We did it! … Announcing our first anthology … Monalisa No Longer Smiles… Click here to read.
Suchen Christine Lim, an iconic writer from Singapore in conversation about her latest book, Dearest Intimate. Click here to read.
Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons. Click hereto read.
That good things happen despite darkness, despite prognostications of doom, that light glimmers hope if you strive to focus on your strength in hard times is borne true both in fiction and in life. Perhaps, we cannot get back the old ways (but is that what we want?) but new paths emerge. Old gives way to new. And while trying to gather pearls of human excellence — borne not of awards or degrees but of bringing out the best, the kindest, the most loving in human hearts — we managed to create with a team an outstanding anthology. Woven with the writings of old and new — we created a tapestry together that the editor in chief of our publishing house said was “classy, literary, engaging and international”. That one of the oldest and most reputed publishing houses in India with bookshops countrywide took it on was also an unusual event! We are truly grateful to Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri and Jyotsna Mehta along with all our writers and readers who made our anthology a reality, and to Radha Chakravarty and Fakrul Alam for the kind words they bestowed on our effort.
Please greet our first anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles, with love and friendship. It could be the perfect Christmas gift in the spirit of the season! And as the blurb says, “it will definitely bring a smile to your face because it is a celebration of the human spirit.”
The anthology is different from our journal in as much as it has a sample of an eclectic collection that has been honed with further editing and has some new features. Most of the writing is from our first year and showcases our ethos, except for Lesya’s poetry and interview. Lesya Bakun from Ukraine is still on the run, looking for a refuge — she cannot return home like you or I can. Her family is scattered across number of countries. Her cousin, who was guarding the factory at Azovstal, was taken prisoner. We included her story in the anthology hoping to create global empathy for refugees as the numbers will increase not only due to war but also due to climate change.
The reason we felt a hardcopy anthology was a good idea was because nothing beats the joy of having a bunch of interesting reads in the warmth of your hands (especially where internet cannot reach or is unavailable). In any case, books with the feel of paper, the rustling whispers which carry voices of leaves can never be replaced as Goutam Ghose had also said in his interview which is now part of our anthology.
And that is why we celebrate more books… this time we feature Singaporean prima donna of literature, Suchen Christine Lim, with her new book Dearest Intimate, a novel that spans more than hundred years including the harrowing Japanese invasion during World War II. She shared sound advice with writers: “Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy.” And perhaps that is what is echoed through the experiences of the other writer interviewed on our pages by Keith Lyons. This is a writer who not only brought out his own books but was a regular contributor of travel pieces for Frommer’s and National Geographic traveling to unexplored destinations — Christopher Winnan. Another writer Lyon had interviewed recently, Steve Carr, has passed on. We would like to convey our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.
Evoking the genius of another outstanding artiste, Kishore Kumar, who happened to pen thought provoking dialogues in some films, is Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri’s essay, review of a recent book on the legendary actor-singer and an interview with the authors. Infringing the boundaries of literary with popular culture and art and integrating all forms into a wholistic bundle has been part of our ethos. In that spirit we have a musing by Prithvijeet Sinha on Edvard Munch’s famous painting called Scream. We have non-fiction from Australia spanning Meredith Stephens’s recent brush with Covid, Mike Smith visits a Scottish beach in the footsteps of a novelist, Ravi Shankar has given us a poignant piece for a late friend and Candice Lousia Daquin talks of the existence of bi-racial biases. In contrast, Suzanne Kamata sent a narrative that bridges divides showcasing a German wife of a Japanese scientist that draws us to conclude that biases erode over time to create an acceptance of bi-racial people. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings in humour with his funny narrative about a guitarist. Rhys Hughes writes in a lighter vein on Indian cuisine in his column and spouts more funny poetry bordering on the absurd.
Gathering all of your thoughts in strings of words from all corners of the world, we present to you the bumper November issue of Borderless Journal . Thank you all for sharing your thoughts with us. Thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fantastic painting and more thanks to the whole Borderless team for seeing this issue through. We would not have been able to do the anthology or these issues without each one of you — writers and readers.
One hundred years ago, T.S Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ to find meaning in troubled times. As we wrestle with trouble in our own times, an examination of Eliot’s paean to chaos can prove instructive. Horrified by the return of war in Europe, disturbed by the looming threat of environmental collapse, and fatigued by over two years of a resilient pandemic, we crave relief and inklings of hope. In Eliot’s poem, relief does not come without tarrying with the darkness. In his 433-line poem, slivers of hope are crowded by the ubiquitous memento mori, the constant reminders of death. With his own hope compromised by a series of personal crises, Eliot’s fractured self mirrored a Europe fractured by the incomprehensibility of the millions sacrificed on European battlefields. To heal the fracturing, the poem represents a therapeutic exercise not only for the poet, but also a generation. After the questionably named Great War, cultural revisions produced modernism, representing a significant departure from traditional poetic sensibilities.
Before World War I, war retained a nobility exemplified in the “six hundred” of Tennyson’s ‘Light Brigade‘ (1854). After World War I, Tennyson’s sentiment of “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” no longer reflected the misery and absurdity of millions sacrificed for a few acres of mud. As the world changes, so does its art. To restore both a fractured mind and a fractured generation, ‘The Waste Land’ assembles meaning from ruins and conflated mythologies to spring hope. Rife with allusions, sometimes obvious, often obscure, Eliot’s poem aligns with modernist principles as multiple narrative voices range freely across landscapes of time and memory.
In the poem’s opening section, hope does not sing forth as in a Dickinson (1830-1886) poem, but lays disassembled in the ruins of desolate imagery. A spark of hope is initiated by a female narrative voice recalling an idyllic childhood tobogganing episode: “In the mountains, there you feel free.” The pleasant recollection shifts dramatically into the middle of a land of “stony rubbish,” “broken images,” and a “dead tree (that) gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”. In a parenthetical note, a whispering narrator offers a hint to relief: “Only there is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock).” The secret told in that shadow comes in the following four lines:
"And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you:
I will show your fear in a handful of dust."
What you leave behind is the past and what rises to meet you is the future. The “something different” is what lies between: the eternal present. In ‘The Waste Land’, our reckoning with death produces a despair that can only be relieved by moving meditatively out of time.
