Categories
Tribute

Poetry of Jibonananda Das

Jibonanada Das. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Jibonanada Das (1899-1954) was a Bengali writer, who now is named as one of the greats after Tagore and Nazrul. During his life he wrote beautiful poetry, novels, essays and more. He believed: “Poetry and life are two different outpouring of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet’s talent nor the reader’s imagination … poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.”

Motorcar (1934) … Translated by Rakibul Hasan Khan from Bengali. Click here to read.

Banalata Sen and 1946-47… Translated by Suparna Sengupta from Bengali. Click here to read.

Categories
Index

Borderless, October 2021

An Ode to Autumn: Painting by Sohana Manzoor.

Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn… Click here to read.

Interviews

Unveiling Afghanistan: In Conversation with Nazes Afroz, former editor of BBC and translator of a book on Afghanistan which reflects on the present day crisis. Click here to read.

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.

Translations

Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

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

The Quest for Home

Nazrul’s Kon Kule Aaj Bhirlo Tori translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Mysteries of the Universe

Akbar Barakzai’s poetry in Balochi, translated by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Gandhi & Robot

A poem reflecting the state of Gandhi’s ideology written in Manipuri by Thangjam Ibopishak and translated from the Manipuri by Robin S Ngangom. Click here to read.

Sorrows Left Alone

A poem in Korean, written & translated by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

The Song of Advent by Tagore

Written by Tagore in 1908, Amaar Nayano Bhulano Ele describes early autumn when the festival of Durga Puja is celebrated. It has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, A Jessie Michael, John Grey, Rupali Gupta Mukherjee, Mike Smith, Saranyan BV, Tony Brewer, Baisali Chatterjee Dutt, Jay Nicholls, Beni S Yanthan, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, Pramod Rastogi, Jason Ryberg, Michael Lee Johnson, Oormila Vijayakrishnan Prahlad, Rhys Hughes

Animal Limericks by Michael R Burch. Click here to read.

Nature’s Musings

In The Lords of Lights, with photographs and a story, Penny Wilkes makes an interesting new legend. Click here to read.

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?, Rhys Hughes comically plays with the identity of these two poets. Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices From Life

At the Doctor’s

In this lighthearted narration, Farouk Gulsara uses humour to comment on darker themes. Click here to read.

Taking an unexpected turn

Nitya Pandey talks of a virtual friendship that bloomed across borders of countries during the pandemic. Click here to read.

Travel in the Time of Pandemics: Select Diary Entries of an Urban Nomad

Sunil Sharma gives us a slice from his travels with vibrant photographs, changing continents and homes during the pandemic. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Surviving to Tell a Pony-taleDevraj Singh Kalsi journeys up a hill on a pony and gives a sedately hilarious account. Click here to read.

Essays

A Season of Magical Mellow Wistfulness

Meenakshi Malhotra through folk songs that are associated with Durga Puja explores the theme of homecoming. Click here to read.

What Gandhi Teaches Me

Candice Louisa Daquin applies Gandhiism to her own lived experiences. Click here to read.

How Women’s Education Flourished in Aligarh Muslim University

Sameer Arshad Khatlani dwells on the tradition of education among Muslim women from early twentieth century, naming notables like Ismat Chughtai and Rashid Jahan. Click here to read.

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Friendships & Farewells

John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the third part of his travelogue through this land of mystic pagodas. Click here to read.

When Needles Became Canons…

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.

Stories

Lunch with Baba Rinpoche in Kathmandu

Steve Davidson takes us for a fictitious interview with a Tibetan guru in Nepal. Click here to read.

The Tree of Life

An unusual flash fiction by Parnil Yodha about a Tibetan monk. Click here to read.

Odysseus & Me: A Quest for Home

A short fiction from Bangladesh by Marzia Rahman on immigrants. Click here to read.

Dawn in Calicut

Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan writes of a past that created the present. Click here to read.

I am a Coward with Priorities

Tejaswinee Roychowdhury tells a story from a soldier’s perspective. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In Bapu, Denied, Sunil Sharma explores the fate of Gandhiism in a world where his values have been forgotten. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt of In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated by Nazes Afroz. Click here to read.

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

Book Reviews

Aruna Chakravarti reviews Golden Bangladesh at 50: Contemporary Stories & Poems edited by Shazia Omar. Click here to read.

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

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Mohona Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Click here to read.


Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
Interview Review

Unveiling Afghanistan: In Conversation with Nazes Afroz

 Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) reflected the plight of Africans and the deep divides that created schisms between different groups in South Africa. The book won the author, Alan Paton, a Nobel prize. Another remarkable book that was published in the same year was a non-fiction written by a student of Tagore called Syed Mujtaba Ali. Mujtaba Ali wrote Deshe Bideshe in Bengali. This has been translated in recent times by the former BBC editor, Nazes Afroz, as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. It is an outstanding memoir that demystifies and explains what led to the issues that are being faced by a country repeatedly jostled by varied regimes, a country that seems to be so steeped in problems that worrying about the pandemic remains a far cry for the common inhabitants.

For many decades this book had been feted by only a small group of readers, though the book is no lesser than Paton’s in crying out against injustices, terrors of violence and starvation, because it was written in Bengali. It was so witty and flavourful that people were afraid to translate it for the fear of losing the nuances of the original. As Afroz tells us in this interview, he had similar reservations. A book written by a scholar, it peppers history and political issues with lucidity and humour, making it an enjoyable experience for the lay reader. The author has a way of turning the mundane or intellectual into an amusing anecdote. During a conversation at an embassy party, the author through the voice of a fellow professor, makes a hilarious observation – but also, one that does convey much about Afghanistan despite its attempts at liberalisation.

Madame Vorvechievichi argued, ‘But there are mullahs in this country.’

“Dost Muhammad said reassuringly, ‘No need to worry, Madame. I know these mullahs very well. Their knowledge of religion is very little and I can teach you all of it in three days. However, a woman can’t be a mullah.’

Madame Vorvechievichi said angrily, ‘Why not?’

“With a deep sigh Dost Muhammad said, ‘Because she can’t grow a beard.’”

The book is speckled with multiple such instances. Along with these witticisms, the pathos of the country, the plight of the people is well captured by poignant observations:

“The real history of the country was buried beneath the soil, much like the way that Indian history was hidden in its Puranas, Mahabharata-Ramayana. Afghanistan is a poor country; Afghans do not have the time or the resources for archaeological excavations to write their own history.”

The writer, Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974) a polyglot, scholar, traveller and humanitarian did just that – he recorded the history of the time he spent in Afghanistan, a time when a swift takeover from the liberal king Amanullah (1892-1960) was staged by Bacha-ye-Saqao (1891-1929) during the Afghan Civil War (1928-29).  Does this sound familiar, reminding one of the recent August 2021 takeover by Taliban?

A Humboldt scholar, Mujtaba Ali was conversant in fourteen languages, lived in five countries, including Afghanistan, where he had gone to teach. That his erudition never interfered but enhanced without marring the simplicity of rendition is what makes the book an attractive read for all lay persons. His astute observations are laced with wit and realism. The residue of the book lingers as the vibrant narrative flows — vicariously bringing to life, with humour and empathy, a culture that is distinct and yet warm in its uniqueness. His style is reflective of an in depth understanding of the situation and a sense of empathy for the common people with who he interacted daily – like his man Friday and the colleagues he mentions. For the author, everyone, from an uneducated villager to the crown prince (who invited him to play tennis), seemed to grow effortlessly into a rounded persona of a friend. All these have been transmitted by Afroz in the translation too. Translating two cultures across borders in a language that does not have all the words to capture the intimate nuances is not an easy feat, but it has fruited into an unusual and captivating read.

Nazes Afroz

Afroz’s maiden venture at translation was shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award. Afroz himself has spent a long stretch of time in Afghanistan. He joined the BBC in London in 1998. He was a senior editor in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. In 2013, he moved back to India. A passionate photographer, he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines. In recent articles, he has been voicing his own concerns about developments in Afghanistan. In this interview, he reflects on what led him to translate the book, the situation as it was then and as it is now.  He dwells not only on the historic civil war as captured in the book but also on current day politics and the Taliban takeover.

You are a journalist. What got you interested in translating a Bengali classic from the last century?

I became a journalist five years after I read Deshe Bideshe. I was still a teenager when I picked up the book from a library rack. Reading Mujtaba Ali at that age had a profound impact on me. The erudition, the smooth sailing between multitude of cultures and languages, the gripping storytelling in his writing mesmerised me. I had never read anything like that in Bangla. Every Bengali reader of Syed Mujtaba Ali had felt the same way as I did. As a child I had the uncontrollable urge for travels and seeing the world. In Mujtaba Ali I found a role model. Deshe Bideshe stayed with me since then. It was one book that I would read two to three times a year from my teenage. So, by the time I decided to translate Deshe Bideshe more than thirty years after I first laid my hands on the book, I had read it for more than a hundred times! I knew its each page, I knew its each story and Afghanistan had seeped inside me permanently as I could relate to all the characters of the book.

