Categories
World Poetry Day, 2021

Celebrating Poetry without Borders

“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name”

(William Shakespeare, A Midsummer's Night's Dream,1596)

Like clouds float, words waft through currents of ideas and take shapes and forms. We celebrate poetry across the world, across space and time, with the greatest and the new… our homage in words to the past, present and future…

A paean to the skies, the Earth and empathy with nature sets the tone for this poetic treat. I offer you a translation/transcreation of a Tagore song, from the original lyrics penned by the maestro in Bengali…

The Star-Studded Sky  by Rabindranath Tagore

( A translation/transcreation of Akash Bhora, Shurjo Tara, 1924)

The sky replete with sun and stars, the Earth brimming with life,
In the midst of this universe, I have found my abode.
Spellbound by the plenitude, songs awaken in my being. 

The infinite, eternal waves that create planetary tides 
Resonate through the blood coursing in my veins.

As I walk to the woods, I step on the grass. 
Heady perfumes of flowers startle me into a rhapsody.
Benefactions of joy anoint the universe.

I have listened, I have watched, I have poured my life into the Earth.
Through knowing, I have sought the unknown. 
Spellbound by the plenitude, songs awaken in my being. 

(Translated/transcreated by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal,2021)

Poetry connects with eternal human emotions over space and time with snippets from old and verses from new.

Poets continue to draw from nature to express and emote. In empathy with the forces that swirl around us are poems written by moderns, like Jared Carter.

 What is that calling on the wind
           that never seems a moment still?
 That moves in darkness like a hand
           of many fingers taken chill?

(Excerpted from Visitant by Jared Carter)

Click here to read Jared Carter’s Visitant and more poems.

Tagore wrote and painted. Here we have a poem about a painting done by the poet-artist herself, Vatsala Radhakeesoon.

An endless expanse swirls
over the tropical island.
At the foot of the Meditative Mountain,
birds, bees and butterflies wonder --
who is this mystic blue?

(Excerpted from Swirling Blues by Vatsala Radhakeesoon)

Click here to read Swirling Blues by Vatsala Radhakeesoon and gaze at the painting.

Separated by oceans and decades, were poets empathetic?

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you...

The smoke of my own breath,...

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and 
dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

(Excerpted from Song of Myself, Walt Whitman, 1881)

And despite exuberance of poets and their love of nature, came wars from across continents. Here are some of the responses of poets from all over the world to war and the pain it brings…

A soldier and a poet, Bijan Najdi (1941-1997) wrote in Persian, he captured the loss and the pain generated by war on children for us. This has been translated by Davood Jalili for Borderless

The world does not become bitter with the sword.

It does not become bitter with shooting, cries and fists.

The bitterness of the world

Is not the deer’s necks

And leopard’s tooth

And the death of a fish...

(Excerpted from Our Children by Bijan Najdi)

Click here to read Our Children by Bijan Najdi

Maybe children have a special place in poets’ hearts. Michael R Burch from across the Pacific writes of their longings too…

I, too, have a dream …

that one day Jews and Christians

will see me as I am:

a small child, lonely and afraid,

staring down the barrels of their big bazookas,

(Excerpted from I, too have a dream by Michael R Burch)

Click here to read Dreams of Children by Michael R Burch and more by him.

From Nepal, Manjul Miteri travelled to Japan to design a giant Buddha. While visiting the Hiroshima museum, he responded to the exhibits of the 1945 nuclear blast, a bombardment that ended not just the war, but many lives, many hopes and dreams… It heralded the passing of an era. Miteri’s poem was translated by Hem Biswakarma for us from Nepali.

Orimen*!
Oh, Orimen!
Mouthful of your Tiffin
Snatched by the ‘Little Boy’*!
The Tiffin box, adorned with flowers,
Scattered and spoilt,
Blown out brutally.

(Excerpted from Oh Orimen! by Manjul Miteri)

Click here to read Majul Miteri’s Oh Orimen!

Continuing on the theme of war, what can war weapons not do? Karunakaran has written a seemingly small poem about warplanes in Malayalam that embraces the nuclear holocaust and more. The words are few but they say much… It has been translated by Aditya Shankar for us.

No warplane 
has ever flown like a bird,
has lost way like a bird,
has halted mid-flight reminiscing a bygone aroma.

(Excerpted from No Warplane Has Ever Flown Like A Bird by Karunakaran)

Click here to read No Warplane Has Ever Flown Like A Bird by Karunakaran.

From wars and acquisition of wealth, grew the greed for immortality.

Aditya Shankar writes rebelling against man’s greed, greed that also leads to war.

Through the tube,

the world poured into that room

with news of war and blood.

(Excerpted from Human Immortality Project  by Aditya Shankar)

Click here to read Human Immortality Project by Aditya Shankar.

