Meet Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the lead protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International,Satyajit Ray:The Man Who Knew Too Much in conversation Click here to read.
Jim Goodman, an American traveler, author, ethnologist and photographer who has spent the last half-century in Asia, converses with Keith Lyons. Click here to read.
“Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…”
— John Keats (1795-1851), To Autumn
For long writers have associated autumn with “mellow wistfulness”. That loss of spring, or loss of youth is not bleak or regretful has been captured not just by Keats but also been borne out by historical facts. Anthropocene existence only get better as the human race evolves … If we view our world as moving towards an autumn, we perhaps, as Keats suggests, need to find the new “music” for it. A music that is ripe and matures with the passage of time to the point that it moves more towards perfection. Though sometimes lives fade away after autumn gives way to winter as did those of Queen Elizabeth II (April 21st 1926 – September 8th 2022) after a reign of seventy historic years and Mikhail Gorbachev (2nd March 1931 – 30thAugust 2022) with his admirable efforts to bridge divides. Both of them have left footprints that could be eternalised if voices echo in harmony. Thoughts which create bonds never die – they live on in your hearts and mine.
Imagine… ten thousand years ago, were we better off? Recorded history shows that the first war had already been fought 13,000 years ago. And they have continued to rage – but, at least, unlike the indomitable Gauls in Asterix comics – not all jumped into the fray. They did during the last World Wars — which also led to attempts towards institutionalising humanitarian concerns and non-alignment. Yes, we have not had a perfect world as yet but as we age, the earth matures and we will, hopefully, move towards better times as we evolve. Climate change had happened earlier too. At a point, Sahara was green. Continental shifts split Pangaea into seven continents – that was even earlier. That might have driven the dinosaurs to extinction. But I am sure mankind will find a way out of the terror of climate change and wars over a period of time, as long as we believe in deciphering the sounds of autumn as did Keats in his poem.
Tagore had also sung of the joys of autumn which happens to be a time for festivities. Professor Fakrul Alam has translated three such songs, reflecting the joie de vivre of the season, The translation of a small poem, Eshecche Sarat, brings the beauty of the season in Bengal to the fore. We have a celebration of youth and romance in a Balochi folksong, an anti-thesis to autumn and aging, translated for us by Fazal Baloch and also, poetic prose in quest of God and justice by Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed. Lost romance recapitulated makes interesting poetry is borne out by Ihlwha Choi’s translation of his own poem from Korean. But the topping in our translation section is a story called ‘Nagmati’ by eminent Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, translated by no less than a Sahitya Akademi winning translator – Aruna Chakravarti. This story illustrates how terrifying youthful follies can lead to the end of many young lives, a powerful narrative about the snake worshipping community of Bedeynis that highlights destruction due to youthful lusts and an inability to accept diverse cultures.
When this cultural acceptance becomes a part of our being, it creates bonds which transcend manmade borders as did the films of Satyajit Ray. His mingling was so effective that his work made it to the zenith of an international cinematic scenario so much so that Audrey Hepburn, while receiving the Oscar on his behalf, said: “Dear Satyajit Ray. I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”
This and more has been revealed to us in a book,Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much, authored by a protagonist from Ray’s film, Barun Chanda. This book brought out by Om Books International reflects not just Ray as a person but also how he knitted the world together with his films and took the Indian film industry to an international level. Barun Chanda has been interviewed with a focus on Satyajit Ray. Keith Lyons has also interviewed a man who has defied all norms and, in the autumn of his life, continues his journey while weaving together cultures across, China, India and Thailand by his ethnographic studies on tribes, Jim Goodman. Goodman says he left America when speaking for a war-free world became a cause for censorship. This makes one wonder if war is a game played for supporting a small minority of people who rule the roost? Or are these ramblings of a Coleridge writing ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of narcotics?
Poetry also brings the season into our pages with an autumnal interpretation of life from Michael Burch. More poetry from Sunil Sharma, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Gayatri Majumdar, George Freek, Ron Pickett, Sutputra Radheye, Marianne Tefft brings a wide range of concerns to our pages – from climate to the vagaries of human nature. Poetry by an Albanian writer, Irma Kurti, and photographs by her Italian spouse, Biagio Fortini, blend together the colours of humanity. Rhys Hughes as usual, makes it to the realm of absurd – perhaps voicing much in his poetry, especially about the environment and human nature, though he talks of woodpeckers on Noah’s ark (were there any?) and of cows, yetis, monkeys and cakes… He has also given us a hilarious cat narrative for his column. Can that be called magic realism too? Or are the edges too abstract?
A leader who quested for freedom and roamed the world after being passed over by the Congress in favour of Nehru, Netaji raised an army of women who were trained in Singapore – not a small feat in the first half of the twentieth century anywhere in the world. His death in an air crash remained an unsolved mystery — another one of those controversies which raged through the century like the Bhawal case. In his review, Parichha spells out: “Aiming to bring an end to the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the freedom fighter, the over 300-page book gives a detailed and evidence-based account of his death in one of its chapters.”
Our non-fiction also hosts humour from Devraj Singh Kalsi about his interactions with birds and, on the other hand, a very poignant poetic-prose by Mike Smith reflecting on the vagaries of autumn. From Japan, Suzanne Kamata takes us to the Rabbit Island – and murmurings of war and weapons. We have the strangest story about a set of people who are happy to be ruled by foreign settlers – we would term them colonials – from Meredith Stephens. G Venkatesh delights with a story of love and discovery in Korea, where he had gone in pre-pandemic times. Paul Mirabile travels to Turkey to rediscover a writer, Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906-1954). And Ravi Shankar gives us an emotional story about his trek in the Himalayas in Nepal with a friend who has passed on. Candice Louisa Daquin has written of the possibilities towards integrating those who are seen as minorities and marginalised into the mainstream.
The edition this time is like Autumn – multi-coloured. Though I am not able to do justice to all our contributors by mentioning them here, my heartfelt thanks to each as every piece only enriches our journal. I urge you to take a look at the September edition.
I would like to give huge thanks to our readers and our team too, especially Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious for their artwork. We could not have come this far without support from all of you.
 The men in the indomitable Gaulish village (which the Romans failed to conquer) in times of Julius Caesar loved to jump into a fight for no reason…Asterix was the protagonist of the comics along with his fat friend Obelix
Title: Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills
Editors: Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
She was eighty-six, but looking at her you wouldn’t have guessed—she was spry and took some care to look good. Not once in the five years that we spent together did I find her looking slovenly. The old-fashioned dresses she wore were clean and well-ironed, and sometimes she added a hat. Her memory was excellent, and she knew a great deal about the flowers, trees, birds and other wildlife of the area—she hadn’t made a serious study of these things, but having lived here for so long, she had developed an intimacy with everything that grew and flourished around her. A trust somewhere in England sent her a pension of forty or fifty rupees, and this was all the money she had, having used up the paltry sum she’d received from the sale of her property.
She’d had a large house, she told me, which she had inherited from her parents when they died, and she’d had an ailing sister whom she had nursed for many years before she too passed away. As she had no income, she kept boarders in the house, but she had no business sense and was losing money maintaining it. In the end, she sold the house for a song to one of the local traders and moved into two small rooms on the ground floor of Maplewood Lodge, a kindness for which she remained grateful to her friends, the Gordon sisters.
It must have been lonely for Miss Bean, living there in the shadow of the hill, which was why she had been excited when I moved into the floor above her. With age catching up, she couldn’t leave her rooms and her little garden as often as she would have liked to, and there were few visitors—sometimes a teacher from the Wynberg Allen School, the padre from the church in town, the milkman twice a week and, once a month, the postman. She had an old bearer, who had been with her for many years. I don’t think she could afford him any longer, but she managed to pay him a little somehow, and he continued out of loyalty, but also because he was old himself; there wouldn’t have been too many other employment opportunities for him. He came late in the morning and left before dark. Then she would be alone, without even the company of a pet. There’d been a small dog long ago, but she’d lost it to a leopard.
Camel’s Back Road, going to a tea party at a friend’s house, the dog sitting in her lap. And suddenly, from the hillside above her, a leopard sprang onto the rickshaw, snatched the dog out of her hands, and leapt down to the other side and into the forest. She was left sitting there, empty-handed, in great shock, but she hadn’t suffered even a scratch. The two rickshaw pullers said they’d only felt a heavy thump behind them, and by the time they turned to look, the leopard was gone.
All of this I gathered over the many evenings that I spent chatting with Miss Bean in her corner of the cottage. I didn’t have anyone to cook for me in the first few years at Maplewood. Most evenings I would have tinned food, and occasionally I would go down to share my sardine tins or sausages with Miss Bean. She ate frugally—maybe she’d always had a small appetite, or it was something her body had adjusted to after years of small meals—so I wasn’t really depriving myself of much. And she returned the favour with excellent tea and coffee.
We would have long chats, Miss Bean telling me stories about Mussoorie, where she had lived since she was a teenager, and stories about herself (a lot of which went into some of my own stories). She remembered the time when electricity came to Mussoorie—in 1912, long before it reached most other parts of India. And she had memories of the first train coming into Dehra, and the first motor road coming up to Mussoorie. Before the motor road was built, everyone would walk up the old bridle path from Rajpur, or come on horseback, or in a dandy held aloft by four sweating coolies.
Miss Bean missed the old days, when there was a lot of activity in the hill resort—picnics and tea parties and delicious scandals. It was second only to Shimla, the favourite social playground of the Europeans. But unlike Shimla, it had the advantage of being a little more private. It was a place of mischief and passion, and young Miss Bean enjoyed both. As a girl, she’d had many suitors, and if she did not marry, it was more from procrastination than from being passed over. While on all sides elopements and broken marriages were making life exciting, she managed to remain single, even when she taught elocution at one of the schools that flourished in Mussoorie, and which were rife with secret affairs.
Do you wish you had, though,’ I asked her one March evening, sitting by the window, in the only chair she had in her bedroom.
‘Do I wish I had what?’ she said from her bed, where she was tucked up with three hot-water bottles.
‘Married. Or fallen in love.’
‘I did fall in love, you know. But my dear father was a very good shot with pistol and rifle, so I had to be careful for the sake of the young gentlemen. As for marriage, I might have regretted it even had it happened.’
A fierce wind had built up and it was battering at the doors and windows, determined to get in. It slipped down the chimney, but was stuck there, choking and gurgling in frustration.
‘There’s a ghost in your chimney and he can’t get out,’ I said.
‘Then let him stay there,’ said Miss Bean.
