Categories
Review

Netaji: A Legend Revealed by the Family

Bhaskar Parichha reviews a non-fiction written on Netaji by his family.

Title: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics 

Author: Krishna Bose

Editor and Translator:  Sumantra Bose

Publisher: Picador India

Books on Netaji Subhas Bose are plentiful and readers are unvaryingly fascinated by every book that hits the bookshelves. The enigma and the ecstasy of Netaji’s short yet eventful life continue to enthrall people worldwide even after decades since his death in a plane crash.

This new book Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics by the late Krishna Bose is a refreshingly new account of the great leader’s life. Three aspects of his life stand out prominently in the book: Subhas Chandra Bose’s political motivations, personal relationships, and the daring military campaigns he undertook to secure India’s independence. 

Krishna Bose (1930-2020) was a Member of Parliament thrice. A professor of English Literature, Krishna (nee Chaudhuri) married Dr. Sisir Kumar Bose — son of Netaji’s elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose. Sisir was Netaji’s chief aide in his daring escape from India in 1941 and drove the escape car from the family’s mansion on Kolkata’s Elgin Road. After Netaji’s death, Krishna helped Sisir build the Netaji Research Bureau at Netaji Bhawan. She served as NRB chairperson after Sisir’s death. 

The book offers a rare in-depth account of the Netaji’s meaningful life by one of Bose’s close family members. That makes the book authentic and stimulating. Originally written in Bengali, the writings reveal the “human being alongside the revolutionary and freedom fighter”. It traverses Bose’s life from childhood to his death in August 1945. With important chapters about his youth, political career, and the power equation with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, the book subtly brings out different shades of Netaji’s personality.

Drawing on Netaji Research Bureau’s archives and decades of fieldwork and interviews, this book offers an unmatched portrait of Subhas Chandra Bose – the man, his politics, and his epic struggle for India’s freedom. Krishna Bose’s writings were compiled, edited, and translated from Bengali by her son Sumantra Bose.

Krishna Bose traveled the world and extensively to the subcontinent in order to find out more about Netaji’s life.  She strung together her findings, giving new insights into Subhas Chandra Bose’s political motivations, his personal relationships, his epic journeys, and the daring military campaigns he undertook to secure India’s independence. Written over six decades the book vividly reveals Netaji as a human being alongside his radical views.

The book has a detailed account of the women who influenced Netaji (his mother, adoptive mother, wife, and close friends as well as the soldiers of the all-women Rani of Jhansi regiment that was trained in Singapore), an eyewitness account of Netaji’s epic struggle in Europe and Asia, his secret submarine journey and escape from his Calcutta home and the Andamans where Netaji raised the national tricolour.

Divided into seven chapters (‘The Women who Influenced Netaji’; ‘Netaji’s relationships with Indian and World Leaders’; ‘Azad Hind Fauj’: ‘Netaji’s Epic Struggle in Europe and Asia’, ‘Netaji’s Soldiers: Remembering the Brave’; ‘The Liberated Lands’: ‘Visiting Manipur and the Andamans’; ‘Netaji and Women’: ‘In War and Friendship and Requiem’), the book is a truthful chronicle of Netaji.

The book contends: “[W]e visit the Manipur battlefields where the Indian National Army waged its valiant war, the Andamans where Netaji raised the national tricolor; Singapore, where the INA took shape; Vienna and Prague, his favorite European cities; and Taipei, where his life was tragically cut short. We meet Netaji’s key political contemporaries – from Nehru and Gandhi to Tojo and Hitler. And we learn in gripping detail about the Azad Hind Fauj’s spirit of unity and the bravery in the war of its men – as well as the women who fought as the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.”

In fact, Krishna Bose closely knew many personalities who feature in this book – Basanti Debi, Subhas’s adopted mother; Emilie Schenkl, his spouse; Lakshmi Sahgal, Abid Hasan, and many other leading soldiers of the Azad Hind movement – who all shared vital memories that helped complete Netaji’s life story.

Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose are the two most iconic figures late modern Bengal has produced. The nature of their relationship is, however, not very well known. We are told: “Tagore and Bose first met at sea, in July 1921. Subhas, aged twenty-four was returning by ship from England to India after resigning from the Indian Civil Service to join the national struggle for freedom taking shape under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership. Tagore, aged sixty, happened to be a co-passenger on the ship. In his book, The Indian Struggle, 1920-1934, published in London in January 1935, Netaji recalled that journey and wrote that he and Tagore had extensive discussions during the voyage.”

Aiming to bring an end to the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the freedom fighter, the over 300-page book gives a detailed and evidence-based account of his death in one of its chapters. Notwithstanding the mystery surrounding his demise, Netaji is widely believed to have died in a plane crash in Taiwan.

Featuring 95 images and letters from family albums and Netaji Research Bureau archives, this compilation by Krishna Bose on Netaji and his struggle for India’s freedom will enlighten readers, and especially the younger generation, about Subhas Chandra Bose’s ideals and his vision about the development of a free India.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo 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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Categories
Interview

Where Cultures Connect beyond Borders

Jim Goodman, an American traveler, author, ethnologist and photographer who has spent the last half-century in Asia, converses with Keith Lyons.

Jim Goodman in Nepal at Dasain being blessed by King Birendra, October 1978.

Jim Goodman is something of a legend in Southeast Asia and Eastern South Asia. His definitive guide to southwest China’s Yunnan province was the most sought-after travel book for any intrepid backpacker wanting to get off-the-beaten-track in the ethnically-diverse province bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Tibet. That’s how I first came across Jim, through the well-thumbed pages of his The Exploration of Yunnan. Back then, I marvelled at his ability to venture into areas that were only just opening up to foreign travellers, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge of different ethnic minorities. It was almost 20 years later that I finally met Jim in person in a cafe inside the old city gates of northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where he has been based since 1988. Later, on a media trip to the Golden Triangle’s eastern Shan state hill-tribe villages, I saw how Jim’s interactions, appearance (and conversation in ethnic language) endeared him to local minorities. 

He has published books in Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, China and Vietnam, and also worked with ethnic minorities, including on textiles with Newars in Nepal and northern east Indian Mizos, and on traditional handicrafts with Akha in northern Thailand. “Besides acquiring new labour skills—I was the dyer and designer—the work gave me valuable insights into the different cultural norms and ways of thinking of traditional societies in this region,” he once wrote. “My writing, research and photography reflect my fascination with history, traditional cultures and ethnic minorities, not just in the ethnologies, cultural studies and histories I’ve published, but in my fiction and poetry as well.”

You were born in the US capital Washington D.C. and raised in the Midwest in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up in the US, what do you think contributed to your interest in different countries and cultures?

As a kid I was fascinated by American Indians, especially those from the western plains and the southeast. My father taught Latin American history at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He and my mother were members, later chairmen, of the Foreign Students Welcoming Committee. Every American holiday — 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc — we had foreign guests. They were from India, Nepal, Tunisia, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria. They aroused my natural curiosity. 

How were your first experiences of foreignnessin the US and then overseas?

I stopped believing in my parents’ Catholicism by the time I was in high school and for the next few years felt like a foreigner in my own family and neighbourhood. In later years, when I was living in Europe or Asia I was always conscious of being foreign, especially in things like double pricing, but I integrated socially enough not to let it bother me. Occasionally, that worked in my favour. In Korea in the 70s, males were forbidden by law to grow their hair over their ears or past the collar. Every four or five months the police carried out widely publicised roundups. But foreigners were exempt.

What was it like growing up in the 1960’s in the US?

It was very exciting. Thanks to the civil rights and anti-war movements it was easy to challenge the system intellectually and practically. The drugs and music, a very new kind of music, also contributed to this sense of the times are changing everywhere and lots of options were possible. It was an amazingly optimistic decade.

