Categories
Conversation

Spanning Continental Narratives

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

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

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

Abhay K

What made you opt to translate Kalidasa’s poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for giving us your time.

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

Click here to read an excerpt from Monsoon

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

Categories
Editorial

The Stars were Shining There for You & Me, for Liberty…

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

“It just so happens that their[1] universes were different from ours: because why would their imaginations be constrained by a nation-state that would not exist for another thousand years?”

Anirudh Kansetti, the print.in

These lines from a recent article on conquests carried out by the Indian subcontinent in ancient times brings to focus that earlier countries or nation-states as we know of them today did not exist till the industrial revolution set the concept in motion. In the month many countries in Asia celebrate their independent existence or rather the drawing of borders based on colonial mapmakers’ whims, we should perhaps relook at the way the world stands divided.

Is this what we want as humans? Where are we headed? While conquerors write the history, we tend to gloss over what is left unsaid. The millions who died crossing borders, in race riots and of hunger, starvation and disease in refugee camps is overlooked, or worse, used to justify the divisions that still hurt the residents of the sub-continent and try to destroy any sense of oneness among the human species. We tend not to forget the atrocities of the colonials but we overlook the violence of the mobs that incensed with hatred instilled by politics annihilated and murdered. Their story is reduced to “us” and “them”. In our mood of jubilation, the recent bombings in the Middle East and the Ukraine-Russia war have already been delegated to the newsreels. But these are all people who are killed and displaced without any justification for the need to do so. One of the things that George Orwell had depicted in 1984 was an acceptance of a constant state of war. Are we stepping into that frame of mind with our cold acceptance of the situation worldwide?

In the last century, many united against the atrocities of the empire builders. They wanted to rise above the divides. At least greats like Nazrul vociferously objected to the basis of divides that were used to draw the borders. Translations brought to us by Professor Fakrul Alam showcase such poetry as does much of Tagore’s own writing and actions. Tagore organised a protest march against the colonial proposal of Partition of Bengal in 1905 by taking a procession in which he encouraged Hindu and Muslim women to tie rakhis[2] on men from the other community and make them their brothers. Tagore put the welfare of humanity above nationalism as can be seen in his writings and speeches. Reflecting on humanity, we have Munshi Premchand’s powerful story, Pus Ki Raat or A Frigid Winter’s Night, translated from Hindi by C Christine Fair, dwelling on the sad state of peasantry under the Raj. In a bid to rouse people like the protagonist of Premchand’s story, Tagore wrote inspirational songs, one of which, Hobe Joye (Victory will be Ours) has been translated on our pages. We also continue sharing Rabindranath’s humour with a skit translated by Somdatta Mandal from Bengali.

Humour is also stirred into Borderless by Rhys Hughes with a series of mini sagas in his column and a trip around the world in eighty couplets. These couplets actually are more in number — I tried counting them — and are guaranteed to make you laugh. We have travel stories in plenty too. Ravi Shankar again treks to the Himalayas and brings us wonderful photographs of his journey and G Venkatesh stops over at Istanbul airport to find a friend from across the border. Meredith Stephens travels to a French colony called Lifou Island — sounds unbelievable as in the month we celebrate the independence of so many countries across Asia, there is still a country in the Pacific that owes allegiance to a democratic European power! But other than writing about the beaches, Stephens talks of a temporary pet dog while Suzanne Kamata gives us cat talk in her notes from Japan in a lighter vein — a very pleasant glimpse of life. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings a grin when he talks of his stint at trying to run a restaurant.

Interesting non-fictions from a book lover, Sindhu Shivprasad, and from PG Thomas who talks of King Lear performed a la classical Indian dance mode, Kathakali, by an international caste add to narratives that focus on bringing the pleasanter side of life to our readers. Such stories are a welcome relief in dark times when people find themselves caught between price hikes due to the pandemic and wars. An essay by Candice Louisa Daquin looks for a way out of the stresses of these times. Erwin Coombs gives us a funny, poignant and tragic classroom encounter which reminds me of the 1967 Sidney Poiter movie, To Sir, with Love. We have darker tones brought into our journal also with Aysha Baqir’s story on child exploitation, a sad but hopeful narrative from Nepal by Santosh Kalwar about the rejection of a girl-child by her mother and a horrific murder brought to us by Paul Mirabile.

