Categories
Editorial

We are All Going on a Summer Holiday…

Yes! It is vacation time, and we are all able to travel at last. Though the pandemic which had closed borders for us seems to be evolving as an endemic, another huge human crisis, a war which cannot be justified in any way, stares us in the face. Loss of lives, homes, towns, cities and threats of global recession follow in the footsteps of refugees wandering into our lives. Lesya Bakun, the Ukrainian refugee whose story we have been following, told me four of her relatives’ homes in Mariupol have been erased out of existence and her extended family has scattered where they found safety as her cousin continues a prisoner of war, captured while defending the iron and steel factory at Azovstal. While majority of the world expresses solidarity with the Ukrainians, another set of refugees remain in shadows. They have completely lost their country in which they had lived from ancient times. I am referring to the Rohingya of Arakan. CNN world states:

“The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, thought to number about 1 million people.

“Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens or one of the 135 recognized ethnic groups in the country.”

 We are privileged to host a powerful poignant translation by Arifa Ghani Rahman of Shaheen Akhtar’s short story about such a voiceless Rohingya child in a refugee camp. Though this is a fiction inspired by Akhtar’s visits to such shelters, we hope at some point these children will be able to build new lives to create a world free of violence, intolerance, hatred and greed.

One of the questions that springs to one’s mind, watching such atrocities destroy innocent lives is that should one accept bullies and give in to their pressure tactics? Bullies can be found among world leaders as well as perpetrators of decadent societal norms which are often critiqued by satires. Somdatta Mandal has translated one such satirical playlet where social conventions are targeted in a lighter vein by Tagore. In the same spirit, the maestro’s iconic poem about a palmyra tree called Taal Gaachh has been transcreated to bring the joy of innocent wanderings back into the narrative, creating an island of healing thoughts. We continue with our translations of Jibananada Das by Professor Fakrul Alam, a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi and a magical Balochi folktale by Fazal Baloch. Let us read such translations to connect with varied cultures so that compassion and acceptance of diverse perspectives end horrors like wars, starvation and hunger.  

Tagore’s writings translated to English by Mandal in Gleanings of the Road, a collection covering the maestro’s travel to the West, is part one of our book excerpts and highlights Rabindranath’s perspectives on the need to connect with the larger world. The other book excerpt, from Waiting, poetry by Suzanne Kamata, takes up the theme of victimisation, crime and murder. Dwelling on no less horrific narratives, though justified as non-criminal, is a review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre. Gracy Samjetsabam’s assessment of Half-Blood by Pronoti Datta informs about the greyer areas of a whole community in Mumbai. Indrashish Banerjee reviewed Keki Daruwalla’s stories on human relationships anthologised in a collection called Going: Stories of Kinship while Bhaskar Parichha has acquainted us with Deepti Priya Mehrotra’s Her Stories –Indian Women Down the Ages — Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens, a non-fiction that visits inspiring women.

Inspiration can also be drawn from Rinki Roy Bhattacharya’s and Maithili Rao’s The Oldest Love Story, featuring a medley of men and women writing on the theme of motherhood along with some narratives about their mothers or on the experience of being one. The medley includes well-known names from films and literature like Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, Shashi Deshpande, Nabanita Dev Sen and more. We interviewed Roy Bhattacharya to find out more about this impactful book. Achingliu Kamei, an academic and writer, has conversed with Naga writer, Veio Pou, whose award-winning book, Waiting for the Dust to Settle, was reviewed earlier — a book that gives a glimpse of conflicts in the Northeast of India.

Taking on the theme of conflicts at a personal level, Atreyo Chowdhury’s and Banerjee’s stories create a sense of disquiet as Paul Mirabile’s explores crime, madness and its impact on humans. G Thomas takes a relook at heroism and bravery as a concept. His story set in Kerala shakes our complacency, upending traditional concepts of heroism and bravery just as Candice Louisa Daquin has upended the cult of positivity in her essay. Notes of discord and accord seem to ring through this edition and the undertones of greys spread out towards an exploration of life and death. We have multiple ghost stories this time, even from the Nithari column written by Kiran Mishra, a youngster who got over the trauma of violence in the community and discovered her place as a bilingual writer and educator.