Continuing the dialogue on discrepancies is a poem written by a visiting professor from Korea. Ihlwha Choi was in Santiniketan and just like Tagore found poetry in Krishnokoli, he found poetry in Nandini…

There was Nandini’s small shop along with fruits' stalls and the bike shop.

Cows passing by would thrust their heads suddenly

Into the shop thatched with bamboo stems....

...There lived a flower-like little girl selling chai near the old house of Poet R. Tagore.

(Excerpted from Nandini by Ihlwha Choi)

Click here to read Nandini by Ihlwha Choi

Poetry is about moods — happiness and sadness, laughter and tears.

Reflecting on multiple themes that mankind jubilates and weeps about is the poetry of John Grey, camping out in Australian outbacks, revelling in the stars and yet empathising with hunger… A few lines from his poem hunger.

Hunger can sing soft but compelling

in the voice of the one who last

provided you with three meals a day.

That’s years ago now.

Hunger has no memory

but it assumes that you do.

(Excerpted from Hunger by John Grey)

Click here to read Camping out, Hunger and more … by John Grey

And now we introduce some laughter. A story-poem by Rhys Hughes, about an alien who likes to be tickled…

“Oh, tickle me under the chin,
   the chin,
 please tickle me
 under the chin.
 It might seem quite fickle
 or even a sin
 to make this request,
 to ask such a thing,
 but I must confess
 that to ease my distress
 there’s nothing so fine
    as a tickle.
 So please tickle me 
 under the chin,
    the chin.
 Tickle me under the chin.” 

(Excerpted from The Tickle Imp by Rhys Hughes)

Click here to read The Tickle Imp by Rhys Hughes

And here is a poem by Tamoha Siddiqui, jubilating the borderless world of friendship.

Yesterday I heard the sound of colourful feet

to Indonesian beats, in the middle of Michigan:

white, black, brown, all were one

pitter-patter paces in a conference hall.

(Excerpted from Birth of an Ally by Tamoha Siddiqui)

Click here to read Tamoha Siddiqui’s Birth of an Ally

We share with you now from the most unusual poetry we have on our site, from a book called Corybantic Fulgours. If you want to know what it means, click here to check it out!

Concluding our oeuvre to jubilate a world without borders, here are lines from a poet who probably has influenced and united majority of writers across the world…another truly universal voice.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
...
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

Excerpted from TS Eliot's Four Quartets, Burnt Norton(1936)

The poetry of the historic greats are all woven by eternal threads that transcend man made boundaries. They see themselves almost as an extension of the Earth we live. Tagore, Whitman and Eliot write of the universe coursing through their veins. Shakespeare gives the ultimate statement when he brings in the play between imagination and nature to lift the mundane out of the ordinary. With inspiration from all these, may we move into a sphere, where poetry not only moves but also generates visions for a more wholistic and inclusive future.

.

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

Categories
Editorial

Happy Birthday Borderless Journal🎉

A huge thank-you to all our contributors and readers across the world.

Borderless Journal has contributors from all the marked areas in the world map.

Borderless Journal was launched on March 14th, 2020, exactly one year ago, with eight published pieces from four countries. Today, we celebrate our journal’s year-old existence with more than six hundred publications online from 31 countries across the world. All this would not have been possible without the commitment of some very gifted writers. So, we have made a couple of additions to our ‘About Us’ — Writers in Residence and the Children’s Section Facilitator. We did this to express our gratitude to these excellent writers and the Children’s Section Facilitator, Archana Mohan of Bookosmia, for contributing pro bono to Borderless, selflessly and generously with words that enriched our journal. We plan to continue pro bono with goodwill as our only profit, giving our readers free, unpaid, advertisement-free access to excellent works.

In this first year, not only has our content grown but we have moved forward in our attempt to be a repository of quality writing in the virtual world. Translations of greats like Saratchandra Chatterjee, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Bijan Najdi, Syad Zahoor Shah Hashmi and Nabendu Ghosh nestle along with writings by the moderns. We have published works by winners of the Sahitya Akademi award and the Pushcart along with that of novices. Our oldest contributor was born in 1924 and the youngest, in our young persons’ selections, was four years old.

Values and issues taken up by writers across time have often been similar. At Borderless, we look for writing that breaks borders, not so much of techniques but of issues that affect our civilisation. We want to create a flood of positive values that will deluge the world’s negatives, help to usher in an era of development, tolerance, love and peace. We are often told that this is unrealistic. But when have ideals and utopias ever been based on realism? And yet they changed the world over a period of time. We would not have the wheel or the fire if cave dwellers had not imagined them.  Borderless hopes to walk untrodden paths. Our journal also aspires to respond to the calls made by youngsters for a better Earth, to explore and store samples of human excellence for posterity, and to support attempts to improve the future of our species.

