Categories
Stories

A Letter Adrift in the Breeze

Haneef Sharif

By Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed

From the world,

coldness,

autumn,

silence… intense silence.

My lord!

Fair wishes…

I am somewhere between the better and the best in this world. Safe and sound. Breathing. Every morning, I had walked to my job and the evening breeze had wafted me back home. Drifting like this, many times I pondered over penning down a letter to you but was held back…. lack of address ….my own fears…. dread of time…. Therefore, I never quite made up my mind to complete the task.

My Lord! Today I am feeling very dispirited. I have been expelled by the head of the post office from my job. He said, I happen to deliver the letters, orders, registry and parcels on wrong addresses. The recipients receive the wrong mail. He states, for three months I kept reiterating these mistakes.

I had never envisioned this situation.

Giving it some thought, I concluded that this is all because I did not write a letter to you. Thus, today, I am writing to you.

I apologise in advance for any errors in my penning.

The crucial thing is — My Lord! Tonight, is curtained by stillness, the fire is inhaling its final breath. After the fire dies, I remain with taciturnity alone at home. Whosoever obtains more power than others, will press them down, and you know well who is more powerful than me and who….

God Almighty! To say worthily, I love you a lot and very much —

like toys kept on carts,

like whirlwinds on mosques,

like ash that clings tired on jammed wheels,

like wandering cows on streets,

like the daughters of neighbours…

Almighty God! I love you limitlessly. I don’t know how to convince your ears about my profound affections. I love everything about you, I stoop to your every word, and your every creation is beyond examples, wordless and irreplaceable.

But my Lord! This is also true that you left nothing but confusion in this world, everywhere inconclusiveness, lack of fulfilment, no ins and outs but all the edges of incompletion.

My Lord, who are you? What are you?

The pouring light of lamp igniting before the home of Khuda Baksh[1], I wonder are you

the tyre-prints of police cars,

the pay-day for teachers,

the rock on the pavement of road,

or the first daily paper each morning?

Who are you? Where are you? In the skies…

No, I cannot admit this, how come my friend, my companion is so far? My Lord is not cruel. He is alone, childfree, poor, miserable like me… stricken by hunger, and knows that the most powerful thing in the world is hunger… hunger… ufff…. I cannot explain. But My Lord, what do you think, is the most powerful among your creations —

drug filled cigarettes,

leftovers of bread,

a cold, collapsed lonely road,

sunsets in summers,

or relics of autumn leaves?

As per my heart, these all are powerful, frightening, but tempting.

What do you say my lord?

What is your point of view?

Do you know one more thing Almighty God, you made abundant useless things in your world; they are meaningless, unimportant, but absurdly you are accountable for creating them.

Lord Almighty! Don’t you realise some surplus things remain unnoticed when you look at the world, like —

school going children in the morning,

busloads of travelers to cities,

 ‘wedlocks’ in marriages,

ventilators of bathrooms,

 and traffic police on roads.

My lord!! These all are complaints, all protests. These are our grievances echoing before you.

We are wretched, distressed, dead hearted. Other people are engulfing us. We are being thrown out of the world. Lord, my heart has become the residence of hatred, enmity and envy; I feel jealous of everyone. I suffer in anguish. I am changing into a devil, converting to wickedness. In spite of all these, I am amazed to discover that, My Lord, I love you a lot, in fact, very, very much –

like a healthy fish,

like the last drop of wine,

like a full plate of curry,

like a room filled with water,

like… like…

God Almighty! There is nothing more vital to pen down except, the fire is dead now. My stomach is screaming, hunger creeps, cold extends, surfeits, magnifies and I am…

My best regards to all.

Your son,

And… actually…. I am handing over this letter to the breeze; I hope you will receive it.

Everything is pretty well.

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(This story was first published in Balochi in Teeran Dask, a collection of stories by Haneef Sharif and is being published in translation with permission from the author and the Balochistan Academy of Literature and Research, Turbat.)

