Categories
Editorial

Where Have All the Sunflowers Gone?

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
Borderless: Digital Art by Ayaan Ghoshal
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
…
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.         
 Shantih shantih shantih

-- Wasteland (1922) by TS Eliot

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.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed another non-fiction by Ashok Kumar Pandey, Why They Killed Gandhi; Unmasking the Ideology and the Conspiracy. Parichha writes: “The finest point about this book is its storytelling…” The book review brings to mind in the midst of a war and violence that Gandhi had tried to erase this mindless destruction of lives, nature and cities with Ahimsa or non-violence. Will we ever rise up to it? Perhaps… We see strains of recognising the negative impact of insular outlook in writings like that of Temsula Ao, a Sahitya Akademi Award winner, according to Indrashish Banerjee who has reviewed her new book, The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories from Nagaland. Keith Lyons has reviewed Asian Anthology: New Writing Vol. 1: Stories by Writers from Around the World, edited by Ivy Ngeow, an exotic medley of Asian stories, one of which has been excerpted as well.

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.

Another well-known poetic voice from Singapore, Kirpal Singh, has given us poignant poetry that can be applied to the situation that is leading to the wreck of Ukraine. Anasuya Bhar has  poetry, one of which despite being in the ilk of Nazrul’s great poem, ‘Rebel or Bidrohi’, questions gently mainly social constructs that obstruct the flow of harmony. Ryan Quinn Flanagan has pondered on the acceptance of a changed world. We have humour from Rhys Hughes in poetry and wonderful poems by Michael R Burch on spring. Jay Nicholls shares the last of her dozen Pirate poems as Blacktarn sails the lemon seas to fight pollution. Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, George Freek, Sutputra Radheye, Mike Smith, Shaza Khan and many more have contributed a wealth of beautiful lines. Penny Wilkes has captured storms and seas with photographs and text and Rhys has surprised us with some strange, bizarre tales in his column.

We have musings from around the world. San Lin Tun, Meredith Stephens, Erwin Coombs, G Venkatesh have all brought in flavours of multiple cultures. Devraj Singh Kalsi has spoken of a book fair he visited in a semi-sardonic tone. He has also given us a short story as has Farah Ghuznavi – a truly borderless story which takes place in an aeroplane, in the sky where all borders collapse. We have more stories from Balochistan, US and India.

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.  

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

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Review

The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories From Nagaland

Book review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories From Nagaland

Author: Temsula  Ao

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

The problem with any place that’s politically disturbed is that the rest of the aspects of the place – its culture, society, myths, beliefs – are obscured to outsiders. The place comes to be seen only through the prism of the disturbances and not savoured for its characteristics, its turmoils casting an impregnable shadow on its people, myths, its flora and fauna. Slowly even literature gets so obsessed with its ‘issues’ that it becomes difficult to find anything to read on the place which doesn’t talk about them or delves deeper. 

 Temsula  Ao’s The Tombstone in My Garden cuts through that roughage and takes its readers to the soul of Nagaland – to its villages, tribal myths, social practices that have been woven into five short stories that light a torch into every aspect of society in Nagaland.  Without the pretence of being a social observer or commentator, the narratives unfold with the unobtrusiveness of a storyteller who doesn’t highlight social practices judgementally but as ordinary things — unworthy of special attention. The perniciousness can be felt only after they arrive at their narrative outcomes. 

A very significant voice from Nagaland and contemporary Indian literature, Temsula Ao, has won several prestigious awards including the Padma Shri in 2007 and the Nagaland Governors’ Award for Distinction in Literature in 2009. Her Laburnum for My Head, a collection of short stories, won her the Sahitya Academy Award in 2013. 

The opening story, ‘The Platform’, takes us into the world of Nandu, a Bihari migrant to Nagaland who earns his living working as a coolie in Dimapur railway station. Promoted to become a senior among other porters for his hard work and his knowledge of various languages, including Nagamese, one day Nandu picks up an abandoned Muslim boy from the platform. He, slowly, develops paternal feelings for the waif despite a constant tension between the two due to their religious differences. 

But life in a railway station is hardly far from the lives who make a living from vices. As the boy grows up, he falls into the company of Shankar, a pimp. One day a fight breaks out between the boy and Shankar over a prostitute – and it ends in the boy’s carefully guarded religious identity getting exposed. The next day Nandu sees a crowd in the platform. He goes to find out what it’s about – and finds the boy dead. 

‘Snow-Green’, the third story in the collection, is thematically an open-ended story – where enthusiasts of many stripes will find something for them. The fate of the self-centred mistress will warm the cockles of the environmentalist’s heart. When Snow-Green’s trauma starts, the climate enthusiast will feel vindicated about his convictions about human treatment of nature being responsible for our current climate-induced miseries. The turn of the events at the end is impressive. 

In the ‘Saga of a Cloth’, when a brawl becomes the last straw, leading the village Council to expel Imlijongshi from the village, you will feel a bit vindicated: Imlijongshi, the self-destructive fool has finally got what he deserved. However, when the story makes a complete U-turn after that, you will feel you should have held back your judgement.  

“In a small voice almost breaking with grief and perhaps regrets too, Otsu addressed the departing figure, ‘Jongshi, wait, I have something important to tell you which you must know; do not leave me to die alone with this secret’.” 

This passage brimming with suspense is almost a start to another story retreating three generations, to a different time and space, when Otsu was a young girl dating Imdong and being stalked by Lolen unaware of what the future held in store. By the time the narrative descends three generations and returns to Imlijongshi, your feelings about the boy, his fate, his grandmother and the whole business of life — will be much more introspective, much more nuanced, much less stereotypical. 