Excerpted from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hills, edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘What is it about the hills that draws us to them again and again?’ asks one of the editors of this collection. In these pages, over forty writers—from a daughter of the Tagore family and a British colonial officer in the 19th century, to a young poet and an Adivasi daily-wage worker in the 21st century—show us what the many reasons could be: Green hillsides glowing in the sun; the scent of pine and mist; the wind soughing in the deodars; the song of the whistling thrush; a ritual of worship; a picnic, a party, an illicit affair. They show us, too, the complex histories of hill stations built for the Raj and reshaped in free India; the hardship and squalor behind the beauty; the mixed blessings of progress.
Rich in deep experience and lyrical expression, and containing some stunning images of the hills, Between Heaven and Earth is a glorious collection put together by two of India’s finest writers, both with a lifelong connection with the hills. Among the writers you will read in it—who write on the hills in almost every region of India—are Rumer Godden, Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, Emily Eden, Francis Younghusband, Jim Corbett, Jawaharlal Nehru, Khushwant Singh, Keki Daruwalla, and of course the two editors themselves. Together, they make this a book that you will keep returning to for years to come.
ABOUT THE EDITORS
Ruskin Bond is one of India’s most beloved writers. He is the author of numerous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics and several of them set in the hills of north India. Among his best-known books are The Room on the Roof, Time Stops at Shamli, A Book of Simple Living, Rain in the Mountains and Lone Fox Dancing. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. He lives in Landour, Mussoorie.
Bulbul Sharma is an acclaimed painter and writer, author of best-selling books of fiction and non-fiction, including My Sainted Aunts, The Anger of Aubergines, Murder in Shimla and Shaya Tales. Bulbul conducts ‘storypainting’ workshops for special needs children and is a founder-member of Sannidhi—an NGO that works in village schools. She divides her time between New Delhi, London and Shaya, a village in Himachal Pradesh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta, in conversation with legendary actress Deepti Naval, on her penchant for words at the unveiling of her memoir, A Country Called Childhood, at an international literary festival in Shimla, India.
“Where’s the session?”
That was the question on every lip as I entered the beautifully restored Gaiety Theatre – the Gothic architecture that was designed 135 years ago by an English architect following examples of Victorian Britannia, to be the Opera in the Town Hall complex built for the British rajas who’d shift the capital from Delhi to Shimla to escape the oppressive Indian summer.
It was the second day of Unmesh, and I was to conduct a conversation with Deepti Naval whose appearance on the Hindi screen with Shyam Benegal’s Junoon(1978) had given every young girl like me a new icon – one we could readily identify with, since the doe-eyed beauty was so Indian! Not overwhelmingly dolled up, not westernised, not running around trees mindlessly, the personas she essayed were so close to life! If anything, here was an actor who’d come back from the US armed with a training in Fine Art – but spoke like us.
The literary face of Deepti Naval is not so well known, though. In fact, some of the youngsters in the audience – which was studded with stars of Indian Cinema like Sai Paranjpye, Goutam Ghose and Atul Tiwari – didn’t expect the actress to be there, in the International Festival of Literature organised by the Sahitya Akademi, and hosted by the Ministry of Culture to mark 75 Years of Independence. “Who’s this writer? The actor Deepti Naval? Didn’t know that!”
So, although I cherish every memory of Miss Chamko in Chashme Baddoor (1981, As Far be the Evil eye); of Sandhya Sabnis in Katha (1982, Stories); of Mahatmain in Damul (1985, Bonded Until Death); of Ek Aur Panchavati (1986, One More Panchavati) where she acted with my father, Nabendu Ghosh; of Memories in March (2010) and Listen..Amaya (2013), I decided to ignore the actress and bring to the fore the writer Deepti Naval, of whom Gulzar wrote in the Preface to Black Wind and Other poems (2004), her poetry collection: “She has her brains in her heart, or her heart in her head. She lives the experience twice. First, when she actually lands in a situation and takes the full experience of life. The second, when she filters it, takes the essence in a poem and relives it.”
RS: I’ve heard some of your poems on YouTube; I’ve read some of your stories, and though we don’t have the visa yet, we will soon have entry into that country when your memoirs are launched: A Country Called Childhood — I love the name!
All your stories and certainly your poems come out of your lived life. Is it always your own life or does your aesthetics sometimes follow what happened to another person? I know you’ve directed a television serial, so – d’you sometimes become the camera and simply watch the characters in action?
Deepti: Yes, all my stories come from real life. Most of the stories are my own experience and the rest either happened to friends or I heard the story, perhaps three sentences, that has stayed with me for some reason. It has registered and never left me. So, when I got down to writing, I thought, ‘Why don’t I recreate what could have happened?’
Obviously, there’s an element of imagination in recreating the stories but they’re real episodes that have happened to real people. There’s only one story – The Morning After – which is completely fictional. The rest of the stories are all somebody’s or the other’s experience.
RS: Just taking up on that expression — completely fiction: Does ‘fiction’ come out of the air or does it come out the soil?
Deepti: Always from somewhere — in life, in this world. Something has got rooted in your mind, and you feel that you can develop it. If you write about it, you can share.
RS: I know at least one story that I read – ‘Thhulli’– has come out of the homework you did for a film that probably never happened.
Deepti: No, the film never got made. The film, Red Light, was to come out of a script that was given to me by Vijay Tendulkar. It was about a girl who stands under the lamppost in a red-light district, and then whatever happens… I was to play that girl. So, I felt I should do some homework.
Actors love to indulge in things like that. So, I went to a red-light district with three of my colleagues. And that experience, of that one night in Kamathipura, the red-light district of Bombay, what happened that whole night… How I met this girl called Thhulli, up in one of the brothels. How I pursued her — I wanted her to give me time. I wanted to sit and chat with her, and that was managed. I got that space with her — until things got a little rough. The whole ambience became very tense, and I had to be salvaged from that situation into getting out. It was an eye-opener.
RS: The portion that first grabbed me was your first encounter with Kamathipura.
Deepti: Yes, I’m particularly drawn to this one experience. It was a dark monsoon night when we first stepped into that area. And you know what the monsoon in Bombay is like — if it starts to pour, it is unending. So, it was one of those nights and we’re in my Ambassador car. We were just cruising along the red-light district. You don’t see many people because it’s pouring, and it’s very late in the night.
Reading from ‘Thulli’ by Deepti Naval
The street we had now entered was completely dark, the only source of visibility being the headlights of our car. It was an eerie feeling driving through a lane where you could see nothing, just the sense of something not being right. We drove slowly into the uncanny silence of the waterlogged avenue, broken only by the sound of ripples caused by the whirring of car tyres.
‘Something tells me we should turn back,’ Tanvir spoke gravely. No one said a word. Inayat drove cautiously up to the end of the lane, then switched gears. Slowly the Ambassador started to swerve, heavy with the water in its wake. This is when I began to get my bearings.
Thrown suddenly into the floodlights as the car made a gurgling U-turn, on both sides of the street, were women – standing behind the bars, their powdered-to-white faces alternately Illuminating in the shifting light. They were neither soliciting customers nor bargaining. They just stood there, languid, confined within their cages, each occupying a separate, dark world.
“Why are they locked behind bars?” — I spoke under my breath, not believing what I saw.
“These are cages,” answered Tanvir. “Women here are not allowed to get out.’
‘They’d be killed if they did,” declared Inayat.
“My God! So, they do exist, the famous Cages of Falkland Road!”
Excerpted from The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now
RS: But let me read a few lines from the portion where you’re recognised as an actress. That must be quite a common experience for you…
Reading from ‘Thulli’ by Ratnottama Sengupta
“No, no more Ikkey! Go…go! No more! The girls are tired and sleeping. I cannot wake them up now.”
“It is not a customer Thhulli!” he said in a hushed tone, then moved aside to reveal me standing nervously behind him. The woman saw me, and for a moment there was in her eyes… not instant recognition, as I had expected, but disbelief.
She suddenly looked perplexed. “She is… she is…”
“She is a film star…” and he whispered my name to her, bending real low, as if he was the only person who knew about my dark secret.
“She wants to talk to you. They want to make a film on your life.”
I shot a glance at him — a clever little fellow, I thought.
“At this time?”
“Just for a few minutes…” I quickly pleaded, the ‘please’ carried forward with my eyes.
The woman relented. The man stepped aside allowing me to enter through the half gate. “Yeh Thhulli hai!” he said, introducing me formally to the woman from the window.
The greater part of the room was in darkness. I walked into my grim surroundings, grateful for being let in at this unearthly hour.
I looked about the room. It was just a single room, very small, cramped with two giant sized wooden beds with bright coloured curtains hanging around them. Underneath the beds, sprawled all over the floor were girls. Nine of them, Thhulli informed me as she asked me to follow her.
She adroitly crossed over to the other side; I hesitated a bit, looking at the bare legs zigzagging the floor. Knees jutting into knees, hair enmeshed with hair, the girls slept soundly, huddled into each other. I followed Thhulli avoiding placing my foot on braids collaged against the burnt grey cement floor.
Suddenly, I stood face to face with a distorted version of myself in the huge mirror tilted against the green wall. Appearing strange in this setting, I saw myself slanted in the mirror — a cotton stole wrapped around my head, blue jeans and a white top, wearing my trekking shoes, the old olive Timberlands that refuse to wear out. A low night lamp turned to lime green the corner where the cupboard was cemented into the wall. Both of us now stood in the only space left in the room — the window.
“Baitho,” said Thhulli, looking around for something for me to sit on.
From under a heap of bedsheets she pulled a red plastic stool spilling sleazy magazines about the floor. I tried not to look. She dusted the stool with it, then fixing her own hair in the mirror, moved down on the floor, gracefully. I looked at the stool at first, then, decided to sit down on the floor next to Thhulli — at the window.
Thhulli curled up and smiled, the innocent smile of a child. A woman of thirty or so, she looked older than her years. Her face had great beauty, I could see, with clear skin and gentle features. “Assamese?” I inquired. “No, Nepali,” she replied, her legs pulled up against her chest.
For a long awkward moment we looked at each other, then she spoke in awe, “You are very famous.” Her Hindi had a falling forward tilt to it. “I have seen you,” she said gently.
“In a film?” I asked, my hopes rising. This was my chance of connecting with her instantly.
“No, not in film. On the wall, on a poster… and on that!” She pointed towards a small television set, a grimy fourteen-inch B&W perched on a heap of aluminium trunks at the other end.
“You were singing,” she said shyly.
“Singing?” I tried to restrict my voice to a whisper.
“Yes, under a waterfall… with… with Mithoon Chakraborthy… your song Uthaile ghunghata… chand dekh le!” 
“Oh my God! You watch that stuff!”
“The girls watch it all the time! They love that song. They love seeing films. We get to watch them in the afternoons. The minute they wake up, they switch on the TV set. I let them… they are young.”
“And you don’t go to the cinema hall?”
