The BBC Connect

I recently attended a thought-provoking talk by anthropologist and storyteller Gauri Raje on autobiographical storytelling and personal stories. Gauri, an old friend, now lives and works in the UK with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. For several years  Gauri has worked, through biographical storytelling, with ‘displaced people’ from many parts of the world–refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, seeking to start a new life in England. Through workshops involving story telling and story making, these people, uprooted from all that was familiar, in a precarious situation regarding their future in a strange and alien culture, were encouraged to tell  personal stories that they have never told in public. Gauri shared some of her many heart-rending, heart touching exchanges with these fragile people. The stories they shared were tales of incredible grit and resilience.

One of the stories was of a young Sudanese man who entered England as a stowaway clinging to the undercarriage of the Chunnel train. When the young man reported to the local police station where he had stepped onto English soil, he found that he could not understand the English that the police spoke. In an interesting aside to his story, he was emphatic that this was not at all like the English that he had heard spoken over the BBC radio that he listened to when he was in his home country!

While this revelation had its own impact (and that is another story!), it reminded me of a book I read a few months ago which, curiously, was based on another BBC connection. This was the true story of an unlikely friendship between a journalist with the BBC World Service in London and a Professor of English in war-battered Baghdad.

It began in 2005 when Bee Rowlatt, the journalist emailed May Witwit an Iraqi woman to confirm and prepare for a telephone interview about day-to-day life in Baghdad, and about her thoughts on the forthcoming elections there. May’s detailed and frank responses prompted more curiosity and questions from Bee, and a friendship developed between the two women. The “official BBC e-mail” planted the seeds of a correspondence that spanned from 2005-2008, with the two women sharing their news and thoughts about their work, family and life—at some levels-the social and political-poles apart, and yet so close in terms of shared emotions—despondency, depression, laughter and love.

The correspondence developed into a project to get May out of the dangerous and unhappy life in Iraq to seek asylum in Britain. The e-mails traces the challenges and travails in this venture—to gain asylum status and enough money to start a new life in a new land. Interestingly, here also the e-mail correspondence turned out to be key to this – its publication in book form helped to raise funds so May could prove that she had the financial support to come with her husband, to study in Britain.

The book is titled Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: the True Story of an Unlikely Friendship

 I am sure Gauri has facilitated many such stories to be told and shared from people in similar circumstances and I hope, some day, to hear some of these stories from her.

For now, it is for me just to share a coincidence of two stories that had a BBC Connect in their own special way.

–Mamata

 

I Wonder

While I soak in the sunshine on a pleasantly cool Ahmedabad winter day I read that the big Arctic chill has hit North America and Europe. It’s cold, cold, cold! News reports show how the blanket of snow has brought life to a standstill, and people are being interviewed to share how they are coping.

I remember a poem that wonders how the Snow itself must feel.

SNOW PILE

Snow on top
must feel chilly
the cold moonlight piercing it.

 Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

 Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.

The poem was written in the 1920s by a young Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. “Teru” as she was called, was born in 1903 in a family of booksellers in a small fishing village in western Japan.  The book-loving child was encouraged to study by her mother and grandmother, and she stayed in school until she was 18, a rare achievement for Japanese girls at the time. She began writing poetry at age 20, and signed her work “Misuzu”, in an allusion to classical Japanese literature meaning “where the bamboo is reaped.”

In her poetry, Misuzu would share her sense of curiosity and wonder–What does snow feel in a drift?  Where does day end and night begin?  Why don’t adults ask the questions children do?   “To Misuzu, everything was alive and had its own feelings—plants, rocks, even telephone poles! She felt the loneliness of whale calves orphaned after a hunt. She felt the night-time chill of cicadas who had shed their old shells. And she felt the tearful sadness of a flower wet with dew.”

Sadly her personal life was tragic and she committed suicide when she was only 27 years old. Kaneko and her work were forgotten for the next 50 years. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family. It is only in the 1980s that another Japanese poet Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts and these were published.

Today, almost a 100 years later, Kaneko’s poems remain as fresh and moving with their innocent sense of wonder.

I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.


I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.


I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.


I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”

If only we could all retain that magical sense of wonder rather than simply accepting “That’s just how it is.”

–Mamata

 

A Celebration of Solitude

I was introduced to Ruskin Bond over 30 years ago by Uncle Ken and Rusty. These were the characters in the first books that I translated. I so enjoyed the madcap adventures of the eccentric Uncle Ken and the restless school boy Rusty, not just for the stories but for the simple style of writing and the lovely use of language. As a translator it was a challenge to try to retain the spirit and the form in another language.

