Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  
  
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
‘Beauty is Truth’ : The Potato Eaters(1885) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons

What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour.  If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume (1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.

 Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.

The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.

We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.

In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”

Aruna Chakravarti’s review of Shazia Omar’s Golden Bangladesh at Fifty also stands out embracing the colours of Bengal. It traces the title back to history and their national anthem — a Tagore song called ‘Amaar Sonar Bangla – My Golden Bengal’. Gracy Samjetsabam’s review of Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow, a cross cultural novel with an unusual ending that shuttles between America and Japan, winds up our review section this time.

As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.

The tone of Rhys Hughes cogitations about the identity of two poets across borders in ‘Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?’ reminds me of Puck  or Narada! Of course, he has given humour in verses with a funny story poem which again — I am not quite sure — has a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion or is it someone else? Michael Burch has limericks on animals, along with his moving poem on Martin Luther King Junior. We have much poetry crossing borders, including a translation of Akbar Barakzai’s fabulous Balochi poetry by Fazal Baloch and Sahitya Akademi winning Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom. A Nazrul song which quests for a spiritual home has been translated from Bengali by no less than Professor Fakrul Alam, a winner of both the SAARC award and Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.

We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
Musings

The Bookshelf And The Lockdown

By K. R. Guruprasad

I have always wondered, when I am not at home, do the inhabitants of my bookshelf come alive like those children’s playthings in Toy Story? Apart from what their titles bind them to narrate, do my books have other stories to tell? Is my bookshelf some sort of a universe in itself with each compartment and the contents – an entity of its own? Are there dimensions to a bookshelf that we, humans, are not aware of – something that is beyond our realm?

For a while now (for me, a year since my last job as a journalist), Monday mornings do not come with blues attached. Moreover, since the lockdown, it hardly registers. However, this time I woke up to a message from a friend. She sent me a picture of her bookshelf. Pristine. Clean. I kept looking at the picture and zoomed in to see if I could read the titles of the books. The low-resolution nature of the photograph offered me a little chance to do so. Some I could read, some covers I was familiar with, and a lot many I could not figure out. 

However, the shelf stood proud. The big brown square with sixteen shelves held its own against a lighter coloured background. The books despite not being arranged in perfect rows -‑ some standing, some lying flat — presented a scenic contrast and appeared orderly on the whole. 

I shifted my gaze to my bookshelf and a quote, I had read a long time ago, came to my mind — “If you do not keep on sorting your books, your books unsort themselves”.

My bookshelf is chaotic. It’s like the city I live in — Mumbai. Each book jostling for space and complaining and, yet, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

But I like it the way it is. I have heard that people who keep pets end up looking like each other after a while,  and behave similarly too. Many dog owners have told me this. I don’t know much about it but I have seen it happen with one of my friends. But that is not the point. Drawing an analogy, there is a thought germinating and it asks, after a while, does a bookshelf reflect the mind of its owner? I look at my bookshelf and I seem to know the answer. I am just not sure if I should put it out here.

Going back to that quote — do the books really want to “… unsort themselves?”  I’m thinking of a counter narrative here.

What if my books want to be sorted. Will they secretly, when I am not home, rearrange themselves in an order that would make a librarian proud? Or, will they rise in rebellion against me to drive home the point? 

Will a book ‘accidentally’ fall on my head and ensure that it drills some sense into me and goad me to impart some sanity to my bookshelf as well. I am relieved that I have kept all the heavy hard cover books on the lowest shelves. Of course, back then I had no inkling of any rebellion by the books. I had done that just to add solidity to the shelf. It is supposed to be a strong foundation.

If the books were to sort themselves, then they must be interacting. I hope they are. For all the disorder that my shelf displays, it aptly houses James Gleick’s Chaos. Does this book try to make sense and explain to others the lack of planning and logic in the way I have maintained the bookshelf? 

Does Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace talk to others about why I am oblivious of their realm? Does Milan Kundera’s Joker still sit sulking in a corner because I have only read about seventy to eighty pages and have kept it back with a bookmark sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb? And does Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations complain, “Why on earth have I been placed next to Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures Of The Damned and what on earth am I supposed to do here?”

I’m quite sure my PG Wodehouse’s Carry On Jeeves treats its neighbour Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence like its own butler and comments on its sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. Despite the crowding, there is, however, one hollow space that makes me well up. The emptiness of the space where I had kept my copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I gave away Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece to a friend —  a young writer and a book lover himself. I hope to buy another copy soon. I will.

