Categories
Contents

Borderless, January 2023

Painting by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again? … Click here to read.

Translations

Nazrul’s Ring Bells of Victory has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Nobody in the Sky by S Ramarishnan, has translated from Tamil by R Sathish. Click here to read.

The Bike Thief by Ihlwha Choi has been translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Banshi or Flute has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali.Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Rhys Hughes, Saranyan BV, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, Ron Pickett, Ananya Sarkar, K.S. Subramaniam, George Freek, Snigdha Agrawal, Jenny Middleton, Asad Latif, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In I Went to Kerala, Rhys Hughes treads a humorous path. Click here to read.

Conversation

In Conversation with Abhay K, a poet turned diplomat, translator and a polyglot, converses of how beauty inspired him to turn poet and translating Kalidasa and other poets taught him technique. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?

Farouk Gulsara muses on the human race. Click here to read.

Ghosh & Company

Ratnottama Sengupta relives the past. Click here to read.

Sails, Whales, and Whimsical Winds

Meredith Stephens continues on her sailing adventures in New South Wales and spots some sporting whales. Click here to read.

Tsunami 2004: After 18 years

Sarpreet Kaur travels back to take a relook at the tsunami in 2004 from Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Click here to read.

‘I am in a New York state of mind’

Ravi Shankar shares his travel adventures in the city. Click here to read.

Half a World Away from Home

Mike Smith introspects on his travels to New Zealand. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Back to the Past, Devraj Singh Kalsi muses on the need to relive nostalgia. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In The Year of the Tiger Papa, Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of Japan’s education system with a touch of humour. Click here to read.

Essays

A Solitary Pursuit: The Art of Suhas Roy

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium. Click here to read.

New Perspectives on Cinema & Mental Health

Between 1990 and 2017 one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness. However, the depiction of this in cinema has been poor and sensationalist contends Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In The Immigrant’s Dilemma, Candice Louisa Daquin explores immigrants and the great American Dream. Click here to read.

Stories

The Book Truck

Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future. Click here to read.

The Scholar

Chaturvedi Divi explores academia. Click here to read.

Little Billy

Paul Mirabile renders the poignant tale of a little boy. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Abhay K’s Monsoon: A Poem of Love & Longing. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor. Click here to read.

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me. Click here to read.

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

Categories
Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again?

The first month of 2023 has been one of the most exciting! Our first book, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World, is now in multiple bookstores in India (including Midlands and Om Bookstores). It has also had multiple launches in Delhi and been part of a festival.

We, Meenakshi Malhotra and I, were privileged to be together at the physical book events. We met the editor in chief of Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, the editor of our anthology, Jyotsna Mehta, along with two translators and writers I most admire, Aruna Chakravarti and Radha Chakravarty, who also graced a panel discussion on the anthology during our physical book launch. The earlier e-book launch had been in November 2022. My heartfelt thanks to the two eminent translators and Chaudhuri for being part of the discussions at both these launches. Chaudhuri was also in the panel along with Debraj Mookerjee at a launch organised by Malhotra and the English Literary Society steered by Nabaneeta Choudhury at Hans Raj College, Delhi University. An energising, interactive session with students and faculty where we discussed traditional and online publishing, we are immensely grateful to Malhotra for actively organising the event and to the Pandies’ founder, Sanjay Kumar, for joining us for the discussion. It was wonderful to interact with young minds. On the same day, an online discussion on the poetry in Monalisa No Longer Smiles was released by the Pragati Vichar Literary Festival (PVLF) in Delhi.

At the PVLF session, I met an interesting contemporary diplomat cum poet, Abhay K. He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and the Ritusamhara from Sanskrit and then written a long poem based on these, called Monsoon. We are hosting a conversation with him and are carrying book excerpts from Monsoon, a poem that is part of the curriculum in Harvard. The other book excerpt is from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play, a book that has just been published by the Cambridge University Press.

Perhaps because it is nearing the Republic Day of India, we seem to have a flurry of book reviews that reflect the Sub-continental struggle for Independence from the colonials. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel, a book that takes us back to the trauma of the Partition that killed nearly 200,000 to 2 million people – the counts are uncertain. Bhaskar Parichha has discussed MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me, a biography of a long serving official in the Raj era — two different perspectives of the same period. Rakhi Dalal has shared her views on Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor, a book that dwells on an immigrant to the Southern part of India in the same time period. The legendary film writer K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon, has been praised by Gracy Samjetsabam.

We have a piece on mental health in cinema by Chaudhuri, an excellent essay written after interviewing specialists in the field. Ratnottama Sengupta has given us a vibrant piece on Suhas Roy, an artist who overrides the bounds of East and West to create art that touches the heart. Candice Louisa Daquin has written on border controls and migrants in America. High profile immigrants have also been the subject of Farouk Gulsara’s ‘What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?’ Sengupta also writes of her immigrant family, including her father, eminent writer, Nabendu Ghosh, who moved from Bengal during the Partition. There are a number of travel pieces across the world by Ravi Shankar, Meredith Stephens and Mike Smith — each written in distinctively different styles and exploring different areas on our beautiful Earth. Sarpreet Kaur has revisited the devastation of the 2004 tsunami and wonders if it is a backlash from nature. Could it be really that?

Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of the education system in Japan in her column with a humorous overtone. Devraj Singh Kalsi dwells on the need for nostalgia with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Rhys Hughes makes us rollick with laughter when he talks of his trip to Kerala and yet there is no derision, perhaps, even a sense of admiration in the tone. Hughes poetry also revels in humour. We have wonderful poetry from Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Asad Latif, Anaya Sarkar, Michael R Burch, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, George Freek and many more.

The flavours of cultures is enhanced by the translation of Nazrul’s inspirational poetry by Professor Fakrul Alam, Korean poetry written and translated by Ihlwha Choi and a transcreation of Tagore’s poem Banshi (or flute) which explores the theme of inspiration and the muse. We have a story by S Ramakrishnan translated from Tamil by R Sathish. The short stories featured at the start of this year startle with their content. Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future and Paul Mirabile tells the gripping poignant tale of a strange child.