While working for the BBC World Service in London, I had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan in 2002 soon after the Taliban were dislodged from power in a short war towards the end of 2001. I visited the country a number of the times in the following few years. As I travelled more, I befriended my BBC colleagues there and met other journalists and people on various walks of life. Some of them became good friends as well. I used to refer to events from the times of King Amanullah while discussing Afghanistan. They were surprised to hear all the details that I mentioned from a time that they said, ‘Even we don’t know!’ So, I mentioned how a Bengali scholar came from Kolkata to Kabul in 1927 and taught here, was a participant of the modernisation project of Amanullah by teaching English and French, played tennis with the crown prince Inyatullah (1888-1946) became an eyewitness of the rebellion against the king, got caught in the anarchy in the winters of 1928-29, and nearly perished starving before managing to go back to India. Hearing my story, they asked if there was any English translation of the book as they were keen to read. I told them that there was none as it was untranslatable!

As years went by and more and more of my Afghan friends got to know about Deshe Bideshe, they demanded that I did the translation. But I had my doubts. Would I be able to capture Mujtaba Ali’s unique language? Would I be able to transpose his wicked sense of humour? Would I be able to convey his erudition?

Eventually in 2011, I had already made up my mind to quit the BBC and move back to India. At that point my day-to-day workload in the BBC was significantly reduced. As I had ample time in hand, I thought I would attempt the translation. At that point I didn’t think of any publication; I wanted to do it just for fun and for my Afghan and non-Afghan friends who knew about the book and were keen to read it. I thought I would give them a taste of Mujtaba Ali’s writing by doing a few chapters. So, I did the first few chapters and shared them with a few friends. After reading those chapters they wanted to read more. I felt encouraged and I carried on with the translation for the following few months. Eventually the whole book was complete in about a year. After completing the translation, I let it sit for a few months before picking it up again and reread it as new text without looking at the original text. That exercise went on several times over the following one year till the final manuscript shaped up.

How many countries have you worked from? You were also in Afghanistan for several years I believe. Can you share your experiences?

My work has taken me to a dozen country or so. But as an intrepid traveller, I have visited more than 40 countries so far across four continents. Apart from my regular visits to Afghanistan, I spent months at a stretch on several occasions. Working in Afghanistan was certainly a unique experience. It wasn’t a country where one could travel and roam around freely. There were always the security alerts. One needed to negotiate security barriers everywhere. The accommodations – hotels, guesthouses were guarded by armed men. In the early years – in 2002 to 2004, there weren’t so much security in the hotels or guesthouses we stayed in. But that started to change from 2010 onwards as the Taliban had at that time started to regroup, and they made their presence felt in the country and in Kabul. Even at that time, cities like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat were considered lot safer than Kabul. With increased and unpredictable attacks by the Taliban, the country became more and more edgy.

What was it about the book that drew you to it?

As I mentioned earlier, the uniqueness of Mujtaba Ali was that his erudition wasn’t frightening. He penned Deshe Bideshe almost twenty years after he left Kabul. By then, he had completed his PhD in comparative religion from Germany as a Humboldt scholar, did his post-doctoral research from al-Azhar university in Cairo, learned more than a dozen languages, and travelled extensively in Europe. So, even though his narrative of Afghanistan was drawn from what he had witnessed in his mid-twenties while teaching there, when he decided to write the book, he had acquired profound knowledge in philosophy, literature, culture and history of the world in many languages. The multilingual and multicultural references with an oblique yet gripping story-telling style infused with a wicked sense of humour that came in his writing, had been drawing ardent followers, including me, since 1948 when Deshe Bideshe was first published.

The book highlighted a growing divide between the minority with liberal education and the majority without education. Is that true still? Would you call the book relevant to the present-day crisis?

Yes, that divide between the educated and the not educated that Mujtaba Ali elicited in Deshe Bideshe is still there. But the gap has certainly reduced. The years between 1929 to 1978 had been relatively stable and peaceful in Afghanistan. Modern education had spread but without giving a jolt to the conservative society and keeping the clergy more or less content. In Kabul and other major cities, girls and women were getting more and more education; they were also seen in public life more. Following the coup through which the communists – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA came to power in 1978, there was a big push for universal education. This created a much bigger educated class. Women were the biggest beneficiary of that time in terms of acquiring knowledge and finding jobs. Women were joining the police and military as well. Following the capitulation of the PDPA government in 1992, the modern education system collapsed during the Mujahideen civil war years until 1996 and then after the takeover of virtually the whole of the country by the Taliban.

A large number of Afghans – almost a quarter of the population became refugees in neighbouring countries or elsewhere. When the American led international forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the population got a fresh chance to get education. Schools opened again. Both girls and boys went back to school. Internationally there were many programmes to give scholarships to Afghan women and men who were seeking higher education. As a country with a very young population (the average age of Afghanis is 18), a large number of students joined the public and private universities. So, tens of thousands of young women and men are now educated holding masters or even PhD degrees in the country. But the rural areas lagged behind. So, the gap is more of the city and rural areas.

Do you find similarities between the Afghanistan of then and of now?

The way the Afghan society works, based on its ethnic and tribal identities as witnessed by Mujtaba Ali, still exist. The stranglehold that the clergy had on the uneducated mass about a century ago has possibly changed; it’s been replaced with more political interpretation of their religion. The ethnic divisions have sharpened for multitude reasons – primarily due to the outside interference and the way ethnic groups have been used in the larger geo-political game of the world powers.

One of the issues that tussles through the book is that people were basically poor and lacked education. Syed Mustaba Ali spoke of the vicious cycles of poverty, how much has it changed from what he wrote and what you experienced? Please elaborate.

Mujtaba Ali talked about how poverty contributed to the cycle of unrest in Afghan history. Yes, that poverty still exists but with that, a toxic potion of religio-politics has been added to the cauldron. The conflict of the past four decades is more due to the global religio-political dynamics rather that its own poverty.

Did/ do you find parallels in the political situation where Amanullah and his brother escaped from the invading hardliner, Bacha-ye-Saqao? Would you see Bacha as a precursor of Taliban?

The only parallel that one can draw between 1929 when Amanullah and his brother Inayetullah fled and now in 2021 is that the suddenness of the events. Amanullah’s fall happened in months and Bacha took over Kabul in matter of days – almost the same way the Taliban took control of the country.

I don’t think Bacha-ye-Saqao or Habibullah Kalakani as he called himself, was a precursor of the Taliban. Bacha was more of an opportunist; he grabbed the opportunity that came his way. But the Taliban are more of an organised religio-political force what was the product of the geo-politics of the last decade of the Cold War. So, they two are not comparable.

Did the American or Russian intrusions into Afghanistan serve any purpose? Did they actually help the Afghans?

The short answer is no. Both the superpowers came to achieve their own strategic and foreign policy objectives. The Soviets came to expand their sphere of influence beyond their borders in Central Asia. In the process they were badly bruised and had to retreat. The Americans came to get hold of Osama-bin-Laden and dismantle the al-Qaeda infrastructure. It was never about helping a nation that had been devastated by decades of conflict in which they had no role. They just became pawns in the greater game of geopolitics.

By the descriptions in the book, Afghans seem to be fairly open as humans and yet, they have a distinct identity borne of their culture, their ethos — very different from any other. Was that undermined in any way by the attempts at modernisation?

Like many other rural, traditional and old societies, Afghans are hospitable and warm people. They are bound and governed by their age-old custom and codes of conduct.

Even when they are outside of their own land – in the West too, they extend their hospitality to strangers the same way they would in their own country and their behaviour would not differ much. It is not the question, if modernisation has or will undermine their tradition. They have had encounters with modernisation – the way modernisation is understood from the Western prism. Did that change the people who had experienced that modernisation in the time of Amanullah? Mujtaba Ali saw that the ‘so called’ modern people did not lose their Afghan-ness. The same can be said now. As a people they have largely remained unchanged despite connecting with the outside world like never before.

In the book, the international community was practically chased off Afghanistan. As the US troops left, one felt the same way. Do you feel intervention from the international community is necessary in Afghanistan? Why?

The backdrops of 1929 and the present are not identical. In 1929, the rebellion was against the king who had lost the support of the clergy. The king did not come to power with foreign intervention. So, the international community was not chased out in 1929. The Europeans left because of the chaos and the violence. The rebels didn’t fight with the foreigners. Yes, there was an armed opposition to the presence of the USA since the war in 2001, but that opposition wasn’t big enough to send the USA packing.

The USA left because they had achieved their goals in Afghanistan, and it was becoming hugely expensive for them to stay on. Many are also drawing parallels of the US’s departure from Afghanistan with their hasty retreat from Vietnam in 1975. But they were again not identical. In Vietnam, the USA visibly lost the war. But in Afghanistan they did not lose. They could have stayed on if they wanted but it made no sense to them to spend tens of billions of dollars each year. Hence, they left. They had been talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan since 2012, a year after they killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The intervention that the Afghans had been experiencing since 1979 – first by the Soviets, then Pakistan and finally the US led Western nations, devastated the country and the ordinary Afghans had been paying for it with all they had. No external intervention is beneficial for any country. It’s not desirable to have; certainly not the way the global powers had been intervening for the past 40 odd years in various corners of the world. But the question is, if unspeakable atrocities are committed on certain sections of a country or society, what does the international community do? Should the international community intervene? The world powers have unfortunately always used these as pretexts to intervene to further and achieve their own objectives not only in Afghanistan but in other countries too.

In the book, only foreigners with work seemed to be in Afghanistan. Is/ Was it possible for tourists to visit Afghanistan, even before the Taliban took over?

In the last twenty years, Afghanistan had been unstable. Violent incidents kept happening. So, it was not advisable for tourist to go there. But the country always issued tourist visa for short visits! For a few years, Japanese tourist used to come to visit the ancient Buddhist sites like Bamiyan. That too waned due to the escalating conflict.