‘The Tombstone in my Garden’, the title story of the collection, has some similarities with ‘The Saga of Cloth’. Both are long stories spanning generations; both have a woman at the centre suffering because of marriages to men they hadn’t intended to marry. But there the similarities end. Whereas ‘The Saga of Cloth’ has a rural, rustic setting, ‘The Tombstone in my Garden’ has an urban setting. Whereas Otsu is rooted in Naga traditions, Lily Anne is just the opposite, an Anglo Indian who deals with jibes about her dual cultural identity her whole life.  But that is just one aspect of ‘The Tombstone in my Garden’. 

A first-person narrative, the story starts on a suspenseful note, an old lady explaining her relationship with a tombstone, the graveyard of her husband, in her garden.  Using the tombstone as a starting point, she slowly meanders into her story. The reader is kept guessing till her narrative is complete. The story has a feminist touch. 

The stories in The Tombstone in My Garden may be short but they are very unlike short stories. They don’t rely on snappy twists in the tale to keep them going. Instead the plots move at an unhurried speed, one subplot making way for another seamlessly and gracefully. For instance, the  impact of Lolen’s contempt for Otsu’s life riles not so much while reading of the deeds, their immediacy and narrative pace preoccupying the reader, but impacts when Otsu’s entire later life seems mangled by Lolen’s intemperate actions.  Similarly, the reader is miffed not so much by the supercilious indifference of the mistress to the Snow-Green, a flowering plant of rare beauty but how a shallow human need of the mistress — her desire to win the first prize in the annual flower show — towers over the most existential concerns of the flowering plant. 

You may argue this is the nature of all narratives – to take you to extraordinary outcomes through seemingly ordinary occurrences – but where Tombstone In My Garden differs is that it acquaints with the ‘ordinary’ things about a place where we have come to believe the ordinary is always in short supply. 

At the end, almost all the stories have clearly demarcated epilogues narrating the later fates of the characters. This helps remove the conclusions from the immediacy of the preceding story leaving the reader ruminating with the advantage of hindsight and a melancholic feeling, like an aftertaste of a novel.

 As time goes short stories are moving away from their parental identity – the novel. They are getting shorter all the time and are being seen as tools for instant gratification. The current song and dance over flash fiction is an example. Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories makes the reverse journey, taking the short story back to its parental origin – the novel. 

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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

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Editorial

‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’

Art by Sohana Manzoor
‘Why does education in love not feature in today’s curriculum?’
— Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan (Translated by Radha Chakravarty, 2022, Seagull Books)

As the world celebrates Valentine’s Day, one pauses to think how far commercialisation has seeped in over time that the very concept of a tender emotion was questioned by Tina Turner in a song called, “What’s love got to do with it” nearly four decades ago. 

This was written even before Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) published a nostalgic memoir of 1930’s Santiniketan in Bengali in 2001. She raised her pen to ask the very pertinent question that is quoted above. Why is education in love not a part of our curriculum anymore? She was reminiscing about her days in Santiniketan where children were brought up with rigorous academics while discipline was coloured with love and affection. They nurtured a love for nature in students too. This has become a rarity for many and perhaps needs to be revived as the Earth struggles to continue habitable for humankind. In the process of educating students to love and give, Santiniketan threw up many greats like the writer herself. We are delighted to host an excerpt from the start of Our Santiniketan translated beautifully by Radha Chakravarty.

Santiniketan was only the very visible part of a huge project taken on by Tagore (1861-1941). The other part now united with Santiniketan under the banner of Visva Bharati University is Sriniketan, a group of villages where Tagore experimented with raising consciousness and standards of villagers to integrate them into a larger world. He brought in new techniques in agriculture and crafts into the villages under this programme involving many prominent scientists, artists and humanists. And the project has blossomed. Did you know Tagore thought of himself as an NGO and his ‘life work’ he felt was developing villages (Sriniketan) and educating young minds to build a world where borders of knowledge, poverty and ignorance could be smoothened?

He wrote: “I alone cannot take responsibility for the whole of India. But even if two or three villages can be freed from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established.

“Fulfill this ideal in a few villages only, and I will say that these few villages are my India. And only if that is done, will India be truly ours.”

All this can be found in a book called A History of Sriniketan (Niyogi Books), written by Uma Das Gupta, a major authority on Tagore who moved from Oxford to Santiniketan and made Tagore’s work in these two institutions her own life’s work. We have featured her and her book in our interview/review section.

Raised out of such ashes of poverty that Tagore sought to dispel, are youngsters from the village of Nithari, where ceaseless efforts by volunteers of organisations like Saksham and pandies’ has given a new lease for life to those who have been exposed to violations, violence, divides, poverty and deprivation. One of them, Sharad Kumar, now studying to be an engineer, kicks off our new section called Pandies’ Corner with his story in Hindustani translated by a volunteer, Grace M Sukanya. His story learns from history and shows rather than tells.

A similar approach to view the present through lenses focussed on the past at a much grander scale has been taken by Shazi Zaman, an author and journalist, who has stepped into the Anglophone world with the transcreation of his own novel from Hindi to English, Akbar, A Novel of History (Speaking Tiger Books). He has brought to the fore how in days when sectarian violence based on religions killed, Akbar (1542-1605) tried to create a new path that would lead to peace so that he could rule over an empire united by administration and not broken by contentious religious animosities which often led to wars. In his interview, he tells us of the relevance of the Great Mughal in a period of history that was torn by divides, divisions so deep that they continue to smoulder to this day and date. That history repeats itself is evident though our living standards seem to improve over time. Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin, edited by Ori Z. Soltes, also reinforces these divides and amalgamations in the modern context. The other books that have been reviewed include The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud by Indrashish Banerjee, and Gracy Samjetsabam has introduced us to an intriguing murder mystery in Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons.