Haneef Sharif, born on December 25, 1976, is a well-recognised author, filmmaker, YouTuber, photographer and  script writer. He completed his basic education in Turbat, Balochistan, and received his MBBS degree from Bolan Medical College, Quetta, in 2003. He currently lives in Germany. He has published a novel, Chegerd Poll enth ( The Chegerd Tree is blossoming), and a number of short stories in Balochi. Some of his short stories have been published in 3 collections: Shapa ke Hour Gwareth ( The Night When It Rains), Teeran Dask ( Teeran Dask) and Haneefnaam ( Hey you Haneef). He has also directed four films in Balochi. He also runs a YouTube channel Radio Balochistan where he publishes videos, short stories, interviews and lectures on miscellaneous subjects. 

Mashreen Hameed is a fresh graduate of University of Turbat with a Masters’ degree in English literature. She is a writes fiction, poetry and translates from Balochi and English.

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

Categories
Poetry

A Balochi Folk Song

Translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch

Balochistan. Courtesy: Creative Commons
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN A LADY AND HER SUITOR

She: Hither come, help me get off the cliff, O white-shawled lad!
He: I’ll, O, red-dressed lass, but what will be the reward, I have?

She: Either my necklace or my bangles, you will have.
He: Of your necklace and bangles, none I ever need!
‘Tis your shapely nose and flowing tresses I seek.

She: Shapely nose and flowing tresses lie beyond your reach
-- I’ll become a wild citron on a lofty tree.
Boy: I’ll become grasshopper and nibble your tender leaves.

She: I’ll become a cumulus and on the valley burst forth.
He: A thirsty deer I’ll become, and drink all the fresh water you pour.

She: I’ll become a sorghum grain and rest on the field.
He: I’ll become a grey dove and hold you in my beak.

She: I’ll become a rabbit, in rosebushes I’ll sleep.
He: I’ll become a shepherd, you with my crook I’ll gently beat.

She: I’ll become a turban that rests on a bride’s head.
He: I’ll play my mouth-harp, and as a reward, you I’ll seek. 

She: I’ll become the helpless daughter of a poor man.
He: I’ll become the grim-reaper, and whisk you off to the heaven.

She: You’ve filled my heart with boundless joy and delight
Hurry to the wedding chamber, I’m your bride.

This folk song was originally featured in Dreen (The Rainbow: A Collection of Folksongs) collected and translated into Urdu by Atta Shad and A. Salam and published by the Balochi Academy Quetta. Fazal Baloch has the rights to the translation in English.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies.

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

Categories
Stories

The Faithful Wife

A Balochi folktale translated by Fazal Baloch

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Once there lived a king who had a son. With the passage of time, the prince grew into a young man.  The king thought that before he shut his eyes forever, the prince should be married off. He expressed his desire to his son who responded with his choice. He wanted to marry a princess of a distant land. The next day, the king summoned his vizier and told him what the prince desired. Moreover, he said that he would pay as much dower as they asked for.

The vizier sent a messenger to the king for the purpose. The king gave his consent. The messenger returned to his country with the good news. The prince was married with great pomp and splendour. A few days after their marriage, the king brought his daughter-in-law to the palace. She was beautiful and well-mannered.

Days passed by. One day the king breathed his last and his son subsequently ascended the throne and became the king. But he loved his wife so much that he did not pay much attention to the affairs of his kingdom. At last, he abdicated his throne to live a happy and peaceful life with his beautiful wife. Soon he ran out of his wealth and become so poor that he had nothing left. A few days later his wife turned to him and said, “By sitting idle at home we will die of hunger. You should do something or engage yourself in a business”. He replied, “First, I can’t live without you. Separation from you will rend my heart. Second I’m not well-versed in any craft. There is however a desire in my heart to conduct some trade but I don’t have any capital for it”.

“Don’t worry I will finance you,” his wife told him.

“How come?” asked the husband.

“Take all my jewels and sell them off and bring me the sum you receive for them.”

The husband did what his wife had told him. The wife then advised him to buy goods with the money and board a ship. Thus he loaded the goods on a ship and returned to his wife and asked her, “What should I do next?”

She gave him a flower and said, “Whenever you feel sorrowful for me, just look at the flower. It will ease off your sorrows”.

He put the flower into his pocket, boarded the ship and set on his journey. After journeying for many days and night he finally landed in a distant country. He anchored the ship in the harbour. Meanwhile, the soldiers arrived and demanded duties. He paid the duty for the ship but surprised the soldiers saying that he had something else on him but neither was he going to pay any duty for it nor show it to them.

“How strange! What is it?” a soldier asked him but he refused to reveal.

