma Mater in whose service the Muhammadan and the Hindu can find a common bond of unity” (Choudhury, 29). The subsequent history of the university reveals that while some of its future students would viewed it as a site for cultivating Islamic values and consolidating the Islamic heritage of the part of Bengal in which it was located, others would claimed it as a space where a democratic and secular notion of being Bengalis could be disseminated.

DU started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. It became the center of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971. The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali.

The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country. In response to this ruling DU students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action.” Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 224). When he made the same point in addressing the DU Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that soon spread across East Pakistan, ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan, a state built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been held responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards.        

In retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. DU teachers and students played a crucial part in the confrontation. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatus failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life.

It was to be expected, then, that when the Pakistani state made one last desperate attempt to suppress Bengalis clamouring for full autonomy and democracy on March 26, 1971 they would do so by targeting DU and attempting to mow down Dhaka university faculty members and students ruthlessly. When the Pakistani government decided to postpone the National Assembly meet, where the Awami League had got an absolute majority and where they were in a position to claim self-rule for East Pakistan and dominate Pakistani politics for the first time in that nation’s history, the campus broke out once again in loud protest. On the 7th of March, when the Awami League’s chief, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave his historic speech claiming full autonomy and threatening to launch an armed movement that would drive away the Pakistanis from East Pakistan forever, DU student leaders were at his side as he spoke in Ramna Park, which borders the university.

What happened on 26 March was nothing less than a calculated bid to blast DU to smithereens, murder student leaders and selected faculty members, and drive out all students from the campus for playing leading roles in the movement against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army was nothing short of murderous in attempting to neutralize dissent. Inevitably, DU bore the brunt of their initial fury. Anybody found in the university that night was mowed down and dorms, faculty residences and the DU Teacher’s Club were shot at indiscriminately. The Shaheed Minar was razed to the ground and Bangla Academy was subject to artillery fire. Even university non-teaching staff and cafeteria officials were not spared. Madhu’s canteen – the favorite haunt of student politicians throughout the sixties – was attacked and Madhu – the benign owner of the cafeteria – was murdered. The huge bot tree (banyan) which provided shade under which student leaders delivered speeches and from which they had given the declaration of independence on one of the turbulent March days – was blasted out of existence.

It was clear that the Army had decided that DU was the ultimate symbol of the unacceptable form Bangladeshi national identity formation was assuming. As Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury observes in “Ekattor O Dhaka Visva-Bidyalaya (1971 & DU),” the university ambience encouraged people to not merely dream about freedom and equality but to create an environment where the dream seemed to come close to reality. Also, the University had been consistently a site of resistance in its efforts to impose a theocratic or monolingual state on Bengalis, as on-campus happenings from the time of Jinnah’s 1948 declaration about making Urdu the only state language and the protest movements of the fifties and sixties that culminated in the month-long protests of March 1971 demonstrated. The six-point program proposed by the Awami League for financial and political autonomy had been drafted by DU professors.

In the nine-month liberation war that followed the Pakistani army crackdown on DU and the rest of Bangladesh, the university once again became a microcosm of the country in that almost all of its entire faculty and students fled it. Academic activities came to a standstill and it became a campus bereft of students who had deserted it along with most of their teachers since they were unwilling to kowtow to the Pakistani design to create a quiescent institution run by quislings and were not inclined to impart or acquire education in line with proto-Islamist and/or totalitarian concepts of nationalism. Many students died in the course of the next nine months fighting for liberation or suspected of doing so. When the birth of Bangladesh seemed imminent at the end of the year, the Pakistani Amy and its local collaborators carried out a systematic search of faculty members on, and outside, the campus to murder the ones still around, holding them largely responsible for the breakup of the country they had not been able to prevent from cracking up.

When independence finally came to Bangladesh on December 16, it was fitting that the Pakistani Army would surrender in the open space adjacent to the university known as Ramna Park. The many teachers and students who had been murdered since March 26 as well as the resistance put up by them were later commemorated with structures erected all over the campus, the most prominent of them being the “Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture in front of Kala Bhabhan or the Arts faculty building, the martyrs plaque put up opposite the central mall, and the sculpted figures of the freedom fighters erected in front of the Teachers-Students Centre. December 14 became from then on the day when the DU Liberation War martyrs were to be ceremonially remembered and December 16 the day when DU faculty and staff joined the rest of the country in celebrating Victory Day.

Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture. Courtesy: Creative Commons

(First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a culture

“Joy Bangla!”

I was startled by the greeting.  I was sixteen-going-on-seventeen and — en route to Darjeeling — I was visiting Malda, my ‘Mamabari’ where my mother lived until she was married at sixteen-just-turned-seventeen. I had just finished my school finals in ‘Bombai’ and was enjoying the long summer break with my school friend Swapna, my paternal didi, Tandra, and my maternal didi, Nanda. My Mama’s son, Shyamal, and his friend, Subhash, had graciously taken upon them the onus of taking us around Gaur, Pandua and Adina. All these are relics of the historical capitals that hark back to a glorious Bengal long past and — for most Indians – lost in oblivion. And here, in the 12-gate mosque of Baroduari, they were singing paeans to the Shahs and Sens and Pals of a medieval Bengal!

I was soon to face history-in-the-making. For, the rectangular brick and stone structure with three aisles, eleven arched openings, and so-many-times-that domes, built sometime in the 16th century and now in the care of Archeological Survey of India, was teeming with barely-clad men women and kids who were fleeing on a daily(or hourly?)-basis the gola-barood of the Razakars – the paramilitary force General Tikka Khan had unleashed in the eastern wing of Pakistan. This was May of 1971 and, even in the apolitical clime of the tinsel town in Bombay, we knew that the Pakistani President Yahya Khan was hounding supporters of the Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

I was therefore thrilled to hear the boom-boom-boom periodically rupturing the hazy horizon in the distant. Was it the spiteful army goons or was it the guerrillas fighting back? “How wonderful it would be to meet some of them!” the romantic in me spoke aloud to the red-eyed men and women who had greeted me with ‘Joy Bangla!’

“Don’t!” Shyamal Da and Subhash drew me aside. “Don’t get close to them – don’t you see they have all got ‘joy bangla’?”

“So what?!” I retaliated, “They are all infected with the love for their country – that’s why they are saying ‘Joy Bangla’! Isn’t that good!”

“No, they are all infected with conjunctivitis – it is highly infectious and spreading rapidly in the camps. So now, not only in Malda but all through West Bengal, ‘joy bangla’ is the name for conjunctivitis.”

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Mangoes. Raw, green, going yellow-orange-red. Stretch out your hand, pluck them off the tree, hit hard on them with your fist and bite into the sour-sweet flesh… But we girls failed to emulate what Shyamal and Subhash could do with such ease on our way to Singhabad, the last stop for our trains this side of the border in that part of Bengal. Nevertheless, the fragrances of Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli remain fresh in my memory years after Shyamal, Nandadi, Swapna, Tandradi have all followed Bangobandhu to a borderless land beyond the clouds.

Singhabad is where my mother Kanaklata owned some 27 bighas of cultivable land inherited from her father: Chandrakanta Ghosh had, in 1940s, apportioned plots to his city dwelling daughters, Malati and Ranjita too, worried that they might face difficulties if their ‘job-dependent’ husbands lost their all to the Partition! He had reasons to worry. He had exchanged most of his land in Dinajpur but the daughters were married into families that had their base in Dhaka, Munshigunj and Kustia. Before you turn to your Google Guru let me tell you – all these were part of East Bengal and are now in Bangladesh.

Much later, in 2001, I would understand my grandfather’s angst when centurion Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal told me in Delhi: “This part of the subcontinent has seen three partitions – in 1905, 1947 and 1971.” The doyen of modernism in Indian painting, who had moved from Calcutta to Lahore in his youth and from Lahore to Delhi in 1947, had brought alive another chapter of history that most of us in India or Bangladesh don’t often recall. Yes, in 1905 the ‘territorial reorganisation’ of the Bengal Presidency by Lord Curzon was said to be for “better administration” since Bengal, for centuries, was spread right up to Burma in the East and well into Assam and Tripura in the North-East, into Bihar and Jharkhand in the West and in the South to Odissa. Noted: but why did it have to be along religious lines, separating the ‘Muslim-dominated’ areas from the ‘Hindu-majority’ ones? Because together the Hindus and Muslims had taken up arms against the goras in 1857, and starting from Barrackpore the mutiny had spread to Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, Meerut, Delhi… After 1857, the last Mughal Badshah, 82-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar, had to be exiled in Rangoon while in 1885 the last emperor of Burma, Thibaw Min, was forced to live in exile at Ratnagiri…

If it were not so tragic, it would have been ludicrous, this ‘exchange’ of emperors.