Thank you for this wonderful interview and also for the flawless translation of a classic memoir.

Click here to read a book excerpt from In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan.

(This is an online interview/review by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Essay

When Needles Became Canons…

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

“Chhenra kanthay shuey, sinhasaner swapna?!”

(Sleeping on a rag, and dreaming of the throne?!)

Sarcasm dripped from every word when the Bengali proverb was missiled at a person who might have ignored his limited means when planning a revolution. But revolution indeed was wrought by the womenfolk of Bengal in the late 1890s and early 1900s when they discarded the brightly coloured drapes from factories across the seas and opted for the desi taant or handloom cotton saris that were less vibrant, even coarse. They were rising in response to Chaaran Kavi Mukunda Das, the itinerant singer who appealed to them through ballads such as “Chhere dao reshmi churi, aar poro na Banga nari (Leave behind silken threads, do not wear these on Bengali women)”. On the streets, in response to Gandhi’s call for Non-cooperation, men were burning clothes from the mills of Britain. The womenfolk, though confined to the inner courtyard, were not to be left behind in the struggle for the dignity that is freedom.  

Subarnalata by Ashapurna Devi

Jnanpith winner Ashapurna Devi, in Subarnalata – the second part of her timeless trilogy on women’s struggle for empowerment which begins with Pratham Pratishruti (The First Undertaking) — records Haridasi, the housemaid who washed dishes round the clock in the wealthy joint family, bring back the expensive vilaiyati (foreign) sari she’d been given for the Durga Pujas. “Here, even if you can’t replace it, please take this back as this is an absolute no-no in our basti (colony) now,” she tells the karta, head of the tradition-bound family. Muktakeshi is stung by this insolence and threatens to sack Haridasi. But her daughter-in-law Subarnalata uses the incident as an excuse to make a bonfire on the terrace, with all the foreign made clothes the family elders and children had been gifted. If she’s chastised for this, so be it! When even little boys were submitting to police atrocities and men were sacrificing their all to sing Vande Mataram (Salute Motherland, authored by Bankim), how could the walls lock out the liberation cry?

Subarnalata, born and raised in the City of Palaces, is not alone in the silent war. Phuleswari, an elderly aunt-in-law she visits in the countryside, asks her if she has the borders of discarded saris. She needs two colours, black and red, to complete a kantha she has worked on. “But make sure these are not from vilaiyati saris,” she tells Subarna. “Those are far more attractive. The desi (Indian) ones are not half as shiny. But if I fall for the shine, my son Ambika will be offended. He told me, ‘It’s only because you have embroidered Yashoda-Krishna, else I would have fed this half-done kantha to fire!’” Subarna, who has not come armed with worn out saris, takes out her newly acquired hand-woven saris, tears off the desi borders and gives them to Phuleswari.

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Yashoda chastising Krishna, gopinis (women friends or the milkmaids) pleading for their clothes, or dancing the Raas with Krishna, Duryodhan disrobing Draupadi, Durga slaying Mahishasura, Jagannath on the Rath with brother Balaram and sister Subhadra, Dasarath in a forest, Rama hunting the golden deer, Royal Bengal tiger, alligator, rows of elephants, horses, peacocks… Legends and icons were the major themes tackled by the ladies who inherited the evolved art of the needle from their mothers and aunts and grand aunts in the Hindu families. But these intricate lores were for the especially worked ‘lepkathas or sujnis – bedspreads primarily meant to be quilts or perhaps light wraps. Since these were given at marriages or at childbirth, soon ‘secular’ motifs such as boats and palanquins too entered the rectangular ‘playfield’, as did jewellery and ornaments like bajubandh which lent itself to the snake motif, and paati-haar or mat-patterned necklace.

But what kept the womenfolk busy round the year was the khoka (baby) kanthas used in the days when diapers were unknown, and every branch of the family tree became proud parents several times over. These small sized kanthas widely used the central motif of lotus and water lilies that were seen all around in the land of rivers, ponds, jheels or lakes. Surrounding the flora would be vines, the betel leaf, hand fans, fish, parrots, sparrows or some other small birds.

Then, there were the Aasan or carpet-like spreads meant for sitting on the floor. If they were to be used at mealtime, they would be patterned with kitchen utensils like ladle, kadhai, boti – the Bengali all-purpose knife, sickle or kaita, coconut dessicator, and fish that spells prosperity. The ones meant for daily pujas in the prayer room were adorned with floral motifs, leafs from nature, the paisley off a mango or recurrent curvilinear swastikas to ward off the evil eye. Such kanthas also served as covers for the mirror, on pillows, or even as rumal (kerchiefs).  

In households that would spread out the jainamaza (prayer rug), dastarkhan (for mealtime spread) or gilaf to cover the Quran, the running stitch — mostly in red and black or green and blue thread drawn from worn out clothes — would conjure the tree of life, the pond laden with lotus, or simply abstract the rippling effect of water and of chatai, the mat in every Bengal home. In short, the craftsperson’s aesthetics built upon utilitarian objects of every shape from the landscape of everyday life. In this respect, kantha shared a kinship with Alpana, the art of drawing patterns on the earthen floor with rice powder.

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The coming of the British changed the age-old tradition that is believed to have originated with the famished Buddha lying in the open, covered by patchwork rags or quilted cloth. Until, roughly, the 1800s the rag and the needle accounted for only the material half of the kantha: the hand that stitched and the imagination that determined the pattern to be embroidered spelt the other half.  Both, the material and the motif were altered, subtly and gradually, by the historical and social metamorphosis that set in with the advent of the Europeans. For, with the imperialists came the tapestry inspired art and the needlework on matte cloth that relied upon the cross-stitch for its staple.

Now, this form of crafting spreads – be it for the bed, the table, or the floor – used designs that were published in books that came from England, France, Germany, and depicted European floral bouquets, pups and kittens, girls in bonnet or with umbrella, fairytale cottages, Greek warriors, even Zodiac signs. These mirrored the social reality of the landscape in which the rulers had grown up and left behind when they set out to conquer and rule. So, for the ‘natives’ this was as remote geographically as it was historically or in terms of tradition.

When the British rulers set up schools for girls and colleges for ladies, the students naturally took to crafting cross-stitch tablecloths and napkins, hand towels, tray cloth and tea cozy that were a part of the colonial lifestyle. The more enterprising ones even stitched the yardage together to make bedspreads and wraps but the amount of labour that went into it was immense. More importantly, the kantha was a unique, creative way of recycling that simultaneously conveyed the love of the elders who would make them in their minimal spare hours. Their kanthas may not have been autographed – though some were, but they certainly were ‘Stay Happy’ blessings even when the words ‘Sukhey Thako’ were not embroidered in by the unlettered grand aunts when the monsoon showers forced them to cut down on the outdoor rituals of preparing vadi, papad, achaar(pickle), kashundi(sauce) and sundry items for consumption round the year, or by widowed aunts with little wherewithal.

In later years, the creatively endowed craftswomen who could stitch layers of cloth without using a single knot, would also start stitching Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati or Ram Sita on the matte. But by this time the Kantha had also come to grips with the social upheaval and had started depicting guns and cannons on the quilt! By this time, the Bengal Partition of 1905 had been reversed and the Nationalist movement had surged. Durga slaying the Bull Demon had acquired a renewed meaning as Sarbajanin Durgotsab – people’s celebration – took on a nationalist fervour. At the same time Khudiram, Netaji and Tagore gained wide popularity as icons to be mounted on the wall or even to be gifted as swaddle cloth for newborn to signify such blessings as “May you be like them!” or “May you live in a Free Country”.  Gandhi’s charkha (spinning wheel) also gained popularity as a motif along the border of the kantha – this was another quiet way of joining the bandwagon of khadi that was spreading the unarmed war against the rulers into the interiors of the land.

As collections in some Museums of Folk Art such as Gurusaday Dutta’s show, the change in motif also saw the head to toe ‘Gora Sahib’ – a white-skinned European, as Bengal had also gone through periods of French domination – make his appearance in kanthas. This was not unique to the needlework art, though. The coveted Balucharis of Bishnupur and Murshidabad that were conventionally identified by their depiction of battle scenes from Kurukshetra or nawab-begums smoking hookahs or driving horse carriages were now sporting Europeans – suited booted and donning hat, and sometimes along with their automobiles!

This change carried itself into the terracotta tiles too: the terracotta temples of Bankura and Birbhum that stand to this day, singing paeans to the heroism of the Devatas who vanquished the Asuras, or of Radha Krishna, Shiv Parvati and Sri Chaitanya, now showed Bengali Babus wearing ‘chapkan’ like the ones we see on social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy or litterateur Bankim Chandra.

There is another, more subversive side to the use of motifs on kanthas. At the peak of the Nationalist movement, when almost every house in Bengal Province was proud to see their youngsters follow Shahid Khudiram’s way, when Master-Da Surya Sen and Binoy-Badal-Dinesh were inspiring the curbs to join organisations like the Bengal Volunteers, and when women like Bina Das, Kalpana Dutta and Pritilata Wadedar too were picking up guns and bhojalis (daggers), the preteen girls played messengers and couriers. Often, when they could not openly send out a message, the revolutionaries would code it through the motifs on the innocuous kanthas that would be draped on babies in arm.

