Floating Free

By Lakshmi Kannan

 Harshavardhini sat on the swing, like a still, motionless figure. The birds were still around, for it was not too late in the evening.  After the revelry  and the din of an entire  day spent in the Disney Land, Harshavardhini needed the quiet space of this community park at Irvine, California. Her friends pulled her into one last trip to Disney Land before she would leave for Delhi. She spent the day taking thrilling rides, watching shows, shaking hands with a friendly Mickey Mouse, eating endlessly, winning games and losing, all the time looking at things through the eyes of her children. She longed for their company. They would’ve doubled her joy.

Perched on the swing, she looked at the children playing around in the park under the watchful eyes of their parents. On the lanes around the edge of the park, people were walking briskly, some were jogging on a steady pace. Harshi, as she was called by most of her family and friends, counted the remaining days she had in Irvine, before she would take her flight back to home in Delhi in four days from now. I should come to this park again before I leave, she told herself, pushing the uncomfortable thoughts about tidying up the apartment before handing it over, packing clothes, books, and things from the final shopping trip.

 She would miss Susan Green, who had not only enrolled for the same course, but also shared Harshi’s nice apartment on the campus. Susan offered to share the rent and  both of them could put the money saved to good use. They each had a room of their own and met only in the living room, the kitchen and dining room in that comfortable, sunny and spacious two-bedroom apartment. Sure enough, Susan spelt her name as Hershey, after the famous chocolate in the US  and justified it by saying it sounds much the same as ‘Harshi’. She became Hershey to everybody else in her course, including the professors. It was a happy surprise to find that Susan was equally earnest in giving her full focus to this rare course on Hermeneutics for which the university had hand-picked a galaxy of faculty from the rest of the US – some of the best minds from Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and Chicago and a culturally diverse bunch of participants both overseas and American, whose paper publications were the main criteria for selection.

Before the program started, Susan, Harshi and the others were in awe of the professors and their fame. All of them were star academics whose books they had read and admired in print,  and who had influenced their methods of teaching and thinking. Now they were going to see them in flesh and hear them. What would they look like?  And their voice, would it touch them?   

The professors arrived like a proverbial breath of fresh air and put them through a breathless pace of course work. Susan, Harshi and most of the others loved it, every moment of it.

Harshi bought some of the books written by these academics, got them inscribed by the authors and sent them home by surface mail, as most of the books were heavy, hard back editions. It was unlikely that she would find them in the book shops in Delhi. Now she was left with  only a few light paperbacks to pack along with her clothes and the shopping she had done for Siddharth, her husband, and their children. She was anxious to return home and relieve him of all the additional work he had taken on. It was so brave of him to take care of their kids and home in her absence.

 If only her mother had been around, she would’ve been the first one to reach their home to take complete charge of running the house and managing the kids who got along with her very well. But Amma left this world and for the first time in their lives, Siddharth and Harshi had to manage their travels out of the country and other professional contingencies without her. It was tough. As they struggled hard to cope with their work, their home and kids, they realized how much Amma had taken upon herself selflessly, to let the two of them function smoothly and peacefully. Harshi couldn’t have got her Ph.D., made some career moves, pursued creative writing and taken Indian writing to other parts of the world without her. Thanks to Amma, both Siddharth and Harshi could be away from home with a sense of security that their children were looked after by their doting grandmother. 

 Now, there was the reality of the next few days. The apartment had to be thoroughly cleaned before she handed it over, and there was the packing.   

 Let me not think of that, let me just listen to the restful sounds of this evening, thought Harshi, closing her eyes. She continued to sit still on the swing when she heard a faint buzz near her face. Oh God, that was probably a honeybee! It would surely sting! Slowly, she opened her eyes to avert the bee. It was a hummingbird fluttering its delicate wings that had caused the sustained drone. It now hovered very close to her face, almost making eye contact with her.  It can’tharm me, I’m wearing my specs, so that’ll protect my eyes. Rather, I shouldn’t harm this darling little bird by my hard stare. Let me just pretend that it’s not there, even though it’s hovering near my nose now. Let me not scare it away by my jerky movements. I’ll sit absolutely still and just listen.

Harshi froze like a statue. This dainty little bird with tiny feet, it doesn’t seem to sit anywhere to rest, but just hovers around so joyfully. It’s blowing gusts of happiness on my face with its small wings. It’s telling me something.  

She closed her eyes to absorb the beauty of the moment. It was only in California that she got to see the famed humming birds. It was also interesting to read about them. She recalled a legend that was wrapped around this bird. The lines came across as sheer poetry!  

                                             Humming Birds

Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

 Slowly, Harshi opened her eyes. The bird flew away from her, made a large arc to hover over the flowering plants nearby, and then returned to circle around her face. It  moved close to her ears and was saying something with its flapping wings. Harshi nodded.  