Translations have thrown up interesting colours this time with a Tamil story by a Sahitya Akademi winning writer, S Ramakrishnan, translated on our pages by B Chandramouli, one from Korean by Ihlwha Choi and of course a transcreation of Tagore’s songs where he sings of the meeting of horizons. A beautiful poem by eminent Balochi poet Atta Shad (1939-1997) has been translated by Fazal Baloch. We are again privileged to host an original translation of Jibananda Das(1899-1954) by Professor Fakrul Alam. We also managed to get permission to share some of Professor Alam’s fabulous translations of Jibananada Das from UPL (United Press Limited) and are starting it out by excerpting two of his poems on Banalata Sen, which were till now restricted to readership who only had access to the hardcopy. Rakibul Hasan Khan has given us an essay on these translations. An interesting essay on Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) by Rebanata Gupta and personalised tribute to the first Booker Prize winner from New Zealand, Keri Hulme (1947-2021), by Keith Lyons, who had many non-literary encounters with the sequestered author, add to the richness of our oeuvre.

Ratnottama Sengupta has also paid a moving tribute to the music legend, Lata Mangeshkar, who died at the age of 92 on 6th February, 2022. The choral symphony of multiple voices that hums through the paean recreating the larger than life presence of Lata reinforces that her lilting voice will stay embedded in many hearts and lives forever. Her perfect honing of musical skills delivered with the right emotions make her an epitome of human excellence. She gave the best of herself to the world.

Brooding on death and suicide is Candice Louisa Daquin essay. This is a topic under discussion as Switzerland might start a resort for abetting suicides. It is rather frightening that while people value life and as technology and humans work in consonance to preserve it, the rich can think of squandering away this unique process that has till now not been replicated. The other strange long literary yarn that is dark in colours is woven by Sunil Sharma as he explores the futility and self-pity experienced by retirees in their existentialist quest to find a meaning to live. It has bits of poetry too. Penny Wilkes has also introduced verses into her photographic tour of dewdrops. Candice’s vibrant poetry this time has joined that of Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Mike Smith, A Jessie Michael, Ananya Sarkar, Jay Nicholls, Saptarshi Bhattacharya, Rhys Hughes and many more I leave you to unfold. Rhys Hughes has also given us a spooky piece which says ghosts might be genies — check it out. Do you agree or is he just being bizarre and funny?

Wrapped in more dry humour is Devraj Singh Kalsi narrative on why he does not want pets. Meredith Stephens, on the contrary loves pets and sails the seas of West Australia with her camera, words, seals and dolphins. Luke PG Draper also speaks for animals — for the intrusion of pollutants that harm creatures like whales in his short story. Hop all over the world with Ravi Shankar breaking nightly fasts with food from different cultures. More colour is brought in by Suzanne Kamata who starts a new column, Notes from Japan — introducing us to Japanese sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, who has sung his way to hearts with Lativian songs that he loves, so much so that he got to perform at the Japanese coronation and has pictures with the Latvian President.

The time has come to let you discover the mysterious pieces that have not been mentioned here in the February edition — and there are many.  

Before I wind up till the next month, I would like to thank our fabulous team who make this journal possible. Keith Lyons has now become part of that team and has graciously joined our editorial board. Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious deserve a special kudos for their fabulous artwork. Our grateful, heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful contributors and readers who keep the journal alive.

Wish you all a lovely month.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

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Author Page

Somdatta Mandal

Somdatta Mandal is a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.

Interview

Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest

In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal, a translator, scholar and writer who has much to say on the state of Santiniketan, Tagore, women’s writing on travel and more. Click here to read.

Translations

Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

Translated from the original Bengali by Somdatta Mandal, these are Tagore’s essays and letters laced with humour. Click here to read.

Letters from Japan, Europe & America

An excerpt from letters written by Tagore from Kobi & Rani, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Letters from Tagore

An excerpt from Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal, showcasing Tagore’s introduction and letters. Click here to read.

A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das

An excerpt from Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885). Click here to read.

Book reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews Wooden Cow by T. Janakiraman, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan. Click here to read.

Himadri Lahiri reviews Somdatta Mandal’s ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore. Click here to read.

A review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, a translation from a conglomeration of writings from all the Maestro’s caregivers. Click hereto read.

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Excerpt

Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Foreword

When, in 1882, teenage Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) left for an extended trip to England with her husband, leaving behind her six-year-old daughter, she regarded this as her self-sacrifice in the service of her long-suffering Bengali people.  Even before leaving home, she took on uncomfortable English-style clothing, diet and deportment in order to prepare herself for that alien Western world.  She determined to use her own challenging experiences in order to awaken and uplift her nascent nation, especially by improving the customary roles of women like herself.  She wrote and published her discoveries and evaluation of Britain as a book, England-e Bangamohila, in 1885, even before her own return home.  She would remain in Britain for a total of eight years, even as her in-laws married off her own distant daughter at age ten.  

With this current volume, Professor Somdatta Mandal has added to her already impressive body of books and other publications by making accessible for the first time to Anglophone readers this significant book by Srimati Krishnabhabini Das.  This translation enables non-Bangla readers to deepen our understanding this key transitional period in India’s and England’s connected histories from the acute first-hand perspective of a woman traveller and published author.

One of the striking features of Krishnabhabini’s fascinating account is how genuinely new and unfamiliar to her were her journey and life in England.  By that time, men and women from India had been venturing to Europe for more than four hundred years.  Even over the decade prior to Krishnabhabini’s own visit, many Bengali men and at least half a dozen Bengali women had preceded her.  Indeed, this was the second trip for her husband, Debendranath Das, having returned only months earlier after six years in England where he had narrowly missed entry into the Indian Civil Service and had taken a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University. 