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Nandadi’s brother, Nirjhar, now 79, vividly recalls crossing the newly defined boundary to come away for good from Meherpur, in Dinajpur of East Bengal, to Malda with his mother — my aunt — Pramila, his three-year-old sister, Nanda, and a just-born brother, Nirmal. “We were coming in three bullock carts: the first one driven by a certain Mongra carried our eldest Mama, his wife Charulata and youngest son Subrata; and the last had our younger Mama’s wife Gayatri, son Suvendu and daughter Maitreyi. Many people were coming just like us, there was no knowledge of the word ‘Passport’ and no concept of ‘Visa’. Since our Dadu – maternal grandfather Chandra Kanta – had to stay back to wind up things after us, he took us to a dear friend of his, a Muslim named Sukardi Chowdhury, in Anarpur and asked him to accompany us since he had a gun.

“He was to reach us to Jagannathpur where Dadu had built a house on the newly exchanged land just six kilometers away from Meherpur. Sukardi Chowdhury lived two kilometers from the border but we had to cross river Punarbhaba on a boat and then we followed the road along the railway line. All of a sudden, we were startled by a piercing cry in a female voice. ‘Who is this? Who goes there?’ demanded Sukardi Chowdhury. He climbed on to the railway track and witnessed some miscreants harassing a woman. He fired his gun in the air and the rascals fled. He walked up to the woman and found that the malefactors had bitten off the nipples of the woman who was bleeding and writhing in pain.

“Sukardi Chowdhury had a gamchha tied around his head like a bandana. He took it off and wound it around the chest of the victim. He advised her companions to go along the railway track straight to Singhabad station, take a train to Malda and seek medical aid there. ‘That will save your life,’ he assured her. I will never forget.” Incidentally Nirjhar’s father, Makhan Chandra Ghosh, did not cross the border until 1980. Along with his ageing mother he had stayed back to care for his widowed sister since their land further inside Dinajpur could not be exchanged.

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This 27-acre land in Singhabad adjacent to the No-Man’s Land on the Bangladesh border was so dear to Kanaklata that she would not hear a word about selling it off although she lived far away with her husband, Nabendu, who was busy scripting films. “One should never forget one’s roots,” she told me in 1971 when she went around with a donation-book raising chanda for the Bangla refugees. She was delighted when – later – the government of India issued Refugee Relief stamps that had to be affixed to every letter, be it a postcard, an envelope, or an inland letter. Was it because deep within she identified with the uprooted people who were forced by history to cross borders?

Ma’s love for her land had, perhaps, infected us. When she passed on in 1999, we dispersed her ashes in the pond on this land. In 2007, before my son, Devottam, was to depart for higher studies abroad, he visited this innermost corner of his land. In 2017, when Ma would have turned ninety, my husband, Debasis, celebrated by planting mango trees around the pond and released fish, the sales of which now pays for a Durga Puja on the land. Yet, just last December, we severed our formal ties by selling off the ‘two-acre land.’ But no, Kanaklata is not forgotten by the men and women – many of whom studied in the school she helped set up long before government aid came their way. They are setting up a temple in her memory…

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But hang on friends, that’s not the end of my story, “picture abhi baaki hai!”

On December 13, 1971, Tandra’s elder sister Chhanda got married. She came from Patna where Nabendu’s brother lived; the groom, Animesh, came from Delhi. But Kanaklata had organised everything in Bombay, in the same house in Malad where our family has lived since 1951. This Goan-style bungalow had a garden surrounding it and this tiny ‘lawn’ was to be the wedding venue. However, ten days before the event when the invitations had gone out and the baratis had already booked their tickets, aerial strikes on Indian air stations led to an all-out war with Pakistan.

This was ominous for many reasons. Six years before this, during another war with Pakistan, my grandfather had passed away in August 1965. This time around, the mighty Seventh Fleet of the USA had entered the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan in the war. Sirens were being sounded at regular intervals and we joked that – since both the bride and the groom were trained musicians – these sirens were ‘replacing’ shehnai by Bismillah and party. Why? Because the police showed up to warn us that no conch shells or ululations that mark traditional revelry at Bengali weddings were to be sounded — and not even a single ray of light should evade the black-cloth-wrapped pandal that had to be erected to cover the house!

Ill omens? Never mind. You can’t stop a wedding because a war was on! All the Bengali families of Bollywood united that evening to celebrate with bated breath. And on December 16, when the bride was being formally inducted into the groom’s family in Delhi over the sumptuous meal of Boubhat, news came that General Niazi of Pakistan had surrendered to General Jagjit Singh Arora of India.

So Vijay Diwas is one day that unites India and Bangladesh in celebrating its actual secession from Pakistan. “Joy Bangla!” – we all said as Chhanda and Animesh led a chorus that sang,

 Aamar Sonar Bangla, aami tomay bhalobashi!*

Oh my glittering Bengal, I love you…

Glossary

Didi – elder sister

Mama – mother’s brother

golaa-barood — ammunition

Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli – Varities of mango

bighas – acres

goras – whites

Badshah — Emperor

chanda – donations

picture abhi baaki hai – The movie is still not over

Boubhat – wedding reception, traditionally

*Song by Tagore that became the national anthem of a free Bangladesh

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

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

Categories
Tribute

The Voice that Sings Hope through Suffering…

By Rakibul Hasan Khan

Hasan Azizul Huq. Photo Courtesy: Rakibul Hasan Khan

Hasan Azizul Huq (1939-2021), one of the leading Bangladeshi writers, passed away on 15 November 2021, leaving behind him an exceptional body of works. He was mainly a short story writer, but he also wrote three novels and many essays. His first book, Samudrer Swapna (Dream of the Ocean), Shiter Aranya (Winter Garden) a collection of short stories, was published in 1964. Each volume he published since then contributed to cementing his position as one of the most powerful writers of Bangla literature. Therefore, he is supposed to be remembered for long, at least as long as there will be those who care about the lives of the people whose stories he wrote. I wish I could say that he will be always remembered. I sincerely wish that, but the grim reality is that the number of those who care about the lives of the people whose stories he narrated is disconcertingly decreasing. Whose stories did he narrate? Simply put, he wrote the stories of suffering humanity – the oppressed, people at the margins, the outcasts, and most prominently, the victims of the Partition of India.

Huq was not a popular writer in the typical sense; rather, I would say that he was one of the most “unpopular” writers of Bangla literature. This statement may sound outrageous to those who hold him dear to their hearts for the irresistible attraction of his writings, but I consider them the most endangered species as readers, precariously hanging on the verge of extinction. My premonition is that Huq will be mostly forgotten within a not-so-long-time because there will be very few readers left worthy of his works.

On the other hand, the type of society we are heading towards will consciously and cunningly make him irrelevant, and this process has already started. Huq will soon be considered as a dangerous writer, neither because he is extremely revolutionary nor because he is uncompromisingly rebellious, but because his writings make people think, and thinking is a very dangerous activity. Thinking people are considered dangerous for social harmony and progress, and in future they will be treated as criminals. Even so, there will be some such criminals who will try to read him, but ultimately they will throw his books away with utter disgust and horror because his writings, be it a short story, a novel, or an essay, will inevitably fill their minds with profound shame and guilt for being complicit in perpetuating the suffering of those whose stories he wrote. Since hypocritical and insensitive readers will not be able to read him, gradually his works will lose readership in the days to come.