“We hardly go out!” Thhulli became quiet almost as soon as she said that. Dressed in a lungi and kurta, her knees pulled up on one side, she was far from the pan-spitting, hard faced kaddak madams of kothas that we see in Hindi films. This was a face you would never expect to see in a brothel. I quickly revised my pre-conceived notion of prostitutes.
Excerpted from The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now
RS: The rest of it is also full of sensitive moments. And this is a story that we would not hear if she were not an actor. The amazing thing is this seems timeless! Recently we saw a similar situation in Gangubai Kathiawadi, which is set at least half a century ago, in Nehru’s time. There too the girl says, “We see the actors only on the posters, because we are never allowed to go out.”
Deepti: That’s a hard-hitting reality. They Are Behind Bars… and never allowed to go out!
RS: Deepti you’ve travelled widely, across the globe. After your studies you came back to Mumbai. You’ve travelled across India. You’ve also travelled through the arts. You’ve studied Fine Art in New York, you’ve seriously done photography, you’ve been in films, you’ve taken to writing. Lamha Lamha (Moment to Moment), your first book of Hindi poems, came out almost 40 years ago?
Of course, I’m going to ask you to recite one of your poems. Again, I won’t ignore the actress all together. In fact, one of my favourites is about Smita and you. It’s again an experience that you can share only with another actor.
Deepti: Smita and I? That’s from my second book of poems, Black Wind. By the time it came out, I had lived life. Lamha Lamha was all about romantic ideas about life, about love, those tender feelings you have before you really start living the harsher realities of life. And Black Wind came out in 2004 – it was a dark period, when things were not going well. So, the poems turned out… a bit dark (smiles). But there’s this nice poem addressed to my friend Smita Patil. It kind of describes Smita’s and my relationship. I wrote this poem after she was gone.
SMITA AND I
Always on the run,
Chasing our dreams…
We met each time
At baggage claim
Stood a while together
Among gaping crowds.
Spoke unspoken words.
Yearning to share
Afraid of ourselves.
All around us people
And we, like spectacles
Amidst the madness.
Trying to live a moment,
A glance, a touch,
A feeling to hold on to –
And move on…
The last time we sat together
Waiting for a flight,
I remember I'd said,
“There must be another way
Of living this life!”
For a long time you remained silent.
And I’m still running…
To prove you wrong.
R.S Deepti, you’re a woman. And by that very definition you’re an artist. An artist who speaks in many voices. Do you still do photography?
Deepti: That’s taken a back seat since writing took over. But painting I still do, yes.
RS: So, in the title story of the collection, The Mad Tibetan, you’re relating your experience of travelling in Ladakh with the camera. You’re looking at your protagonist through the camera aren’t you?
Deepti: When I first went to Ladakh in 1993 there weren’t too many Indians there. Leh was full of foreigners. It was as if I’m in Europe. As a photographer it had fascinated me. About four years later, I wanted to see that landscape during winter. In summer you see these patches of green, a cultivated green patch between two houses. I thought, let me see how the landscape changes in winter, how it turns grey and brown and black.
So, after a Film Festival at Siri Fort [Delhi] I got onto a flight with some faujis – military men flying there from Jammu. Then I looked for a taxi. In summer I’d seen many tourists – foreigners toh bhare pade thhe. But now I didn’t see a soul, taxis too were difficult to come by. So one fauji said, “Ma’am you wait here, we’ll organise a vehicle for you. Where d’you want to go?” “Leh,” I said. But Leh was deserted. No hotels in sight, the streets were deserted. I knew one co-actor, Phunsook Ladakhi, lived in Stok, some 13 kms away. I asked if they could take me there.
Phunsook was not there but his wife, her sister and a child were there. I stayed with them. They didn’t speak Hindi and I didn’t speak their language, but we could communicate. There I would take my camera, take some rajma — kidney beans — rolled in a dry roti in the pocket of my parka jacket, and go around Stok and Choglamsar. There I saw this Tibetan man in an open tent by the river Indus. I found it fascinating that a man was living in a tent that didn’t have a roof – it was tied down with bamboo poles but had no roof! ‘This is weird’ I thought and started taking photos. Pictures of him. A few kids were playing around him, calling out ‘Nyonba! Nyonba!’ – the word means crazy.
Meanwhile it started to snow. I was taking pictures – and I realised that in that wide open, with the kids gone, I was alone with the camera and this man! He was then posing for me with animated gestures, and I thought, “Wow! What a study for a photographer!” Then, once I realised that there was something off with the man, I started to retreat and get back on the tar road which is the old highway. And he ran after me for quite a bit. But he ran up to the point where there was a barbed wire. Perhaps that was symbolic: I managed to pull it up, got under it and came out on the tar road. He stayed there, and his expression was one of a child. Like, ‘Now you were playing with me, and now you’re running away! Game over?’
In the night, in the place I was staying in Stok, I could hear some sound: Ta-tar-tar-ta… It was a scary sound that I’d been hearing over the past couple of nights. I came down and didn’t see the women or the kids. I knocked on their door and got no response. There was no sign of life. And the sound had come really close. So, I said to myself, “No good being scared.” So at three at night, I opened the window and tried to confront the source of the strange sound. “Who’s there, trying to bother me?” I called out.
And then I see this Nyonba. The mad Tibetan had strung together a whole lot of Coca Cola cans and was dragging them on the tar road like a rattle – going this way and then going that way…!
It was an amazing sight, and sound. I ran for my camera, but it was nighttime, there was hardly any light on the road, and I was on the first floor. So, I said, forget the camera, let me just be in this moment. The camera cannot capture all the beauty that we experience!
RS: Sometimes we don’t have the time – or the opportunity – to read but the experience is shared when the screenwriter narrates it so vividly like you just did. And clearly you have the eye for details. We see this in all your stories. Also, as I have already mentioned, most of your stories are about women – as was the series you directed, Thoda Sa Aasman.
I was touched by the story, ‘Sisters’, about the two pre-teen siblings who live with their alcoholic father because their mother has left them. And the father decides to shave off their hair because it’s full of lice. And the agony the loss of hair causes – only a woman can realise what it is to be forcefully deprived of their hair! It’s not vanity, it’s something deeper, it’s the crowning glory of an Indian woman.
Deepti: Yes, this story is set in Joginder Nagar, a small place in remote Himachal Pradesh where my mother had lived. When the father shaves off all their hair, and they have to walk back bald-headed, they are so embarrassed. Everybody is staring at them, the other kids are jeering at them. These Pahari women had beautiful long hair and now they were takla munda, a shining bald pate! The humiliation of being heckled at, the agony, is too much.
RS: But even at that tender age, and in such a disturbed state, the girls are so sensitive! They plan to leave their father and go away to the city where he won’t find them…
Deepti: They try to take the last train at night and get away from the misery of facing their neighbours after the unbearable loss. But then they think of their father, so forlorn without them. One of them gets on the train, but the other says, “Wait… what if mother comes back?” So, they both stay back!
RS: But Deepti, there’s at least one story – ‘Bombay Central’ – which is entirely from the male perspective. It’s also happening primarily between two men. It’s not only a man’s point of view, it is a masculine experience too. How did you come by it? It was also the first story I read because, being born and bred in Bombay, I was lured by the title – I expected to see some of my city in it.
Deepti: I’d heard the story from an Assistant Director(AD) during one of my film projects. We were talking about who came to Bombay – now Mumbai — from where and how. This AD told me later, “I couldn’t bring it up in front of everyone, but I was only fifteen when I came to Bombay. And something strange happened…”
This boy was on the train coming from some place in Madhya Pradesh. Sitting across him in a starched white kurta-pyjama was this very proper slim man who kept looking at him, as if sizing him up. “Why is he staring away at me?” the boy started to wonder. As the train approached the Bombay Central station, the man started to make small talk with the boy. The conversation continued and when they alighted at the station, he brought the boy home.
The boy gets his first glimpse of Bombay, its downtown area, and is struck by it, and the house where he lands up. And through the night he spends there, he realises that he was brought home by the man for his wife! It so happens that she kind of seduces him – and he is made to sleep with her while the man is in the verandah across, lying on charpoy with his face the other way while the full thing happens here! The boy realises that he is probably impotent, but he loves his wife so much that he doesn’t want her to leave him… so he brought home a naïve young person who wouldn’t fight!
When I heard this, I felt I had to write it. I wrote some of it from imagination, building some of the description on what I was told – whatever he had conveyed to me… Yes, it is a male story!
RS: But as I finished reading it, I thought to myself, what if we change the gender? Would anyone be surprised if an elderly woman takes home a naïve young girl for her husband? I think we’ve all heard some such thing happening, being experienced so many years back and perhaps even now. But this was so startling, it reminded me of Roald Dahl.
I must mention two other things about the story. First, this is also happening on a monsoon night – the boy decides to stay in the man’s house because it is pouring when he arrives in a new city late in the night…
Deepti: Yeah! My stories are full of the Bombay monsoon! The rest are all in the pahar, mountains…
RS: The other thing is that the boy was also lured to the city by the moving images of the tinsel town on the silver screen. Of course, this guy was not coming to be an actor…
Deepti: No, he was coming to assist in filmmaking, to learn to eventually be a director and make his own movies…
RS: And what was the final resolution in life? Did he achieve his dream?
Deepti: Yeah, he became a filmmaker and made three-four decent films (laughs).
RS: Wonderful to know that Tinsel Town is not always heartbreaking, full of shattered dreams! Now, with A Country Called Childhood, we are in Amritsar…
Deepti: Yes, we will go there but before that – I will go back to my book of poems, Black Wind and Other Poems. There’s a section here called The Silent Scream. This came out of my curiosity, and deep interest in psychology and the aberrations of the so-called sane mind.
While I was writing these poems, I was also writing a script called Split. This was about an actor who gets a script where she has to play a mentally disturbed woman. I wrote about how the actor goes into that role for which she’s shooting in Ranchi. How she goes to the asylum, spends time in the women’s ward, comes to know some of them and imbibes all that into her work. But eventually her own ghosts start popping out from the closet – and in a cathartic moment she breaks down in front of the camera.
Yes, it turned out to be a dark script. Nobody wanted to put in money on a subject like this – so that got shelved. But what happened is that despite writing that script, there were many images that were floating around in my head, “this hasn’t been woven in… that too got left out…” Those came out in the form of these 22 poems.
What happened was, when I was shooting Hip Hip Hurray for Prakash (ex-husband Prakash Jha) I came to know that there’s a very big mental institution there – Ranchi Mansik Arogyashala.
At this time, I was offered a role by Amol Palekar in Ankahee where I play a girl who is slightly off the rocker. I told Amol, “I can’t do the scene – hallucinating, convulsing and all that. I need to see how some of the patients behave.” Amol said, “No no don’t – you’ll come up with all kinds of strange ideas.” But since I was in Ranchi, I decided to go. On one occasion, I went with Goutam Ghose – I wanted him to direct the film.