Krishnabhabini, although married at nine and home schooled by her in-laws, had herself long read and heard about England.  But, even to educated middle-class Indian women, distant imperial Britain still seemed overwhelmingly intimidating.  Determined to enlighten her Bengali sisters through her book, Krishnabhabini still seems to have hesitated to assert her own authority to do so, publishing anonymously.  Even her first publisher in Kolkata condescendingly prefaced the book by apologetically asking tolerance from readers for her misperceptions and simple language but applauding her sincere attempt.

In her account, Krishnabhabini repeatedly raises two central dilemmas.  First, how can she and her compatriots preserve their own culture and values while simultaneously becoming Anglicized.  As an example of this danger, she criticizes her contemporary, Ms. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), for having abandoned Hinduism to become a Christian ‘and hence degraded the Hindu race’.  Initially, Krishnabhabini laments with shame how, through her own adoption of a ‘memsahib’ Englishwomen’s dress, she had distanced herself from her Hindu Bengali sisters.  But she takes heart from her conviction that she has done so for their sake. 

Krishnabhabini’s second dilemma is who should be included in her vision for the nascent Indian nation.  As she first leaves Bengal and journeys by train to Mumbai, she notes both the stereotypical differences and also the foundational commonalities among middle-class Hindu women and men of India’s diverse regions.  But she does not identify with people of lower classes or other communities living in India.  Thus, her evocative account tells us much about her own personal perceptions and cultural journeys and those of many comparable people of her time and status.

Through Krishnabhabini’s thoughtful ethnography, we also learn much about English Victorian society and culture.  Insightful outside observers like her can note and record customs and details that are so commonplace for natives that they often remain unremarked.  Her descriptions of the world of middle-class English households, as well as the indigenous racial and other cultural attitudes toward Indians and other foreigners, thus enrich our understanding of this transitional period for imperial England.

Readers of Krishnabhabini’s fascinating and significant book will therefore find much to learn from and savour.

Michael H. Fisher

Robert S. Danforth Professor of History

Oberlin College, USA

January 2015

Chapter Twenty

Last Words

I have seen so many new things in this country and have gained knowledge on so many new subjects; but the more I see and learn about it, the longer I am living here, the more I am remembering India and this makes my heart ache. As I compare this country with that, I understand the great differences between them even more. I am also suffering a lot of mental pain on seeing the pitiable condition of India. Sometimes, I feel totally frustrated and feel India’s sorrow will never be reduced. At other times, I feel a little hopeful and think just as I am feeling for my country, similar feelings are also reverberating in many people’s minds back there. Like me, many people are mentally suffering after seeing the miserable condition of my country and so, hopefully they will compare both the good and bad aspects of the homeland and foreign lands and try to do something for the well-being of our country.

After reading about the knowledge, trade, labour, and women’s education in England, every Indian will understand how much more developed England is in comparison to India. Again, when you read about the English society, domestic life, personal independence of every individual, their love for the motherland, self-respect, etc., you will understand how different English life is from the Indian one. We Hindus are the descendants of the famous Aryans. Right from ancient times, even before the Greeks, our civilisation, religion, knowledge and learning have been famous in the world. We admired truth and courage. Even when all civilised nations had the practice of owning slaves, the Hindus were the only people who restrained themselves from such a heinous act as they did not believe in keeping another fellow human being bonded for life. Their brave deeds and fame spread across the world and their excellence in ancient mathematics, astrology, and philosophy acted as a leading light for other civilised races to follow and get inspired from to make new discoveries. We are the children of those Hindus but why are we in such a state now? Today, we have lost our courage, strength, wealth, prestige, independence, and complete happiness. Why are we residing in our own country in such a pathetic condition? Why have we forgotten the great achievements of the Hindus in cities like Kashi (Varanasi), Prayag (Allahabad) and Mathura today and are paying all our respects to Calcutta only?  Everyone knows the reason why but no one is willing to give the answer or wants to listen to the answer. No one will even admit that this has happened due to our own fault. The English people have two hands, two legs, and no part of their body is different or superior to that of the Indians. Isn’t it our fault that now we are subservient to them?

The Hindu women who undauntedly committed themselves to the fire in order to maintain their sanctity when their husbands left for the battlefield were also, at one point of time, known in all corners of the world because of their bravery. Their religion, chastity and bravery were ideals to be followed but today we, their daughters, are subservient and are being crushed underfoot. Isn’t this the fault of India’s own sons and daughters? Where is the bravery and courage of the Indian women today? Where is their zeal today to offer all the jewelry for procuring food for the soldiers? Today, when we see the sons of India sitting idle like cowards, we ask: where is the zeal to ignite their minds once again? We have nothing now and we have lost everything due to our own fault.  Lack of unity, like an evil serpent, has caused our destruction. It is because of this lack of unity that India is divided into so many parts and after the rule of the Muslims, she has now fallen under the control of the English. It is because of their unity that the people of this very tiny island could defeat the huge Hindustan and rule over it completely. It is because of this lack of unity that we are now turning poor and powerless and in spite of being civilised, we are subservient and considered uncivilised. Tiny termites get together and create huge molehills and if man tries to torture them in any way, instead of getting scared of huge human beings, they come out aggressively in hordes and start taking revenge for the torture inflicted upon them. But we human beings, with huge bodies, do not get together to protest but are afraid to face our rivals instead. 