Our poetry section is honoured to host Walt Whitman Award winner, Jared Carter, again with his poetry on a Japanese artefact as George Freek’s continues to be inspired by the style of Song dynasty poets. Michael Burch writes beautiful love poems. We have a vibrant poetry section with Daquin, Sutputra Radheye, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Antara Mukherjee, Rhys Hughes, who has also revisited ‘The Penguin Café Orchestra‘. This band started a new kind of musical trend with nothing but passion and conviction. Hughes of course cannot escape the bonds of his tongue-in-cheek style, also adopted by Devraj Singh Kalsi while he pretends to be an ant.

Keith Lyons has got the bug of tongue-in-cheek too as he gives us a piece on his travels in Varanasi that well captures the dichotomies we find in India. Dwelling on social dichotomies also is Ratnottama Sengupta’s powerful tribute to Swatilekha Sengupta, a film and theatre doyenne who brought to life Tagore’s novel, Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985). An essay by Mozid Mahmud exploring both the syncretic elements in Tagore’s and Kabir’s works, the medieval poet’s impact on the Nobel laureate and a dispute over Rabindranath’s own translation blends with the tone of greys in this edition.

Travel narratives and photographs by Meredith Stephens sailing the seas in Tasmania and Ravi Shankar trekking on the slopes of the Himalayas to get a view of Mt Everest make for perfect holiday adventures. From Japan, Kamata has given us a narrative set in the pandemic. And environmentalist Kenny Peavy dwells on reconnecting with nature in Mission Earth.

We have a fair deal from across the globe in the June issue. But, as usual, some of the treats in the content have not been mentioned though they are wonderful pieces of writing too. We look forward to your continued support as you delve into our treasure trove of gems from across the oceans. A huge thanks to our fabulous team, to the contributors and readers. I especially want to thank Sohana Manzoor for sharing her lovely artwork and wish you all a wonderful read!

I hope you have a fabulous summer.

Thank you.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Slices from Life

Pizzas En Route to Paradise

There is the import and export of desires in one of the oldest cities in the world, beside one of the most revered rivers, as Keith Lyons discovers in Varanasi.

A sadhu watching over the early morning activity on the banks of the Ganges at Assi ghat. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

Most who come to Varanasi, deep down, are seeking peace. The ancient city formerly known as Kashi and Benares is the holy site for three religions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. For Hindus who flock to India’s spiritual capital from all over the country, bathing in the sacred Ganges is said to wash away all sins.

For me, as a non-religious outsider, I was also seeking inner peace, and perhaps a deeper understanding of the questions of life and death. But amid the surrealness of the labyrinthine old city, with its wandering bulls, revered shrines, marauding monkeys, and burning bodies, one thing I found was a place to satisfy my earthly material needs. 

“It’s to die for,” exclaimed an American bohemian I’d met a few weeks earlier in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. I ran into him strolling along the ghats — steps down to the Ganges that line the western bank of the curve in the wide river. Despite the 1256-page heavy Lonely Planet India, TripAdvisor and social media, there is nothing like word-of-mouth recommendations from fellow travellers. “So you are already at that party,” said Brad, impressed that I too had made it that far along the waterfront almost 2km from where I was staying. “Well, you can’t miss it, can you,” I replied. “It’s probably the only place of its kind right at the water’s edge, and if you don’t see it, you probably smell it.”

For many travellers who don’t want to be seen as sightseeing tourists but are in search of the authentic and the local, Varanasi seems to offer quite an array of experiences, some beyond the comfort level of leisure tourists who keep to the beaten path. Of the 88 ghats of Varanasi which are used for bathing, washing and ceremonial worship, there are two which are synonymous with the spiritual centre. Those two are exclusively used for cremations. 

The same reason for bathing in the sacred waters to obtain forgiveness for transgressions applies, but for the recently deceased, it is believed that if their ashes are scattered into the purifying Ganga, their reincarnation cycle will end — and they will reach nirvana.

As the one of the ‘seven sacred cities’, the place supreme deity Shiva (known as ‘The Destroyer’) brought into being by meditation, Varanasi and its cremation ghats represent the ultimate ‘geographical cure’. There are rest homes and ashrams where the elderly and terminally ill wait to die, believing that if they die in the old city, they will be redeemed of all their sins by Lord Shiva on the cremation pyre. 