I went in planning to go there 2-3 days, and I spent 23 days. After the first four hours I spent there, I was so zapped, so enervated! I felt, “My god! Just one visit and I’m feeling so drained – what if I were to do an entire 30 days of shoot! What would it do to me as a person? And if an actor has to stay for 30 days in that character’s state of mind, would she remain unaffected? That was the seed of the script Split. The mirror image, but there’s a split.
So, I took permission and spent the whole day inside the ward, on the verandah with all the women. I came to know them at close quarters and ended up with a deeper understanding of their minds. Some of the women were clinically not even mad, but if someone came and wrote “her mind is not stable,” they can put you there. He can go frolicking and nobody comes to take the girls back. They can be excluded from property and everything, totally discarded. There were so many girls like that.
So, here’s a girl I used to watch every night. I’d be sitting in the verandah and she’d come out – I could see her trying to deal with herself…
She stands at one end of the verandah,
A naked bulb glows at the other end
Staining the dark floor with dull yellow light.
Beyond the empty ward
Drag echoes of the autumn night.
From pillar to pillar, in severe silence
Skulk slithering shadows.
Out alone in the cold she stands
Night after night
Fighting her demons!
Her body, frail and brittle,
Flaps leaf-like, on two glass feet.
The torched face, broken
Then tacked together, so bluntly
The ragged joints show.
Hounded eyes that do not blink
Frozen in a deathlike glaze.
Her fragile spirit, splintered.
These are not the features
She was born with.
This is the face we gave her.
Another poem is about a girl who’s different from the rest of us. She’s different, but delightfully confident. She has this flight of mind which the world doesn’t easily accept…
‘I’m DURGA! I’m KALI!
No one can conquer me!’
She pulled the crown off the idol’s head
And wore it on herself.
The crowds were aghast!
They swore at her,
Chased her with sticks, stones, screams…
But she slipped into the wilds
Flying beyond their reach.
At the magic hour
When sun and rain dazzle the earth,
She danced and skipped,
Jumped and leaped,
Chasing a single rainbow…
Light-footed, she glided
Through the celestial landscape
Wearing her cheap silver crown
She tripped the light, luminous.
“I am DURGA! I am KALI!”
A frog leapt in the slush –
She lunged towards it, caught it!
Croaky frog twitching in her left hand
Stick in the right,
A tinsel crown aslant her forehead
She was one with the elements.
With earth, with sky, with slush,
With trees, with breeze…
Dancing! Mesmerising her Gods!
Her laughter gurgled in the wind
Her feet spinning the good earth.
And then the villagers got her.
Caught her by her feet
Dragged her through the sludge.
Frog, stick, crown dragged behind,
Straggled on the muddy track.
‘She’s too dangerous to be left free!’
They signed on a piece of paper,
Dumped her in the loony bin,
Wiped the vermilion off her forehead
Chopped the long black hair
Razed it to scalp
Locked her behind the solid grill.
Left her squalling, on the cold dank floor.
Now, when the sky is overcast
And the earth is wet and brown,
She walks down the courtyard,
Blue-templed and dead-eyed,
The cardboard crown trails behind her,
None make a sound.
There’s another aspect to this. I was working on the script, taking notes, talking to the women. And there was one girl, she was mad on seeing me there. She was livid, she just didn’t want me there. She would come up and tell me, “Chiriya ghar hai kya? Is this a zoo? Ka dekhne aaye ho, tamasa? Have you come to see a spectacle?”
I knew what she was feeling. She thought – and it wasn’t tamasha, people just walk in to see us, “What are we? Creatures to be stared at?” She would confront me whenever she got a chance. Her state of mind I have tried to put down in this poem which is addressed to me – the so-called sane world.
THE STENCH OF SANITY
There’s something rotten inside of you.
In your flesh, the stench of sanity!
It breathes in your eyes, this thing…
Something decadent in your flesh
It will be too late,
You will die of it.
This thing that sleeps with you
Night after night,
Like an ageing wanton woman,
Spent, but not quite spent.
And she waits for you to dump her
In some dark street corner.
Yet she follows you, drunken whore!
There’s no getting away for you
You will die of it,
This thing, that breathes…
Inside of you, in your flesh
The stench of sanity!
The anthology Black Wind got its name from the lovely poem of that name. That was at a time when everything I was going through was dark. Between 1990 and 1995, I was going through depression, and suicidal attacks. It’d come every 20-25 days and I had to fight it. And I did!
One has gone through all kinds of ups and downs in personal life, so my poems are autobiographical. There’s not much to hide – nothing that I am embarrassed of, nothing that needs camouflage. What I was reluctant to talk about, that is also in this new book, so I’m very comfortable with myself now.
RS: So now it is time for celebration… We’re about to enter A Country Called Childhood. What made you think of this title?
Deepti: I was writing and sharing my chapters with my editor, David Davidar of Aleph Book Company. Somewhere I’d written a sentence that these were the sound, the smell, the feel of a country where I grew up, a country called ‘Childhood’. He caught on to that phrase and said, “This will be the title of your book.”
Yes, childhood is a country where we’ve all been and at some point, we leave that country – ‘that museum of innocence’, as Goutam Ghose just mentioned – for good. And we leave with no return ticket! We only live with the memories of that place.
RS: Surely your childhood was in an actual geographical landscape?
Deepti: My entire childhood was spent in Amritsar. That’s where I was till I turned 19, then I went to America. But all the 18 years until then had been spent in Amritsar and growing up there left vivid imprints in my mind. The rest of it I’m a little vague. Sometimes a colleague says, “Arre we were there in such-n-such festival, together we did this, or that.” And I think, “This person remembers all this so distinctly, but I don’t!” But my childhood I remember.
The first four chapters were written 20 years ago, and since then I’ve been jotting down even the smallest incident that comes back at odd moments. Later on, I would recall it and write it the way I remember it.
Then of course there was this whole element of research. Because family history se jo suni-sunai baat hai — all that I’d heard or was part of family lore — had to be cross-checked to make sure they have a foothold on the ground. There was a lot on the Partition, there was the Japanese Invasion of Burma during WWII when my mother’s family walked over the Assam Hills and came into India over months. All these stories rooted in historical events needed cross checking.
And looking for photographs! From whichever source I could think of, any relative I met, I’d say, “Aunty you must be having some pictures? Please look for them!” “Y-e-s, there are some lying somewhere upstairs!” I’d coax them and chase them and get them to bring down the suitcase from the attic or wherever, dust it, tease them out of envelopes… And if I saw anything that was of interest to me, I’d plead, “Give this to me, I’ll get it professionally scanned… and cleaned!”
This went on endlessly. Off and on, I was also involved in [film] shootings. Only when the publisher came into the picture some five years ago that I said to myself, “Now this is a project, I have to complete it before I do anything else.” I did a couple of web series and a film too, but these were a distraction for me. I was dying to get back to the book. Because when you’re writing, if you do anything else, it takes so much more effort to pick up from where you left. Woh wapas itni aasani se nahin hota — it’s not easy to get back to the same state of mind. It’s a discipline I have to learn from people like Atul (Tiwari) here. Sai (Paranjpye) also has written her memoirs — A Patchwork Quilt, is a wonderful book. Sai’s the sole reason for people knowing me as Miss Chamko – that’s why my writing has been overshadowed by my on-screen essays (smiles).
RS: Is there anything on Sai in A Country Called Childhood?
Deepti: No, my next book will have a huge chunk on Sai. This is only about my childhood. I started to write it as a homage to my parents. But it took me so long to finish this book, they have both gone. That’s the only thing that’ll hurt me about this book.
RS: Are you a single child?
Deepti: No, I have an older sister and a younger brother in America.
RS: So what will you read out to us today?
Deepti: Let me read the opening of my book. I’ve tried to recreate my childhood as vividly as possible, the way I remember it visually. And I want the reader to come with me… through my childhood.
Prologue — Reading by Deepti Naval
Memory rushes back. At times it pulls me by my finger, eggs me on, saying, “Come, let’s go inside those dark chambers where you stood in the light, rejoicing a life yet to unfold.”
It’s getting dark in the city of Amritsar. Shops are shutting down, street lamps come on, casting dim, yellow light. Rickshaws and bicycles hustle to make their way home. A handcart loaded with gunny bags wobbles down the street. Even Dwarka’s wine shop is closing. The old salwar tailor pulls his rickety shutter down, gets on his bicycle and paddles away. Shahani’s voice can be heard – she’s urging her buffaloes home. Grubby little boys, the mochis, play outside in the gully and behind the threshold of the phatak, the big iron gate, two little sister, Bobby and Dolly go about their lives…
This scene seems like it is from hundreds of years ago but it actually dates back to the year 1956. It’s one of my earliest memories, in which I’m almost four years old. It’s the street I remember the most, the street on which I lived.
So now I go into third person and I see myself there.
A litte girl darts out of a house, crying, “I want to go to my Mamma.”
“Your Mamma has gone to the cinema. You get in here at once.”
“I will also go to the cinema,” she retorts and runs down the street.
Suddenly something stirs in the air. There’s a muffled grunt in the sky and the breeze changes. The sky turns red. Tin sheds begin to flap and rattle. The smell of wind on earth. It’s a dust storm. Stray pieces of paper littering the ground outside the book binders shop fly up and float in the air. Bicycles fall in a slow, studied motion along the wall of the cinema hall. The wooden shutter of Gyan Halwai’sshop tilts and slips out of its clamp. He stands with his arms outstretched, holding it with all his malai lassi strength against the wind, his lungi threatening to fly off. A rickshaw puller pedals backwards and sideways. The world seems to slant at the edges. Dust storms the streets.
My Sardi’s voice cuts through the mayhem. “Stop, I say. Get back girl. It’s dark!” she yells.
The girl is not coming back. She runs all the way to the end of the street and suddenly finds herself in the middle of Katra Sher Singh Chowk in front of the Regent Talkies, surrounded by huge cinema posters. The posters begin to tear from the whiplash of the wind. Sarr… sarr… sarr… faces of actors and actresses fold up and slap against the dry whitewash of the decrepit cinema.
Unable to keep her eyes open from the dust, wind and tears, the little girl hides her face in her sleeve. At her feet swirl particles of dust-torn scraps of paper; bright orange and pink trimmings from the tailor’s shop gather momentum. She stands still for a while, watching the little merry-go-round go around her dotted booties, until her eyes fall upon something.
