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Contents

Borderless, December 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

It’s Only Hope… Click here to read.

Conversations

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

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

Translations

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

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

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

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

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

Pandies’ Corner

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

Poetry

Click on the names to read

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

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

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

Musings/ Slices from Life

Near-Life Experiences: Hiking in New Zealand

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

The Seven Grandfather Teachings

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

Dismasted in Bass Strait

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

Musings of a Copywriter

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

Notes from Japan

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

Stories

Annapurna Bhavan

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

Two Faces of a Mirror

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

The Slip

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

Till Life Do Us Part

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

Essays

Orangutans & a School at Sarawak

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

Taiping of the Raj Era

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

Ivory Ivy & Stephen Dedalus

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

Book Excerpts

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

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

Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Editorial

Its Only Hope…

Painting by Sybil Pretious

New year, like a newborn, starts with hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We wish you all a wonderful festive season.

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

Cheers!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

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

Categories
Interview Review

In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar by Samaresh Bose

A conversation with Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar, brought out by Niyogi Books.

In 2017, the Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred pitcher) was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A Times of India report read: “The committee noted that as the largest harmonious conclave in the world, Kumbha Mela stands for values like magnanimity and patience that are very beneficial for the modern humanity. Moreover, the concept of Kumbha Mela goes well with the current international human rights tools because the festival welcomes people from all corners of the world without any differentiation.”

Five years down the line, Niyogi Books brought out a translation of Samaresh Bose’s[1] In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, an epic travelogue translated from Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee on the festival at the confluence of the three rivers, Ganga, Saraswati and Jamuna — in Allahabad. An eminent acknowledged writer, whose stories won not just literary acclaim like the Sahitya Akademi award but were translated to prize winning films, Bose’s solo voice stands alone in the translated version — as that of Kalkut, one of the pseudonyms he assumed.

In the early part of the book, Bose gives the reason for his journey into this crowded event which even in the middle of the pandemic (2021) had 3.5 million visitors: “Observing this great variety of humankind on the move is a thirst that is not easily quenched.” Bose’s exploration came long before the pandemic as his book was published in 1954. Then a Bengali film was made on it in 1982.

The writer claimed to have set out to look into the heart of the nation: “I would dive deep into that heart of India. I would identify my own face in this strange mirror of India. That face is my mind. My religion.” And he discovers, “the poor India was there like a faded cloth by the side of a muslin chunni.” While peeling layers of poverty and ‘respectability’, he introduces us to a bevy of characters which include not just Godmen, but also women, who evolved from wifehood to prostitution to godwomen, to young girls forced to marry polygamous octogenarians, to people in quest of lost family members, to men in search of the intangible — and all united together for a dip in the holy ‘sangam[2]’ of three rivers, the ultimate panacea for all ailments and ills for believers. That the author is not part of the believing crowds, but a sympathetic, humane commentator is obvious from his conversations with various people and his actions, which defy boundaries drawn by the respectable god minding devotees thronging the festival. He uses the event to pinpoint the flaws of socially accepted norms and to find compassion for the less fortunate. He laces his narrative with love and compassion for humanity.

The title itself both in Bengali and English conveys the quest for nectar or the divine amrita of immortality which led to a festival that washes away sins with a dip at the confluence. Legend has it that the gods and the rakshasas worked together to draw out the ambrosial drink at this sangam and then, the gods cheated and consumed all of it, judging the other party as too evil to be handed eternal life in a cup. The unbreachable walls had started and perhaps continue even to this date.

The real origin of the festival as Bose contended remains disputed like that of many other cultural lores, though people do continue to quest for miracles in the waters that were supposed to have thrown up the ambrosia. The narrative implies the educated and schooled rarely participated in this event. There is a mention of the prime minister at the festival, but that would be as a dignitary, and not as part of the crowd.

The crowd in its urgency to take a dip at the holy hour, results in a stampede and many deaths. It is a sad and philosophical ending which clearly takes us back to the questions raised at the start of the narrative. “If lakhs of people are blinded by faith, then why not search for the reason? What is that celestial blinker which can blind lakhs of eyes?”

While questioning faith, the narrative exposes the gaps in society with compassion — even between the educated and uneducated that has become a severe point of contention as more fissures into society and creating more boundaries. At the end of the book, one wonders have things really changed from the 1950s when Bose wrote the book to the current experience where the UNESCO, a modern-day construct and belief, has dubbed this festival as a juncture where all humanity congregates? Do they?  To enlighten us on this issue, we conversed with the eminent translator of this powerful book, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee.

Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee

What led you to translate Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar?

Samaresh Bose was a celebrated novelist. Social content of his novels can never be over-emphasized. But when he started writing travelogues under the pseudo -name Kalkut, he invented a new creative trajectory. Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, Kothay Pabo Tarey [4]are all classics in Bengali literature. I have been reading and rereading Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney for decades and always felt it should be presented on a national and international platform. Hence, when time and opportunity arose, I took up the translation work and the result in In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar.

There was a Bengali film (Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, 1982) made with the story of this book. Did you use this as a resource too for your translation? What do you think of the film? Did it capture the book well?

Yes, I have watched the film when it was released. I don’t remember the details now, but the impression remains that it was a reasonably well-made film. But I don’t think it has acted as a resource for my translation work. On the contrary whenever I tried to think of Shyama, the sophisticated face of Aparna Sen[5] would appear in my vision.

In 2017, UN declared the Kumbh-mela as an intangible cultural heritage. And yet, here Samaresh Bose mentioned a stampede within the Mela that killed many people. Do you think things have changed since he wrote this travelogue?

Definitely. Now, the Kumbh-mela is an extremely well-organised event. The way in which the administration handles the flow of lakhs of people is something to be seen to be believed. Even Harvard University researchers had undertaken a study to analyse how an ephemeral city comes up with all the civic, municipal and medical facilities for a temporary period of time. The stampede that Bose mentions are things of the past.

