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.”

.

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.

.

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.

.

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…

.

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. 

.

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

Categories
Review

A Sagacious Tale of Oppression & Turmoil

Book Review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Two and a Half Rivers

Author: Anirudh Kala

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

.

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

Categories
Tribute

In Memory of Peace

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*.
-- Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

*Translated: "It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland."

On 11th November, we remember the men who gave up their lives to win wars for those in power. Remembrance Day started as an annual event after the First World War (28th July, 1914- 11the November, 1918) more than a hundred years ago, in memory of soldiers — some of who were lost in the battle grounds, whose remains never got back to their families. Some of these men who fought were from countries that were subservient to colonial powers who started the war and some, like the soldier-poet, Wilfred Owen, were from conquering nations.

This was much before atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually, a nuclear armistice was declared. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), an internationally acknowledged apostle of peace, had an opinion on this: “‘The very frightfulness of the atom bomb will not force non-violence on the world? If all nations are armed with the atom bomb, they will refrain from using it as it will mean absolute destruction for all concerned?’ I am of the opinion that it will not.” Has this nuclear armistice made the world more peaceful? And if so, what is the quality of peace that has been wrought by drumming fears of annihilation in human hearts? Could the ‘fakir…striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace’ be right after all?

Here we have collected a few stories and poems around ongoing conflicts and wars which stretch to the present day, some old and some new… some even written by men who faced battle…

Poetry

A poem and art by Sybil Pretious in memory of soldiers who died in the World War I.

Soldiers & Missives by Prithvijeet Sinha … Click here to read.

Our Children by Bijan Najdi, translated from Persian by Davood Jalili. Click here to read.

Prose

Line of Control by Paresh Tiwari, a story about the life of soldiers set in the Indo-Pak border… Click here to read.

I am a Coward with Priorities by Tejaswinee Roychowdhury, a story from a soldier’s perspective. Click here to read.

From the Pages of a Soldier’s Diary… by Mike Smith takes you on a journey through the pages of a colonial diary and muses on choices he has made. Click here to read.

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

In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan, an excerpt from an account by Syed Mujataba Ali, translated from Bengali by Nazes Afroz. Click here to read.

Categories
Review

Golden Bangladesh at 50: Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti


                                                                   

Title: Golden Bangladesh at 50, Contemporary Poems & Stories

Editor: Shazia Omar

 Publisher: The University Press Ltd, 2021

The title of the collection of poems and short stories under review is apt for two reasons. First, that it derives from Rabindranath Tagore’s lyric Amaar Shonar Bangla … the national anthem of the country. Second, that the book has been published in 2021, the Golden Jubilee year of the formation of Bangladesh.

The political partition of Pakistan in 1971 caused one of the greatest convulsions in the history of the subcontinent. The Bengalis of Pakistan suffered barbaric violence and bloodshed because they valued their distinctive identity above everything else and refused to submit to a harsh regime’s determination to quell and subdue it. Civil wars have been fought before but never, in the history of mankind, over a language and culture.

Interestingly, Rabindranath’s poem, too, was written as part of movement led by him against Lord Curzon’s infamous Partition of Bengal bill in 1905. The intention of the government was clear. Bengalis were waking up to a sense of nationhood and coming together through the growth and spread of the Bengali language and literature. A blow had to be struck to curb it. And what could be more effective than division based on ethnicity and religion?

The editor Shazia Omar deserves our congratulations for bringing together a vast range of voices. Some are new and unknown, some old and established and some culled from across a wide diaspora. From New York, Chicago and San Francisco. From London, Rome, Toronto and Hongkong. This anthology, to use her own words is, “a way of honouring all that we have learned, yearned for, found and let go. To give our readers a sense of who we are now.” Accordingly, itencapsulates the joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations, losses and anxieties of two generations of Bangladeshis both from home and abroad.

That partition trauma continues to shape the literature of Bangladesh is apparent from this volume. But the new enquiry has moved away from a nationalistic obsession with the horror of the event to a closer probe into people’s history through recollections of lived experience. Social, familial and personal attempts at restoration of identity seems to be the primary concern in these stories.

The contributions are all in English. The last few decades have been marked by a great deal of discourse about the decolonization of the language. In the past, much colonial creativity has felt throttled by the dominance of English as written and spoken by the ruling class. Today the fragmented pieces of the old empire are striking back with a vengeance. Each erstwhile colony has come up with its own brand of English. This book is a triumphant vindication of Binglish… tried and tested in the literature of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The volume is replete with cultural nuances. Phrases like eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi and names of seasons and festivals phagun, boishakh, agrahayan, eid, nabanno are used freely without footnotes or glossary. The writers have felt no compulsion to translate kinship terms, exclamations and natural phenomena. English has triumphantly broken its original grammatical and syntactical mode and become a hybrid — both a native and a foreign language.

The issues examined in this collection are varied. Class struggle, patriarchy, dogma, superstition, displacement, loss and reclamation of identity. The characters are culled from a wide spectrum of society. From the very rich to the very poor; from the shamelessly privileged to the shockingly deprived. Such yawning gaps, some of the writers seem to imply, are a reality in Bangladesh even in its 50th year of Independence.

 Some stories depict a polarisation of power along the lines of gender. Women are victims of exclusion and varied forms of subjugation. Some are seen as trapped in the iron fist of a feudal order. A few others, westernized and seemingly empowered, share the same fate though the mode of suppression is refined and sophisticated.

Yet, that is not always true. Many of the stories are set in the bustling metropolis of Dhaka where women from all religions, classes and persuasions roam freely. The city is seen as a place of pluralism and diversity. One senses freedom of thought and action as well as a strong sense of belonging to larger whole.

The book is a rich multi-site ethnography that spans continents and traces personal histories and movements of Bangladeshis. It is a notable addition to the literature of the diaspora in that the stories present sensitively nuanced accounts of the East West encounter. In ‘Neighbours’, Nadeem Zaman explores the dilemma of a Bangladeshi woman trying to make a life in Canada during the Liberation war. Struggling against a harsh climate and what she considers an unloving culture, she is forced to pause and reflect when she becomes friendly with her next-door neighbour. She finds his identity troubling, since he seems to combine a sensitive, warm and compassionate outlook with a violent relationship with his wife and indifference to his daughters. The Other seems embodied in paradox.