In 1922, the war has ended, yet trauma echoes within the workers who return to re-ignite the engine of economic growth. In the final stanza of the opening section, the poet gives us London’s financial district (The City) and a crowd flowing over London Bridge. Emotionally wrought automatons, the men carry a despair that manifests their drudgery: “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet”. Within this crowd, the narrator recognises his comrade and calls to him: “Stetson! / You were with me in the ships at Mylae!” He does not recognise him from Passchendaele or the Somme, but from the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage in 330 B.C. Whether in modern Europe or ancient Rome, war is inevitable, and solace is often elusive. The dead, “planted” and sustained in our collective memory, can serve to assuage our despondency: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” April is indeed “the cruellest month” as the lilacs bred “out of the dead land” are fertilised by dead soldiers. Such is the dubious shape of hope in the aftermath of industrial scale war.
To conjure further hope, Eliot assembles mythologies and merges fragments with references to the Hindu Upanishads, Shakespeare, and the myth of the Fisher King. In the poem’s final section, reference to the Upanishads serves as an incantation to “controlling hands” of a governing Thunder that gives, sympathizes, and controls. Like a “broken Coriolanus”, we are compelled to surrender on the path of cruel iniquities that lead to our “obituaries”. Without surrender, we may suffer the same fate as Coriolanus, whose excess pride cost him his life. As Thunder exhorts humility, Eliot, as narrator, assumes the place of the Fisher King, the wounded sovereign who governs his barren lands: “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. In ‘The Waste Land’, will a hero fulfill the myth of the Fisher King by arriving to restore both the wounded king and the “arid plain”? Eliot’s answer comes with the rhetorical question, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” A hero will not come, and the fracturing of both Eliot and his generation endures as aridity persists. In the worst times, the only way to elicit hope comes with adjusting our expectations. For Eliot, his “fishing” is the resumption of his creative endeavours despite the prevailing aridity. To carry on, we must make peace with the circumstances of our time. Eliot invokes this in his final line with the chant that ends each Upanishad: “Shantih shantih shantih.”
In his notes on the poem, Eliot equates this final line with Philippians 4:7 and the “peace that passeth all understanding”. Sifting through the ashes of a destroyed Europe or diagnosing the causes of psychological fracture will not yield peace. Peace comes not from understanding why the trauma happened, but from reaching outside the chaos to a higher order. Eliot’s final allusion marks a harbinger to his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, wherein he found community and peace for the rest of his life.
As the war continues in the Ukraine, memories of the dead live on in the trauma of the living. To cope with that trauma, hope sustains those huddled in the Kyiv metro stations. Below the missile bursts above, Ukrainians singing traditional songs and the national anthem will not bring back the dead, but it will limit the fracturing: “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”
Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays.
I’m sorry, my Lord.
My poem is not your slave,
it’s a sickle with its head to the sky.
My poem is not a damsel timid in your moonlight,
it’s a tiger prowling in a shadowed forest.
My poem won’t be your grand constitution,
devoted to your happiness
at all costs.
- ‘Outcast’s Grief’ from Evening with a Sufi
Not all poetry can be read with the same eye or ear. Certain poems demand to be seen and heard on their own terms, offering to the reader their own canons of understanding and appreciation in imaging an idea that, through them, has just been born into thought. Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi sets out to be one such thought-provoking book of poems.
A slim collection of twenty-six verses selected and translated from Afsar Mohammad’s extensive oeuvre in Telugu by Shamala Gallagher and the poet himself, these are existential political poems that are as theoretically perspicacious as they are urgent and astounding in their overwhelming sincerity. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land, Afsar Mohammad’s Evening with a Sufi aesthetically documents a difficult world, especially one criss-crossed with systemic hegemony, and bereft of equality. An engagement with these poems is a direct invitation to the reader to embark on an epistemological tour into a sharp symbolic landscape that encapsulates visceral records of social meaning.
The title, to begin with, itself upholds a strong symbolism. Its ‘evening’ bespeaks the twilight of civilisation, the personal-social moment of the unleashing of despair, and a decadent global landscape thriving on inequity and deprivation. And yet, evening, in these poems, is also the transitional period of awareness, self-reflection, evaluation, and the collective envisioning of an egalitarian dawn. These poems, therefore, become investigations and articulations of both fatigue and rest, of falling apart and re-gathering, and of old failures and new beginnings, leading us to look at the idea of the Sufi or Sufism anew.
“For me, Sufism is nothing but a tool of resistance,” avers the poet, indicating how Sufism, as a philosophy, offers a vigorous counternarrative to transnational policies and practices of discrimination, marginalisation, disempowerment and exclusion. “In my village Sufism, I see how people of diverse colours and castes share food, rituals and stories. As a village person, it’s not a far-fetched utopia for me — but an everyday reality. My writings are nothing but reminders of that shared realm of life.”
In Afsar’s poems, Sufism becomes a political as well as existential search for a vision of oneness. This vision is, at the same time, philosophical and social, local and global, integrating and intimidating in the way that most revolutions are – “The drop that can swallow a desert” (‘Another Word’) or “Where walls are knocked down,/ we won’t need the splendour of curtains” (‘The Spectator is Dead’) or “I always speak the language of war.” (‘A Green Bird and the Nest of Light’)
Identity surfaces as a significant theme in this book. Most of the twenty-six poems in Evening with a Sufi embark on a complex exploration of identity on geographical, cultural, social, historical or linguistic terrains. However, the book’s conceptualisation of identity is far from monolithic. Germane to the vision of these poems is the essentially dialogic space of identity and its characterization as an ever-contingent work-in-progress.
Mark the first poem in the collection, for instance. Titled ‘Name Calling’, an ambiguous phrase that poignantly addresses the phenomenon of naming as an act of use and abuse, the poem captures the essential seamlessness of names and identities. The protagonist of the piece is a boyhood contemporary called Usman who is visibly an ‘other’ to the speaker of the poem, the difference between them marked out distinctly in class terms and perhaps also (less evidently) in terms of physical ability – “You scared all the children/ away from the river./ A body like a wound/ peeks from your torn shirt.” It is, however, to this social pariah – “the one street dog doggedly haunted by a ball” that the speaker feels affiliated in his later life:
Now I don’t see much difference between you and me.
We are the same.[…]
Usman, times never change
only the roles change.