 I know, little bird. I know you’re my Amma who has come back from the other world to talk to me for a while,’ whispered Harshi, her eyes going moist. Amma, I know this is you, flapping within the tender little body of this humming bird. Yes, I hear you clearly. You’re my fragile, underweight Amma with innumerable health issues that were unmatched with your immense reserves of strength.

 “A hummingbird being small, it’s logical that its egg is also small, it’s just the size of a pea,” said an article in National Geographic. But Amma, to everybody’s shock, you gave birth to me, an overweight baby, 4 kg. 536 gms (10 lbs.) at birth,  instead of the usual 3 kg. 175 gms (which is 7 lbs.)! The doctors and the family found it miraculous that a thin, emaciated, undernourished, underweight young woman like you, who never kept well for long, would deliver a baby like me. You told me that the newborn baby dresses that were made for me wouldn’t fit, that new dresses were ordered and that there was a permanent mark of black kohl on my left cheek close to my ear that my grandma had applied, to remove kann drishti.

You raised me without a nanny, although I gave you a tough time. I was naughty, adventurous, but you saw me through all that and more, and those were my foraysinto sports and athletics. You never once forgot to alert me that I shouldn’t slacken in my studies. Your frequent spells of illness, your inability to eat, or retain anything you eat, cast a shadow on our lives. You continued to lose weight, yet your unconditional love for me and for your family throbbed on your little feathered bird breast.

 You gave me a baby brother at great cost to your life and health. The doctors were amazed to note your high pain threshold. My grandparents were furious that you should have risked your life with another pregnancy, but you pacified them by saying your husband and in-laws craved for a male child.

 When the doctors diagnosed a serious malfunction in your small intestine, you had to go through a surgery. I was in primary school then. I would rush to the hospital as soon as I returned from school and you sat up on bed to butter those long, crisp golden hued imported biscuits for me to eat. Eyes shining, you would ask me about my day and if I had played games after school. As if on cue, you would apply butter on one more crisp biscuit and put it on my plate…and one more… until I couldn’t eat any more.

Post- surgery, the doctors put you on a liquid diet that was to continue for the next fifteen years! Naturally, you lost more weight and became this frail packet of indefatigable energy, love and selflessness that astonished all of us. Still, there were some cruel people in our extended family who took you for granted. I seethed with anger, one of the many other spells of anger I was to experience as a growing girl child. Later, I had to learn a lot about anger management, as did my friends. Some of my anger was directed against you as well. “You’ve internalised patriarchy and that’s regressive!” I would argue hotly, while you looked bewildered by my feminist pedagogy, a new burden I carry now, along with my peers. We fought over issues, like mothers and daughters do, until I realised that you too were quietly evolving as a clever feminist-in-the-making, unbeknownst to the family.  Wisely, you didn’t squander any feminist vocabulary on the resistant family. Instead, you used strategies to grow your wings independently, right under their nose!  

What blossomed through all these travails was your stunning talent for painting. You were a natural! Noting this, my grandfather enrolled you in a professional course on painting in a Fine Arts College. He ordered for the branded imported paints, Windsor & Newton, specially flown all the way from England. Their superior quality glows till date in the rich tints behind the glass of your framed paintings. While your diet was liquid,  your output was solid. In a prolific abundance, you did landscapes, still-life, thematic triptych and portraits that won accolade from your teachers and art critics for their intuitive depth. The water colours, charcoal sketches and oil on canvas drew the attention of visitors in art galleries. Your high point was portrait. You were counted as one of the best artists for your haunting portraits of well- known personalities  such as Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahans, his consort Sarada Devi and the lovely Shobhana Samarth. As for Mahatma Gandhi, commissions rained on you for painting his portraits. Art critics were quick to observe that you excelled especially in portraits of elderly people, and made the wrinkles on their face speak eloquently of all they had endured in life. Portraits became your unique selling proposition. To everybody’s utter surprise, you chose to paint me. Why me, a mere frisky ten-year old, an odd misfit in this gallery of ‘the famous’? I sat for you, thrilled beyond belief, while you chided me for fidgeting on my chair. When an artist, a scion of the Tagore family visited our home to buy two of your paintings, you sat demurely in a far corner with a shy smile on your face, and let my father completely monopolise the conversation with the distinguished gentleman.  

 Amma, you were here, there, everywhere, flying around, looking after us and the large extended family selflessly. You were like seven women put together. And when you left, all seven of you went out of our lives on a single day. The world around me shrank to a miserable little size. Something vital went out of my life. And now Amma, you’re back in the body of this small hummingbird that just doesn’t let me go out of its orbit. Like this bird with its tiny legs, you with your small fragile frame, were a strong woman. Ephemeral, yet eternal. You float on time, so I will always wait for you. You’ll come when I need you, I know. You’re untrammeled by body mass or messy emotions that weigh us down. You lived life the simple way – with love, joy, service and acceptance.