 Neeman Sobhan’s ‘Bengali Lessons’ is a poignant diaspora story stretching across space and time. Employing a seamless mix of three languages, English, Bengali and Italian, she moves her story between two worlds and timeframes. Two eras run parallel. War ridden Bangladesh of 1971 and Covid afflicted Rome of 2020. The central character, a professor teaching Bengali to a group of Italian girls on Zoom, remembers her traumatic childhood, trapped in her grandfather’s house in 1971, and finds it astonishingly similar to her present-day situation in another country and another time. It is a severed world she remembers but one in which a Muslim child saves a Hindu soldier from an excruciatingly painful death.

Another excellent examination of child psychology is contained in Fatma Ahmad’s ‘Phultokka’ . Childhood is often considered to be the happiest phase of a person’s life. That the notion is far from the truth is seen in the mental struggles, failed aspirations, jealousies and misunderstandings suffered by the intelligent and sensitive teller of the story. She is called Taalgaach (palm tree)a derogatory reference to her height and complexion, by the school bullies. Why do bullies bully? Why can’t some children, especially exceptional ones, cope with the real world and retreat into an inner one, while others have no difficulty in merging and being part of a larger whole? These are some of the questions raised in the story.

 ‘Charaiveti’ and ‘Kalpanta Sthayina’ by Lubna Mariam, derive from the ancient Hindu texts Rigveda and Hitopadesha. The first describes an undefined urge to go on a journey without a destination. Man’s existential freedom drives him towards an imagined Utopia. Keep going,” the sages say, “because life itself is the journey; an inner journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge”.

Kalpanta Sthaniyah is a Sanskrit phrase meaning enduring till the end of the Universe. A grandfather’s replies to his grandchild’s innocent question about where the river comes from and where it goes, encompass deep philosophical concepts. He speaks of beginnings and ends, past and present, old and new…flowing in an unbroken stream. A glorious merging in the free flow of time. An unending celebration of life.

I conclude with a few words on the poetry section. From the whimsical effusions of ‘Ode to a sari’ to evocations of sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel of their beloved country in ‘Daydream’ ‘Midnight blues’ and ‘For you’, the writers offer a carpet rich with colour and design, light and life. Capricious and fanciful at times, a glimpse of truth is invariably offered at the end of each poem.

 Zeesham Khan’s ‘Banglar desh’, one of the best of the collection, portrays the generosity and compassion of nature as against the callous brutality of the human race. Here is a personification of nature that is amazingly poignant, graceful and symmetrical. The world pulsates with life. Trees have flesh and blood. All organisms speak; feel pain and pleasure. An achingly immediate, hauntingly sensuous, world! The all too real river under a canopy of moon and stars. Paddy fields, bamboo shoots, wild flowers, butterflies and moths. Should not all meld together with humans to make a complete whole? But does such a whole exist in the universe? The writer thinks not. He deplores…

I have seen blissful harmony pause
To give way to aggressive survival
And humans being homo sapiens
Unencumbered by unnecessary compassion.

Glossary:

Amaar Shonar Bangla –My Golden Bengal.

eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi – what is this, my dog, or name, sweet smile

Phultokka — A game played by children. Phool means flower and tokka, touch. One child is blindfolded while others touch the youngster lightly. The blindfolded child has to guess who the person is.

Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

.

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

Categories
Stories

Do Not Go!

By Moazzam Sheikh

Pleased, beaming, yum yumming, she finished cooking pasta sauce the way he liked ‒ a bit more garlic and a dash of chilli powder ‒ and turned down the flame real low, the sauce simmering indolently. She was about to reach for a packet of flat spinach noodle to add to the boiling water when she fully realized that he wasn’t home yet. Mid-November and already dark beyond the windows, he could catch a cold, a flu, perhaps pneumonia. Touch wood, she whispered. One could trip, break wrist, hip, summoning visits to the hospital, restricted movement, crutches. A train of thought too frightening, she shook her head and cleared her throat. She set down the pasta on the countertop, unopened, reading the label mindlessly.

He went for his walk in the daylight though sometimes he did step out in the late afternoon. However, as far as she could remember he always returned before sundown. His routine she could depend on for the last two years. He must have misjudged, she shuddered, suddenly feeling hot in the kitchen. Although she breathed deep to calm her nerves, she couldn’t concentrate. The moment she tossed noodles into the water followed by a pinch of salt and half a spoon of olive oil, she regretted it. Pasta didn’t like to be left in water half-cooked. Agitation nudging her fear, she felt she’d have to turn off the stove and go out looking for him if he didn’t return in the next five minutes.

Five minutes passed and she frittered away a few more, paralyzed by indecision, when she cocked her ear to the noise of feet shuffling out in the corridor, nearing the apartment door. It turned out to be a sound conjured by hope. She snapped out, turned off the stove, and grabbing her keys and a light sweater, which Ronny had bought for her on her birthday, exited the building. Encountering the actual darkness which the onset of winter had ushered, despite the street pole lights, her heart sank further.

He could be anywhere, she inferred, and not knowing where that anywhere was, she could be walking in the opposite direction, away from him, lengthening his torment. She took a deep breath, again, and walked to the corner where her avenue intersected the busy street. From there she tried to scan the foot traffic in four directions. Her eyes traveling as deep as a block and beyond, and despite the thinness of the crowd due to the nippy winter air, she failed to spot a lost figure resembling him. She walked eastward unaware of the silent prayers her subconscious mind had been offering with little regard for her resolve throughout her adult life to not rely, as she put it many times, on the crutches of religion. She recognised it and let the prayers continue consoling her heart recalling the distinction she sometimes made between religion and spirituality. The fact that she also didn’t consider herself very spiritual, though nothing wrong with being one, amounted to very little right now. She was most concerned, at the moment, with his safety; her personal problems could wait.

A big sigh of relief! She spotted him outside Fresh Donuts, looking lost as she called out to him from across the street.

“I don’t know what happened. I just couldn’t figure out which way to go,” he explained, embarrassed.