With these and more, we welcome you to savour the January 2023 edition of Borderless, which has been delayed a bit as we were busy with the book events for our first anthology. I am truly grateful to all those who arranged the discussions and hosted us, especially Ruchika Khanna, Om Books International, the English Literary Society of Hans Raj College and to the attendees of the event. My heartfelt thanks to the indefatigable team and our wonderful writers, artists and readers, without who this journey would have remained incomplete. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her artwork. Many thanks to the readers of Borderless Journal and Monalisa No Longer Smiles. I hope you will find the book to your liking. We have made a special page for all comments and reviews.

I wish you a wonderful 2023. Let us make a New Year’s wish —

May all wars and conflicts end so that our iconic Monalisa can start smiling again!

Mitali Chakravarty,

borderlessjournal.com

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Photographs of events around Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World. Click here to access the Book.

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Insta Link to an excerpt of the launch at Om Bookstore. Click here to view.

E-Launch of the first anthology of Borderless Journal, November 14th 2022. Click here to view.

Categories
Review

Ladies Tailor

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: Ladies Tailor: A Novel

Author: Priya Hajela

 Publisher: HarperCollins

Seventy-five years after the Partition of India took place, the cataclysmic event on both sides of the country — in Bengal in the East and in Punjab in the West — has fuelled research on the trauma of migration, loss, and resettlement, and the interest in the theme is still proliferating today. It is interesting to note that apart from documentation through innumerable non-fiction and memoirs, stories of grim reality of the Partition as documented in stories by earlier writers like Sadat Hasan Manto or Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, the interest on the theme remains unabated even today. The only difference now is that with the passage of time, writers are often relying on memory of the Partition as narrated by their ancestors firsthand, or through books, films and documentaries in a new sort of writing that blends fact and fiction and try to use the background events of migration and displacement into stories of resilience, grit, and people rebuilding their lives anew after crossing borders as refugees with even more stamina.

Priya Hajela’s debut novel Ladies’ Tailor is an attempt to recreate the story of the actual Sikh migration of her paternal grandparents Bakshi Pritam Singh (Papaji) and Beant Kaur (Biji) who left their home in Harial Gujarkhan (Pakistan) and made a new life in Ludhiana, Punjab. Dedicating the book to them, she mentions in the foreword how the places she has written about in the novel – Delhi, (Nizamuddin, Patel Nagar, Khan Market, Shahdara, Kingsway Camp), Lahore, Amritsar and Sukho are all real, but many elements are fictional. All these places provide the setting needed to tell the story, many details imagined and manipulated based on the needs of her characters. Ladies’ Tailor is a story that captures a setting and a group of characters that represent the immigrant and the refugee spirit, the optimistic spirit of never giving up on what you want and a spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship that to this day is the driving force in Delhi and Punjab.

The novel begins primarily with the protagonist Gurdev, a Sikh farmer who had deliberately moved from his parent’s house in Lahore to settle and work in a remote village called Sukho for ten years where all the religious communities lived in harmony and led peaceful lives. It took a lot of time for people to realize the Muslim-Sikh violence in the village that began around 1946 and that resulted in fear, hatred, insecurities as real and when large-scale massacres, butcheries, annihilation of entire clans, that was beyond Gurdev’s imagination happened, and he participated like everyone else. He made a brief visit to Delhi where he judiciously deposited cash with different people so that he could use it later. When he finally decided to migrate to India along with his wife Simrat and their two children, he could not convince his parents in Lahore to join them as they were determined never to leave Pakistan, the birthplace of their gurus.

After braving the horrific massacres and ordeals along the way, Gurdev landed up at Kingsway Camp in Delhi only to reach safety and find new problems ahead of him. Not only is he determined to make a fresh start for himself, his wife and sons, but he proves to be quite a meticulous, strategic planner and motivator for fellow refugees in the camp. Simran, the all-enduring and never complaining type of wife, turns sick and is admitted to the hospital and by the end of the ninth chapter, she silently disappears after that when Gurdev hands her some ornaments that his mother had given her. We don’t hear from her again as well as the two sons who accompany their mother.

Though taken aback, the indomitable Gurdev takes it all in his stride and tries to concentrate on his business and survival instincts. He befriends two sardars, Nirmal Singh, a Ladies’ Tailor, and Sangat Singh, and convinces them to start a business venture for readymade and customised garments of Khadi, an affordable hand-woven fabric preferred by women in the refugee camp and for those who wouldn’t like to wear British fabrics and wanted only ‘Made in India’ clothing. He sets up shop in the upcoming Khan Market, provided by the government in lieu of his land in Pakistan, forms a partnership with a trader in Shahadra to supply superior quality Khadi exclusively to them, and together the four of them start attracting a steady clientele, with Noor, a Muslim war widow from nearby Nizamuddin, as their brand ambassador. Hajela focuses on interfaith camaraderie with intricate details about how survival strategies result in Hindu-Muslim marriages and how names are changed to remain safe in the community.

The next move in the plot comes when Nirmal, the tailor, is somehow dissatisfied with the output because his clothes lack ornate embroidery work, a very important embellishment that used to make his outfits stand out across the border in Lahore. He wants a special sort of embroidery on their garments that was the kind crafted by two orphaned boys in Lahore, who he had nurtured like his own sons. Gurdev, the mastermind, plans a daring trip to Pakistan with Noor as his partner, to bring the two boys to Delhi for Nirmal and for their business to succeed. A complicated procedure begins with Gurdev cutting off his hair and shaving his beard to take on a new Muslim identity, and procuring a false passport, plans to visit Lahore along with Noor posing as his wife. This is where Hajela finds ample opportunity to implant a sort of interfaith romance and love relationship between the two of them. Once they arrive in Lahore, they take shelter in a Hindu man’s house and both of them feel trapped because Shakeela Begum, the mistress, seemed suspicious of their visit and itch to see them in jail. More complications arise with the driver Akbar and actual agents who keep on shadowing them.  