Across the street, the Plotwala is doing a Tandav. He’s the skinny man who sells little leaflets with the plot and songs of Hindi films printed on them. A strong gust wisps away the sepia-coloured leaflets from his hands and flings them into the wind. They soar in the air, going up and up in circles, dodging the poor man’s attempts to retrieve them. Tossed into the wind, the yellowed sheets somersault, now diving to his feet, now rising as if in sudden applause. He leaps and plunges by the side of the road, flapping his arms around, hurling himself at the musical notes. One leap slips into two and two into four till the songs dance above his gaunt, lanky frame. He dances with the songs, the poor Plotwala, trying in vain to hang on to his only means of livelihood as it slips away into grainy air.
No one notices the little girl as she stands in the middle of the road, enthralled by the dance of songs. Her large eyes filled with tears but she forgets to cry.
“There you are Marjani!” – my Sardi steps forward, scoops me…Now I’m back to first person: … scoops me in one sweeping movement, lodges me onto her hip, strides down the street, puts me back inside the house where I belong.
As we enter, my grandmother rises from a chair, pointing a finger at me, “No little girls from good homes go out to cinemas on the street.”
Excerpted from A Country Called Childhood by Deepti Naval
RS: One question in the mind of those who’ve been hearing you: Is poetry closer to your heart, than prose/ fiction?
Deepti: Writing is close to my heart. I look at life through both. I’m always looking for the little things that make life so interesting. At the end of the day, I would like to be known as an artist. Somebody who just felt compelled to express herself any which way, whichever form comes in front of me. Work is joyous, interesting work more so.
RS: One of our listeners here feels that the actor in you is talking when you are writing – because your writing is very vivid and visual. Does it come from your experience as an actor? Do you pay greater attention to details in life because you have to act?
Deepti: I think being an actor does train us to observe life. And when you notice something, you grab that and keep it somewhere in your emotional reservoir – perhaps for future use! But as a child too, I was very observant. I used to observe my mother very keenly. So yes, looking into the shadows helps me be Miss Chamko, and definitely it helps me in my writing.
RS: So which expression is more satisfying to the artist in you – acting or writing?
Deepti: It is immensely satisfying for me to put down something in writing. Because, as an actor I’m carrying to the audience a concept that is the director’s, and the writer’s. Then there’s an editor there who has put it together in the best way to take the emotion of the moment to the audience. I’m a tool in chiseling the portrait – Miss Chamko – that people love…
But we – artists — continually interpret life through our work. Even acting. Acting isn’t a camouflage either, you have to bare yourself, your inner self. There’s no work that is not autobiographical. Writing is perhaps more so.
 Translates from Hindi as ‘Awakening’. This is the name of the festival in Simla in June where Deepti Naval’s book was launched in 2022 June.
 Film based on Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons (1978), set in 1857 against the backdrop of the revolt.
 The forest where Rama built a hut and stayed during his exile in Ramayana
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. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
A stranger than fiction book that starts with a limerick and ends with a rhyme, supposed to be a scholarly and playful work on perhaps the first Australian novelist-cum-lawyer-cum-journalist who sold cheap paperbacks for women readers traveling by train in India in the nineteenth century — probably British readership — fought a case for Rani of Jhansi – wrote for Charles Dickens’s Household Words – This can be the description of Amit Ranjan’s John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee (Niyogi Books). Why would one do a book on a maverick like this Australian journalist-cum-writer of the nineteenth century who opposed the British? What led to such a book? The quest for a ghostly ‘Alice Richman’ who lived in Pune in the 1800s, says Ranjan. And the author’s quest continues…spanning the shores of Australia, ‘Hindoostan’ and America…
The other most interesting thing about this book is the way the story is told – Ranjan says he is deeply influenced by the genre of magic realism and this, perhaps, reflects in his writing. While the research input is awesome, the style is non-academic and even flamboyant at times. It is a book that brings a smile to your face with its obvious cheekiness. But this is also the kind of book you keep on your bookshelf and pull out when you have time to mull over a discussion on historic links and syncretism – for that is the sap that flows through the book concealed behind a laid-back narrative style of a nineteenth-century writer. Who is this Ranjan who has tried to re-invent pedantry and scholarship, treat the serious business of research and academia with such friskiness?
Ranjan is a Visiting Fellow at UNSW [University of New South Wales], Sydney; and a Fulbright Scholar-in- Residence at Miami, an assistant Professor at NCERT [National Council of Educational Research and Training, India] — with eye to the sky, and ear to the ocean. His poetry collection, Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’mAlmost Thirty, came out two years ago, and his biography of Dara Shukoh is due out soon. His poetry collection came out 4 years ago, and a new collection of poems The Knot of Juggernaut was just released in Miami in March. Without more ado, as John Lang would have it, we present to you Amit Ranjan –
What was it that made you map your journey of unearthing Lang in the form of his writings instead of writing about his life directly? You have used the forms of limerick, poetry and the epistolary technique along with essays and Lang’s own writing to build your case. An amazing amalgam — Why? It is rather an unusual form of storytelling.
This is an interesting question, or a set of questions. I think poetry is a powerful medium. At a certain time, it was supposed to regale and break tedium; now it seems to create tedium – the trajectory of human taste is interesting indeed. So, unable to write a book in verse (Vikram Seth debuted with a novel in verse a little more than three decades ago, with elan), the least I could do (and generally do with prose) is having poetic invocations at the beginning and the end. I’ve also tried to maintain a certain poeticity through the book – it does add some funk and spunk, I believe.
About the form of writing – what was available to me was writings about Lang, and writings by Lang. Lang’s own voice is richer and wittier than his contemporaries and commentators, and therefore it came naturally to speak about his voice, rather than speak about what has been spoken about his voice. Unfortunately, the personal papers and artefacts of Lang have all been lost – it would certainly have been a riot to peruse his letters. And since letters by him are missing, I decided to write a letter to him (which is the first chapter) much in the way he’d have liked to write or receive a letter.
Also, about the form of writing – history writing and academic writing is caught in its self-referential niche writing – and needs to be freed from that cage, or that page in the history of stylistics of writing. Much influenced by the Latin American novelists, as also the frame narratives like Bocaccio’s Decameron and Alif Laila – I thought it would be an interesting to approach non-fiction and/or history like a novel of the “lo real maravilloso” genre (well, almost). So one could call it creative non-fiction (this work is completely and heavily annotated, so there’s nothing ‘fictitious’ in the work – just to add that disclaimer). I think these experiments are exciting, much like ficto-criticism as a foil of this form.
You have an interesting tone of narration which is half flippant, but it delves deep into research. Tell us a bit about your research.
The tone is what one makes of it. It is also very Victorian in its language, to keep in sync with Lang’s age. The alleged flippancy is a deliberate device I guess – as a tribute to Lang’s own voice that is playful and yet serious, as also to demonstrate that playful writing can be effective and serious.
Telling a “bit” about this research will occupy a bit of space, for dwelling in the haunt of 19th century is a bit of a habit with me now. Those puns aside, the road of this research has been thrilling across space and time. On the home turf, it took me to Meerut, Mussoorie, Agra and Calcutta. We, being good recyclers of papers, the works by or about Lang barely survive here. The copies of his newspaper, The Mofussilite, published from the above-mentioned cities (minus Mussoorie) weren’t available anywhere except London, Canberra, Chicago – and interestingly Islamabad. And so, I went to UNSW at Sydney for my PhD research, courtesy of Endeavour and Inlaks fellowships. There I met a very interesting 86-year-old gentleman, Mr Victor Crittenden, who was a retired librarian, and who had a very keen interest in John Lang. He had republished a lot of Lang’s work, and it was amazing to have conversations with him. The only little problem was that he was such a hopeless Romantic that he had ascribed several anonymous or pseudonymous works to Lang. This, then, became a daunting task, to research about each of these works and see if they could actually be Lang’s. And of course, it also resulted in funny arguments. Meanwhile, I relaxed the scope and the methodology, made it broad and unorthodox, to see where I could get. I met descendants of Lang’s half-brothers; a rabbi in Melbourne who believed Lang was Jewish; a member of Italian nobility in Paris, bitter about the politics in that family, and so on. At one point I emailed one Motee Persaud in hope that he’s a descendant of Jotee Persaud – only to cause him anxiety, for there was some court against him, and he thought my email was a subterfuge for a bigger design! When I returned from Sydney, I lost a pen drive with scans of Lang’s newspaper, for it was in a pretty UNSW backpack that someone took fancy to. I think I met the purloiner for a fleeting minute a few months later! The bit can go on, but I think this bit should be contained before I write a short story about it here.
Was the journey of discovery as interesting as your discovery of Lang?
Oh yes indeed! I think some of that has been revealed in the previous answer. It’s still an open book, an ongoing journey, I am still working with The Mofussilite. In my three fellowships to Miami (none about Lang), I purloined time to peruse Lang’s journal. The journey has been a thriller all through, I would like to believe – including my not being able to find Lang’s grave ever. Once, my friends and I rolled down Mussoorie hills into Camel’s Back Cemetery and the eight of us hunted for Lang at the haunted forest on a rainy afternoon. No luck, and never after in my subsequent visits, though the directions are fairly easy.
One of the most fun discoveries was that a picture of Lala Jotee Persaud, a client of Lang’s, was printed in The Illustrated London News as Nana Sahib’s! I was thrilled to receive that picture from ILN.
Ruskin Bond, a writer many of us deeply admire, found Lang in the Camel Back cemetery in Mussoorie in 1964. Then an Australian scholar investigated him. Lang finally found a way to instigate your pen to take up his cause. What moved you to research and write on him?
I met Mr Bond in 2009 I think, and my friends and I had a great fan moment. His father had some Lang novels, and that is what interested in him. Almost simultaneous, John Earnshaw was interested Lang’s life in Australia, and he wrote a short 30-page account detailing his timeline. And then the interest was lost for 40 years, when Victor Crittenden and Rory Medcalf of Australian High Commission reinvigorated interest in the matter.
All this, unbeknown to me, I was hunting for Alice’s history. Alice Richman, a girl who died at 26 in 1882, is buried in Alice Garden, Pune University, surrounded by a forest and many urban legends. Not knowing how to go about finding anything about her – I followed the Hanuman methodology – pick up the whole mountain if you can’t identify the herb. In reading about Australians in India in 19th century, I stumbled upon Lang, and since then, there’s been no looking back.
So, Alice the ghost sparked your interest in him from her very presence in Pune, what was it about Lang that attracted you to take a decade long journey into his adventures? Tell us a bit about how Alice pushed you to it.
In the pursuit of Alice, I read about the interesting Australian women missionaries in India (they were brought to India to be ‘tamed’); camels and camel drivers that went from India; and several such fascinating stories. The pursuit of Alice prepared my reading list, and that is how I found Lang. A white man fighting a white empire, with a nuanced understanding of India, and with an infective invective – seemed like a natural resonance to me. It is beyond the scope of this interview to get into the thrilling details of discovering things about Alice’s life too throughout this decade you’ve mentioned. Suffice it to say that it is actually the pursuit of Alice I have been on, and she keeps rewarding with some Lang legend and legacy every now and then.