Muslim, Telugu and Third-world migrant, the poet reads the theory and experience of otherness on a number of sociological axes and through a variety of cultural lenses. In ‘The Accented Word’, he uses the idea of accent to explore the complex genealogies of language on the intersections of purism and cultural hegemony, contemplating variously, through the three sections of the poem, on linguistic integrity, capitalist subordination, and postcolonial erasure:
are stillborn babies.
Their blood has gone bad with white poison,
their words have gone bad from the accent.
I’ve been poured, shared, and bathed in white poison
since I was little
and now I want to speak out for myself.
But my voice is in chains
and my language is poisoned,
and the language of my time is poisoned.
We live on the brackish water of life.
While Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest felt that the colonizer’s language profited him by teaching him “how to curse”, Afsar’s poems approach language with utmost caution, forever mindful of the possibility of trampling and obscuring buried histories of domination and betrayal. Many of the poems, here, are metapoetic in their thrust, assiduously exploring the value of meaningful postcolonial poetic creation from the inescapable inequities and ideological loopholes of language: “a market piles up words sounding like poetry” (‘The Accented Word’) or “How long this slavery to white poems?” (‘Outcast’s Grief’) or again as in “Poetry: / just one dried leaf.” (‘Walking’)
In ‘A Piece of Bread, a Country, and a Shehnai’, bread, music, war and pain – all come together to avow our subcontinent’s shared heritage of poverty and cultural intimacy brutally shredded by politico-religious separation. In ‘No Birthplace’, the speaker of the poem is as much the Indian subcontinent as its hapless postcolonial citizen faced with the inability to reconcile its historical legacy of cultural plurality with the blind spots in its mythological and ideological machinery:
Come, divide me by myself, I say.
Not by forty-seven.
My laughs, screams, harangues, deaths, and rapes —
They’re all yours too!
It is interesting to note how Afsar’s poems consistently invigorate and socially translate the idea of spirituality through sinewy sociological imagery with the result that spirituality is transformed from a closeted and socially-indifferent personal practice to a welfare-oriented everyday social ritual. In ‘Iftar Siren’, the idea of fasting as self-purification is ironically brought to bear on the understanding of the hunger-stricken socially dispossessed as perpetually cleansed while the overfed victimisers walk about unconcerned:
What a great life.
In the holy month,
do you see how you are all becoming pure?
I’ve been like this for years
burning in the divine fire.
Unable to turn into ashes.
I’m a fire-pit you try
and try to stamp out.
Yes, the fire-pit
is tired too.
The haunting and incendiary metaphor of hunger as fire and the stomach/body as the fire-pit, tired of being stamped out or dispossessed, makes these poems powerful bandages for social injustices as well as flaming flags of protest. In ‘Qibla’, the posture of prayer, again, pivots on the stomach – “a belly turned deep/ into itself/ in which I obscure my body,/ feet, hands and everything/ for a long time” – suggesting the omnipotence of hunger as surpassing all acts of asocial faith. The poem concludes with considerable uncertainty of the efficacy of prayer and with an ideological pun on “arms” (arm/armament) as a means of erasing human hatred.
The stupendous yet composed energy of the book needs no forestatement. Every single word here is deftly chosen, well-placed, and tersely poised to make emotional leaps on command. The images are taut, the sentiments thoroughly grilled in the fire of creative originality, and everywhere, there is a sense of potential unruliness held firmly in check by a balanced and farsighted imagination.
In considering these poems, one must not forget, also, their complex linguistic history. Though translated from the original Telugu, the Telugu language itself includes, for the poet, “the entangled history of Urdu, Hindi and English — the languages that indeed shaped my emotional realm.” Arriving into English via such multi-layered linguistic travails and travels, these exceptionally well-translated poems infuse postcolonial English with a visceral depth, a spiritual profundity and a razor-sharp urgency that would be difficult to come by in the original English.
Accompanied by a very relevant author interview and insightful essays by the translator and valuable first readers of this collection, Evening with a Sufi arrives, in its essential philosophy and call for humanitarian action, with a new theory and praxis for the world, determined to reconstruct rather than redeem it.
Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.
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.
-- Midsummer Night's Dream (premiered 1605)by William Shakespeare
Imagine… if words could weave a world in harmony! Perhaps… then as Shakespeare declared and more recently John Lennon wrote in his song ‘Imagine’ (1971), we might have constructed a new world…
In hope of the same perhaps, Nazrul had published his poem, ‘Bidrohi‘ or the rebel a hundred years ago, a few months before TS Eliot published Wasteland, again a poem raising humane concerns and reinforcing values post the First World War. More recently Akbar Barakzai who has passed on at the start of this month, wrote about a better world in his poem, ‘We are all Human‘. And yet we have a war …
In response to the war, we have modern voices that ring out in harmony, including the voice of a Ukranian refugee. In reaffirmation of a world that can transcend divisions created by human constructs and soar in a virtual world, we also present to you interviews of half-a-dozen poets.
From the Treasury
Rebel or ‘Bidrohi’: Nazrul’s signature poem from 1922, ‘Bidrohi‘, translated by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.
A Special Tribute
We are All Humanby Akbar Barkzai, translated by Fazal Baloch, has been published as not only a tribute to the poet who left us forever on 7/3/2022, but also as his paean to humanity to rise about differences which lead to war and horror, to unite us as one humankind. Clickhere to read.
War, Peace and Poetry
Poetry from across the world in support of peace and voicing concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, we have Ukranian Lesya Bakun give us poetry as a war victim, a refugee. Rhys Hughes, Ron Pickett, Michael R Burch, Kirpal Singh, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Suzanne Kamata, Mini Babu, Sybil Pretious and Mitali Chakravarty have contributed poetry written for the Ukraine crisis. Click here to read.
Poets across Borders
Half-a-dozen poets from different continents tell us about their poetry. The poets include Ryan Quinn Flanagan, George Freek, Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozabal, Ihlwha Choi, Sutputra Radheye, Anusuya Bhar. Click here to read.
Featuring poetry by Lesya Bakun, Rhys Hughes, Ron Pickett, Michael R Burch, Kirpal Singh, Suzanne Kamata, Mini Babu, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Sybil Pretious and Mitali Chakravarty
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
-- Wasteland (1922) by TS Eliot
These lines from a hundred year old poem by TS Eliot continue to cry out to be part of our civilisation’s ethos as do the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s pacifist song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind‘ which wonders : “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly/Before they’re forever banned?” The world continues to war destroying nature, lives and a common human’s need to exist in peace and go about his daily tasks, secure that the family will meet in their home for dinner and a good night’s rest. Cries of humanity in crisis from the battle grounds of Ukraine take precedence as Ukrainian Lesya Bakun writes about the plight of the people within the country stalked by violence and death.