As a part of our celebrations, we are also announcing two books, constructed with selected content from Borderless. Bookosmia is bringing out a book from the children’s section, thanks to both Nidhi Mishra and Archana Mohan. For our adult contributors and readers, we are also announcing a second book stocked with some of the gems we have collected over the year. We are in conversation with a publisher. Once that is finalised, we will announce the book on social media.

This month, we had given the theme of ‘as mad as a March hare’ and aliens were invited to contribute. That resulted in some fantastic poetry from Rhys Hughes and Vatsala Radhakeesoon and also from one of our Contributing Editors, Michael R. Burch. Rhys has given us a funny story poem about an alien who tickles our sensibilities. Our poetry section only improves with Michael’s touch. We have poetry again from Pushcart winner Jared Carter, Tom Merrill, Ihlwa Choi, and new writers like Vijayalakshmi Harish and Shraddha Arora.

We carry a translation of a well-known poet from Nepal, Krishna Bajgai. Aditya Shankar translated a Malayalam poem about violence against women by young Krispin George. It is a powerful poem and an excellent translation that sets the tone for the month hosting the International Women’s Day. That the protest is voiced by men is also significant, especially in a world where margins need to blend into a single united shout against all injustices. While the poem critiques a crime, the translated prose shows how despite violations and oppressions, humankind have progressed.

A short story by Tagore’s sister, Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932), one of the first female editors of the Tagore family journal and one of the earliest progressive women of the nineteenth century, has been translated by Chaitali Sengupta. Juxtaposed to the story by Swarnakumari Devi which was perceived as an act of defiance against the voicelessness imposed on women in a patriarchal set up, we have an unusual reflection translated by the noted filmmaker and journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta. Written in Bengali by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) the piece, while being an in-depth analysis of Arabian Nights, is an emphasis on how women progressed within the century to become independent, intellectual, thinking entities beyond the bounds set on them by outmoded norms. Thus, while the prose showcases how much women have progressed, the poetry contribution by young Krispin George and Aditya Shankar reflects how men and women are now united in their struggle for justice. We have indeed come far from the biases inherent in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘Mandalay’, which was written after Swarnakumari Devi had already started writing and working against such divisive mindsets. Historically, we have moved forward.

A literary essay by Mike Smith tries to explore a new paradigm. He ponders if a short fiction by the first émigré Nobel Laureate from Russia, Ivan Bunin, could have been a precursor to flash fiction. We have experimented with a photo essay by Penny and Michael Wilkes. Some lovely photographs of the sea can also be found in the slice of life sent to us from Australia by Meredith Stephens. In Travels with the Backpacking Granny, Sybil Pretious takes the readers to the slopes of the Kiliminjaro with her 63-year-old self. Devraj Singh Kalsi in Musings of the Copywriter gives us his perception of creativity and madness – which you might say go hand-in-hand when you think of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear and F Scott Fitzgerald who along with his wife, Zelda, suffered from depression. Kalsi gives the subject a satirical twist to explore if insanity can be substituted as medals of honour by a writer instead of ‘bits of metal’ that subscribe to more conventional concepts of fame and sanity. It is a fun read!

One of my favourite essays is by Debraj Mookerjee, who has shown how when West meets East, greatness blooms. He takes on giants like Tagore, Tolstoy, Emerson and many more. Reflecting the thoughts of one of these giants mentioned in the essay, is a book on the socio-political thoughts of Tagore where the author, Bidyut Sarkar, who is also the Vice Chancellor of Vishva-Bharati University and an erudite scholar, states: “Tagore stayed away from the hurly-burly of national politics. Despite sharing the nationalistic condemnation of the colonizer, Tagore never allowed this restrictive vision to cloud his concern for human emancipation.” Bhaskar Parichha has done an excellent review of the book.

Sutputra Radheye’s poetry collection from the Delhi Slam has been reviewed by Rakhi Dalal and Suzanne Kamata’s Indigo Girl has been reviewed by Gracy Samjetsabam. Indigo Girl is a novel that breaks cultural borders and norms to find love through a part-Japanese-part-American’s journey, with lessons learnt from a survivor of the Tohoku Tsunami in March 2011, where more than 15,500 died, a disaster that also led to the Fukushima nuclear plant melt down. The economic losses were estimated at $235 billion and people continue to be impacted by the decade-old disaster to this date. Indigo Girl, thus, is a celebration of mankind’s survival against multiple odds. It builds bridges across differences and disasters, a story of hope and friendships, values cherished in a borderless world.