Have you ever been to a Kumbh-mela? Is it as he describes?

Yes, once; obviously inspired by the reading of the book. It was in early 70’s. I found it tallying with Bose’s description to a large extent. It was a lifetime experience for me, because I also went with an open mind, an agnostic as I am.

What in this book strikes you the most?

Two things struck me most in the book. One, unlike all other visitors, Bose’s was not a pilgrimage. He did not even take a dip at any of the auspicious dates and moments. He was in quest of understanding man’s urge for piety. It was as if an atheist’s search for the godhead. Secondly, the technique of writing was a unique blend of travelogue and fiction. His character sketches are something unparalleled in the history of travel writing anywhere in the world. I hope I am entitled to give this opinion, having a modest exposure to the world literature.

You are a felicitated translator. When you translate from Bengali to English, what strikes you as the biggest hurdle? And how do you get over it?

The biggest hurdle in translating from Bengali into English is the problem of culture specific transfer. Here one is not translating from an Indian language into another. Here translation is not just linguistic transfer, but culture transfer also. One has to be very careful where to valorise the source language and where to make some sacrifice for attaining compatibility to the idiom of the target language. I guess I have learnt to strike a balance between the two.

You have translated the Bengali portions fully in this book but not always the Sanskrit or Hindi? Why not?

The Sanskrit and Hindi portions in the text are very well-known quotes from Tulsidas and other celebrated poets. I thought they would communicate even without translation. More importantly, they are all in rhymed couplet or quartet. If the end rhyming is done away with, their linguistic impact will drastically reduce. And maintaining a semblance of rhyming in English was beyond me. So, I left them as they were. The case of the Bengali quotes is totally different. There I could confidently take some liberty and attain the desired impact.

Do you think a translation is better if it is closer to the text or if it captures the spirit of the piece and conveys it to the readers, though it departs from the text as in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat?

It depends on the motive of the translator. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak in her celebrated essay ‘Politics of Translation’ suggested that we should approach the text with love and empathy. If that is achieved, the translator remains as close to the text as possible; and yet he/she can take occasional liberty to capture the spirit of the original. But if the motive is to sanitise the text to cater to a particular reading community, as Tagore wrongly did or civilise the text from the point of view of master-slave attitude, as Fitzgerald did, then it is wrong. We now know how much of Tagore or Khayyam is lost in these English versions.

You have translated major writers from Bengal like Mahasweta Devi, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay and Samaresh Bose. Which has been your favourite author to translate and why?

Well, all the authors I translated so far are my favourite authors. I can not translate unless it is so. I greatly enjoy Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s young adult stories, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s romantic novels, Samaresh Bose’s dexterity in narration and characterisation, Mahasweta Devi’s socially conscious works. I have translated two novels of Tagore also for their universal appeal and extremely thought-provoking themes.

After translating this many novels, are you planning one of your own?

Oh no, I am not a creative person. I hopelessly lack imagination.

Do you have any advice for upcoming translators?

Well, I don’t feel entitled to give advice to anyone, I can only say that a wannabe translator should live with a book for some time before venturing into translation. You should not take up any translation work unless the book resonates with you or speaks to you, so to say.

Thank you for bringing the book to non-Bengali readers and also your time.

[1] Also known as Samaresh Basu (1924 to 1988)

[2] Confluence

[3] Translates to ‘ On the Golden Peak’, part of Kalkut Rachna Samagra (Kalkut’s collected writings), published in 1957 and made into a Bengali film in 1970

[4] Translates to ‘Where will I find Him?’, published as a part of his collected writings in 1957

[5] Aparna Sen, the legendary actress from Bengal, acted as a character in this film

(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

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

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

Categories
Interview Review

The Storyteller of Singapore: Suchen Christine Lim

Singapore moved from being a little island to a trading port to an affluent glamorous city that bridges the East and the West. Spanning the spirit of the wide expanse of this movement within a century are some iconic writers. One of them is Suchen Christine Lim, an award-winning author who writes narratives embedded in history, lined with hope and love — two values that need to be nurtured in today’s war-torn world.

Dearest Intimate is her most recent novel that shuttles against the backdrop of Japanese invasion of not just China but of what was then Malaya and modern-day Singapore. The story revolves between the worlds of Chan Kam Foong and her granddaughter, Xiu Yin. A passion for Cantonese opera that spans across generations weaves all the threads together into a single multi-layered rich tapestry of life. That life is never about a single strand or a single facet is brought into play by her intricate craftsmanship.

Suchen has taken seven years to complete this novel creating a story that immerses the reader in different time periods. The time periods are congealed with a variety of techniques of narration. Both, the first-person narrative — the voice of Xiu Yin — and the third person — the diary which unravels her grandmother’s story — are seamlessly knit into a whole. Though to me, the diary is perhaps more compelling with its historic setting and its interludes of amazing passionate poetry, like these lines:

“Though hills and mountains, rivers and plains separate us,
nothing can separate our thoughts and dreams.
Though a thousand li separate our bodies, no mountains nor
rivers, not even the Four Mighty Oceans can separate our heart.”

As the book progresses, it unfolds Xiu Yin’s journey towards rediscovering her strength and love. She rises from the ashes of an abusive marriage which is in sharp contrast to the marriage of her grandmother, Kam Foong, arranged by the family in a traditional Chinese village in the early part of the twentieth century. That victimisation and abuse see no borders of education and can be born of a sense of frustration and an over-competitive outlook is skilfully reflected in the marriage of Xiu Yin, whose husband is from an educated Westernised Catholic background. She had been brought up on traditional lores among Chinese opera artists. Interesting observations on gender issues and local concerns — like the housing policies in Singapore — are wound into the narrative.