 The bird hummed on near Harshi’s ears.    


Glossary                                                                                                    kann dhrishti  An Indian belief that one can remove ‘the malevolent eye’ of people by applying a black spot with kohl on the face of a healthy child.  

kohl: Dark substance that people apply around their eyes to make them look attractive.  


Lakshmi Kannan, also known by her Tamil pen-name “Kaaveri”, has published twenty-five books till date that include poems, novels, short stories and translations.  Wooden Cow (Translation, 2021) Sipping the Jasmine Moon: Poems (2019) and The Glass Bead Curtain, Novel (2020, c 2016) are her recent publications. For more details, please visit  



Author Page

Somdatta Mandal

Somdatta Mandal is a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.


Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest

In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal, a translator, scholar and writer who has much to say on the state of Santiniketan, Tagore, women’s writing on travel and more. Click here to read.


Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

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

Letters from Japan, Europe & America

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

Letters from Tagore

An excerpt from Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal, showcasing Tagore’s introduction and letters. Click here to read.

A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das

An excerpt from Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885). Click here to read.

Playlets by Rabindranath Tagore 

Two skits that reveal the lighter side of the poet. They have been translated from Bengali by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

The Ordeal of Fame

A humorous skit by Rabindranath, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

The Funeral

A satirical skit by Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read. 

Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road

Book excerpt brilliantly translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

The Welcome

A skit by Tagore, has been translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

 The Treatment of an Ailment

A humorous skit has been translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Book reviews

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

Himadri Lahiri reviews Somdatta Mandal’s ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore. Click here to read.

A review by Meenakshi Malhotra of Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, a translation from a conglomeration of writings from all the Maestro’s caregivers. Click hereto read.

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed BM Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakir. Click here to read. 

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises. Click here to read. 

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

Somdatta Mandal reviews Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel. Click here to read. 

Somdatta Mandal reviews Sudeshna Guha’s A History of India Through 75 Objects. Click here to read. 


Borderless, October 2021

An Ode to Autumn: Painting by Sohana Manzoor.


Making a Grecian Urn… Click here to read.


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

The Traveller in Time: An interview with Sybil Pretious who has lived through history in six countries and travelled to forty — she has participated in the first democratic elections in an apartheid-worn South Africa and is from a time when Rhodesia was the name for Zimbabwe. Click here to read.


Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

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

The Quest for Home

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

Mysteries of the Universe

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

Gandhi & Robot

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

Sorrows Left Alone

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

The Song of Advent by Tagore

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


Click on the names to read

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

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

Nature’s Musings

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

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

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

Musings/ Slices From Life

At the Doctor’s

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

Taking an unexpected turn

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

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

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

Musings of a Copywriter

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


A Season of Magical Mellow Wistfulness

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

What Gandhi Teaches Me

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

How Women’s Education Flourished in Aligarh Muslim University

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

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Friendships & Farewells

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

When Needles Became Canons…

Ratnottama Sengupta, who has edited an encyclopaedia on culture and is a renowned arts journalist, gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle. Click here to read.


Lunch with Baba Rinpoche in Kathmandu

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

The Tree of Life

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

Odysseus & Me: A Quest for Home

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

Dawn in Calicut

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

I am a Coward with Priorities

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

The Literary Fictionist

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

Book Excerpts

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

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

Book Reviews

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

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

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

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


Making a Grecian Urn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal


Wooden Cow

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: Wooden Cow

Author & Translator: T. Janakiraman, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan

Publisher: Orient Blackswan Private Ltd, 2021

T. Janakiraman (1921-82), affectionately known as Thi Jaa, is an iconic, widely read and revered Tamil writer and one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. Belonging to the Manikkodi movement in Tamil literature, which brought in new ways of writing, with an emphasis on the art of fiction as practiced by the Modernist writers in England, he wrote in a deliberately pared-down style and explored psychological ramifications. It is no coincidence that the hundredth year of his birth is being celebrated in 2021 in a great way. As a tribute to him, Orient Blackswan has just published a second edition of his Tamil novel Marappasu (Wooden Cow) aptly translated by Lakshmi Kannan, the well-known contemporary bilingual writer and poet. A novel quite controversial when it was written, it is basically the portrayal of a strong woman who lives by her own convictions, rejects the institution of marriage, and who remains true to herself, despite social censure.