I can imagine how disbelievingly and contemptuously such a dark vision of the future will be received by Huq’s present readers, admirers, and family members. Huq himself would definitely disagree with me, for he had faith in people and their indomitable spirit as we can see it in so many of his characters, perhaps most notably in the character of the old woman in Agunpakhi (Firebird). But I am very optimistic about my pessimism, and think that such a dispassionately passionate writer like Huq will hardly find any reader in future. Some of his works, of course, will be read, especially those which have already got “classic” status in Bangla literature, but his overall readership will be miserably poor contrasting with his greatness. The smart generation of the smart age will spend their time smartly on their smartphones, smart TVs, smart cards, and all the other smart things that the world has to offer them, rather than troubling themselves with the works of a writer who is not that smart. They will hardly find any interest and time to read an “unsmart” and “unpleasant” writer like Huq.

Huq is in his distinct way a truly unpleasant writer, and he never tried to please anybody by his writing, neither readers nor the people in power. This quality makes him different from many writers. Another reason of his unpopularity is his persistence in using Partition as a recurring theme. Probably this particular feature of his works draws more attention in West Bengal than in Bangladesh, for partition is largely a subject matter of distant past for most Bangladeshis, grossly overshadowed by the more recent memories of the liberation war in 1971.

The oppressive rule of Pakistan period from 1947 to 1971 and the struggle for national liberation of the then East Pakistanis resulted in the general amnesia of Partition memories for the post-liberation generation. This is why, many of Huq’s readers, especially those who are a product of the de-historicising process that dominates our culture and curriculum, struggle to connect with his themes. The paradox that pervades the national imagination of the Bangladeshis in general is that they imagine Partition as a distant and altogether different phenomenon residing outside of their “national” issues. Against this backdrop of the general amnesia of Partition memories, Huq’s writings on the theme are like slaps of words to recuperate a recall of the bitter past. And who likes to be slapped?

Yet, there are those who know how overwhelmingly enchanting Huq’s writings are, and they can derive pleasure from the “unpleasant”. Probably here lies the hope. The future of Huq’s readership may not be so bleak after all! However, the opposite of what I feared will not happen automatically, unless some conscious effort is made by those who really care about his works. We should bear in mind that Huq is a type of writer who “educates” his readers in the process of reading him. So, if a reader can overcome the primary challenge of dealing with his unique style of writing and his “weighty” subject matters, they will eventually emerge as a competent reader to relish his works. Therefore, it is important to create an atmosphere that general readers might become more interested in reading his works.

To this end, it is immensely important to create a culture of critical engagement with the works of Huq. Academics and literary critics are the first who should come forward to invest their time on his works and communicate their readings with general readers. Along with them, translators are those magicians who can really give an appropriate afterlife to his works. To prove ourselves worthy of what he has left behind for us, we need to read him, remember him, and try as far as possible to establish an egalitarian and happy society he envisioned through his works.

(First Published in Countercurrents.org)

Rakibul Hasan Khan is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Linguistics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at rakib.hasan82@gmail.com.

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Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Akbar Barakzai, a ‘Part-time Poet’ in Exile

Who can snuff out the sun? 
Who can suppress the light?
-- Akbar Barakzai, Who Can Snuff Out the Sun

Akbar Barakzai(born 1939)

His poetry rings with the spaces between mountains. It rushes like the wind of freedom, taking you to the heart of the land and people he writes about.  

Balochistan has a bit of the blood and bones of many cultures and people through the ages – dating back to Harappa and Indus Valley civilisations. Akbar Barakzai, the Baloch poet and activist, writes about transcending the suffering that exudes from hurts inflicted on humankind. He urges the masses to voice out against oppression.

Don’t ever bury the word 
In the depth of your chest 
Rather express the word 
Yes, speak it out. 
The Word brings forth 
Freedom and providence.
--Akbar Barakzai, The Word

He writes for freedom from injustices and lives by his beliefs and principles. Having been forced to move countries to run journals, he is an immigrant in quest of a future that will unite the East and the West. Gently opposing oppressors with his writing, beliefs and ideas, Barakzai made news when he turned down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award last year because he says; “The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.”  A writer who continues to emote for his people and their rights, he has been translated to English by a lecturer, Fazal Baloch, and published. 

Barakzai calls himself “a part time poet” – but his poetry moves our hearts and minds – it makes us think, imagine a better world. Is he really a part time poet or a major inspiration crying out for mankind to move out of ‘messiahdom’, dogmatism and take charge of their own lives? In this interview, Barakzai not only reveals his life but also his sense of freedom from oppression, his love of human rights which forced him to move countries to conserve the voice of his people.

Since when have you been writing poetry? What set your muse going?

I started writing poetry in 1954 when I was still in school. I was inspired by our people’s long struggle for freedom and justice against the Pakistani and Iranian occupiers.

Your poetry mixes many strands of thoughts and many lores. Can you tell us what influences your writing? Books, music, writers?  

My writing has been influenced by many poets and writers from different languages and cultures. The lasting influence on my art has been that of classical Balochi poetry. However, I must mention some great names from diverse poetic traditions who have had an impact on my poetry, such as the Persian poets Hafiz, Rumi and Nima Yushij; Urdu poets Ghalib and Mir; English poets Shelley and Keats; Russian poets Pushkin and Pasternak and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Your poem ‘Waiting for Godot’ depicts the theme of the play by Samuel Beckett. It has a beautiful mingling of East and West. What led to it?

Beckett’s Godot is perhaps the most mysterious character in modern (world) literature. My poem is a reminder that the so-called Messiahs never return to this world. Mankind has to find its own solutions. East and West are two different aspects of the same coin. Unlike the infamous poem by Rudyard Kipling, that great apologist of Western imperialism, the East and the West are slowly but steadily inching towards each other. Despite enormous odds “the twain” are destined to “meet” and be united to get rid of the geographical lines created by imperialist powers.

You deal with both the political and the spiritual in your poetry. How do you attune Che Guevara with the God who even if ruthless exists in your poetry?  

I made peace with God quite some time ago. I hope we understand each other better now. I do not believe that God is necessarily ruthless. It may sound strange, but my spirituality is not religious at all, it is based on humanism.  Your interpretation of my poem is different from what I had intended. I am not sure if such a dichotomy exists in the poem. However, it appears that poetic curiosity in the end has succeeded in detecting some kind of duality. With regard to Che, he symbolizes the primordial fighter for justice. He embodies all those millions of people who have fought against the forces of darkness. Hence the allusion to Phoebus Apollo and the ever-conquering brilliance of the sun.

Do you write only in Balochi? You must be fluent in English having lived in England for many years. Why do you not write in English? Or translate your own poems?  

I used to write in Urdu and Persian in my younger years, until I discovered that I could write a lot better in my mother tongue.  As far as writing in English is concerned, I do not feel confident enough to write in it.

Your poetry, the little I have read, takes on elemental truths and uses nature, intermingles those to arrive at larger truths toward the end. Is it all spontaneously expressed? Or do you need to work on it? Tell us a bit about your poetic process.  

My experience of the poetic process tells me that it is spontaneous. Design and architecture of the poem occupy a secondary position. After a poem is formed in my mind my main concern would then be to revise and improve its language. This process may take any length of time. I must confess that I am an obsessive reviser. For example, one of my longer poems took many long years to complete.

As a poet, you continue shrouded in mystery. Tell us about your life.  

My life is and has always been an open book. I don’t think a few random poems are sufficient to reveal the life story of any poet. However, without these fistful of poems, I would have appeared to be a greater mystery. My life, like the billions of ordinary people in this world, is indeed very ordinary. My great grandfather migrated from Western (Iranian) Balochistan as a result of the brutal military operations in the early twentieth century in which thousands of old men, women and children were killed and injured and thousands of others migrated to Sindh. My great grandfather was a small-time farmer. As a result of the Iranian atrocities, he was forced to abandon his land and livestock and move to Eastern (now Pakistani) Balochistan and finally to Sindh. In 1928, Reza Shah of Iran ultimately succeeded in occupying our country. Once they settled in Sindh my great grandfather and grandfather worked as labourers until they saved enough to buy a small shop.      

My father had a basic English education. He had left high school when still in the 4th or 5th grade to support the family with odd jobs. A few years later, he opened his own shop, a ration shop. These shops had mushroomed all over during the war as the English authorities introduced a food rationing system in India. I believe with this background I must have belonged to the lowest rungs of the class system. But my family worked hard to improve their lot.

When I was ten or twelve, my father thought I was strong enough and responsible enough to work in the shop. I would go to school in the morning. As soon as I finished school, I would rush to the shop to help my father. 

