Categories
Stories

Before the Sun Goes Down

By Amjad Ali Malik

“It sucks, man”, he muttered and took a deep breath. His hands were folded on the back of his head as he reclined in the chair.

“And then count the age gap. Here I am barely twenty; just trying to acclimatise to the Varsity culture. And she? Well, I guess, not short of her mid-thirties”, he frowned.

Between the two of them they shared the rented flat.

He was from a remote small town and had arrived in the metropolis one year ago. After joining the University, he found that the hostel was already occupied to its total lodging capacity. So, his parents reluctantly chose to let him stay in a private accommodation, and this had landed him in the flat.

She was already a renter there. Initially, they had kept their newfound acquaintance restricted to a tacit exchange of casual glances. Then ensued the short verbal greetings, which eventually led to intimacy. She told him that she was from another big city and had been transferred to this city by her employers.

Earlier, he had been going to a small restaurant in the neighbourhood for his meals. Then she told him that she would make meals for both of them, and they could split the expenses. He readily agreed. 

Every evening she would walk over, carrying two cups of tea to his partially furnished room. Sitting across the oblong table, sipping the tepid tea, they often made small talk.  During one such session, she said she had got a Masters in Political Science. However, she hardly ever commented on national or international politics. Once or twice, he tried to plumb her political leanings, but she disappointed him. She exhibited the same stolidity in religious matters. 

“Why are you so cold on the topics which intrigue almost everyone these days?” he asked her once again.

“Is it necessary to toe the line of others?” she retorted with a discomfiting smirk.

“Um-no, not at all.  I only asked it out of curiosity,” he sounded flustered.

In physical terms, she was sensuous. But her personal aura did not encourage much passion in the opposite gender.  He had to admit that she had something about her, which stirred awe rather than evoked salacious thoughts.

As their relationship became more frank, he began to cherish some private longings for her. When she was away, he would often try to conjure her tall, lithe figure to indulge in a mock act of dalliance, but could never get much further with it. Thus frustrated time and again, he ultimately came to weigh the possibility of marrying her, but in her presence, could not breathe a single syllable on the topic.

“What is she? Why is she so courageous and confident, while I am neither?” he used to wonder.

One day, he felt touched on the raw. “Do you have any girl friend?” she looked him straight in the face.

“M, me. No, no, not at all”, he jerked out.

“Hmm” she took a deep breath, and smiled coquettishly.

“Would you like to have one?”

“Well, am not sure what to say”, he replied meekly.

 She burst into a guffaw.  “Looks that you have yet to be weaned, boy!”

Her sudden vivacity flummoxed him, as he sat there gazing at her.

“Is she trying to flirt or is it a serious attempt to seduce?” he asked himself.

Meanwhile, she got up, collected the crockery and came near him. She stood beside his chair. Her intent gaze and the intoxicating fragrance of her perfume rattled his assumed composure.

“Let’s spend this time together and have fun. Who knows how the sun goes down tomorrow?” she whispered and made for her room.

The next day, as he entered the flat at the usual hour, he felt quite weird. She had not yet come back from her work. His patience began to run thin when after making several attempts to catch a glimpse of her, on the chance that she might have tiptoed onto the premises to give him a surprise.

He waited and waited until dusk set in. Still there was no sign of her.

“Where could have she gone? Over these past several months, she has never got late even for a short while. Has she met with some accident?” lost in such thoughts, he got up to go and dine at the restaurant. While dining, he cast a quick glance all around the hall, and then forgot that he had been hungry. The breaking news that flashed on the television screen rendered him insensible to his surroundings. The police had arrested a woman on the charge of first-degree murder of an aged prayer leader. The camera was constantly zooming in on her face. He gulped incredulously still glued to the screen. No further details of the case came in.

He hurried to the flat, collected all his effects and made for the

wagon-stand.

“Who knows how the sun goes down tomorrow?” her passionate words echoed in his ears, as he bade a tearful adieu to the city for good.

