The year, 1997. Me, a freshly-pressed journalism graduate, itching to join the Indian print media. A dream that wouldn’t come to fruition. But I would get to scribble a few odd stories as a freelance writer. Ratnottama Sengupta, Times of India’s arts editor, would assign me stories on culture and literature–a “soft” beat I happily lapped up.
One of those stories was on Sahitya Akademi’s translation awards. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the Akademi’s chairperson at that time. What follows next is as hazy as the darkness of that early (or was it late) winter evening that swept the outside once the award ceremony was over. But not without light following it.
I don’t remember if it was part of my brief to interview him following the awards or if that was something I wanted to do. Nor do I remember how that interview was set up–did I ask him personally on the awards evening? Did I make a phone call to fix the appointment?
All I remember is I got some time to speak to him the next morning–he invited me to join him for breakfast at IIC–the awards venue and also his place of stay in Delhi. As I sat across him at the breakfast table, URA had enlisted his latest admirer. Given his stature, his manner of speaking–soft, respectful, involved–moved me at once. A light breakfast fare–idlys, coconut chutney, small uttapams, diced papaya–lay in the small table between us. He insisted I have some, despite my polite resistance. Introductions and breakfast over, we moved to his room for the interview. I had no recorder with me so longhand note-taking would have to do.
My knowledge of translations then was as limited as my knowledge of languages is now. As indicated above, my memory of our conversation is blurry. I do remember, however, the lambent beam of light streaming in through the window and the lush cover of green beyond it. When URA started speaking, his words seemed engulfed in a similar beam–gentle, yet radiant with insights and committed interest.
I remember him lamenting the fact that a lot of translation of Indian language works have to happen through a link language like English or Hindi. He wished there were more direct translations–from Kannada to Bengali, Marathi to Kashmiri and so on. His eyes lit up when he shared his vision of a day when school-going children in one region would learn a language from another region. And I wondered why wasn’t this happening already? Why could I not learn Malayalam or Assamese in school? And even then I understood, this wouldn’t just be about learning a new language, but also about making friends with a new culture and its people, if only through the solitary medium of books.
At the end of our conversation, I touched his feet (a mark of deference I extend with considered discretion). He smiled and said, “We need more bright people like you.Thank you so much.” Even though I didn’t believe that about myself, the warmth and sincerity of his tone, the genuine spark of hope in his eyes made those words credible to me.
So long then, Sir.
Image source: http://kvsas.by2coffeefilms.com/blog
My essay on the call of the road as revealed by The Motorcycle Diaries and On the Road, two modern road-trip classics. In DNA.
After the revelry,
a night commuter’s
Winds beat down
on the asphalt
mocking the drums
that blared moments ago.
UPDATE: The special issue on diaspora living, Here and There: The Diaspora Universe is now up at Cafe Dissensus.
Note: This submission call is on behalf of Cafe Dissensus.
About five years ago, I came to embody the etymology of the word diaspora, which comes from the Greek diaspeirein, meaning to scatter about or disperse. Marriage brought me to Western shores – first in balmy California and later to the Canadian shield in southern Ontario.
I find it interesting that the concept of diaspora has its roots in the earthly act of scattering, because the process of migration is one of dispersal on more levels than merely the physical one.
The drift across different points on a map can’t happen without cross-pollination – of habits and habitats, mindsets and memories. One learns to imagine the koel’s morning call in a robin’s song and see the blaze of gulmohar flowers in crimson fall colours. Diaspora islands germinate amidst fast-paced and crowded world cities even as the islanders strain to tread the tightrope between integrating and preserving.
I will be guest editing a forthcoming issue of Café Dissensus focusing on diaspora living. We will seek to explore through fiction, creative non-fiction, and audio-visual expressions:
1) The reality versus illusion of boundaries with respect to identities.
2) Inter-generational conflicts and contradictions in diaspora universes.
3) The challenges of “settling” in a new territory – societal, cultural, emotional.
4) The rewards of diaspora living – embracing new cultural mores, wider exposure to issues facing other communities, interconnectedness.
5) Translations of fiction and non-fiction work on diaspora.
Along with the written pieces, we are also open to audio-visual content. If you would like to do a short interview (5-15 minutes) with an author, a scholar, a faculty etc., please feel free to send that to us. Please send us an edited copy.
We are also looking to include photographs and artwork that explore this issue’s theme.