A few years before I finished high school, my father got a job in the Directorate of Civil Supplies as the manager of a warehouse. He rented out the shop. With two incomes our lot did improve a little. I was now in high school. I didn’t have to work in the shop anymore. During this period, I became interested in books – any books. These were mainly Urdu, Persian, Sindhi and Balochi books. I read a lot, but my reading wasn’t systematic. I wrote a few nondescript poems during this period and became interested in politics, particularly in Baloch politics. By then I was in college reading literature and related subjects. However, I was more interested in politics than in my studies which meant I wasn’t a good student. Despite this I somehow managed to graduate from Karachi University. My father wanted me to study further and enter the Civil Service. But by then I was completely radicalised. I think I disappointed him then by refusing to continue my studies in order to take competitive exams to join the civil service. However, a few years later as a result of the escalating Pakistani military operations in Balochistan, he told me that although at the time he was not happy with my refusal, he confessed wholeheartedly that my decision was absolutely right. I was so proud of him that he had finally approved of my decision. Although he passed away a long time ago, because of this confession I do love him and miss him more.  

This rather lengthy snapshot of my life should be sufficient to explain why my poetry is expressly concerned with social and political issues.

What led to your move to England?  

This was the busiest period of my political activism. It was the time when General Ayub Khan had imposed Martial Law in Pakistan and was trying to consolidate his rule by hook or by crook. In Balochistan he had re-ordered the military to crush the Baloch resistance once and for all. But the resistance has outlived Ayub Khan, and his military might. It has grown stronger and stronger with the passage of time albeit with huge sacrifices sustained by ordinary people. The rulers treated the Baloch people like dirt and our leaders as traitors who “deserved” to be hanged. By 1965, the military government stepped up its operations in cities and towns, especially in Karachi where the Baloch formed a sizable minority and naturally supported the struggle for freedom. By this time the majority of our leaders were imprisoned in various Pakistani jails. Hundreds of young activists were also put behind bars. I was constantly harassed by the secret police. They raided my house three times and confiscated all my books and papers. These included some precious manuscripts left by a maternal uncle of mine. I was told that they would be returned “in due course”, but I never saw them again. 

In those days, at least in the big cities, the government showed that they believed in the legal system. However, things would soon change. They started arresting people at will, without producing them in a court of law. People would languish in prisons for many years without any charges brought against them. They kept on introducing new forms of brutality, including bombing the population and “disappearing” activists and ordinary people. Under their “kill and dump” policy, they to this day torture and kill activists and then dump their bodies in the periphery of a town or village. So far, they have “disappeared” about 5,000 activists and their family members. Recently they have started abducting young female activists and then dumping their bodies. Almost all of these victims have been assaulted and raped.   

I was picked up twice by the secret police. The second time they brought the great poet Gul Khan Naseer (the Baloch Nazrul) from prison. We were both delighted to see each other. We hugged and exchanged greetings in Balochi. We were told firmly not to speak in Balochi. We protested at this suggestion. Without reacting, they started the interrogation which took about three or four hours. Naseer was taken back to prison. I was told to go home but be prepared for further sessions.

I was advised by our leadership to go underground and eventually leave the country and head for the Gulf region to organise the Baloch migrants working in that part of the world. I did exactly as I was instructed to do. Because of visa problems, I could not stay in the Gulf for long. I therefore moved to Syria, Lebanon and finally to Iraq where in 1973-74, I was joined by some other friends. Together we used to edit a monthly newspaper in Balochi called Tipaakie Raah (Path of Unity). In fact, this used to be the Balochi edition of the paper which was also published in Arabic, Persian, Azari (Azarbaijani) and Kurdish editions. We also managed a daily radio programme in Balochi. Additionally, we published a monthly newspaper in English from London which was called People’s Front. This task was assigned to a senior friend who moved from Baghdad to London for this purpose. Our stay in Iraq would soon be short lived. After Saddam Hussain and the Shah of Iran met in North Africa to end the dispute over Shatt al Arab waterway, the situation in Iraq changed drastically. We were told very politely that the “world situation” had changed. We would still be welcome to live in Iraq, but the publication of the newspaper and the radio broadcasts must stop. It was therefore decided I should move to London. With the help of a doctor friend, I obtained a British visa and moved to London.

Your poetry still cries out for your motherland. Do you want to return? Is a return possible?

Who wouldn’t want to go back to the country they love? But it is not possible. I am only tolerated if I keep silent and remain as far away from Balochistan as possible.

Why did you turn down the Pakistan Academy of Literature award?  

The Pakistan Academy of Literature is sponsored by the Islamabad rulers. I cannot accept an award from an organisation that operates at the beck and call of the tormentors of my people.    

You have published very selectively — do you have more writing which you have not published? If so, do you have plans to publish those?

I have never been a prolific writer or a poet. I keep on telling people that I am a part-time poet.

What message would you like to give to emerging writers?

As a part-time poet I don’t feel I am in a position to advise young writers. I can only say this much to them — be honest to yourselves and your art.   

Thank you very much for giving us your time.

Click here to read translated poetry by Akbar Barakzai.

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

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Categories
Interview Review

Unveiling Afghanistan: In Conversation with Nazes Afroz

 Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) reflected the plight of Africans and the deep divides that created schisms between different groups in South Africa. The book won the author, Alan Paton, a Nobel prize. Another remarkable book that was published in the same year was a non-fiction written by a student of Tagore called Syed Mujtaba Ali. Mujtaba Ali wrote Deshe Bideshe in Bengali. This has been translated in recent times by the former BBC editor, Nazes Afroz, as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. It is an outstanding memoir that demystifies and explains what led to the issues that are being faced by a country repeatedly jostled by varied regimes, a country that seems to be so steeped in problems that worrying about the pandemic remains a far cry for the common inhabitants.

For many decades this book had been feted by only a small group of readers, though the book is no lesser than Paton’s in crying out against injustices, terrors of violence and starvation, because it was written in Bengali. It was so witty and flavourful that people were afraid to translate it for the fear of losing the nuances of the original. As Afroz tells us in this interview, he had similar reservations. A book written by a scholar, it peppers history and political issues with lucidity and humour, making it an enjoyable experience for the lay reader. The author has a way of turning the mundane or intellectual into an amusing anecdote. During a conversation at an embassy party, the author through the voice of a fellow professor, makes a hilarious observation – but also, one that does convey much about Afghanistan despite its attempts at liberalisation.

Madame Vorvechievichi argued, ‘But there are mullahs in this country.’

“Dost Muhammad said reassuringly, ‘No need to worry, Madame. I know these mullahs very well. Their knowledge of religion is very little and I can teach you all of it in three days. However, a woman can’t be a mullah.’

Madame Vorvechievichi said angrily, ‘Why not?’

“With a deep sigh Dost Muhammad said, ‘Because she can’t grow a beard.’”

The book is speckled with multiple such instances. Along with these witticisms, the pathos of the country, the plight of the people is well captured by poignant observations:

“The real history of the country was buried beneath the soil, much like the way that Indian history was hidden in its Puranas, Mahabharata-Ramayana. Afghanistan is a poor country; Afghans do not have the time or the resources for archaeological excavations to write their own history.”

The writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974) a polyglot, scholar, traveller and humanitarian did just that – he recorded the history of the time he spent in Afghanistan, a time when a swift takeover from the liberal king Amanullah (1892-1960) was staged by Bacha-ye-Saqao (1891-1929) during the Afghan Civil War (1928-29).  Does this sound familiar, reminding one of the recent August 2021 takeover by Taliban?

A Humboldt scholar, Mujtaba Ali was conversant in fourteen languages, lived in five countries, including Afghanistan, where he had gone to teach. That his erudition never interfered but enhanced without marring the simplicity of rendition is what makes the book an attractive read for all lay persons. His astute observations are laced with wit and realism. The residue of the book lingers as the vibrant narrative flows — vicariously bringing to life, with humour and empathy, a culture that is distinct and yet warm in its uniqueness. His style is reflective of an in depth understanding of the situation and a sense of empathy for the common people with who he interacted daily – like his man Friday and the colleagues he mentions. For the author, everyone, from an uneducated villager to the crown prince (who invited him to play tennis), seemed to grow effortlessly into a rounded persona of a friend. All these have been transmitted by Afroz in the translation too. Translating two cultures across borders in a language that does not have all the words to capture the intimate nuances is not an easy feat, but it has fruited into an unusual and captivating read.