Our poetry section this time flows over with poems from Michael R Burch, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, George Freek, Mike Smith, Gigi Baldvino Gosnell and even Ratnottama Sengupta, who has also given us a powerful essay on an acclaimed dancer called Zohra Sehgal whose life was changed by the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, basing her essay on Ritu Menon’s Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts and her own personal encounters with the irrepressible artiste. Michael Burch has also shared an excerpt of his book dedicated to his wife, O, Terrible Angel.

An excerpt from B. M. Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakeer, brings us close to a community we know very less about in the Southern part of India. Meenakshi Malhotra has reviewed Tagore’s Four Chapters translated from Bengali and introduced by Radha Chakravarty, a book that is a powerful voice against violence in the name of nationalism touching on the independence of women, a theme that is reiterated in another book that has been visited by Rakhi Dalal. While exploring Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki, Dalal contends that the book familiarises us with a singer “who carved her own destiny and lived life on her own terms, in times when women were generally subjugated and confined to roles given by society”. Gracy Samjetsabam has visited Mamang Dai’s Escaping the Land, a novel that tries to weave issues faced in the Northeast of India and integrate it with the mainstream by stirring human emotions.  Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rakesh Batabyal’s Building a Free India, a collection of powerful speeches from the past.

Within the confines of the Raj, there was a long court case where a prince who had been declared dead resurfaced as a Naga sadhu[3], a claimant to the throne, this time not to abuse his power as of past but to be a sympathiser of the people in their tryst to fight the Raj. Aruna Chakravarti has woven a historical fiction around this controversy centring around the prince of Bhawal. In an exclusive interview, she tells us the story behind the making of The Mendicant Prince — her novel that was published just last month. Her responses could well teach us how to write a historical novel.

We have much more than the fare that has been mentioned here. Pause by on our contents page to take a look. My heartfelt thanks to the whole team at Borderless for helping with this issue, which we managed to get out in a shorter time than usual and Sohana Manzoor for her wonderful artwork. I am grateful to all our contributors as well as our readers. We could not have made it this far without all of you.

In the spirit of uniting under a borderless sky, let us look forward to cooler climes and happier times.

Cheers!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com


[1] Guptas (4-6 century CE), Cholas (300 BCE -1279 CE) and other ancient rulers in the Indian sub-continent

[2] A festival held in August where sisters of all ages tie a talisman or amulet called the rakhi around the wrists of their brothers, who promise to protect them.

[3] Mendicant

Categories
Essay

Trekking to Tilicho Lake

Photographs & Narrative by Ravi Shankar

Tilicho Lake

I ran through the dark narrow corridor into the cold night air. I had been having a pounding headache since my arrival and lacked the appetite for my evening meal of spaghetti and eggs. My stomach churned violently, and the bile rose in my throat ejecting the contents into the frozen ground surrounding the lodge. Vomiting always makes me uneasy and brings back unpleasant memories of my early childhood when vomiting accompanied most maladies. Luckily this was the only serious episode of altitude sickness that I had during my high-altitude travels.  

We had broken most rules of acclimatising to the altitude during this trip. We had flown to the Humde/Hongde airport at Manang from the lakeside town of Pokhara, a day before. Pokhara is at around 800 m above sea level while Humde is at around 3400 m. Most flights to Manang are from Kathmandu and many Manangis are rich and sophisticated traders. The pilot did a visual inspection tour walking around the twin otter aircraft. He seemed satisfied and we were soon skyborne. The view of the Annapurna Himal (snow mountain in Nepali) in the morning sunshine was breath taking. We had lunch at the Airport Hotel in Humde and then hiked up to Khangsar at 3800m. We spent a night at a lodge run by a relative of our Humde didi [1] and started walking to the Tilicho Tal[2] after a substantial breakfast of buckwheat bread, late in the morning.

A cold wind was blowing, and the trail wound through scree[3] slopes. The hike was becoming treacherous, and we did some of the worst sections on our hands and knees. The mountain views were becoming spectacular as the Himals closed in on the valley. Our heavy backpacks threatened to unbalance us and push us over the edge to the Khangsar Khola and Marsyangadi river far below. Thorny bushes grew in the arid landscape and snagged our down jackets. We were worried about the condition of these jackets that we had rented in Pokhara. The shop owner was a patient of my fellow trekker, Dr Praveen Partha.    