Following this introduction I continued to follow Ruskin Bond on his wanderings and meanderings through his essays and columns. Here was someone who was not only sensitive to, and entranced by every minute detail of nature, but one who could share this evocatively through words.

When Ruskin Bond’s autobiography was published just over a year ago, I was curious and eager to fill in the blanks and to know more about Ruskin the person. I recently read the book called Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography.  In it saw how many parts of his own life have been woven in his writings. Ruskin’s story is simply told and flows gently through eight decades, capturing flavours of the life of the angrez and the Anglo-Indians from the colonial times, through the Second World War, India’s partition and the birth and development of the new republic.

Ruskin writes about family and friends, travels and travails, painting word pictures that make one feel as if one is leafing through a real photo album. As he wrote “That’s what life is really like—episodic, full of highs and lows and some fairly dull troughs in between. Life is not a novel, it does not have the organisation of a novel. People are not characters in a play; they refuse to conform to the exigencies of a plot or a set of scenes. Some people become an integral part of our lives; others are ships that pass in the night. Short stories, in fact.”

For me there were “Eureka” moments when one recognized the people who became memorable characters in many of his stories. I marveled at the memory that could conjure up images from sixty-seventy years ago, but I also learnt the value of keeping a journal, something that Ruskin has done since his school days.

Above all, what the book reiterated was the celebration of solitude.  Ruskin Bond is not a recluse nor one who shuns human contact. As a boy he writes that he was lonely, “loneliness that was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found.” This solitude he found in nature, nature is the companion that has sustained and energized him over eighty years, and with it, the magic of the words to share the joy with others.

“I’m like a lone fox dancingIMG_20190126_102042 (2).jpg

In the morning dew.”

–Mamata

 

 

Dear Sir,

In school, one of the standard writing exercises in our language classes was to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. We were encouraged to think about issues—from local to global—and express our considered opinion on the same in the letter. It was also an exercise in the proper form of address, the clear enunciation of views, and discipline of expressing what we had to say in limited words.

It was not only the writing, but also the reading of letters to editors in newspapers that was an integral part of the morning newspaper reading ritual. Over the years, it was comforting to know that the right hand column on the middle page of my newspaper would carry the day’s letters. Over time, one became familiar with some of the ‘regular’ writers, and were amused, appalled, or in silent agreement with the views expressed.

In recent times this part of the daily newspaper has been disappearing in many papers. In the age of social media, people express their views instantly, in the required number of characters. The almost knee-jerk reaction to happenings invokes an equally instant avalanche of responses. And, then, a new day begins with a fresh news-storm as it were.

Long before all this, it was a tradition of newspapers around the world to carry their readers’ opinions, thoughts, questions, and outrage on the news of the day.  What is it that motivates people to write these letters? Letter writers do not receive material compensation for their efforts, but do enjoy rewards such as publicity, or satisfaction from directly or indirectly influencing public discourse. And most newspapers still honour and respect this sharing from their readers by giving them the space to be seen and heard.

Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post receive thousands of letters to the editor  every year. Letter writers respond to news articles and opinions, and often take the newspaper to task for how it operates.  At the end of the year the Washington Post puts up on its website a selection of the novel, thoughtful and funny insights that readers submitted that year, sorted by the date they appeared in print and subject matter.

Other newspapers are also encouraging of the art of writing to newspapers. As the  associate editor of an Irish newspaper puts it, “In a world where social commentary is now almost free of any kind of professional oversight — or curating, to use today’s vernacular — the letters columns of mature, honest newspapers are, as they ever were, a reliable weather vane of how a society feels on certain issues. They are a kind of a social pulse giving an insight into the health–in the broadest terms–of the nation. They are direct, from-the-heart commentary.”

The power of “Dear Sir”…is evident in the case of the letter to the Times from a seven-year old girl from the Isle of Man. It read ‘Sir, Yours faithfully, Caroline Sophia Kerenhappuch Parkes.’ The brief epistle was intended to inform readers of her unusual name Kerenhappuch which had been mentioned in a letter the previous week on the subject of uncommon 19th century names.

I for one do look forward to seeing the column back in all newspapers.

–Mamata

 

Navigating a Book

It has probably happened to all of us at some time. We read a book, and we love it. We urge our friends to read it, but when they do, they react to it in a very different way—find it unreadable even. I had always attributed this to different tastes. And then, sometimes a book by an author that I know and like just does not hold my attention, and I don’t quite ‘get into it’ as it were. I attribute this to my ‘mood’ or state of mind.