Nazes Afroz

Afroz’s maiden venture at translation was shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award. Afroz himself has spent a long stretch of time in Afghanistan. He joined the BBC in London in 1998. He was a senior editor in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. In 2013, he moved back to India. A passionate photographer, he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines. In recent articles, he has been voicing his own concerns about developments in Afghanistan. In this interview, he reflects on what led him to translate the book, the situation as it was then and as it is now.  He dwells not only on the historic civil war as captured in the book but also on current day politics and the Taliban takeover.

You are a journalist. What got you interested in translating a Bengali classic from the last century?

I became a journalist five years after I read Deshe Bideshe. I was still a teenager when I picked up the book from a library rack. Reading Mujtaba Ali at that age had a profound impact on me. The erudition, the smooth sailing between multitude of cultures and languages, the gripping storytelling in his writing mesmerised me. I had never read anything like that in Bangla. Every Bengali reader of Syed Mujtaba Ali had felt the same way as I did. As a child I had the uncontrollable urge for travels and seeing the world. In Mujtaba Ali I found a role model. Deshe Bideshe stayed with me since then. It was one book that I would read two to three times a year from my teenage. So, by the time I decided to translate Deshe Bideshe more than thirty years after I first laid my hands on the book, I had read it for more than a hundred times! I knew its each page, I knew its each story and Afghanistan had seeped inside me permanently as I could relate to all the characters of the book.

While working for the BBC World Service in London, I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the Taliban were dislodged from power in a short war towards the end of 2001. I visited the country a number of the times in the following few years. As I travelled more, I befriended my BBC colleagues there and met other journalists and people on various walks of life. Some of them became good friends as well. I used to refer to events from the times of King Amanullah while discussing Afghanistan. They were surprised to hear all the details that I mentioned from a time that they said, ‘Even we don’t know!’ So, I mentioned how a Bengali scholar came from Kolkata to Kabul in 1927 and taught here, was a participant of the modernisation project of Amanullah by teaching English and French, played tennis with the crown prince Inyatullah (1888-1946) became an eyewitness of the rebellion against the king, got caught in the anarchy in the winters of 1928-29, and nearly perished starving before managing to go back to India. Hearing my story, they asked if there was any English translation of the book as they were keen to read. I told them that there was none as it was untranslatable!

As years went by and more and more of my Afghan friends got to know about Deshe Bideshe, they demanded that I did the translation. But I had my doubts. Would I be able to capture Mujtaba Ali’s unique language? Would I be able to transpose his wicked sense of humour? Would I be able to convey his erudition?

Eventually in 2011, I had already made up my mind to quit the BBC and move back to India. At that point my day-to-day workload in the BBC was significantly reduced. As I had ample time in hand, I thought I would attempt the translation. At that point I didn’t think of any publication; I wanted to do it just for fun and for my Afghan and non-Afghan friends who knew about the book and were keen to read it. I thought I would give them a taste of Mujtaba Ali’s writing by doing a few chapters. So, I did the first few chapters and shared them with a few friends. After reading those chapters they wanted to read more. I felt encouraged and I carried on with the translation for the following few months. Eventually the whole book was complete in about a year. After completing the translation, I let it sit for a few months before picking it up again and reread it as new text without looking at the original text. That exercise went on several times over the following one year till the final manuscript shaped up.

How many countries have you worked from? You were also in Afghanistan for several years I believe. Can you share your experiences?

My work has taken me to a dozen country or so. But as an intrepid traveller, I have visited more than 40 countries so far across four continents. Apart from my regular visits to Afghanistan, I spent months at a stretch on several occasions. Working in Afghanistan was certainly a unique experience. It wasn’t a country where one could travel and roam around freely. There were always the security alerts. One needed to negotiate security barriers everywhere. The accommodations – hotels, guesthouses were guarded by armed men. In the early years – in 2002 to 2004, there weren’t so much security in the hotels or guesthouses we stayed in. But that started to change from 2010 onwards as the Taliban had at that time started to regroup, and they made their presence felt in the country and in Kabul. Even at that time, cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat were considered lot safer than Kabul. With increased and unpredictable attacks by the Taliban, the country became more and more edgy.

What was it about the book that drew you to it?

As I mentioned earlier, the uniqueness of Mujtaba Ali was that his erudition wasn’t frightening. He penned Deshe Bideshe almost twenty years after he left Kabul. By then, he had completed his PhD in comparative religion from Germany as a Humboldt scholar, did his post-doctoral research from al-Azhar university in Cairo, learned more than a dozen languages, and travelled extensively in Europe. So, even though his narrative of Afghanistan was drawn from what he had witnessed in his mid-twenties while teaching there, when he decided to write the book, he had acquired profound knowledge in philosophy, literature, culture and history of the world in many languages. The multilingual and multicultural references with an oblique yet gripping story-telling style infused with a wicked sense of humour that came in his writing, had been drawing ardent followers, including me, since 1948 when Deshe Bideshe was first published.

The book highlighted a growing divide between the minority with liberal education and the majority without education. Is that true still? Would you call the book relevant to the present-day crisis?

Yes, that divide between the educated and the not educated that Mujtaba Ali elicited in Deshe Bideshe is still there. But the gap has certainly reduced. The years between 1929 to 1978 had been relatively stable and peaceful in Afghanistan. Modern education had spread but without giving a jolt to the conservative society and keeping the clergy more or less content. In Kabul and other major cities, girls and women were getting more and more education; they were also seen in public life more. Following the coup through which the communists – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA came to power in 1978, there was a big push for universal education. This created a much bigger educated class. Women were the biggest beneficiary of that time in terms of acquiring knowledge and finding jobs. Women were joining the police and military as well. Following the capitulation of the PDPA government in 1992, the modern education system collapsed during the Mujahideen civil war years until 1996 and then after the takeover of virtually the whole of the country by the Taliban.

A large number of Afghans – almost a quarter of the population became refugees in neighbouring countries or elsewhere. When the American led international forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the population got a fresh chance to get education. Schools opened again. Both girls and boys went back to school. Internationally there were many programmes to give scholarships to Afghan women and men who were seeking higher education. As a country with a very young population (the average age of Afghanis is 18), a large number of students joined the public and private universities. So, tens of thousands of young women and men are now educated holding masters or even PhD degrees in the country. But the rural areas lagged behind. So, the gap is more of the city and rural areas.

Do you find similarities between the Afghanistan of then and of now?

The way the Afghan society works, based on its ethnic and tribal identities as witnessed by Mujtaba Ali, still exist. The stranglehold that the clergy had on the uneducated mass about a century ago has possibly changed; it’s been replaced with more political interpretation of their religion. The ethnic divisions have sharpened for multitude reasons – primarily due to the outside interference and the way ethnic groups have been used in the larger geo-political game of the world powers.

One of the issues that tussles through the book is that people were basically poor and lacked education. Syed Mustaba Ali spoke of the vicious cycles of poverty, how much has it changed from what he wrote and what you experienced? Please elaborate.

Mujtaba Ali talked about how poverty contributed to the cycle of unrest in Afghan history. Yes, that poverty still exists but with that, a toxic potion of religio-politics has been added to the cauldron. The conflict of the past four decades is more due to the global religio-political dynamics rather that its own poverty.

Did/ do you find parallels in the political situation where Amanullah and his brother escaped from the invading hardliner, Bacha-ye-Saqao? Would you see Bacha as a precursor of Taliban?

The only parallel that one can draw between 1929 when Amanullah and his brother Inayetullah fled and now in 2021 is that the suddenness of the events. Amanullah’s fall happened in months and Bacha took over Kabul in matter of days – almost the same way the Taliban took control of the country.

I don’t think Bacha-ye-Saqao or Habibullah Kalakani as he called himself, was a precursor of the Taliban. Bacha was more of an opportunist; he grabbed the opportunity that came his way. But the Taliban are more of an organised religio-political force what was the product of the geo-politics of the last decade of the Cold War. So, they two are not comparable.

Did the American or Russian intrusions into Afghanistan serve any purpose? Did they actually help the Afghans?