REFUGEE IN MY OWN COUNTRY/ I AM UKRAINEBy Lesya Bakun (07.03.2022, Ukraine)
I am Kharkiv.
I am Volnovakha.
I am Kyiv.
I am the blocked Mariupol on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.
I am the completely destroyed
City of Shchastia --
That is literally translated as "happiness" --
Where people have to sit in the bomb shelters,
Because nothing else is preserved.
The Russian troops are not letting them out.
I am Ukraine.
I am a fighter.
I am a refugee
In my own country.
What's in the minds of Russians?
Nine years ago, I was in Strasbourg, France.
Seven years ago, I was in Dublin, Ireland.
Two years ago, I was in Istanbul, Turkey.
Today, I am
In an internally displaced people’s centre --
In a city that I cannot even publicly disclose
For the security of too many families
Who are fleeing to remain safe.
"The Ukrainian IT company N has left the markets of Russia and Belarus forever".
We should have done it eight years ago.
We should have done it thirty-one years ago.
A lot of my friends are switching from Russian to Ukrainian.
We should have done that thirty-one years ago
So that no one comes to "protect us".
I am the gasoline
that NATO sent us
Instead of closing the sky --
Apparently so that we can burn
The Budapest Memorandum
We have seen the real face of Russians
They negotiated green corridors
And started shelling from the heavy weaponry.
Evacuation is cancelled.
"I wish you survival,
And the closed sky above you."
As the battle rages and razes, some react to what we have gleaned from media reports, some of which move hearts with stories of bravery and the spirit of the people battling the invaders who kill and destroy what they cannot possess… But can freedom of thought and resilience ever be destroyed?
THEY SHALL NOT PASSBy Rhys Hughes
They shall not pass
we cried as we held the pass
against the enemy.
And our sleepy student
days in sunlight
suddenly seemed long gone
and very far away
though it was only
a few weeks since war began.
Would such times
ever return? We had no idea.
Now the conflict is over
and the years pass
with increasing velocity
and right here
in the rebuilt city I am young
no longer. I am
the teacher: it is my turn.
And as I watch my students
dozing in sunlight
instead of revising for exams
an old refrain fills
my head: They shall not pass.
ADVANTAGE INTRUDERBy Ron Pickett
The sun edges over the cluttered horizon.
The cell towers, eucalyptus and large water tank are comforting.
The sun slowly fills the dark.
Life is safe and warm and good – for now.
The sun slides below the western horizon in Kyiv and darkness returns.
The dark brings its special unseen terrors.
The rumble and rattle of distant rockets and bombs.
The roar of jets and the throb of helicopters.
Flashes of light fill the night sky but there are no storms in the distance.
The earth trembles: the people quiver.
Daylight is ten long hours away, we who have been there remember, and shudder.
There are patches of dirty snow on the ground.
On trees and shrubs and the Peoples Friendship Arch.
And under the rubble of bombed buildings.
The snow is marked by the black stains of explosions and the red stains.
The snow will melt with the coming of spring, but the stains will remain.
The stains are physical and psychological and deep.
Dark is the province of the predator.
Dark is a comforting cover for the aggressor.
Dark is the source of fear and anguish for the weak.
This predator is man who can see in the dark.
To see at night is a huge advantage.
FRAIL ENVELOPE OF FLESHBy Michael R Burch
for the mothers and children of Ukraine
Frail envelope of flesh,
lying cold on the surgeon’s table
with anguished eyes
like your mother’s eyes
and a heartbeat weak, unstable ...
Frail crucible of dust,
brief flower come to this—
your tiny hand
in your mother’s hand
for a last bewildered kiss ...
Brief mayfly of a child,
to live two artless years!
Now your mother’s lips
seal up your lips
from the Deluge of her tears ...
FOR A UKRANIAN CHILD WITH BUTTERFLIESBy Michael R Burch
Where does the butterfly go ...
when lightning rails ...
when thunder howls ...
when hailstones scream ...
when winter scowls ...
when nights compound dark frosts with snow ...
where does the butterfly go?
Where does the rose hide its bloom
when night descends oblique and chill,
beyond the capacity of moonlight to fill?
When the only relief’s a banked fire’s glow,
where does the butterfly go?
And where shall the spirit flee
when life is harsh, too harsh to face,
and hope is lost without a trace?
Oh, when the light of life runs low,
where does the butterfly go?
THE TIMES, THE MORALSBy Kirpal Singh
(After Ee Tiang Hong)
Tempers flake, bruise
Blood swells veins
As memories burn.
When reason prevailed
And men talked --
Now it’s tit for tat
Know no restraint.
We pray n plead
For sanity’s return
As pall bearers
Carry another dead.
When will all this horror, violence and sorrow end? Will there be peace anytime soon… many voices across the globe join in quest of harmony.
A VIEW OF MT. FUJI (March 3, 2022)
By Suzanne Kamata
On the third day
of the third month
of the fourth year of
Beautiful Harmony (Reiwa)
which followed the era of
Heiwa (Peaceful Harmony)
my husband, son, and I traveled to Gotemba.
We checked into our mostly vacant hotel
wandered the grounds amongst
oaks and bamboo and volcanic rocks
gazed upon the majestic mountain
symbol of Japan.
Mt. Fuji stood
calm and dormant and frilled by cloud
spotlit by late afternoon sun.
As we stared in wonder and awe
an explosion resounded.
A black helicopter
like the ones over Kyiv
flew into view.
I recalled the military vehicles
we’d passed on the highway
those young men driving to
practice for self-defence.
When will there be peace in Ukraine?
When will there be peace in the world?
RUSSIA AND UKRAINE
By Mini Babu
After the war,
the repose of the dead,
settles over the nations.
The leaders will smile,
shake hands and
interchange the bodies
of the dead, maimed,
each will dust
that which belongs to
the other, wash
their hands and
Children hold on
expecting their fathers,
fathers never come back
And I, the ordinary,
instruct my children
how historic these names
are for examination.
Putin and Zelensky.