Your submissions should not exceed 1500 words. Please email them to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, provide a brief bio at the end of your piece. This issue is planned for online publication on 1 July, 2014. Submissions will be accepted until June 25, 2014.
General guidelines are here.
Cafe Dissensus is an alternative magazine dealing in art, culture, literature, and politics. It’s based in New York City, USA.
[This is an extract from "Aranyalipi," Amiya Sen’s nonfiction book-length account of refugees from East Pakistan who had been rehabilitated in Dandakaranya, a region that includes parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Dandakaranya Development Authority was created by the union government in 1958 to assist refugees from Pakistan. This excerpt appears in Muse India's Literature of Refugees issue.]
…I had no idea about Dandakaranya. After crossing a hundred and forty-five miles of hilly terrain between Mana camp and Raipur we reached Kondagaon–high above the plains. Yet, even at that point, I didn’t realize we were at the forest’s gate. This was the entrance to the heart of the Dandakaranya project. I had imagined the real Dandak forest lay deeper inside. This was a dense settlement of thousands of people–little Bengal, just like little Andaman.
Jogani astounded me. This was the first planned village as part of the project, about six or seven miles from Kondagaon. In July 1959, the village of Jogani was established with 88 families and a total population of 392.
Although we are now urban dwellers on a mass basis, the image of a village is well etched in our hearts. It is rare to find an individual who hasn’t seen a village or lived in one for at least some time. But what a village this was! A few drab-looking tin houses sat in an area cleared off the forest floor. No other human settlement was visible through the gaps of the scattered shaal trees lining the nearby area.
A few broken houses dotted the landscape. Many of those rehabilitated here with government aid had already left the village. Jogani’s land is sterile; it doesn’t cultivate any edible crop. I was told that only two or three families had been lucky enough to receive arable land. The rest of the land was left unclaimed at the time of my visit. Those who left the village didn’t do so without giving a fight to the infertile soil. Along with their menfolk, women too had taken up crowbars to rid the soil of shaal saplings and weeds. For days on end, many of them ate grass seeds to curb hunger. At last, helpless and defeated, they drifted off this settlement.
There is soil-testing laboratory in Jagdalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Apparently, all peasant refugees are allotted land only after the soil is tested in that lab. But Jogani tells a different story–it doesn’t seem like the soil of this village was ever tested. This could be the first step of an experiment with agriculture-reliant refugees.
Those who have stayed back in the village depend on jobs or labour. Take Jaladhar Sarkar, for instance. He came to India in 1954, from Bishwambhapur village in Srihatta district. After living in a camp for four years, he has been rehabilitated in Jogani with twenty-one bighas of land. He and his two sons support a family of six or seven by working as peons and construction workers. The land they received lies fallow and unused.
In 1960, a loom had been opened in Jogani. It still exists but has lost its sheen. Work goes on at an irregular pace. Whenever the products made there accumulate, there is a pause in the work of daily wagers.
Currently, the only employment generator around Jogani is Borgaon Industrial Centre, about four or five miles from the village. Men and women from Jogani walk every day to work there. Among them, the daily wagers are the most disadvantaged. The work, low-paying as it is, doesn’t come with the guarantee of being available all through the year.
It was a Monday. The village, if one could call this desert-like place that, looked totally deserted. Besides shaaland mahua trees, there was no sign of green anywhere. Not even a pumpkin or bottle gourd patch that one saw in Mana’s camps. Mana has water, it has canals and ponds. Here, tube wells exist. Had paddy or any other crop grown on the land, the villagers would have pumped out water to cultivate some vegetables. But where is the time for that now! Every morning they must run to Borgaon in search of work. If only that could fill their bellies! But then, it’s possible that that the soil here is indeed barren.
I met a few people–none of them evinced any joy on having received land and a house for free. Actually, they got the money for their houses as a loan, which they needed to pay off once they were settled. But what settlement and what pay-off? With no place to go, they continue to stay here, in spite of all hardship. But they are not un-enterprising. They toil hard to make sure their children receive education. They would take up any work that comes their way. But the opportunities are so limited.
The very first step of the Dandakaranya settlement left me disappointed. In comparison, I was pleased to see Bijapur as part of my present trip. This was situated in Bastar too, but as a transit camp, not a village. As of March 15, 1965, 67 families stayed there.