The short answer is no. Both the superpowers came to achieve their own strategic and foreign policy objectives. The Soviets came to expand their sphere of influence beyond their borders in Central Asia. In the process they were badly bruised and had to retreat. The Americans came to get hold of Osama-bin-Laden and dismantle the al-Qaeda infrastructure. It was never about helping a nation that had been devastated by decades of conflict in which they had no role. They just became pawns in the greater game of geopolitics.

By the descriptions in the book, Afghans seem to be fairly open as humans and yet, they have a distinct identity borne of their culture, their ethos — very different from any other. Was that undermined in any way by the attempts at modernisation?

Like many other rural, traditional and old societies, Afghans are hospitable and warm people. They are bound and governed by their age-old custom and codes of conduct.

Even when they are outside of their own land – in the West too, they extend their hospitality to strangers the same way they would in their own country and their behaviour would not differ much. It is not the question, if modernisation has or will undermine their tradition. They have had encounters with modernisation – the way modernisation is understood from the Western prism. Did that change the people who had experienced that modernisation in the time of Amanullah? Mujtaba Ali saw that the ‘so called’ modern people did not lose their Afghan-ness. The same can be said now. As a people they have largely remained unchanged despite connecting with the outside world like never before.

In the book, the international community was practically chased off Afghanistan. As the US troops left, one felt the same way. Do you feel intervention from the international community is necessary in Afghanistan? Why?

The backdrops of 1929 and the present are not identical. In 1929, the rebellion was against the king who had lost the support of the clergy. The king did not come to power with foreign intervention. So, the international community was not chased out in 1929. The Europeans left because of the chaos and the violence. The rebels didn’t fight with the foreigners. Yes, there was an armed opposition to the presence of the USA since the war in 2001, but that opposition wasn’t big enough to send the USA packing.

The USA left because they had achieved their goals in Afghanistan, and it was becoming hugely expensive for them to stay on. Many are also drawing parallels of the US’s departure from Afghanistan with their hasty retreat from Vietnam in 1975. But they were again not identical. In Vietnam, the USA visibly lost the war. But in Afghanistan they did not lose. They could have stayed on if they wanted but it made no sense to them to spend tens of billions of dollars each year. Hence, they left. They had been talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan since 2012, a year after they killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The intervention that the Afghans had been experiencing since 1979 – first by the Soviets, then Pakistan and finally the US led Western nations, devastated the country and the ordinary Afghans had been paying for it with all they had. No external intervention is beneficial for any country. It’s not desirable to have; certainly not the way the global powers had been intervening for the past 40 odd years in various corners of the world. But the question is, if unspeakable atrocities are committed on certain sections of a country or society, what does the international community do? Should the international community intervene? The world powers have unfortunately always used these as pretexts to intervene to further and achieve their own objectives not only in Afghanistan but in other countries too.

In the book, only foreigners with work seemed to be in Afghanistan. Is/ Was it possible for tourists to visit Afghanistan, even before the Taliban took over?

In the last twenty years, Afghanistan had been unstable. Violent incidents kept happening. So, it was not advisable for tourist to go there. But the country always issued tourist visa for short visits! For a few years, Japanese tourist used to come to visit the ancient Buddhist sites like Bamiyan. That too waned due to the escalating conflict.

Thank you for this wonderful interview and also for the flawless translation of a classic memoir.

Click here to read a book excerpt from In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan.

(This is an online interview/review by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Independence Day

Born Free

Born free
As free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
-- Born Free by Andy Williams

These are lines from a song by Andy Williams, a pop icon whose song was the theme song in Born Free, a film made in 1966 about a lion cub bred in captivity, who had to be trained to live free even though she was born free. Does that apply to all living creatures, including humans? What is freedom? And who is free? Does political independence mean ultimate freedom?

We celebrate political ‘freedom’ of countries as national or independence days. Sometimes, as in the case of India and Pakistan, independent nationhood can be laced with bloodshed and grief . Two new countries were born of a single colonial India in the August of 1947. Pakistan awoke as a country on the midnight of 14th August and India called the late hour 15th August. Nehru’s speech has become an iconic one: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge… At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom…”

Common people while crossing the boundary line between the two new nations lost their lives, homes and lands over the mob violence. The resentment still simmers in a few hearts. In an attempt to find peace and amity, we have put forward a combined selection of writing from across borders, words devoid of angst or hate, words that look for commonality and harmony.

Interview

Goutam Ghose. Courtesy: Creative Commons

In Conversation with Goutam Ghose, multiple award-winning filmmaker, writer, actor discusses his films, film-books and journey as a humanitarian artiste who makes cross cultural films across all boundaries. Click here to read.

Poetry

Akbar Barkzai’s Songs of Freedom translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Poems by Jaydeep Sarangi: Click here to read

For Danish Siddiqui by Sutputra Radheye: Click here to read.

The Equalizer by Nazrul translated from Bengali to English by Shahriyer Hossain Shetu from Sammyabadi. Click here to read.

Deliverance by Tagore translated from Bengali to English from Tran (Sanchayita). Click here to read.

Non-Fiction

In The Idea of India: Bharata Bhagya Bidhata – The Making of a Motherland Anasuya Bhar explores the history around the National Anthem of India which started as a song, composed by Tagore. Only the first paragraph of the whole song in Bengali was adapted as the National Anthem. We include the translations of the complete song both by Tagore and by Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read.

In An August Account of ‘Quit India’ Movement Ratnottama Sengupta,  translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an upsurge in the wake of the Quit India Movement. Click here to read.

Temples & Mosques by Nazrul has been translated by Sohana Manzoor. Click here to read.

In Seventy-four Years After Independence…“Mil ke rahe gi Azadi” (We will get our Freedom), Aysha Baqir muses on Pakistani women’s role in the independence movement and their current state. Click here to read.

 In 2147 without Borders, Devraj Singh Kalsi meanders over Partitions, borders and love stories and looks for an amicable solution in a happier future. Click here to read.

Fiction

Bundu, Consoler of the Rich is a story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali. Click here to read.

In The Best Word, Maliha Iqbal explores the impact of wars in a spine chilling narrative, journeying through a range of emotions. Click here to read.

In Do Not Go!, Moazzam Sheikh explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America. Click here to read.

In The Chained Man Who Wished to be Free, Sunil Sharma explores freedom and democracy versus conventions. We are left wondering is this the freedom we fought for? Click here to read. 

Categories
Editorial

Triumph of the Human Spirit

On August 8th 2021, the chief of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, pointed out during the closing ceremony that these games were “unprecedented” and brought messages of “hope, solidarity and peace” into a world torn with the desolation generated by the pandemic. It was a victory of the human spirit again, a precursor of what is to come. That the Japanese could get over their pandemic wrought hurdles, just as they did post the nuclear disasters wrought by the Second World War and by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami at Fukushimaya, to host something as spectacular and inspiring as these international games reflects, as the commentators contended, a spirit of ‘harmony and humility’. The last song performed by many youngsters seemed to dwell on stars in the sky — not only were the athletes and organisers the stars but this also reminded of unexplored frontiers that beckon mankind, the space.What a wonderful thing it was to see people give their best and unite under the banner of sports to bring messages of survival and glimpses of a future we can all share as human beings! Our way of doing things might have to evolve but we will always move forward as a species to thrive and expand beyond the known frontiers.

One such explorer of yet unknown frontiers who mingles the historic with the contemporary, Goutam Ghose, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, has honoured our pages with an extensive interview showing us how art and harmony can weave lores that can help mankind survive. This is reinforced by the other interview with Singaporean academic, Dr Kirpal Singh, whose poetry reflects his convictions of a better world. With our intelligence, we can redefine processes that hold us back and grind our spirits to dust — be it the conventional ‘isms’ or norms that restrict our movement forward – just as Tagore says in the poem, we have translated this time, ‘Deliverance’.

…On this auspicious dawn,
Let us hold our heads high in the infinite sky 
Amidst the light of bounteousness and the heady breeze of freedom.

As the Kobiguru mentioned earlier in the poem, the factors that oppress could be societal, political, or economic. Could they perhaps even be the fetters put on us by the prescribed preconceived definition of manmade concepts like ‘freedom’ itself? Freedom can be interpreted differently by multiple voices.