To me, one of the most enduring qualities of Suchen’s novels are that they deal with the common man against a historical backdrop. In an earlier interview, she had said: “I wanted to see the past from the perspective of coolies, the illiterate, who have largely been left out of history books. And yet without them, who would pick up the nightsoil?” In this novel too, she has dealt with the common man — farmers and opera singers only the historic setting and their responses have changes because of changed circumstances. We live, feel, emote with the common people before, during and after the second World War to the modern twenty first century Singapore. The author’s skilful characterisation enlivens her creations. The cruelty of Japanese invaders during 1940s is highlighted in the suffering of the people and their abuse. Published around the same time as Sumantra Bose’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics, which shows how the Indian leader thrown out of Congress took support from the Axis powers (German and Japanese), it gives a contrasting perspective. Though this is fiction, Singapore history does corroborate that the Japanese invaders were extremely brutal in their outlook, even among the colonials.  Suchen’s reiteration of their cruelty is heart rending.

She has through her characters reiterated on the need of art not just to express but to make people laugh, give them hope and cheer them in dark times. This is an interesting theme which in itself makes one wonder if it is a comment on the perspectives of writers depicting unmitigated darkness. We find this strand of hope in great fiction from the last century — like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. They all end with hope as do Suchen’s works.

Suchen’s oeuvre very often encompasses the story of migrants as it has done here. And the interesting progression in this novel is the migrants’ complete acceptance of their new homelands — Singapore and Malaysia. In an earlier interview, Suchen had said, “A man can rise and go beyond borders but the land that he leaves will always be in his bones and heart.” And some of her protagonists had headed back to China. But in this novel, one is left wondering if the characters from China have not transcended their national frontiers to embrace the Cantonese opera, declared an intangible cultural heritage, like Durga Puja, by UNESCO.  Art and love have overridden all kinds of borders — and perhaps, that is why the name of the novel Dearest Intimate, which is used by Kam Foong for her love and for Xiu Yin by her beloved justifies the title. At the end, it is a heartfelt love story between humans and even between humanity and an art form that evolved to embrace the common man. Like all good books — it touches hearts across all borders with its message of love and acceptance as do Suchen’s other novels. To discuss, her world view and her novel, we had a brief conversation with Suchen —

What made you write this novel, Dearest Intimate? What led you to it?

I had a strange dream while I was on the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) residency in the ancient city of Hoi An in Vietnam. I dreamt of a pale orange pillow embroidered with two mandarin ducks and two rows of Chinese characters. When I woke up, I wrote down the two sentences in English, which eventually became the opening paragraph of this novel. So, you can say it was an unexpected gift from the universe that led me to write this novel.

In your earlier novels like A Bit of Earth the protagonist always felt for part of their homelands. However, in Dearest Intimate, the protagonists dwelt on the theme of love and Cantonese opera, not so much on homeland. Has your world view changed since your first novel? How and why?

Well, I don’t think there is a quick easy answer to the how and why of change in worldview. The time gap between the publication of my first novel, Rice Bowl, and the latest, Dearest Intimate, is more than 30 years. Over that span of time my novels had examined issues of political /historical import, race and identity, moving from the past to the contemporaneous. Over the course of 30 years, it is natural for an author’s ideas and obsessions to change.  I would be very worried if I do not change, or my characters and themes do not change. For example, my sudden interest in the pipa led to the writing of The River’s Song, which in turn led me to Chinese music and Hong Kong Cantonese opera and the learning of Cantonese.

Tell us about why you took up the Cantonese opera in a major way in this novel?

It was the strange gift of a dream of two mandarin ducks embroidered on a pillowcase, which reminded me of the Cantonese operas I used to watch as a child with my grandmother and mother. Such pillowcases with embroidered mandarin ducks were symbols of love and fidelity and were sewn by young women in love in Chinese operas. Cantonese opera was a part of my childhood that was largely forgotten till this dream. Looking back, I think in writing Dearest Intimate I was reclaiming that forgotten part of my childhood.

Why did the novel take seven years to write? What kind of research went into the novel?

Partly because the research was such fun. I wasn’t concerned about deadlines. I had already flung away deadlines the moment I resigned from the Ministry of Education years ago. And I must admit I was fortunate that I didn’t have to write to fill my rice bowl. My research obsession began after I had watched a Hong Kong Cantonese opera troupe perform at the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, and later, other operas at the Esplanade during Moon Festival. Curious about the actors’ training, I went to the National Archives and listened to the many interviews with old opera actors and actresses of local Chinese opera troupes. Every year, I flew to Hong Kong to watch one or two Cantonese operas, and once I even met Chan Poh Chee and Bak Suet Xin, the icons of Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera. When I started writing the novel I would watch one Cantonese opera on YouTube every afternoon, even re-watching a few favourites. Unhappy that I could not understand the literary Cantonese used in the operas I joined a Cantonese class in Chinatown to deepen my understanding of Cantonese.

Why did the novel take seven years to write?  Well, one of the reasons is my troublesome health. I had several health issues to deal with. Very boring chronic issues which, naturally, gobbled up my time and distracted my attention. The most serious of these troublesomes was a minor stroke that affected my movement and speech for some months.

You have written many children’s stories, a play, short stories, non-fictions and novels. What is your favourite form of storytelling and why?

The novel. It is humanity’s greatest literary invention. Within the novel, raw messy lived experience is transformed into coherent narrative.

All your novels have a sense of hope and seem to reach out with the message of love and acceptance. Why is it you feel reiterating this is important?

I am glad you think my novels have a sense of hope. Hope is often the reason we live another day. Hope is what helps us to endure, to wait. To write, to make art is an act of hope.

What in your opinion is the purpose of art? You have repeatedly mentioned in your novel that people will respond better to hope or laughter in opera in dark times. Would you say this also applies to writing? Do you think people in dark times prefer books that give hope? Please elaborate.