The Hindus were worshipped throughout the world at one point of time for their civilisation and repository of knowledge; but now they are considered uncultured, lifeless cowards who are subservient to the independent races of people. They are looked down upon and in spite of being creatures of flesh and blood, they remain complacent about it and endure all humiliation. Isn’t it our own fault that we do not even feel insulted about it? The Bengalis are the most intelligent and learned among all Indians but they are cowards and lack bravery. So, what is the necessity for all their wisdom and learning? Other people in different parts of India are not crushed under the feet of the British as the Bengalis are, nor do they quiver in fear after seeing a white man’s face.

These people behave very strictly with women. The educated Bengali youth are busy acquiring degrees and seeking their own pleasure but they are incapable of seeing the silent tears that the Bengali woman keeps on shedding while being confined in a cage. The English women are now struggling to become members of parliament, are creating a lot of commotion and trying very hard to win power for themselves. In a similar manner, if we could strike at the heart of each Indian and ask for women’s liberation, if we did away with our docile and tender nature, and instead of keeping all our sorrows confined within our hearts, could shout and create a commotion in front of them, probably the Bengalis would lend ears to our pain and suffering. But by remaining subservient for a long time, we have lost all our power and strength for an independent life and that is why we are incapable of being equal to men in all respects as the English women are attempting to be. 

There are so many kinds of pleasurable sights in this country but what I prefer to see most are the meetings where men and women participate equally, play games together and also, grown-up women going to school. I love to see how all of them move around like brothers and sisters and play and laugh together. Which Indian’s mind would not be filled with joy after seeing this? But after looking at their happiness, instead of forgetting our sorrow, we become doubly sad.  The more I see the mark of independence on the face of the English woman, the sad and demure face of the Indian woman arises in my mind even more.

Many people lack racial strength, intelligence or unity; but the firm love for their nation has helped them to uplift themselves from a miserable and subservient state. But we do not even know the meaning of what love for the nation is. We spend our days complacently and do not get excited or eager to sacrifice our leisure even when we see the torture being inflicted upon our homeland. Like animals, we only prefer self-gratification and are totally oblivious of the welfare of India. We do not sit down together to have serious discussions on issues that would either develop the nation or bring more harm.

To conclude, I want to say that it is no use lamenting ancient times. Instead, we should specifically think of the present and the future. A truly knowledgeable person should understand the issues related to the past and then, act carefully now as well as in future. When we consider both our homeland and the foreign land together, we understand the reality of the present condition. We should constantly evaluate and then, adopt methods that will improve our present condition and also be beneficial in the future. If we analyse the history of civilised and prospering nations, we find that they have been continuously changing. This change has come very slowly and the gradual development has brought in a new countenance. We also see that those races which have not undergone any change at all and have remained in the same static position for a long time are now declining to a worse position and moving towards an imminent downfall. Just as man, animals, trees etc. change continuously, in the same way the main goal of every race is also to bring forth change. So, the only way to rectify the current miserable state of our country is through change and development.

Many people are excited by the idea that “we have to become independent” and ignite false hopes in the minds of others. But we must first consider whether we have the requisite qualifications to become independent, whether we can retain that independence and whether we have the strength to gain that independence. Before succeeding in our goal, we should know the ways and means to be adopted to achieve that goal. We should know whether we possess the virtues of the race we want to defeat and bring them down from their position as rulers. We have to ascertain whether we have sufficient power, knowledge, and tactics within ourselves. If we don’t have those qualities collectively, instead of showing false chivalry, we have to do away with superstitions and all old and harmful traditions and try our level best to inculcate all their virtues.  

Leaving behind all my friends and relatives, I bade farewell to my loving motherland with a lot of difficulty and am now living in this foreign land. I don’t even know whether I will be able to see my birthplace and my loving friends and relatives again. Many thoughts have been disturbing my mind for a long time and at times, I cannot control the pain and anxiety within me. That suffering has doubled after coming to this foreign land and I am expressing parts of it in this book in order to offer solace to my own mind. If any part of this book seems bad to my fellow countrymen, they will hopefully pardon me by thinking that the more one is hurt, the more loudly one speaks out. Many people could have written this book in a more refined language, expressed the inner thoughts of my mind in better words; but no one else could experience the mental stress and turmoil that this Bengali woman is undergoing for residing in a foreign land.  My readers can discard the bad sections and select only the good portions, if there are any. If even one person is inspired by new thoughts and feelings after reading this book or thinks about his homeland and the foreign land, I will know that all my labour has been successful.   

Here, Mother! I have come to independent Britain
With lots and lots of hope
I thought I will win eternal peace
But Mother India! Where is the happiness?

The more I listen to songs of independence here
The more I see jubilant spirits all around
The more my heart breaks into hundred pieces
And flows away in tears.

This Britain, like your daughter
A tiny country, but vigorous in spirit
Shakes the earth with its strength and bravery
Humanity is scared in fear
Of its courageous feats.

But no one fears us
Finding us cowards, they chase us far away
Mother! They take away all your wealth
And chain you instead.

As I look at this zealous spirit
This great pleasure, rich in wealth,
I despise myself and loathe to remain alive
In low subservient disgrace.

If you were ugly, and
Only with deserts full of sand,
Even that was better than this slavery
And to live a life of abject disgrace.
Only the weak tolerate such torture.

Mother! It would even have been better
If we were all caught in a web of ignorance
If we were savages like the Zulus,
And possessed the wealth of freedom,
We would be free of all pain.

Of what use is the wealth of knowledge
Of art and civilisation
If the priceless wealth eludes us
And glorifies the whole world?
Only heartache abounds!