Interestingly, I recently came across a piece by the famous German author Herman Hesse that helps to explain why this happens. In an essay titled On Reading Books written in 1920, Hesse describes what could be called the ‘taxonomy’ of readers. He argues that just as people have different temperaments and attitudes towards anything in the world, these also affect our personality as readers. He outlines three key types of reader personalities, which can coexist within a single reader over the course of a lifetime.

The first type he calls the naive reader—“one who assumes that a book is there simply and solely to be read faithfully and attentively and who experiences a book merely as content.” Such a reader consumes a book as he consumes a loaf of bread, or sleeps because there is a bed.

The second type of reader is one “who is endowed with childlike wonderment, who sees past the superficialities of content to plumb the depths of the writer’s creative impulse. This reader treasures neither the substance nor the form of a book as its single most important value. He knows, in the way children know, that every object can have ten or a hundred meanings for the mind. For such a mind the bread becomes a mountain to bore tunnels into, and the bed a cave, a garden, a snow field.” This kind of reader may be described as an imaginative investigator.

Next comes the final type of reader, who is really a non-reader but rather a dreamer and interpreter: “He is so completely an individual, so very much himself, that he confronts his reading matter with complete freedom. He wishes neither to educate nor to entertain himself, he uses a book exactly like any other object in the world, for him it is simply a point of departure and a stimulus. Essentially it makes no difference to him what he reads. He does not need a philosopher in order to learn from him, to adopt his teaching, or to attack or criticize him. He does not read a poet to accept his interpretation of the world; he interprets it for himself. He is, if you like, completely a child. He plays with everything — and from one point of view there is nothing more fruitful and rewarding than to play with everything. If this reader finds a beautiful sentence in a book, a truth, a word of wisdom, he begins by experimentally turning it upside down.”

“This reader is able, or rather each one of us is able, at the hour in which he is at this stage, to read whatever he likes, a novel or grammar, a railroad timetable, a galley proof from the printer. At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading. They may come out of the text, they may simply emerge from the type face. An advertisement in a newspaper can become a revelation; the most exhilarating, the most affirmative thoughts can spring from a completely irrelevant word if one turns it about, playing with its letters as with a jigsaw puzzle. In this stage one can …play with the words, letters, and sounds, and thereby take a tour through the hundred kingdoms of knowledge, memory, and thought”.

Before we begin to analyse where we fit into this taxonomy, Hesse reminds us that “no one of us need belong permanently to any one of these types. Each mode of reading is necessary for a full life, but it is insufficient in and of itself.”

He goes on to urge “For just once in your life remain for an hour, a day at the third stage, the stage of not-reading-any-more. You will thereafter (it’s so easy to slip back) be that much better a reader, that much better a listener and interpreter of everything written.”

–Mamata

Moon Tiger

“On the bedside is a Moon Tiger. The Moon Tiger is a green coil IMG_20181211_082936 (1).jpgthat burns slowly all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of green ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness. She lies there thinking of nothing, simply being, her whole body content. Another inch of Moon Tiger feathers down into the saucer.”

When I read these words my eyes fell on the Good Knight coil by my bedside…and I looked at it with completely new eyes.  Imagine, this taken-for-granted necessity being described so eloquently. Even more interesting was the fact that this description refers to the period of the first World War II in Egypt when mosquito repellent coils were widely used and sold under the name of Moon Tiger. So much for my thinking that Good Knight was a very desi product of our times!

The revelation came as I was recently reading a book by the same name. Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was published in 1987 and won the Booker Prize that year.

Moon Tiger is the tale told by Claudia Hampton, a beautiful, once-famous writer of history books, who lies dying in hospital. As she lies there she is conjuring in her mind ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’. Gradually she re-creates the rich mosaic of her life and times peopled with those near and dear to her. In doing so she confronts her own, personal history, unearthing the passions and pains that have defined her life.

The most poignant of these is her memories of her time in Egypt as a war correspondent and her brief affair with her one great love, both found and lost in wartime Egypt. The description of the Moon Tiger that burns all night, slowly dropping its coil into ash, forms both the central image of the story and its structure.

Penelope Lively, an acclaimed novelist and children’s writer was herself born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1933 and brought up there. In this novel she weaves an exquisite mesh of memories, flashbacks and shifting voices, in a haunting story of loss and desire. Moon Tiger is also about the ways in which we are connected to people, places, and history.