Hajela’s narrative is full of intricate details, be it in the furniture, clothing, food, social mores, and other material objects that prevailed in the Indian subcontinent in the 1940’s and 1950s. She fills the novel with little details like how the cut of the ladies’ salwar could determine which side of the border you belonged to, differences between the taste of the same food in Delhi and Lahore, and how people on both sides believed that one day, when things settled down, they could go back to their homes. Noor’s shopping for glass bangles, jootis, and dupattas with Phulkari[1]work in the tiny stalls of Liberty Market and Anarkali acts as a camouflage for their real mission to trace the two young boys who excel in embroidery. The novelist describes things here in great details, especially with new problems arising each day. But with his survival instincts, Gurdev takes each stride adapting to the situation and his determination to overcome all odds and thrive with new beginnings remains praiseworthy.

Despite crowding the plot towards the end with too many ramifications, like suspicion, counter espionage, breach of trust, car chases, bribing people with American dollars, the protagonists are constantly shadowed by unknown people. Strange twists to the story occur where Gurdev manages to locate his aged parents forcibly living in the outhouse of their grand home in Lahore when they were assumed to have been burnt alive during the riots. The way Gurdev plans to cross over to India once again through a remote and lesser-known spot along the border by bribing people left and right with dollars sounds a bit contrived no doubt and it seems that Hajela wanted to put in too many imagined situations to make her book a page-turner till the end with ample amount of suspense like a mystery thriller. It celebrates the unvanquished spirit of the Punjabi refugees, who, using their skills and energy, made a success of their business. Fairly linear in narration, a lot is left to the imagination at the end and therefore the novel is a feel-good read that celebrates the human spirit’s victory in the face of terrible odds. Apart from narrating the lingering afterlife of the Partition, Hajela’s statement clarifies the mission of her writing quite clear — “It’s not what sets us apart but what brings us together that’s important. How we resist the forces that are intent on separating us is what defines us. How we recover from past transgressions is what carries us forward. Ladies’ Tailor takes a resolute look at stumbling and making amends, at holding close and letting go and at turning back in order to move on.”

[1] A type of folk embroidery of Punjab

Somdatta Mandal, critic and translator, is former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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

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

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Greetings from Borderless

Happy New Year

Art by Sohana Manzoor

As the old year winds up, we wait for the new year in anticipation… We wait to see how the new born blossoms as each year takes a unique form. This year, while we strengthened the population with vaccines, other kind of politics set in, which finally found fruition in a war that has perhaps been one of the saddest events of human history — people made homeless, towns erased, lives lost, nature polluted with gunpowder and shreds of machinery along with the ultimate threat of nuclear weapons erupting every now and then. What could possibly give hope amidst the darkness of the receding year with price hikes, the threat of looming hunger, joblessness, more conflicts and fear?

The fact that we have survived for more than 200,000 years in our current form is heartening. That we have lived through wars, plagues and disasters without being erased out of existence only highlights the resilience of our species to adapt to all kinds of contingencies. Perhaps, with the current crises, we will move towards new world orders…perhaps, we will find hope in creating and evolving new ways of living in consonance with nature and more by our need than greed.

With that hope in heart, we wish you a wonderful start to the New Year with a few interesting pieces from our journal, including a highly entertaining piece by Suzanne Kamata on how the Japanese traditionally, literally make a clean start each New Year and Michael Burch’s fun poems and a translation of Tagore’s adaptation of the traditional year-end Auld Lang Syne. We have sprinkled more humour in poetry by Rhys Hughes and Santosh Bakaya and, in prose, by Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal, Ruskin Bond and Devraj Singh Kalsi. Laughter at the this juncture will hopefully give us a year with more shades of happiness.

Poetry 

Tagore’s Purano Sei Diner Kotha or ‘Can old days ever be forgot?’ based on Robert Burn’s Auld Lang Syne, translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Fun Poems for the New Year by Michael R Burch… Click here to read.

Kissing Frogs by Rhys Hughes… Click here to read.

The Recliner by Santosh Bakaya… Click here to read.

Prose

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

A short tale from Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions by Ruskin Bond. Click here to read.

In A Clean Start, Suzanne Kamata tells us how the Japanese usher in a new year. Click here to read.

In The New Year’s Boon, Devraj Singh gives a glimpse into the projection of a new normal created by God. Click here to read.

Art by Sohana Manzoor

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

Book Talks

Categories
Contents

Borderless, December 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

It’s Only Hope… Click here to read.

Conversations

Shantanu Ray Chaudhari converses with writer Gajra Kottary, a well-known writer of Indian TV series, novels and stories. Click here to read.

A discussion on Samaresh Bose’s In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar, a book that takes us to the heart of the Kumbh Mela, a festival recognised by the UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the translator, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee. Click here to read.

Translations

Nazrul’s Why Provide Thorns has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Mercy, a story be P. F. Mathews, has been translated from Malayalam by Ram Anantharaman. Click here to read.

Even A Simurgh Cannot Change Destiny, a Balochi folktale translated and retold by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Confessions, a poem written by and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

The Sun on the First Day, a translation of Tagore’s Prothom Diner Shurjo by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Pandies’ Corner

Songs of Freedom: Vikalangta or Disability is an autobiographical narrative by Kajal, translated from Hindustani by Janees. These narrations highlight the ongoing struggle against debilitating rigid boundaries drawn by societal norms, with the support from organisations like Shaktishalini and Pandies. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Rhys Hughes, Asad Latif, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Santosh Bakaya, Phil Wood, Sharanya B, George Freek, Saibal Chatterjee, Jonathan Chan, Sutputra Radheye, Shambhu Nath Banerjee, Michael Burch

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Some Differences Between Wales and India, Rhys Hughes makes some hilarious comparisons. Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices from Life

Near-Life Experiences: Hiking in New Zealand

Keith Lyons escapes city life to find his happy place while hiking in New Zealand. Click here to read.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings

Saeed Ibrahim introduces us to Native Indian lore from Canada and shows its relevance in the current times. Click here to read.