I will quote Master Wu in the novel: “Play our music! Tell our stories! Sing our songs! Write our histories! Preserve our humanity! That is what the arts are for. Never, never for one moment forget who we are …”  in the age of robotics, story-generating AI and Twittering twitterati. 

Do you have any advice or message for budding writers?

Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy. 

Thank you for your wonderful answers and for giving us the time.

(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

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

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

Categories
Nostalgia

Dim Memories of the Festival of Lights

By Farouk Gulsara

Deepavali Kolam in Penang, Malaysia. Courtesy: Creative Commons

In my naive childhood, I thought that Deepavali was one big celebration all over India and of those of the Indian diaspora the world over, at least of those of the Hindu faith. Bizarrely, I must have thought the whole of India would be up in jubilation anticipating the arrival of the festival of lights. Obviously not: the discussions surrounding the recent UNESCO recognition of Durga Puja as an Intangible Cultural Heritage are anything but unison. Now the Gujaratis want Navaratri[1] as a cultural loom. Interestingly, the people in power in Tamil Nadu want the harvest festival of Pongal as the main Tamil festival.

Indians who were brought in by the British to work in the Malayan rubber estates in the 1930s were mainly from Tamil Nadu. They celebrated Thaipusam[2] and Deepavali with much pomp and fanfare. Both days were soon declared holidays in many states of Malaysia.

I do not particularly remember my childhood memory of Deepavali being particularly joyous. Deepavali was another unnecessary expenditure in my home. We were a lower middle-class Malaysian Indian family of the 1970s. My thrifty Amma looked at this merrymaking as a hindrance. It was also the busiest time of the year for her. She was a kind of Indian Auntie Scrooge. She would drum up upon us at every moment that if one is healthy and wealthy, every day would be Deepavali. Deepavali comes once a year, right. But then, it comes every year.

Amma was a kind of local rock star amongst the flat dwellers when it came to stitching saree blouses. She was the go-to person for the aunties to enhance their assets and anatomy to look good in their sarees, even though most of them were overtly oversized and out of shape, to look trim and alluring, in their eyes, of course. Amma would use her talent to supplement Appa’s meagre take-home after the creditors’ scavenging.

She took in more orders than she could chew in her zeal to make hay while the sun was out. As the days grew nearer, she would become edgier and edgier. She would burn the midnight oil trying to finish the orders, as her customers would trickle in, demanding in desperation for their Deepavali blouses. She would smile apologetically to her clientele, but once they left, all of us, including Appa, would be the brunt of her frustrations. She would go on a monologue about the hopelessness of life, blaming all the people in her life, including God, for her miseries.

My sister, Sheela, grudging, had to help her, cutting loose ends, stitching buttons, edgings, and general tidying the blouses. Occasionally, Amma would cut or sew something wrongly, and that was when all hell would break loose. No one was spared of her screaming tirade. The smacking of children was legal then.

Deepavali was generally not what Malaysian Indian students, that is, those keen to score well in the Malaysian public examinations, looked forward to. Most, if not all, major public examinations were held at the end of the year. It made perfect sense as that was when the rest of the school would have finished their academic year, and there would be peace and quiet to conduct examinations. The trouble is that Deepavali mainly falls in late October or early November. Sometimes, the celebrations fell right smack between papers. The school would also be holding their end-of-year examinations if it was not for the public papers. Hence, we thought Deepavali was just another off-day to cramp up for the tests.

We, the children, could look forward to our annual sort of ‘pilgrimage’ thronging the bargain-hunting haven of Penang’s Campbell Street’s cheap sale’s stores two to three weeks before the auspicious day. We could look forward to the only two sets of new attire they would buy for the next twelve months. Seeing Amma bargain with the shopkeepers for the best price, I sometimes pitied the sellers. Sometimes, I feel like telling Amma to just pay what he asked. No, she would not do that. She would go to another shop, start another boxing match, loose, and return to the first shop smiling sheepishly.

As the days got closer, Amma would get even more and more high-strung. The children would be at the receiving end as the sewing orders piled up, and she could not find the correct thread colours for her blouses. In the midst of all that, some cloth piece or button would go missing, and then there would be a ruckus. Everyone would be roped in to search only to find the missing item right under her nose, where it would have been all the while.

Amma would become more desperate. The children, all preparing for the examinations, would be nagged for not helping enough, unlike other children – as if we were the only children in the world who needed to study! The sewing sessions would go on and on till the morning of Deepavali. On one occasion, probably due to fatigue, she actually cut out the wrong design for the wrong customer, and Amma had to replace the material later. Probably that customer must have ‘celebrated’ Deepavali that year with no saree blouse!  She might have passed it off as another new fad – as an empress in ‘new clothes’, perhaps!

About a week before Deepavali, cookies would have to be prepared in the middle of this entire melee. By tradition, the first to be cooked must be oil based; hence the opening ceremony was done by pressing murukku (a deep-fried snack made from rice flour and spices) and ghee balls (ney orundei). With a traditional and cumbersome murukku squeezing device, I would be assigned to give my muscle power to press down the murukku dough. A few other cookies would be baked in the then-spanking-new electric oven. To add to the local flavour, Amma would stir up sticky glutinous in brown sugar for a delicacy called ‘wajik‘.

One particular Deepavali eve, I remember an incident that triggered a stir in my neighbourhood. We were living on the 15th floor of a 17-storey low-cost flat. Residents were packed into tiny pigeonholes we called home. Privacy was the most diminutive of the priorities as we paved through life. Sheela was left to guard the fortress as my parents went off to the evening market to get groceries for the big day. I had gone off to school. I was in the afternoon session[3] that year.

I returned home to a big commotion outside my flat. Most of the neighbours were standing outside the unit, banging on the door, calling for Sheela and talking loudly amongst themselves. I peeked through the blind panel of the door. I could see Sheela slouched cosily on a sofa with her hands on her right cheek deep in slumberland. The television in front of her was blaring loudly, further drowning all the commotion outside. She was not too far from the door, but she continued snoozing. I guess all the late nights helping Amma must have gotten to her.