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Amjad Ali Malik is a Pakistan–based writer. By profession, he is an Assistant Professor of English. The story “Before The Sun Goes Down” is his debut work.

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

Categories
Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

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

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

Categories
Tribute

Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata

She was a “pint-sized bundel of musical genius,” wrote the TIME Magazine. The melody queen of India was, they said, “a singer with moonlight in her throat.”

Dr Javed Iqbal was the former Principal and HOD (Surgery) in Qaid-e-Azam Medical College, Bahawalpur, the 11th biggest city of Pakistan. Until a week ago I knew its name only because of Bahawalpur House, the mansion of the former monarch in Delhi, which is now the National School of Drama in the Capital’s Mandi House area. But on February 6, 2022, I gained acquaintance with this surgeon courtesy Whatsap. I heard in wonder as he paid a personal tribute to the just demised Nightingale of India. And I bowed my head twice in deference to the legendary singer and then, to the doctor who, by his own admission, was no scholar of music, yet provided a unique significance of Lata Mangeshkar.

Let me translate what I heard him say in Urdu. “As you know, I’m a surgeon. And when I came to Bahawalpur, I introduced a number of new procedures which contributed to my popularity as Principal and professor. So, students came to interview me for the college magazine. They asked me, ‘Sir where did you learn such good surgery?’ I don’t know why but instantly I answered, ‘From Lata Mangeshkar.’

“The students were surprised, ‘How can that be? She’s not a surgeon! How can you master surgery from her?’ ‘Have you heard her sing?’ I asked them. ‘The way she clears the dues of each harf, every letter of the alphabet; the way she conveys the nuances of every word without erring on even a fraction of the note or messing with a beat – this is the artistry that should permeate the work of every artist. Just the way a single stroke of a painter’s brush can make the painting a masterpiece or can mar it, in the same way a single movement of the finger holding the surgeon’s scalpel, a single cut, a single stitch, a single dissection through a cautery can transform the entire operation into an exemplary art or spoil it for life.’

“Many years ago, it struck me that the way Lata Mangeshkar does justice to every inflection of her songs, should be the yardstick to measure any art. Every breath should transform your performance into the best of your ability. If you listen to any song by Lata Mangeshkar, you will realise that, if the word is written with a chhoti-ii (pronounced: ‘e’) then you will hear a short vowel; and if it is a badi-ii (pronounced: ee) you will hear a long vowel. If you hear ain you can tell that it is written with ain/ euyin and if it is the Arabic letter qaaf then you will hear the guttural sound. But at the same time not a single demand of the melody will be ignored. I’m not an expert nor a scholar of music – and in the past few years I have not been hearing her often – but I can say that this is one quality that makes her mumtaz – the Best.

“Today when she has passed away, I feel like sharing this: The reason why humans are distinct from other living creatures is that physicality is the dominant need of other animals whereas humans are driven by the combined needs of physicality, intellect, emotion and spirituality. The creature whose life revolves around physicality alone will end when Death comes. But the more a person’s intellect, emotion and spirituality contributes to his/her actions, the greater will be his/her claim on immortality. Death is inevitable, Death is mighty, but Death is only so powerful as to make the 5-feet-something Lata Mangeshkar disappear from the face of the earth. Death is not so powerful as to end her art and erase her voice and make her songs disappear. Because the Lata Mangeshkar who was a khatun, a 5-feet-something lady has passed away. But the Lata Mangeshkar who made her ‘The Lata Mangeshkar’ will never die…”

*

Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), the late Classical vocalist whose signature style refused to be bound by gharana traditions, once said that “Often people ask about Lata Mangeshkar’s place in the pantheon of Classical music. In my opinion, this question is redundant, because there can be no comparison between classical music and film songs. While serious development of notes is the constant concern of one, fast beat and fickleness or agility is the main trait of the other.”