We could see the Tilicho base camp lodge far below. The descent was along sheer scree slopes. The soil was loose, and the ground could vanish at your feet! Running descents down 45-degree slopes were battering to the knees. Time seemed to stop as we negotiated the vertigo-inducing slopes. Eventually, we reached the valley below and the final stretch was a short level walk. The lodge was dusty and cold. There was some problem with the solar lights and only the dining room was lit.

The next morning dawned cloudy and grey. It had snowed the previous night and I was still feeling nauseous and light-headed. The lodge owner told us about an ultra-marathon race being held that day and that we might meet the runners on our way up. It was a long climb to the lake. The trail initially wound through scree slopes and then climbed more slowly through snowfields. A freezing wind was blowing, and we wore sunglasses with side blinders to protect our eyes from the reflected sunlight and avoid snow blindness. My nose was becoming numb due to the cold. We were struggling at the high altitude (above 4500 m) and in my weakened state, I was finding the going difficult.

The runners were racing through the landscape. Their fitness was astounding. The ones we had met during the early stages of our hike were now returning from the lake. We saw the trail to Yak Kharka[4] and Thorung La[5] in the distance. Our plan was to cross the pass and descend to the holy site of Muktinath and the city of Jomson on the other side.

The mountains provided a stark contrast. The north-facing slopes were cloaked in the snow while the south-facing ones were bare. The power of our star, the Sun even at 152 million kilometres was awe-inspiring. We continued climbing. A steep climb along a snow-covered slope and the dark blue waters of the lake could be seen in the distance. The race organizers had set up stations for the runners and race flags and posters were seen on both sides of the trail. The wind was bitterly cold. The snow-cloaked landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is located at an altitude of 4940 m.  No aquatic organisms have been recorded in the lake.

Snowfields

Tilicho lake is believed by Hindus to be the ancient Kak Bhasundi lake mentioned in the Ramayana. The sage Kak Bhasundi told the epic to Garuda, the king of birds near this lake. The lake was also the location of the highest scuba dive by a Russian team in 2000. A trekking route skirting the lake and reaching Thini Gaon in the Kali Gandaki valley is becoming popular.

This route requires at least a night of camping as there are no lodges (tea houses) after Tilicho Base Camp till you reach Thini Gaon[6]. I have never camped during my travels in the Himalayas. Camping gives you more options but may be more challenging in terms of logistics. Many lodges also have well-maintained camping places.

The trekking lodges in Nepal started as converted tea houses. They were places to have tea, exchange gossip, and eat food. They had been around in the hills for a long time. People hiked the trails for different reasons ranging from trade, visiting family and friends, and pilgrimage. As trekking became more popular many of these started offering travellers a place to sleep. They used to charge only for the food. Later the rooms became more elaborate and private accommodations were created. In big towns and popular locations, some have become hotels.

The cold soon drove us down from the lake and the descent was easier on the lungs. Runners were still running up the slopes. The weather was becoming cloudy, and the sun was soon cloaked by clouds. Light snow started falling. In the mountains, it often snows around noon. I was beginning to feel better but was still weak. It was around four in the afternoon when Dr Partha and I reached the base camp lodge. My appetite was slowly returning.

Climbing to the village of Khangsar

The next morning, we started mid-morning to the settlement of Khangsar and eventually continued to Manang village. The village has some excellent hotels and spectacular views of the Gangapurna glacier. Manang is at 3500 m and the plan was for me to rest here and see how I felt the next morning and then decide whether to continue to do the circuit trek through the pass or return down to the road head of base town of Besishahar.  My bout with altitude sickness had sapped my confidence and we decided discretion was better and slowly headed down. I felt bad for Praveen who was keen to do the circuit before heading off to the greener pastures of the United Kingdom.

The Thorung pass still remains on my bucket list. Hopefully one day I will be able to do it. The Annapurna circuit trek has steadily contracted over the decades as roads have made deeper inroads into the mountains. The trek used to start from Dumre on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, then the trailhead shifted to Besishahar, and with the construction of the new road to the district headquarters of Chame. On the other side, there are regular buses from Pokhara and Kathmandu to Muktinath.