We have an interesting excerpt from a book I really enjoyed, a collection of short stories that challenge man-made constructs, A Sense of Time and Other Stories. The author whom we interviewed, Anuradha Kumar, has 31 books with publishers like Hachette India to her credit, plus two Commonwealth awards and more. The other interview also stretches geographical bounds drawn by politicians. An American translator who lives in Thailand and translates from Japanese to English, Avery Fischer Udagawa, speaks to about her journey. Finding literature and bridging borders with translations is a recurrent theme in Borderless.

A number of stories that again look for the unusual can be found in this issue. I would like to mention an interesting one from Jessie Michael of Malaysia exploring blind beliefs, ‘Orang Minyak or The Ghost‘, while Sunil Sharma gives us a story that I will let you explore yourself. Sara’s Selections, showcasing a selection of writing from Bookosmia, adds to our oeuvre.

As usual, I have mentioned a few but not all of our content, which remains tempting.

I hope all of you will continue to enhance our writing and publishing experience by patronising our site and reading us regularly. Please do share our posts with your friends and family. We continue a family-friendly journal.

Again, a huge thanks and warm congratulations to the Borderless team and to all our fabulous contributors. We value each one of your pieces. Thank you.

To all our readers, welcome to our world and thanks for being with us and inspiring us to aspire for more. We have readership from more than 130 countries across the world.

Looking forward to the next lap of our journey –

Mitali Chakravarty

Borderless, March, 2021

Borderless Journal is read in more than 130 countries across the world.
Map Courtesy: WordPress
Categories
Review

Ray’s Goopy Bagha Revisited

Book Review by Nivedita Sen

Title: The Adventure of Goopy the Singer and Bagha the Drummer

Author: Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, translated from Bengali to English by Tilottama Shome. Illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee.

Publisher: Talking Cub, an Imprint of Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.

Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury’s name was well-known as an innovative children’s writer, painter, musician, photographer and a pioneer printer-publisher in the late nineteenth century. His grandson, Satyajit Ray, immortalized his long short story for children ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ as a reputed film that deployed a lot of music, dancing and fantasy elements.

This graphic version of the story, particularly its musical score that was penned and directed by Satyajit Ray himself, had almost obliterated the children’s tale that was a household word in Bengal earlier. Since it is a story about two naïve, rustic boys who desperately try to be a singer and a drummer respectively, Satyajit Ray worked on and elaborated the musical potential of the story by writing lyrics for songs that could be sung by Goopy, with Bagha’s drumming as accompaniment. The songs like Dekho re Nayan Mele ( Opening Your Eyes and Look), Bhuter Raja Dilo Bor (The King of Ghosts Grants a Wish) and Maharaja Tomare Selaam (Salute to you Maharaja) have been all time favourites for the last fifty years. The two sequels to the film, Hirak Rajar Deshe (Hirak King’s Kingdom) and Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Goopy Bagha Return) were written by Satyajit Ray himself, although the latter was directed by Ray’s son Sandip Ray. The innocuous Bengali story therefore surfaced on the celluloid screen, and then extended through sequels to follow the adventures of Goopy and Bagha through time.

The status of an internationally acclaimed film also enabled the story to traverse across space by getting translated in different languages, particularly English. Among recent translations are those by Swagata Deb (Penguin, 2004) and Barnali Saha (Parabaas, 2012). Perhaps in order to communicate a different tone and emphasis, in this one, Tilottama Shome took up another translation. She has stuck to each and every word of the original. Although Upendrakishore’s stories have been translated by well-known scholars, editors and translators like William Radice, Madhuchhanda Karlekar and Arunva Sinha, this translation is also very fluent. The use of casual vocabulary in English that is used on a daily basis, like ‘vocal warm-ups’, ‘country bumpkins’ and ‘spooked’, add to the readability of it. The illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee, which include a lot of the ghosts, is brilliantly evocative of the ghostly fun and frolic in Ray’s film.

The story, which is something between a folk tale, a benign ghost story and a fantasy around a realistic setting with two ingenuous protagonists, has many violent episodes. Most of Bengali children’s folk-fairy tales like those in Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli portray such unpleasant interludes, which is not different from Grimms’ or Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales depicting brutal human behavior and blood and gore. Such violence and deaths go back to the earliest children’s stories, possibly to equip children with the overpowering truth that is an important, if an unsavoury, aspect of life. The violence becomes an indispensable component of children’s stories, since children need to be aware of what they might confront in the real world.

Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist who tried to read fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, said that children need to be exposed to fairy tales with grim episodes in them. He demonstrated that these dark happenings, fantastic as they may be, expose and initiate the child to real life that is inclusive of the ruthless and the arbitrary and contribute to children’s holistic understanding of life. In this story, when Bagha goes home, he finds that his parents have died in the interim he was away. Goopy’s parents remain alive, perhaps to signify that deaths in real life are ubiquitous, imminent but random. But there is greater cruelty than death in children’s stories.