Dismasted in Bass Strait

Meredith Stephens takes us for a sailing adventure with photographs in the Southern Hemisphere. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Of Mice & Men, Devraj Singh Kalsi talks of his encounters with rats. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In A Clean Start, Suzanne Kamata tells us how the Japanese usher in a new year. Click here to read.

Stories

Annapurna Bhavan

Lakshmi Kannan closes class divides in Chennai over a meal. Click here to read.

Two Faces of a Mirror

Tulip Chowdhury gives us a story set in a Bangladeshi village. Click here to read.

The Slip

Sushma R Doshi takes a look at the pandemic against an Indian middle-class set up. Click here to read.

Till Life Do Us Part

Devraj Singh Kalsi explores a strange new trend. Click here to read.

Essays

Orangutans & a School at Sarawak

Christina Yin, a conservationist, travels to Borneo in an attempt to create awareness for conserving the Orangutan. Click here to read.

Taiping of the Raj Era

Ravi Shankar explores Taiping in Malaysia with a camera and words. Click here to read.

Ivory Ivy & Stephen Dedalus

Paul Mirabile explores James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and his passion for words keeping in mind the hundred year old Ulysees & the even older, A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Radha Chakravarty’s translation of Tagore’s Farewell Song. Click here to read.

An excerpt or two short narratives from Rhys Hughes’ Yule Do Nicley. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal reviews The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury. Click here to read.

Rakhi Dalal reviews Freny Manecksha’s Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories from Bastar and Kashmir. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy reviews Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India by Rana Safvi. Click here to read.

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

You are all welcome to the book talks of our first anthology

Categories
Editorial

Its Only Hope…

Painting by Sybil Pretious

New year, like a newborn, starts with hope.

The next year will do the same – we will all celebrate with Auld Lang Syne and look forward to a resolution of conflicts that reared a frightening face in 2022 and 2021. Perhaps, this time, if we have learnt from history, there will not be any annihilation but only a movement towards resolution. We have more or less tackled the pandemic and are regaining health despite the setbacks and disputes. There could be more outbreaks but unlike in the past, this time we are geared for it. That a third World War did not break out despite provocation and varied opinions, makes me feel we have really learnt from history.

That sounds almost like the voice of hope. This year was a landmark for Borderless Journal. As an online journal, we found a footing in the hardcopy world with our own anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: Writings from Across the World, which had a wonderful e-launch hosted by our very well-established and supportive publisher, Om Books International. And now, it is in Om Book Shops across all of India. It will soon be on Amazon International. We also look forward to more anthologies that will create a dialogue on our values through different themes and maybe, just maybe, some more will agree with the need for a world that unites in clouds of ideas to take us forward to a future filled with love, hope and tolerance.

One of the themes of our journal has been reaching out for voices that speak for people. The eminent film critic and editor, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri , has shared a conversation with such a person, the famed Gajra Kottary, a well-known writer of Indian TV series, novels and stories. The other conversation is with Nirmal Kanti Bhattajarchee, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, a book describing the Kumbh-mela, that in 2017 was declared to be an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Bhattacharjee tells us how the festival has grown and improved in organisation from the time the author described a stampede that concluded the festivities. Life only gets better moving forward in time, despite events that terrorise with darkness. Facing fear and overcoming it does give a great sense of achievement.

Perhaps, that is what Freny Manecksha felt when she came up with a non-fiction called Flaming Forest, Wounded Valley: Stories from Bastar and Kashmir, which has been reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. Basudhara Roy has also tuned in with a voice that struggled to be heard as she discusses Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury, a book that explores how a lottery was used by the colonials to develop the city. Bhaskar Parichha has poured a healing balm on dissensions with his exploration of Rana Safvi’s In Search of the Divine: Living Histories of Sufism in India as he concludes: “Weaving together facts and popular legends, ancient histories and living traditions, this unique treatise running into more than four hundred pages examines core Sufi beliefs and uncovers why they might offer hope for the future.”

In keeping with the festive season is our book excerpt from Rhys Hughes’ funny stories in his Christmas collection, Yule Do Nicely. Radha Chakravarty who brings many greats from Bengal to Anglophone readers shared an excerpt – a discussion on love — from her translation of Tagore’s novel, Farewell Song.

Love for words becomes the subject of Paul Mirabile’s essay on James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, where he touches on both A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man and  Ulysees, a novel that completed a century this year. Love for animals, especially orangutans, colours Christina Yin’s essay on conservation efforts in Borneo while Keith Lyons finds peace and an overwhelming sense of well-being during a hike in New Zealand. Ravi Shankar takes us to the historical town of Taiping in Malaysia as Meredith Stephens shares more sailing adventures in the Southern hemisphere, where it is summer. Saeed Ibrahim instils the seasonal goodwill with native Indian lores from Canada and Suzanne Kamata tells us how the Japanese usher in the New Year with a semi-humorous undertone.

Humour in non-fiction is brought in by Devraj Singh Kalsi’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ and in poetry by Santosh Bakaya. Laughter is stretched further by the inimitable Rhys Hughes in his poetry and column, where he reflects on his experiences in India and Wales. We have exquisite poetry by Jared Carter, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Asad Latif, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Michael R Burch, Sutputra Radheye, George Freek, Jonathan Chan and many more. Short stories by Lakshmi Kannan, Devraj Singh Kalsi, Tulip Chowdhury and Sushma R Doshi lace narratives with love, humour and a wry look at life as it is. The most amazing story comes from Kajal who pours out the story of her own battle in ‘Vikalangta or Disability‘ in Pandies’ Corner, translated from Hindustani by Janees.