 Residents getting locked out was nothing new in our neighbourhood. I suppose it is one of the events that got the neighbours together to mingle and get to know each other. Among us were self-appointed ‘specialists’ who devised their own gadgets to deal with any locked-out situation. The most typical item used by most was a charcoal stirrer. I guess that is how laparoscopic surgeons got the idea of performing keyhole surgery. One with hyper-flexible joints was sometimes sorted after to insert his hand through the door blinds!

Yours truly saved the day when I managed to manoeuvre my hand through the door to flip the lock open. All through the melee, my sister was in total bliss. Finding her snoring, oblivious to all the pandemonium outside, Appa went on to reprimand her in the usual way – KABOOM! (i.e. smack).

With all that build-up, preparation and countdown, Deepavali was actually an anti-climax – except for the new clothes, the food and the angpows (money packets) we received after distributing cookies to our neighbours. Amma would be sleeping after finally finishing her sewing and cooking. Appa would catch his forty winks on his easy chair, and we, the children, would watch all the special programmes on TV. Nobody actually came to visit us, even on Deepavali day. The afternoon would come, and the family would again manifest in front of the idiot box to watch the Deepavali special Tamil movie on TV. When this was over, essentially Deepavali was over and reality bit in. It was time to prepare for school the following day. On Deepavali nights, we would fire up a couple of Chinese sparklers.

All the money collected in the angpows would go straight into our Post Office Savings accounts in the next few days. The grand finale of the Deepavali curtain would fall a few days later with the family outing to the movies, a Tamil movie, packed with cookies that Amma had prepared as viewing snacks. Then, it was the school holidays, and another school year would come.


[1] A Western Indian festival in honour of the Goddess Durga, celebrated around the same time as Durga Puja

[2]  The festival in January- February (called Thai in the Tamil calendar) commemorates the occasion when Durga gave her son, Murugan (or Kartikeya) a divine spear to defeat a demon. It is also commonly believed that Thaipusam marks Murugan’s birthday. It is a national holiday in many countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. In India, in Tamil Nadu, it  is declared as a holiday but not celebrated in other parts of India.

[3] Schools in Malaysia and Singapore often ran two session – morning and afternoon.

Farouk Gulsara is an occasional writer who blogs at riflerangeboy.com. Whenever he gets nostalgic about the time that whisked by, he pens down whatever his grey cells are still able to retrieve.

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Categories
A Wonderful World

Where “Divides of Class, Religion & Ethnicities Collapse”

Painting of Durga Puja. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Wherever I look, a golden light 
Suffuses a vision of holidays,
The festive sun rises in the woods
Of puja* blossoms drenched in gold rays. 
             -- Tagore, Eshechhe Sarat

This has been a favourite poem of many who grew up reading Tagore, lines that capture the joy and abandon of the spirit that embodies the celebration of Durga Puja, a festival that many Bengalis deem as important as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Diwali or Eid. It is a major celebration in Bengal and large parts of the sub-continent, though not in all parts.

The reason that reviving the lore associated with this fiesta has become very important is that it centres around women. Given the situation in Iran, where the battle over how to wear headscarves has turned bloody, murderous and violent, celebrating an empowered woman, even if mythical, takes precedence over all else. Mythology has it that Durga was empowered by weapons given to her by various deities, all of who were men, and then, she did what all the male Gods failed to do — destroyed a demon called Mahisasur. Rama too prayed to Durga for victory around this time. And on Bijoya Doushami, the last day of the Durga Puja, some celebrate Rama’s victory over Ravana and call it Dusshera or Dashain.

Taking up this theme of the narratives around Durga Puja and how it has been made into an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO is Meenakshi Malhotra’s essay on the festival. Part of the citation reads: “During the event [Durga Puja], the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse….” 

To bring to you a flavour of the Puja, we have translations of poetry by Tagore describing the season and of a poet who was writing before Rabindranath, Michael Madhusdan Dutt, by Ratnottama Sengupta, verses exploring the grief of parting Durga’s mother expresses as her daughter returns to her husband’s home. This is also a festival of homecoming for, like Durga, those living far from their homes return to the heart of their families. Rituparna Mukherjee has woven a story specially around this aspect of the festival. Journals in Bengal, traditionally, brought out special editions with writings of eminent persons, like Satyajit Ray. We have an interview with a writer who wrote a book on Satyajit Ray, an actor called Barun Chanda, to bring a flavour of that tradition along with the translation of a celebrated contemporary Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, by Aruna Chakravarti. We hope you enjoy savouring our Durga Puja Special.

Poetry

Eshechhe Sarat (Autumn) , describing the season of Durga Puja, by Tagore has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read. 

Bijoya Doushumi, a poem on the last day of Durga Puja, by the famous poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, has been translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Prose

A Mother, a Daughter & a Demon Slayer?, an essay by Meenakshi Malhotra, checks out the festival of Durga Puja against the concept of women empowerment. Click here to read.

Homecoming by Rituparna Mukherjee is a poignant story about homecoming during Durga Puja. Click here to read.

Nagmati by Prafulla Roy has been translated from Bengali as Snake Maiden by Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read. 

Interview

Meet Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the lead protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray:The Man Who Knew Too Much in conversation Click here to read.

Categories
Essay

A Mother, a Daughter & a Demon Slayer?

By Meenakshi Malhotra

Durga Puja is an annual festival that marks a time of joyous celebration among the Bengali community worldwide. The UNESCO declared this festival as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. A festival that has become the most looked forward to cultural event in the year, among the communities celebrating them, it is the biggest event in the festive calendar of Bengalis. Durga Puja in certain ways has transcended its religious context to assume mammoth proportions as can be seen in the UNESCO citation: “Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers. The festival is characterized by large-scale installations and pavilions in urban areas, as well as by traditional Bengali drumming and veneration of the Goddess. During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations.” 

