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Spanning Continental Narratives

He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara from Sanskrit to English and then imbibed them to create Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing in a similar vein. Meet the poet, Abhay K, who also juggles multiple hats of diplomat, editor and translator. He tells us how he tries to raise awareness and create bonds through poetry. He is the author of a dozen poetry books and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins India). He has received the SAARC Literature Award for 2013. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into more than 150 languages and performed by Kavita Krishnamurthy, a well-known Indian voice.

Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has 150 quartrains and is split into chapters. A passionate poem that yearns and sends love through the salubrious journey of the monsoon from its point of origin, Madagascar, to Kashmir, the verses caress various fauna, among them some endangered like indri indri, sifaka and more. Spanning the oceans, lands, nature and a large part of India, it reaches his beloved with his message from Madagascar.

Is it eco-poetry? Academia might be moving towards that decision. Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing has been chosen by a Harvard University’s assistant professor, Sarah Dimick, for a book project on Climate and Literature. In this exclusive, Abhay K describes not only how his passion for beauty, turned him, a diplomat, into an award-winning poet and translator but his subsequent journey.

Abhay K

What made you opt to translate Kalidasa’s poetry?

It was during the Covid-19 pandemic that I read a poem by the British poet laureate, Simon Armitage, titled ‘Lockdown’ which made a reference to Meghaduta. At that time, I was posted as India’s 21st Ambassador to Madagascar and Comoros and I thought of writing a poem on the lines of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. This is when I decided to closely read Meghaduta and in the process I got inspired to translate it. However, later, I did write a book length poem titled Monsoon which was published by Sahitya Akademi in 2021. 

Did you translate both, Meghaduta and Ritusamhara, one after another? These are both books that have been translated before. Did you draw from those? Or is it your own original transcreation of the texts?

Yes, first I translated Meghaduta and after its publication, I decided to translate Ritusamhara. There are over 100 translations of Meghaduta available, I have read some of them, but none had been translated by a poet. Therefore, I decided to translate Meghaduta myself to give it a poetic rendition in contemporary English. I had studied Sanskrit in my high school, and it came handy while translating both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara

Your book, Monsoon, is based on Meghduta. Can you tell us a bit about it? Is it part autobiographical?

Monsoon is inspired from both Meghaduta and Ritusamhara. It begins near Madagascar where monsoon originates and travels along its path to Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Andaman, and the Indian subcontinent. It carries a message of love and longing from Madagascar to Kashmir valley. It is purely work of imagination. 

Tell us a bit about Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara, which is supposed to be especially relevant in the current context of climate change.

I have not come across any other poet who describes the lives of diverse plants and animals in such detail and with such empathy. In Ritusamhara, Kalidasa delights us with these vivid descriptions of plants, insects and flowers in the rainy season.

Like jade fragments, the green grass rises
spreading its blades to catch raindrops,
red Indragopaka insects perch on fresh
leaf-buds bursting forth from the Kandali plants
the earth smiles like an elegant lady
draped in nature’s colourful jewels. 2-5

Aroused by the sunrays at sunrise,
Pankaja opens up like glowing face
of a young woman, while the moon
turns pale, smile vanishes from Kumuda
like that of the young women,
after their lovers are gone far away.  3-23

The fields covered with ripened paddy
as far as eyes can see, their boundaries
full of herd of does, midlands filled with
sweet cries of graceful demoiselle cranes.
Ah! What passion they arouse in the heart!   4-8

Kalidasa’s genius lies in bringing together ecological and sensual to create sensual eco-poetry of everlasting relevance. Ritusamhara highlights this fundamental connection between seasons and sensuality. As we face the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution owing to our ever-growing greed and culture of consumerism, we face the challenge of losing what makes us human. It is in these unprecedented times, reading and re-reading Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara becomes essential.

True. Closer to our times Tagore also has written of the trends of which you speak. But there is a controversy about the authorship of Ritusamhara— it is supposed to have been written earlier. What is your opinion?