Also touching and yet almost embracing the school of Absurd is PF Mathew’s story, ‘Mercy‘, translated from Malayalam by Ram Anantharaman. Fazal Baloch has brought us a Balochi folktale and Ihlwha Choi has translated his own poem from Korean to English. One of Tagore’s last poems, Prothom Diner Shurjo, translated as ‘The Sun on the First Day’ is short but philosophical and gives us a glimpse into his inner world. Professor Fakrul Alam shares with us the lyrics of a Nazrul song which is deeply spiritual by translating it into English from Bengali.

A huge thanks to all our contributors and readers, to the fabulous Borderless team without who the journal would be lost. Sohana Manzoor’s wonderful artwork continues to capture the mood of the season. Thanks to Sybil Pretious for her lovely painting. Please pause by our contents’ page to find what has not been covered in this note.

We wish you all a wonderful festive season.

Season’s Greetings from all of us at Borderless Journal.

Cheers!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

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Review

The Shaping of Modern Calcutta through Lottery Sales

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830

Author: Ranabir Ray Chaudhury

Publisher: Niyogi Books

If you ask any layman about the city of Calcutta (now rechristened as Kolkata) you will get three major pieces of information — namely, it was founded by Job Charnock in 1690; it was the seat of East India Company and capital of British India till 1911; and that it was divided roughly into two sections — the white English town at the centre and towards the south and the native town in the north. Beyond that, very few people have the idea of how the city developed spatially and how several major arterial roads, tanks and squares were built systematically during the beginning of the nineteenth century and this is where The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury gives us plenty of information about the gradual development of Calcutta. This was undertaken by raising money through sale of lottery tickets and implemented by the creation of a Lottery Committee which functioned specifically for thirteen years from October 1817 to 1830.

Under the system then prevalent, the surplus lottery funds remained with the Bank of Bengal which would continue to be involved in the sale of tickets and the payment of prizes but would have nothing to do with other payments. The three senior members of the committee were John Eliot, Charles Trower and Henry Wood who had already looked after the construction of the square and tank at Baparitala (Wellington Square) and the new road being built from Dharamtala Road to Bowbazar. Later officials like Henry Shakespear and Barwell, G. Gordon and A. Colvin were inducted, and featuring in various sub-committees, they were also deeply engaged in the city’s development work.  

In 1830, for all practical purposes, the functions of the committee relating to the improvement of the city ceased effectively. Though the beneficial impact of the committee’s work affected everyone, native and European alike, and there was nothing remotely furtive about it, yet the Directors of the East India Company in London were not happy with what was happening in distant Calcutta on the city-development front, choosing to view the evolving picture in a different light. Keeping in mind the virtues of economy in expenditure, the Company wrote to its Government of Bengal that whenever there was any activity relating to general and public utility, some part of the charges ought to be borne by the inhabitants. Further, the Lottery Committee was handling large sums of money and perhaps there was the Company’s deep-seated skepticism about the sensibility of such expenditure in general and a tendency to conclude that the money was not being spent efficiently. The work done by the committee was phenomenal because the projects conceived and implemented by it still cast a long shadow on life in modern Calcutta. 

It becomes very clear that the city of Calcutta gained immensely from the development work carried out by the Lottery Committee since October 1817. The Strand Road had spruced up the eastern bank of the River Hooghly beyond recognition; the western side of Tank Square (today’s BBD Bagh) down to the Maidan till the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, had been given its modern shape with its grid of streets; pucka drains had been built and upgraded all over the city; the major north-south arterial road extending from Park Street in the south to Shyambazar in the north with four squares along it had been constructed; Free School Street had been made; the entire area south of Park Street up to Circular Road had been transformed into ‘virgin’ land ready to be settled in by the genteel (for the most part, sahib) population of Calcutta; and the modernisation of the Garden Reach area, reaching up to Khidirpur in the north, had been begun.

Among other things, the Lottery Committee built the major arterial roads in the northern and central parts of the city, which in time determined the layout of the contiguous residential areas. Dalhousie Square and the entire ground between Park Street and Circular Road were developed by the committee. Previously, a large part of the ground south of Park Street was low-lying and marshy, generating pestilence all around. Bustee clusters were located here probably because of the availability of Gangajal from Tolly’s Nullah (the Adi Ganga) through the existing network of drains, the river being some way off to the west.

The story of the making of Strand Road is narrated in detail, as with increasing economic activity and population pressure, it would provide the inhabitants with easier access to the river, both for recreation and commerce. The Lottery Committee was also responsible for putting up the first brick-and-mortar decorative balustrade which still adorns the Chowringhee area and Red Road. Thus, in its 13 years of effective functioning (till 1830), the committee had been successful in providing the critical push necessary to transform Calcutta from the topographical shape it had inherited since the years immediately following the landing of Job Charnock at Sutanati in August 1690 into one which, in a manner of speaking, would make the city ready to be launched into the 20th century and beyond.

The interest in reading the book persists throughout because apart from the maps, figures, numbers, statistics, and other logistic details, we get a lot of information of the different hindrances the Lottery Committee faced while implementing their projects. Human nature has not really changed much and so we read about people at that time who flouted the rules to line their own pockets and for whom profiteering was the norm.

The basic premise here is that human nature being what it is, there are some aspects of life and behaviour which are universal in their reach, both temporally and spatially. Another very interesting area of study is how the officials encountered the problem of encroachment, the process of land acquisition and the demand for compensation by native plot holders. The committee was aware of matters affecting the native sentiment and there are instances of how they altered the alignment of a major road to suit the convenience of the natives. Even then in some instances tiffs and legal hassles with local residents in North Calcutta were also recorded. Apart from private property rights, religious considerations too played an important role in the decision-making process of the committee.