How did you come to be in the army, and what was your experience as a soldier in Germany and later South Korea?

I got my draft notice in the summer of 1967, at the peak of the Vietnam War, when 80% of those drafted were sent off to Vietnam after training.  So I took the enlistment option, signing up for an extra two years, with one year at the language school studying Arabic.  War might be over by the time I finish the course, I thought, and anyway they wouldn’t need an Arabic translator in Vietnam.  But the Army inserted a little clause in every contract, “subject to needs of the Army,” that let them do what they liked.  When I arrived at the language school, after basic training I was told my orders had been changed. I had to go back and wait for new ones. Eventually they put me in a tank training unit, but by the luck of the draw I was in the company sent after training to Germany, while the other three were dispatched to Vietnam.

In Germany, I served in an armoured unit which was very often in the field. However, this was 1968 and I managed to get a pass to go to Paris in early June and marched down the avenues with the students and workers singing L’internationale over and over. I still know the first stanza, in French. I also met Arab officers from Jordan and Libya and took a month’s leave in the autumn to have my 21st birthday in Beirut. On my first night in Beirut, a South Yemeni staying in the same hotel told me there were three good reasons to travel.  The first was to meet the different kinds of people living in this world.  Second, was to try the various local foods and drinks.  And third, was to appreciate the scenery and historical monuments. I never forgot the order in which he listed those attractions: people first.  Throughout my trip, I wore a button on my shirt that said Restore Palestine to the Arab People, which guaranteed a good reception everywhere in Lebanon and Jordan. I was very active politically by then and the following spring published the first anti-war newspaper by a soldier in Europe. That later got me transferred to Korea, the only place there was no organised anti-war soldier activity. In Korea, I was in charge of the Photo Lab, where I learned the basic principles of photography. Also joined rock bands as a singer, so I wasn’t very political in Korea, except for some of the song lyrics.

After your time in the army, how did you get back to Asia?

I was discharged in Seattle in January 1972, went to San Francisco to live and later got a clerk-typist job with General Services Administration. Then my boss recommended me for a low-ranking administrative position. I would have been in charge of the installation of furniture in the California offices of the state’s two senators. Not exactly exciting work, but anyway I had to get a security clearance, starting with answering a questionnaire with things like ‘are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party’ and ‘do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by force or violence’.

 I answered no to everything, but within 24 hours the office got back a disapproval of my application “for security reasons”. After that news got out, everybody in the building thought I was a terrorist, and that was before terrorist was a household word. It was doubtless my activity as an anti-war soldier but it meant I would really have no future in my country. I went to Korea that autumn on a one-way ticket without enough money for a round-trip. (I don’t think that’s even possible anymore.) I met other ex-GI’s in Seoul who gave private English lessons, so I did, too. In the second year, I got hired by Language Teaching Research Center, which didn’t use textbooks and so I made up my own lessons. I spent free time among soldiers on the army base and in off-base bars and would listen carefully to their conversations. Whatever they said that I thought my students wouldn’t understand, I wrote down and worked it into my lessons. It was a wonderfully creative job and made me especially conscious of my own language.  

What happened for you to leave Korea and ending up almost dying and in jail in Nepal?

My last summer (1976) in Korea, I met travellers who had been to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. Later that year I got busted for a small amount of grass and, near the end of the year, was expelled from Korea. India and Nepal seemed a natural place to go next. It wasn’t easy in the beginning and once in Calcutta, I got robbed of everything and went over three weeks without eating. I was kind of resigned to dying by starvation but a Muslim street merchant recognised the situation, paid my bills and lent me enough money to get back to Kathmandu. Everything seemed fine but when I finally ate a meal I vomited it all a few minutes later. Body won’t take food, eh? Guess I’m going to die after all. He said don’t worry, wait a little and try again. He had witnessed the same thing with starving Bengali refugees during the break-up of Pakistan. He was right. The next meal was fine and ever since then, I’ve not worried about, for one reason or another, missing a meal or two. I missed meals three and a half weeks and got by. 

And you spent some time in jail, not just in Kathmandu but in Korea?

I was three weeks in Korean solitary confinement until my girlfriend bailed me out. Longer, about four months, in the holding centre in Kathmandu, where those arrested awaited trial. I was busted for a lot of hash but charged with both possession, 10,000 rupees fine, and exporting, 100,000 rupees fine (about 70 to a dollar then). I pleaded guilty to possession only. The judge dismissed the exporting charge because the hash was found in my home, not at any border. However, to save face, the prosecutor appealed the acquittal for exporting. The appeal had to go to the special court, which only met once a week, so cases piled up. In Nepal, you don’t bribe the judge. You bribe the clerk to put your case before a sympathetic judge. I wasn’t going to hurry up the case because then I would have to leave the country afterwards. The prosecutor wasn’t going to speed up the proceedings because he still would have no evidence and would lose again. Meanwhile, I was free to continue my Nepal life. For over a year the government’s attitude to me was like a joke. They thought I had figured out how to beat the system. The following year, I became an embarrassment and the year after that, with a new government, it became an issue and I finally got a new passport and left Nepal for a month’s holiday in Thailand.

What took you to Assam, and what made you later leave?

It was one of the few places in India I hadn’t visited yet. It had an interesting separate history from the rest of the country and was surrounded by many fascinating ethnic minorities. My first trip was in the autumn of 1979, when I was paid to take an American woman and her daughter, whose tutor I was, to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kaziranga, the rhinoceros park in Assam. The Assamese anti-immigrant demonstrations had already begun, so I kept up on news then and afterwards. In 1980, I made two trips to cover the movement for newspaper articles. I only got to visit hill people (Khasi) in Meghalaya, as the other states, and parts of Assam were closed to foreigners. I bought a lot of books about them, anticipating freer travel sometime soon. Instead, I got blamed on my third trip in May by the Delhi government for organising the Assam movement (as if they couldn’t organise themselves) and banned from re-entry.

After moving to Chiang Mai Thailand, what did you concentrate on?

Jim Goodman with a Akha girl in Thailand, 1988

The skills I learned in Nepal were those involving weaving and dyeing. I used natural dyes and designed the patterns for the looms. I had worked with both Mizos from Northeast India, who used a back-strap loom, and Newars, who used a stand-up frame loom, like that of the Thai. I began working with the Karen, who used back-strap looms. But after meeting the Akha, I conceived the idea of making Akha jackets, which were cut like Western jackets, using my colours from natural dyes and bigger to fit Western bodies. I soon dropped the work with the Karen and found enough customers for Akha jackets and shoulder bags to cover the expenses of a modest lifestyle and my research on them.

What made you decide to go to Yunnan and southwest China? When did you go, and what was the experience as the region just opened up to travel by foreigners?

One of the sub-groups I worked with in Thailand, the Pamee Akha, came directly down from Yunnan. I met a relative on one of my trips who was in Pamee to make money picking lychees for a season. He invited me to his village in Xishuangbanna, if I could ever come to China. Not long afterwards a flight opened from Chiang Mai to Kunming. I booked one for July 1992. After a few days around Kunming and Lunan County, I flew to Xishuangbanna and found out from Akha in Jinghong how to find my friend I met in Pamee. After some time there, I returned to Kunming and embarked for the northwest for a quick look that did include the Torch Festival in Ninglang. I couldn’t speak much Chinese then, but in Xishuangbanna, the Akha enjoyed the fact that the first foreigner they ever met could speak their language. People were friendly everywhere and once I started repeating visits for research, I got introduced to English-speaking locals who could assist me.  

When you first went to southwest China, did you feel you might be documenting some people whose culture would be wiped out by modernisation, and if so, has this happened?