*

This last bit of history comes from my personal family. My father-in-law Kshiti Prasanna Sengupta, first cousin of Shahid Dinesh Gupta and active member of Bengal Volunteers, was jailed in 1933 right after his Matriculation Examination to be released only at the crack of 1947. His incarceration followed the bombing of three consecutive District Magistrates in Midnapore – of James Peddie in 1931, Robert Douglas in 1932, and B E J Burge in 1933. His sister Rama, then in her pre-teens, was often one such unaware courier as she was asked to reach innocuous objects to one or the other household – among them, baby kanthas.

Kantha, as mentioned before, were crafted by women in their moments of leisure carved out of a daily household routine that enjoyed little assistance from mechanical tools and kitchen gadgets. Stitching together three, five or seven layers of saris or dhotis was an arduous pastime to say the least. Yet they took pride in this pastime as the result was their very own creation, not only putting to good use what would otherwise be considered waste but also adding to the wellness of family members, many of whom would not even have the comfort of sleeping on a charpoy. Away from any thought of carrying forward a heritage, our grandmas were not even doing it for economic benefit or ‘self-help.’

Then came the generation of my mother Kanaklata, mother-in-law Aparna and aunt Smritikana, who had gone to schools where they mastered the art of cross-stitch on matte and knitting woolens that would then be sent off to British soldiers on the Burma border of 1944. They were game for the simple art of running stitch; they were adept at crotchet and could weave silken laces by using the hook that interlocked yarns or thread. No longer were they confined to the inner courtyard although they did not have the compulsion to go out to earn their bread. Neither did they crave for an identity in the world out there save by preparing their offspring to usher a brave new world. For these mothers and aunts, the needlework creations were a matter of self-dignity alone: they took pride in preparing the trousseau of their daughters and daughters-in-law with the labour of their own nimble fingers.

The turbulences in the outer world are the stuff of history. The luminescence and crevices, the glories and betrayals of those events mould the rock bed of idealism for the generations that follow. But do we realise how the hand that rocked the cradle helped us rule our own nation? Until recent times we failed to take note of the demolitions and reinventions witnessed within the inner courtyard. The turmoils our mothers and aunts lived through changed the complexion of society, of their age, of the way people of their times thought. So much has changed since, too. But women like Ashapurna Devi started relating the story of Subarnalatas, we too were indifferent to the significance of such restructuring. It is time to celebrate those brave women who fought with bare needles and midwifed liberation in the dark quarters where maids would lose their jobs for refusing to wear foreign clothes.

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. 

(This essay will be published in Traditional & Contemporary Kantha, edited by Jasleen Dhamija, made possible by the effort of Siddharth Tagore. It has been shared by the author with permission of the editor and publisher.)

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Categories
celebrations

Homecoming Festivals

As the year stretches towards the next one, festivals welcome the delights of autumn. Though our celebrations have been restricted by the ongoing pandemic, human spirit continues to revel with music, words and more. Festivals are a part of this jubilation — a refulgent celebration of our existence across the globe. Some of these occasions jubilate the commencement of our journey home and some of the arrival of Gods and Goddesses, who other than killing demons, are shown to like being with their families too. For those who abstain from worshipping forms, a festival could be just visiting and meeting with families to express their thanks. Autumn is a time when tradition had many headed home to celebrate these events with their near and dear ones.

During Durga Puja, a festival which celebrates the home coming of the Goddess along with that of her devotees, we had a cultural splurge — music, dancing, theatre and special magazines featuring writing that moves to unite people in the spirit of love and harmony. Concerts of songs by bauls or traveling minstrels, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Tagore — both of who believed differently from Hindus — are a part of the celebrations. Writings by many, irrespective of their religious preferences, featured in the special editions of journals around literary and non-literary issues. Often these issues were coveted for being exquisite melanges, showcasing the most flavourful writers.

The cultural mingling despite being attached to a religious observance transcended narrow barriers imposed on faith. It continued inclusive in its celebrations, with food and embracing all cultures. Anyone could attend the festivities, even the British in colonial India. Taking a page off that, Borderless celebrates with writings across all boundaries.

Poetry

The Quest for Home

Nazrul’s Kon Kule Aaj Bhirlo Tori translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam explores the theme of spiritual homecoming . Click here to read.

The Song of Advent by Tagore

Tagore’s Amaar Nayano Bhulano Ele describes early autumn when the advent of the Goddess, translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Prose

An excerpt from Shakti Ghoshal’s The Chronicler of the Hooghly & Other Stories describes the historic evolution of the Durga Puja around the eighteenth century as a social occasion where the colonials and the nabobs mingled. Click here to read.

Meenakshi Malhotra through autumnal folk songs around Durga Puja explores homecoming in Season of Magical Mellow Wistfulness. Click here to read.

Somdatta Mandal translates from Bengali Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath. Both the essay and letters are around travel, a favourite past time among Bengalis, especially during this festival. Click here to read.

An excerpt of In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated from Bengali by Nazes Afroz. Syed Mujtaba Ali was a popular writer who often featured in such journals. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Mohona Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Exploring food has always been a part of festivities. Hope you find some good hints here. Click here to read.

Aruna Chakravarti reviews Golden Bangladesh at 50: Contemporary Stories & Poems edited by Shazia Omar. Click here to read.


A depiction of celebrations inside a house during Durga Puja in  Calcutta (around 1830-40), West Bengal, India, where Europeans are being entertained, water colour by William Prinsep(1794–1874), a merchant with the Calcutta firm of Palmer & Company. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Categories
Tagore Translations

The Song of Advent by Tagore

Written in 1908 in Shantiniketan, the lyrics of this song describe what is traditionally known as the sarat season ( or early autumn) when the festival of Durga Puja is celebrated. It appeared as a part of the collection called Geetanjali (Songs of Offering).

Shiuli flowers. Courtesy: Creative Commons
The Song of Advent

Wonder fills my senses.
My heart yearns for your presence.
Your dawn-coloured foot falls under the shiuli bowers
On dew strewn grass carpeted with fallen flowers.
Wonder fills my senses.
Light and shade play hide-and-seek in the woods, like lace.
What do the blooms say as they gaze awestruck at your face!
Shed your veil so that we can welcome you,
Remove the wisp of cloth with both your hands.
Sylvan nymphs blow on melodious conches from their doorways.
The universe welcomes your advent with music from celestial strings.
Within my being, I sense the tinkling of gold anklets.
All thoughts, all tasks are eased by the nectar of your presence —
Wonder fills my senses.

The woman welcomed in the poem is the Goddess Durga who descends from heaven for a five-day-long celebration. Interestingly, Tagore’s family were proponents of Brahmoism, a reform on Hinduism which adopted more Christian doctrines and rejected idol worship.

Suchitra Mitra’s rendition of the Rabindrasangeet in Bengali

(This poem has been translated for Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty, edited by Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar.)

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Categories
Tagore Translations

Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

Translated from the original Bengali by Somdatta Mandal

Translator’s Note

The earliest journeys of Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) were in his mind and he has left us accounts of these as well as of the later physical journeys in various travel writings – letters, diaries, poems, songs, and essays. Right from his childhood he made innumerable trips both within India and abroad. Apart from his regular full-fledged travelogues, we find many lesser known but interesting experiences of his travel. Included below are four such entries. The first essay is a trip to Hazaribagh with his nephew and niece. The second entry is a hilarious letter about his second visit to Darjeeling. The third a letter that narrates his trip to Satara in Maharashtra State, one of the towns where his elder brother Satyendranath Tagore served in the Civil Service. The last one is from Balia in Uttar Pradesh where Rabindranath complains that he is tired of travelling and wants to settle down peacefully as a bird in its nest.

Tagore in London, 1879. Courtesy: Creative Commons

In 1885, under his sister-in-law Jnanadanandini’s editorial venture, a children’s magazine called Balak was published from the Tagore household in Calcutta. Though the life-span of this magazine was less than a year and only eleven issues were totally published, it contained different writings of the young Rabindranath, who would handle a lot of things for the publication. This magazine was later merged with Bharati and edited by his elder sister Swarnakumari Devi. Among the different entries that Rabindranath contributed for Balak and published in Vol. 3, Ashar 1292 B.S. (July-August 1885) was an essay called “Dus Diner Chhuti” (Ten Days’ Holiday) that narrates his trip to Hazaribagh that year during the school holidays. The two children referred to in this article were Surendranath and Indira, son and daughter of his elder brother Satyendranath and Jnadadanandini Devi. The sketch of the bungalow below is also done by him.

An illustration accompanying the essay ‘Dus Diner Chhuti’ (Ten Days’ Holiday). First published in Balak magazine. Somdatta Mandal suggests it could be the handiwork of the Kobiguru.

Trip to Hazaribagh – First published in Balak Magazine

Two children have made me homeless in this summer heat! Their school has been closed for ten days but that’s not just the reason. There would not be so much chaos in the house even if twelve suns appeared on the horizon. The older brother blunted the tips of all the pens he found within his reach, drew pictures on whatever paper he found; tried out the sharpness of a knife on his existing thigh; took out the machine from the watch he found and tried to rectify it; undid the bindings of all the books within his reach; climbed up on my shoulders if he found the opportunity – and so on! He moved on parapet walls in places where there were stairs for climbing; though everyone in the whole world believed in getting out of a car only when it stopped, he thought it was his only duty to jump out of a running car.

Everyone accepted the fact that the sun was too hot during the summer but the human child that I am talking about probably did not differentiate much between sunshine and moonlight. So during the school vacation, the difference in belief and behaviour between him and other ordinary people created a sort of revolution in the neighbourhood. The news that recently the elder brother has got leave for ten days spread everywhere. People were not so overwhelmed even when they received the news of the English-Russian war.