She’d too felt like that many times, she came this close to voicing her thought, mesmerized by the doldrums, juggling personal life, work, moral obligations. As they walked home, she holding him by the arm lest he trip, he said he knew she’d be worried. The more he worried the more he lost his sense of reference. When he thought of asking a stranger for help, he shied away because he couldn’t remember the address or the cross street. He had enough sense to accept that he stood lost on Clement Street. That didn’t help much though, he laughed. She told him she was grateful and impressed he didn’t panic. Help would’ve come sooner or later. Nervous giggles escaped from their mouths as they neared the apartment. A combination of relief and premonition. At home, he went straight to the bathroom to relieve himself and heard her say that the pasta was going to be a little below his standard, not what counts for normal, a little soggy, fluffy perhaps, but the yummy sauce, she promised, would make up for it. She didn’t have to tell him about the tiny bit of rum she’d added to the sauce.

“Don’t worry, honey. Your father is hungry and will eat anything.”

She wanted to say thank god, you’re an easy eater. Not like Ammi, but she bit her tongue. When they sat down to eat, she hesitated but eventually wondered aloud if he remembered her phone number, which to her relief he rattled off without a hitch. Ah, the memory had returned. He said he’d eventually stop a passerby. She felt relieved and the food began to amble down to her stomach with more ease. The sips from her beer soothed her throat. She wished he’d share her beer, relax his strict adherence to the doctor’s advice. Perhaps another time. That night when she went to bed, her mind drifted to her brother struggling to survive in New York, in and out of rehab several times for the last couple of years. He’d already done his bit, taking care of their parents till mother died, mercifully quickly, without a whisper in her sleep. A silent heart attack, they said. Soon after her brother’s life unraveled. He couldn’t take care of father, who then faced a choice of moving back to Lahore or San Francisco.

She avoided sharing with Ronny the episode of father getting lost, but when she saw him a few days later she realized he had the right to know what’s been on her mind. Despite all the good qualities Ronny possessed as a human being, and lover, there was a cold side to him. A person is like a coin, Ronny relished using that metaphor, with two sides, at least. Where she saw his insensitivity, or impatience, towards certain things, he saw drawn boundaries, standing up for what was right, his rights, personal values, spaces, desires, likes and dislikes, cultural or personal baggage and so on. After having dated for more than a year, they were going through the process of exploring the possibility of getting hitched to each other. They both agreed they wouldn’t mind having a child or two. Her eggs were drying up. With a sense of urgency, one day Ronny did ask if she’d consider marrying him first in order to get pregnant. Though he was far from being Mr. Perfect, she’d already weighed the pros and cons of living with her boyfriend Ronald Ngyuen. Their plans got disrupted when Mr. Bhutta — that’s how Ronny preferred to address her father instead of by first name ‒ was brought by her to live in San Francisco. Despite old age, her father would’ve liked to live near his son. Even if that meant moving into a facility for elderly living. He also suggested moving back to Lahore. Neither choice was practical when emotional and economic reasons were taken into consideration.

Kausar initially cheered up to the idea of having father around. His liberal, open-minded side had pleasantly surprised her when he indicated that he considered his children adult now and the fact that they weren’t living in Pakistan anymore, his son and daughter had all the right to lead their lives without any pressure from the parents. Her mother turned out to be a bit more conservative than the children had realised, but she too sided with her husband’s wisdom. The couple tried their best to warm up to whoever their children were dating in college, and when a new partner showed up, they accepted him or her. There was a brief period, before the mother passed away, when the parents wondered if the mess their son had found himself in was, in fact, something do with their hands-off attitude once he went to college. But in their defense, they argued, Why, then, had Kausar turned out fine?

He went missing again. That time she couldn’t find him anywhere in the neighborhood. Blocking off a deep sense of foreboding, she called Ronny, busy assisting with the mounting of his photographs for an exhibition.

“I’d call police,” he suggested coldly. “They’ll spot him soon wandering around, lost.”

“I wondered if you were on your way, we could drive around in your car and look for him,” she said calmly, stifling her panic.

She knew he couldn’t come just like that. His suggestion made sense. Yet her fingers froze recalling the incident, was it somewhere in New Jersey? A cop seriously injured an elderly Indian man on a neighborhood stroll. He’d been visiting his son to help babysit his year-old grandson. A woman called the police about a suspicious looking man wandering around her neighborhood. The man from India, short and effeminate looking, in his mid-fifties, wearing glasses with thick lenses, did not speak English, only Hindi and Gujrati, was admiring neat looking cookie cutter suburban houses, their large fronts, mowed lawns, trimmed hedges. The already irritated cop lost his patience and slammed the visitor to the floor, paralyzing him forever. The jury, comprising of majority of white men, acquitted the cop because the man who’d come to help his son and daughter-in-law had ‒ the defense attorney pointed out ‒ committed a misdemeanor by leaving the house without identification papers. It made sense to people defending the cop. Don’t frustrate a cop; it doesn’t matter whether you pose a threat or not. The burden of failure to communicate is on you. She shook her head. She only hoped the San Francisco cops had more humanity and better training. Tonight!

In the end she dialed 911. Yes, an older man matching his name and description had been reported lost and an ambulance had taken him to General Hospital. Ronny had to stop everything and drive her to the hospital’s emergency ward. Thank god, he’s okay. He smiled sheepishly, his guilty smile although it wasn’t his fault. The old man had blanked out and made the mistake of approaching a passerby, who, unable to help and make father remember Kausar’s address, or phone number, had taken upon himself to call the ambulance. As per their procedure, by law, they had to run all kinds of tests now, check his vitals, to make sure he was fit to leave. It’s going to take a couple of hours. A senior nurse told her she’d have to be patient. Ronny had to return to help with the exhibition but would come back soon to take them home.

“What happened, Abba?” she asked, patting his hand, consoling a worried, defeated father.

She dreaded the moment she would have to contemplate the possibility of dementia snatching him from her. The fact that he actually stood right below her flat but couldn’t recognise it left Kauser stunned. What is he going to forget next? she wondered. As melancholy crept in, she tried to fight it off with positive thoughts. She was going to do everything in her power to make sure he didn’t succumb to the cruel malady without a fight. She admitted she could never have imagined it’d come knocking on her door so soon. She made up her mind to read up on the latest research, borrow or buy books on physical and mental exercises, and foods that help keep memory strong. She wouldn’t let him forget his wife and children’s names.