According to Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud’s biographer and a psychoanalyst in his own right, the savagery in children’s stories represents expressions of the unconscious mind like the jealousy and hostility inherent within family relationships. He elaborated how abstract moral concepts like anger, fear and guilt are ‘physicalized’ and ‘externalized’ in children’s tales to enable children to conquer them. Also, after acknowledging these harsher primal feelings and instincts, the child gets to make sense of what is happening all around.  Goopy and Bagha’s boat loses balance and capsizes due to their cacophonous singing and drumming, causing the passengers to tremble and roll around. This drowns and kills all the passengers except the two of them who are also terrified but keep afloat by clutching on to Bagha’s drum. But Gidwitz, a twenty first century children’s writer, explains how violence is deployed as a didactic tool to reinforce the moral certainty of good triumphing over evil, which must be punished. For example, in another episode where the garden house of the king is burnt down by the guards in accordance with royal injunctions, everyone who was responsible for proactively setting fire to the house dies but Goopy and Bagha, who are inherently good,  escape with the help of their magic boots.

Goopy Gyne is also a ghost story with a difference. Ghosts appear in such a story within a realistic backdrop, not by invoking them or within a supernatural setting, but out of the blue. They also do not haunt an individual human being, a particular place/ house or a specific object, and are therefore aliens who are removed as suddenly as they appear from the forest in which they are discovered, after they have performed their task. They are not characters who take part in the narrative.

Goopy and Bagha initially get panic-stricken on seeing the glowing eyes of the ghosts that are like burning coal and their radish-like teeth. However, these are not the spirits of the dead that have revived to take revenge or to try to fulfill their unfulfilled desires in life. These ghosts continue to act as external agents who empower the two friends, much like the fairy godmothers in fairytales who grant boons to the protagonists and rescue them from perilous situations.

The terror that these ghosts have the potential to invoke is one that instead becomes a pleasant experience because Goopy and Bagha learn very soon that these spirits are extremely generous. The film is also enlivened with the scene with the ghosts. The narrative describes a curious reversal in which Goopy and Bagha are themselves mistaken as ghosts, thanks to all the miraculous scenes associated with their magical powers.  But their achievement of raining delicacies and sweets, their accoutrements in looking like princes or the magic episodes of the two friends fleeing from any difficult situation with the help of their enchanted boots is actually an outcome of the three wishes granted to Goopy and Bagha by the ghosts. The ghosts are responsible for bestowing melody and rhythm to Goopy and Bagha’s music that used to be tuneless, jarring and noisy before.

The music in the story is wholly their contribution, something that has been underscored by Satyajit Ray in delightful compositions in the film. It might, in fact, be a pioneering enterprise, copyright permitting, to translate the screenplay that includes the songs.

Nivedita Sen is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She works on Bangla children’s literature, and has translated authors like Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Asha Purna Devi, Leela Majumdar and others for Harvard University Press, Vishwabharati Press, Sahitya Akademi, Katha, Tulika and more.

.

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

Categories
Essay

Pandemic and Poetry: How Writers in Pakistan react to COVID-19

By Dr Aftab Husain

There is a proverb in Persian and Urdu that could be roughly translated thus — ‘A collective death has an air of festivity’. The great Urdu poet, Ghalib, however, would have not subscribed to this notion as was made evident from an episode in his personal life. Once afflicted by his financial and existential miseries, he had foretold his own death the following year. There broke out in the given year an epidemic that claimed many lives in the city, but luckily our poet survived. When asked later about his prognostication, Ghalib replied with a tinge of humour that his forecast had been accurate, but it would have degraded him to die a common death, therefore, he held himself back.

This could be seen as a hyper-individualistic thought process of a genius poet which was ultimately reflected in his poetry. But common human beings think differently. The line of wisdom that the proverb at the starting of this essay conveys does not in any way celebrate death, but our collective, gregarious nature. It is a strange fact of human existence that a catastrophe unites people more than a festivity.

World literature, as many of us know, is replete with the examples of writing inspired by or dealing with different catastrophes; draught, floods, different types of epidemic: plague, cholera, influenza etc. The Plague by Albert Camus (French), Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (Spanish) and Blindness by José Saramago (Portuguese) – incidentally all three written by Nobel laureates – immediately come to mind.  

Rabindranath Tagore’s long, descriptive poem: ‘Puratan Bhritya’ (Old servant) – ‘Keshta, old manservant of mine’, stemmed from smallpox.  In a few short stories by Premchand, the founding father of Urdu and Hindi fiction there appears pestilence – albeit as subtext. In ‘Idgah’ (mosque), the child protagonist lost his father to cholera. Similarly, in ‘Doodh Ka Daam’ (price of milk), one character dies of plague. Famous Urdu and English fiction writer Ahmad Ali who is known to the Urdu world as one of the contributors to Angaaree (The Burning Coals) an anthology of mainly short stories that had stirred the somewhat stagnant waters of the then Urdu literature, ventured into this area with his maiden novel in English. Ahmad Ali’s novel, Twilight in Delhi, offers a bleak and pathetic picture of the city in the wake of an epidemic. ‘How deadly this fever is. Everyone is dying of it. The hospitals are gay and bright. But sorry is men’s plight’.