In the meantime, his younger sister came to me off and on and demanded – “Uncle–.” It would be nice if he called me ‘Uncle’ but I would receive new names at least three times in a day – names which were not heard in any civilized country. These naughty children also scattered and turned my own possessions upside down. My own name also did not have a proper address. I could not make them understand that my own name was my personal possession. Anyhow, the small girl (not that she was too small) came and pleaded, “Uncle, come with us to Hazaribagh.” After a lot of thought I did not say anything else and ventured out on this summer day.

One cannot see much in a vacation of eight or ten days but at least we can peek at nature outside. At least one can stand beneath the open expanse of the blue sky and the vast open green fields for a few seconds and feel free. We live in the city and occasionally it becomes essential to prove that the world is not built entirely with bricks, wood and mortar. So, four of us began our journey. I have already acquainted you with the boy and the girl. I need to introduce the other person. He was a fat, round and simple man. He was older than all of us but even younger than these children. His fair and stout figure was full of humour and he seemed like a ripe and juicy fruit. Just like the bubbles in a huge pot of rice being cooked, his humour came out from his nose and eyes. There are some people who resembled the ‘sandesh’ – the sweetmeat without a covering, without anything hard inside, without thorns – just a smooth, juicy blend of cottage cheese and sugar. Our innocent and harmless companion was that kind of a very edible man.

We boarded the train at Howrah at night. The swaying of the train confused one’s sleep – the sleeping conscience and the dream and waking up all got mixed up. There were occasional series of lights, sound of gongs, shouting, and calling the name of a station in a strange intonation. Again after three strikes of a gong all the sounds would subside within a few seconds and everything would become dark and quiet except for the continuous sound of the train wheels moving in the dark. Keeping in tune with that sound all the strange dreams would keep on dancing in my head all night. We had to change trains at Madhupur Station at four o’clock in the morning. As the darkness faded away, I sat at the train window and looked outside at the early morning light. This was a new country! It seemed that due to some disturbance our flat land had cracked and was torn apart. It was rough, broken and full of big and small sal trees and there were high and low undulations everywhere. There were plenty of sal trees but they did not endear each other as they did in Bengal. Each tree stood independently on its own soil. In Bengal all the trees, plants and creepers entwined each other in a familial bonding, but I did not notice that in this hard soil here. Maybe the people here were also like that. We did not notice much habitation. Only occasionally one or two huts stood friendless here and there. In the wet and salubrious climate of Bengal, trees and plants, men and men, houses and houses all stick to each other, but here in this rough and dry place everything seemed to be standing independently on their own.

The train moved on continuously. In the cracked fields one could sometimes see the sand of dry river beds and in those river beds huge black rocks and stones lay like skeletons of the earth. Sometimes a few hills stood up like severed heads. The hills in the distance were dark blue in colour. The blue clouds in the sky that came to play with the earth seemed to get caught up here. They had raised their wings to fly back to the sky but could not do so because they were tied up. The maidens from the sky came and embraced them. I saw one dark man with a broad face, with his wild hair tied up in a knot, standing there with a stick in his hand. The plough was attached to the back of two buffaloes; they had not begun tilling yet, and they stood still looking at the train. Occasionally there were some clear plots of land encircled with fencing made of ghritakumari plants and with a brick well that was constructed in the centre. The whole region looked very dry. The thin, tall and white dry grass looked like grey hair. The short leafless berry plants were shriveled, dry, and dark. In the distance a few palm trees stood with their small heads and one long leg. Occasionally a peepul or a mango tree was also visible. A lone old roofless cottage with its broken frame stood in the middle of the dry land and looked at its own shadow. Nearby there was a stump of a huge burnt tree.

We reached Giridih station at six o’clock in the morning. There were no more train lines after that and so we had to take carriage drawn by human beings from here. Could we call this a car? It was a small cage over four wheels. As we began our journey in the morning, the four of us started chirping inside it like four fledglings. The young brother and sister began to talk about many things and also pester me with joy. Our stout companion mingled with the children and turned into such a child that by just looking at them my own age was reduced by fourteen years and eight months. At first we went to the Giridih Dak Bungalow and refreshed ourselves. There was no sign of grass anywhere as far as we could see. There were a few trees in between and waves of red earth everywhere. A lean pony was tied under the tree; after looking all around it didn’t know what to eat. Having nothing to do it stood scratching its back on the wooden post. A goat was tied to another tree with a long rope and after a lot of research it stood breaking a sort of green plant with ease.

We resumed our journey from here. There were coal mines in Giridih but we could not see it due to lack of time. The road was hilly. We could see a great distance both in front and behind us. The long and winding road lay on the dry and empty terrain like a serpent basking in the sun. The car was pushed on the uphill road with a lot of effort and then it would slide smoothly downhill. As we went along we saw hills on the way. There were tall and thin sal trees, termite heaps, stumps of trees that had been cut down. At certain places some hills were covered with only tall, thin and leafless trees. The starving trees seemed to spread their lean dry fingers towards the sky and the mountains seemed as if they had been pierced by hundreds of arrows like the bed of arrows on which Bhisma rested on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The sky was overcast and it began to drizzle. The coolies were letting out loud shouts while pulling the carriage and when their steps occasionally hit pebbles on the road, the carriage would suddenly shake up. Somewhere on the way the road ended and we saw a huge bed of sand with a narrow river in the distance. On asking the coolies we were told that it was the Barakar River. The carriage was pulled across the river and taken to the road on the other side. There were shallow ponds on both sides of the road and four or five buffalos leaning their heads on one another, dipped half their bodies in the water to relaxed themselves and gave us very casual glances.

When evening descended we got down from the carriage and went walking for the rest of the way. We saw two hills in the distance and the road went up and down through them. Whichever way we looked, there were no people, no human habitation, no grains, no tilled land. On all sides the undulated earth stood silent and barren like a hard ocean. The golden hue of dusk in the horizon cast dark shadows on us. Though there were no human beings or animals around us, there was a feeling that this huge earth was preparing for a huge person to come and sleep on its bosom. Like a sentinel someone was guarding the place with fingers on his lips and so everyone felt scared to breathe. The shadow of a traveller with luggage on his horseback came along from a distance and gradually crossed our path.

The night somehow passed between sleep and waking and tossing and turning sides. Upon waking up we saw a thick forest on the left hand side. There were creepers on the trees and the ground was covered with different kinds of shrubs. Above the forest we could see the blue peaks of distant hills. There were huge rocks and among their crevices were a few trees, their hungry roots growing long and spreading out on all sides. It seemed as if they wanted to break the rock in search of food and grasp it with their strong grip. Where did the forest on the left disappear all on a sudden?

There were fields stretching at a distance. Cows were grazing. They looked as small as goats. Farmers were tilling their land with the plough attached to bovine shoulders. Sometimes, they twisted the cows’ and buffaloes’ tails. The tilled lands rose like steps on the hills. We had come close to Hazaribagh. One or two of the hills stood as relics of some great natural revolution.

We reached the dak bungalow at Hazaribagh at three o’clock in the afternoon. The town of Hazaribagh looked very clean amidst the wide landscape. There was no city-centric ambience here – no narrow lanes, dirt, drains, jostling, commotion, traffic, dust, mud, flies or mosquitoes. Amid the fields, trees and hills the town was absolutely clean. The giant houses in Kolkata are proud as stone – they stand treading the earth below, but here it was different. Here the clean and small thatched roof houses stand quietly in friendship with nature; they do not have glamour, they don’t exert might. The town seemed to be like a nest in the trees. There was deep silence and peace everywhere. We hear that even the Bengalis who live here do not quarrel among themselves. If this was true, then there would be no enmity between the crow and the eagle or between the cat and the dog.

One day was gone. It was afternoon now. I sat alone quietly in a couch on the verandah of the dak bungalow. The sky was blue. Two thin pieces of clouds sailed by. A mild breeze blew an earthy, grassy smell. There was a squirrel on the roof of the verandah. Two shalik birds (mynahs) were hopping about on the verandah and shaking their tails. I could hear the sound of cow bells as they from the adjacent road. People were moving in different ways. Some carried luggage on their shoulders and walked with open umbrellas on their heads; some were chasing a couple of cows, and some moved slowly riding on the back of a pony. There was no commotion, no hurry, and no sign of worry on their faces. It seemed that human life here did not pant rapidly like a fast railway engine or move with screeching noises emanating from the wheels of a heavily laden bullock cart. Life here moved in the manner of a gentle breeze blowing beneath the shade of trees.

The courthouse was in front of us. But even the court was not that rigid here. While the two lawyers in their black coats fought with each other inside, two papaya birds sat outside on the peepul tree and conversed among themselves constantly. The people who came here seeking justice sat in a group in the shade of the mango tree and laughed loudly among themselves. I could hear them. Sometimes, the midday gong started ringing in the courthouse. Its sound seemed very serious in this leisurely ambience and slow rhythm of life. The occasional sound of the gong was a reminder that time did not flow by in the casual slow cadence of life here. Standing in between it seemed to pronounce in its iron tone, “I am awake, even if others are not.” But the writer’s condition was not exactly the same. I felt sleepy. It was not a deep sleep. I realised that though the all-pervading stillness of nature and beauty encircled me with great care, my senses were failing to capture the details.