This month, on our pages, ‘freedom’ has found multiple interpretations in myriad of ways — each voice visualising a different dream; each dream adding value to the idea of human progress. We have discussions and stories on freedom from Nigeria, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and more. Strangely enough, August holds multiple independence/ national days that are always for some reason seen as days of being ‘freed’ by many — at least from oppression. But is that true?

From Malaysia, Julian Matthews and Malachi Edwin Vethamani cry out against societal, religious and political bindings – quite a powerful outcry at that with a story and poems. Akbar Barakzai continues his quest with three poems around ideas of freedom translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Jaydeep Sarangi and Joan Mcnerny pick up these reverberations of freedom, each defining it in different ways through poetry.

Jared Carter takes us back to his childhood with nostalgic verses. Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Michael Lee Johnson, Vandana Sharma and many more sing to us with their lines. Rhys Hughes has of course humour in verse that makes us smile as does Jay Nicholls who continues with her story-poems on Pirate Blacktarn – fabulous pieces all of them. The sport of hummingbirds and cats among jacaranda trees is caught in words and photographs by Penny Wilkes in her Nature’s Musings. A poetic tribute to Danish Siddiqui by young Sutputra Radheye rings with admiration for the Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who met his untimely end last month on 16th while at work in Afghanistan, covering a skirmish between Taliban and Afghanistan security forces. John Linwood Grant takes up interesting issues in his poetry which brings me back to ‘freedom’ from colonial regimes, perhaps one of the most popular themes for writers.

Indo-Pak independence, celebrated now on 14th (Pakistan) and 15th August (India), reflects not only the violence of the Partition which dislocated and killed millions historically but also the trauma caused by the event. Capturing this trauma is a short story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by his daughter, Amna Ali. Ratnottama Sengupta translates from the diary of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), a woman’s voice from the past that empathises with the subjugated who were subdued yet again after an upsurge of violence during the Quit India Movement (1942) against the colonials. Sinha contends that though the movement frittered away, the colonials were left with an after-taste of people hankering for self-rule. A thought-provoking short story by Sunil Sharma explores the results of self-rule in independent India.

Alluding to Jinnah’s vision for women, Aysha Baqir muses emotionally about the goals that remain yet to be fulfilled 74 years after independence. Moazzam Sheikh’s story of immigrants explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America, immigrants who had to find a new home despite independence. Was this the freedom they dreamt of — all those who fought against various oppressive regimes or colonialism?

Tagore’s lyrics might procure a few ideas on freedom, especially in the song that India calls its National Anthem. Anasuya Bhar assays around the history that surrounds the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated to English by the poet himself and more recently, only by Aruna Chakravarti. We also carry Dr Chakravarti’s translation of the National Anthem in the essay. Reflecting on the politics of Partition and romance is a lighter piece by Devraj Singh Kalsi which says much. ‘Dinos in France’ by Rhys Hughes and Neil Reddick’s ‘The Coupon’ have tongue-in-cheek humour from two sides of the Atlantic.

A coming-of-age story has been translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal – a story by a popular author, Dev Kumari Thapa – our first Nepali prose piece.  We start a four-part travelogue by John Herlihy, a travel writer, on Myanmar, a country which has recently been much in the news with its fight for surviving with democracy taking ascendency over the pandemic and leaving the people bereft of what we take for granted.

Candice Louisa Daquin discusses a life well-lived in a thought provoking essay, in which she draws lessons from her mother as do Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, and Argentinian writer, Marcelo Medone. Maybe, mothers and freedom draw similar emotions, of blind love and adulation. They seem to be connected in some strange way with terms like motherland and mother tongue used in common parlance.

We have two book excerpts this time: one from Beyond the Himalayas by the multi-faceted, feted and awarded filmmaker we have interviewed, Goutam Ghose, reflecting on how much effort went in to make a trip beyond boundaries drawn by what Tagore called “narrow domestic walls”. We carry a second book excerpt this time, from Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon. Keith Lyons has reviewed this book too. If you are interested in freedom and democracy, this sounds like a must read.

Maithreyi Karnoor’s Sylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends, is a fiction that seems to redefine norms by what Rakhi Dalal suggests in her review. Bhaskar Parichha has picked a book that many of us have been curious about, Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Parichha is of the opinion,Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.”One wonders if this is conclusive for all ‘unworldly women’ in India only or is it a worldwide phenomenon or is it true only for those who are tied to a particular ethos within the geographical concept of India? The book reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra,  Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, dwells on the fierce independence of the early twentieth century women caregivers of the maestro from Bengal. These women did not look for approval or acceptance but made their own rules as did Jnadanandini, Tagore’s sister-in-law. Bhaskar Parichha has also added to our Tagore lore with his essay on Tagore in Odisha.

As usual, we have given you a peek into some of our content. There is more, which we leave for our wonderful readers to uncover. We thank all the readers, our fantastic contributors and the outstanding Borderless team that helps the journal thrive drawing in the best of writers.

I wish you all a happy August as many of the countries try to move towards a new normal.

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal, August 2021

Categories
Independence Day Interview

In Conversation with Goutam Ghose

Goutam Ghose: Photo provided by Niyogy Books

Goutam Ghose is a well-known award-winning film director, scriptwriter and even actor. He has been the only Indian to have received the Vittorio Di Sica Award from Italy in 1997 and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in July 2006. Ghose has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival.

But did you know he has also authored a number of books? Just as he bridges borders with his poetic films that touch the human heart with a range of emotions, he does the same with his books. He takes up burning issues with artistry, never inciting with rage or hatred but conveying by his skill with the camera and words. He has created a world without borders with his transcontinental outlook and approach.

His reaction to the Ram Janmabhoomi riots was Moner Manush (2010), a film based on Lalon Fakir’s life, knitting together the best in Muslim and Hindu traditions instead of filming the clashes and the violence. Published in English as The Quest (2013), the book is a powerful dramatisation with pictures from the film. The book, like the film, is also an emotional lesson in humanism. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel on Lalon Fakir’s life, the film is beautiful. But the book allowed me to mull over the words, which have been translated by Sankar Sen. It is a book that needs to be read when casteism and religious divides take precedence over humanitarian values. By bringing these songs into translation to readers unfamiliar with Bengali, both Ghose and Sen have opened a world of love and tolerance to new readers, who will hopefully find the time to mull over the wisdom of these songs.

‘What was your caste when you came here,
What caste did you take on arrival, dear,
What would be your caste when it’s time to go -- 
Ponder and tell me if you know.’

-- Translated by Sankar Sen, from The Quest

 His other book that traverses the silk route and journeys through China, Beyond the Himalayas (2019), transcends boundaries and fills the reader with a sense of exhilaration. It is based on his documentary of the same name. Both these recordings of their journey along the silk route are worth viewing and reading. They show humans are the same across all borders. The book, interspersed with lovely pictures of the landscape and mature writing pauses on history at the right junctures. The narration is poetic in both the book and the documentary.

Though Ghose claims that these texts and photographs capture memories of the film, both his books transported me to a different time and space. I saw the films after reading the books, but both were energising, emotionally charged and entertaining. The journey takes one through different parts of the world and gives a new perspective to a 4000-year-old route. Initiated and organised by Major Hari Singh Ahluwalia and Deng Xiaoping’s son, the travels in Beyond the Himalayas took me across borders to areas I have never visited and now, I hope to visit post pandemic. Both the book and the film acquainted me with cultures that excite. And The Quest reinforced the belief, through the depiction of Lalon’s life, that humanism exists despite the degradations of history. That riots can be calmed with the soothing notes of Lalon’s lyrics, rich in wisdom, would be a win for the human spirit.

Like all great artistes, Ghose speaks in beautiful poetic sentences about concepts that touch the human heart and imagination. In this exclusive, he speaks not just about his film-books, but about the real journey and issues he is facing through the pandemic, including the delay of his film with an Italian male lead and his new short film on the current times, Covid-worn and waiting…

You are a very well-known film director, cinematographer, and music director. You have directed award winning Bollywood and Tollywood movies. Normally books come before films but from two of these films, you have made books. Why did you go in for making books of the films?