I can see you suffer
With greater clarity from this distance
But alas! This merely doubles the pain
And increases it further.
Mother! It’s a terrible Bengali life.

So I think once more
If we were seeped in sea of ignorance
I would not cry ceaselessly
Sitting with a broken heart,
In this distant land of free Britain.

I see lots and lots of wealth
In Britain that has come
Floating from India,
Leaving the country forever in poverty
They will never go back again.

I also see the flag in the distance,
Flying with pride on top of the palace.
Inside sits Queen Victoria,
Ruling from Britain our mother India
With the Kohinoor crown on her head.

But, as I contemplate how
The Kohinoor becomes your jewel
And finds a place in the heart of England,
I remember this and such events in history.
And feel overwhelmed.

The goddess of Britain is not above you
O Mother! What injustice!
Even now I cannot think of it
The jewel of Ranjit Singh on her head.
Blood boils in my veins.

About the Book

This is a translation from Bengali to English of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule with Bengal as its capital. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class Bengali lady who accompanied her husband on his second visit to England in 1882, where they lived for eight years. Krishnabhabini wrote her narrative in Bengali and the account was published in Calcutta in 1885 as England-e Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England). This anonymous publication had the author’s name written simply as “A Bengali Lady”. It is not a travel narrative per se as Das was also trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life, such as the English race and their nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, religion and celebration, British labour, and trade. Though Hindu women did not observe the purdah as Muslim women did, they had, until then, remained largely invisible, confined within their homes and away from the public gaze. Their rightful place was within the domestic sphere and it was quite uncommon for a middle-class Indian woman to expose herself to the outside world or participate in activities and debates in the public domain. This self-ordained mission of educating people back home with the ground realities in England is what makes Krishnabhabini’s narrative unique. The narrative offers a brilliant picture of the colonial interface between England and India and shows how women travellers from India to Europe worked to shape feminized personae characterised by conventionality, conservatism and domesticity, even as they imitated a male-dominated tradition of travel and travel writing.

About the Translator

Somdatta Mandal is former Professor of English and Chairperson of the Department of English and Other Modern European Languages at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. Her areas of interest are contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, diaspora studies and translation. A recipient of several prestigious awards and fellowships, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya. She has written two academic books and edited and co-edited twenty books and journals, including three anthologies, Indian Travel Narratives (2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), Indian Travel Writing: New Perspectives (2021) and “India and Travel Narratives” for Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities Volume 12 (3), May 2020.

Among her translations on travel writing are The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose with a foreword by Ashis Nandy, Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore FamilyEnglande Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England) by Krishnabhabini Das, Bangamohilar Japan Jatra (A Bengali Lady’s Trip to Japan and Other Essays) by Hariprabha Takeda with a foreword by Michael H. Fisher, Chitrita Devi’s Onek Sagar Periye (Crossing Many Seas), Rabindranath Tagore’s Pather Sanchoy (Gleanings of the Road), and two travel memoirs of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis along with Rabindranath Tagore, Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe) and Kobir Shonge Dakkhinattey (With the Poet in the South).

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Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

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Review

Golden Bangladesh at 50: Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti


                                                                   

Title: Golden Bangladesh at 50, Contemporary Poems & Stories

Editor: Shazia Omar

 Publisher: The University Press Ltd, 2021

The title of the collection of poems and short stories under review is apt for two reasons. First, that it derives from Rabindranath Tagore’s lyric Amaar Shonar Bangla … the national anthem of the country. Second, that the book has been published in 2021, the Golden Jubilee year of the formation of Bangladesh.

The political partition of Pakistan in 1971 caused one of the greatest convulsions in the history of the subcontinent. The Bengalis of Pakistan suffered barbaric violence and bloodshed because they valued their distinctive identity above everything else and refused to submit to a harsh regime’s determination to quell and subdue it. Civil wars have been fought before but never, in the history of mankind, over a language and culture.

Interestingly, Rabindranath’s poem, too, was written as part of movement led by him against Lord Curzon’s infamous Partition of Bengal bill in 1905. The intention of the government was clear. Bengalis were waking up to a sense of nationhood and coming together through the growth and spread of the Bengali language and literature. A blow had to be struck to curb it. And what could be more effective than division based on ethnicity and religion?

The editor Shazia Omar deserves our congratulations for bringing together a vast range of voices. Some are new and unknown, some old and established and some culled from across a wide diaspora. From New York, Chicago and San Francisco. From London, Rome, Toronto and Hongkong. This anthology, to use her own words is, “a way of honouring all that we have learned, yearned for, found and let go. To give our readers a sense of who we are now.” Accordingly, itencapsulates the joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations, losses and anxieties of two generations of Bangladeshis both from home and abroad.

That partition trauma continues to shape the literature of Bangladesh is apparent from this volume. But the new enquiry has moved away from a nationalistic obsession with the horror of the event to a closer probe into people’s history through recollections of lived experience. Social, familial and personal attempts at restoration of identity seems to be the primary concern in these stories.

The contributions are all in English. The last few decades have been marked by a great deal of discourse about the decolonization of the language. In the past, much colonial creativity has felt throttled by the dominance of English as written and spoken by the ruling class. Today the fragmented pieces of the old empire are striking back with a vengeance. Each erstwhile colony has come up with its own brand of English. This book is a triumphant vindication of Binglish… tried and tested in the literature of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The volume is replete with cultural nuances. Phrases like eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi and names of seasons and festivals phagun, boishakh, agrahayan, eid, nabanno are used freely without footnotes or glossary. The writers have felt no compulsion to translate kinship terms, exclamations and natural phenomena. English has triumphantly broken its original grammatical and syntactical mode and become a hybrid — both a native and a foreign language.