Narrated in the first person by the protagonist Ammani, it is through her consciousness that the events of the novel are reflected. Divided into two parts, the first section delineates Ammani’s growth from a precocious child to a luminous, spirited young woman. She leaves her natal home for higher education to live with her Periappa and Periamma, her uncle and aunt, and starts living a non-traditional life. The opening sentence of the novel, “Almost anything makes me laugh” vouches for her strange beliefs and behavior. Her headstrong nature coupled with her intolerance of injustice results in her being mired in controversy over and over again. She ‘hardened’ her mind as she “knew there is no meaning in marriage and all that sham in the name of respectability”. She doesn’t wish to steal but wishes to live on her own terms. She spouts communist philosophy and rails against the unjust treatment of the poor by the government. Though financially very poor, she goes and invites the famous singer and musician Gopali to perform at her cousin’s wedding celebrations. Soon Gopali’s charisma draws her into his ambit. He takes her to Madras and also arranges dance lessons for her and moves her into a house he buys for her. Ammani rejects marriage as a bourgeois concept but soon accepts her hedonistic new life and begins her unconventional and volatile relationship with Gopali.

In the second part of the novel, we see Ammani as a woman of the world, divested of all her connections with traditional Brahmin society. Wary of marriage, which she sees as a lifelong imprisonment, she travels around the world giving Bharatnatyam performances.  Gradually her relationship with Gopali is strained when he realises that he is not her only male companion. Ammani’s many romantic entanglements provide her with a different view of the man-woman relationship. She gets into a relationship with a man called Pattabhi but laughs it off when he proposes marriage, thus wounding him deeply. Throughout the novel there are many more instances of her waywardness. She poses as a streetwalker in London and picks up a Vietnam war veteran called Bruce with whom she spends three weeks. Initially Bruce is convinced that he “got to know a rare human being”. He tells her, “You may have slept with three hundred people and kissed a few thousand. But you are a very pure woman”. But when he tries to be intimate with her, Ammani states: “I’m a public girl. At the same time, I’m also not public. I can be bought. But I’m also not for sale. It’s possible to stick to me, but it won’t last. Why are you looking at me as if I was an exhibit?”

She explains to him that she has no relations or friends. She drops each friend in their place and moves on. While on a train journey with Gopali, she makes a sardonic assertion that she is not Gopali’s wife and confuses the fellow English passengers travelling with them. Thus, far from adhering to the caste and class hierarchies and morality, the novelist portrays Ammani as a woman who lives by her own convictions and remains true to herself despite social censure. Towards the end of the story however she realises through the marital relationship between her servant Pachiappan and his wife Maragadham that a man and a woman can also be true soulmates, and this renews her faith in the institution of marriage.

The title is based on her perceptions when she sees a dead cow on the street one day. People were wary of the unpleasant task of having to dispose the carcass, even though the cow had provided milk and had borne calves when she was alive. Metaphorically speaking, she perceives herself to be similar to the cow that lacks functionality, and therefore wooden. By disclaiming the institution of marriage, she has been merely a shining curio that has not been of any real value to others.

Translation and its problems are nothing unique and hence critics have even labelled it by terms like ‘transliteration’ and ‘transcreation.’ In Mouse or Rat? Translation As Negotiation, Umberto Eco writes about a postlapsarian movement between different tongues, the perilous attempt to express concepts from one language into another. “Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.” By suggesting that translation is a negotiation’ not just between words but between cultures, whether it be a loss or a gain on either side, Eco emphasizes that a translator’s job is to decide what elements are vital and which may be neglected. In another instance, the problems of translation are put forward by Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest novel Whereabouts (which she self-translated from Italian to English) attests to the fact: “Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways.”

That Lakshmi Kannan decided to re-translate the original Tamil text once again after a gap of nearly forty years vouches for the fact that a translation can never be declared as one and final. What she did in the first edition in 1979 left her dissatisfied and as she herself declared, trying to do a fresh translation of an older piece of work was like wrestling with “a new kind of beast that is hard to describe and difficult to handle”.

By paying more attention to enhance readability for a contemporary audience as well as to preserve the Tamil flavor of the original by retaining many original words in the text and providing a glossary at the end, this revised version has emerged rejuvenated as a new text.

As Anita Balakrishnan rightly points out in her foreword, the author wrote in the distinctive Tamil dialect of the Kaveri delta that created a characteristic style. This made the task of translating even more daunting, for the carrying across of the nuances of the Thanjavur Brahmin register is no mean task. Also, Jankiraman’s technique of interweaving the mellifluous strains of Carnatic music with his pathbreaking themes helped him to ensure his place in the great tradition of modern Tamil fiction. With a good command of both English and Tamil, Kannan’s translation ably captures the nuances of the original text, and she should be congratulated for bringing the works of T. Janakiraman to a pan-Indian as well as global readership. Her unique attempt to re-translate the novel once again by rectifying all the lapses in the earlier translation speaks of her sincerity, integrity and ultimately love for her mother tongue Tamil as well.

Somdatta Mandal is a critic and translator and a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.