I have loved books since my childhood. The shape and form of it, the touch and smell of a book fascinate me. They will never die even if we read on the screen rather than by turning pages of a physical object. A certain sense of the sacred has surrounded books from civilisations’ inception. In cinema, be it fiction or non-fiction, we write a script at the pre-production stage. A film-book is all about times gone by — a book of memories, of both cyclic and linear time. My producer from Bangladesh, Habibur Rehman Khan, had liked the idea of film books and had published three wonderful books on Padma Nodir Majhi (Boatman of the Padma River, filmed in 1993), Moner Manush (filmed in 2010 ) and Shankhachil (Unbound, filmed in 2016) in Bengali. Niyogi books of India has published a beautiful pictorial English version of Moner Manush as The Quest and also Beyond the Himalayas, my journey along the Silk Road. Another lovely film book is Pratikshan’s bilingual centenary tribute to Bismillah Khan (Bismillah in Banaras the film Goutam Ghosh made, 2017).

Is dubbing or subtitling the film not an easier option than doing a film-book?

Well, dubbing or subtitling is for watching a language film, but a film book is meant for reading. It becomes a part of your book collections. I have some wonderful film books published from Europe and United States.

Moner Manush is based on Lalon Fakir’s life and on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Why did you feel there was a need for a separate book after you made a very powerful film on it?

Lalon Fakir is an eternal savant. Scholars have been doing research on Lalon’s life and philosophy since long. It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and the implied significance, it seems as if he was an erudite scholar tutored in an age-old system of education.  His faith was not guided by any particular religion, rather it could be said to be comprised of the mysticism of Sufi and the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberalism of the tantric sect of Buddhism. My film on Lalon fakir is research on this great man aswell. The Bengali film book contains important articles by scholars besides the script, reviews and memoirs.

Do you feel that the message of Moner Manush is relevant in a world beset by not just divides but even a pandemic? Is there something we can learn from the story?

Yes, of course the message of Moner Manush is even more relevant in today’s intolerant world, a world of greed and opportunism. The pandemic has victimised the togetherness of the human race but how can we survive without empathy? I don’t know how good the film is, but Moner Manush will serve as a gospel to those who revere humanity.

Lalon says as his own introduction “I am a human.” How important is that for humankind to see themselves as humans over titles of caste, profession, and economics?

The baul (minstrels in Bengal) community had renounced all recognised institutions of religion and revolted against long established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith, they had found a large expanse under the sky which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Under that open sky, Lalon had found the truth in Humanism.

Lalon dreamt of a borderless world. Do you think adopting his outlook can change the outlook of nations which draw borders between the species? Do you think it is implementable at a personal, national or international level?

I think all mystics believe in borderless space of Earth where all centennial beings live in peace and harmony. But the wheel of time had moved in the direction of Divide and Rule. John Lennon’s Imagine has become the iconic song on the dream of a borderless world. It may have been a failed dream, but I confess it might have been one I shared growing up in India and will cherish till the last breath of my life. Let it be a dream and a wonderful utopia.

Beyond The Himalayas was first a documentary film. How long was it and when was it screened? How many episodes is the film?

Beyond the Himalayas was made as a documentary film during our expedition through the Silk Road in 1994. The final edited version is four-and-a-half hour long. It was shown in Discovery Channel in five parts in the late nineties. A shorter version was screened in BBC as well. The Indian national TV had screened a Hindi version of all five episodes.

The book seems to cover lesser than the documentary. Is that true or do the visuals/ music just seem to impact us more? Why did you leave out Pakistan?

Well watching the film with arresting visuals and absorbing the soundtracks of the trail is a linear viewing of our journey along the fabled Silk Road. It is very, very exciting indeed. But the film is also a journey back in time with many references and anecdotes from history. For instance, while showing the travel through the deadly Taklamakan desert, I referred to Sven Hedin’s(1865-1952) expedition of the region. I quote: ‘The first European to map this desolate region was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. His first expedition in 1895 was very nearly his last.  The local guide supplied enough water for four days in the desert instead of ten requested. When the caravan lost its way, the guide was the first to die. The others became insane with thirst, drinking anything — even Sheep’s blood and camel’s urine. By the fifth day, the men, camels and other livestocks were all dead except for Sven Hedin and one other man. Hedin writes in Through Asia, “If I was doomed to die in the sand, I wanted to be properly attired. I wanted my burial clothes to be both white and clean.” But fate was on its side. Spying the dark green side of an oasis, he dragged himself to safety. “I stood on the brink of a pool with fresh cool water, beautiful water. I drank, drank, drank time after time. Every blood vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge.”’

Here the film-book helps the readers. One can refer back to the time past and time present more deeply to understand time as a metaphor of history.

How many days were you on the road? What was the experience like?

We were out for almost ten weeks covering a distance of 14,000 kms. The journey was fascinating for the entire team. There can be no journey more enchanting than the route we took. The collective trove of memories has made the Silk Road so memorable. We had to negotiate extreme weather conditions in Central Asia and Tibet. In a single day, we experienced two extremes. While negotiating the desert, temperatures rose to 48 degrees Celsius, and by nightfall when we pitched camp at Tianshan mountains, the temperature fell to 2 degrees. The situation is almost like the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — desert to snow in the blink of an eye.

Did you travel through the part of the route Marco Polo used? Did you find it much different from what you had imagined?

Well, the travels of Marco Polo described the wonders of the silk road, cities far greater than his own and a world more significant than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The silk road was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling along for 4,000 years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the East and the West. It ran from Xian in China to all the way to the Mediterranean. There were many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia.  We could not follow the planned route through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia via Khyber Pass because of the civil war. The government of India did not want us to take such risks. All the members of the expedition, including the jeeps and equipment, were flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on 18th May, 1994.

With the silk route being revived, do you think this film has significance?

Xuanzang took back over 600 Sanskrit text. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Yes, the film is still significant because it carries the memories of time. We were the first group of travellers after many, many years to cross three new republics after the collapse of Soviet Union and a vast territory of China. Now, the route is open to tourists, and I was told that many travel packages are available all along the mighty river and its tributaries. I would like to revisit the cauldron once again to understand how those multi-ethnic republics have survived the onslaught of modern times with its regional rivalries, new mafias, and consumerist pressures. I wish the new silk route trade brings peace and harmony in this intolerant world. Travellers today can choose from many trails as we did during our expedition. My favourite was Xuanzang’s (602-664 AD) trail. I quote from my book. “At 27, he set out his pilgrimage until he was 43. Unconvinced by the translations available in China, he sought the true teachings of Buddha in the holy lands of India. He walked alone into the great unknown, crossing the world’s greatest deserts and its highest mountain ranges. He faced death many times and his courage and equanimity impressed kings, bandits and barbarians alike. He lectured at monasteries and debated with learned monks and by the time he reached his destination, his reputation as a great sage had already preceded him. Xuan Zhang was not the only Chinese pilgrim to visit the homeland of Buddhism, but he was the most important. Like a death star that keeps releasing energy for thousands of years, he continues to be a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.”

You are making a new film I believe rooted in the present pandemic. What is it about? Will you be making that too into a book?

My 2019 film Rahagir or Wayfarer, starring Adil Hussain, Tillotama Som, Neeraj Kabir, had travelled to many festivals and received awards and appreciations but unfortunately, we could not release it in public theatres due to the pandemic. Another multilingual film is also stuck for obvious reasons. I could finish the Italian shoot in January 2020, but the Indian shoot did not happen till date. It is so frustrating.

Meanwhile, I have finished a short film Memories of Time on pandemic days. It is about a happy, cultured couple living in the heart of Kolkata. Like everyone else, they are caught in the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The film travels back and forth in time as they try to navigate through these hard times and search for fresh air and sanity. The film is an exploration of their fears, realisation and going back to nature. It’s from my own experience — how I have navigated 2020 and moving through the course of this pandemic. I think one can really publish a film-book because it has so many elements, the fear of people and the inhuman approach of the human race and then the migrant labours — their terrible conditions, the psychological problem of people confined inside their home and the most importantly, the problem of the children. They are confined as if in a prison. They can’t go to school. They can’t really meet their friends. I think this could be a very, very interesting material for a film-book.

Thank you for giving us your time.

Click here to read an excerpt and see photographs from his book Beyond the Himalayas.

Goutam Ghose: Courtesy: Creative Commons

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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