At the other end is Nitish Bharadwaj who is still revered for his much-loved evocation of Lord Krishna in the phenomenal serial Mahabharat. The actor has been like a brother to me since he debuted on the Hindi screen with Trishagni directed by my father Nabendu Ghosh. In his homage to the legend, he said, “Since her childhood Lata Didi has lived her life in pursuit of her art, as upasana, contemplation. Her career has not been to amass wealth, it has been as upasak, a worshipper or sadhak, devotee. Which is why she has succeeded in leaving behind thousands of songs for us…”

It is a fact that Lata Mangeshkar has more recordings to her name than any singer in the world. But it is not merely the number, it is the impact of the songs that astounds the world. I will quote an unidentified fan with whom my generation can easily identify. For she writes, “As a child you woke me up with Jago Mohan pyare (Rise my child, Krishna) and lulled me to sleep with Aa ja re aa nindiya tu aaa (Come, Sleep to rest in my baby’s eyes). You made me feel good as you sang Bacche man ke sacche (Children are born pure, with heart of gold). When you sing Humko man ki shakti dena, (Give us the strength to win over our mind) you take me back to my classroom. Solah baras ki bali umar (Sixteen going on seventeen), I experienced in your voice the blossoming of my first crush. Ajeeb dastaan hai ye (What a strange story, this!) stirred the deepest chord of my heart. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai you gave voice to the abandonment of a spirit freed from bonding. And the countless times I heard Aye mere watan ke logon (Cry, O people of my land) tears flowed down my cheeks…”

Three days after Lata Mangeshkar bid adieu to sunlight, Rabindra Sarobar – close to my house in Lake Gardens – offered a unique proof of her abiding life. Let me share it in the words of Mudar Patherya, my secularist friend who initiated a revival of the lake by hosting morning concerts and inculcated pride in one’s neighbourhood by painting icons on otherwise defaced walls.

“DEAR LATA AUNTY,” he wrote on his FB wall, “this morning, for a change, we sang for you. Beginning with Allah tero naam, Ishwar  (God are your names too) – we feel you are that too. Then, we went on to Naa jeyo naa (Do not go away), Lag jaa gale (Come, hold me in your arms), Rahein na rahein hum (If I’m there or I’m gone), Piya tose (My eyes have met yours, beloved) and others. We ended with Ai mere watan ke logo

“We were a few. We took kalam, printouts of the lyrics. We read the words. Emphasised the huroof, letters of the alphabet. Sang from deep within.  

“‘Singing for you,’ we said.  

“Nobody said Wah wah, Well done. Nor kya gaaya, encore.  

“But…  

“One Sarobar walker stopped and joined us.  

“Another doing his press-ups did not rise, easing into restfulness after the fourth. 

“Rowers – members of the Rowing Club next door – came close to where we were sitting, lifted their oars and glided lazily for seconds. 

“The lady walking purposefully said ‘Wait a sec’ to her husband and stayed till the end.  

“A yogi, engaged in the specific type of controlled breathing called anulom-vilom,, dropped his fingers halfway and meditated.  

“A lady, who was a part of our audience, closed her eyes and rocked gently. 

“The surgeon who played the harmonium for us shook his head in a gentle parabola as if he’d just comprehended something new. 

“The lady with a DSLR to shoot birds capped her lens and sat down.  

“The stranger who chanced by perched himself on the durrie and asked ‘Gaaitay paari? Can I join in?’  

“Schedules were interrupted, agendas disturbed, focus distracted. 

“At the end, someone suggested something radical.  

“‘Can we have this for the whole day?’ “

*

Don’t worry dear, I would say in reply. We will — for the rest of our lives.

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Glossary

Khatun: A woman of rank

Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai: I want to live again today.

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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
Stories

Among Our People 

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Sardar Dayal Singh had lived all his life in a predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood. The cluster of Sikh families provided a feeling of warmth, making him feel safe even when the threat to life and property assumed horrific proportions. In 1984, the entire colony was converted into an impenetrable fortress, with the men and boys ready with a stockpile of soda bottles and swords, prepared to put up a brave fight against the pillaging mob. Fortunately, the area remained safe from any such orchestrated communal attack. Despite the presence of over a hundred Sikh families, it was a mystery why Kishanganj was not looted when the entire city witnessed sporadic incidents of violence against the minority community in those three days. The most plausible reason that surfaced was its distant location on the outskirts of the city. 