From the very beginning I felt ethnic cultures were having a true revival but wondered how long that could last, not because of politics, as in the past, but because of the greater exposure to outside modern influences, including mass tourism. Certainly, that has happened, but not to the same extent everywhere. And mass tourism has been more disruptive. Lijiang and Lugu Lake are two obvious examples. I was lucky to have chosen those places to fully research before they completely transformed into tourist traps. In other places, like Ailaoshan, parts of Lincang and Pu’er prefectures and even much of Xishuangbanna, modernisation has been less noticeable and the traditional culture and lifestyles still strong.  

What have been some of your most memorable experiences in Yunnan?  

After watching two little Lisu girls at Lishadi cross the Nu River on the rope-bridge several times, for their own amusement, without adult supervision, I concluded:

1. It can’t be dangerous.

2. It must be fun.

Next trip to Nujiang I had a Lisu friend in Fugong get me the harness and cable hook. Made my first crossing, just for the fun of it, at Damedi south of Fugong and over the next few years carried my cable hook and rope harness to Nujiang for more rides at more locations.  

The other unique, to me anyway, research experience was my repeated visits to Lige village, Lugu Lake. Mosuo culture is matrilineal, the children belong to the mother, but also Tibetan Buddhist and each family has a resident monk. Women were definitely in charge of domestic affairs. At Lugu Lake, my friends, the folks I hung out with, got high and drunk with and had the most experiences with, were mainly women. Many of them introduced themselves to me. I only knew a few men. With every other minority, I only met women because they were my friend’s wives, daughters or sisters, whom he introduced to me. The Mosuo were really special.

From your experiences across Southeast Asia and eastern Southern Asia, what are some of the most interesting things youve learnt about hill tribes, their customs, societies, and beliefs?

They are very attuned to nature, with a cultural sense of ecological balance. Most of their festivals are concerned with important junctures in the agricultural work cycle. Their societies are very collective-oriented. Everyone has relationships with everyone else. No one ever has to feel alone.

How has learning languages and assisting local craftspeople enabled you to get inside like an anthropologist?

Learning an ethnic minority language is a clear indication of special interest in them. And they respond very favourably to that. Involving them in handicrafts production shows appreciation of their traditional arts and crafts, like a form of flattery. It also means getting to know them more personally and becoming an accepted part of their existence, making research easy.

Whats your personal approach to meeting new people, and why do you think it works?

As that pertains to my research work I always made clear to the people what my interest in them was and that I was going to write about them. Always had a positive response and when I indulged in their hospitality I followed four rules I set for myself: eat whatever they give me, drink whatever they give me, smoke whatever they give me, and sleep wherever they put me. As a result, I’ve had some really spicy food, very powerful liquor, pretty raunchy cigarettes and even opium and some pretty uncomfortable sleeping conditions. But I figured nothing can hurt me much for a day or so and the effect on them was that they thought I was a great guest. Everything they did for me seemed to work. They didn’t have to make any adjustments.  

Whats it like to be the first outsider or white personthat some groups have seen?

That happened mostly in Yunnan and was never a negative experience. I remember once about to enter a Yunnan village that was definitely off the beaten track and when children spotted me they ran back to the village shouting, “Weiguo pengyou lai!” (“Foreign friend comes.”) And then the adults came out to welcome me. I never found any animosity or impolite, intrusive curiosity anywhere I went. The local attitude seemed to be ‘here’s a chance to make a foreign friend’. Minorities were as curious about me as I was about them. And being American in China or Vietnam, in their context I was a fellow minority person.

For many of the groups youve studied and spent time with, they are spread across countries and borders. Are there differences on different sides of the borders, or does close contact mean the groups retain their traditions?

I made my first trip to Vietnam precisely to answer that question. I was researching the terrace builders in Honghe between the Red River and the Vietnam border. Many ethnic groups lived on both sides, so I travelled through the border areas in Vietnam to meet sub-groups I knew in Yunnan. Lifestyles and cultural traits were very similar. The minorities in Vietnam seemed more conservative, more resistant to modern influence, while the same minorities on the Yunnan side seemed better off economically. 

Your other interest is Vietnam. What fascinates you about Vietnam?

I was already familiar with Chinese culture when I first visited Vietnam, as well as Southeast Asian culture. It didn’t seem like such a strange place and I was able to discover what was unique about Vietnam, its separate cultural characteristics. The people were uniformly friendly, even though I came from a country that bombed the hell out of it. Yet the Vietnamese I met regarded all that as the past and now it’s different so no time for resentment. I made close friendships there easily (eventually married one) and found new topics to write books about—what was unique about Vietnamese culture, the special history of Hanoi, and how the country became one entity.

Why do you have a fascination and affinity with ethnic minorities, particularly hill tribes?

Hard to really say, but I suppose it was because I like their very different kind of living environment, the way they look and the way they act. Always felt comfortable with them.

How do you feel about the changes that have happened to minorities, such as becoming tourist attractions, or having to move to towns for economic opportunities?

It was probably inevitable. Traditional agriculture, the shifting cultivation type, was no longer sustainable due to population density growth. Roads are better and more numerous, too, so those who do move to cities can still maintain links with their villages. Becoming tourist attractions can be more of a lifestyle change. Everything cultural seems to become a commodity, something to be paid to do. In some places, the culture on display is not even their own. For example, in Sapa Vietnam, many Hmong girls dress up in fancy clothing of the Flowery Hmong because their own Black Hmong outfits are not as colourful or photogenic for tourists, who pay them to take photographs. 

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

When I first started reading world literature as an early teenager and started fantasizing about one day becoming one of the literary giants.

How do you go about your writing process?

I begin by thinking about it for many sessions, then, when it’s a book or a lengthy article, make an outline and start adding details before I actually write anything. When I do get going I often inspire myself by fantasising what a positive review might say, then add or revise something to justify the imaginary praise.

How has photography integrated with your writing?

Most of what I write requires illustration and some of it was because I had a set of photographs that sort of made a story. When doing cultural research, I photographed anything I thought might be relevant, whether it was photogenic or not, because then I would have a reference. I wouldn’t have to write down or have to remember what I saw. The photo was the record.

Is http://blackeagleflights.blogspot.com/ your main website? Where have you been published over the years?

Yes. It was set up by a young friend many years ago. I don’t make any money from it. It would have been nice to have sold all the site’s articles, but I continue it because it represents my self-image of contributing to the sum of human knowledge concerning the topics I write about. Regarding books, I have had publishers in several cities: Kathmandu, Bangkok, Singapore, Kunming, Hong Kong and Hanoi.

What projects do you have on the go currently?

This year’s project was Peoples of the Mekong River Basin: The Ethnic Minorities. It covers 23 ethnic minorities and over 100 photos, 90% mine. The publisher is World Scientific Press, Singapore and it should come out in or maybe before October. I would like to do one more book, on Lamphun and its first ruler Queen Chamadevi, the most interesting and accomplished woman in all of Thai history. But I have to find a publisher interested before I start work on it.

*Photographs provided by Jim Goodman

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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

Categories
Essay

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.

Zohra Sehgal. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Zohra Sehgal[1] mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.

Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western  dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.

So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.

But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘A Biography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.

Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe[2] and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.

Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan[3]  in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…

So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI[4].

Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.

It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…

Young Zohra. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”

All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!

Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier[5] – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”

When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.  

Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.

With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan[6], Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.

On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…

*

When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara[7] and Chandralekha[8]; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.

Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.

Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.

Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi[9]’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement[10] started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed.  Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”

*

However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.

Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.

But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.

Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan[11], writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.

Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef[12] – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor[13], to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.

*

Prithviraj[14], although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla [15]sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”

Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.

The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.

Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.

The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!

In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day[16] riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.

And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.

Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.

When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallas[17]and hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”

Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.

Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”

As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”

Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?”  People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.

However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.

Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?

In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.

The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.

All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.


[1] Born Sahibzadi Zohra Mumtaz Khan Begum (1912-2014)

[2] From the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

[3] Pathans of Afghan origin who migrated to Uttar Pradesh in the 1700-1800CE

[4] Communist Party of India

[5] A famous French dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe

[6] Allaudin Khan(1862-1972)

[7] Nayantara Sahgal

[8] Chandralekha Mehta

[9] Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s husband and son-in-law of Nehru

[10] The Quit India Movement started on 8th August 1942

[11] All film stars

[12] Writers

[13] Film stars, directors, composers

[14] Prithviraj Kapoor(1906-1972)

[15] Hindu or a Muslim priest

[16] 16th August, 1946

[17] Colonies

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.

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

Categories
National Day Special

Singapore Celebrates…

After a pause of the pandemic years, this island with its otters, idyllic beaches, palm trees, angsanas, parakeets and golden orioles mixed with modern technology and tall skyscrapers gears up to celebrate its National Day — a day when it came to its own fifty seven years ago. Veteran writer and academic, Kirpal Singh, who was a young boy at that time (1965), shares with us his memories of what had been the past in the years Singapore was born as a country. On the other hand, Tan Kaiyi, a young writer, celebrates the feeling of holiday in the air with a dark story — a typical local favourite — focussing on the parade. We also share from our treasury some pieces by expat writer Ayesha Baqir and poetry by iconic names from Singapore like Desmond Kon Zhicheng–Mingdé and Marc Nair — all these giving us a glimpse of Singapore of a post-independence era.

Prose

The ‘New Kid on the Block’ Celebrates…Dr Kirpal Singh ruminates over what led to the making of an island state, Singapore. Click here to read.

No Rain on the ParadeTan Kaiyi goes on a hunt for the National Day Killer. Click here to read.

Singapore’s Secret Recipe by Aysha Baqir … Click here to read.

Poetry

The Contingency of Saying and Eternal Motion by Desmond Kon… Click here to read.

Rasam & Sunil the Brahmin by Marc Nair. Click here to read.

Categories
Musings

The ‘New Kid on the Block’ Celebrates…

Dr Kirpal Singh, an eminent academic and writer, takes a nostalgic journey back in time to recall the start of Singapore as an individual entity.

The years 1964-66 were very interesting– not only because on 9 August 1965 we became the Republic of Singapore but also because of the events (some may even term these as “shenanigans”) surrounding to the lead-up to our final independence. I was a little more than fifteen years old and though not fully in the know or swing of things, it was pretty obvious real changes were afoot. The racial riots of 1964 left a deep impression– some may call it a “scar”—and many of us were truly worried and even frightened at what prospects lay in wait.

Nerves were running high and tension was palpable. Much as our teachers tried to hide hard truths, it was abundantly obvious that major changes were bound to usher a new and different ethos. My late Uncle was in the thick of things and though he did his best not to display anxiety, the various insinuations in the media– coming as they did from a variety of differing personalities with radically different perspectives — did not assure much comfort in what was to come. The hubbub left many wondering and many others questioning what had gone wrong. They demanded the “truth” be revealed.

And so it was. Mr Lee Kuan Yew addressed the nation and in-between wiping his clearly moist eyes told us that we had been kicked out of Malaysia! The shock took minutes even hours to sink home. Neighbours chatted across fences just to confirm what they had heard. But it was too late to do much by way of not accepting our fate: Singapore was now out of Malaysia and had to embrace the future alone, without the larger community that had formed in the two preceding years. It was the start of a new chapter in our short history– and a new beginning.

The new chapter in our history began with a clear glimpse of Lee Kuan Yew wiping his eyes. After all his long-cherished dream of a “Malaysian Malaysia” was now, in a sense, shattered. Whatever the details of that critical meeting that is said to have taken place in Cameron Highlands between the Tengku Abdur Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew one fact emerged: Singapore was on its own — no longer a part or partner of Malaysia.

Thus began the slow and arduous journey of our independent Republic of Singapore. In 1965, I was fifteen and though still a teen it was abundantly evident that a truly historic transition had taken place.

Whether it was Lee Kuan Yew’s oratory or his emotional self that made the impact, it was clear that most Singaporeans rallied behind him and resolved to ensure that we survived. Survival was our prime and major consideration, and all endeavours were directed to realising this goal. Crucial to this was the daily recitation of our National Pledge- “We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one united people…”. Whatever people may say our National Pledge remains sacred and sacrosanct.

As I look back at the tumultuous tensions and uncertainties we faced in those early years of our Republic’s nationhood, I can never state that we were despondent or unable to push forward. Yes, it will be folly to try and claim that everything was hunky-dory. No, far from it. But one thing was totally clear and universally accepted, as Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, we were now on our own and we had to shape our own destiny. All the doubts and unpredictable consequences notwithstanding Singapore was now the youngest new nation on planet Earth and her citizens were committed to ensure the nation survived.

And she did. Indeed, Singapore gloriously more than survived! She soared and within less than a decade of Independence– by 1975– we were showing ample signs of “earned success”, a reward that even opponents of Lee Kuan Yew had to acknowledge as “ real”.

There’s not much need for me to go into all the many new legislations and policies and rules and regulations that were mooted and passed in Parliament and embraced by all branches of our young Republic. The Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary had to be built on strong and impartial foundations without regard to race or language or religion. It was for the young an exciting and sometimes bewildering phase of history. But Mr Lee kept sharing his vision of a thriving young nation bent upon making a mark in history. Slowly but surely, said Mr Lee, Singapore would build her muscles and demonstrate what is achievable when citizen and together in order not so much to “show off” but essentially to survive. Survival was the foremost goal– all else could come afterwards.

And so we worked hard– very hard — and despite all the trauma and pain, we pushed and pushed and soon began to experience for ourselves the fruits of our determination. More and more nations began to realise that there was indeed a new kid on the block in Southeast Asia and that this kid was unrelenting in its efforts to succeed and succeed with distinction.

And so, today, as we celebrate our 57th year of Independence we can proudly claim to have surpassed all expectations and put to paid any misgivings anyone might have harboured.

Before Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed on, he said, movingly, while strolling through our Gardens By the Bay, that looking around he was glad we did what we did. He felt all his sacrifices were more than worth.

And so here we are celebrating our National Day in joy and even glee.

But we cannot ever forget or ignore the harsh lessons we learned along our journey to full and complete Independence. We live in a world crippled by numerous setbacks — the pandemic just being one.

It remains for others to evaluate the progress and strides our young and tiny island nation has taken. For my generation our Singapore is a miracle — a miracle realised through hard sacrifice and unwavering faith.

Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar,  Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. He retired the Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre.

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

Categories
Mission Earth

On a Bamboo Bicycle from Thailand to Indonesia

Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist, revisits his trip across Asia, exploring the enormous biodiversity and conservation efforts.

Bamboo Bicycle. Photo provided by Kenny Peavy

An idea is born

Like all good adventures, it started in a pub.

I was attending a weekend workshop on service learning and how to implement service projects with students. One of the other participants, Jamie, had come into Kuala Lumpur from Japan. We’d partnered on a few of the activities during the day and hit it off immediately. I was eager to get to know him better so invited him out for a beer to show him around town. I always liked sharing local restaurants and watering holes with visitors and this time was no exception.

Jamie agreed and we visited a few trendy spots in Bukit Bintang, downtown Kuala Lumpur.

After a walking tour of a few famous walking streets, we hit the town for a bit of street food. As Fate would have it, we soon ended up sharing a couple of drinks at Little Havana, a cool hang out spot on the corner with live music and, pub grub and nice draught beers.