It is an early work of Kalidasa. There are many words from Ritusamhara that are used in Meghaduta

What were the challenges you faced translating Kalidasa’s poetry, especially in mapping the gaps created by the time span that has passed and their culture and ethos to modern times.

I think Kalidasa’s works bear strong relevance to the modern times. He can easily be our contemporary eco-poet. In fact, Ritusamhara is a fine work of eco-poetry because of the sensitivity shown by Kalidasa in handling the plight of animals in scorching summer, treating rivers, mountains and clouds as personas among other things. 

You have also translated Brazilian poets? Are these contemporary voices? Did these come before Kalidasa’s translation?

I translated poems of 60 contemporary Brazilian poets and compiled them in a poetry collection named New Brazilian Poems which was published in 2018 by Ibis Libris, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My translation of Meghaduta and Ritusamhara was published in 2022. 

Your range of translations is wide. How many languages have you translated from? What has been the impact of translating both Kalidasa and other poets from various languages on your poetry?

I have mainly translated from Magahi, Hindi, Sanskrit, Russian, Portuguese, and Nepali. Translating the work of Kalidasa and other poets has enriched my own poetry writing. Translating poets whose works I love and admire, offers me the opportunity to read their work very closely and provided rich insights which in turn inspires my own poetic works. 

How as a diplomat did you get into poetry? Or has this been a passion?

I started writing poetry in Moscow where I started my career as a diplomat. It was the beauty and grandeur of Moscow that turned me into a poet. 

You are a polyglot. What made you pick up this many languages? Do you read poetry in all of them? You have already translated from Portuguese and Sanskrit. Do you want to translate from all these languages? What makes you pick a book for translation?

As a diplomat, I get posted to a new continent every three years and I have to pick up the local language to communicate more effectively. I try to translate from as many languages as possible as it helps in building literary bridges across continents. I translate books I truly love and admire. 

Do you have any more translations or your own work in the offing? What are your future plans as a poet?

I have translated the first Magahi novel Foolbahadur and Magahi short stories, which is likely to come out in the near future.

My new love poem of 100 rhyming couplets titled Celestial, which takes one on a roller coaster ride to all the 88 constellations visible from the Earth, will be published by Mapin India in 2023. My new poetry collection, In Light of Africa, a book of light and learning and unlearning the myths and stereotypes about Africa. The narrative spans the continent of humanity’s birth through time and space—from the ancient Egyptian pharaohs to modern bustling cities…introducing you to Africa’s rich history, culture, cuisine, philosophy, monuments, personalities—and its remarkable contribution in shaping our modern world. This collection is likely to be published this year or in 2024. 

Thank you for giving us your time.

(The interview has been conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

Click here to read an excerpt from Monsoon

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Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Notes from Japan

A Ramble on Bizan

By Suzanne Kamata

        “The mountain in Awa rises in the sky like a nicely curved eyebrow
            Seeing it above the horizon, a boat is heading toward it
                     Where will it stay tonight?”
                  -from the Manyoshu, 8th century

In his 1919 essay, “Impressions of a Walk,” the Portuguese expatriate Wenceslau de Moraes [1]wrote of hiking up Bizan during koharu, “the small spring” – “a delightful and rapid transition from the suffocating heat of summer to the cool breeze of the winter.” After sailing around the world, Moraes settled in Tokushima for the last sixteen years of his life. He purportedly hiked up Bizan, the prefecture’s most emblematic mountain, every day.

I have lived in Tokushima Prefecture for over twenty years now, but it’s been a while since I’ve been on the mountain. A recent popular movie, “Bizan,” was filmed on its slopes as well as at the hospital where my children were born, and the university where I teach part time. Some of my students appear as extras in the festival dance scene toward the end. It is this movie that has spurred my own outing.