When the soldiers continued to insist, he at last told them that it was the flower given by his wife. The soldiers took him to the king’s court and told the king about the flower he was keeping with him. The king turned to him and asked him sarcastically, “Oh, you think your wife is such a good woman that you can live by her token?”

“Yes, I think so” was his reply.

“If we produce your wife here at our court, what would you say?”

“If you think you can convince her to come here, I will give her to you”, he told the king. Then he turned to the court and said, “A man or two could go and try to persuade his wife to come.”

Two young men, one was king’s own son and the other was the vizier’s, presented themselves for the adventure. After making necessary preparations, they set out on their journey.

Meanwhile, the man sought permission to sell his goods. The king granted permission happily.

The king’s and vizier’s son traveled long and finally reached the city where the wife of the king who was now a merchant lived. There they ran into an old lady who invited them to her cottage. They asked the old woman to go to the merchant’s wife and tell her that the son of a king was desperate to see her. Initially she refused but when the prince gave her a sack full of gold coins, the old woman hurried to merchant’s wife and conveyed her prince’s message. At first she made excuses but when the old woman gave her no rest she at last said, “Ask the prince to visit me at night”.

The old woman told the prince what she had been told by the merchant’s wife. In the evening, the prince spruced himself up and took leave of his friend, the vizier’s son and left for his desired destination.

When he reached there, the woman pointed towards the bathroom and said, “Go there and refresh yourself. I do the same. Then we will have a conversation. We’ve a long night ahead”.

The moment the prince entered the bathroom, the woman locked the door from outside. Two days later, when the prince failed to return, the vizier’s son grew anxious about him. He wondered if someone had done him ill or he had gone somewhere. The next night he decided to see the woman and ask her about the prince. But when his eyes fell on her, he forgot the prince and thought that it would be a lucky hit if he managed to trick her.

He told her that he had been desperate to see her and would be much obliged if she would spare some moments to talk to him. The woman told him to do what she had asked the prince the other night. When he entered the bathroom she locked it from the outside. Now the prince and vizier’s son both lay locked in the bathroom. Six or seven days later she sent for a carpenter and asked him to make two giant sixed boxes in which a man could sleep easily. He also asked the carpenter to make two holes on the side of the each box.

The carpenter went off and made the boxes as she had ordered him. She then summoned two men who owned camels. She instructed them thus, “I have locked two men in the bathroom, put them in these two boxes, load them on the camels”.

When they were all done she asked the camel owners to follow her. She fed them water and food through the holes in the boxes. After travelling for many days and night, they finally reached the land of the king who wished to have her in his court. Upon reaching there, she rented a quarter and placed the two boxes there. She locked the house and went out. On her way to the city, she encountered the kotwal or the police chief of the city. He inquired her: “Who are you?”

“I am a courtesan”, she replied.

“Don’t you know courtesans are not allowed to move around freely in this city? I wouldn’t let you wander like this.”

“Is there any way that I could be spared?” She asked the kotwal.

“If you visit my home in the evening, I will let you go,” the kotwal put the condition before her.

“Of course I will come. This is what I do. But being a servant of the king you have always people around you. If any of your sentries or soldiers catches the sight of me, it will bring ruin to your reputation. I have rented a house in the corner of the city. It is better we meet there”.

Thus, the kotwal let her go.

The Imam of the mosque was the next she encountered. He asked her:

“Who are you?”

“I am a courtesan,” she replied.

“I seek refuge from the Holy Lord! Don’t you know such impure women are not allowed to roam freely in this city? I will take you to the king”.

“Please for God’s sake, let me go,” she pleaded.

“If you visit me in the evening I will let you go,” he told her.

“Of course, I will come. This is what I do. But as you are the Imam of the entire city, whether it is death or marriage people will come to you to perform the rituals. If someone saw me with you, it would tarnish your dignity and honor. I have rented a house in the corner of the city. It is better we meet there”.

Hence the Imam let her go.

She then ran into the vizier who inquired: “Who are you?”

“I am a courtesan”, she replied.

“The king has banned the movement of courtesans in the city. I will take you to the king”.

“Is there any way that I may be spared?” she asked the vizier.

“Yes, if you come at my home near king’s palace tonight, then I will leave you,” said the vizier.