PEACE TALKS IN THE FOREST
By Sybil Pretious
I sit on the hard cushion of root, foundation of growth
Peace talks to me in the forest
Leaning against the rough trunk bark, feeling of strength
Peace talks to me in the forest
Above the leaves, cover me with a protective shade
Peace talks to me in the forest
Flowers flutter giving a splash of colour
Peace talks to me in the forest
Seeds heralding new life hang, dispersed on the wind
Peace talks to me in the forest
And I wonder
Why do warring nations not meet in forests
For peace talks
where peace talks.
PRICE OF PEACE
By Malachi Edwin Vethamani
a gentle brook,
natural and real.
not things to come,
We arrive as beings of peace.
One with all around us,
same flesh, same blood.
Then labels are thrust upon us.
baptised into communities,
branded as nations.
bind us and blind us.
We shed our individual beings,
stitched into communities.
If you are not with us
You are against us, they say.
Taking a stand
comes with a price.
The price is often peace.
This is yet another call to stop a war.
A new plea for peace.
A shout out for prayers.
The callers change
with each new
This too will pass.
How much will remain?
How much decimated?
Then these cries will be repeated.
What is lost?
Is anything ever gained?
We will smell
the stink of death
and see the rubble of destruction.
All the display of human unkindness
we inflict on our fellow beings.
What new enterprise,
has brought on this new war?
Surely, no noble cause
can condone this waste of lives.
Whose monuments will we pull down now?
What new statues will we raise for self-proclaimed heroes?
What of the spouses who lost their partners?
What of the parents who lost their children?
Children and citizenry
Crushed and broken.
WASTELAND REVISITED AFTER A CENTURY By Mitali Chakravarty
The river flowed with debris, with bodies
of the dead. When the waters reddened
with corpses crossing borders on a train,
nightmares haunted myriads of lives.
The undead cried till infecting more, the
anger, the hatred spread. That was more than
seven decades ago. History repeats itself.
Will it ever stop? This hatred? This war?
Does killing, destroying ever help? Does
it dissolve the buried hate, the anger, the
deaths? Swigging blood like vodka, the madmen
brew war with oil, weapons, the threat of nukes
to annihilate all lives — make barren the Earth.
Cosmic clouds gather to thunder,
‘Da, datta, dayadham, damyata’ till peace
comes with love songs that echo through the
Universe. A Brahmic vision of kalpas like waves
ebb and flow, calming the cries of tortured souls.
Oh God! Help us learn Mercy. When will the
white horse ride to our rescue? Or was that all
a myth? Kalki? Does the white horse ride out of each
soul to form a lightening that dispels mushroom clouds?
Peace be unto you.
Om Shantih, Shantih, Shantih!
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Only when the cries of the wretched of the earth will stop renting the skies,
Only when the oppressor’s bloody sword will cease smearing battlefields,
A rebel, weary of war,
Only then I won’t stir.
I’m the ever-rebellious hero--
Soaring over the world, all alone, head forever held high!
-- Rebel or 'Bidrohi' (1922) by Nazrul, translated by Fakrul Alam
These lines reiterate values we would do well to live by in a war-torn, dissension-worn world where the need for a rebel to recreate a humane society that lives with values such as peace, generosity, acceptance, tolerance, compassion and restraint — is a felt need. The two great poems made history by remaining as popular a hundred years after they were written — ‘The Rebel’ by Nazrul and TS Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. Nazrul defined a rebel as an iconoclast who breaks norms to find peace, justice and love for all, to move towards the creation of an ideal world. TS Eliot quoted from the Upanishads and ended with redemption coming with giving (giver perhaps denoted generosity), compassion and restraint. Despite the wisdom of these great poets and seers, war still continues a reality. The values remain neglected not just in as we see in conflicts, like the one in Ukraine that destroys lives, property and nature with intolerance towards differences, but also in our personal lives. Tagore also reiterated the same need for stepping out of personal, social, economic and political insularity. We carry a translation of a song that echoed this need while inviting participation in his ecstasy. He wrote:
Why do you sit in isolation,
Dwelling on self-centred issues?
Tagore had not only written of the negative impact of isolation from the world but he led by example, building institutions that could lead the world towards pacifism with acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness. Sriniketan and Santiniketan were created to move towards these ideals. Many of the people he influenced or who studied in Santiniketan made history, like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray; many added to the sense of inclusiveness, like Mahasweta Devi, who other than her enormous work to integrate different cultures, also wrote a memoir about Santiniketan in Bengali. Radha Chakravarty, nominated for the Crossword Translation Award (2004) for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi, has translated this memoir, a narrative which brings us close to Tagore’s ideals of the whole world being a family. How wonderful it would be if the world were open to such ideals and would behave like a global family and not go to war! Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan, which has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, reiterates Tagore’s vision of a planet living in harmony with the flora and fauna.
We are privileged to carry another excerpt from Ruskin Bond’s Friends in Wild Places: Birds, Beasts and Other Companions, a hilarious story about a pet tiger adopted by the legendary writer’s grandfather. What is amazing about Ruskin Bond’s writing is the love and compassions for all creatures great and small that colours the tongue-in-cheek humour he rolls out to his readers. If only we could think like Bond, there would be no wars. His writing, I feel, transcends political borders or ‘isms’, and laces with love and compassion tales of menageries of monkeys, snakes, mongoose, humans of different denominations. This excerpt is a treat we are giving Borderless Journal as the journal completes two years of its existence. We are truly grateful to Speaking Tiger for sharing this excerpt with us. But our celebrations this time are sombre as the war rages with incoherence accompanied by heart-breaking ravages.
The refrain from Ukraine has been taken up by Ratnottama Sengupta as she takes us through the past and present experiences of the devastated country, bringing in the views of the legendary folk singer and pacifist, Pete Seeger (1919-2014), who she had interviewed over a span of four days. The writer of ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone?’, a song based on an Ukrainian folk song, Seeger said, “The point is not to ask for yourself alone — one has to ask for everybody: Either we all are going to make it over the rainbow or nobody is going to make it.” Candice Louisa Daquin has also pondered on the justification of war, contextualising it with the current one along with her essay on the paradox of modern linguistic communication.