Before concluding it is worthwhile mentioning a few lines about the author of this volume. During his quarter-century with The Statesman in Calcutta (1970-94), principally as a leader writer, Ranabir Ray Choudhury became interested in the past of a great city which the East India Company had selected as the nerve centre for its operations in the Indian subcontinent and further to the east, extending to Singapore and beyond. In time, this growing interest led to three compilations – Glimpses of Old Calcutta 1835-1850 (1978), Calcutta a Hundred Years Ago 1880-1890 (1987), and Early Calcutta Advertisements 1875-1925 (1992). He next wrote The Lord Sahib’s House, Sites of Power: Government Houses of Calcutta 1690-1911 (2010). A City in the Making, Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (2016).

This volume under review is his sixth book and thematically is a sequel to the last one. That work ended with the formation of the Lottery Committee in 1817: this book takes up the story from there. From a connoisseur of the city, we get details of its development to a point that a lot of unknown facts are provided to the reader which the author garnered from documents and archival material available at the West Bengal State Archives.

Though he is not a historian, trained or otherwise, the author mentions in the ‘Introduction’ how he faced the constant struggle to avoid getting enmeshed in detail and to refocus attention on the broad current of policy and the effects of its implementation. Attention to the specific problems faced in the day-to-day execution of projects also does help to throw light on the precise nature of hurdles encountered at the grassroots level. The book is therefore highly recommended for scholars of history, architecture, town planning and every layman reader who is interested in Kolkata – a city which has been defined in multifarious ways as a city of joy, a city of palaces, a dead city, and so on.

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Somdatta Mandal, an academic, critic and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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

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Contents

Borderless, November 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.

Conversations

Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.

Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click here to read.

Translations

Rows of Betelnut Trees by My Window by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

A Day in the Life of the Pink Man is a story by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya, translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee. Click here to read.

The Clay Toys and The Two Boys is a story by Haneef Shareef, translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Saturday Afternoon is a poem by Ihlwha Choi, translated from Korean by the poet himself. Click here to read.

Tagore’s poem, Tomar Shonkho Dhulay Porey (your conch lies in the dust), has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty as The Conch Calls. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Asad Latif, Rhys Hughes, Alpana, Mimi Bordeaux, Saranyan BV, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Sourav Sengupta, Ron Pickett, Davis Varghese, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Terry Trowbridge, Amrita Sharma, George Freek, Gayatri Majumdar, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry and Rhys Hughes

In Infinite Tiffin, Rhys Hughes gives an unusual short story centring around food and hunger. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

The Scream & Me

Prithvijeet Sinha writes of how Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, impacts him. Click here to read.

A Fine Sunset

Mike Smith travels with a book to a Scottish beach and walks in the footsteps of a well-know novelist. Click here to read.

The Death of a Doctor

Ravi Shankar mourns the loss of a friend and muses on mortality in his experience. Click here to read.

My Contagious Birthday Party

Meredith Stephens writes of her experience of Covid. Click here to read.

Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

Farouk Gulsara takes a nostalgic trip to Deepavali celebrations in Malaysia. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Strumming Me Softly with His Guitar…, Devraj Singh Kalsi talks of his friends’s adventure with the guitar. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In Therese Schumacher and Nagayoshi Nagai: A Love Story, Suzanne Kamata introduces us to one of the first German women married to a Japanese scientist and their love story. Click here to read.

Essays

My Favourite Book by Fakrul Alam

The essay is a journey into Fakrul Alam’s evolution as a translator. Click here to read.

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent film critic, writes on the legend of Kishore Kumar. Click here to read.

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

Dan Meloche muses on the century-old poem and its current relevance. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In Piano Board Keys, Candice Louisa Daquin talks of biracial issues. Click here to read.

Stories

The Funeral Attendee

Ravi Prakash shares the story of the life of a migrant in rural India. Click here to read.

A Letter I can Never Post

Monisha Raman unravels the past in a short narrative using the epistolary technique. Click here to read.

Red Moss at the Abbey of Saint Pons

Paul Mirabile takes us to St Pons Abbey in France in the fifteenth century. Click here to read.

You have lost your son!

Farhanaz Rabbani gives a light story with a twist that shuttles between Dhaka and Noakhali. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An Excerpt from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda. Click here to read.

An excerpt from Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems by Afsar Mohammad, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad & Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Reba Som has reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories. Click here to read.

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by Afsar Mohammad and Shamala Gallagher. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Click here to read.

Borderless Journal Anthology

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

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Editorial

We Did It!

That good things happen despite darkness, despite prognostications of doom, that light glimmers hope if you strive to focus on your strength in hard times is borne true both in fiction and in life. Perhaps, we cannot get back the old ways (but is that what we want?) but new paths emerge. Old gives way to new. And while trying to gather pearls of human excellence — borne not of awards or degrees but of bringing out the best, the kindest, the most loving in human hearts — we managed to create with a team an outstanding anthology. Woven with the writings of old and new — we created a tapestry together that the editor in chief of our publishing house said was “classy, literary, engaging and international”. That one of the oldest and most reputed publishing houses in India with bookshops countrywide took it on was also an unusual event! We are truly grateful to Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri and Jyotsna Mehta along with all our writers and readers who made our anthology a reality, and to Radha Chakravarty and Fakrul Alam for the kind words they bestowed on our effort.

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

Please greet our first anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles, with love and friendship. It could be the perfect Christmas gift in the spirit of the season! And as the blurb says, “it will definitely bring a smile to your face because it is a celebration of the human spirit.”

The anthology is different from our journal in as much as it has a sample of an eclectic collection that has been honed with further editing and has some new features. Most of the writing is from our first year and showcases our ethos, except for Lesya’s poetry and interview. Lesya Bakun from Ukraine is still on the run, looking for a refuge — she cannot return home like you or I can. Her family is scattered across number of countries. Her cousin, who was guarding the factory at Azovstal, was taken prisoner. We included her story in the anthology hoping to create global empathy for refugees as the numbers will increase not only due to war but also due to climate change.

The reason we felt a hardcopy anthology was a good idea was because nothing beats the joy of having a bunch of interesting reads in the warmth of your hands (especially where internet cannot reach or is unavailable). In any case, books with the feel of paper, the rustling whispers which carry voices of leaves can never be replaced as Goutam Ghose had also said in his interview which is now part of our anthology.