The issues examined in this collection are varied. Class struggle, patriarchy, dogma, superstition, displacement, loss and reclamation of identity. The characters are culled from a wide spectrum of society. From the very rich to the very poor; from the shamelessly privileged to the shockingly deprived. Such yawning gaps, some of the writers seem to imply, are a reality in Bangladesh even in its 50th year of Independence.

 Some stories depict a polarisation of power along the lines of gender. Women are victims of exclusion and varied forms of subjugation. Some are seen as trapped in the iron fist of a feudal order. A few others, westernized and seemingly empowered, share the same fate though the mode of suppression is refined and sophisticated.

Yet, that is not always true. Many of the stories are set in the bustling metropolis of Dhaka where women from all religions, classes and persuasions roam freely. The city is seen as a place of pluralism and diversity. One senses freedom of thought and action as well as a strong sense of belonging to larger whole.

The book is a rich multi-site ethnography that spans continents and traces personal histories and movements of Bangladeshis. It is a notable addition to the literature of the diaspora in that the stories present sensitively nuanced accounts of the East West encounter. In ‘Neighbours’, Nadeem Zaman explores the dilemma of a Bangladeshi woman trying to make a life in Canada during the Liberation war. Struggling against a harsh climate and what she considers an unloving culture, she is forced to pause and reflect when she becomes friendly with her next-door neighbour. She finds his identity troubling, since he seems to combine a sensitive, warm and compassionate outlook with a violent relationship with his wife and indifference to his daughters. The Other seems embodied in paradox.

 Neeman Sobhan’s ‘Bengali Lessons’ is a poignant diaspora story stretching across space and time. Employing a seamless mix of three languages, English, Bengali and Italian, she moves her story between two worlds and timeframes. Two eras run parallel. War ridden Bangladesh of 1971 and Covid afflicted Rome of 2020. The central character, a professor teaching Bengali to a group of Italian girls on Zoom, remembers her traumatic childhood, trapped in her grandfather’s house in 1971, and finds it astonishingly similar to her present-day situation in another country and another time. It is a severed world she remembers but one in which a Muslim child saves a Hindu soldier from an excruciatingly painful death.

Another excellent examination of child psychology is contained in Fatma Ahmad’s ‘Phultokka’ . Childhood is often considered to be the happiest phase of a person’s life. That the notion is far from the truth is seen in the mental struggles, failed aspirations, jealousies and misunderstandings suffered by the intelligent and sensitive teller of the story. She is called Taalgaach (palm tree)a derogatory reference to her height and complexion, by the school bullies. Why do bullies bully? Why can’t some children, especially exceptional ones, cope with the real world and retreat into an inner one, while others have no difficulty in merging and being part of a larger whole? These are some of the questions raised in the story.

 ‘Charaiveti’ and ‘Kalpanta Sthayina’ by Lubna Mariam, derive from the ancient Hindu texts Rigveda and Hitopadesha. The first describes an undefined urge to go on a journey without a destination. Man’s existential freedom drives him towards an imagined Utopia. Keep going,” the sages say, “because life itself is the journey; an inner journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge”.

Kalpanta Sthaniyah is a Sanskrit phrase meaning enduring till the end of the Universe. A grandfather’s replies to his grandchild’s innocent question about where the river comes from and where it goes, encompass deep philosophical concepts. He speaks of beginnings and ends, past and present, old and new…flowing in an unbroken stream. A glorious merging in the free flow of time. An unending celebration of life.

I conclude with a few words on the poetry section. From the whimsical effusions of ‘Ode to a sari’ to evocations of sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel of their beloved country in ‘Daydream’ ‘Midnight blues’ and ‘For you’, the writers offer a carpet rich with colour and design, light and life. Capricious and fanciful at times, a glimpse of truth is invariably offered at the end of each poem.

 Zeesham Khan’s ‘Banglar desh’, one of the best of the collection, portrays the generosity and compassion of nature as against the callous brutality of the human race. Here is a personification of nature that is amazingly poignant, graceful and symmetrical. The world pulsates with life. Trees have flesh and blood. All organisms speak; feel pain and pleasure. An achingly immediate, hauntingly sensuous, world! The all too real river under a canopy of moon and stars. Paddy fields, bamboo shoots, wild flowers, butterflies and moths. Should not all meld together with humans to make a complete whole? But does such a whole exist in the universe? The writer thinks not. He deplores…

I have seen blissful harmony pause
To give way to aggressive survival
And humans being homo sapiens
Unencumbered by unnecessary compassion.

Glossary:

Amaar Shonar Bangla –My Golden Bengal.

eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi – what is this, my dog, or name, sweet smile

Phultokka — A game played by children. Phool means flower and tokka, touch. One child is blindfolded while others touch the youngster lightly. The blindfolded child has to guess who the person is.

Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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

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Author Page

Arundhathi Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet who has recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2020, for her book When God is A traveller (2014). She has authored a number of books and won multiple awards and fellowships. She has been part of numerous anthologies and journals.

Interview

In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam: An online interview with the 2020 Sahitya Akademi winner, Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

Poetry

Catabolic Woman by Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

More Poems by Arundhathi Subramian houses three poems. Click here to read. The following poems from her collection can be found here.

  • When God is a Traveller
  • Eight Poems for Shankuntala
  • The Fine Art of Ageing

Book Review

A review by Bhaskar Parichha of Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves, published by Speaking Tiger Books. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

The Caged Birds Sing

...Don't you know
They're talkin''bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper...
-- Tracy Chapman,'Talkin 'Bout a Revolution
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 
— Bible 

We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?

Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?

That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.

“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”

Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’.  Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?

 Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.