The idol of Durga, drowned at the end of the festival, is made by local craftsmen and is at the fulcrum of all the festivities as people come to worship her and celebrate her homecoming.The goddess is said to have descended from her husband’s home to visit her parents. According to art historians, the UNESCO tag will give a boost to the crafts around the festival — from the idol-making at Kumartuli to the designing and making of elaborate sets to house the idol. What is worth noting, moreover, is that no effort is spared when it comes to embellishing or decorating the goddess, in spite of its transient and impermanent nature. For, on the last day of the festival, the idol is immersed in the river, signifying the evanescence and temporality that marks human life and all its endeavours.         

Her descent on earth with her four children (Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity; Saraswati, goddess of learning; Ganesh, god of wisdom, and Kartik, god of war) for the five days of the festival, is also perceived as the advent of a daughter to the house of the mother, a moment which overflows with affection and emotions. The event happens at a certain time in the Hindu calendar and participates in linear time, as well as part of a larger ongoing  cycle of temporality. In the Hindu pantheon, Durga or Parvati is a prominent mother goddess, the consort of Shiva. Her names refer to split roles of the feminine imaginary. As Durga she is the fiery slayer of demons, as Kali she has to be appeased through blood and slaughter. Interestingly, in the cultural imaginary and imagery of the Durga Puja, she is also mother as well as the daughter, whose visit to the paternal home is brief and fleeting and therefore, provides the occasion for a joyous celebration.

Significantly, the Shaktik or the empowered feminine goddess, Durga, signifies the triumph of good over evil. The divine is represented both in terms of mythic abstractions and the material every day, as power and poetry, as divine and human, as mother and daughter. Thus she is the resplendent and refulgent goddess but also the all-powerful who eliminates all suffering and is thus referred to as “durgati-nashini”(destroyer of troubles). The goddess is shown as ten-armed, mounted on a lion, the king of the animals, ready to go into battle against the demonic strength of the demon king, Mahisasura. She is fully geared to destroy the demon king as her ten hands hold weapons.

The weapons tell a tale, which is intricately linked to the narrative and symbolism of Durga. They were given to her by male Gods who had failed to defeat Mahisasur to empower her to kill the evil demon. The trident was said to be given by her spouse, Shiva, and its three sharp points symbolised the three qualities (called ‘gunas’) of ‘sattva’(signifying wisdom and purity), ‘rajas’(signifying activity and material gain  ) and ‘tamas’(signifying darkness and destruction). The snake, a part of the iconography of Shiva who is depicted with a snake wound around his neck, was also gifted by him. The conch signifying the primordial sound called “aum”, the seed word for all creation, was gifted by Varuna, the god of water bodies. The sword was given by Yama, the god of death and Justice. The lotus, which represents the emergence of spiritual consciousness even under trying circumstances, was gifted by the creator of the universe, Brahma. The discus-also known as the “Sudarshan chakra” was given by the preserver of the universe, Vishnu, and spins on Durga’s index figure to symbolise how the energy provided by the goddess sets the universe in motion. The chakra represents the cosmic cycle of life and death in continuum, emphasising that though time destroys everything, inner awakening can help transcend the transience of time.

The thunderbolt or ‘vajra’ given by the king of gods, Indra, symbolises firmness of character, determination, and supreme power. The divinity empowers her devotee with unshaken confidence and implacable will. The bow and infinite arrows, gifted by Vayu, the air god, is a weapon whose combination of potential and kinetic powers symbolises energy.  The spear is a  gift from Agni or the fire god; it represents pure, fiery power. It also represents the power to judge and act with fairness and wisdom, differentiating the right from the wrong. The club or axe, gifted by Vishwakarma (a deity mentioned in the Rig veda and considered the architect or the engineer of the universe)  represents the power to defeat evil and embodies fearlessness while fighting against the wicked. Solar radiance is gifted to her by Surya, the sun god, to banish darkness and evil around her.

Finally, the goddess  is depicted  as mounted on a lion, the king of all animals and the most powerful.  Her mount signifies the need to keep strength and power within one’s control and use it only when required. The weapons of Durga are depictive of qualities we need to possess to empower ourselves to achieve our dreams.

Her fight with  Mahisasur was not just to eradicate evil from the universe at a particular  conjuncture, but also to set an example for generations to come. Yet the iconography and the narrative symbolism of the Goddess begs a question: Does she become more than a site or ground where masculine power is on display? Does her iconography also  highlight the gap between the sexes and the fact that the source of her power lies in the weapons she is given by the male gods and is, therefore, ultimately controlled by them?  Or can it be seen as a joint effort of the male and the female to find a world free of hatred, violence and evil?

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Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Categories
Poetry

Whistle & Fly

By Shaza Khan

UNESCO calls bird language a 'strong indicator of human creativity'*

Whistle to me. 
Tell me what you want me to be,
while sitting with you near the Black Sea.
Whistle to me,
the needs of your hearth.
Now, there are just ten thousand of us on Earth.
Make the tune perfect.
Gently fold your lips.
Sharpen the air in your mouth. 
Whistle to me your kiss.
I am an emotional ornithologist.
As the birds have left Kuskoy* to tell stories of their immigrancy, 
Study their flight as a behavioural psychologist.
Whistle to me your findings.
The mountains are waiting.
The foliage is coaxing these humans.
Be a bird and fly. 
See the Earth from above and cry.


*Daily News
* Kuskoy literally means village of birds, Located in Turkey, the village is famous for its 400-year-old whistled language.

Shaza Khan identifies herself as a hermit who had to become a human and remain one due to continuous and unavoidable natural calamities. She is an educator, yoga instructor, writer in progress, poet and a watercolour miniature artist. Shaza wants to keep writing therapeutic literary fiction. 

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Categories
Slices from Life

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time when a language freed itself and a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day.