Tim Cahill, a travel writer from Montana, wrote, “A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.” Praveen was perfect company. We gelled well together, we were adaptable and took the rough with the smooth. We did some interesting treks together and I am sure he must be continuing his walks in the cold English air as he thinks about medicine, health, love, happiness, and eternity! 


[1] Elder sister in Nepali

[2] Lake in Nepali

[3] Mountain slopes littered with loose pebbles and rocks

[4] Alpine pasture in Nepali

[5] La is pass in Tibetan

[6] Village in Nepali

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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

Categories
Poetry

I Am Ukraine

Lesya Bakun, a Ukranian Refugee, writes of her country under attack giving courage and hope to the rest of the world.

REFUGEE IN MY OWN COUNTRY/ I AM UKRAINE 

I am Kharkiv.
I am Volnovakha.
I am Kyiv.
I am the blocked Mariupol on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.

I am the completely destroyed
City of Shchastia --
That is literally translated as "happiness" --
Where people have to sit in the bomb shelters,
Because nothing else is preserved.
The Russian troops are not letting them out.

I am Ukraine.
I am a fighter. 

I am a refugee
In my own country.

What's in the minds of Russians?

Nine years ago, I was in Strasbourg, France.
Seven years ago, I was in Dublin, Ireland.
Two years ago, I was in Istanbul, Turkey.

Today, I am 
In an internally displaced people’s centre --
In a city that I cannot even publicly disclose
For the security of too many families
Who are fleeing to remain safe.

"The Ukrainian IT company N has left the markets of Russia and Belarus forever".
We should have done it eight years ago.
We should have done it thirty-one years ago.

A lot of my friends are switching from Russian to Ukrainian.
We should have done that thirty-one years ago
So that no one comes to "protect us".

I am the gasoline 
that NATO sent us
Instead of closing the sky -- 
Apparently so that we can burn
The Budapest Memorandum.

We have seen the real face of Russians.
Again,
They negotiated green corridors
And started shelling with heavy weaponry.

Evacuation is cancelled.

"I wish you survival, 
Health
And the closed sky above you."

07.03.2022
Ukraine

Lesya (Oleksandra) Bakun is a polyglot poet and non-formal educator who resides in Ukraine. She has been writing since the age of 14, in Ukrainian, Russian, and English; her poems were published in the local young poets’ anthology. Oleksandra has the ‘young’ and ‘adult’ periods of her writing life, and challenges of each are vividly seen in the words she’s sharing – both as texts and in poetry readings. Her poems revolve around complex themes like trauma, gender, societal issues, relationships, and mental health.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Slices from Life

‘When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn?’

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) lamented about the futility of war, but he also imparted hope, says Ratnottama Sengupta, as she recalls her memorable meeting with folk legend Seeger, in a tete-a-tete with friends

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Last week, as people crowded the Kiev railway station to flee the Ukrainian capital, visuals started trending of the giant staircase inside the pedestrian bridge over the Yauza River to the Kiev Railway Station, the deepest station in the world. It reminded Sonia, my batchmate from Elphinstone College, of the hours she’d spent on the fabulous stairs that take you all the way down with her father who had an attack of trachycardia as they arrived in Kiev by a train from Moscow. “With great difficulty we made our way to the waiting hall from which you have to descend by this enormous staircase. I remember all the Ukrainians helped us, just as all the Russians would help us. And father kept taking Calmposes until I supported him down the stairs into a cab that took us from the station to the hotel.”

Only after that Sonia had called for an ambulance. But why not do that two hours ago? “Because father did not want me to engage with the local health authorities as we didn’t know whether they would have the drugs he used and had forgotten in India,” she explained. “And as soon as I made that call, within five minutes the ambulance was there – with that drug.” Only after that Sonia found out that Kiev has the fastest ambulance service in the world – “and the finest,” she added – “because of what they faced in WWII…” 

All through those few hours Sonia felt so supported by the local people. “I didn’t have to explain anything to the cab driver or the hotel staff – we were whisked into our room and then I went back to check in!” So today Sonia wonders how people in the bunkers are coping with small necessities such as brushing their teeth. Even as she sends Kiev her love and prayers, she feels that “peace keeping forces have to go in rather than arming Ukraine.”