In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices?  We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.

We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.

Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!

While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?

Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares, and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.

We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.

Have a beautiful month!

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless Journal

Categories
Review

Women Who Wear Only Themselves by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha   

 Title: Women Who Wear Only Themselves

Author: Arundhathi Subramaniam

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
                                                                              

This is an unusual book–unusual because of the theme, approach and style. And when it comes from a skilled author, it ought to be still more engrossing. A tiny book of about two hundred pages but not so diminutive in its journey to profile four women — who are known little outside their small world of followers and who matter in the arena of spirituality. It is a melodious presentation.

Women Who Wear Only Themselves–Conversations with Four Travelers on Sacred Journeys’ by Arundhathi Subramaniam is prophetic, in-depth and counter-revolutionary.

Author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, Arundhathi is an award-winning author. Her most recent book is Love Without a Story. The Other books include an anthology of bhakti poetry, Eating God, and a book of essays, Pilgrim’s India. The Book of Buddha and the bestselling biography of a modern-day mystic, Sadguru: More Than a Life are also the talked about ones. Arundhati is widely known as a poetry editor, curator and critic. Her book, When God Is a Traveller, won the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020 besides being shortlisted for various other prizes.

Arundhathi’s book provides glimpses of four spiritual practitioners – Sri Annapurani Amma, Balarishi Vishwashirasini, Lata Mani, and Maa Karpoori — who unlike the chatty sadhus prominent on the social media, practice in isolation. Arundhati talks at length to these women of substance and in doing so, she gives some promise for the jaded souls. Besides, she looks for a gender-balancing act and tries to widen the circle of women spiritual leaders.

In a world where women have been seen traditionally as someone’s wife, mother, daughter, or sister, why would a woman choose to follow a spiritual path? Perhaps because, deep inside every woman has a longing to be someone in her own self, confident and in control.

In the last two thousand years, women have not fully used their spiritual power. Instead, aspects of the feminine have taken mainly symbolic forms from the Virgin Mary to the vestal virgins, from Earth Goddesses to the Shakti Devis. Women have been put on pedestals and worshiped on account of their purity or femininity; but have been excluded from religious activities and barred from entering places of worship.

In the present book, she talked to Annapurani Amma who left the safety of home and family to follow the summons of a long-dead saint (she lives naked but delivers prophecies.) Balarishi Vishwashirasini who was predicting futures ultimately transformed into a guru. Now in her thirties, she is a gifted teacher of nada yoga. Lata Mani, a respected academician in the US, was plunged into the path of tantra after a major accident left her with a brain injury. The fourth woman is Maa Karpoori, who had a rollercoaster ride that catapulted her from marriage to monkhood.

Writes Arundhathi in the Preface: “The primary motivation behind this book is simple. Thirst. Hopefully, a shared one. As a seeker, I have spent years thirsting for conversations. With spiritual teachers, with fellow travellers committed to the life of the spirit. I cannot complain. My life has been rich in conversations.

“I have had conversations with seekers of various persuasions. I have spent long hours listening to the yogi and mystic who later became my guru. I have eavesdropped on countless conversations with mystics in books — Shirdi Sai Baba, J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, Osho. I’ve even imagined the lapping waters of the Hooghly quieting to listen to the extraordinary exchanges between Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciples. But another kind of thirst remained.”

So, what made her plan this book? “There was no crusading zeal that motivated this book. There was no schematic design. No spirit of advocacy. But there was a longing to listen to the voices of lesser-known women—women who choose to live in relative seclusion and shadow, and yet burn brightly. Women whom I met, accidentally, in the course of my own journey, and who generously allowed me a glimpse of their light. Something shifted within me after each of these chance encounters. I did not leave any of them unmoved.”

Arundhati doesn’t skip history: “The Indian spiritual landscape is not devoid of its women. We are routinely reminded of an illustrious litany: Maitreyi, Gargi, Andal, Karaikal Ammaiyar, Akka Mahadevi, Janabai, Muktabai, Bahinabai, Lal Ded, Rupa Bhavani, Gangasati, Meerabai. The list is long and varied. There are well-known figures in more recent times too, from the 20th-century mystics, Anandamayi Ma and The Mother of Pondicherry, to contemporary guru, Mata Amritanandamayi. Remarkable women. Beacons for many even today.”

 Says Arundhathi admittedly: “These women made no effort to impress. They were gracious enough to share their life journeys, without trying to flaunt their attainments, win recruits, or garner publicity. I am a seasoned listener, and instantly alert to subtle attempts to broker deals. There were no bargains being hatched here. I write about these conversations primarily because they were so remarkably free of agenda.

“My initial encounters with the women in this book were unplanned. I happened to have spent large swathes of time in southern India in the past decade, and so, not surprisingly, that is where these meetings happened. They are not meant to represent the religious plurality of the Indian subcontinent, although I do believe that they reveal the still-vanquished hospitality of vision that characterizes its spiritual ethos.”

While she is on the subject, her incredulity and concerns goes farther than the original remit: “The terror of uncertainty is more blazingly evident in our world than it ever has been. To carve a path between the certitudes of a frozen faith and the dogmas of arid materialism can be challenging. I marvelled at how these women held their own in a world so conceptually fragmented. A world that divides the material and the spiritual into such impermeable categories. How did these women tune into their own inner guidance? How did they come to terms with that simple but oddly elusive truth: that we are both flesh and spirit? That we do not have to masquerade as simply one or the other?”

Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.

Interspersed with her own poems to uphold the content, the four conversations in the book are as fascinating as pathbreaking. Appropriate for an awakened reading!

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Click here to read Arundhathi Subramaniam’s interview and poetry.

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