I have always enjoyed reading Penelope Lively, but this book soars above them all in terms of the language, the flow and the sensitive journey through the landscape of the mind.  The title itself is ‘a metaphor for the persistence of some experiences and the burning present-ness of some memories’.

Coincidentally I discovered this book this year—2018—the same year that the Golden Man Booker list, which chose one book for each of the five decades that the Booker Prize has been running, announced that Moon Tiger was the chosen book for the decade of the 1980s.

–Mamata

Warp and Weft

I love textiles. Over the years I have enjoyed wearing, and finding out about fabrics, designs, and unique characteristics of these. Living in a country with its incredible and rich variety of textiles means that the journey of exploring and discovering never ends.

The journey has been further enriched in the past few years when I have had the opportunity to learn about the textile traditions of the Northeast of India. Weaving is such an integral and important part of every tribe here; each part of their life and culture is closely interwoven with the fabrics they weave. Traditionally every girl learnt how to weave as naturally as she learned to walk and talk and carry out the daily life functions. No house would be without a loom, and the women wove all the garments for the family. The threads were not just the intermeshing of warp and weft, but carried in them a wonderful repertoire of narratives.

The folklore of every tribe has a wealth of tales around weaving. A tale from one of the tribes in Assam relates this to the web-spinning spider.

Once upon a time, there was a competition between the women from heaven and the women from earth. The women from earth were very

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confident of their weaving skills, and accepted the challenge. When both the teams were ready, the women from heaven came down to the earth and the competition began. With their great wonderful skills, the women from earth won the contest. After weaving the fabric of required length, the Earth women began to fill bobbins by moving the spinning wheel and clearing the knots in between. The women from heaven could not accept their loss and cursed the ladies of the earth, “From now your life shall always be tangled between yarns and forever you shall be busy spinning them for yourself.” It is believed that as a result of this curse the ladies were transformed into spiders that keep weaving cobwebs around themselves.

Many of these tales are still passed on through the oral tradition, but there is an urgent need to document and share these before they are lost with the tradition of loom weaving itself. A recent book has done just this. Banyan Tree’s new book The World of the Weaver –Five Stories and a Prayer compiles some of the stories from different parts of the country. As the jacket says they are ‘Tales of imagination woven around the weaver’s looms. Though they are fables, the stories highlight the value of hand weaving in a harmonious society.’

The beautifully illustrated book is available in Hindi, English and Telugu. For more contact banyantreebookstore@gmail.com>

–Mamata

Toxic

The word of the year is Toxic! Crowned by the Oxford Dictionary this word was selected as the one “judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

The claim to fame was gained by the word not only on the basis of the number of times it was searched, but more for the sheer variety of contexts in which it is being used today.  “Toxic” has been used to describe workplaces, schools, relationships, cultures, and most recently has become a keyword in the #MeToo movement.

My own association with the word dates back over 30 years when I started as an Environmental Educator. We used the word mainly in the context of something that poisoned the natural environment—air, water, flora and fauna. This was based on its dictionary definition as meaning ‘poisonous’, with its roots derived from the medieval Latin term toxicus, meaning poisoned or imbued with poison. Environmental Educators worldwide tried to create awareness about what makes things toxic and how this affects the environment—through ‘gloom and doom’ scenarios, through motivation and action, and even through humour!

An interesting example of the last one was a limerick competition run by the English newspaper The Observer in association with the Friends of the Earth inviting limericks that reflected the (then) toxic state of the environment. The competition was open to all, from ages 5 years and up!

Although this was almost 30 years ago, on revisiting these limericks, I felt that they are as relevant today (if not more, than ever before!) Here is a taste…

Said the seal to the salmon and otters,

Did God really design us as blotters,

To mop up the oil

From the sea and the soil

Spewed out by those corporate rotters?

 

When politicians say they are green

One wonders what they really mean,

For all their hot air

Only rises to share

In the Greenhouse Effect it would seem!

 

An ostrich from a tropical land

Once buried his head in the sand.

The move was a riot,

They all had to try it—

Evading the issue was grand!

Fast forward to 2018. Has anything changed? At least not for the better, alas! The word has simply exploded in scope and toxicity. As Oxford University Press’s president of dictionaries, said: “Reviewing this year in language, we repeatedly encountered the word ‘toxic’ being used to describe an increasing set of conditions that we’re all facing. Qualifying everything from the entrenched patriarchy to the constant blare of polarising political rhetoric, ‘toxic’ seems to reflect a growing sense of how extreme, and at times radioactive, we feel aspects of modern life have become.”