I spoke whatever I had to say about Hazaribagh (some might be thinking that I could have spoken much less) except that I did not mention that we became newly acquainted with the children of one of my friends. Upen Babu read the Akshanmanjari so we had to treat him with respect. I had mistakenly confused the alphabet sequence and he had instantly corrected it. That is why I was grateful to him. But in spite of many entreaties his sweet-looking naughty sister did not speak to us. I threatened to write an article and take revenge on her, so according to that promise I am spreading the word today letting the whole world know about her shy and coy words, and how she would run away whenever guests came to her house.  I also cannot keep it a secret how we had received sweet sandesh and even sweeter welcome from our friend.

In order to save time on our return journey we came down in a two-wheeled small carriage. If nothing else happened, at least it reduced our longevity as the whole body got shaken up with the bones and the joints fighting against each other. As the body went on jerking and dancing like mad, the five elements with which it was composed gave us a tough time. I could hold it together somehow but nothing much beyond that. With so much of revolution in the whole body, I could not hold books in my hands, the cap on my head, the spectacles on my nose, food in my stomach.  To add to all that was the scorching heat of the sun. I had left home with the full sixteen annas of my body intact but when I returned, I could not even account for twelve annas of it. The ten days’ holiday is over. Ah!!

More Humour: Letters from Tagore

I

Darjeeling

September 1887

Here we have reached Darjeeling. On the way Be_____ behaved very well. Didn’t cry much. Shouted a lot, created commotion, made various noises with her mouth, turned her wrists and even called birds, though we couldn’t see birds anywhere. There was a lot of trouble in boarding the steamer at Sara_____ Ghat. It was ten o’clock at night – hundreds of pieces of luggage, a few coolies, five women and only one man[1]. After crossing the river, we boarded a small train – in it there were four berths and we were six people. The ladies along with their luggage were put up in the ladies’ compartment. Though it sounds pretty simple, the actual process wasn’t so. There was a lot of calling, shouting, and running around but even then Na___ said that I did nothing. That means that the image of a terribly annoyed grown up human being was the only one suitable for a man. But no gentleman of twenty-six years has done what I have done in the last two days – opened so many boxes and closed them, pushed them under the benches, again pulled them out from there, run here and there behind so many boxes and bundles, so many boxes and bundles have chased me like a curse, so many have been lost, so many regained, so many not found and so much attempt made to recover the lost ones. I am surely suffering from box-phobia – my teeth start chattering whenever I see boxes.

When I look all around me, I see boxes, just boxes – small, big, medium, light and heavy, made of wood, tin, leather, and cloth—one below me, one above me, one next to me and one behind me – then all my natural strength to call, shout and run around totally disappears. And then my blank look, dry face and poor countenance makes me seem like a mere coward; so whatever Na____r have said about me is correct. Anyhow, let it be. After that I went and slept in another coach.

Two other Bengalis were there in that coach. They were coming from Dhaka; one of them was almost totally bald and his language was very different. He asked me whether my father was in Darjeeling. If Lakshmi was around she would have replied to him in his incorrect Bangla but I did not have such an instantaneous answer.

The way from Siliguri to Darjeeling was filled with continuous exciting comments from S_____: “Oh my god!”, “How strange,” “How wonderful!” – She kept on nudging me and saying: “R_____ look, look.” What to do, I had to look at whatever she pointed out – sometimes trees, sometimes clouds, sometimes an indomitable flat-nosed girl from the hills, sometimes such things which passed by because the train was moving forward and S______ lamenting that R_____ could not see them. The train kept on moving. Gradually there was cold, then clouds, then running noses, then sneezing, then shawls, blankets, quilts, thick socks, chilly feet, cold hands, blue faces, sore throats and just after that Darjeeling. Again those boxes, those bags, those beddings, and those bundles! Luggage upon luggage, coolies after coolies! It took me about two hours to retrieve our luggage from the brake-van, identify them, put them upon the heads of coolies, show the receipts to the sahib, have arguments with him, unable to find some things and then make necessary arrangements to retrieve them.

II

Calcutta

June 1889

As soon as the train departed Be___ looked all around and sat seriously thinking from where we arrive in this world, where we move, what the intention of life was. Thinking about all these issues I saw her yawning frequently and after a little while she put her head on the ayah’s lap, spread out her legs and went to sleep. I too kept on thinking both about pleasant as well as unpleasant ideas about life but could not sleep. So I started humming the Bhairavi raga on my own. Once you hear the melody of the Bhairavi raga, you develop a strange attitude towards life. It seems as if a routine mechanical hand is constantly winding the organ and from that pain of friction a deep and sad raga emerges from the centre of the whole world. The light of the early morning sun seems to fade. the trees listen quietly as the sky seems to be engulfed by a world full of tears. In other words, if one looks at the distant sky, it seems as if a pair of tearful blue eyes are staring at you.

Near the backyard of the station we saw our sugarcane fields, lines of trees, the tennis field, houses with glass windows; for a few moments my heart felt sad. This was really strange! When I lived here, I did not have much sympathy for this house – I cannot even say that I was very emotional when I left it. But when I saw it for a split second from the window of the running train, the way the lonely house was standing with its playground and empty rooms, then my entire heart went and pounced upon that house – a sound inside my chest from left to right – the train passed by quickly, the sugarcane field disappeared, everything ended, only the strings of the heart got fixed on a lower scale. But the engine of the train didn’t bother much about these things; it went on moving at the same speed over the rails; it doesn’t have the time to notice who was going where. It only drank water, belched smoke, gave loud shouts and went on rolling. Its movement could be beautifully compared to the motion of life, but it was so old and hackneyed that I just mentioned it and stopped. Once we came near Khandala the sky was full of clouds and rain. The mountain tops looked blurred because of the clouds – as if someone had drawn some mountains and then later rubbed them with an eraser – a few outlines were visible and in some places the pencil marks had got smudged.

At last, the bell rang for the train to leave. From a distance one could see its sleepless red eyes; the earth started quivering, the people working at the station emerged with their shoes and sandals from different rooms — their decorative jackets and round caps with metallic labels on their heads; the huge lantern in their hands radiated light in all directions; the servants stood alert taking care of all their belongings. Be____ went on sleeping. We boarded the train. Be____ started being restless for no reason. Though there was no sunshine, we started feeling hot as the day advanced. But time didn’t seem to move. It seemed that we had to touch every minute and push it forward. Fortunately, after travelling for some time it started raining heavily. Shutting the windows all around us, it was a pleasant experience to watch the clouds and the rain through the glass panes. At one place I was amazed to see the activities of the river in this monsoon season. It had swelled up and ran at full speed, digging its head on the stones, encircling them, then flowing over them and creating a sort of commotion. I hadn’t seen such wildness anywhere else. In the afternoon when we came and had our food at Sohagpur, the rain had stopped by then. When the train started again, the sun with its bright redness was setting among the clouds. I thought that all the other passengers were spending their time quite comfortably by eating, gossiping playing or reading and therefore were not bothered about the existence of time at all; whereas I was swimming upon time, its entire expanse was hitting me on my face and body … The train reached Howrah in due time. One by one we saw different people – first the sweeper of our house, the Jo___, after that Sa___. After that we dumped the rolled up luggage, my dented tin suitcase and a big basket (which contained milk bottle, different utensils, tin pot, bundles etc.) on the roof of the second class carriage, we reached home.

A commotion, gathering of people, salute of the durwans, obeisance of the servants, the greetings of the clerks, all the contradictory opinions about who had reduced and who had gained weight among us, the exuberance that S___ and company had with Be___, people surrounding the table during tea, bath, food, etc.

III

Balia

Tuesday, February 1893

I do not feel like travelling any more. I really wish to sit down in one quiet corner in a relaxed mood of adda. India has two parts – one part is domestic, and the other ascetic; some do not move out from the corner of their house at all, and some are totally homeless. I have both these parts of India within me. The nook at home pulls, and the outside world also beckons me. I wish to travel a lot and see everything and again my perturbed and tired mind gets lured by a nest. The feelings are like that of a bird. It has a small nest to live in and the huge open sky to fly. I love the nook only to pacify my mind. Within my mind I feel a desire to work untiringly and I am perturbed when it gets deterred at every step in such a way when I am among people — it keeps on constantly hurting me from within a cage. It can think freely in solitude, it can look all around, and express all its feelings in a satisfactory manner. It wants eternal rest day and night. Just as the creator is alone within his own creation, it also wants to live alone in its world of emotions.


[1] The people in this trip included Rabindranath, Mrinalini Devi, Madhurilata, Soudamini Devi, Swarnakumari Devi, Hironmoyee Devi, Sarala Devi and a maidservant. This was his second trip to Darjeeling.  He had started for Darjeeling for the first time on 19th October 1882. The details of this travel are found in Swarnakumari Devi’s article “Darjeeling Patra” published in Bharati and Balak.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

Somdatta Mandal is a critic and translator and 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

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Excerpt Tagore Translations

Kobi & Rani: Letters from Japan, Europe and America

Rabindranath Tagore’s selected letters to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis had been published in 1938 under the title Pathe-O-Pather Prante. The sixty letters included in this volume had been personally selected by him from among the five hundred plus letters he had written to her. This volume was translated by Somdatta Mandal and included in the book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (Bolpur: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammilani, 2020). Selections from some of these letters had been included in borderless journal in its September 2021 issue. A few more letters have been selected here for the benefit of the readers.

