The Traveller in Time: An interview with Sybil Pretious who has lived through history in six countries and travelled to forty — she has participated in the first democratic elections in an apartheid-worn South Africa and is from a time when Rhodesia was the name for Zimbabwe. Click here to read.
Ratnottama Sengupta, who has edited an encyclopaedia on culture and is a renowned arts journalist, gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle. Click here to read.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour. If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country(1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume(1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.
Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.
The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.
We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.
In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”
As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.
Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.
We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.
Like most people, I had always been fascinated by the ‘Celebrated Wisdom of the East’. Especially exotic was the ‘Ultra Mysterious Wisdom of Tibet’. So, when a university acquaintance in British Columbia mentioned that, through a personal connection, he could set up a meeting in Kathmandu with one of the most storied of all the lamas, Baba Rinpoche, I rose to the challenge.
As was his wont, in the springtime, Baba Rinpoche would be walking across the Himalayas, from Tibet to Nepal. I, being of a less transcendental bent, would be flying into Darjeeling, then taking a helicopter, Riddington’s Ride, into Kathmandu.
We connected for lunch at the Lama’s Lair, a miniature version of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, sat near the fire, and dined on vindaloo curry over basmati rice, with green tea. Baba Rinpoche is about five foot eight, lean, with a shaved head, and was wearing Ugg boots (“One must keep up with the times”), and a thick maroon robe. He moved with ineffable grace, spoke with excellent diction, seemed to have a permanent facial expression of subtle joy, and altogether radiated the cheerful serenity of perfect self-control. I was struck by the ultimate logic of his communication, then recalled that he had been a philosophy student at a highly regarded English university prior to the unfortunate incursion from Beijing, when he returned home to provide his people moral support.
When we met, he pressed his hands together, bowed, and said, “May peace be with you”. I asked him if that were a standard Buddhist greeting, and he said, “No, but, although I am a good man, I am my own man!” Pious, but a perky personality turned out to be part of his charm.
BR: Now, I understand you would like to investigate the obscure and storied “Wisdom of the East”. From that, I assume, you will essay to deduce lessons for good living in the West. I am not certain I am a repository for any knowledge you do not already possess. Nonetheless, I will be happy to respond to your questions with . . . something.
However, as I am a Tibetan monk, you must be prepared that some of my answers will in fact be . . . nothing. Silence.
Validating, I suppose, your initial premise of impenetrable Oriental mystery! But this is our Way. Take it or leave it!
Now, what may I tell you?
I: I really only have one question.
BR: And what is that?
I: Buddhists world-wide revere life itself. And that includes all the animals. But most
people feel that the only animals that really count are us. How do you explain your reverence for all life?
BR: “Let us go then, you and I”, to quote Eliot, that American, who became a Brit, and then became a citizen of the world, a refugee of the wasteland, a wanderer in the rose garden of the mind. Where was I? Oh, yes. “Let us go then, you and I”, onto the plains of the Oriental intellect. Then let us go and make our visit to the room where the women come and go, speaking of the mystical Dao. Let us be prophets in our own land.
I: I think I already may have had too much green tea.
BR: Not possible. Now, one of the reasons Eastern thought seems obscure, not to say irrational, to Westerners is that Western thought is narrow, focused, and concrete, whereas eastern thought is broad. holistic, and abstract. Western thought was born on the Island of Samos, a small place, with many rocks. Eastern thought was born on the Gobi Desert, a large place, with much open sky. That scaling of geography emerges, like Houdini from an iron box, in the scaling of thought.
I: I am completely lost! And here I expected to go to all this trouble and at last nail down Eastern thought. But it’s already completely out of reach!
BR: Not to fret. You see, that is the first thing I told you—be at peace! Does a lotus flower worry if the Royal Orient Train will be on schedule? Does a perfect piece of jade brood as to whether anyone influential is admiring it?
We all have our place, and that place is here. We all have our time, and that time is now. We all have our person, and that person is us. Our most precious possession is our minds, and our minds are always present. Thus, we are secure. So, be of good cheer!
Logic is hard to master, yet terribly basic. But the logic of scaling is not so complicated. You’ll get it.
I: I’m going to have to take your word for it!
BR: You see. We’re already making progress! Consider Genghis Khan.
I: I’m lost again.
BR: Though no one in the West wants to admit it, Genghis Khan conquered the world. Nobody beat the terrible khan.
Think about this. One yurt, perfectly arranged, with military precision. One cavalryman, a masterful rider. Dead shot with bow and arrow. Comfortable in all kinds of weather. Tough as a piece of iron. Dedicated to the leader, and instantly responsive to commands.
Multiply that by two hundred thousand. Now you have a crack force that can level cities from the Yellow Sea to the Danube River.
I: I think I have had too much, or not enough, vindaloo curry. Maybe I should have had a hot dog.
BR: Enlightenment ever calls for patience.
Now, consider this. The Great Wisdom, which created the World, wants to create Life. The skies are in place. The mountains are in place. The seas are in place. But it would be nice to have some company. But, to build Life, a design is needed.
I: A blueprint?
BR: Even so.
Of what will Life be comprised? That is, what is the list of Qualities that go into what we think of as Life?
I: And that is?
BR: Perception that sketches out the nature of reality: wet and dry, hard and soft, sweet and bitter. Interpretation of perceptions: opportunity or threat, safety or danger. Identification and classification of pieces of reality: self or other, friend or foe, refuge or exposed field. Causal relations: this does this, and that does that. Social relations: this is my group, and we cooperate; that is their group, and we compete. Planning: I will go here and do this to get that, and to avoid the other thing. Emotions: I got what I wanted, so I feel good; I got injured, so I feel bad.
I: Wow. That’s a lot!
BR: Not so much, really. What in logic we call necessary and sufficient. A minimum set of Qualities necessary and sufficient to comprise what we think of as Life. Some life ranks higher on the complexity scale, naturally, and some life ranks lower on the complexity scale.
I: Ah, I think I may be getting this! Life is essentially the same, up and down the scale of complexity. The lowest level is essentially the same as the highest level.
BR: Even so.
I: The dolphins are a lot like us, the whales and the orangutangs, the parrots and the jaguars, the bears and the beavers. It’s the same basic system up and down! The scale doesn’t change the system. Is that right?
BR: Precisely, exactly so.
I: And that’s why Buddhists all over the world revere life itself, because it’s all essentially the same. “They” are all “Us”. “We” are all “Them”. Is that it?
BR: Spot on!
I: You know, I think I might have a little more vindaloo curry and green tea.
As we stood outside the restaurant, Baba Rinpoche hitched his small blue canvas backpack onto his shoulders and looked south into the sapphire mountain sky at a distant, huge, drifting, snowy cloud, as if trying to decide whether it was going to be friendly or unfriendly. “I am going to visit the Bodhi Tree, where Buddha found Enlightenment. I haven’t been there in years”. He mentioned that as casually as if he had said, “I’m going down to the market to pick up some tea”.
“But it’s hundreds of miles to that place,” I protested. “And you haven’t any money.”
He gave me one of those little serene smiles of his, and that placid look gazing a thousand years into the future, and said, “The world will provide”. And off he strode, zigzagging through afternoon traffic with the grace and ease of an Olympic skater.
And he was right. I paid for our lunch.
Steve Davidson is a psychologist from California, the author of the clinical textbook “An Introduction to Human Operations Psychotherapy”.
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