Rebati, a well-known short story by Fakir Mohan Senapati, one of the pioneers of modern Odia literature depicts a village hit by a cholera epidemic. The list is endless, but so far Urdu literature is concerned, ‘Quarantine’, a poignant short story by Rajinder Singh Bedi presents a detailed and exclusive description of the life affected by plague and also of quarantine as the title of the story also indicates.

Human beings in the long span of their history have been going through many different epidemics, but the present one is unique in that it has not only affected different strata of society, it has also had a global outreach. With bated breath, we watch the movement of this pandemic that has paralysed social life. Nevertheless, health-care workers, scientists, politicians, policy makers, psychiatrists, media persons and many other groups are actively working to finding a solution to the problem or at least curb its growth.

People from art and literature too are responding to the disease in different ways. Pakistani writers, especially poets, have profusely responded to the situation.

One interesting fact that one notices is in the word ‘corona’, that is, we know, a noun but when spelt out in Urdu-Hindi it makes a full-fledged meaningful phrase: ‘Don’t do.’ Resultantly, one observes a lot of versifications exploiting this pun – albeit major and established poets have shunned this facile jugglery. Barring this word play, poets who have chosen to write in a lighter vein seemingly have set their comic spirit to work as a defence mechanism to make the grave situation a little less intimidating. For example, a poem entitled as ‘Thanks’ by a senior poet Tahir Sherazi argues that this compulsory restriction that confines us to our home places might provide us an opportunity to repair our broken relationships with our family members. The poems ends on a jubilant note on acquiring the newly-gained leisure in this way: ‘My wife will make a cup of tea for me and I will write poems on roses, lamps, on the earth and the heaven’. Well, the male poet is scheming of enjoying this free time at his will while his spouse will be doomed to carry on with her routine domestic chores. This aspect does make this otherwise light poem somewhat pathetic.

Poets with a religious sensibility see this development as sort divine wrath and put forward their sentiments either in direct prayers or by employing religious terminology. ‘A Dialogue with God in the Days of Epidemic’ by Najma Mansoor, and ‘In the Days of Epidemic’ by Safia Hayat, are both of this vein. But, in major and significant poets you find no direct recourse to divine powers or holy personages, but only a thin, veiled religious consciousness.

‘God Smiles in Their Eyes’, a poem by Ali Muhammad Farshi, a senior poet, pays tribute to the life-saving endeavours of a nurse who had wrenched back a bride from the clutches of death. Quite pertinently, the poet invokes figures of Mary and Christ, the messiah, and despite having no apparent reference to corona the poem provides a penetrating presentation of the present state of affairs. ‘God, Epidemic and Human Beings’ by Jameelur Rahman is also a poem sprinkled with religious diction, but its overall philosophical tone saves the poem from becoming mere-lamentation of a pious soul caught in an unbearable suffering.

However, Maqsood Wafa altogether rejects the role of religion in such a dreadful disease as he puts it in the closing lines of his poem, ‘The Captive Days’: “I will listen to the Prime Minister’s speech/And I won’t be able to make the people of this holy land understand/that when a virus attacks a human being/It doesn’t ask the name of his god”.  Almost similar is the tone in Saqib Nadeem’s poem: “We Don’t Accept (The Poem of A Petty Sentimentality)” where the poet lashes at the shallow and hypocritical religious community. “After every prayer we embrace and congratulate each other on being alive and we trade in kisses, (but) we don’t hear screams of virus in our kisses”.  

Then, there is a group that believes that one can with the power of love conquer this monster. ‘An Innocent Poem’ by Parveen Tahir speaks about the wishes of its female protagonist – a lover – who kisses her lover and dines with him in the naive expectation that the disease will at least spare those who are in love. Seemab Zafar’s ‘One Erects Love with the Bricks of Affliction’ does not offer such optimism but presents a desolate scenario – within and without. ‘On Death Bed’ by Fatima Mehru juxtaposes among the triad of love, disease and death. It is soulful poem that vacillates between life affirming spirit of love and that of despair.  Some poems in this category remind you Márquez’s Love in the Times of Cholera – at least title of the novel which is quite a popular book. Khumar Meerzada’s two short and impressive poems ‘Love in the Days of Epidemic’ and ‘Love and Epidemic’ show how love act in front of such a fatal malady.  Iftekhar Bukhari’s ‘We Descends from One Father’ does not lose touch to the ground reality, yet it rises up to the lofty human bonds. “We will not shake hands/This is time that we united our heart….Without urgent needs we will not leave our house/In order that roads, fields and gardens are again full of life…./If needed, we will go and die in a silent corner/So that the earth might echo with songs, even after our departure.” A powerful poem, indeed!   