Letter 33

Yesterday I reached the Japanese port named Moji. Tomorrow I will reach Kobe. A bird builds its nest with straw and twigs; it does not take long for it to leave that nest and go away. We build our nests mainly with things of the mind, with work, studies and thoughts and an invisible shelter starts growing around us. Just as the seat of the plane moulds itself according to the pressure and shape of the body, the mind while moving along also creates differently shaped holes, and when it sits in that hole it gets stuck there. Later when it has to leave it does not like that at all. Something like that happened to me on this ship. In this cabin there is a writing desk on one side, and a bed on the other. Apart from this, there is a chest of drawers with a mirror, a cupboard to hang clothes and an attached bathroom. After crossing these, there is another cabin where my boxes, trunks etc. are kept. Within this my mind has arranged its own furniture. Because there is little space, my shelter is very intense and every necessary item is within my reach. After getting down from here, I was in Hsu’s house[1] in Shanghai for two days; I did not like it, it made me very tired. The main reason was that the mind did not get the measurements of the body in a new place; it was being hit on all sides and to add to that there was hospitality, welcome and chaos day in and out.

There is newness of thought and imagination everyday but the external newness tries to prevent them. We have imbibed new substances of life in their entirety and have understood that the newness exists within them. I have known for a long time that we do not have to leave them to look for something new. Like other valuable things one has to mediate to seek the new.  This means you have to make it old and then attain it. If you think that you have suddenly found something, then that is not true because within a few days its actual emaciated state is revealed. Nowadays man is engrossed in securing this cheap newness and that is why he wants change at every moment. Science is helping him in this obsession for change, so he does not get the time to sink deep and search for the forever new. This is why a base knowledge from text-books has spread everywhere in the education system. No one has the time to seek the ultimate truth in its real form. This is why obscenities that affect the mind in a strong way are being found in literature. Those who lack the time and have less power find this to be a cheap means of getting quick entertainment. The mind that has grown inert and has had its life strength reduced requires strong stimulation – its roots are starving.

                                                                                    Yours,

                                                                                    9 Chaitra, 1335( B.S.)

You will be surprised to know that when I was writing this letter I was feeling very sleepy. I was warding it off and progressing with my writing. Even now I have not overcome that drowsiness. But it is morning now, it is eleven o’clock – let me go and take my bath.

Letter 34

I have come to Tokyo last night and have put up in a famous hotel. It is not that less famous hotels are cheap or unsuitable for relaxation, but since it is my misfortune that I am also famous, I have to tolerate an equal amount of oppression. It is easy to hide in a small place, but the places to hide in this world are closed for me. Once upon a time I could not even imagine that it would be essential for me to hide from the public for self-defence. Those were the days when I was alone in the boat on the shoals of the Padma. So I haven’t developed the habit of warding off people and anyone can come and keep on pulling me. This morning when I was tired and was sitting down someone came and convinced me with a lot of words. He made me sit in a car and took me to their house inside the lane. In the end I realized that all this excitement was because they wanted to be photographed with me.

In our house we were first born amidst a simple lifestyle and were encircled by love and care from our own people. Then I was a totally private person and there was a very personal thing called a barrier. Gradually with age the relationship with the outside world started to increase. But however much it increased it had a simple measure and there was a balance between the private and the public self. Ultimately through the hands of fate my fame as an exceptional person began to grow and I became more public than I was private. The barrier which I was entitled to became insufficient now. Like an extremely ripe fruit the hard upper shell of my body has split up into seven pieces, and now any kind of bird with any sort of motive can come and peck at me and there is no one to prevent them. There is no harm if they really benefit from it. If they want to satiate their own greed through me, let them do it; but if you think about it, this creates a serious harm not only for me but also for their own selves. My heart is upset by the little demands, and I waste my strength available for doing sufficient work. Moreover, when I realize that I have become the vehicle of other people’s interests, and that those interests are trivial, then I feel reproached. I keep on wishing to return to my traditional and non-famous small house and take shelter among people who are willing to pay a price just for my existence. But at the same time I often meet people who are unknown to me, but who have accepted me within their heart even from a distance. They do not ask anything from me, do not judge me according to my fame, but accept me out of their own happiness. There is nothing more fortunate than this. This time when I was being tortured by my fellow countrymen with a cheap reception in the city of Kobe, then the wife of the English consul here came to meet me. After speaking to her a lot of my sorrow disappeared. I realized that for some people my work has been deeply successful and they do not want anything more than whatever they have received from me without my knowledge.

Today I have three invitations in Tokyo and it will extend from one o’clock in the afternoon till dinner at night. I will then travel to Yokohama by car. After that tomorrow I will have lunch with the Indians who invited me and then leave for Canada at three o’clock. After that I don’t know.

                                                                                                              Yours,

27 March, 1929.

Letter 43

Throughout my life I had to inwardly keep hold of a pursuit. That pursuit is to remove the veil, to keep myself far away from everything. It is the pursuit of releasing me from myself as a person. Stationing myself at one place, I often try to realize that each day this person is troubled with both sad and happy thoughts of work, which is equivalent to letting myself drift within an uncountable flow into another sphere without any fixed destination. This can be seen clearly when it is identified as an independent object, but if we try to associate and become one with it then that knowledge becomes false. I desperately need this realization and that is why I desire it so much. My mind is situated at the crossroads and all its doors are open, so all kinds of winds reach it and all kinds of guests enter the inner chambers. There is a place within man’s life which is that of pain, and all the feelings are located there. That is why only intimacy can enter it. Part of our domestic existence is to spend life with them both in pleasure and pain. Everything has to be tolerated within its limits. But my God, my jeevandebata, decided to make me a poet and that is why has kept my inner chambers unguarded. I don’t have a back door and there are main entrances on all sides. That is why both invited and uninvited people keep coming and going within my inner chambers. Therefore, the chords of the instrument of pain are always tuned to the highest pitch. If the music stops, then my own work would be left undone. I have to know the world through painful experiences; otherwise, what should I express? Unlike scientists and philosophers I do not have vast knowledge and my expression is that of my heart. Though these feelings are the tools of expression for a writer, it is necessary to leave them behind and move away. This is because if we don’t move to a distance, we are unable to perceive the whole at once and reveal it. Being too much engrossed in the world gives rise to blindness and guards the object that is to be seen. Besides this, the small object becomes large and the large one is lost. The great advantage of the domestic world is that it carries its own weight, but the small objects do become a burden. They are the most meaningless things but they create the greatest pressure. The main reason is that their weight rests upon falsehood. When the mind seems to be overwhelmed by bad dreams, it is also an illusion. If we encircle the world with that little ‘me’, then in that small world the small wears the mask of the great and creates anxiety in the mind. If whatever is really great, meaning that its boundaries cross that little ‘me’, is brought in front of the small, then the smaller one’s false intensity is dismissed and shrinks into littleness. Then one feels like laughing at what causes one to cry. That is why removing the big ‘me’ from my life becomes the greatest thing to pursue; and if that is done, the greatest insult to our existence is lost. The humiliation of existence is to live in a small cage that befits birds and animals. In this cage called ‘myself’ we are tied and beaten up, and that becomes a useless burden. That is why it is essential for Rabindranath to seat Rabindranath Tagore at least at a distance: otherwise, he gets to be humiliated by himself at every step. The sorrow of death brings in stoicism, and I have felt the freedom of stoicism several times, but the real stoicism is brought about by accepting the great truth. There is greatness within me and he is the observer; what is small within me is the consumer.  If both of them are combined, then the pleasure of vision is destroyed and the happiness of consummation is spoilt. If you keep pushing your work externally like a pushcart then it moves smoothly, but if you carry that pushcart on your shoulders then you get exhausted. I have taken up a work called Visva-Bharati, and it becomes simpler if I don’t bear the burden and dissociate it from myself. A work is either a success or a failure depending upon the circumstances but if it does not touch ‘myself’ then that work brings in freedom for itself and also for me. Our greatest prayer to the one who is the greatest is asato ma sadgamayo (take me away from whatever is false and lead me towards eternal truth). How will this prayer be successful? If His arrival within me is complete, if I see Him truly within me, then the torture of that ‘me’ can also be pacified.

I don’t know when you will receive this letter. I will be happy if you receive it on your birthday. If you don’t get it there will not be much harm in stretching your birthday by another day. It is not possible always to express all the innermost thoughts but they have to be spoken for the sake of myself.  That is why I wrote this letter on the occasion of your birthday; because freedom is the main mantra of every birth, and it is freedom from darkness to light.