The Sikhs of Kishanganj gave asylum to persecuted Sardars who fled from other localities and stayed with them for several weeks before returning to their burnt homes to salvage what remained, to collect the debris, and make a fresh beginning. For Sardar Dayal Singh, it was mentally less agonising as he realised how being together with people of the same community ensured safety when the entire city was up in communal flames. 

Three decades later, after retirement from his job, Sardar Dayal Singh was not the same man who basked in the warmth of his community. A series of incidents had shaken him. All he wanted was to sell the ancestral house in Kishanganj and move into a gated community, a mixed society where he would feel safe. With the young generation relocating to foreign countries in search of a better future, those left behind in Kishanganj were small traders and pensioners.  

With rising intolerance against the minorities, the high-rise complex was the safest place for Sardar Dayal Singh who did not want to flaunt his nameplate on the door. The flat number was a safe identity on the letterbox or the initials of his name on the main door of his apartment. The upper floor apartment in a high-rise building would keep him closer to God all the time and also provide him with safety from an irate mob. He did not expect any frenzied outsider, armed with a weapon, to climb the fifteenth floor to reach his flat and hack him into pieces. 

Sardar Dayal Singh and his spouse, Charan Kaur moved into a spacious luxury apartment, equipped with Jacuzzi and Spa, with an extra-wide balcony to enjoy the sunset and a glass of whiskey. His Canada-based son was glad to hear that he had sold his ancestral house and bought a three-bedroom flat where the old couple would now get trained to accept a cosmopolitan daughter-in-law.  

Charan Kaur, fondly called Charno by her friends and relatives, did not find the new life exciting. She missed her Punjabi friends in Kishanganj. Within a few months of moving to the apartment, Charno started feeling lonely — as if she was living in a foreign country. She had to mingle with neighbours who spoke other languages she was not fluent in. While Sardar Dayal Singh was happy to adapt, Charno often complained that the gurudwara was located far away from the residential complex. She had not found a single Sardar family in the entire building with who she could interact. This was the place where she felt she was living in a minority environment but in Kishanganj, with scores of Punjabi families around, she never felt she belonged to a minority community.   

To stay connected to her roots, Charan Kaur began to listen to Punjabi music and watched Punjabi channels. Even if others spoke in Hindi or English, she replied in Punjabi, as if it was her duty to keep the language alive and in circulation inside the residential complex. When she spoke to the housemaid, the liftman, or the security guard, she used Punjabi all the time without bothering to know if they understood it or not. 

Sardar Dayal Singh noted the emergence of a communal streak in his wife. He hoped the people would not take the old lady seriously. His advice to become liberal and speak in other languages was ignored by her. She started organising a small together every weekend and invited her Punjabi friends from Kishanganj, to make her new neighbours understand that she had a robust social network of Punjabi women who would rally behind her if the situation demanded. Charan Kaur was happy to spend time with them and sometimes she went to Kishanganj to revive old memories. 

During her last visit, Charan Kaur stood in front of their ancestral house that was demolished. A new building was yet to come up, but the old mango tree stood tall in the vacant land. She told her close friends she was not happy with the decision to sell such a big house and live in a flat. She blamed Sardar Dayal Singh for the reckless decision and wiped her tears. 

On the eve of their fiftieth marriage anniversary, she invited the entire Sardar community from Kishanganj to her flat. Sardar Dayal Singh used this opportunity to influence some other retirees to move into this residential complex by selling their properties in Kishanganj, but Charan Kaur fiercely opposed his suggestion, “Never sell your house. Guru would protect all in Kishanganj even if the younger generation is away.” Turning to Sardar Dayal Singh, she asked, “Is there a place or an address where death does not come, Sardarji?” He could not reply to her in front of the guests who supported Charan Kaur on this issue.   