Arshad Latif took a different, cynial and somewhat callous stance towards the given grave situation. “We couldn’t control our inhuman impulses/And our negative thoughts took us far away from the life itself…We, you and some others proved a total failure…./Embrace death willingly so that souls of us, yours and some others could bequeath peace”. (‘The World Wants A Cure’).

Whereas Salmat Sarwat’s ‘Quarantine No 1’ portrays the ennui spawned by an ever-spreading leisure and the resultant disinclination to write further, Gulnaz Kausar’s ‘Precaution’ is composed in the poet’s typically soft and feminine style. Her diction and her treatment leave, despite the morbid subject of the poem, a soothing effect on the reader. 

At least two other poems: ‘Quarantine’ by Irfan Sadiq and ‘Seventh Day in the Quarantine’ by Omer Aziz, take not only the term of quarantine in their titles, but they revolve around this trope.  Aziz, a doctor by profession, has quite effectively captured the physical affliction and mental agony of a patient put in quarantine.

Alongside such poems, there is a wide circulation of individual ghazal couplets: the two liners that quite succinctly sum up the general mood about the epidemic. Most of these small pieces, for their overflowing sentimentality or sheer propaganda do not have much appeal. Yet, a few of them not only hit the bull’s eye, but they do not veer away from the aesthetic requirement of a piece of literature.

Afsaos, Ye Wabaa Ke DinoN  Ki MohabbateN

Ik Doosre Se Haath Milaane Se Bhi Gaye

(Sajjad Baloch)

Alas, these love affairs in the days of epidemic!

Even shaking hands with each other is rendered hard

*

Har Taraf Aisii Khamoshii Hay Ki Sar Ghoomta Hay

Log Pahre MeN HaiN Aur GalioN Men Dar Ghoomta Hay

(Seemab Zafar)

A terrible hush rules all over and makes you feel giddy

Human being caught in the custody

While a certain fearfulness prowls in the streets

*

Ajeeb Dard Hay Jis Kii Dawaa Hay Tanhaaii

Baqaa e Shahr Hay Ab Shahr Ke Ujadne MeN

(Mahmood Shaam)

What a weird malady is it whose cure lies in solitude!

Now the survival of the city is in its depopulation.

Thus, we see that an overwhelming response to the pandemic came from our poets. As for prose, though in general there are a plethora of pieces written on the subject, that is,  journalistic writing, but quite rarely one comes across relevant fiction, fictional narrative or imaginative prose. Justifying this comparative absence fiction writer M Hameed Shahid says: “Poetry might be composed in reaction to a happening, for fiction that is not enough. Fiction needs something more to build up its aesthetics,” he adds. Well, our writers writing on the communal riots in the wake of the Partition of India in 1947 did produce literature in reaction to these events, though such literature was, to be sure, not created while the riots were still taking place.  M. Hameed Shahid is therefore in favour of waiting and seeing and letting his experience take a mature form, so he stayed away from offering something half-backed in fiction. Nevertheless, he has come forward with a non-fictional narrative: ‘Epidemic Days, Closed Door & Deserted Street’ – a sort of chronicle-narrative and despite its excessive self‐referentiality, the write up is interesting in the sense that it, at least, introduces us to the disquiet and anxieties of a writer finding himself in the midst of a prison-like claustrophobic confinement.  

Meanwhile, another fiction writer who has given a clarion call to his colleagues and urged them use their pens in dispelling the gloomy atmosphere created by the disease is Amjad Tuhfail. He was, however, snubbed by a senior short story writer declaring that any such move was to yield nothing but slogan-mongering that jump on the bandwagon could bring out only ‘faction’ and in no way any genuine fiction. A Lahore based short story writer, Tufail, did not take this warning seriously and immediately posted a three-page short story in a social-media outlet. Jabir Ali Syed had once called Shamsur Rahman Faruqi known as the  “the impetuous critic”. The gentleman story writer might be no match for Faruqi, but he shares, at least, this quality with his senior contemporary.

As a saving grace to this discouraging deficiency in prose, comes an English write-up, “Something’s not right with the world”, from Farah Zia. The small item that the writer prefers to call “a mood piece” appears like a free stroke by some accomplished painter: laconic, telling and powerful. “It is like waking up every day into a dream: in a place where life imitates fiction” thus begins the write up. Written with profound concern, yet at the same time, with a cold objectivity, it makes a serene and soulful reading. No wonder, the piece was quickly rendered into Urdu and published, but one wonders if such a deeply-felt prose could be translated without losing much of its essential charm and pathos.