After a couple of drafts of Guinness Stout, I boldly announced to Jamie my intentions to leave classroom teaching and set out on an adventure. I was burnt out and needed a break.

Hiking across Malaysia was being floated around as an idea. Being from the USA, we have plenty of cross-country trails such as the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail that, in my youth, had inspired me as bucket list adventures I would aspire to complete someday.

Now was the time. I needed play time. I needed adventure time. I needed to explore and roam for a spell. Hiking across a rainforest didn’t seem as feasible since there really were no trans Malaysia trails to be found. Cycling was also tossed about as an idea. Cycling across Asia had been done before. It seemed a more achievable adventure.

Back in 2012, I was not very Internet savvy and the number of blogs, vlogs and social media sites with information about how to cross Asia on a bicycle was scarce. As a result, we had to rely on our imaginations, grit and a bit of pragmatic know-how and determination to figure out what we would do and how we would do it.

During the excited and rambunctious discussion in the pub we let every wild idea and notion fly. I could ride across China. I could ride around Thailand. Maybe I could venture into Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. All sorts of options were tossed about and floated around.

After the weekend workshop, Jamie returned to Japan. We stayed in touch.

More ideas were thrown about, and we eventually decided that a trip from Thailand to Bali would be a good course of action and something that could be achieved. Soon thereafter, Jamie announced that he’d join me!

The plan was coming together slowly but surely. An idea was taking shape.

We wanted to do something centered around conservation or environmental issues. We could focus on that during our bike ride. The idea fit because cycling is eco-friendly. No fossil fuels. No pollution. Since Jamie was joining me, it would have to be done during the school holidays which meant we had approximately six weeks to complete the adventure in July and August. Yes. We could do it!

I talked to people in my network. Someone knew someone and they sent the word out to bike shops, cycling enthusiasts and adventurers. Shortly, Sunny from Singapore reached out to us and said he made bamboo bicycles. He asked if we’d like to try them out on our Thailand to Bali adventure.

Sure, why not?!

Sunny himself had ridden a bamboo bike across China and was designing and building bamboo bikes for long haul trips. We’d get to test one out and provide feedback. The experimental science guy in me said YES!

He sent us images and catalogues and we picked a mountain bike model since we figured the roads would get a bit messy at some point and we would want fat tires for any back roads, dirt roads, palm plantations, or gravel we might encounter.

We finally had bikes! Now we just needed a route!

We’d make our way through Thailand on to Malaysia across into Singapore and then onwards to Java and eventually end up in Bali for the grade finale.

We finally had a route! Now we just needed a name!

I honestly don’t remember how the name came about but I do remember quite a few failed attempts.

I wanted something that made us sound like superheroes! Green Warriors! Eco-Adventurers!

Eventually we settled on Green Riders.

It had a superhero kind of feel. Simple. Easy. Explained our mission. Done.

Yay! We finally had a name.

We were set.

On the road

We started at Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand for two reasons.

Firstly, it was one of the oldest and most biodiverse rainforests in southeast Asia. Secondly, I knew a guy that had a resort, and he could sponsor our first night by giving us accommodation and food!

We spent the first night in a small bamboo chalet next to a gorgeous turbulent river amidst the sounds of cicadas, swirling rapids and a myriad of jungle critters making their nightly sojourn throughout the forest by moonlight. It was paradise on Earth. The next morning, the sound of gregarious chirping birds welcomed the morning through the open-air bamboo chalet and mosquito nets.

With brand spanking new bamboo bikes, way too much gear, an adventurous spirit, and no idea on how the adventure might play out, we hit the road. Within a hundred meters my bike rack fell off and eagerly dispersed its burdensome contents onto the rich humus of the rainforest floor! Apparently, the marriage between an overburdened metal bike rack and a bamboo bike frame was not a match made in Heaven.

With plenty of laughing onlookers from the launch of Green Riders, Jamie and I made short work of the repairs and set off on the road.

During the six-week adventure we saw numerous indescribably beautiful and wild places.

We made acquaintance with numerous interesting and intriguing people and immersed ourselves in a wide array of cultural diversity ranging from the village life of rural Thailand and Malaysia to the hyper-developed modern city state of Singapore on to the chaos of the port of Jakarta and finally the super touristy island of Bali. With a tip from a local at a roadside food stall and coffee kiosk, we ended up visiting the first rubber tree planted in Thailand. Apparently, the rubber sapling had been stolen from the botanical gardens in Singapore and smuggled across borders in 1899 that eventually resulted in the booming and habitat destroying rubber industry of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

We spent the night in a pristine an efficient locally run Eco-village situated in a mangrove on the Isthmus of Kra which lies on the border of Thailand with Malaysia. There children roamed freely playing, exploring, and jumping in the brackish water as part of their daily free time. A place where a deep connection with the rhythms of the tides, the moon and the daily fishing harvest are intimately woven in the psyche of the Thai villagers that inhabit that ecosystem.

With yet another tip from a local in a pizza joint in Krabi, we made an unplanned sidetrack to see a very cool playground in a small village in Thailand that had been built from recycled and repurposed tires pulled from their local river. We ended up helping a nearby village copy the design and build their own playground and plant shade trees at a local school.

We ferried from Singapore to Jakarta aboard a defunct cruise ship, full of deportees and work permit violators from Java and Sumatra that were being deported back to their country of origin. Another crazy adventure we could not have planned.

We learned the hard way that Baluran National Park in East Java was dry and had not even a single measly roadside stall to sell water or food, making an arduous trek uphill even harder. Within the first hour of that particular day, we quickly depleted our supplies and road around for six sweaty, throat parching hours in search of liquids and sustenance. On the last leg of the ride, we sprinted as fast as we could to exit the park and crashed into the first shop to empty their barren stock of the bottles, water and soft drinks!

When we finally landed on the shores of West Bali National Park, we stood in amazement of all we had seen, done and accomplished.

We spent the last days wallowing in the company of Menjangan deer, water monitors, mangrove trees, wild boar, ebony langurs, various shore birds and the coveted Bali starling, an endangered endemic species of gorgeous bird in its protected habitat. Green Riders provided more explorations and adventures that we had counted on or even imagined!

On the road, we became absorbed in a Zen like trance that comes from 8 to 10 hours of singular focus on pedaling and riding. We learned the value of clearing the mind through the monotony of riding all day every day with a single purpose to keep pedaling.

The experience of being connected with self, with others and with Nature were priceless and life changing.

Photo provided by Kenny Peavy

Kenny Peavy is an environmentalist who has a memoir called Young Homeless Professional. He has co-authored a pioneering environmental education handbook, As if the Earth Matters, and recently, an illustrated book, The Box People , was re-released digitally to enable children, young people and their parents and educators anywhere in the world to use the book. He also created Waffle House Prophets: Poems Inspired by Sacred People and Places

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Categories
Poetry

Poetry by Kirpal Singh

Painting by Tagore. Courtesy: Creative Commons
THE TIMES, THE MORALS
(After Ee Tiang Hong)

Testy times
Tempers flake, bruise
Blood swells veins
As memories burn.

Times were
When reason prevailed
And men talked --
Eyes glittering.

Now it’s tit for tat
No relenting
Frayed nerves
Know no restraint.

We pray n plead
For sanity’s return
As pall bearers 
Carry another dead.

Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar,  Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. He retired the Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre.

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Categories
Interview

Nature & Kenny Peavy

Keith Lyons introduces us to Kenny Peavy, an author, adventurer, educator and wilderness first-aider who has travelled far and wide and wishes everyone could connect with the natural world right outside their door. 

American Kenny Peavy has spent three decades getting people outdoors. He believes that by playing in and exploring the natural world, we can discover or re-kindle a deep connection with Nature and learn to respect and take care of the planet we all share. 