The window at Bardhaman House. Courtesy: Kamrul Mithon

All through the day Kamrul Mithon was standing in front of this window, waiting. He was waiting to be allotted a stall in Ekushey Book Fair 2022. This year the annual book fair in Dhaka is being hosted by the Bangla Academy from February 15 to 28. 

This window is a part of the Bardhaman House. The first boimela or book fair had started under the banyan tree facing this very window. Kamrul Mithon, who earns his bread and butter by the click of his camera, is a book publisher by passion. The freelancer for National Crafts Council of Bangladesh is the Associate Visual Editor at Nymphea Publication who have just published titles like Cannes Diary and When the Mango Tree Blossomed, in the ongoing book fair. The day he spent facing the window was the day the lottery was held – so the best way to while his time was by clicking away, capturing all that captivated his fancy. 

Later it occurred to him that he could post the pictures on Facebook to announce the forthcoming boimela. And when he did so, he captured my attention. “Is this a painting? A poster? A book cover?” My curiosity was piqued. “Neither,” Kamrul replied. He went on to give me a brief history of ‘Burdwan House’ – the architecture from the British Raj when Dhaka, the second biggest city of Bengal Presidency, housed estates of many erstwhile royalties including the Raja of Burdwan.

Maharajadhiraj Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab (1881-1941) was the first in the Burdwan family to obtain formal education qualification, tour England and Europe, write his memoirs. Adopted at the age of six, he was bestowed the title of Rajadhiraj at the coronation in the Delhi Durbar. Though only eighteen then, he had the savvy to build a Gothic style gate to welcome Lord Curzon when the Governor General visited Bardhaman. That gate continues to be a historical landmark in the Indian state of West Bengal. 

In 1908, when Bijoy Chand Mahtab risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser from a Nationalist bullet, Lord Minto elevated him to the title of Maharajadhiraj. He represented the Bengal zamindars in the Bengal Legislative Council and in the Imperial legislative Council for years. President of the British Indian Association, this philanthropist in education and health welfare was part of the committee that recommended replacement of Zamindari by the Ryotdari or tenancy system. After all this, though, he extended hospitality to Gandhi in 1925 and to Subhash Chandra Bose in 1928. Did he sense that the sun was soon to set on the British Empire?

The mansion in Dhaka was one of the many palaces of His Highness of Burdwan: the one in Darjeeling was his Summer Palace. Through the year he resided in the Burdwan House in Kolkata’s Alipore area. That stately home is now rented out for weddings and other occasions. So, I was especially happy to learn that Dhaka has transformed the classical architecture into a centre for research and preservation of Bangla. “Indeed this was where the Bangla Bhasha Andolan spread out from,” Mithon cues me in, “since this was where the instruction went out on the evening of February 21, to fire on the students of Dhaka University.”

Mithon further leads me through the various chapters of the Movement. “In 1952, being the residence of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Bardhaman House witnessed the escalation in our demand that Bengali be accorded equal status with Urdu as State Language of Pakistan.”

I remember hearing the backstory of the movement from my father, writer Nabendu Ghosh: he was forced to leave Kolkata, the home ground of Bengali literature, theatre, cinema, art – indeed, of Bengali culture – and live in Bombay after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Because? The readership of Bangla literature had been halved as had the viewership of Bengali films. Keen to build upon its Islamic genes, the government of the newly formed Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the state language. And to impose that decision even in East Pakistan, its eastern wing separated by 2000 miles of land and rivers, language and culture, it decreed that even Bengali, its lingua franca, must be written in the Arabic script!

Mithon encapsulates the story of rebellion against the firman – the decree — that took the masses unaware. 

“1947, December 5. The working Committee of the Muslim League was meeting in Bardhaman House. The students and teachers of Dhaka University were stunned by the unfair decision that would impact the lives of the 44 million Bangla-speaking citizens who formed roughly 2/3rd of the 69 million population. They took out a procession to demand that Bengali be made the language of education and administration in the state — and at the Centre, it should be accorded the same dignity as Urdu, adopted by the Western wing of the divided India that encompassed large part of Punjab and Sindh, where the lingua franca was Pubjabi and Sindhi.

“1948, January 8. Evening at Bardhaman House. Leaders of the Language Movement met Prime Minister Najimuddin. The purpose? To protest the arrest and torture of the Bhasha Andolan (language revolution) activists — under section 144 — for demanding that they be allowed to freely read write and speak Bangla.

“1948, March 15. On the eve of signing the State Language Agreement, the then Governor Khwaja Najimuddin met the students involved in the Andolan. The next day a procession set out for Bardhaman House to demand the cancelation of the draft agreement. The police were let loose on them, for disobeying the orders under section 144, and the students and teachers were severely wounded. 

“February 21, 1952, was Phalgun 8, 1358 on the Bengali calendar. Governor General Nurul Amin sent out the order that took the lives of Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, teenaged Aliullah, 17 other students, teachers, progressive intelligentsia and non-communal individuals, rickshawallahs and labourers… The tower that came up overnight in the University campus was not the only direct fallout of the inhuman firing: The symbol of Power, Bardhaman House became the target of people’s anger. 

“After the heinous bloodbath, the demand to turn it into a Centre for Language Studies gathered momentum. And four years later, in 1954 it gained formal sanction prior to the elections. The 21-point Charter of Demands put forth by the Jukta (United) Front spelled out that the Prime Minister move into a less luxurious residence, leaving the mansion to be used as a Student’s Hostel and, subsequently, to be turned into a Research Centre for the language.

“Eventually the Pakistan government had to bow to the unrest: On May 7, 1954, Bengali was adopted as one of the state languages in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. And on December 3, 1954, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Abu Hosain, inaugurated the Bangla Academy in the Burdwan House.” 