Closing the deliberations one can say that each piece that is being written in the name of literature cannot be, quite naturally, up to the literary mark – let alone to be remembered by posterity. Most of these writings fall into the category of pièce d’occasion. But such pieces, occasioned by certain events sometimes transcend the given situation and live on, beyond the time of their creation. Some of the given stuff has remarkable literary value and therefore it might survive longer; the other ones might not be fortune enough, but the fact remains that they too bear a witness to a momentous phenomenon in human history and have transcribed these times on the climate of our minds.

Aftab Husain (Pakistan/Austria) is an eminent name in modern Ghazal poetry from South Asia. In addition to Urdu, he writes in English both poems and literary essays and translates from German to Urdu and vice versa. He earned his doctorate in comparative literature from Vienna University where he teaches South Asian Literature and Culture. He has four collections of poetry and three of books of translations – from German into Urdu – to his credit. He was a fellow of Heinrich-Böll-Haus, Germany as well as the ‘Writer of Exile’ of Vienna City. His poems have been translated into many languages. He is a member of the Austrian PEN and co-edits a bilingual magazine – Words & Worlds –  for migrant literature.

Categories
Musings

The Dawning of a New Era

By Mitali Chakravarty

More than a century ago Tagore wrote a song:

Kothao amar hariye java nei mana, mone, mone

Translated it stands, I can get lost anywhere within the infinite of my mind (imagination).

Time has come that we put his suggestion to test.

Though we are all torn by the isolation that battling COVID-19 demands, we still have a huge thing which we did not in the past, a thing that helps us all connect — the internet. While the educated stay connected, using social media and email, there will be many under isolation who will not have the skill sets to reach out, either due to lack of internet or due to the inability to write. There are countries like Singapore, where this is not an issue — but there is still a large population out there who cannot connect, who will be told by their community leaders that they need to remain isolated. Will that be a possibility? What about the homeless? What about those who do not have a clean potable water supply? What happens to them?

One thing that the tiny virus, which we cannot see with our naked eyes, has taught us is that mankind in its suffering cannot be bordered by economic, religious, cultural or political boundaries. As we all stand, in isolation, willing or unwilling to take up cudgels against a virus that has forced us to disturb, break and destroy the tenor of our lives, perhaps the time has come to assess our blessings.

Today, the fact that you are reading this means you are connecting with the internet and can read. You are connecting with my ideas, with my thoughts. We belong to the privileged few who can soar with internet and our imaginations. We have a home and hearth. We are educated and have enough to eat. We can afford to be kind and merciful to others.

The factory smoke has largely got silenced — even if temporarily. That means the air is getting cleaner. I can see more birds fly in the sky, bluer skies and hear bird calls. Perhaps, the Earth will stretch out in languor and awake from COVID19, a healthier and greener planet.

As I see the visa exempt, borderless virus roam the world, I am reminded of  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The Poison Belt (1913), where the whole of mankind loses a day as our planet passes through Ether, and then wakes up as the Earth emerges out of the sleep inducing belt of the ‘poisonous’ gas. Will such a thing happen? Will we wake up and see the corona disappear one day?

Probably not, given that we have already diagnosed the virus. But, when you think of it, mankind has been through so many pandemics and has continued to thrive.

Perhaps, the tiny virus has taken on more than it can digest. Each time, mankind emerged a winner, they had a better life. After the Great Plague that wracked Europe from 1348-1350, came a jubilant Renaissance with Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Christopher Columbus and Galileo Galilei celebrating the wealth of human development.

Then there was small pox, which was introduced among Native Indians and Mexicans in the fifteenth century by Conquistadors, and was completely eradicated after two centuries; cholera, which continues to assail some countries and many more such diseases. Mankind battled these and emerged victor into a better equipped world.  

This time, the pandemic is more widespread because we are living in a more connected planet. Is that such a bad thing? We do not really want to live like the hermaphrodite humans in Isaac Asimov’s Solaria, where mankind is served by robots alone on a solitary planet and they never meet other humans. But a temporary and intelligent isolation can teach the little virus that for all its virulence, it cannot destroy mankind. This is just a temporary measure, a temporary gesture to help mankind move into a better world. We will have to reorganise our way of life, our tenor of existence. Given the climate, economic and political issues our planet faces, this may not be such a bad thing!

After all, twentieth century guru, Yuval Noah Harari in his recent article in Financial Times, concludes: “Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”

And I would like to agree with Harari as he says with conviction: “Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.”

Let us look forward to the dawning of that new world.

Mitali Chakravarty is a writer and the founding editor of borderlessjournal.com.