We have an exhaustive essay on the legendary Satyajit Ray’s creations by Anasuya Bhar. Malhotra has pondered at exclusivity reinforcing divisions, margins and borders to plague humankind, against the backdrop of the Women’s Month, March. Highlighting women in writing, we have interviewed two female writers, one from Nepal and another from Bangladesh. Sangita Swechcha lives in UK but her writing, till now largely in Nepali, often pines for her home embedded in the Himalayas whereas, an expat, Neeman Sobhan, shuttles between Bangladesh and Italy with the affluence and assurance of a privileged background.
Finding a way to override lack of privileges, deprivation and violence, are the youngsters of Nithari on the outskirts of Delhi where less than two decades ago other than poverty, savage criminality devastated the local populace. These youngsters transcended the suffering over time with help from volunteering NGOs to create narratives that amaze with their inventiveness and confidence. Tanveer Hussain from Nithari, self-motivated and self-made from a young age, asks questions that would be relevant for all humankind in a letter to God. It has been translated from Hindustani by Vritika Thareja of pandies’. This edition’s translations include Professor Fakrul Alam’s mellifluous rendition of Jibanananda Das’s poetry from Bengali to English, Ihlwha Choi’s Korean poetry and a Balochi poem by Munir Momin rendered in English by Fazal Baloch. Baloch had earlier translated poems by Akbar Barakzai, a great poet who departed on 7th March, depriving the world of yet another powerful writer who imbibed hope of a better future in his poetry. We are privileged to have hosted the translations of some of his poems and his last interview.
Suzanne Kamata continues writing on Japan as she introduces us to an Australian film maker who is making films in Japan and in Japanese, called Felicity Tillack. Cultures are perhaps truly crossing borders as we can see Kenny Peavy, an environmentalist who moved from US to Indonesia start a new column with us called ‘Mission Earth’. We hope, like Tagore or Rousseau, he will help to revive our felt need to live with nature, acknowledge the nurture that we get from the planet to live in harmony with it and on it.
At the end of twenty-four months of existence – that sounds better than a mere two years— we are happy to host a melange of writers from across the borders and be the meeting grounds of writers and readers from across continents. I am truly thankful to all of you for helping concretise an ideal. Huge thanks to all the writers, artists, photographers and the readers for the contribution of their time, effort and love. And thanks to our fabulous team who continue to support the journal unwaveringly. I would also like to thank Sohana for the lovely visuals she generously shares with us. A special thanks also to young Ayaan Ghoshal for his digital art where hands reach out to support a truly borderless world.
As usual, all the content has not been covered here, I invite you all to enjoy our March edition of Borderless Journal.
At the start of the third year of our existence, let us march onwards towards renewed hope – maybe the Ukraine experience will take us closer to a war-free world with an awakening of a felt need for peace and compassion in a planet without borders.
In quest of a peaceful, humane world, I invite you all to continue being part of this journey.
We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?
Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?
That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.
“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”
Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’. Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?
Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.
In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices? We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.
We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.
Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!
While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?
Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares,and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.
We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land…”
-- TS Eliot, Wasteland
April and May have been strange months — celebrations withered to anxieties. As the pandemic took on demonic proportions in its second wave, devastating millions with death and darkness, paralysing with the fear of losing friends and relatives or ones’ own life, festivities gave way to mourning. April this time truly seemed like the cruellest month as expressed by TS Eliot in the start of the Wasteland, turning our joyous thoughts on healing to a devastating reality of swirling smoke of pyres and graves that continue to throng certain parts of the world. However, mankind needs hope like the Earth needs rain, hope to survive. Great literature and writing inspire to give just that.
This month is also the birth month of three greats who were able to generate that kind of hope with their work: Rabindranath Tagore, Edward Lear and Kazi Nazrul Islam. We launched our new Tagore section on May 7th with Aruna Chakravarti’s translations of the maestro, Songs of Tagore. Do visit us at Tagore & Us to read them and more. We plan to keep adding to this section on a regular basis. This time we have Bengal Academy Award winner Fakrul Alam’s translations of six seasonal songs of Tagore, a translation from Borderless of a poem by the maestro that is not quite accepted as Rabindra Sangeet as the tune was given by the eminent musician Pankaj Mullick. An essay by Dr Anasuya Bhar highlights different lives given to Tagore’s writing by his own rewrites, translations, and films – an interesting perspective. We also carry tributes to Tagore in verse from Ilwha Choi of Korea, Mike Smith of UK, Himadri Lahiri and Sunil Sharma from the poet’s own homeland.
We celebrated Edward Lear’s birthday with some limericks and Rhys Hughes essay placing the two century old writer’s poetry in the present context and a hilarious conclusion to the sequel of Lear’s famous ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. Upcoming is the birth anniversary of the rebel poet from Bengal, Nazrul. Sohana Manzoor translated a powerful essay and Shahriyer Hossain Shetu, a poem by this legendary writer who believed in syncretic lore and married a Hindu woman. Now the national poet of Bangladesh, Nazrul even wrote of Hindu Gods in many of his songs and essays – a lore that yearns for revival in the current day where politicians have fragmented the world by building more walls, using the names of religion, race, economics, caste and culture.
We have a poem from Pakistan by eminent poet Akbar Barakzai translated by Fazal Baloch using the lore of Samuel Becket’s Godot and yet another translation from Malayalam by Aditya Shankar of Sujith Kumar’s poem. Our poetry section is exciting with an exquisite poem from Jared Carter on a yeti, resting on the ephemerality of its presence; a funny one from Rhys Hughes and a diversity of poets from many countries, including Bangladesh. We also started a new column called Nature’s Musings which will combine poetry or prose with photographs by award-winning photographer Michael Wilkes and Penny Wilkes, who joins us now as a writer-in-residence.
In stories, we carry a COVID narrative by a real doctor, Shobha Nandavar, based in Bangalore and interestingly another about a doctor, the first women to adopt the medical profession in Bengal. Sunil Sharma in his narrative has highlighted a crisis in humanism. There are many more stories which would make for an interesting read. In musings, other than Devraj Singh Kalsi’s witty take on countries without Nobel Laureates, we have a Canadian writer’s perception of death rituals in Japan. Sybil Pretious has shared with us her strange adventures within China this time. Don’t miss the backpacking granny!
The May issue has a wide range of essays and musings ranging from Candice Louisa Daquin’s write up on the need to trust instincts to Keith Lyon’s residency in the Antarctica with interesting photographs. He writes that you could wear shorts in summers! Bhaskar’s Corner pays a tribute to the Padmashree Odia writer who passed away last month of old age, Manoj Das.