Did you feel there was a need to bring out Lang to the fore? Is he relevant for our times?
Absolutely so. He was the man who took on Lord Hardinge in his newspaper on a daily basis, to the point where the Governor General summoned him. Lang merely said that he made more profit by writing against him, than he could ever by singing paeans to him. He was a rebel, and witty. Today’s journalists across the world from the age of democracy can take a lesson or two from a man from the time of the Empire.
To understand where we are, we need to look at where we come from. The tedious legal system; the workings and trappings of army; racism; casteism; evolution of sciences and belief in pseudosciences – are explained in detail with wit, rigour and humour in Lang’s writings. To understand our postcolonial ontology, it is very important to understand how deeply colonialism affects us.
Please introduce the most interesting fact about the ‘Wanderer of Hindoostan’ to our readers. Tell us a bit about him concisely, especially as we are told in your preface: “Suddenly, there was an interesting piece of news doing rounds: that the Indian PM gifted his Australian counterpart with John Lang documents to demonstrate how far back the relations between the two countries went. I was not acknowledged. However, it was also a backhanded compliment. Lang had finally found an afterlife.”
Lang died in 1864; his name and works survived until. About 1910. For the afterlife of a writer, critics are important. Shakespeare, for example, was resurrected by the Romantics in the 19th century. After 19th century, Lang was lost until John Earnshaw’s minor interest in the 1960s; and then Victor – as already stated. My research was awarded as a PhD thesis in 2012. Interestingly, in 2014 he was showcased in this prime ministerial meeting. The rest you have told in your question – sometimes one has to take backhanded compliments with high spirits! Of course, it was an anxious time for me, for the cat was out of the bag, and I had to hunt for a publisher fast. However, as stated in the book – Stories forgotten or lying in the cold, find their own time to be told – and therefore finally a book, half in size of the original, in 2021. The advantage of including Lang is of course pushing India-Australia ties to mid-19th century, an idea which has never really been thought of.
Was the John Charnock you mentioned in your book related to Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta? Was Lang related to him and did that impact his choices? Job Charnock was after all a rebel too in a manner of speaking.
That’s a difficult connection to figure out, which I will try to, on some idle day when curiosity gets the better of me. Job Charnock, the alleged founder of Calcutta, died in 1693; and the reference in the Lang book about John Charnock is from 1843 (p362). Lucy, wife of John Lang, had a sister, Mary, a poet who was married to John Henry Charnock. Mary’s book Legendary Rhymes (1843) was published posthumously, and her husband wrote a preface to this book. This Charnock was Lang’s brother-in-law, so they would have known each other well. John Charnock himself was an agriculturalist and a drainage expert and wrote books on this matter. To answer the last part of the question, in my opinion, Job Charnock and John Lang are as different as chalk and cheese – the former being a thorough imperialist and the latter, the opposite.
In the start of a chapter, you have said: “Lang had foreseen Google.” Elucidate.
Oh, that’s a joke to complement and compliment one of Lang jokes. The novel Ex-Wife revolves around the predicament of a Eva Merrydale, divorced by her husband for “criminal familiarity with another man.” (p370) Eva’s brother tells that this case has been mentioned 114,227 times in the media, with 107 times in the Times alone. These kind of figures are something one would see in a google search result – 114,227 results for “Eva Merrydale divorce”
That is Lang lampooning the British media for its obsessing over a poor divorcee through the exaggerated figures. However, one wonders, if there were people employed to keep track of a particular news appearing in the media.
As a digression to this essay, Lang indeed was looking into the future of journalism – sensational headlines, scandals and so on. In one lead article about the Gorham case, which had been talked about to death, Lang just wrote –‘Damn the Gorham Case!’ – and captured the public sentiment!
What was the purpose of this book? What kind of readership did you expect?
I guess the purpose of a prose book, fiction or non-fiction, is to tell a good story. However, my purpose was to fulfil a calling – I had at hand, the figure of a character lost for a century. It then becomes one’s responsibility to resurrect the figure as one has been entrusted by destiny, too. And of the course, the more general idea holds – the keys to the present lie in the past, as has already been discussed.
In terms of readership, I was looking at anyone who is interested in an interesting story of a maverick figure. This is why the language is jargon free, the stylistics are that of a novel. However, of course, one is also looking at the countries Lang is lost to – India, Australia and UK – and to have them remember an important critic and figure of their past. I expect students of literature and colonial/ postcolonial histories to pick this work up; but I’d love it much more that it appeals to the general reader of fiction and non-fiction.
John Lang had encounters with Dickens, Rani of Jhansi — a very wide range of historic personalities and influenced, you have claimed even George Bernard Shaw. Yet, all these personalities lived on while he faded to obscurity. Why do you think that happened?
Lang fought the British imperial sword with his pen, was declared a “hospital bed novelist” by the critics and buried to the British posterity. He wrote in Australia with convicts as heroes, which of course, didn’t go down well with the convict settlement. For Indians, who he had so much adulation for, he still got lost to history. Probably his interest in wine and women did not go down well with Indian historians too; or he was difficult to slot, being an interloper.
One of the things that does come across is Lang faded to obscurity as no one knew of him. Do you feel the role of historians and critics critical to the survival of an author? Or do you feel the colonials he often wrote against were happy to bury his writings?
Both aspects are at work. As already pointed out, the colonial press gave him bad reviews all the time. Subsequent critics were not kind either. This goes on to suggest how deeply ideological and long drawn out the colonial project was.
How was Lang a rebel in his times? Do you feel your own journey has been a rebellion against pedagogical practices of the current times? After all, can a book based on this much research start with a limerick and end with a tongue-in-cheek rhyme?
Two leitmotifs would suffice to settle the matter about being a rebel. It is said, in Lang’s multiple novels, about the white British protagonists – “India he loved, England he despised.” The second motif is strong women characters, some of them very deliberately parodying Victorian women and Victorian novels.
If my writing is considered rebellious to the current conventions, I would take it as a compliment, and not a back handed one. I wish I wrote the entire book in verse. I hope to pull off that trick successfully someday.
Maybe you will – an upcoming one – Alice’s story…Do you have an upcoming book? What about a novel on the ghostly Alice?
A new poetry book titled The Knot of Juggernaut, Or The Mystery of (Miami Mambo) Vexuality was just released, a day before I left Miami to come back to Delhi. It will be out here soon, too, in a month. This collection has poems written about journeys between the Bay of Bengal and the Bay of Biscayne. The title was suggested by The Right Honourable KB Con, Ducktor Albatross.
A biography of Dara Shukoh is scheduled for the year end.
The Alice book – definitely, whenever Alice wills it!
In ‘When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn?’, Ratnottama Sengupta,comments on the current situation in Ukraine while dwelling on her memorable meeting with folk legend Pete Seeger, a pacifist, who wrote ‘Where have all the Flowers gone’, based on a folk song from Ukraine. Click here to read.
Munir Momin’s You & I translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Clickhere to read.
Down the stairs by Nabendu Ghosh, a gripping story exploring the greyer areas of ethical dilemmas, has been translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay with editorial input from Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.
Autumn is Long, a poem written in Korean and translated to English by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.
These narratives are written by youngsters from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. A letter to Godby Tanveer Hussain uses the epistolary technique to asks questions that would be relevant for all humankind. It has been translated from Hindustani by Vritika Thareja. Click here to read.
Only when the cries of the wretched of the earth will stop renting the skies,
Only when the oppressor’s bloody sword will cease smearing battlefields,
A rebel, weary of war,
Only then I won’t stir.
I’m the ever-rebellious hero--
Soaring over the world, all alone, head forever held high!
-- Rebel or 'Bidrohi' (1922) by Nazrul, translated by Fakrul Alam
These lines reiterate values we would do well to live by in a war-torn, dissension-worn world where the need for a rebel to recreate a humane society that lives with values such as peace, generosity, acceptance, tolerance, compassion and restraint — is a felt need. The two great poems made history by remaining as popular a hundred years after they were written — ‘The Rebel’ by Nazrul and TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. Nazrul defined a rebel as an iconoclast who breaks norms to find peace, justice and love for all, to move towards the creation of an ideal world. TS Eliot quoted from the Upanishads and ended with redemption coming with giving (giver perhaps denoted generosity), compassion and restraint. Despite the wisdom of these great poets and seers, war still continues a reality. The values remain neglected not just in as we see in conflicts, like the one in Ukraine that destroys lives, property and nature with intolerance towards differences, but also in our personal lives. Tagore also reiterated the same need for stepping out of personal, social, economic and political insularity. We carry a translation of a song that echoed this need while inviting participation in his ecstasy. He wrote:
Why do you sit in isolation,
Dwelling on self-centred issues?
Tagore had not only written of the negative impact of isolation from the world but he led by example, building institutions that could lead the world towards pacifism with acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness. Sriniketan and Santiniketan were created to move towards these ideals. Many of the people he influenced or who studied in Santiniketan made history, like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray; many added to the sense of inclusiveness, like Mahasweta Devi, who other than her enormous work to integrate different cultures, also wrote a memoir about Santiniketan in Bengali. Radha Chakravarty, nominated for the Crossword Translation Award (2004) for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi, has translated this memoir, a narrative which brings us close to Tagore’s ideals of the whole world being a family. How wonderful it would be if the world were open to such ideals and would behave like a global family and not go to war! Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan, which has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, reiterates Tagore’s vision of a planet living in harmony with the flora and fauna.
We are privileged to carry another excerpt from Ruskin Bond’s Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions, a hilarious story about a pet tiger adopted by the legendary writer’s grandfather. What is amazing about Ruskin Bond’s writing is the love and compassions for all creatures great and small that colours the tongue-in-cheek humour he rolls out to his readers. If only we could think like Bond, there would be no wars. His writing, I feel, transcends political borders or ‘isms’, and laces with love and compassion tales of menageries of monkeys, snakes, mongoose, humans of different denominations. This excerpt is a treat we are giving Borderless Journal as the journal completes two years of its existence. We are truly grateful to Speaking Tiger for sharing this excerpt with us. But our celebrations this time are sombre as the war rages with incoherence accompanied by heart-breaking ravages.
The refrain from Ukraine has been taken up by Ratnottama Sengupta as she takes us through the past and present experiences of the devastated country, bringing in the views of the legendary folk singer and pacifist, Pete Seeger (1919-2014), who she had interviewed over a span of four days. The writer of ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, a song based on an Ukrainian folk song, Seeger said, “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it.” Candice Louisa Daquin has also pondered on the justification of war, contextualising it with the current one along with her essay on the paradox of modern linguistic communication.