He didn’t forget their names or the names of his friends, past neighbors, even colleagues. As days went by, she felt relieved seeing him settle down a bit while accepting that he couldn’t venture out alone anymore. He’d never been the stubborn type. He could be feisty but not of late. She relied on Ron and one of her neighbors Doug to give company to her father when she had to go out. Thankfully, she could do most of her work from home. Both Ron and Doug enjoyed conversations with him on topics of mutual interest, especially foreign policy and history. Father’s humility impressed Doug, who besides having a crush on Kauser which he’d hinted at a few times, studied History with a minor in International Relations at Kent, Ohio State. On and off, he’d been reshaping the old man’s worldview crystalized by what he called Eurocentric education, although her father considered himself a political person, having taken part in ending General Ayub’s reign. Even when Bhutto was hanged, he openly criticized the military takeover under General Zia, right around when she left Pakistan. It’s a miracle that he didn’t lose his job at the Mayo Hospital.

“It’s the rigor, intensive studying at medical schools which kill critical analysis among most doctors. It decimates nuanced thinking. Otherwise, they’re very intelligent people,” Doug once said to her after he’d finished a long conversation with father on the topic of African countries and their independence from European powers. Ron and Doug, on the other hand, tolerated each other courteously. Doug saw Ron as a typical Vietnamese American unable to criticize America openly lest someone accused him of ungratefulness. Or worst still, telling him to go back to Vietnam! He found Ron’s critique of modern society, by which Ron meant modern western society, inadequate through his photography. Ron was content with what he’d been doing for the last several years, visiting Vietnamese seniors all over the country, photographing them in black and white, their faces, creased and ageless, eyes nostalgic and confused, capturing the front of their homes and apartments, the interior where east and west adjusted around each other. True, he avoided asking overt political questions, he still considered his work political. Kauser agreed with both.

Without appearing to be overt, Kauser played mind games with Father to see if he forgot important names. She asked him about their childhood, his childhood, when he first saw Ammi-jan, whether he remembered his grandparents, his neighborhood in Ludhiana before Partition. To her surprise his memory was crystal clear. She began to breathe a sigh of relief. What a scare he gave her! She’d hate to part with him, send him to a nursing home or back to live with one of her cousins. Better to be at the mercy of your own children, she insisted, however spoiled they might be, than the nurses or distant relatives.

“But what about your life, Kay?” asked Ronnie rhetorically one afternoon as they sat at a sidewalk table of a bar for happy hours near her apartment. She had set Mr. Bhutta up with munchies and a clean print of a classic of early Hindi cinema which she’d found on Youtube. One certain way to tie him down for two hours, she smiled sadly.

“What about it?” she asked, puzzled.

“I thought we were supposed to try living together . . .”

She picked up where he trailed off, “Get married,” she paused, sighed, “and make a go at having a child.”

Was she smirking or smiling? She couldn’t tell because her face had quickly reverted to appearing placid. Then as she took a sip of her drink, her forehead furrowed a bit.

“Kay, I know you have a lot on your mind and it’s affecting your work,” he waited for her to interrupt him, but she just looked away, far to the end of the block milling with neighbors out shopping. “But I am not sure what your plan is.”

“Plans about what, babe?” she asked without irritation.

“Oh, forget it!” he said, pretending to relax. “This is not the time.”

She fixed him with a stare. He dared her. Her face softened, a crease appearing around the side of her mouth. A beautiful woman, he thought. Still, he didn’t smile back.

“Are you quitting on me, sweetie?”

“No!” he replied. “I’m afraid I might lose you.”

She was tempted to ask how? Instead, she opted for silence. She knew the answer. Both Ronny and she had small apartments, and with rents the way they were, they couldn’t afford to quit their rent-control apartments and risk eviction. She hated to see her father as a burden or a barrier to her happiness. When he looked at her again, she nodded gently, conveying that she understood his apprehension. She placed her hand on his, then squeezed it.

“Me too. We have to trust,” she said.

As they walked back to Kausar’s apartment, they held each other close, her head nudging into his chest despite they almost tripped a few times when their legs bumped into each other. Yet they persisted, mimicking an image from a movie most likely, ignoring the awkwardness his short height had produced, bravely laughing it off. They kissed, outside the building, under the faint glow of streetlights, her ajar eyes catching an anti-Trump sign in a neighboring window.

“I’ll come over soon as he falls asleep,” she said. 

She heard him puttering around in the kitchen when she entered. Had the movie ended? She called out, asking if he needed help with something, as she took off her shoes. He emerged, smiling nervously, like a child caught rummaging through kitchen closets looking for cookies and candies.

“How was the film?” she asked.

“I’d seen it before but had forgotten it. One of Dilip’s best I think,” he said. “His acting so subtle, so controlled.”

“So you enjoyed it. That’s good.”

The screen had been turned off. The plates were still there which she collected now. Only when she went to the kitchen did she notice one of his shirts slung across his shoulders. Was he thinking of changing into a clean shirt? A dress shirt? She observed him quietly. He stood in the living room for a long moment, then turned to the wall and took a step. She couldn’t see him, so she left the kitchen and hid herself from him, beside the door. He was looking at the calendar. She’d forgotten to change the month. Did he know it was the wrong month?

“Why do you have that shirt on your shoulder?” she asked casually.

He noticed the shirt, surprised, held it, examined it, still puzzled, then looked at Kauser for an answer, smiling vulnerably. “Did you put it here?”

“Me? Abba, why would I? You must have done it.”

“Why would I do it? You’re crazy,” he mocked her and put the shirt down on a chair.

She called Ronny a little later and made up an excuse about feeling a little ill. Could be a cold, no, not a flu, she hoped, but rest was probably the best option. He said, okay, he too was feeling tired and ready to hit the sack.

A few days later when she returned from Ronny’s place a little after one in the morning, he was gently snoring away. Relieved, she decided to take a quick shower. His snores had stopped. She changed into her pajamas and crawled under her duvet covers. She’d hoped to fall asleep right away, after a nice time with Ronny, but found herself tossing and turning, questioning if it was the absence of his snores that disquieted her. She zoned out briefly before becoming fully awake. She got out and tiptoed to his room only to be shocked to notice the blanket pushed aside. Not in bed. When did he get up? Is he in the kitchen or living room? Both rooms were unlit, though her eyes by now had adjusted to the dark.

“Abba?” but no response came.

Did he collapse? She rushed through the apartment switching on the lights. He was nowhere. And then she noted the unlocked front door. She almost fainted. It was ten after three in the morning. Oh god! she cried. She chided herself instantly as she recognized her first impulse was to call Ronny.