                                                                                                                Yours,

                                           6 Kartick, 1336 (B.S.) 

Letter 48

I am writing this letter to you from Copenhagen, after having fallen into a whirlwind that does not let me pause even for a while. I am moving along garnering knowledge about strangers, but there is no time to store that knowledge. Moreover, I have a forgetful mind, and there is no lock and key in the storehouse of my memory. As soon as something accumulates, instantly something else comes and replaces it. Some just sink in, some get distorted and become hazy. I do not of course consider this to be a complete loss – if you cannot discard then you cannot earn; if you have to store it then you will have to sit firmly without any movement. For a long time, I have constantly ridden the chariot of my mind from one road to another and did not have the time to lock it up in the garage. Instead of fame, I would have found a lot of things if I had gone and sat firmly at the entrance of the museum. Just think of this simple fact: If I had the intelligence to remember everything then at least I would have passed all my examinations and could have left with pride by saluting the world and by gathering accolades. If I want to speak about something, I cannot quote references and so in intellectual gatherings I try to overcome the deficiencies of my education by covering them up naively with my own talk. Since I cannot think of paraphrases and parallel passages in seminars where poetry is being discussed, I try to retain my prestige by composing poems myself. I can clearly visualize that you are reading this and laughing out loudly both physically and also in your mind. You are saying that it is just empty politeness, a bundle of pride. There is no way out. Due to societal norms one can truly praise others but not oneself. So one has to praise oneself in the mind and instead of reduction it leads to more sin. The fact is that once you come abroad from your homeland your self-glorification becomes enhanced a great deal. Someone who doesn’t even have the fortune of having cold water is suddenly given champagne. Then I feel like calling your professors and telling them, ‘O, you masters! Don’t make the sudden mistake of considering me as your student. Don’t mark the papers that I have written in the same way as you mark your examination scripts, because they are demanded by the professors here.’ You know that by nature I am very polite but my tutors at home have beaten me to make me feel proud. This is why I often feel ashamed in my mind. But let me tell you the truth. I have received a lot of fame and respect, but even then my mind always looks across the Indian Ocean. Khuku[2] has written from Santiniketan, “Yesterday there were heavy showers and this morning the sunshine is like liquid gold.” These words were like the sudden touch of a golden wand. My mind became agitated; it said, all right, this is acceptable. I will go to those teachers again. If they make me stand up on the bench, then at least that ray of sunlight like liquid gold will come in through the open window and fall upon my brow and that will be my prize. In the meantime the letters of Bhanusingha[3] have been published once again and I have received them. The letters are full of the monsoon clouds and autumn sunshine of Santiniketan. Reading the letters in such a far off country makes them even clearer. For a brief while I forgot where I was. What a vast difference! The difference between what is good here and what is good there is like the difference between the music here and there. European music is big and strong and varied. It emanates from the victory of men; its sound resonates from all sides and creates a great impact on the heart. We have to congratulate it. But the raga that comes out from the flute of the shepherd in our country, it calls my lone mind to accompany him on the path which is full of shadows from bamboo groves, where the village belle walks with a pitcher full of water at her waist, the doves call from the branches of the mango trees and from a distance the special song of the boatman can be heard. All these excite the mind and blur the vision with a few unnecessary teardrops. They are extremely ordinary and that is why they can easily find a place in our minds. The letter which I wrote on that day seems to be written for today. But there is no way for me to revoke my reply. That day’s post office is closed. So let me end this letter with a deep sigh. I have several engagements and many other things before me.

                                                                                                            Yours,

8 August, 1930.

Letter 49

There is a word prevalent in Bengali called ‘Samoyik Patra’ that means periodicals. But there is no way by which we can hold back time and send them through letters. I do not know when the news of my painting exhibition in Germany reached you and now I got to know from your letter that all of you did not get the news at all. So probably the time for receiving the news is also over. On the other hand, my trip to Germany will be over today and I will go to Geneva tomorrow. Even before you receive this letter you must have already heard the news that my paintings have been received quite well in Germany. The National Gallery in Berlin has taken five of my paintings. I hope you understand the impact of this news. If Lord Indra suddenly sent his horse Ucchaishraba to take me to heaven, then I could compete with my own pictures. But I don’t know why I am not excited about discussing these things. Maybe there is some hidden hostility in my mind, and so there is almost no relation between my country and my paintings. When I write poems then an emotional link is automatically created with the message of Bengal. But when I paint the lines or the colours, they do not come with the identity of any particular state. So they belong to those who like them. Just because I am a Bengali does not automatically turn it into a Bengali thing. This is why I have eagerly donated these pictures to the West. The people of my country probably have come to know that I am not a special category of a human being and so in their mind they have been antagonized towards me. They do not feel any qualms of conscience about saying bad things about me. Let my paintings prove that I am not a hundred percent Bengali but belong equally to Europe as well.

I visited many places which I had known earlier and also delivered lectures there. But unlike my last trip, this time I have entered the inner spirit of Germany. I have come closer to them. Not that they have sufficient love for nationalism in the world, but by being rejected by other races of Europe, they have become strong nationalists in their hearts. Of course I cannot understand why they have a special liking for me. Whatever it might be, they have extraordinary strength, great intelligence and also the capacity to make all things equal. I feel that no other European race has so much strength in all aspects. I understand why France cannot get over the terror of Germany. These people are extremely irascible. After the nudge of poverty their strength has increased many-fold.

The enthusiasm for world nationalism has been brought forward in Geneva. The right tune has not been played in the League of Nations – it may not be played at all – but on its own that city has become the epicentre of the whole world. Those who believe in the unity of the world will automatically come and get united here. In that case I believe that a great power for the welfare of the world has been inaugurated here.

                                                                                                          Yours,

                                                                                           18August, 1930.

Letter 50

After planning to leave for quite some time, the day of my departure has ultimately come near. It has been almost one year. I liked it as long as I was in Europe. After reaching America my mind got suppressed and my health was also affected. The external world in America is too bold, aggressive and restless and so after being continuously shaken up, a sort of stoicism creeps in. I am in that condition now, and for quite some time have become eager to get some shelter within my inner self. After many incidents my mind had become outward-oriented, and the truth of the self was growing rusty without use. It was during this period that I came to America and saw how man has tried to develop his society with unnecessary failures. They have decorated rubbish with the glamour of wealth and spend their days and night behind them, thus creating an indecent burden upon the world. Within all this crass materialism, when the mind becomes restless the eternal longings within man express themselves. Just as cows are herded together to be taken back to their shelter in the evening, in a similar way I am calling my scattered self to return to the deep recesses of the mind. Maybe a shadow of the evening has descended on the late afternoon of my life and the strength of my mind, which had disseminated my endeavours in different kinds of work to the outside world, is also coming to an end. The guard at the entrance of the mansion has already rung the bell signalling that the main door will be closed, and so we cannot do without lighting a lamp in the andarmahal – the inner chambers.

         I haven’t written anything for a long time and I don’t feel the urge to do so. This means that the power of expression has also reached the end; it doesn’t have any extra portion in its coffers and therefore easily stop all dues from the outside world. I am not feeling bad about it. If the fruit starts growing inside, then there is no loss if the petals of the flower fall down.

         I shall begin my journey on the 9th of January in the ship called Narkanda (P&O) and will reach home at the end of the month.

                                                                                                           Yours,

                                                                                 29 December, 1930.


[1] Hsu-Tse Mu, Professor of Literature at the National University, Peking. In 1924 he had accompanied the poet during his China tour as an interpreter. [Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni, Vol.III, p. 166].

[2] Khuku was the nickname of Amita Sen, a noted Rabindrasangeet singer; Rabindranath adored her. She joined Sangeet Bhavan as a teacher but died very young.

[3] Rabindranath wrote a series of letters to a young girl called Ranu Adhikari. He signed the letters as ‘Robi Dada’ or sometimes as ‘Bhanu Dada’ which was the penname of the poet as Bhanusingha.

About the book:   Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) included in ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.

Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific letter writer and Rani Mahalanobis is the only person to whom he wrote more than five hundred letters, the maximum number written to any individual person. In 1938, in the third volume of the series entitled “Patradhara”[5], Rabindranath selected sixty letters written at different periods of time to her. This he titled Pathe O Pather Prante and it was published from Visva-Bharati Publications Department in Kolkata.

Incidentally, we find the first ten letters of this series as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shonge Europey ends in 1926. Since it was published much later, Rani has also included some of these letters in her memoir. The rest of the letters selected from those written up to 1938 describe various moods of the Poet for a period of twelve years. They include philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence, and especially his views on his new-found interest in sketching and painting. In other words, unlike those written to Indira Devi and Ranu Adhikari, these letters are interesting because they cover multifarious topics and issues and reveal the Poet’s tone of intimacy with Rani. As per Prashantakumar Pal’s biography,

Rani Mahalanobis used to suffer from a sort of non-infectious tuberculosis, so for her fever was almost a regular affair. Naturally Rabindranath would get worried – he would suggest different medicines – and write innumerable long letters, which according to him would help Rani forget some of her physical ailments. (Rabijibani, vol.IX, p.297. Translation mine)

The sixty letters included in this volume also vary in length. Some are quite short, while others are lengthy. Again some of the letters are dated with the Bengali month and year, whereas others are dated according to the English calendar. A few of the letters do not have any dates at all. Also some of them seem quite sketchy, and do not have the usual beginning, middle or end. The reason for this becomes clear when we get to know that Tagore had drastically edited several sections of these letters, especially places which revealed his innermost self.

About the author:

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

About the translator:

Somdatta Mandal is Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships and awards, her areas of interest are American Literature, contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. She has edited three volumes of travel writing —Indian Travel Narratives(2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), and Indian Travel Narratives: New Perspectives (2021) and has translated from Bengali to English different kinds of Indian travelogues, with special focus on men and women in colonial times. Among them are: The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose (2010), Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family (2014), which records vignettes of travel by nineteen members of the Tagore family spanning more than 150 years, A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das, which is the first woman’s travel narrative from Bengal published in 1885(2015), Crossing Many Seas(2018) by Chitrita Devi, Gleanings of the Road (2018) by Rabindranath Tagore, and The Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan and Other Essays (2019) by Hariprabha Takeda. Two other translated volumes on Rabindranath Tagore have been published recently, ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).

Categories
Review

Golden Bangladesh at 50: Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti


                                                                   

Title: Golden Bangladesh at 50, Contemporary Poems & Stories

Editor: Shazia Omar

 Publisher: The University Press Ltd, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glossary:

Amaar Shonar Bangla –My Golden Bengal.

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

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

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

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