In Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

(First published in Borderless Journal, republished in Countercurrents, translated to Persian and published in Arzhang)

A woman who weaves stories from the past, from history, from what has been and makes them so real that they become a part of ones’ own existence – this has been my experience of Dr Aruna Chakravarti and her writing. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, Vaitalik award and Sarat Puraskar, Chakravarti was the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Jorasanko and its sequel are based on the women in the household of Rabindranath Tagore. Jorasanko one of the best and most impactful books I have read in my life and with a flavour of realism that transports you into that era. The focus on the strength that resided in women trapped with a set of patriarchal values in colonial India is amazing and attractive. Suralakshmi Villa, her latest novel which was released at the start of 2020, is also modelled on a woman from the past as she will reveal in this exclusive interview.

You are a multiple national award- winning writer. At a point you stopped writing. Why?

I had started writing during my childhood and had continued to do so through my school days happily and unselfconsciously. I wrote poems, short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. But when I joined the English Honours course in college and was introduced to the academics of literature; when I learned the principles of criticism and picked up the ability to distinguish good writing from mediocre, a change came over me. I suffered from a loss of self-worth. I felt I was not and could never be a good writer. Self-criticism is good but unfortunately it worked adversely for me. I convinced myself that my work was imitative and lacking in merit. From that time onwards I stopped writing.

When did you take up writing again? Did your translations come first?

It happened nearly twenty- five years later. Yes, my translations came first. The cycle of negative feelings about my writing, to which I had strapped myself, broke in a miraculous way. The year was 1982.  At a chamber concert of Rabindra sangeet, in which I was taking part, a Gujarati gentleman from the audience made a request. He asked if one of the participants could translate the songs that were being sung so that non-Bengalis, many of whom were present, could understand the words. Since I was teaching English in a Delhi University college at the time, all eyes turned to me. I was horrified. To be called upon to translate a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore, that too his lyrics, without any preparation whatsoever, would have daunted anyone leave alone me with my record of diffidence and self-doubt. But to my own shock and bewilderment, I agreed. The rest is history. There was a publisher in the audience who offered to bring out a collection of Tagore songs in translation. That was my first publication. Tagore: Songs rendered into English came out in 1984. Though the publisher was practically unknown, the book created waves in literary circles. Other translations followed. Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and later Those days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyaywere published by Penguin India. I also picked up a number of awards.

It was Sunil Gangopadhyay who advised me to try my hand at creative writing. After some hesitation I did so. My first novel The Inheritors was accepted by Penguin India and published in 2004. After it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, I found the courage to write more.

You were the Principal of a Delhi University college. Did your work impact your writing?

No strangely enough it didn’t. My creative inspiration never drew from my experience as a Principal. I was dealing with women from a younger generation. I was privy to their concerns, their joys and sorrows, their fears and aspirations.  I understood their psychology. Yet I never wanted to write about them except in a tangential way. As part of a larger context. For me the present failed to provide the spark that kindled my creative imagination. That came invariably from some past memory. In a strange way the past seems more meaningful to me than the present.

But my role as an administrator helped me in another way. Office work is dry and prosaic. But it is worthwhile work. And, much as I felt good doing it, I looked forward intensely to the end of the day when I could doff my Principal’s hat and don my writer’s one. And, having indulged myself by writing till late into the night, I was ready to take up my work schedule the next morning. The two interests sustained each other and created a balance.

Why did you translate the writers? What did you learn by translating them? Did it impact your own story telling or knowledge base?

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Holi

( Published in Countercurrents.org on 29th March, 2021)

“…the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good…”

 — The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

We play with the colours of

dawn, spraying the world

with spring, with happiness,

with birds that are willing to

 

sing. Liturgies lace our lives with

absolutes. For some, we kill. Holika

died. Has evil ever been annihilated

by the external searing of holy

 

flames? Fodder to appease fiery

Agni’s unceasing appetite, is

destruction the sole solution?

Or can absolution be sought in the

 

conversion to good? In quest

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Interview in The Gorkha Times

[Mitali Chakravarty is the founding editor of Borderless Journal.She started her professional career as a journalist in The Times of India. Her by-lines have appeared in The Statesman, The Times of India, The Hindustan TimesThe PioneerThe Daily Star and more journals. Her poetry and prose have been published online and as part of numerous hardcopy anthologies. Some of her writing has been translated to Nepali, Persian and German. Mitali also translates from Bengali and Hindi to English.  She has published a humorous book of essays on living in China where she spent eight years which has recently been updated and serialized in an online journal, called Different Truths,on a weekly basis. Presented herewith is a conversation Sangita Swechcha had with Ms Chakravarty for The Gorkha Times.]


Sangita Swechcha (SS): It’s been a year since 
Borderless Journal started. Tell us your experience.