Standing at the corner, she looked as far as her eyes could see, north, south, east, west, deserted streets with shuttered down shops, a sprinkle of cars parked on either side of the streets. She felt paralyzed. Too scared to cover the neighborhood territory on her own at this time of night. An uncanny fear, a sense of embarrassment, made her resist calling police. What if they arrest her for elderly negligence! What could she have done to stop him from sneaking out like this? Tears began to roll out of her eyes. Who could she wake for help? She dialed her brother’s number with unsteady fingers. It rang and rang with no possibility of leaving a message. Unawares, she shouted into the phone, “Come on, for god’s sake, pick up the phone! Abba’s missing! Again!” She cursed a few times before hanging up.

Taking a deep breath, she dialed 911. A professional, sympathetic voice came on. She was about to offer Father’s description after a standard drill of questions when she heard the front door in her building’s portico opening. She was startled to see Doug and her voice faltered.

“Kay, your father is with me,” he said.

“What? . . . Wait. Officer, I think my neighbor has found him . . . Thank you,” and as she hung up, she asked Doug, “How the hell did he . . .” and she burst out crying.

Doug walked up and held her, escorting her back into the building.

“I’m so afraid of him getting hurt,” she explained through sobs.

“He’s back at your place,” he said. “Lights were on in every room, and I knew you’d gone looking for him. You can always wake me up.”

She thanked him before finding her own balance with her feet searching for the stairs. He followed her down the corridor.

She stopped. “What did he say?”

“I heard the knock. Honestly, I was worried,” he giggled. “I opened the door and there he was, standing, looking confused. He almost didn’t recognise me when I said, ‘What’s wrong Anjum?’ Instead, he said he was hungry.”

“Just three doors down he lost his bearing?” she marveled aloud.

She knew from his expression that the fear in her eyes was clearly discernible. She tried to soften the tension on her face. They now stood outside her apartment, momentarily, lost for words.

“You should get some sleep, Doug,” she said.

“I won’t be able to. I’ll be up if you need me,” he replied before turning.

“I won’t be either,” she paused. “You’re welcome to come in if you like.”

“You sure?”

She nodded before pushing the door. She could hear his snores. Instead of calming her down, the sound made her furious.

Kauser didn’t bring up her father’s encroaching dementia, only found it ironic, when Ronny began talking about his exhibition of photographs of the Vietnamese American diaspora. He found the population of elders divided into half and half, those who had somehow managed to live with or nearby their children and those who either lived alone or in nursing homes.

“I plan on visiting Vietnam after the reception. You wanna come with me?”

Insensitive! was her first reaction, but she rebuked herself for focusing on the negative.

“Is it to see your father?” she asked. “I hope he’s not ill.”

“No, he’s very fit. I just want to visit, not particularly him, but he’ll be there of course. I want to surprise him.”

“You know I can’t. I have to sort out . . .”  she said.

Two weeks passed without an incident, except that once or twice he mixed up Kauser with his wife and his sister. It could be dementia, or it could be just old age. She, too, once called Ronny by her ex’s name John, the bread maker, always called him Johnny, never John.

Ronny flew to Vietnam for a month but left the idea of extending his stay open. Kauser understood now more than ever. He’d mentioned it before, though always wavering, afraid of encountering a father who, after defecting to the North, had abandoned him and his mother, who had no choice but to rely, as she put it, on the help provided by her brother employed by the Americans.

When Ronny, a year old, got sick, and was taken to the hospital, his mother and Ronny were eventually taken care of by an American soldier, a nurse until the Fall of Saigon. Thereafter, they continued with the American. The two younger sisters born in Cotati, California, lived together as a family. That was why it was always difficult to watch Vietnam War movies which portrayed all South Vietnamese women as whores for the pleasure of American soldiers, Ronny had explained it to Kauser and others. Dylan, Ronny’s stepdad died young from heart trouble, overweight, diabetes, and failed kidneys. It was more from grief that his mother, Ronny alleged, cursed Dylan for things which didn’t make sense to him or his sisters, having moved away to different colleges. One of the sisters, the elder, said that Dylan’s death was caused by his memories of American War in Vietnam. Kauser had met the mother and sisters several times and liked them very much, enjoyed getting together with them in Cotati, despite her dislike for similar places, over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Dylan was more a Buddhist, than Presbytarian,” intoned Ronny’s mother.

The sisters grew up more or less atheists, even before they moved to Cal, two years apart.

Kauser’s brother had promised to visit soon, said he’d been going clean and things were starting to work out on his end. There was something about the whole conversation which failed to convince her of a probable happy ending. After speaking with him she’d weep a bit. What is he thinking? she wondered. Is he going to take father off her hands? Abba was also becoming less and less conversant, even forgetting the fact that he’d just been fed, getting annoyed or angry that Kauser was depriving him of food.

“That’s elder abuse, Kauser!” he admonished her weakly.

She couldn’t stop laughing and hugged him tight, fearing she was losing her grip on him. She saw him one mid-morning sitting by the window, staring at the foot traffic, and heard a voice in her head whisper, “He’s gone!” She couldn’t help but shout, “Don’t leave me, father!”

He turned and, as if feeling caught, defended himself, “I am not going anywhere. What made you think so?” he pleaded rather than demanded.

Then she heard her own voice in the realm of silence, “No, you are. Abba, you’re already gone,” walking away.

Suddenly, her friend Miriam was back from traveling and offered to help out with being around her father when Kauser needed to step out for work. Doug was there too. Thanks to her supervisor, she could accomplish most of her work from home. Her brother had to postpone his visit for personal reasons, as he said with an added stress, not because of medical reasons.

“I understand. But I need you to sort this out before something happens,” she told him over the phone and regretted it.

In reply, she heard a sigh. She knew once off the phone, he’d weep too. Perhaps she could think about moving there, but the rent situation was untenable.

“I can’t find him, Kay,” he laughed a sarcastic laugh. “They say he just disappeared one day about six months ago.” She was speaking to Ronnie.

She failed to detect any pain in his voice.

“Oh my god!” she cried sympathetically. “What are you going to do? How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know. I have looked around at all the possible suspect places. I can’t do much.”

“Are you taking care of yourself?”

“Yes, I am. How about you?”
 “I’m okay. Are you coming back then?” she asked.

There was a silence that seemed to linger a tad too long.

“Hello?”

“I’m still here,” he paused again. “I think I’m going to stick around a little longer.”

“I see.”