There is no thought behind the way the books are arranged on my bookshelf. Bill Bryson’s The Road To Little Dribbling is shoulder-to shoulder with Peter Carey’s True History of The Kelly Gang. My Kannada books are strewn all over with a couple of them holding their own against Howard Jacobson and John Steinbeck on either side. 

There is Rushdie with Hemmingway, Coetzee and Murakami are neighbours filled with warmth. There is my collection of National Geographic Magazine somewhere deep down there and on top of this stack is a potpourri of books including my sketch book.

That’s not all. There are layers I cannot reach. And I don’t know when I will unravel them. Behind the proud frontline are rows of books I bought but never read. It makes me shudder to even guess what they must be thinking. Would they consult J Krishnamurthy’s The Awakening Of Intelligence to understand and counsel themselves as to why they are the neglected children?

And then there is a book Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. It knows it doesn’t belong here but has somehow been at home among my books for more than a decade. I had borrowed it from a colleague in 2008 and have not returned it so far. I promised him that I would, and I intend to keep that promise. So, this copy knows it is not permanent here. Must be a miserable feeling to be somewhere for that long and yet not belong. 

I have often felt like that in between shifting residences in Mumbai. Most of my contracts have ended in eleven months and sometimes maybe twenty two months. But the current place has been my residence for six years now. Do I feel like this copy of Douglas Adams’s work here? Sometimes, I do. 

It is a studio apartment. And it doesn’t offer me space for another bookshelf. In fact the top left square of my bookshelf is where I have kept all the photos of Gods and holy books, including Shrimad Bhagavad Gita. In the lower squares I have made space for my watches and bottles of cologne. And now in the lockdown, there are bottles of hand sanitisers too. The shelves are so stacked that there is no place for The Shadow Of The Wind, which interestingly (ironically?) is the part one of The Cemetery Of Forgotten Books series, and it finds itself on top of the bookshelf gupshupping with a straw hat. 

It appears that my jostling for space in the apartment is a concurrent and a similar theme to the way my books are stacked. Whenever I am vexed with all this struggle, a walk by the sea rejuvenates me. But what about my books?

It maybe fantastical to think that whenever I step outside, they crib about me. But being privy to the way I live, it wouldn’t take too much imagination to believe that they do. There is an unread copy of Hilary Mantel’s A Place Of Greater Safety and a partially read The Second World War by Antony BeevorAnd I wonder if these books would put the idea of a revolution and war in the minds of the other books. Maybe I should keep these books in good humour. A transparent polythene cover and proper dusting should do the trick. 

I do not want to return to my flat one day and find my books in regimental rows and columns with their guns trained on me. It would break my heart to see my favourite A Farewell To Arms pick up a gun again. 

Perhaps before the lockdown ends, I will dust all the books, the bookshelf and rearrange them in a way they might prefer. Perhaps Hemingway wants to be with Alistair McLean. Maybe all my Kannada books want to be together and even share some space with a few Hindi books. I should also make it a point to read all those books sulking behind the front rows. 

All this was in my top five things-to-do-in-the-lockdown list and I haven’t come around to doing any of them so far. Despite my counter narrative to the quote, I believe in what Georges Perec wrote in his Thoughts Of Sorts.

Deep down at a subconscious level, I’m happy with the way my bookshelf is. I’m beginning to understand as I write this piece that the state of the bookshelf does indeed reflect my state of mind.

My bookshelf, along with its inhabitants, is a thriving ecosystem. A being of its own with its blood lines and nerve centres. Despite its constant state of ‘unsort’, I gravitate to it whenever I’m in need of a friend or solace. Sometimes I wonder if it owns me instead of the other way round. Perhaps in some dimension, of which I’m unaware, my bookshelf and I are a single entity. I sure do hope so.

.

K.R. Guruprasad has been associated with the sports pages of several newspapers over the last 16 years, as Sports Editor of DNA and previously the Indian Express and Hindustan Times. Guru has developed a finesse at zooming out of the myopic view of any sport, instead looking at sports as a coming together of the players’ lives and struggles, skills and technique and much more. His book ‘Going Places. India’s Small-Town Cricket Heroes’ by Penguin is a great testament to this approach. While his professional career has been focused on writing about sports, he is an avid reader and writer of varied subjects.  An alumnus of Asian College of Journalism, was born in Bellary, Karnataka and later pursued his education in Mumbai.