My excursion to the top of Bizan begins on a day between seasons as well.  A week or so ago, I was scraping ice from my windshield.  Now I am getting ready to set out without a jacket under a clear blue sky.  My plan is to drop my daughter off at school, and then walk to the ropeway station at the base of the mountain.  Caught up in the usual frenzy of morning preparations, I cannot seem to locate my backpack.   I stuff a field guide, my notebook, a photocopy of Moraes’ essay from his book Oyone and Koharu: Essays of a Portuguese Recluse in Japan, a novel, and sunglasses into a cavernous Louis Vuitton handbag my mother-in-law had given me as a gift. Then I load my daughter and her stuff into my car, and off we go.

Bizan, or “Eyebrow Mountain,” is visible from almost any point in Tokushima City. I see it every morning, off to the right, as I drive along the Yoshino River. It’s there, glimpsed through tall buildings, as I wait at a traffic light in the city. And it looms at the end of the main road stretching in front of the train station. Jackucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun, and the most famous and prolific Tokushima-born writer, concurred in her book of autobiographical fiction Places, writing, “If I was playing by myself on the Nakazu wharf, or in the open field where once a year a circus came and set up tents, I could turn around and there was Mt. Bizan. I would look up to it in mild wonder.”

As mountains go, it’s not all that spectacular. Moraes referred to it as a hill. It is actually part of the Shikoku Mountain Range that stretches into southern Tokushima and is separated from the Sanuki Mountain Range by a river valley. There are taller peaks in the prefecture – Tsurugi-san, at 1955 meters, is the highest, but Bizan (294 meters), with its gentle slopes and more or less flat top, is perhaps the most distinctive. And the mountain is rich in culture and history.

After I drop my daughter off, I walk through Tokushima Park, then through a flurry of cars, blinking neon, and traffic signals chirping for the blind. I pass the shopping arcade, the headquarters of the religious cult Kofuku no Kagaku, and the red gates of a Shinto shrine to arrive at the Awa Odori Kaikan, which houses the ropeway station. From the base, the mountain appears easily surmountable – less than an hour to the top. But I’m not in the best of shape, and I have this heavy handbag, so I decide to take the gondola as planned.

The ride lasts about fifteen minutes. Up at the top there is a profusion of vending machines and small buildings – a café, a cell-phone transmission tower, and a white pagoda in the Burmese style. I recognise the pagoda from a scene from the movie. There is also a small museum devoted to Wenceslau de Moraes, perhaps Tokushima’s most famous expatriate. I make this my first stop.

Hiraoka-san, a small, genial grey-haired man in a jean jacket, gives me the grand tour in English.  The exhibit includes some of the many books written by Moraes – both the original Portuguese versions and Japanese translations – as well as photos, his writing desk, smoking implements and bowler hat.

On the wall there are scenes from the puppet play based on the life of Moraes. The script was written by Setouchi[2]. Under glass, I see a pamphlet from a Japanese movie inspired by the bushy-bearded European sailor.

Hiraoka-san shows me the letters of appointment Moraes received from three Japanese Emperors – those of the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras – for the position of Portuguese consul in Kobe. Moraes met with Emperor Meiji three times. There is also a model of the ship Moraes sailed on which Hiraoka-san says, “is like the one in Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp.”

Moraes first came to Japan as a member of the Portuguese navy. He’d been to other places – Mozambique, where, according to his translator Kazuo Okamoto, he’d fallen “violently and foolishly in love” with Arrussi, a woman referred to as “Miss Africa”; and Macao, where he’d bought and married Atchan, the mixed race daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, with whom he’d had two sons and then deserted– before he took on the position of Portuguese consul in Kobe in 1899. Moraes married 25-year-old Oyone, in 1900, when he was 45 years old. She died at the age of 38, and her ashes were entombed at Chonji Temple in Tokushima, where Moraes took up residence in 1913. He visited her tomb daily, but her relatives denied his request to have his own ashes buried with hers. He later lived with Oyone’s cousin, Koharu, who became his common law wife. She, too, died young.