Gathering the courage to explain his point of view in the hope that he would not be misunderstood by his people, Sardar Dayal Singh said, “Cluster living was dangerous for a small community these days. We did not have the option of apartments then, but now with so many complexes coming up we should mix and spread everywhere, to avoid detection based on religion. Mobs do not come looking for one or two heads – they need hundreds to loot and plunder and a Sikh locality is a prime target.”

His views were diametrically opposite now and there were no supporters. His old-time friend, Sardar Jasbir Singh finally spoke his mind, “Dayal, only the fear of death does not keep us together. We are together in Kishanganj because we love to be together, for culture and bonding. It is good for mental wellbeing and mutual help. You live in a flat now, but I am sure you miss the manji (charpoy) sessions in the courtyard where we sat together and drank and discussed everything under the sun.”

 The core point Sardar Dayal Singh was making was that the safety of Sikhs was high in residential complexes. He defended his stance: “Nobody knows a Sardar family is living here. I am safe from mad mobs, but you are still facing the same threat we survived in 1984. When you have a chance now, why not spread here and there? We can still keep meeting wherever we want and keep our social connections strong.” 

Sardar Jasbir Singh responded with greater conviction, “One crazy man is enough to kill a dozen. Such mad people are there in these residential complexes as well. If something untoward happens, if Sikhs hog the headlines for the wrong reasons anywhere in the world, imagine the possibility of the liftman stabbing you in the elevator to seek revenge. Have you given this a thought?”

Sardar Dayal Singh was hit hard, and he could deny this possibility. There were many such incidents of men going berserk and opening fire, those racial attacks of stabbing and firing at point black range. 

The next morning, Sardar Dayal Singh was wary of the liftman who glared at him. There was a case of sacrilege in Punjab and a youth had been lynched. The liftman charged him while he was coming out of the lift. “Sardarji, do you think what happened in Amritsar yesterday was right? All Sikhs come together and beat a young man to death. Is this Sikh justice?”

When the security guard also joined the liftman, Sardar Dayal Singh tendered an apology and condemned the incident. The tobacco-chewing security guard sought updates from the liftman who checked his smartphone for the latest feed on this issue.  

Sardar Dayal Singh came home from the market and sought a candid opinion from his wife, “How likely is that the liftman goes mad and stabs me in the lift?”

Charan Kaur gauged something was not right but maintained her calm demeanour. Handing him a glass of water, she replied, “It is very much possible. You are wrong to think the people inside this complex will not turn into a crazy mob and attack us if the situation worsens. If a riot breaks out in the city, maybe a big mob does not get in here but two crazy people like the liftman or the gardener can open fire at us. Even if they do not kill us, they can threaten us, abuse us, make barbed comments, or torture us. Such repeated attacks will hurt sentiments and disturb our mental peace.”

Sardar Dayal Singh kept observing their behaviour in the coming days. He found nothing worth complaining to the committee. But there were undercurrents he could feel. Such behaviour or reaction based on stray incidents in a far-off place was really strange and he was not supposed to answer anything. He thought if he complained and the liftman lost his job, he could become violent and seek revenge.   

Sardar Dayal Singh reduced his daily trips downstairs. He tried to placate the liftman with smiles whenever he met him. He followed the same strategy with the security guard who made a weird statement one evening: “We thought Sardarjis are good.” Sardar Dayal singh avoided answering it but his reticence seemed to annoy the guard who waited for a reply while he stepped out of the main gate. 

Sardar Dayal Singh spoke about the simmering discontent with his son on the telephone and he advised him to keep some emergency helpline numbers ready. 

When the farmer protests started, Sardar Dayal Singh sensed a fresh series of verbal attacks. He desperately wanted Sikhs to remain out of the headlines. Just keep the culture beat alive with Bhangra and Balle-Balle and keep making sacrifices at the border to keep the nation convinced of patriotic fervour. 

Whenever the Khalistan issue was raised abroad, the domestic atmosphere got vitiated. What happened on Republic Day was indeed shameful and he felt the Sikhs were inviting trouble for no reason. Those extremist-minded groups wanted to destabilise the state by demanding a separate homeland. He felt ashamed and wrote fiery letters to the editors. He felt it was important to assert his national identity to stay safe.   