Varanasi straddles the known world and the hidden, with the Ganges a crossing point between earth and heaven. For tens of thousands of foreigners who have Varanasi on their itinerary routes, it is fair to say many are seeking peace, but definitely not of the kind that involves the death of their current material existence. Instead, there is a curiosity about the openness of death and its rituals, and the chance to bear witness to the process which can be at the same time sad and soul-destroying yet also joyous and life-affirming. 

For those that don’t share the faith that propels people to this city, perhaps any visit to Varanasi could be described as macabre or dark tourism, fueled by the antagonism between testimony and voyeurism. The epitome of this is the quest by foreigners to get as close as possible to take photos of burning bodies. As if normal travel isn’t stressful enough, the macabre tourist seeks out encounters that have the potential to be emotional and even traumatic. 

I must admit, I did have a certain curiosity about witnessing wooden pyres where corpses were placed to be burned. And I did have a fear that I might identify a limb or hand being consumed by the fire, or even that somehow a writhing contorted face might emerge from the flames and snarl at me menacingly. 

That didn’t happen. What did happen is that I passed the cremation grounds numerous times during my walks up and down the riverbanks, occasionally pausing to observe from a distance, but the sight didn’t stir me as much as the reflection that this was how a culture and a religion farewell their dead. Having been an altar boy in the Catholic Church, I’d seen my fair share of embalmed bodies in coffins at teary sad funerals, but there was quite a different feeling at Varanasi. Anyway, I didn’t want to intrude as a gawking foreigner. 

I was just as interested in the negotiations for firewood between relatives and the lower-caste Doms. The price for 400 kg of wood can be around Rs 4,000 (around US$52), a visiting insurance broker from Mumbai tells me, as we stand on the steps beside towers of split logs from the Himalayas. “The better wood is more expensive, but the government is trying to encourage using things like coconut shells and cow dung cakes instead of cutting down more trees,” he says, before the discussion turns to cricket, and a New Zealand cricketer I’d never heard of who played for his beloved Mumbai Indians. Later that evening, to make up for my lack of patriotic sporting knowledge, I impress some local boys playing cricket on the uneven surface of a terrace by catching a whizzing ball with one hand. 

Wood merchant stack wood for cremations. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

I noticed that after the initial shock of seeing dead bodies, and after a few days, the constant exposure to these late rites meant that I could be sitting in the open-fronted government-approved 70-year-old Blue Lassi Shop and I wouldn’t even look up when a procession march along bearing a body destined for the Manikarnika ghat. Everyday hundreds of bodies are burned on the riverbank, with the no-frills natural gas crematorium operated 24/7. 

I had already taken on board — and possibly ignored through denial – the message of Varanasi: Death is unavoidable. One day, I will die. My body will be destroyed. Life on earth is finite. Make the most of it. 

I reflected on this as I stood sipping my tea at Dada ki Chai, or as I sought out the best kachori sabzi[1], or the sweet and sour channa1, dahi vada [2]on the crooked and crowded streets. 

So what else did I discover among the maze of alleyways, the crumbling palaces and the riverbank steps down to the river? Don’t dismiss me as a lousy traveller who can’t be without the comforts of home, but I have to admit one of the finds of my waterside wanderings was a red tent erected on the wide path, where a family had recently set up a low-key pizza eatery. 

Pizza? Yes, hand-made, wood-fired pizza. When I first visited, Sunil has only just started the venture. He was going to get some pizza boxes and a label for Euro Pizza and arrange a takeaway and delivery service. The only seating was a few plastic seats. 

Diners waited patiently in the cool evening, not so intent on breaking the cycle of death and rebirths but wanting respite from the hot spicy food served up in train stations and roadside dhabas.[3] 

In the distance, only a few minutes’ walk away, flames could be seen from the Maharaja Harishchandra ghat, Varanasi’s second, and smaller burning ground. Further along, sounds from the evening ceremony could be heard. But none of that mattered really. There was always a friendly grin from Sunil or a nod of recognition from his family members who cranked out the vegetarian pizzas. It was Rs.150 (US$2) for a ‘small’ pizza, but it was large enough to share. Which people did, with fellow travellers they’d just met, the whole of life made up of many triangle segments, their Varanasi stories to be told later about the burning corpses, the ashes scattered into the river, and the weirdest yet most wonderful thing: a pizzeria perched by a crematorium and a crossing to paradise.

Euro pizza’s humble red tent on the banks of the Ganges. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

[1] Savoury snacks

[2] A yoghurt-based snack

[3] Roadside eateries

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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