For the last twenty one years, he’s been based in Asia, working in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. He’s currently at possibly the coolest school in the world, made of bamboo and nestled in lush jungle, the Green School Bali. Kenny is an advocate for education and learning outside the classroom. 

In this conversation, we are going to learn about growing up in the South of the US, how his environmental awareness was instilled, what brought him to Asia, and some of the biggest cultural differences (including breakfast). In addition to his questioning memoir Young Homeless Professional, in 2007 Kenny co-authored the pioneering environmental education handbook, As if the Earth Matters, and recently, an illustrated book, The Box People , was re-released digitally to enable children, young people and their parents and educators anywhere in the world to use the book. He also created Waffle House Prophets: Poems Inspired by Sacred People and Places

In efforts to raise awareness about conservation and sustainability in Southeast Asia, he’s paddled around the island of Phuket in Thailand, and ridden a bamboo-frame bike from Thailand through Malaysia to Singapore and Bali. As well as being a nature guide, project fundraiser and science teacher, Kenny is also a qualified wilderness first responder and first aid trainer. In Bali, he had to flee with his family when an erupting volcano threatened their village. 

Kenny has some advice for city-dwellers afraid of the ‘sometimes scary’ world away from concrete and mobile phones.

Tell me about growing up in Georgia, as I only know it being famous for peanuts, and being the birthplace of Julia Roberts, Kanye West, Martin Luther King Jr, Ray Charles, and Hulk Hogan? 

I was born in 1969 so, essentially, I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s. Since the ’80s were my high school years, I consider myself a child of the ’80s in all its hair metal, boom box, Pac Man and Donkey Kong glory!

It was very rural. A lot different then. We weren’t as aware of the outside world and didn’t have access to a lot of things like we do now. 

I distinctly remember going to my first ‘real mall’ in about 1984 or maybe 1985. It was Gwinnett Place Mall. A huge commercial shopping centre. Up until then, we only really had local mom-n-pop shops. So, it was astounding. One of my friends could drive and he had a car. 

None of us had much money so we all pitched in a couple of dollars for gas. The parking lot was dizzying and the mall was an amazing place to watch people. We tried this new thing none of us had ever heard of called a Gyro wrap and it was absolutely delicious and strange. Then afterwards I had an Oreo ice cream. Something I had never experienced before since we only had vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream at the local shop. It was all brand new. 

Growing up in the countryside we didn’t have that sort of food or flavours so even those simple things we take for granted today were fascinating novelties back then!

Aside from that, as I said, it was very rural. Most folks had land and cows or chickens. A lot of pine trees which means pulp mills to make paper. Plenty of dirt roads. Atlanta was the BIG CITY and most of us were kind of afraid to go there because we never heard anything but bad news about city folks.

What was the environment you grew up in like

Most folks were into fishing, hunting and other similar recreations. I went to a public school and took the free bus to school. We definitely had jocks, hicks, geeks and other ‘distinctive’ social groups. Me and all my friends were into hard rock and heavy metal and we saved our money so we could see all the shows from AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and White Snake when they came to Atlanta (even though we were scared of the Big City and fast talking city folks).

Our big entertainment was cruising the strip mall where they had a McDonalds and a hardware store. We’d all just drive in circles wasting time and gas while blasting The Scorpions so we could wave at people we’d seen at school the very same day.

I think most families were basically Blue Collar with jobs in construction, factories or some kind of farming. We all grew up working and my first job at age fifteen was washing dishes at a steak house in town. Other jobs we had as teens were cutting grass, painting curbs, running cashier in a gas station and other similar tasks.

How did you get into writing, was it something you developed a talent for early on, or did you have some inspiration and guidance from others? 

I always wanted to be a poet and swoon the girls with poems and fancy quotes from far-flung novels. It never worked.

I also wanted to be that professor with the patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket and a pipe dangling from my mouth as I pontificated wise philosophical diatribes to impress the masses. I’m still working on that one!

Your interest in Nature, the environment and science, where did that come from? 

Essentially, from growing up and playing outdoors. We were always outside and not allowed in the house during the day. So, we’d get bored and flip over logs, explore the creeks, go fishing and ride our bikes all over the trails in the woods.

This lead me to get curious about the critters we found under the logs and hiding out in the rocks in the stream. Combine that with a love for hunting and fishing and I eventually studied biology at university.

I basically wanted to know how Nature worked. What made it tick? How did all the pieces fit together? That also lead to jobs at the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia where I learned a heap about aquatic macro-invertebrates, ichthyology (fish) and ecology — and had a private lunch with the Father of Modern Ecology and author of the very first ecology textbook, Professor Emiritus Eugene Odum.

That’s why I firmly believe that a childhood spent outdoors playing and exploring will later lead to an insatiable curiosity for Nature and an ethic for conservation and stewardship.

You document in your book Young Homeless Professional  about a time in your life when you immersed yourself in the natural world, and were searching for answers. What did you learn from that time about the world and yourself? 

I essentially have many of the same questions today. I think I understand the inner workings of Nature and life’s mysteries a bit better now. With a modicum more insight and quite a few more experiences under my belt than 20+ years ago, I think what’s most important is the process of questioning. The ability to stay open to life’s possibilities is key. We most likely will never fully comprehend or understand life, our roles in the cosmos and Nature’s mysteries, but if we stay curious, keep exploring, stay open to the possibilities and keep questioning then I think that’s the key to finding a place in this world we all share.

How did you end up moving from the US to teaching in Asia? 

On a whim. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see and experience new cultures, try weird foods, learn about different religions and philosophies. Speak strange languages. So with US$ 8,000 in the bank, a teaching degree and a hankering to see the world I set out for Kuala Lumpur in the year 2000: I’ve never looked back!

What are the biggest differences between life in the US and your current life and environment in Bali? 

The biggest difference has to be that it’s a majority Muslim country. My wife is Muslim and I’ve grown quite comfortable being married into a different culture and religion. And here in Bali, it’s mostly Hindu which is vastly different from Islam. Growing up in the Southern US, I was only ever exposed to Methodist and Baptist forms of Christianity. All of this was new to me 20 years ago when I moved here.

I think the tropical climate and easy-going beach lifestyle are also very different from growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. 

Another HUGE difference is having rice for breakfast! I was always a hash browns and eggs or better yet, grits, kind of guy. We don’t really have either one of those here. But instead, they eat rice with a spicy sauce and crispy chicken or fish for a typical Indonesian Breakfast!

As well as being a teacher, you’ve done a lot of activities, organising events, initiating projects and raising funds. What’s your motivation for doing these? 

I feel like we should give back. Whatever we have to share, to teach, to give to others is valuable. Being part of something bigger than ourselves, whether it is a project, a group, a movement or an ideology is fundamental to achieving a sense of fulfilment and belonging. When we give, we receive back way more joy and happiness than we originally gave. It gets multiplied! Through giving of ourselves and sharing what we have, we receive a sense of being part of a larger cause and a sense of contentment which is multiplied many times over. 

One of your most notable achievements, in addition to your writing and educational work, is riding a bamboo bicycle across Southeast Asia from Thailand to Bali to raise awareness on sustainability. What was the hardest part of that adventure? 

It was all fun with plenty of excitement and adventure. There were actually very few hiccups and hardships. But I would have to say that cycling some of the monotonous palm oil plantations through peninsular Malaysia from the Thai border to Singapore was hot, boring and so sad. It was heartbreaking to see what was once a beautiful rainforest converted into endless palm oil plantations and a never-ending paved highway.

You also kayaked around the island of Phuket to raise awareness about marine conservation. How important is tangible action to bringing about change? 