“Of course, I will come. This is what I do. But as you are the vizier, if king sends someone for you and he happens to catches the sight me with you it will dent your dignity. I have rented a room in the city. It is better we meet there”.

The vizier agreed and let her go.

At last she bumped into the king himself. He asked her: “Who are you?”

“I am a courtesan,” she replied.

“In my kingdom sinful women like you are not allowed. I will put you in the prison”.

“I am a poor woman. Let me earn a livelihood. Take pity on me,” she pleaded.

“No, I can’t,” the king replied.

“Isn’t there any way that I may be spared?” she asked the king earnestly.

“Yes, there is but one condition. If you accept it I will let you go the very instant”.

“What is it”?

“If you come at my palace in the evening, I will let you go,” said the king.

“Of course I will. This is what I do. But as you are the king of the land, if someone saw me with you; it would stain your honour and esteem. I have rented a house in the corner of the city. It is better we meet there”.

Thus the king was agreed to see her at her house. He noted down the details of the location and told her that he would pay her a visit at her place that night.

The woman returned to her quarter. At dusk she cooked herself a dinner. She was just done with her meal when someone knocked at the door. She got up and opened the door. The kotwal was standing outside. She let him in. He had barely seated himself when someone again knocked at the door. The kotwal pleaded with the woman:

“For God sake hide me somewhere.”

“There is no such place in the house where I could hide you, but I have an idea,” replied the woman.

“What is the idea?” the kotwal instantly asked her.

“I will give you a sack of grain and you grind the content in the quern. Thus, nobody will suspect you”.

The kotwal agreed.

She opened the door and found the mullah standing outside. She welcomed him. The mullah had just started the conversation with the woman, when someone knocked at the door again. The mullah grew worried, and he begged to the woman saying: “Pray hide me somewhere”.

“There is no such place in the house where I could hide you but I have an idea”, replied the woman.

“What is the idea?” the mullah asked her trembling.

“You should bend down on your knees, and I will place the water-pitchers on your back,” said the woman.

The mullah consented and she placed two water-pitchers on his back and strolled out of the room.

She opened the door and let the vizier in. The vizier had barely stepped into the house, when there was a knock on the door again. The vizier turned to the woman and urged her: “Please hide me somewhere”.

“There is no such place in the house where I could hide you but I have an idea,”replied the woman.

“What is the idea?” The vizier asked her in an earnest voice.

“You should snuggle against the wall and I will place the lamp on your head. It will be dark beneath the lamp and nobody will notice your presence,” said the woman.

The vizier did what the woman told him. She placed the lamp on his head and left the room.

She opened the door and to her surprise she found the king himself standing before her. She courteously greeted him and conducted him into the house. Then she went and unlocked the two giant boxes. A moment later she excused herself and said: “Let me take a bath to refresh myself before I join you”.

The king granted her the permission, and she stole out of the door and started her journey back home.

Back in the house, the king kept waiting for her. When after a long time she failed to show up, the king decided to ask the maidservant who was grinding the grain. Hence he walked over there and he was astonished to discover that instead of a maidservant it was the kotwal grinding the grains. When the kotwal saw the king there he smiled and said: “Thank God! I’m not alone. His Majesty too has been tricked by the woman”.

The vizier also felt relieved and so did the mullah. The king said that since they had been tricked by the woman, they would take away the two boxes of the woman. The king went forward and opened one box and but instead of any finery or jewelry he found his own son lying in the box. The king lost his temper saying, “I spit on your face. You damn coward!”

The prince turned to his father and said, “I was made a captive away from home, but I curse you for you all have been tricked in your own kingdom.”

The king asked him about vizier’s son. The prince told him that he was lying in the next box. They all broke the door and sheepishly went to the merchant and sought his forgiveness for they couldn’t bring his wife into the palace. The king presented him a shipload of silver and gold.At last he reached his home. He felt very proud to have a clever woman as his wife who with her shrewdness not only protected her own honour but also did not let any stain spoil her husband’s dignity. Thus, she remained honoured and exalted in the eyes of both her husband and God.

(This folktale was originally featured in Balochi in Geedi Kessah-5, compiled by Mahmood Mari published by Balochi Academy Quetta in 1979. Fazal Baloch has the translation rights of this collection.)

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies.

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

Categories
Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What gets your muse going? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What are your future plans?

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

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

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

Thank you for your time.