Moraes lived in a house at the base of Bizan, where he enjoyed gardening and, presumably, writing. He published two collections of essays about Tokushima in his native language – Oyone and Koharu and Bon Odori in Tokushima: Essays of a Portuguese Hermit in Japan.  With his long white beard and kimono dyed with the locally grown indigo, he must have caused quite a stir among the locals. His first impression of Tokushima was “that along the way to the modest domicile which had been destined for me was a dominating and agreeable impression of – green. Green plunging into my aesthetic eyes! Green that rushed into my nose. Green, nothing more – an impression so strong, so all-inclusive that I could scarcely pay attention to the details of the scene spread in front of me.”

And yet he did manage to write in great detail and with much feeling of everything he observed around him. From the mountain, he saw “the houses thickly clustered together – small houses, and of wood of course — extend over a vast plain of silt on the complex waterways of the river Yoshino, from the coast to the foot of the hill ranges which bound it: a population of nearly seventy thousand, including four or five Europeans of whom I am one, but this, of course, is not mentioned in the books.”

From the top of Bizan, one can still see an expanse of greenery, the harbour adrift with boats, and ships in the Kii Channel. On a clear day, Awaji Island is visible. Down below, while wooden houses remain, white concrete apartments, schools, and office buildings tend to dominate. Shikoku is still the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands, but Tokushima Prefecture now has a population of approximately 810,000, of about 6,000 whom are foreigners.

I am one of them, a woman from the United States. Like Moraes, I seek to convey the atmosphere and culture of Tokushima to the people of my native country, most of whom have never heard of this place, through my writing. Like Moraes, I have settled here with a spouse.  But of course, I am not nearly so conspicuous as he was. In twenty-first century Tokushima, my blond hair blends with the dyed hair of the youth of the city. And I’m not a hermit, not hiding from the world.

Thinking to fortify myself before heading off on one of the designated walking trails, I duck into the Bizan café just outside the gondola station.  I stand before a vending machine offering tickets for the usual fare – curry rice, pilaf and udon – but a woman bustles out from a back room and makes an “X” with her fingers.  The shop isn’t open for business yet.

I meander down to a weathered wooden bench shaded by walnut and bayberry trees.  Off in the distance, I can hear a train rumbling over the tracks; closer by, birds twitter and chirp and the brush rustles with life. I’m told that there are rabbits and monkeys on this mountain, as well as a fair share of stray cats and dogs. Here and there, signs warn of mamushi, a reddish brown snake with leopard spots whose bite can be fatal. In the early 1900s, residents sought to ward off the snakes with exorcisms written on paper. Moraes himself wrote, “My humble house is completely defended with these pieces of paper.”

I wander until I come across a white gazebo, complete with weathervane. According to a plaque, this structure was a gift from Saginaw, Tokushima’s sister city. It reminds me of a bandstand in Michigan where I grew up, of sitting on a blanket with my grandparents in summer, listening to a small orchestra. In a few months, it will offer a retreat from the blazing sun. Now, I stand under its roof and gaze out at the ribbon of river. Straight ahead, on the opposite bank, I can see the school where my son is learning to write Chinese characters.

I walk a bit more, past the statue of Moraes and his dog, past the rhododendron bushes with their first intimations of spring, a hint of red, and down the hill to – what’s this, an apartment building? No, it’s a government-sponsored hotel – the Bizan Kanpo. My daughter’s kindergarten once had a sleepover at this place.  I remember now that we walked up this hill for a night-time festival. The parents and teachers supervised while the children played ring toss games by lantern light. In the morning we performed “radio exercises” in the park.

Now I see a few people picnicking on benches, and I’m sorry that I didn’t bring my own lunch.  I’m famished by this time, so I make my way back to the café, which is now open. I order a bowl of noodles and settle at a table covered with tie-dyed indigo cloth. There are only a couple of other customers – a pilgrim dressed all in white, his peaked straw hat resting on the counter as he takes a break between temples – and a man who works on the mountain. As I eat, I look out upon Shiroyama, a hill hunched at the center of the city, the site of the ancient shogun’s castle, and the town hall where the record of my marriage is stored.