Charan Kaur wanted to visit Kartarpur in Pakistan, but Sardar Dayal could not decide. On the one side, he also wanted to visit the place where Guru Nanak lived for so many years and on the other side, he was fearful of the consequences of visiting that country.   

“If you don’t dare to go, I will go there with my friends from Kishanganj,” Charan Kaur clarified. Finding her determined, Sardar Dayal Singh agreed to join her and Kishanganj friends on this pilgrimage trip. 

After returning from Kartarpur, Sardar Dayal Singh warned his wife to keep it a secret. He urged her not to reveal where they had been to, not to any neighbour or even the housemaid. But within a couple of days, he was surprised to hear the liftman say with a grin, “Pakistan settle ka plan, Sardarji?”  

Sardar Dayal Singh was numbed to hear that. He found almost the entire complex had come to know of their visit to Pakistan. So, there was no point denying and creating further discord. To be called a spy at this age would be really humiliating for the elderly couple. 

Sardar Dayal Singh remembered that the small reaction he gave to a national TV channel reporter at the border was a blunder. Neighbours started to isolate themselves and their gnawing silence was felt by Sardar Dayal Singh and his wife. There was nothing to explain but they thought he was a Pakistan sympathiser at heart. He had just gone to pay respects to Guru Nanak. Was this modern nation not going to allow him that?

His car parked in the covered parking zone was likely to be attacked. IK Onkar sticker on the windshield was immediately removed to avoid identification. But the security guard knew it was Sardarji’s car. Sardar Dayal Singh was reminded to be careful by the liftman whenever he met him. He felt the old couple could get killed in the flat by crazy people any day.  

Charan Kaur decided to move to Kishanganj, and Sardarji supported her decision. He rented his flat to a company instead of an individual and went to stay in a rented house in Kishanganj. Although Sardar Dayal Singh faced no direct threat, he lived under the gaze of threat all the time. A lot had changed in one year. The farm laws were repealed, and the farmers returned home after several incidents of violence.  

In Kishanganj, some TV reporters came to report the reaction of the Sikhs. They were bursting crackers to celebrate victory when the reporters arrived with guns in a black SUV emblazoned with a press sticker. “You Sardars still depend on Kirpan, have some AK-47, and stay secure.” 

Sardar Dayal Singh stood in front and urged them to go back with their guns. The local Sikhs chased them away and gathered their swords and soda bottles. They did not want to launch an attack but were prepared to defend themselves. The video of Sardars with swords on the rooftops went viral and they were projected as bloodthirsty goons. While no offensive was launched, it was a clever move to lure them with guns and get their reaction. The identity of those reporters who came with guns remained unknown. It was certainly an act of mischief, and the Sikhs were trapped.  

As Republic Day was approaching, Sardar Dayal Singh wanted the community to hoist the national flag, shoot a video and post it online. They wanted Kishanganj Sikhs to be seen as patriotic and nation lovers. 

While addressing the mixed crowd of Sikhs spanning three generations, Sardar Dayal Singh thundered: “Sikhs have to stop talking of past sacrifices. They have to make new sacrifices and avoid taking credit for what their earlier generations did. With new sacrifices, we become known as real patriots and assert our love for the country…We should be the first to hoist the flag early in the morning and conduct celebratory events the whole day. The blood donation camp is the best event planned for Republic Day tomorrow. Sikhs must give their blood to save the nation and save human lives. If health permits, all Sikhs must donate blood. Instead of spilling it on the roads due to mob attack, we should donate blood.”

Sardar Jasbir Singh raised a query at this point: “Should we call it Sikh Blood Donation Camp? Or Blood Donation Camp?”  

India Republic Day parade. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Notes:

1984: Riots between Hindus & Sikhs after the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi.

‘Pakistan settle ka plan’ — You plan to settle in Pakistan, Sardarji?

.

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


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

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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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 (1939-2022)

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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