And that is why we celebrate more books… this time we feature Singaporean prima donna of literature, Suchen Christine Lim, with her new book Dearest Intimate, a novel that spans more than hundred years including the harrowing Japanese invasion during World War II. She shared sound advice with writers: “Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy.” And perhaps that is what is echoed through the experiences of the other writer interviewed on our pages by Keith Lyons. This is a writer who not only brought out his own books but was a regular contributor of travel pieces for Frommer’s and National Geographic traveling to unexplored destinations — Christopher Winnan. Another writer Lyon had interviewed recently, Steve Carr, has passed on. We would like to convey our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

We have a number of books that have been reviewed. Reba Som reviewed Aruna Chakravarti’s Through the Looking Glass: Stories that span eras spread across time. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises and Bhaskar Parichha, Rahul Ramagundam’s The Life and Times of George Fernandes. Basudhara Roy has written of Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi: Selected Poems, translated from Telugu by the poet and Shamala Gallagher, verses that again transcend borders and divides. We have an excerpt from the same book and another from Manoranjan Byapari’s How I Became a Writer: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated from Bengali by Anurima Chanda.

More translations from Bengali, Balochi and Korean enrich our November edition. Fazal Baloch has translated a story by Haneef Shareef and Rituparna Mukherjee by Shankhadeep Bhattacharya. We have the translation of an inspirational Tagore poem helping us find courage (Shonkho Dhulaye Pore or ‘the conch lies in the dust’). Another such poem by Nazrul has been rendered in English from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. He has also shared an autobiographical musing on how he started translating Tagore’s Gitabitan, which also happens to be his favourite book. More discussion on the literary persona of TS Eliot and the relevance of his hundred year old poem — ‘The Waste Land’ by Dan Meloche adds variety to our essay section.

Evoking the genius of another outstanding artiste, Kishore Kumar, who happened to pen thought provoking dialogues in some films, is Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri’s essay, review of a recent book on the legendary actor-singer and an interview with the authors. Infringing the boundaries of literary with popular culture and art and integrating all forms into a wholistic bundle has been part of our ethos. In that spirit we have a musing by Prithvijeet Sinha on Edvard Munch’s famous painting called Scream. We have non-fiction from Australia spanning Meredith Stephens’s recent brush with Covid, Mike Smith visits a Scottish beach in the footsteps of a novelist, Ravi Shankar has given us a poignant piece for a late friend and Candice Lousia Daquin talks of the existence of bi-racial biases. In contrast, Suzanne Kamata sent a narrative that bridges divides showcasing a German wife of a Japanese scientist that draws us to conclude that biases erode over time to create an acceptance of bi-racial people. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings in humour with his funny narrative about a guitarist. Rhys Hughes writes in a lighter vein on Indian cuisine in his column and spouts more funny poetry bordering on the absurd.

Jared Carter has shared beautiful poetry on murmuration in birds and we have touching verses from Asad Latif for a little girl he met on a train — reminiscent of Tagore’s poem Hide and Seek (Lukochuri). Michael R Burch has given us poems setting sombre but beautiful notes for the season. We host more poetry by Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Quratulain Qureshi, Jim Bellamy, Gayatri Majumdar, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Alpana, Jonathan Chan, Saranyan BV, George Freek and many more. We have stories from around the world: India, France and Bangladesh.

Gathering all of your thoughts in strings of words from all corners of the world, we present to you the bumper November issue of Borderless Journal . Thank you all for sharing your thoughts with us. Thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fantastic painting and more thanks to the whole Borderless team for seeing this issue through. We would not have been able to do the anthology or these issues without each one of you — writers and readers.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

There is always hope for a new tomorrow!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

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

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Review

The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises

Author: Shehan Karunatilaka

Publisher: Hatchette India

When Hatchette India sent the reviewer’s copy of Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s collection of short stories, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises, it had two eulogies on the cover, namely “From the Commonwealth Book Prize Winner” and “Booker-Shortlisted author,” assuming both would add to the USP[1] of the volume. Karunatilaka’s debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew had received a lot of critical acclaim when it was first published in 2010 and received the Commonwealth Prize. In the meantime, on 17 October 2022, the author did manage to win this year’s Booker Prize for his third novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka. This award definitely garners more attention to read this new book of short stories. According to the publishers, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises offers a pointed conversation “about religious fanaticism, social prejudices, and the devolving state of democratic order in the Indian subcontinent”. Replete with unexpected twists, it is a “vivid and engaging commentary on privilege, class, and societal ills” and offers a collection of fantastic short stories that serves up fantasies for both doomsday and everyday, marking the return of one of South Asia’s most compelling storytellers.

As a writer with an English literature background and having studied in Sri Lanka and Australia and lived and worked in London, Amsterdam, and Singapore, Karunatilaka’s style of writing is unique. He has not only written about the Tamil-Sinhala conflict plaguing the island nation both from an insider and an outsider’s point of view but has, at the same time, experimented with the postmodern literary form where many entries resemble the magic realistic mode of narration. Ranging from short entries of half a page to stories covering several pages, it seems that the author has put together all his assorted unpublished writing within the two covers of this volume. In an interesting entry at the beginning titled ‘How to Read This Collection’ the author with all his blessings to the readers prescribes seven different categories in which to read his work and clearly tells us not to read them in sequence – “I don’t with other people’s work. Why should anyone with mine?” He then tells us, “If you like stories with twists, try …. If you prefer tales where things happen, go for …. If you enjoy fiction, where nothing happens, start with …. If you’re okay with tales that force the author’s worldview down your throat, read …. If you prefer stories that hope there’s a God, try …. For ones that allow you to accept godlessness, read ….and if you like stories that everyone hates, start with ….”