We have an exhaustive essay on the legendary Satyajit Ray’s creations by Anasuya Bhar. Malhotra has pondered at exclusivity reinforcing divisions, margins and borders to plague humankind, against the backdrop of the Women’s Month, March. Highlighting women in writing, we have interviewed two female writers, one from Nepal and another from Bangladesh. Sangita Swechcha lives in UK but her writing, till now largely in Nepali, often pines for her home embedded in the Himalayas whereas, an expat, Neeman Sobhan, shuttles between Bangladesh and Italy with the affluence and assurance of a privileged background.
Finding a way to override lack of privileges, deprivation and violence, are the youngsters of Nithari on the outskirts of Delhi where less than two decades ago other than poverty, savage criminality devastated the local populace. These youngsters transcended the suffering over time with help from volunteering NGOs to create narratives that amaze with their inventiveness and confidence. Tanveer Hussain from Nithari, self-motivated and self-made from a young age, asks questions that would be relevant for all humankind in a letter to God. It has been translated from Hindustani by Vritika Thareja of pandies’. This edition’s translations include Professor Fakrul Alam’s mellifluous rendition of Jibanananda Das’s poetry from Bengali to English, Ihlwha Choi’s Korean poetry and a Balochi poem by Munir Momin rendered in English by Fazal Baloch. Baloch had earlier translated poems by Akbar Barakzai, a great poet who departed on 7th March, depriving the world of yet another powerful writer who imbibed hope of a better future in his poetry. We are privileged to have hosted the translations of some of his poems and his last interview.
Suzanne Kamata continues writing on Japan as she introduces us to an Australian film maker who is making films in Japan and in Japanese, called Felicity Tillack. Cultures are perhaps truly crossing borders as we can see Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist who moved from US to Indonesia start a new column with us called ‘Mission Earth’. We hope, like Tagore or Rousseau, he will help to revive our felt need to live with nature, acknowledge the nurture that we get from the planet to live in harmony with it and on it.
At the end of twenty-four months of existence – that sounds better than a mere two years— we are happy to host a melange of writers from across the borders and be the meeting grounds of writers and readers from across continents. I am truly thankful to all of you for helping concretise an ideal. Huge thanks to all the writers, artists, photographers and the readers for the contribution of their time, effort and love. And thanks to our fabulous team who continue to support the journal unwaveringly. I would also like to thank Sohana for the lovely visuals she generously shares with us. A special thanks also to young Ayaan Ghoshal for his digital art where hands reach out to support a truly borderless world.
As usual, all the content has not been covered here, I invite you all to enjoy our March edition of Borderless Journal.
At the start of the third year of our existence, let us march onwards towards renewed hope – maybe the Ukraine experience will take us closer to a war-free world with an awakening of a felt need for peace and compassion in a planet without borders.
In quest of a peaceful, humane world, I invite you all to continue being part of this journey.
Title:Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions
Illustrator: Shubhadarshini Singh
Publisher: Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger.
TIMOTHY, THE TIGER cub, was discovered by Grandfather on a hunting expedition in the Terai jungle near Dehra.
Grandfather was no shikari, but as he knew the forests of the Siwalik hills better than most people, he was persuaded to accompany the party—it consisted of several Very Important Persons from Delhi—to advise on the terrain and the direction the beaters should take once a tiger had been spotted.
The camp itself was sumptuous—seven large tents (one for each shikari), a dining-tent, and a number of servants’ tents. The dinner was very good, as Grandfather admitted afterwards; it was not often that one saw hot-water plates, finger-glasses, and seven or eight courses, in a tent in the jungle! But that was how things were done in the days of the Viceroys… There were also some fifteen elephants, four of them with howdahs for the shikaris, and the others specially trained for taking part in the beat.
The sportsmen never saw a tiger, nor did they shoot anything else, though they saw a number of deer, peacocks, and wild boars. They were giving up all hope of finding a tiger, and were beginning to shoot at jackals, when Grandfather, strolling down the forest path at some distance from the rest of the party, discovered a little tiger about 18 inches long, hiding among the intricate roots of a banyan tree. Grandfather picked him up, and brought him home after the camp had broken up. He had the distinction of being the only member of the party to have bagged any game, dead or alive.
At first the tiger cub, who was named Timothy by Grandmother, was brought up entirely on milk given to him in a feeding bottle by our cook, Mahmoud. But the milk proved too rich for him, and he was put on a diet of raw mutton and cod liver oil, to be followed later by a more tempting diet of pigeons and rabbits.
Timothy was provided with two companions—Toto the monkey, who was bold enough to pull the young tiger by the tail, and then climb up the curtains if Timothy lost his temper; and a small mongrel puppy, found on the road by Grandfather.
At first Timothy appeared to be quite afraid of the puppy, and darted back with a spring if it came too near. He would make absurd dashes at it with his large forepaws, and then retreat to a ridiculously safe distance. Finally, he allowed the puppy to crawl on his back and rest there!
One of Timothy’s favourite amusements was to stalk anyone who would play with him, and so, when I came to live with Grandfather, I became one of the favourites of the tiger. With a crafty look in his glittering eyes, and his body crouching, he would creep closer and closer to me, suddenly making a dash for my feet, rolling over on his back and kicking me in delight, and pretending to bite my ankles.
He was by this time the size of a full-grown retriever, and when I took him out for walks, people on the road would give us a wide berth. When he pulled hard on his chain, I had difficulty in keeping up with him. His favourite place in the house was the drawing room, and he would make himself comfortable on the long sofa, reclining there with great dignity, and snarling at anybody who tried to get him off.
Timothy had clean habits, and would scrub his face with his paws exactly like a cat. He slept at night in the cook’s quarters, and was always delighted at being let out by him in the morning.
‘One of these days,’ declared Grandmother in her prophetic manner, ‘we are going to find Timothy sitting on Mahmoud’s bed, and no sign of the cook except his clothes and shoes!’
Of course, it never came to that, but when Timothy was about six months old a change came over him; he grew steadily less friendly. When out for a walk with me, he would try to steal away to stalk a cat or someone’s pet Pekinese. Sometimes at night we would hear frenzied cackling from the poultry house, and in the morning there would be feathers lying all over the veranda. Timothy had to be chained up more often. And finally, when he began to stalk Mahmoud about the house with what looked like villainous intent, Grandfather decided it was time to transfer him to a zoo.
The nearest zoo was at Lucknow, 200 miles away. Reserving a first-class compartment for himself and Timothy—no one would share a compartment with them— Grandfather took him to Lucknow where the zoo authorities were only too glad to receive as a gift a well-fed and fairly civilized tiger.
About six months later, when my grandparents were visiting their relatives in Lucknow, Grandfather took the opportunity of calling at the zoo to see how Timothy was getting on. I was not there to accompany him, but I heard all about it when he returned to Dehra.
Arriving at the zoo, Grandfather made straight for the particular cage in which Timothy had been interned. The tiger was there, crouched in a corner, full-grown and with a magnificent striped coat.
‘Hello Timothy!’ said Grandfather, and, climbing the railing with ease, he put his arm through the bars of the cage.
The tiger approached the bars, and allowed Grandfather to put both hands around his head. Grandfather stroked the tiger’s forehead and tickled his ear, and whenever he growled, smacked him across the mouth, which was his old way of keeping him quiet.
He licked Grandfather’s hands and only sprang away when a leopard in the next cage snarled at him. Grandfather ‘shooed’ the leopard away, and the tiger returned to lick his hands; but every now and then the leopard would rush at the bars, and the tiger would slink back to his corner.
Excerpted from Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions by Ruskin Bond; illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh. Published by Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Since he was a young boy, Ruskin Bond has made friends easily. And some of the most rewarding and lasting friendships he has known have been with animals, birds and plants—big and small; outgoing and shy. This collection focuses on these companions and brings together his finest essays and stories, both classic and new. There are leopards and tigers, wise old forest oaks and geraniums on sunny balconies, a talking parrot and a tomcat called Suzie, bears in the mountains and kingfishers in Delhi, a family of langurs and a lonely bat—and many more ‘wild’ friends, some of an instant, others of several years.
Beautifully illustrated by Shubhadarshini Singh, this is a gift for nature- and book-lovers of all ages.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ruskin Bond is the author of numerous novellas, short-story collections and non-fiction books, many of them classics. Among them are The Room on the Roof, The Night Train at Deoli, Time Stops at Shamli, Rain in the Mountains, The Blue Umbrella, When I Was a Boy, Lone Fox Dancing (his autobiography) and A Book of Simple Living. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993, the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014.
Ruskin lives in Landour, Mussoorie, with his extended family.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Shubhadarshini Singh was brought up in Kolkata and studied in Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan. She has been an ad woman, a journalist and a film-maker. She shares Ruskin Bond’s deep love for animals and wildlife and has made his best stories into a series for television: Ek Tha Rusty. Shubhadarshini runs an art gallery for Outsider Arts, and has had shows of her paintings in Delhi and Bhopal. She lives in Delhi with her husband, son and dogs.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …
Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.
The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.
Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’sAkbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.
While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years. Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.
Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.
We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.
We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.
Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’sJohn Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”
I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.
I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.
Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.
I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.
I have always wanted to interview Ruskin Bond who lives in Landour, near the hill-station of Mussoorie in India. Bond, now 87, grew up in Dehradun, tried a stint in England and returned to the country that had nurtured him to write stories that make us laugh and yet bring out the flavours of love and kindness in the Himalayas. Sadly, no one seems to be able to get me an online interview with him. So, I did the next best thing…
I interviewed Rhys Hughes.
You have to see it from my perspective, here was a humourist migrating from UK to India, just like Bond. Both their names begin with R — Ruskin wrote of monkeys conducting a fashion parade in colourful pyjamas borrowed from him, perhaps permanently and Rhys wants to interview a monkey who took a bottle of coconut oil from his current home. Only, Hughes’ monkey happens to be in Sri Lanka and Bond’s monkeys were in India. In fact, I told Hughes he could be the next Bond and could perhaps get into an apprenticeship. He has the basic compassion and humour in his writing that endears Bond to so many hearts. However, Hughes has not made it across to India as yet. He waits on the lush shores of Sri Lanka to make a landfall on the Coromandel Coast or … maybe the Himalayas… as the pandemic continues to upheave in tsunami-like waves. Maybe, Rhys Hughes will become the Ruskin Bond of Sri Lanka! Let us tread into the world of Hughes to check out what he thinks.
Tell us since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?
I began writing when I was six years old or so. My earliest stories were inspired by films and comics I enjoyed and mostly were about monsters, adventures, space travel, robots, dinosaurs and ghosts. I doubt if any of them made much sense.