Our interviews this time are more on practical issues than literary – with the two authors of Raising a Humanist and with someone who supported our Tagore section by inviting us to talk on it in an online festival called Anantha, Sonya Nair. A friend and an academic with decidedly avant garde outlook, she is part of the twenty-year-old peer-reviewed Samyukta Journal that homes many academics. Pause by and have a read to see how they serve.
I would want to give heartfelt thanks to Nidhi Mishra and Archana Mohan for hosting Ms Sara’s Selections from Bookosmia this time as they help many battle the pandemic with hope, especially young children growing up in a world inhibited with masks and social distancing. I would also like to thank all the writers and my whole team for rising above the darkness by helping us get together this issue for our readers who I hope do find solace in our pages. And thank you readers for being with us through our journey.
There is a lot more in our pages than I have written. Do take a peek at this month’s issue and enjoy.
Does she need an introduction? Arundhathi Subramaniam who has taken the world by storm with her poetry, reinforcing God, using English as a medium of writing over what we call a mother tongue, and voicing her stand on her own concept of national identity, and yet she has won the Sahitya Akademi award for 2020 for her collection, When God is a Traveller. She has broken rules that defined the modern literary world and moved towards creating her own individual brand of writing. Her writing is full of vivacity and makes the reader emote. She writes from the core of her being — that is clearly evident in the flow of her poems. Clarity, preciseness and perfection in linguistic usage enhance her ideas and grasp the reader in their fulcrum to lever their thoughts and emotions into her world. In this exclusive with Borderless Journal, read about Arundhathi’s journey.
Tell us about your journey as a writer and a poet. When and why did you start writing?
I’ve been excited by poetry for as long as I can remember, Mitali — the swing, the rhythm, the velocity, the precariousness of it. Thankfully, none of my early efforts at writing it have endured! But I composed many bits of doggerel as a child. In my adolescence and early adulthood, poetry was catharsis and emotional self-expression, as it is for so many. I think it was in my late twenties and thirties that I began to come into my own as a poet.
My first book, On Cleaning Bookshelves, happened in 2001. I felt I’d been waiting a long time to be published. But in hindsight, it was a good thing. It took me time to find the timbre of my voice, to allow it to embody a mix of assurance and doubt. At least I now began to know the poetry I aspired to. It is what I still aspire to — a kind of textured clarity, a poised uncertainty.
What gets your muse going?
I’m still finding out! I know some measure of quiet helps. Long days, devoid of agenda, help. And yet, so much writing also happens on flights, in cab rides, in coffee shops, waiting for a friend to arrive. Poems happen when I’m able to strike a certain creative tension between urgency and unhurriedness.
When you were a child, what were your aspirations? What did you want to become?
There was a fleeting aspiration at age five to join the army. But I think I realized pretty soon that the path to field marshaldom was an arduous one. It was always poetry after that!
In 1997 you had a life changing experience. What was it and has it impacted your writing?
It was a naked-wire experience of emptiness, if you will. A brush with life without form, without any graspable meaning. There was terror in it, but later, also a kind of freedom. I’m never quite sure what brought it on. But the experience faded in a week, leaving in its wake a strong, unwavering awareness that I needed to live my life differently, to commit myself to making my peace with this vacancy. That turned me into a seeker, first and foremost. All the writing – both prose and poetry – that came afterwards probably reflected this shift in some way.
What have been the influences that impacted your writing?
The literary influences have been as varied as all the poets whose work I’ve ever loved: TS Eliot, Basho, Wallace Stevens, Donne, Neruda, Rilke, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Arun Kolatkar, AK Ramanujan, John Burnside, and so, so many more. But as my spiritual journey took on a certain momentum, I also rediscovered the Bhakti poets for myself, and realized they were an integral part of my literary lineage. They are my ancestral guides and companions, in a sense: Nammalvar, Annamacharya, Tukaram, Akka Mahadevi, among others. And there are so many other mystic poets I’d add to that list: Issa, Buson, Ryokan, Ikkyu, Dogen, St John of the Cross, Hafiz, Rumi, among them.
But we aren’t shaped only by what we read, are we? My life experiences have also impacted my writing. I’ve met some extraordinary people, had some fascinating conversations, travelled to some unforgettable places, had some deeply life-altering (and not always easy) experiences, and I’m sure all of those have contributed to who I am and how I write.
You have done a book on Sadhguru and another with him. What was it like working with him?
Sadhguru can be funny, profound, provocative, compassionate, a friend, a remote spiritual master — sometimes all in the course of a single interaction. So, I learnt to go into every book session, prepared to be startled. It’s been interesting — the way I have felt provoked, unsettled, singed, during many of our meetings, and still emerged, feeling oddly energized, invigorated, alive. As the writer of his biography, I was struck by the freedom he allowed me, his refusal to micro-manage the writing.
You have written books on Buddha and Sadhguru. Why did you opt to write on men associated with religion?
Well, I’ve also edited an anthology of Bhakti poetry, Eating God, and have a forthcoming book on four contemporary little-known women who walk the spiritual path in their own deeply individual ways, called Women Who Wear Only Themselves. So, my fascination is with the realm of the sacred – and not just with men who commit themselves to it, but with women too.
I am emphatically not fascinated with the exoteric aspects of religion. But I am interested in the nascent experiential insights around which faiths are often built. So, the Buddha has long interested me as the fearless amateur questor, the compassionate guide who showed us a direct path back to ourselves – one that allows us to bypass all the institutional middlemen who ‘sell water by the river’, as it were. Sadhguru fascinates me for similar reasons, as a contemporary mystic – irreverent, flamboyant, and deeply human all at once.
You have got God back into poetry. Eating God, a recent book of yours, even says it in the title. What made you opt for bringing God back in where the modern trend is to shun the spiritual? What is your perception of God?
Eating God is an anthology of sacred verse – of devotional poetry. So, it was difficult not to have god on the menu. The bhaktas wouldn’t have forgiven me for it!
My own book of poems, When God is a Traveller, also uses the word ‘god’. But the god of this book is not a deity in a temple, but a heroic adventurer who, like so many others in world myth, takes off on a journey around the world and returns to find the answers lie within him. So, the god, Muruga, is a kind of alter ego in this case; a pilgrim/ traveller/ vagabond archetype who mirrors us back to ourselves.