With such a prescription, it becomes clear that the author himself is at a loss to classify the multifarious nature of the thirty stories of differing length under specific categories.  There is the story of unpleasant truths that await a Sri Lankan president in the back of a London cab. In ‘Small Miracles’, an advertising agency must come to terms with a blown-up collection of pictures of the employees’ penises. ‘If you’re Sad and You Know It’ talks about suicidal tendencies in poetry form. A man presumed missing, quietly journals by the sea – “while he sat alone, free of noise, on an island not far from here, writing his story in a yellowing journal…Staring at sunsets through large binoculars, surrounded by books and fruit and no one.”

Written in an interesting format in the nature of mobile text messages, ‘Easy Tiger’ has a husband and wife cheating each other while attending a movie show on Sylvester Stallone with someone else. With the background firing in the movie, the man pretends he is in the war front where the shooting has started and his phone would die soon; he knows adultery is a crime but doesn’t want a divorce, but his story of being in the warfront in the east is busted by his wife who came to watch the same movie with her paramour and a special camera and films her husband with another woman and asks, “Who’s the hag next to you?” Looks like everyone texts at the movies these days.” In ‘The Colonials’, an Englishman, a Dutchman and a Portuguese walk into a Ceylon bar and profess their grand narcotic designs and counter proposals–“Let us plant our poppies while we can.”

Karunalilaka experiments with the narrative mode once again in the title story ‘The Birth Lottery’ where he tries to depict the historical past and present condition of Sri Lanka through the point of view of forty-two different men and animals each written in the first person. For example, in entry number 27, we read:

“It is the first alliance between the Tamils, Cholas, Moors, Malays and Sinhalese, and I, the Great Arasaratnam, am charged with leading it. With an army of four thousand, we rout the Portuguese and hold the Sithawaka kingdom for three hundred moons. Then they return with bigger cannons, eviscerate us all, and erase our names from history.”

Entry number 29 states:

“I am the justice who signs as a witness the agreement between Wimaladharmasuriya and Joris Van Spillbergen. The one that hands the coast to the Dutch and the kingdom to Ceylon. A treaty that both parties break. I never marry, never amass wealth, never create. Never do anything aside from putting my name on a document that will outlast anything you have ever touched.”

The plight of indentured labourers becomes clear once again in entry number 32:

“I am brought to the hill country as a slave and made to pluck the sweet leaf. I am imprisoned with coolies from South India, even though my family has lived here for centuries. I bear children for five different masters, and each are taken from me. I take my life before my ovaries dry up. I am not unhappy to go.”

Wry humour is also revealed in entry number 37:

“I am an elephant in the Kandyan kingdom, and every few months, to celebrate being conquered by foreign invaders, they parade me in chains and walk me miles carrying burning objects that scald. I don’t mind, because I get to go home to Ravani, who lives with me all my life and bears me many calves.”

It is not possible to point out further details of other stories within the short span of this review. But one needs to mention two excellent long entries, ‘Time Machine. I have Built A (Part One)’ and ‘Time Machine. I Have Built A (Part Deux)’. In the first part the author speaks about stealing the time machine though he was not the one who built it. That credit belongs to Professor Cyril Ponnambalam, Dr Kumar Thiruchelvam and Chancellor Sivaram Duraiappah. Though some would say not. …All three resigned from their posts in 2004 to return to Sri Lanka, though not with their families. Two were executed by the Tiger leadership a week before the end of the war, five years later. One was reported missing in action.

“They weren’t the only scientists, engineers, financiers and logisticians from the diaspora to return to Sri Lanka following the 2002 ceasefire. Many came on humanitarian missions or for peace conferences, most to assist with reconstructing the north and the east, fractured from decades of war and about to be pounded by a tsunami. A majority were recruited by the LTTE, some by force, some by extortion, some by the memory of wrongs.”

The author’s political allegiances become clear in several places in the narrative. He says he “pondered whether this government would want to share examples of Tamil brilliance, when they were trying to convince the world of the enemy’s savagery.” Again, in another place he writes, “The Sinhala bullies had over the decades chased some of the brightest Tamil minds from the island and Prabhakaran had electoral rolls in 75 countries and conscripts to track down long names ending in consonants.”

Karunatilaka  ends the story by saying that he does not have any clue how time or history moves. If he assassinates a Milosevic, a Pinochet or a Cheney, how sure would he be that another butcher would not rise in their stead? Maybe certain destinies are made to play out as written and it is not their place to meddle. So he concludes, “Maybe the only thing I can affect and take responsibility for is my own could-have-been-better life.”

Karunatilaka begins the second part of the story with a more personal and direct statement:

“The history of Sri Lanka since 1945 is a catalogue of me missing out on sex. In 1958, when SWRD was sprouting the vitriol that would divide a nation, I was going to Aunty Sumana’s piano class. She used to put her hand on my shoulder as I played Chopin…. When the 1962 military coup was taken down with whimper and without bang, I was also whimpering and not getting banged in my first year of cadetting…. When the 1971 insurrection happened, I had a girlfriend in Polonnaruwa who only let me touch them under the umbrella. When the island changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in ’72, I fell into a whorehouse in Nikaweratiya along with nine other cadets and even though I ended up with the prettiest I was unable to spark the flame. By the time the ’83 riots came along, I was married with three, transformed into my wife’s peon and unable to raise a flag nor fire a gun.”

In an interview Karunatilaka had admitted that he took almost two decades to finish the entries in this book. The oldest story was written during the millennium bug and the newest during a global pandemic. These were stories that he wrote while procrastinating on things he never finished, or to win prizes that he never entered, or to try out ideas that wouldn’t leave him alone. All in all, Karunatilaka’s love and concern for his homeland comes out in different ways through these multifarious vignettes and he can certainly be labelled as a current spokesperson of this small, beleaguered nation of Sri Lanka, a strong and concerned South Asian voice indeed. Reading the book is surely recommended.

[1] Unique Selling Proposition

Somdatta Mandal, critic, reviewer, and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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