Quite naturally, along with research and nurturing of the language, Bangla Academy has taken care to perpetuate the memory of the Amar Ekush (eternal 21st) martyrs. The first floor of the Bardhaman House is home to the Bhasha Andolan Museum. Inaugurated on February 1, 2010, it preserves historical photographs, newspapers, memorial documents, cartoon, letters, publicity leaflets, manuscripts, book covers and memorabilia of the language martyrs. And in the ongoing Boimela, Nymphea has brought to the reading public volumes like Ekush: A Photographic History of the Language Movement (1947-1956) and Kaaler Kheya (The Boat of Time) about passing on Bangla from generation to generation. 

The events of February 21, 1952, shed a long shadow that culminated in the emergence of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh which sings, Moder garab moder asha – Aa mori Bangla bhasha (Our pride, our inspiration, O sonorous Bangla!)… The love for its language has seen the nation adopt Tagore’s creation as its national anthem, Aamar Sonar Bangla. And even before that, Renaissance personality Satyajit Ray saluted the language by penning Moder nijer bhasha bhinna aar bhasha jaana nai … O maharaja, we speak no language other than our own, and we celebrate through that very language, Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan

Indeed, the world salutes the struggle and sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh to be able to sing their songs. In November 1999, UNESCO paid tribute to Amar Ekush, the movement for safeguarding Bangla – with all its proverbs and poetry, myths and songs — by declaring February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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Categories
Review

Voices from the Lost Horizon

A Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese

Author: Anvita Abbi

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

Professor Anvita Abbi is a distinguished researcher on minority languages and perhaps the only one in the Indian subcontinent who has done first-hand field study on all the six language families from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She taught linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for 38 years, was the President of the Linguistic Society of India, and has been invited as a visiting professor and researcher at prestigious institutions in the USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia. She served long as an expert from the UNESCO on issues concerning languages.

During her studies in 2003–2004, she identified a new language family of India—the Great Andamanese, which was corroborated in 2005 by population geneticists. Her pioneering work was recognized by the Government of India and she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013. In 2015, she received the Kenneth Hale Award, most prestigious in the field of linguistics, for her outstanding contribution to the documentation and description of Indian languages, from the Linguistic Society of America, where she was also elected as an honorary member. She has 22 books to her credit, including the Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language. English-Great Andamanese-Hindi (2011) and A Grammar of the Great Andamanese Language: An Ethnolinguistic Study (2013).

A 2018 analysis of a census says that more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues whilst only 122 of them are major languages. After the 1971 census, Indian Government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people in India need not be included in the official list of languages. According to UNESCO, any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people is potentially endangered. When a language dies, it’s not only the history, beliefs, customs of people that wither but also a distinct worldview that vanishes forever; a view, that could possibly have added to a greater understanding of ways of living of a people. Disappearance of a language may come for many different reasons like migration, urbanization, threat from external sources or language domination and when that happens, unique livelihood patterns, knowledge and skills may also disappear. 

In the preface, Anvita Abbi writes that when she visited Andaman Islands in 2005, there were only eight surviving speakers of Great Andamanese, a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe which had migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago. The language was already on the brink of extinction. And none of the speakers were proficient enough to tell any tales, either in Great Andamanese or Andamanese Hindi. The fact that she still compiled 10 stories and 46 songs that make this unique collection is a testament of her will, hard work and dedication to the cause of retaining some remnants of a dying language and thereby preserving and contributing to the rich heritage of the Islands.

The Andaman Islands i.e. the Great Andaman, Little Andaman and North Sentinel Islands have been home to mainly four tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese whose languages are also named the same. The author tells us that the Great Andamanese is a generic term representing 10 languages, once spoken by ten tribes living in north, south and middle of Great Andaman Islands. And Present Day Great Andamanese (PGA), however, is a mixture of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages i.e. Jeru, Khora, Bo and Sare and the grammar of the language is based on Jeru.

While the task of collecting stories and songs in the language was difficult, Abbi was helped by two speakers of Great Andamanese. One was Boa Sr. whose ancestral language was Bo. She had not conversed with anyone in her language for 30-40 years prior to that. The other speaker, Nao Jr. was a male member of the society and the only one to remember the Great Andamanese language and names of various natural objects, birds and fishes. Of the 10 stories in the book, one is narrated by Boa Sr. while the rest are narrated by Nao Jr. and while four stories were narrated in bilingual mode i.e. Great Andamanese and Andamanese Hindi, six were narrated in Adamanese Hindi only. The original versions of the stories in Great Andamanese language with line-by-line translation in English is given in the Appendix of the book. What makes this book really unusual is that the readers can have an audio-visual experience at the end of each narrative. Each story carries with it a song towards the end in the form of a QR code which can be scanned for an audio-visual recording of the song, The songs are mostly sung by Boa Sr. from Bo tribe.

It is interesting to note that all 46 songs are only of one line or a phrase which is sung again and again. Their documentation in the book is done in all the three languages i.e. first in original (in Roman script), second in Devanagri Script (which was given to the language) and third an English translation.

The book also carries pictures of Great Andamanese birds, considered to be the ancestors of Andamaneses, along with their names. It is quite interesting to note that their names have some inherent meaning as the story Maya Jiro Mithe, a kind of creation myth, informs us of the evolution of birds and their distinct and varied names.

The folk tales and songs included in this book open the reader to the world of Great Andamanese tribes, their beliefs, ways of life, knowledge, culture and their relation with nature. The diligence with which Prof. Anvita Abbi has pursued the project of compiling stories and songs of a disappearing language is evident through her exceptional work. A reader can possibly only imagine how difficult it might have been for the author to document a language and its grammar, when she could only understand it through the eyes and words of its native speakers. She has done an outstanding job towards the revival of a vanishing language, towards preserving the voices which might have otherwise been lost to the rest of the world and with it a culture woven with their intrinsic knowledge of survival and living with nature.

Click here to read Anvita Abbi’s interview.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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