“There’s this guy, a very good photographer; he wants to do a joint project. About the war,” he explained.

She felt terrible, deflated after hanging up. It turned out to be a wise decision to go out on a stroll with her father. They grabbed fresh spring rolls and sesame balls and ate them in the park watching kids run around the play structure, kicking sand, shrieking, tripping, crying.

“You were like him,” he pointed to a little boy who seemed to burst with energy. “Maqsood was the opposite.”

“You mean Qasim!” she corrected him.

“Yes, Qasim,” he seemed startled. “Who’s Maqsood?” he added before he broke down, weeping.

She didn’t comfort him, simply watched him; just let him be, she reasoned. Perhaps that’s all that was needed to cure his dementia! He stopped soon, raised his head ‒ a complete absence of tears. As if he forgot he’d just wept a minute ago. The food preoccupied him now. She struck up light conversation now and then, but she really wasn’t in the mood. Her thoughts wandered. She needed to be in control of her thoughts or else she wouldn’t survive. The way things were, she told herself, she wouldn’t. She saw herself succumbing to mild depression. Or it is anxiety? she asked. She must preoccupy herself with chores to stop bleak thoughts from entering her head. She saw herself walking out of the park to 19th Avenue which turns into a freeway to Golden Gate Bridge, her thumb sticking up offering herself to be hitchhiked to never come back. His, “Look at that brat,” chuckling, brought her back from her reverie.

Next time they spoke she couldn’t share Ronny’s excitement over his trips into the countryside collecting material for his project.

“There are so many stories here to be told,” he said excitedly.

He went on and on. A method of deflection.

“I am reaching a breaking point,” she said.

“Babe, tell Qasim to come and help out,” Ronny advised.

“He’s coming,” she lied. “I’m just tired.”

The real reason Ronny went to Vietnam was to distance himself from her personal problem, she was convinced. Her father’s health had started to affect her work now, not to mention her personal life. Abba’s doctor had brought up the subject of looking into the possibility of admitting him to a senior facility such as Laguna Honda. It sent shivers down her spine. There would be no way to know if the staff abused him. She imagined forgetting to visit, spacing out, forgetting him. Or worst, he not recognising her. Although she let it sink in, those hard choices had to be made, she wished she could just take him to Pakistan, where relatives and neighbours still stepped in. There was no one she could now rely on, she mourned. Abba had not stayed in touch with anyone because he got tired of helping out for his children worked in the US. He also encouraged the children to not stay in touch with their cousins. And now she was on her own. Just last week she overslept and missed an important meeting. Last night, she had to decline an invitation to Sheila’s baby shower, and she already knew, unless she could get Doug or Miriam to be with Abba, she wouldn’t be able to go to Ajit’s party. An old news item resurfaced in her mind, about a middle-aged Indian immigrant in Foster City hitting his eighty-year-old, wheel-chaired father on the head with a hammer, not with the intension of killing him but so, he mistakenly believed, he could be admitted to a nursing home; he couldn’t look after the old man alone. Sick! She shook off the thought. How people could stoop so low in difficult circumstances, she cried silently.

Qasim was back in rehab. His estranged wife, Laurie, called to tell Kauser that she and her kids have washed their hands off. Narcissism, she said, was at the root of all his problems and now no one could help him, let alone expecting help from him. When Laurie enquired about Anjum, Kauser told her how he’d tried to sneak out again. “Thank god, he couldn’t unlatch the door from inside, and the noise alerted me. I can’t even go to the bathroom!” Kauser pretended to laugh. Laurie understood as only another woman could, relating to her own situation while taking care of two very demanding children without her husband. Laurie said she wished she lived nearby. That sentiment touched Kauser deeply. She didn’t want to worry her sister-in-law too much by telling her that his appetite had also dipped. Should she end father’s misery by suffocating him with a pillow? She thought of shocking Laurie but ended up feeling awful.

That night Kauser snapped at her father for the first time in her recent memory when he began about his father serving in the Indian British army on the African front. She told him curtly to stop beating the dead horse. He was taken aback and gave her a look of deep hurt. She felt remorse but allowed that feeling to be overtaken by a surging wave of melancholy. It also didn’t help that Doug and Miriam had hit it off while having dinner at Kauser’s apartment with Miriam going gaga over a dish brought by Doug. Doug knew Ronny wasn’t coming back anytime soon, then, why, Kauser wondered, hadn’t he made a move? She believed she’d given enough hints. Unconsciously, she blamed her father for this snub. Doug, too, had quietly moved on.

She opened a bottle of wine, thinking, bizarrely, of previous lovers and sat down by the window after tuning the radio to a jazz station. A trumpet seemed to be searching, frantically, for the bluest note possible. But only succeeding in finding a red, blazing hot one. She was on her second glass. The music changed. Then on her third glass, she contemplated the sun lowering itself behind trees and rooftops and actually dropping dead, unleashing a snowstorm. She felt an obscure rage darting in and out of her body.

She wondered, worried, though absent-mindedly, if she was on her fifth or sixth glass when she saw the world around her beginning to spin. She knew better not to get up. Just sit there and follow the movements of the shadows she could vaguely discern, pale ghosts tiptoeing across the hardwood floor of the rooms, faces contorted while smiling and angry making a go at grabbing her attention to say something frivolous or important, cackling and some shouting, a few mocking her, one even sticking its tongue out at her. Sitting at the bottom of a sea of stupor a shadow emerged from one room and dissolved beyond the door frame. A click of the doorknob eventually beyond the water ripples pricked up her ears, only mildly, but her body sank back into the chair of its own volition, drained of the will to assert itself. She thought she heard, as she took another sip, her own voice utter the words Do not go . . . into the night! But the memory of her own sound dissolved slowly.

.

Moazzam Sheikh is the author of The Idol Lover and Other Stories and Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He has translated across Urdu, Punjabi and English, notably the fiction of Naiyer Masud, Intizar Husain, Ikramullah and Nadir Ali. He is also noted for being the editor of A Letter From India: Contemporary Pakistani Short Stories (Penguin, India) and Chicago Quarterly Review’s special number on South Asian American Issue (2017). He is a librarian in San Francisco and lives with his wife and two sons.

.

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

Categories
Musings of a Copywriter

2147 without Borders

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Almost five years ago, I wrote a short story about India-Pakistan ties. Since then, I wanted to expand it to a full-length novel set in the future – as far as 2147. With two hundred years being sufficient time to regret the misdeeds, to provide the required distance to view things dispassionately.   