To sum up, cannot resist this one…

A girl with a problem was faced

Rushed off to her doctor in haste.

He said with a laugh

As she broke into half,

‘My dear, you’ve got toxic waist!’

–Mamata

 

Food Spy

It is said that America is a country of immigrants. Over the centuries people from all continents made their way to the ‘promised land’ and made it their home. Interestingly, a lot of the food that is today so much a part of the American diet, is also part of another immigration story. Quinoa, kale, avocado, nectarines, soya beans; even pineapples, oranges and lemons—just about 150 years ago, these were unseen and unheard of in America. Many of these were introduced to the country by a single man, David Fairchild, who called himself an agricultural explorer.

David Fairchild grew up in Kansas at the end of the 19th century, a time when the diet of his countrymen was made up primarily of bland meat, potatoes and cheese, and excluded vegetables and fruit. Fairchild was no gourmet himself, but he loved plants, and he loved travel, and he found a way to combine both into a job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the age of 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the USDA, and for the next 37 years, he travelled the world, visiting every continent except Antarctica, in search of useful plants to bring back to America. When he started out in his new job, with little knowledge or knowhow, he began by stealing seeds, but over time he learnt other strategies like talking to the local people, visiting local markets and observing what people were growing and eating. This also earned him the sobriquet of Food Spy!

With a combination of strategies, and often at the risk of his own life, Fairchild managed to send back seeds or cuttings of over 200,000 kinds of fruits, vegetable and grains. His department, the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, researched these and distributed new crops to farmers around the states.

It was not an easy process, introducing new food crops. Farmers did not like to take risks, the general public was suspicious of new foods and fearful that the overseas immigrants would bring in tropical disease and insects. Even today there is a Quarantine Law which forbids anyone from bringing in agricultural material into the US. Uphill task though it was, Fairchild did succeed to a large extent, and managed to introduce mangoes, quinoa, dates, cotton, soybeans, bamboo, and even the flowering Japanese cherry trees that blossom all over Washington D.C. each spring.

In 1904 Fairchild was invited to speak at the National Geographic Society where he met the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell who was the Society’s second president; years later Fairchild married Bell’s daughter.

Last week the National Geographic Society hosted a curated dinner where the menu featured some of the many foods—avocados, dates, and other that David Fairchild brought to the United States more than 100 years ago, thus changing the country’s culinary palate.

The story of this amazing food traveller is told in a book by Daniel Stone titled The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.

 —Mamata

 

Hiss Gets Knotty

How Hiss hated his name! Every second snake in his class was called Hiss. Surely, his parents could have been in a little more imaginative!

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Now the only thing he could do was to get himself a prefix or suffix to his name. Like his cousin Happy Hiss, who got that name because he was always laughing and joking. Or his friend Speedy Hiss, who got that name because he was the fastest slitherer around! He was very envious of his senior Astro Hiss, who got his name because he knew the names of all the stars and constellations in the sky, and was forever looking through his telescope. And of course of the school captain Hero Hiss, who got his name because he was a whiz at all games and helped the school win every match and tournament.

But our Hiss didn’t have any special characteristics. He was just a normal little snake.

Secretly, Hiss’ ambition was to be called Naughty Hiss. It sounded such fun. But Hiss wasn’t naughty at all. He didn’t sneak into people’s houses just to scare them, like some of his friends. He didn’t hang upside down from trees by his tail as some of his cousins did, just to irritate their mothers. He didn’t participate in ‘curls’ where about 15-20 of his friends would curl themselves into a ball and roll pell-mell down slopes, giving old ladies the hysterics.  He didn’t like to do such things. He was really a very well-behaved and nice snake!

But still in his heart he longed to be called Naughty Hiss!

So he thought and he thought and he thought.

And one day, during his Scout class, when the teacher was teaching them to tie themselves up into knots, an idea struck him!

Why not be called Knotty Hiss? That sounded just like Naughty Hiss!

If he practiced and practiced his knots, he could be the best knotter around, and then he would be called Knotty Hiss!

So he secretly practiced and practiced tying himself up in to different kinds of knots, not just the ones his Scout Master taught him

He practiced his Reef Knot

And the Sheepshank

The Bowline

And the Timberhitch

And of course his favourite Constrictor Knot…after all, he was one!

And when he had practiced and practiced for many a day and many a night….

He was the best!

No one could tie themselves up into knots as quickly as our Hiss could.

And that is how Hiss got Knotty, for everyone started calling him Knotty Hiss.

He couldn’t have been more pleased!!!!

–Meena