The first short story I wrote with a plot I remember was about a man who jumps off a cliff so that he will turn into a ghost and can create mischief in his village, which he does, but the twist is that he survives the fall and only thinks he is a ghost. The enraged villagers chase him back over the same cliff, and he isn’t frightened because he believes he can float on air, but he can’t and this time he doesn’t survive. I was about ten years old when I wrote that. But I didn’t begin writing short stories in earnest until I was fourteen. That was the real beginning of my writing career. I have been writing regularly ever since. I don’t require prompting to write these days. It has become a habit, a reflex, something I just do. I still write about the same old things as always, monsters, adventures, space travel, etc, but I have added a few more themes since I was a young child and my style has improved considerably. At least I hope it has!
That story you wrote as a ten-year-old definitely has potential! And we enjoy your writing as we read it now. Now tell us why do you write?
Ideas come unbidden into my mind and they won’t leave me alone unless I put them into stories. The moment I embody these ideas in a work of fiction they stop bothering me. I get ideas all the time, especially when I am walking or travelling somewhere, but also in the middle of the night. I try to make notes so I can use them later but sometimes I neglect to note them down and I forget them. Then the ideas go away temporarily but return days, weeks, months or years later and bother me again. Only when I pin them down into a narrative of some kind will they go away forever. So writing is a compulsion for me as well as a voluntary activity. It wasn’t always like this.
In the beginning I found it difficult to come up with original ideas. I had to work hard at it. I would say that most of my ideas back then were fairly ordinary ones and only occasionally truly original. But I persisted and exercised my mind, and just like muscles do, the parts of my mind responsible for the invention of original ideas got bigger and stronger, and now the ideas come without effort. As it happens, not all these ideas turn out to be as original as I like to think they are. Sometimes I get excited that I have come up with a totally new concept only to later discover that some other author beat me to it years ago. But I do believe that originality is possible.
The oft-repeated maxim that there are no new ideas simply isn’t true. If originality is impossible, how were any ideas generated in the first place? I don’t mean to say that originality is the ultimate objective of writing, of course not, there are a great many other reasons to write, but I am talking about it from my own particular point of view. And all I am really saying here is that practice is the most important thing, the only essential thing. I write a lot and the very act of writing regularly seems to make writing in the future easier and smoother.
What is your favourite genre for writing and for reading?
The genre question is a difficult one to answer but I am going to say that if I had to choose only one genre to describe my own writing I would answer “comedy”. This doesn’t mean that everything I write is comedic, but a large percentage of it certainly is. And I don’t necessarily mean laugh-out-loud comedy but other types of comedy too, whether subtle irony, philosophical farce, absurdist and surrealist works. There are many grades of comedy, from wit to parody, and I enjoy most of them. When it comes to reading, I still have a focus on comedy, I suppose, but I will read very sober and serious works too. If I made a list of my favourite works of fiction, comedic works would be at the top of the list.
Broadly speaking there are two types of humorous literature, one in which incidents are funny and one in which it is the telling that is comic. Writers who combine both types tend to win my deepest admiration. Yet quite a few of my favourite books have no comedy in them at all, neither in subject nor in style, for example The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqrollby Alvaro Mutis ( 1993, translated by Edith Grossman, 2002) which is a sequence of tropical and troubling narratives, often sombre in tone, that nonetheless remains an enthralling and uplifting read.
Which writers have influenced your work? Are you influenced by other art forms?
I wanted to become a professional writer because of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was Treasure Island (1883) that opened the gates into the entire world of literature for me. I still admire him hugely but I have had much bigger influences since then. Delving deeper into the novels and short stories that were available to me, I was lucky enough to find authors who resonated with some deep part of my being and made me not only want to continue trying to be a writer, but to be a writer who wrote as they did. Of course, it’s better to develop one’s own style, but I suspect that ‘distinctive’ styles are really the result of amalgams of influences, a blend of prior styles. Italo Calvino (1923-1985) has been my favourite writer for more than thirty years, with Donald Barthelme (193i-1989), Boris Vian (1920-1959), Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) and Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) not far behind. At the moment I am a keen reader of the work of Mia Couto (1955-2013). Alasdair Gray (1934-2019) is another favourite.
To answer the second part of your question, I have definitely been influenced by art forms other than writing, in particular music and visual art. I might even say that the paradoxical imagery in the artwork of M.C. Escher (1898-1972) has been at least as big an influence on me as the prose of any author. I was astounded and captivated when I first saw his graphic designs and have loved them ever since.
You have travelled to many places. How many countries have you visited? Has travel impacted your writing? How?
I have lost count of the number of countries I have visited. I used to keep a map and colour in the countries that I had been to, but I lost the map years ago. The truth is that probably the total isn’t as high as I think it is. Most of my travelling has been done in Africa and Europe, and I have only really dipped my toes into the vastness of Asia, and I haven’t even been to the Americas at all. No one is so well-travelled that they really know the world.
Travel has certainly impacted my writing, though. I can state that with confidence. I am often inspired to write stories set in the places I have visited and I guess I probably wouldn’t do so if I hadn’t been there. Having said that, I do occasionally set a story in a location I have never visited. Such stories can work well but there is nearly always a vital element missing, some immediacy that a certain level of familiarity gives to a work of prose. It’s far easier to create a convincing atmosphere when you are writing from experience rather than from research. Little details will give some solidity to the evocation of scenes, details that can’t be easily imagined without first-hand experience. This doesn’t mean that I think travelling is necessary for the creation of good fiction. Good fiction can be centred in nowhere, almost in no space or time if the author is talented enough. And there’s a paradox in the nature of travel, which is that even though the particulars of your surroundings might change, the essentials remain the same. We can put a lot of effort into the act of travelling only to discover that people are people everywhere. And would we have it any other way?
Tell us a bit about the world you grew up in — we have an interesting piece by you called ‘Dinosaurs in France’ — which claims you grew up in a world of different value systems. Would you see those as better or the present as better?
The past is another country. That’s one of the pithiest and truest maxims anyone has devised. In only half a century I have seen many changes, but in fact most of these changes came so gradually I didn’t notice that things were changing at the time. Only now, looking back, do I see the vast gulf between the present and my past. I was youthful in a world where information was much more difficult to obtain. There were rumours and suppositions and often no way of confirming or refuting them. People believed strange things and adjusted their attitudes to match these odd beliefs. People still do the same now, of course, but it somehow feels different. One can more easily check assertions now than before and learn much more quickly if they are true or false. The world I grew up in was one in which you had no choice but to take another person’s word at face value. So if a supposedly responsible adult, like the postman, told you with a straight face that he lived in a house made entirely from marshmallows, there was no easy way of disproving the claim. You had to take his word for it. I can’t say it was a better world and I don’t want to suggest it was a worse one. It was simply different, a world lacking ready access to information.
You have written a lot of humour. Not too many people do that nowadays. Could you tell us why your funny bone is tickled to create humour as it does? Do you think humour is a good way to address major issues?
Humorous writing has gone out of fashion to a certain extent in the anglophone world, yes, but it’s still there, in the background. There was a great tradition of British humorous writing that lasted about a century or so, and I was fortunate enough to grow up at the end of that phase. I am talking about a particular type of humour, dryly ironic but also theatrical, a sort of blend of surrealism and the old musical hall routines. J.B. Morton (1873-1979) was one of the masters of the form, and he was an influence on many of my favourite comedic writers, such as Spike Milligan (1918-2002), Maurice Richardson (1907-1978) and W.E. Bowman (1911-1985). These humorists also took the language and played with it a little, transforming it into something new, though I feel ultimately that such comedy derives more from the rhythms than the melodies of wordplay.
The entire range of comedic devices might be used but new ones invented as well. There can be over reaction to minor incidents and under reaction to major ones, constant misunderstandings, amplification of repetition, parody of existing forms. W.E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle is my favourite humorous novel, and its sequel, The Cruise of the Talking Fish, is also high on my list of best comedic literature. Bowman apparently wrote a third volume in the series that remains unpublished and is in the safe keeping of his son. If this is true, I hope it will appear one day.
Are you influenced by any specific humourist? If so, who?
Flann O’Brien is probably my biggest influence in terms of comedic prose. His work is quirky, inventive, curiously erudite, absurdist and often metafictional. I am staggered by the wealth of invention in his novels, the supremely silly but also highly ingenious conceits and concepts, and the bone-dry irony contrasted with farcical exuberance, the light touch and the dark tone. W.E. Bowman and Maurice Richardson are another two favourites. That is prose but when it comes to poetry I love Don Marquis (1878-1937), Ogden Nash (1902-1971) and Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) best, all of them with radically different approaches to comedy. Marquis in particular pushed humour in his free verse to a point where it often became profound, serious and socially critical. You asked if humour can be used to address major issues. Yes, sometimes it can, even with great force, but it doesn’t have to.
Tell us the extent of your work. How many books have you written?
I have published many books. The question is how do I count them. I tend not to count the self-published books. It seems to me that self-publishing is too easy. On the other hand, traditional publishing is maybe too difficult. I have forty or so traditionally published books and twenty self-published books out there, so I am going to give forty as my answer. Most of my books are collections of short stories. I have only written a few novels. My poetry collections so far have been self-published with the exception of one single volume called Bunny Queue.
It is one of my goals to have all the short stories I have ever written appear in my books. At the moment there are many of my short stories that exist in magazines and anthologies that have never been collected. And there are many unpublished short stories in my files too. My plan is to write exactly a thousand short stories and consider them as part of one big story-cycle. This project is almost done. In a few more months, with luck, I will finish writing my thousandth story. Thirty years in total it has taken. When that last story is finished I will devote myself entirely to novels, plays, poetry and articles. No more short stories! So, in reply to your question, I can say that I have written a great deal of work, maybe too much, but as I said earlier, writing has been something of a compulsion for me.
What are your future plans?
I plan to finish my big story-cycle of one thousand stories. Then I will write a few novels that I have been planning for a long time. One of these novels will be called The Hippy Quixote and will be about a young, deluded fellow who in his mind is living in the 1960s. He takes a guidebook written in that decade and follows the old hippy trail to India, blissfully unaware that so many things have changed in terms of societal attitudes and geopolitics. This idea seems to me to be a fruitful one for the creation of comic scenes.
I also have to finish a novel I began a long time ago, The Clown of the New Eternities, sections of which have already been published. It’s long overdue for completion. This novel is about a highwayman who has accidentally outlived his own age and is forced to adjust to the modern world. Another variant of Quixote, I suppose. I think that many or most of my longer narratives are a blend of the Quixote and Candide models with a bit of Gulliver thrown in. We can talk about our future plans all day, of course, but whether we are lucky enough to have a chance to make them real is another question altogether. I intend to do my best, as I have always done, but nothing is certain in this world of ours.
Thanks Rhys Hughes for your time and lovely answers.