“But who will stand in the line of fire?” quips Liz George, another college mate. “So, may God help the people who are facing such terrible times!” she echoes Sonia. “May god protect everyone in Kiev,” Bhamini Subramanian’s heart goes out to the innocent civilians who lost their lives and the countless families displaced, fleeing and seeking shelter to save their lives…

Watching images of the bizarre war at Kiev opens a floodgate of memories amongst us. “Yet, put aside politics and people anywhere in the world are ready to go out of their way to help people in dire situations,” Sonia sums up. And, like her, I have seen from my travels around the world that people are the same everywhere – they just want the humdrum of a normal, peaceful day to day life. But circumstances – “and policies,” Sonia adds deny a whole lot of them that. “Wish we could find a less harmful way to settle disputes,” we sigh.

*

The mention of the staircase made me think of the Potemkin Steps – the giant stairway in Odessa, another landmark habitation in Ukraine. Originally known as the Boulevard Steps, or the Giant Steps, these are considered the formal entrance into the city from the sea. Odessa, perched on a high steppe plateau, needed direct access to the harbour below which was, in days of yore, connected only by winding path and crude wooden stairs. A hundred years eroded ‘the monstrous stairs’ built with greenish grey sandstone shipped from Italy – and so in 1933, the sandstone was replaced by granite and the landings by asphalt. And in 1955, the Soviet government renamed it as the Potemkin Stairs to honour the 50th anniversary of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. After Ukraine gained independence it restored – as it did with many other streets and landmarks — the previous name of Primorsky Stairs.

But why did I recall this bit of history? Because of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin . “That silent 1925 film is a handbook for every editor!” –  Hrishikesh Mukherjee had said to me as he must have to hundreds of other students of cinema in India. And just seven years ago, in 2015, the European Film Academy put a commemorative plate on the stairs to indicate that the Potemkin staircase is a memorable place for European cinema.

*

Watching the news unfolding tirelessly on the idiot box my friend Shireen Elavia is reminded of the Hindi film Airlift (2016), which had dealt with the evacuation of the Indian expatriates stranded in that state bordering Iraq and Saudi Arabia, at the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, when the soldiers of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq had walked into Kuwait and run over it… “In a massive rescue operation in which our friend Raji had also participated, Air India under its regional director Mascarenhas had airlifted 170000 people…” Sonia pitched in. “I was at that time posted in Moscow.”

“It is not a question of the negativity of war,” again Sonia recounted what a dear friend of hers – Polish by birth and Indian by marriage – has said. “Ukraine suffers because of its geopolitical position.” History repeatedly shows that “Countries suffer either because they have a certain geopolitical position or because they sit on earth filled with riches.” How very tragic! For, if they now forget they are all still in East Europe, we all forget that we are inmates of the same home – this planet.

Pete Seeger: Courtesy: Creative Commons

A profound truth that we often overlook – or render to oblivion. A truth that Pete Seeger (1919-2014) had driven home to me in Delhi sometime in 1996. “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. And that is how suddenly a song about the greens becomes a song that takes a step forward. This is what I call the folk process.”

*

The human drama unfolding between Russia and Ukraine, the two countries that have been described by a cartoonist as ‘divorced spouses,’ led yet another of my university friends, Usha Kelkar Srivastava, to re-play Where have all the flowers gone (1955), that old Pete Seeger favourite “which turns out to be a Ukrainian folk song”. The poignant melody was a favourite of ours when we went to university – much like Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind (1962) and John Lenon’s Imagine (1964) – and for decades after he’d penned it, regardless of which country he was in, the guru of country singing would sing the peace songs and the audience would sing with him. “They would sing the songs in schools and in summer camps. Some of us sang in churches and unions, some sang in coffee houses and people would gather around us and sing with us old songs and new…” Pete had recounted in the course of the four days I was really fortunate to have spent in his company. The legend who sang in defence of humanity, had come to Delhi at the invitation of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) — and when he returned to America, he gifted me a set of CDs signed to me which are among my prized possessions. 

“Just as a river takes the shape of the land it flows through, a song can echo the raw emotions of a land and people,” said Usha culling from her background in Music History. “Rarely has any song touched the world like the simple Where have all the flowers gone…” It has the cyclic structure of another Hebrew folk song about violence that I’d heard in an Amos Gitai film. Pete, while travelling in air, had come across a few lines in Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don: “Where are the flowers, the girls have plucked them. Where are the girls, they’ve all taken husbands. Where are the men, they’re all in the army.” 