Since future gives the freedom to create a destiny of one’s choice, without offending the sentiments of those living in the present times, I chose a different timeline away from the reach of divisive politics, hoping that the readers belonging to the unborn generations will be blessed with the maturity to realise the blunders of the past and support the amicable rectification of what went wrong, without resorting to any blame-game, without repeating the horrors of the Partition.

The strain of thought came from an oral narrative I heard from my mother years ago. My maternal grandfather, an employee with the railways, quit his job and sought refuge in music after the Partition, devoting his remaining years to the playing of musical instruments and singing of devotional songs, to calm his mind, to forget the scenes of bloodshed he had witnessed all around. It was easy to visualise its dreadful impact even on those who did not suffer physical injuries or lose their loved ones.  

Two lovers from ruling political dynasties on both sides of the border begin their campus romance at a foreign university located in a country that split their homeland centuries ago. Two leading characters who pledge to rewrite history and make their love win hearts of the nations at loggerheads. In the creative process, I drew strength from the fact that a hateful phase of five years led to the division of the two countries so it was possible to reverse that with a similar period of sublime love. A brief outline of their intense love story mapped their marital union and the reunification of the two countries happening on the same day. A grand climax heralding a new dawn – a new tryst with destiny.

Instead of divulging the plot, I let readers imagine the trajectory of events. The changes they undergo to bring about the change of heart, the hardships their love story has to face. After 200 years of separation, hatred and bitterness lose the game. The vicious cycle ends. Love triumphs. Honestly speaking, the imaginary world is no less difficult to construct.

Shaping the real world is a humongous task. The military establishment poses hurdles and the powerful nations with vested interests oppose the coming together. There are conspiracies, assassination bids, and foul attempts to stoke communal fires. But this time, the masses are wiser and the political classes cannot divide and rule. The young lovers persuade their belligerent families to make it a bilateral issue and seek public opinion through voting on this issue in their respective countries, with an overwhelming majority on both sides voting in favour of a borderless world, allowing free movement of people and the restoration of full democratic rights without any discrimination. Mutual love and respect bring lovers together and their grand union is celebrated across the borders with pomp and festivity. The spontaneous outburst of emotions sets a global example of how love can conquer hearts of millions, making it appear as if bitterness and enmity never existed. 

Sharing the rubric with some friends who also dream of a new world without borders elicited positive response, a go-ahead to spend years in isolation writing this magnum opus. The support from people indicates this should happen but they do not know how this is going to happen. The idea of love and lovers doing it sounds impossible and they find it pretty immature to expect so much from love. Well, they have seen the power of hatred and violence in wars but the power of love has not been tested on such a big scale. They think big changes happen through bloodshed and not because of love.

I cannot convincingly explain in detail that the people after another century will have to nothing worse to imagine, no solution to expect from war and bloodshed. With such a bloody past behind, they will be aware that it cannot get any worse. They will be fully prepared to reject all forms of hatred. The living folks still have reserves of bitterness and hatred lying in the core. The next hundred years will deplete it further, leaving faint traces. It will be learning through self-realisation that the present generation does not have. It is the reason why they cannot imagine a different world. The future generations – who record more suffering than us over the century – will be dead against enmity and war. They will be naturally inclined to give love and a peace a chance to restore sanity.  

If I write this today, the educated classes will love it. But the masses are perhaps going to find it funny. Writing a book with unborn readers in mind – a target audience that does not exist today – is a risky proposition. Agreed, it is a concept driven work that imagines an ideal world where the old order gets restored. If people do not like to read it, make an offbeat film on this subject. Viewers will find the sheer impossibility very exciting. Raising this issue and bringing it in the public domain is a good beginning. People will think of it from a fresh angle. Lovers from both sides of Punjab will be enamoured and they will crave for its realisation during their lifetime. The power blocks on both sides of the border will also think of lovers ending their hatred.  

Some friends have read the opening chapter and they all suggest I should advance the date. Make it 2047 instead of 2147. I said this is an embryonic idea and it is impossible even for a writer to imagine a drastic change so quickly. A distant era makes me more comfortable to visualise cycling all the way from Amritsar to Lahore.   

.

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

Restless Stirrings

As we stand on the threshold of a new normal that will eternally rewrite the history of social interactions, of movements across the globe, of new world orders that will have to be more inclusive and more transparent to world view, we will, perhaps, feel the need to redefine business laws so that even countries with lesser wealth are able to access vaccinations and peace. We are now looking  up to leaderships which seem to be in crises themselves. Sitting securely on a tiny island that is well governed, an island where affluence and well-being set it adrift from the turmoils of countries around it, I wonder thirty years from now, what will mankind be like…  Will we be forever marred by the current events of the world? Globalisation has ensured that none of us can be secure on any secret island. There can be no land of lotus eaters hidden from the rest of mankind and accessed by only a few anymore. Even if one region is affected by the virus in any corner of the world, can the rest of the world be pandemic free? Perhaps, a question that those who peddle in vaccines and human well-being can address.

These issues have not only been highlighted by the news media but have also found echoes in some of our content this time. Keith Lyons’s essay talks of his last stay in India, when a tourist carried the  the pandemic  unwittingly into Kerala in February 2020 and subsequent repercussions. More stories and poems that dwell on the spread of the virus this year cry out for compassion. One hopes young poet Ruchi Acharya’s verses are born true.

One day the roses of hope will grow
Meeting the horizon,
Roses that, even plucked, will not die
But will bloom and bloom
Every single day that passes by.

We have young writers on the virulence of the virus and mature pens like that of globe-trotting academic Wendy Jones Nakanishi, who maps the pandemic from UK. Perhaps, we will find a new direction eventually.

There have been calls for uniting above divides as a single unit called mankind earlier too, from greats like Tagore and Nazrul. This time we carry translations of both — Nazrul’s translated poem calls for uniting against artificial divides drawn by man-made constructs and Tagore’s translation talks of redefining through self-reflection. An essay on Tagore by academic Parineet Jaggi talks of the impact of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, on Tagore.