Taking action is paramount. We can say anything we want. We can project an image of being eco-friendly and sustainable. We can GreenWash anything. But if you want to see what someone truly believes, watch what they do. Pay attention to their actions. Tangible action, hands-on, in the field, is where it’s at! Especially, if we truly want to bring about change and make a difference we have TO DO, not just SAY or BELIEVE.

Environmental education seems to be at the heart of your mission, how do you encourage students, teachers and adults to re-connect with Nature? 

Ironically, I spent 2 years researching this question as part of my MS degree and what I discovered and concluded after hundreds of peer-reviewed papers, conferences, surveys and questionnaires is that the best way to connect to Nature is simple… get outside and play!

Free time, exploring and playing in Nature are way more effective than any curriculum or lesson plan. When we take time to just wander and wonder we connect in ways that can’t be facilitated through constructed lessons or planning. It happens naturally and spontaneously when we get lost in play, discovery and exploration.

What are people’s (particularly city-dwellers) biggest fears about the natural world? 

I think the main thing people are afraid of is boredom. They don’t know how to wallow in boredom until the sense of wonder kicks in. We’re so used to instantaneous entertainment that we’ve become afraid to just sit, observe and take things as they come.

Another big one is mosquitos! And leeches. People are terrified of leeches!

Tell us about the environmental education book you co-wrote with Thom Henley As if the Earth matters?

It’s basically a teacher training manual and activity guide. We wrote it back before there were any resources to train teachers in Southeast Asia. So, the activities are meant to get kids connected to nature through exploration and engaging the senses. We put an emphasis on showing Southeast Asian flora and fauna as well as locals in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as instructors and participants to make sure it would have a multi-cultural approach to environmental education.

I am hoping to take some of the activities in the book and update them and create a much smaller activity packet. I think it’s now more important and relevant than ever that we try to connect kids and adults to Nature. 

As well as working as a nature guide, trek leader, science teacher, you are also a wilderness first aid instructor. What inspires you to be so active? 

I think the main driver and inspiration comes from a sense of curiosity. I always wanted to be a National Geographic explorer, or some kind of adventurer!

When I was young, I was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, David Attenborough and TV shows that featured people exploring exotic places, getting lost in mysterious jungles, landing in the middle of some kind of misadventure or a quest.

Those images stuck with me and keep me excited and curious to this day! There is always something new to learn, a new place to see, a new style of music to hear, and new flavours to be tasted.

You’ve also done some personal service projects, such as in Bali helping those affected by the volcano eruption. How challenging is it to initiate projects, particularly in a foreign country? 

It’s easy to do a project but it’s incredibly difficult to do it right.

The key seems to be relationships. If you have a relationship with someone in the village or even someone that knows someone in the village then things tend to go well.

The main issue I see is that many foreigners want to help in some way but they simply don’t know how. During the Mount Agung crisis, we were at a refugee camp and saw a car pull up and start tossing food into the crowd. The local villagers were then forced to run around and grab the donations up off the ground. It was very demeaning. I vowed to never approach any type of service project that way.

Essentially, you just need to ask the village what they truly need. This is the crucial step and it’s often overlooked. What I mostly see are people with good intentions making assumptions about what a village needs and then donating completely irrelevant or unwanted and unneeded stuff. Whether this is inappropriate food items that won’t be used, hot thick blankets in the tropics or painting a wall at a school when the funds and volunteer time could be used much wiser the missing ingredient is always communication with the locals to find out their true needs.

In the case of Mount Agung, what we discovered after meeting the heads of the villages is that they wanted fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, spices, electric fans and N95 masks. They said everyone had donated rice and instant noodles and that they needed something they could cook to go with it! In the end, we delivered those items based on their needs and wants not on assumptions.

So, if and when folks want to help out and do service projects it’s most helpful to find a trustworthy local that can help facilitate communications to ensure that the project is effective and truly wanted and needed.

How much do you feel you are an American in Asia, or a global citizen of the planet? 

I don’t feel very American anymore. Aside from my mom, dad and sister, I don’t have many connections to my country of birth these days.

I’ve been overseas for more than 20 years now. I’ve changed quite a bit personally and the USA has also changed a great deal in that time. 

I would say nowadays I definitely feel more like a global citizen and can be comfortable in almost any situation. These days I’m used to being surrounded by, working with and keeping company with locals of whatever country I am working in.

Being surrounded by people of diverse cultures, exploring and learning about different peoples, traditions, foods and ecosystems are what keep me happy!

When it comes to communicating and writing, what’s your process? 

Ideas always come to me at the strangest times. The best ideas seem to come when I am not thinking about writing but instead, when I am on the motorbike, bicycle, drifting off to sleep or distracted or focused on something entirely different. To catch those ideas, I always keep a pad of paper and pen next to the bed, my phone has a note-taking app and I have a zillion sticky notes. I even e-mail ideas to myself sometimes! So that’s step one. Catch the idea and record it. 

Then I tend to forget about it until I come across a similar thought or idea through reading, listening to a podcast or hearing something or someone that triggers more thought. That’s when I tend to gather up those ideas from the emails, sticky notes and note-taking app and start to map them out and write an outline. Then I forget about it again for a while.

Finally, when I revisit those ideas, I try to develop them into an essay, poem or even a book!

For the writing, I try to use my Southern American voice and interject colloquialisms. I normally write it. Edit it. Re-write. Edit again.

I find the editing is ongoing and every time you ‘rest’ in between versions and then look at your writing with fresh eyes you catch phrases that could be written better, sentences that can be shortened and different ways to say and express things that make them more interesting. Lastly, the thesaurus is my best friend!

What advice do you have some someone reading this, who wants to find their purpose, and also make a difference in the world?

Stay curious. Stay open. Seek out adventure. Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep learning new skills and spend long periods of time reflecting on who you are and what you have to contribute to the world.

Enjoy the adventure of being alive!

CLICK HERE TO READ HIS COLUMN, MISSION EARTH.

You can follow Kenny Peavy on Twitter @kenny_peavy or Instagram @kenny_peavy, and he will reply if you email him at kennywpeavy@gmail.com. Kenny also has a FB group about the Box People project (https://www.facebook.com/groups/boxpeopleunboxed ), and there is more information about the book on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Box-People-Out/dp/B09M4R6PRB/), or direct from Kenny via email kennywpeavy@gmail.com

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on early morning slow-lane swimming, the perfect cup of masala chai tea, and after-dark tabs of dark chocolate. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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Categories
Stories

Dinner with Bo Stamford in Hong Kong

By Steve Davidson

Vew from Victoria`s Peak, HongKong. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Recently I happened to be in Hong Kong for a cognitive education conference, and at day’s end, like many people, I took the spectacular funicular Tram and click-clacked up to the top of Victoria’s Peak to have dinner.  The charming restaurant staff nicely seated me at a small table where I could gaze out over Victoria Harbour, which was slowly descending into indigo blue, as the multicolored lights of Hong Kong and Kowloon gently transformed the city into fields of jewels, linked by the diamond tracks of the much-loved ferries cruising back and forth across the dark water. 

As I sipped my cold San Miguel beer in the warm evening, the restaurant began to fill up, and a pleasant looking gentleman was seated at the table next to me.  He also soon was gazing out at what must be one of the most stunning views in the world, Victoria Harbour from Victoria Peak.  “Beautiful”, he remarked.  “Yes”, I replied.  And so began my conversation with Dr. Bo Stamford, one of the chief architects of what might be called the “Singapore System”, the principles underlying the globe’s most successful city-state.

Bo appears to be a clone of Buddha.  Warm, unpretentious, calm, respectful, broadly well-informed, shrewd and quick, and quietly amused.  Dressed de rigueur for the territory in pale yellow cotton polo shirt, pale blue cotton trousers, and Tod’s suede driving loafers.   His doctorate is in economics from a prestigious London university.  As we dined on shrimp dim sum, I had a chance to interview him about the amazing, numerous successes of his home, Singapore.