The lines from a Caucasian folk song “are sung in the Ukrainian countryside as Tovchu tovchu mak and Koloda Duda,” Usha added. Pete had adapted these words, adding the refrain of ‘Long time passing and Long time ago’ almost as a chorus. At some point in time he combined it with the tune of a traditional Irish lumberjack song – “only, I slowed down the energetic and full of vigour rendition,” and thus was born the haunting song. The three verses were later expanded by other country singers who added two more verses that underscore the tragedy thus: ‘Where have all the soldiers gone? They’re in the graves, everyone of them…and Now the flowers have come back, on the graves…’

“My only complaint is that this song is not specific enough,” Pete once said at a live concert in Sweden. “It’s too easy just to say, ‘When will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?’ without saying what you want people to learn.” Yet, how potent this critique of war is can be gauged by the number of recordings, and the spread of languages in which it has been rewritten. 

The Kingston Trio first recorded it in 1961 not knowing it to be authored by Pete Seeger. In 1962 Marlene Dietrich performed it in English, French and German at a UNICEF concert – “and she sings it even better,” Seeger had said. On a tour of Israel, she rendered it in German, breaking the taboo of using that language publicly in that country. The song has versions in Dutch, Polish, Czech, Croatian, Hungarian, Irish. It has been adapted to the piano, it exists in an instrumental version, and also as a parody! In 1964, Columbia Records released it in the Hall of Fame series and in 2002 Seeger was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in the Folk category. In 2010 New Statesman listed it among the Top 20 Political Songs worldwide.

I had the opportunity to hear the other American icon, Joan Baez, sing the contemporary folk song with operatic flourishes, in Manchester sometime in 1977. The activist songwriter had included the German version in her 1965 album, Farewell, Angelina. The very next year the much-loved voice of Harry Belafonte had recorded it in a Benefit concert in Stockholm. A Russian version was recorded in 1998 by Oleg Nesterov, who founded the Moscow based rock band Megapolis just before Perestroika. In the present century Olivia Newton-John recorded it in her 2004 album Indigo: Women of Song while Dolly Parton recorded it in 2005 for her album Those Were the Days. On August 9, 2009, it was sung at the funeral of Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of WW1.

In Kolkata, where I now live, Anjan Dutt had covered “the old but always relevant song” in Rawng (Colour) Pencil, going on to remind us at the outset of the Gulf War, “Ekii chinta Bangla tey korechhe Lalon, Notun korey eki gaan geyechhe Lenon, Shei eki katha aaj gaichhe Suman, gaichhi aami shei eki gaan (The same thought had inspired the Baul Lalon Fakir; the American John Lenon, and Kolkata’s own Suman and me, to ask — When will they ever learn?)” As for Kabir Suman, who penned the Bengali version, Kothay gelo tara: he had himself rendered it on stage with Pete during that India tour of 1996.

Back then Pete was “very happy that the Berlin Wall came down so peacefully”. I distinctly recall asking the self-effacing giant if the wide reach of Where have all the flowers gone indicates that the world is finally learning about not going to war. The Times of India had carried his answer: “I don’t know whether songs really change things. All I do know is that throughout history, leaders have been particular about which songs they want sung!” And then the balladeer sang of a youth who was asked the same question, to say, ‘I don’t know if I can change the world… But I will make sure the world doesn’t change me…’ 

“That was a good song,” Pete had concluded. “When people around the world say that — that’s when the world will be changed.” 

Notes:
Shlokov received the Nobel prize for And Quiet Flows the Don in 1965. The book came out in four parts from 1928 to 1940.

Ratnottama Sengupta thanks the people mentioned here: Both Sonia Singh and Raji Sekhar are her batchmates from Elphinstone College, Bombay (now Mumbai). They worked in Air India. Usha Srivastava and Elizabeth George (then Vergese) were singers in Pranjyoti Choir. Usha Kelkar Srivastava, trained in Western classical music, later went on to give lessons in Music History at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. Bhamini Subramaniam is a designer while Shireen Elavia. Havewala, is a retired banker.

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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 writes books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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