There were only two tube wells in the entire camp. But a spot of green welcomed one to every hut. Bottle gourd and pumpkin vines climbed up the roofs of huts. Mounds of mahua flowers were spread out to dry in front of several houses. These would be boiled to make jaggery. This settlement was forest-dependant too. But the dense cluster of huts and the camp’s consistent population had imbued it with a lively atmosphere. The camp dwellers effused optimism. They dreamed of ascending to a better life — of farmland, house, agricultural loan, and the victory roll of produce brushing against plough.
Life is at work, everywhere. Saplings pierce cracked walls to sprout. Flowers bloom on mountain tops. I have even seen fish germinating in the city’s makeshift drains.
I enter a hut and find a young mother carrying her infant on her lap. It’s her first born. The young father, though excited, is also a bit distressed. Nights in Bastar are still quite chilly. The child doesn’t have any warm clothing. In many homes, I saw just kanthas and pillows for bedding. No one has quilts or blankets. Almost all these people arrived in India following the 1964 riots in Pakistan.
In an instant, that cabinet stuffed with blankets in Mana flashed before my eyes.
I ask the refugees, “Didn’t you get any blankets?”
“No, didimoni,” say the men and women in unison. “We only got woks, enamel plates, a bucket and a few such things. These were given to us in Sealdah station. We didn’t get anything after coming here.”
“You all came here through Mana, right?”
The path to enter Dandakaranya is through Mana—the headquarters of all transit camps and work centres of the project.
According to government statistics, refugees over the age of eight are provided sixteen rupees or clothing worth that amount. The record doesn’t mention how many times this happens; possibly only once. The record also notes the distribution of blankets.
“Woollen blankets may be supplied at the rate of one blanket per adult, subject to a maximum of three per family.” [Estimates Committee, (B.C. No. 412) 1964-65]
The blankets were meant for last year’s riot victims. These refugees belong to the same category. Why didn’t they get the blankets then?
The dole money the refugees receive isn’t enough to cover even two square meals a day, let alone allow for clothes. But leave aside government funds and statistics; the stash I saw in Mana came mostly from donations meant for refugees. If those blankets don’t come to these unfortunate people, have they been filled in almirahs just for the purpose of being displayed to VIPs?
In Mana, expecting mothers received yet another benefit. When a baby was born, the mother and her child got a set of new clothes. The women of Jogani aren’t as fortunate.
A gentleman accompanying me said, “Don’t believe everything they say. These people here are no less sly; they might have sold off the blankets.”
I know it is easier being the devil than the lord. But looking at their faces, it appeared improbable that so many male and female devils had landed here from East Bengal.
For argument’s sake, even if one accepted the gentleman’s proposition, the question remains as to why these people sold off the blankets. One can discount those who have left the camp. But those who have stayed back know very well how indispensable blankets are during winters here. They are also aware that it is impossible for them to find any alternative sources of combating the cold weather. If knowing this, they still sold off the blankets, it follows they must have done so out of extreme penury.
The British robbed India to add riches to its empire. And we have robbed our own poor of food and shelter–in the name of freedom.
My April column on missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada is now up at Cafe Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine.
I call her Komal Gandhar
in my mind.
She would sit stunned if she learned about it,
“What does it mean?” she’d ask smilingly
That it is unfathomable is its most certain meaning.
The world is about work and vocation,
about different shades of good and bad—
Things that connect her to others.
I watch, sitting by her side
how she infuses her surroundings with a peculiar melody.
She knows not her own self.
At the spot where her Beloved’s altar is placed
an agony-incense burns by His feet.
From there, a shadow of smoke engulfs the eyes,
like clouds enveloping the moon—
masking the smile a little.
Her voice carries a fading strain of melancholy.
She is unaware that it’s the same strain that
binds the strings of her life’s tanpura.
The notes of Bhairavi permeate all her
words and actions.
I cannot conclude why.
That’s the reason I call her Komal Gandhar—
It is hard to comprehend why
teardrops glide into the heart
when she lifts her eyes.
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh
You might hide behind the clouds
and sprinkle snow in place of sun
But the birds, they can see you fine,
come out, there is no place to run.
True, the trees are still all bare
and the ground is missing shades of green,
but birdcalls herald happy tidings
and sing aloud, “Spring is in!”
Seize this day while you can
show us how to make it right
the things you need are easy enough,
tulips, fresh sprigs and sunlight.