We have essays on writers and icons from around the globe. A photo-essay on the bald eagle, heralding the American Independence Day on the 4th of July, gives a humorous anecdote on how the eagle was chosen above the turkey. We have more variety by Candice Louisa Daquin, an immigrant in US, who shows how important human movement across man-made borders is to the development of a country. Michael Burch has given us beautiful poetry reflecting the history of America and American dreams, one of them with the voice of the legendary Mohammed Ali. These verses add substance to the concerns raised by Daquin. Jared Carter brings to us the colours of life with his poetry.

We have humour in verses from Rhys Hughes and even from a young poet, Sutputra Radheye. Limericks from Michael Burch and Penny Wilkes photo-poetry on ‘Changing Seasons’ puts us in a more cheerful mood.  More poetry from multiple writers across the world, including Nepal, Macedonia and Korea, have found their way into our journal.

Hughes has also given us a comprehensive and interesting essay on a twentieth century poet called Ivor Cutler, who said much as he sang his poetry and was encouraged by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. The brilliant poetry of Akbar Barakzai continues translated on our pages by Fazal Baloch and one must give many thanks to the translator for his indefatigable energy and for bringing us wonderful fare from Balochistan. An excerpt translated by eminent journalist Ratnottama Sengupta from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography ends with Satyajit Ray’s starting his famed career with Apu’s triology (based on Pather Panchali, a novel by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay). These three films have become iconic in cinema history.

We were fortunate to have Professor Fakrul Alam agree to an interview. An eminent translator, critic and academic who has lived through the inception of Bangladesh from East Bengal, Alam has translated not just the three greats of Bengal (Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda) but also multiple political leaders like Mujibur Rahman. In this exclusive, he has taken us through the annals of history, reflecting on less-known perspectives of the Partition. Also, in conversation with Borderless, is Arindam Roy, a journalist with forty years’ experience and the founder of Different Truths who started his writing career, much in the tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac on a humorous note.

This time our backpacking granny, Sybil Pretious, gives us a glimpse of her wisdom, wit and compassion while visiting Philippines and talks of an ancient death ritual, volcanoes and strange mud baths. Devraj Singh Kalsi explores young romance in his tongue-in-cheek fashion. We also have more semi-humorous musings from young writers across borders. While Sunil Sharma has explored facets of the impact of terrorism, the other stories are told in a lighter vein.

Our book excerpt from Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right has a picture of the young artiste in a discotheque dancing in abandon — check it out. It made me smile. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Jnanpith Award winner Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness translated by Niyati Bafna. The book review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Neelima Dalmia Adhar’s The Secret Diary of Kasturba brings out an interesting facet on Gandhi and women in the Independence movement. It makes one notice the contrasts in the perspectives of Gandhi and Tagore, who created women like he saw around him in fiction. Kasturba’s life also contrasts with the independence found in the life of the avant-garde artist, Amrita Sher-Gil, who lived around the same time. In an essay, Bhaskar Parichha has shown how Sher-Gil lived out her dreams, blending the best of the East and West, while Malhotra writes, that though “Gandhi called women to join the national movement … he was not seeking to emancipate, but more to call forth their capacity for self-abnegation and self-sacrifice.”

Parichha has also introduced us to the need for changes in the banking sector in India while reviewing Transformational Leadership in Banking edited by Anil K. Khandelwal. Perhaps these will be part of the changes that will ultimately lead to a revision of old systems and the start of new ones. Changes, though not always welcomed or convenient, hopefully will lead to progress that can mould our future into a happier one. Restless stirrings transformed mankind from cave dwellers to an intelligent race that can assimilate nature and technology to survive and dream of a future, living among stars.

As Borderless reaches out to unite mankind transcending artificial constructs, its attempts can bear fruit only with support from each and every one of you. I would like to thank all our editorial team for their wonderful support, contributors for being the backbone of our content, and all our readers for continuing to patronise us.

Do take a look at our current issue for the writers who remain unmentioned here but create phenomenal bridges towards a borderless world.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Categories
Index

Celebrating Nazrul’s Anniversary

Born in united Bengal, long before the Partition, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was known as the  Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. His birth anniversary is observed on 25th May in Bangladesh and on 25th or 26th May in Tripura, India. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs. He was charged with sedition by the British for his fiery writing and jailed repeatedly.

We celebrate his anniversary with powerful translations of his prose and poetry. May his works help us move towards a better and more enlightened, borderless world as envisioned by him.

Temples and Mosques

Kazi Nazrul Islam’s fiery essay translated by Sohana Manzoor. Click here to read.

Purify My Life

Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poem, Purify my Life, translated by Shahriyer Hossain Shetu. Click here to read.

Categories
Poetry

Stories Left Unspoken: Auschwitz & Partition Survivors

By Cinna, the poet

Courtesy: Wiki
 
 
 
  
 Danka’s Poem
  
 It was at the Gates of Auschwitz. 
 Or was it Auschwitz? I’m not sure. 
 I said I was nine years old.
 My brother said I was ten.
  
 When I went to have my number erased
 The doctor got angry: You should be proud of it. 
 I don’t remember my number now.
 John once wrote it down somewhere.
  
 A man in Holland discovered some papers. 
 I was the first out of Belsen-Bergen. 
 That’s how I came to know my age.
 I was in Auschwitz only three days.
  
  
 Włodka’s War
  
 She was in the Warsaw Ghetto 
    and someone got her out 
       over the wall.
   But she lost her shoes.
  
 They led her to a Polish village 
    where a Catholic family 
       took her in.
   But she had no shoes.
  
 Russian soldiers liberated the village, 
    sang and danced and 
       asked for food. 
   But she had no shoes.
  
 Someone came, took her 
    to a room in town.
 But she couldn’t go out 
    for she had no shoes.
  
 And there her father found her.
  
  
 The Partition of India
  
 The neighbours were good to our family, 
 Grandpa tells me, 
 though of course we had to leave the house 
 and everything that was in it.
  
 There wasn’t any trouble along the way 
 that Grandpa can remember,
 though a lot of people were travelling 
 and in a hurry.
  
 Of all the terrible things that happened 
 at that time
 nobody says anything,
 they do not talk about it at all.
  
 What Grandpa does remember is 
 wherever they went
 people came out in the streets 
 and gave them ludoos*.
 He never ate so many in his life.
  
  
 A child’s vision? Songs of Innocence? Bland optimism?  

*ludoos — Indian sweets

Cinna, the poet or John Drew has been a university teacher on both sides of the Himalaya and of the Atlantic.

First published in Points of Departure (CPW Eds, 2017)

.

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