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

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Categories
Slices from Life

Wooing Children to School

By Munaj Gul Muhammad

Shah Meer Sowali with the dog he wanted to sell. Photo Courtesy: Munaj Gul

Little Shah Meer Sowali got a dog with him to the bazaar in Turbat. He sold the dog for a small sum because he lives hand to mouth. His beloved and aged father is lame and they live in a broken room. Seeing the condition of little Shah Meer, members of an organisation called SFA (School for All) approached Shah Meer’s family and took the responsibility of the little boy and his little sister as before they both were out-of-school. The family had been unable to enroll the little children because of poverty.  Now, Shah Meer and his sister are enrolled in Bolan School.

The SFA is a non-profit organisation working for the promotion of education and reduction of student dropouts along with enrolling unschooled children into schools in Turbat since its establishment. It was established on October 1, 2020. Since its inception, the organisation has been successfully enrolling many orphans and disabled children along with financially weak children into different private and government educational institutions. The organisation is registered under Balochistan Charities Regulation Authority [BCRA] and is designed to serve the cause of education in the province. The organisation facilitates education of the enrolled students until they matriculate. These children are provided with books, shoes, bags, uniforms, stationery and fees along with other basic amenities.

Given that Pakistan is one of the most illiterate countries of the world, education for people is a daydream. Fahad Baloch, had to go to Quetta to get a basic education.  Unlike Fahad, his brother was not as fortunate. Despite wanting to go to school, he could not. A large chunk of children had no access to uneducated in his locality. But now this gap is being attempted to be bridged by the SFA.

The prime ambition of this organisation is to aid edifying the society where everyone acquires the opportunity to receive an education. They also hope to subsidise the costs. The organisation has successfully conducted three educational awareness programs in different areas of the region and received an affirmative response of the society to enrolling the out-of-school children into schools. The core drive of conducting such programmes was to impart a real sense or essence of education to the minds of the people in the region.

The SFA has been successful in enrolling 21 out-of-school children into private schools and 34 in government institutions. These enrolled children are registered by an agreement drawn up between the organisation and the parents of the children. They have even opened four bookstalls in the region to help get books to those who can read. “The benefits received by the SFA from the bookstalls go to these needy people,” said Kamran Gichki of the SFA. “Since the inception of the organisation, we approached many people, among them some were government officials from the concerned departments, and we shared our motives with them. We received affirmative and moral support from these officers but got financial support only from the middle-class residents in the region. The government is yet to support us in our efforts financially even though by Article 25A, they have made education a must for five to sixteen year olds.”

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Munaj Gul Muhammed is a journalist and a LLB student at Faculty of Law, University of Turbat. He tweets at @MunajGul

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Categories
Poetry

And then it begins….!

            By Ali Jan Maqsood

Gestured the mountains of the outlooks

Offered dryly, albeit, wet in nature

The glittering beauty of the flowers

Out in the sun of shadow

Of my territory, nevertheless, the land of my home

I reckon!

I imagine I am a butterfly

Caged by the river, flows up each second and then comes down

In merriness!

For, it owns the feeling

The feeling of sense of belonging

In particular!

The joyful days continued and would have continued

Unless, interrupted by the stormy alarums and excursions

And then chained, indeed, feet by hands

The vociferations would have gone on and on…!

If the stones had not remonstrated

Although they fall, but have learnt to stand back strongly

Accompanied by the rains of the Above Power!

The salvation we made in grievance

The souvenir in future

Entitled with the tears of glory

Of thine…!

Ever since everything sounds so irritating

Wandering on the land of survival

In the streets that are seized entirely

The fighting butterflies, fearlessly, against the burning sun

Shadowed all around, yet in fear

Fear of setting back!

For, the sun has to rise someday

And then begins the journey of thorns and flowers

Of the territorial conflicts of butterflies

Near the mountains, under the sun of shadow

In the land of my home!

And then culminates the mournings

Upon the arrival of the victory

Awaite  desperately

Who knows who dies

“In the battle of life of love and war”

When the journey begins all anew…!

Ali Jan Maqsood is a student of Law at University Law College Quetta and a former guider at Dynamic English Language Teaching Academy (DELTA) in Turbat. He can be reached at alijanmaqsood17@gmail.com and tweets at @Alijanmaqsood12