I:  Would anyone ever have predicted that a small British coaling station at the foot of the Malay Peninsula would morph into one of the world’s stellar communities, a model city-state?  How did it happen? 

Dr. S:  Naturally, there are the obvious sources.  An ideal location for international trade.  A convenient intersection of magnificent cultures—India, Britain, and China.  Vigorous, ambitious citizenry from Malaysia and Indonesia.  Water from river and rain, fields for planting, and copious sunshine. 

I:  But those elements are true for numerous neighbors of yours.  And many of those neighbors are struggling to build roads, schools, and hospitals, make money, and keep the peace.  How are you different?

Dr. S: (Bo looked at me with a gentle gleam in his eye, then looked about, as if checking to make sure no one were listening from Hello! Magazine, or the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce, and finally whispered his answer.)  Causality . . .

I:  CAUSALITY?

Dr. S:  Not so loud!   

I:  Okay, okay.  So, what is this—thing?

Dr. S:  Academia . . . slides . . . over the concept of causality.  It’s there, but it isn’t.  It’s critical, but it’s neglected.  It’s a necessity, but it’s inconvenient.  It’s the holy grail of knowledge, then it’s Wednesday’s child. 

I:  Singapore, I take it, took a different tack.

Dr. S:  The very thing.  In every area of endeavour you can name, causality is the key

I:   I’d like to tell you that I completely agree with you, and that your insight is doubtless excellent.  However, a couple of examples, would . . . you know . . . clarify a little bit. 

Dr. S:  Naturally.  Regard, for a moment, these topics:

Leadership.  Leaders are supposed to control events in a desired direction.  That’s causality.

Government.  Administrations are supposed to manage society so that civic conduct falls within a highly admired range, so that all have jobs, medical care, housing, food and water in a beautiful, safe setting.  That’s causality.

Financiers.    Accountants and bankers are supposed to carefully analyze monetary systems, then invest in the ones likeliest to bring prosperous returns to the citizenry.    That’s causality.

Civic Designers.  Creative engineers are supposed to plan and build roads, buildings, parks, and breakwaters so the city continues to be dry, efficient, convenient, and attractive decade after decade.  That’s causality

Students.  Members of the educational community are supposed to acquire world class knowledge and skills, so they can provide world class service, resulting in world class incomes.    That’s causality.

I:  Yes . . . that’s what I thought you meant . . . 

However, how do you know if something is causal?   Isn’t there a lot of controversy around that issue?

Dr. S:  There’s confusion and, if I dare say, ignorance, about causality, but perhaps not so much true controversy.  The importance of causality is radically grasped all across Singaporean society, top to bottom. 

I:  How did that occur?  Why so?

Dr. S:  Nothing bearing such value was left to chance!   

I:  No, that doesn’t sound like that would be very Singaporean.  But, what did you do?

Dr. S:  First, our scientists provided us with a clear model of causality.  Then, that model was adopted by our educational establishment and taught to students from a young age, as well as continuously publicized by our media.

I:  Am I going to get confused here?

Dr. S:  Not necessarily.  It is, as a magician might say, tricky but simple.   

I:  I’m listening.  I think. 

Dr. S:  The key concept is comparison.

I:  I knew I was going to get lost.

Dr. S:  Look down below.  Ferries shuttle back and forth, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula.  It costs money to buy the fuel to keep the engines running.  Hong Kong is in the tropics, where sunshine is copious.  It occurs to someone that if ferries were equipped with solar collectors the sun might provide enough power to run the ferries. 

I:  Ah, I possibly see where this is heading.

Dr. S:  Yes, yes.  Good.  Take ten average ferries.  Spit them in half.  Equip one half, five ferries, with solar collectors.  Leave the other five, the “control” half, just as it was.  At the end of a year, compare the fuel costs.  If the ferries with the solar collectors cost much less to run, that’s probably because of the solar collectors. 

I:  You know that because the solar collectors were the only difference between the two groups of ferries.

Dr. S:  Right.  That’s a controlled comparison.  A test group compared to a control group.  That’s how you test for causality

Not exactly obvious, but once you get it, you’ve got it.

I:  Okay, maybe I am starting to.  So, when Singapore has an idea, it puts the idea into a controlled comparison to find out if it works or not.  If it works, it becomes a part of the Singapore System.  If not, it’s put aside. 

That’s why everything in Singapore works so well.  It’s been causally tested! 

Dr. S:  There it is.  We pilot ideas—test them out.  If they work, then we implement across our city-state of Singapore.

For example, we’re piloting a new leadership training program in the financial sector.  We chose ten matched banks, and broke them into two groups of five each, five in the test group, and five in the control group.  We taught the new leadership style to the managers in the five test groups, and said nothing to the managers in the five control groups.  In one year, we’ll compare the two sets of banks, and see which is making more money.  If our idea works, the five banks in the test group should be doing better than the five banks in the control group.  If so, then we can think about implementing the new leadership style across the whole financial sector.

There’s some guesswork involved in all that, here and there, naturally.  But that’s our basic approach, our basic causal schema.

His espresso coffee all gone, Bo checked his Patek Philippe watch and announced, “I have a meeting scheduled this evening at the Peninsula Hotel, in Kowloon, therefore, unfortunately, I must depart.  It has been a pleasure speaking with you.  Please enjoy the conference.”

As we exited the restaurant to all the splendor of nighttime Hong Kong viewed from high above, a green Rolls Royce, piloted by a strikingly attractive woman, switched on its lights and rolled silently forward, stopping in front of Dr. Stamford.  As the car door opened, he turned and made a final comment. 

“Plutarch told the stories of numerous men who made Athens, and similar city-states, eternally eminent.  We draw those stories into our hearts, into our minds, into our culture.  If Athens can . . . make it happen, then, Singapore can . . . make it happen.  It’s all a process of . . . causality!”  Then he smiled, bowed, slipped onto the beige leather seats, the door quietly closed, and the good doctor ghosted, in his shiny green Wraith, away down the dark hill.   

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Steve Davidson is a psychologist from California, the author of the clinical textbook “An Introduction to Human Operations Psychotherapy”.

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

Categories
Independence Day

Malaysia

Malaysia is said to have been inhabited 40,000 years ago by the same tribes who populated the Andamans. Situated on the trade route between China and India, they assimilated varied cultures into their lore, including that of the Arabs. Phases of colonial occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and British wracked their history from 1511. They suffered from Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The Federation of Malaya achieved independence after a struggle on 31st August 1957. In 1963, the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo were combined with Malaya and the country was rechristened Malaysia.

In 1965, Singapore was voted out due to ideological reasons, some of it being racial and political. This Partition was free of political bloodshed or violence between the two countries, unlike the earlier Partitions within Asia which led to much violence and bigotry — India, Pakistan and North Korea and South Korea (where the split along the 38th parallel was initiated by the West post-Second World War to settle matters between the ideological blocks of communism and capitalism).

Malaysia continues a federal constitutional monarchy with a Sultan and an elected Prime Minister at the helm and has a mixed population of Malays (Bumiputera), Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and other ethnicities. We present a selection of writing from this country, put together on the occasion of their 64th independence day, also known as Hari Merdeka or National day.

Poetry

Benderaku (My Flag) by Julian Matthews. Click here to read.

A False Dawn by  Malachi Edwin Vethamani. Click here to read.

Colours of Words, three poems by A Jessie Michael. Click here to read.

Prose

Brother Felix’s Ward

Malachi Edwin Vethamani takes us to an exploration of faiths and borders. Click here to read.

The Night of Sirens

A Jessie Michael tells us of riots that set in during elections in Malaysia. Click here to read.