My perception of the divine? It’s still unfolding and is best implicated in poetry. So, let me simply share my poem, ‘Goddess – II’, with you. It’s from my most recent book, Love Without a Story.
(after Linga Bhairavi)
In her burning rainforest
silence is so alive
you can hear
Have you ever written in any other language other than English? Why?
No, I haven’t. English is my first language, and it is an Indian language. It may be ours due to unfortunate historical circumstances. But it is no longer a foreign import. It is as much ours today as democracy, or cricket, or chai, or the chili, or tamarind, or okra, or the nose ring! I have translated poems from Tamil and Gujarati into the English, however, working with fellow-translators for whom those are their first languages.
In your poem, To the Welsh Critic, you have said: “This business about language, / how much of it is mine, /how much yours”. By saying this, in a way you critique the commonly held belief that writers should write in their mother tongue to express themselves. Can you explain your views on this?
Well, I often say that my mother speaks many tongues. She is a Tamilian, raised in Burma and Delhi, married in Mumbai, and has chosen now to live in Chennai. Consequently, she speaks Tamil, English and Hindi fluently, and is now studying Spanish online! Like most Indians, she has bequeathed to me a multilingual inheritance. I grew up in Mumbai where I heard Bambaiyya Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil and English around me. English, however, was the language I formally studied, and the language I heard plentifully at home, so it is my first language. It is the language I dream in, express rage and grief in. It is the language closest to my skin; it is the language I need, therefore, to write poetry in.
Rather than impose some doomed project of cultural jingoism upon ourselves, rather than try to aspire to some mythic state of cultural purity, it would make our lives infinitely richer and more exciting if we embraced our pasts. My ‘Welsh Critic’ poem is addressed to all those – in our country and elsewhere — who offer us absolutist formulae for belonging, who would have us believe there is only one way to be ourselves. As I say in the poem, ‘I stammer through my Tamil,/ and I long for a nirvana that is hermetic,/ odour-free, bottled in Switzerland’. My cultural identity is polyglottal, happily hybrid, and for those very reasons and other indefinable ones, I believe I am as Indian as they come.
How do you think language should be perceived? Should it be bound to the umbilical bonds? Or should a writer, like an artist, be free to choose his medium of expression — for language is merely his tool, his colour or paintbrush?
Language is and must always be about freedom of choice. Only when we choose freely can we express freely. Rather than chop and hack at a diverse cultural legacy, it makes sense to enjoy its abundance and savour its many flavours. This is why so many Indian poets I know are translators as well. We enjoy the challenges of bringing the textures and insights of one literature into another, opening up new worlds of aesthetic experience. I have worked for years as editor of the India domain of the Poetry International Web, a small but significant online archive of contemporary Indian poetry. It entailed working with poets working in over twenty Indian languages. The work on this website, as well as all my book of Bhakti poetry, has been about translation – allowing literatures to roam freely from one linguistic context to another.
It is time to talk unapologetically about the language of poetry. Poets everywhere recognize each other because of this kinship. It has nothing to do with jaded arguments around language politics. Those belong to politicians, not poets.
Some of your poems talk of establishing an identity as a woman and express a fierce desire for an independent existence. “I erupt from pillars, / half-lion half-woman.” Do you think this need is gender related? Or is it the call of poetry?
Well, yes, some of my poems do consciously assert a female identity. It is one of the many identities I own – alongside being Anglophone, Indian, contemporary, among other things. In ‘Confession’, the poem you mention, the entity that erupts from pillars, ‘half lion-half woman’, is clearly an allusion to the Narasimha avatar of Vishnu – and yes, I’m definitely presenting a female version of that archetype here. I remember the surge of freedom and joy when crafting that metaphor.
There is an early poem, ‘5.46, Andheri Local’, in which I speak of a women’s compartment in a peak-hour Mumbai local train being transformed into ‘a thousand-limbed, million-tongued, multi-spoused Kali on wheels’. And in my most recent book, I have a song for ‘catabolic women’ – women who are happily ‘unbuilding, unperpetuating, unfortifying, disintegrating’. These are some of the poems in which the female identity is asserted strongly, emphatically.
‘Catabolic Woman’ is a poem that binds you to both your identity as a woman and an Indian. Do you see nationalism as a necessary part of a writer’s identity?
Well, there’s a playful paradox in one phrase — ‘proudly Indian, anti-national’ — but other than that, the poem doesn’t really dwell on national identity. It’s more about growing into oneself as a woman (something that happens usually in one’s forties and fifties, or at least, did for me), a woman who’s no longer fooled by self-serving rhetoric, vested interests, hidden agendas. As I said of the poem, ‘To the Welsh Critic’, I see myself as deeply Indian. But I’m uncomfortable with dogmatic definitions of what it means to belong to a particular country, a particular faith, or even a particular gender. There are many ways of being not just Indian, but woman, as well. I would like to believe that my work reflects that complex sense of identity.
Tagore, perhaps the most acclaimed poet from India, wrote in the start of his essay on Nationalism, “Our real problem in India is not political. It is social.” Would you agree with that?
Well, I know that there are ways of belonging that lie beyond a glib cosmopolitanism and what I think Tagore called ‘the fierce idolatry of nation-worship’. Belonging anywhere is not about passivity. It is always an act of negotiation. It takes time to see plurality as a possibility, rather than a liability. As richness, rather than confusion. Countries everywhere are grappling with this in their own way – how to celebrate diversity, but without hierarchy, a diversity rooted in justice, in equality. That is our challenge too.
What is your perception of the role of a poet or writer in the world? Is it only aesthetics or something further?
We sometimes tend to polarize the morality-aesthetics debate. Being morally attentive doesn’t mean turning heavy-handed or perennially indignant, and valuing aesthetics doesn’t mean turning ethically laissez-faire or politically indifferent. The role of a poet, as I see it, is to be true to the way she sees the world and to use language with precision and thoughtfulness. A mix of authenticity and artistry, integrity and craft – both are essential to poetry.
Poetry alters human beings in very deep and enduring ways. But those changes aren’t accomplished by turning self-conscious, but by growing more conscious – aiming for greater exactitude and greater nuance, but without losing intensity, without losing the fire that burns, and must always burn, at the core of this art.
Thank you Arundhathi for giving us your time.
This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty on behalf of Borderless Journal.