Although I purchased a round-trip ticket on the ropeway, I decide to hike down.  How hard could it be? I find the shortest route on the map, one that I think will take me to my starting point, but almost immediately I wonder at the wisdom of this decision. All morning I have been tramping up and down concrete steps and sidewalks, but this is an actual hiking trail.  The steep, narrow path is strewn with dry leaves, which may be slippery. I don’t have a walking stick, and instead of a backpack, I’ve got this handbag hooked over my arm. There is also the question of snakes.

Nevertheless, I begin to pick my way down the incline, imagining Moraes nearly a century ago in these same woods in his kimono. I grab onto tree trunks and seek purchase on protruding roots and rocks. My thighs burn with the effort.

The forest is so dense that I can’t see the city beyond. No one is on the trail behind or ahead of me. No one knows where I am. It’s an odd feeling, here in this densely populated country where I am so seldom truly alone. All I can hear is the wind in the trees, and what I take to be birds rustling the leaves as they forage for food.

Although I’m tempted to pull out my field guide and try to identify some flora or fauna – were those grey-tailed birds that just flew past starlings or brown-eared bulbuls? – there are no stumps for sitting, no spots for rifling through my bag.  I keep going until I spot a paved road through the trees. The trail seems to suddenly drop off to this road.

It’s a couple of meters to the ground below. I start looking for a sturdy branch that I might be able to use to vault myself down, and then I see a businessman strolling up the road. Maybe he’s out for his daily constitutional. Crouched here on the side of the mountain with my Louis Vuitton bag, I suddenly feel ridiculous. I hold myself very still and hope that he doesn’t notice me. When he’s out of sight, I manage to scoot down without scraping myself on the rocks.

Through the trees I can now see some familiar landmarks, and I know that no matter where I end up, I’ll be able to find my way back. And then I come to a set of stone stairs, and I remember climbing these very steps fifteen or sixteen or maybe seventeen years ago to drink with friends beneath the cherry blossoms.

I see that paper lanterns printed with “Asahi Beer” have already been strung across the path in anticipation of this year’s flower viewing. Soon, it will be time for the azalea festival in the Sako neighbourhood where my husband grew up.

Almost a hundred years ago, Moraes was enraptured by the pink and purple blossoms.  In May of 1915 he wrote, “How beautiful the mountains are! The azaleas, above all, are most delicious, and the charm of this rosy colour, the profusion of blooms, transforms the entire mountain into a garden. I contemplate the spectacle, resting on an old piece of tumulus stone; the mountain where I am is a cemetery, as is almost every slope of this land. And in sight of the graves I want to shout, ‘Get up, you who are sleeping, come and enjoy with me the rapture of these flowers! You cannot be dead when all of nature is awaking!”

I think of these words when I see the jizo along the path. These are stone statues tied with red bibs, which represent the spirits of dead infants, especially aborted or stillborn babies.  Brooms made from twigs have been left beside the shrines for caretaking. Moraes, who lost both his first Japanese wife, and his second common-law wife, Koharu, was often preoccupied with death. Though he wrote of the burgeoning nature on Bizan, he also wrote of the jizo, funeral processions, the tending of the butsudan, posthumous names, and the crematorium on the mountain.

At last, I come out in front of the red-gated shrine next to the gondola station. I pass the stone shishi – guardian lion-dogs – and a statue of a figure performing radio exercises, and then I’m on flat ground.

After I pick up my daughter from school, I drive along the Yoshino River and look to the left, to Bizan. I can pick out the hotel and the cell phone transmission tower, and the slope where I’d made my way down.  This mountain has been here for centuries —   it is the burial site of feudal lords, an inspiration to poets and novelists, a home to small animals, and a film location. 

In a hundred years it will still be there.  I wonder what other expatriates and Japanese will write about Eyebrow Mountain a century from now. Who will Bizan next inspire?

The grave of Wenceslau de Moraes. Courtesy: Creative Commons

[1] Portuguese writer (1854-1929)

[2] Jackucho Setuchi, Japanese nun and writer (1922-2021)

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

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