Mitali Chakravarty (MC): Exhilarating. Euphoric. We picked up so many well-wishers and found fantastic writers and readers backing our venture. We discovered great literature is always above borders drawn by politicians and there are many who publish with us in translation. We have writers from thirty-one countries showcased in our journal. The ages of the contributors range from 4 to 96. Beginners as well as writers with awards like Sahitya Akademi and Pushcart have written for us. We hope to build further on our concept of inclusivity and have writers from even more countriesand cultures. What is wonderful is that we have readers from more than 130 countries of the world!

SS: How did the idea of creating Borderless Journal germinate?

MC:Borders were drawn through history, dividing mankind into more manageable divisions that could be ruled and led. The air we breathe, the clouds or birds continue to disregard these borders. Borders of nation, class, caste or religion are all manmade constructs. And yet the barriers seem to have become insuperable. Borderless grew out of the human need to connect with tolerance, love and acceptance.This is an idea which has been in the air –among books I have read and strengthenedby the interactions I have had with people from diverse countries and cultures. Borderless is an attempt to restore harmony in the world by tapping on human excellence. And this cannot be done by one person alone. We have a group of excellent writers and editors who form our core and act as advisors, help edit and collect the best. Our contributors and readers are equally important to our existence. It is not just my idea — it is a movement in the literary world, of which we are a tiny part. We hope to inspire writers to unite in a world of ideas, rise above petty issues that are boxed by “narrow domestic walls” as Tagore called them, to discover, to help fathom the wonders of the universe and make for a better future. If you want to know more about Borderless, click here to read our mission, vision and goal.

SS: What is your future plan with Borderless Journal?

MC: Borderless hopes to be part of a movement to create a flood of positive values that will deluge the negatives in the world, bringing in an era of development, tolerance, love and peace. We are often told that such ideas are unrealistic. But when have ideas and utopias ever been based on realism? And yet they changed the world over a period of time. We would not have had a wheel if the first cave dweller did not imagine it and try it out or use fire for that matter.  Borderless hopes to try an untrodden path too. The journal is also an attempt to respond to the call made by youngsters for a better Earth, to explore and store samples of human excellence for posterity, and an attempt to move forward to a better future for our children and their children. Borderless hopes to nurture world literature of a cadre undefined by borders of nation, race, caste, creed or religion.

Click here to read the full interview.

Humour on Living in China

Courtesy Anumita Chatterjee Roy & Different Truths

These are a series of essay that were brought out in Different Truths from November to February middle on a weekly basis. They are based on our sojourn in China for eight years which were recorded in a book that I published while living there. These essays are an updated version and vastly different from my earlier publication. Click on the links and enjoy all the essays. They are accompanied by fun filled visuals by Anumita Chatterjee Roy. My heartfelt thanks to Arindam Roy for hosting the essays in the journal. His encouragement actually helped me rewrite and add a lot more than I had thought I would.

Prologue

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Chapter 1 — Globalisation in our Backyard

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Chapter 2 — Holidays in China

Part 1

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Part 2

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Chapter 3 — The Great Wall of China and Beijing

Click here to read

Chapter 4 — Ancient Capitals of China

Click here to read

Chapter 5 — One World

Click here to read

Chapter 6 — Christmas Stars & Pandas

Click here to read

Chapter 7 — Waterfalls & New Years

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Chapter 8 — Trantor of the East & the Fish Graveyard

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Chapter 9 — To be or not to be a Sparrow

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Chapter 10 — Unbound

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Chapter 11 —  Oranges, Buddhas & Sporting Matters

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Chapter 12 — Leaving China

Click here to read

Epilogue

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Hope in 2021

This year has come to an end.

It barely seems to have started — there were no movements. We stayed indoors the whole year. The otters disappeared from the waterfront in front of our home just as the planes seem to have disappeared from the skies. I do not like being sad over anything. 

Much that is good has happened to me and mine though we have not been left unscarred by the deadly virus. The sadness of mankind tinges our existence. We live on an island but we cannot live in a bubble. The world stretches out its grief to us, its terror to us in pandemic proportions. Does the bug of sadness bite us? It does. 

Honestly from my heart it is difficult to celebrate against the misery that seems to have brought many to a halt. The misery of disease, death coupled with the inability to touch physically another human. It is all terrifying. Almost as if Asimov’s vision of Solaria is coming to life. And then there are wars over boundaries, hatred, anguish and anger. A very bleak scenario if we start listing, even if some of the issues have started moving towards  more hopeful outcomes with vaccines and the turn of world events.

Darkness is deepest just before dawn wipes away the blackness with its dappled touch. Maybe the rays of the new sunrise of the first day of the New Year will herald better times. 

I look outside my window at the clear skies, the sunshine and the golden orioles flying; the parakeets chattering and moving in flocks from tree to tree by the quietly flowing river and I feel maybe things will fall into place. Not in the way we knew it but in a new way. 

Maybe it is time for a fresh start, a new world, a new dawn and a new year. With that I wish you all a smoother journey in the New Year towards a happier world. 

Two Poems of Rabindranath Tagore: Translated by Mitali Chakravarty

First Published in SETU, December, 2020

1

Against the monsoon Skies… from BhanusingherPadabali

(from Shaongaganeghorghanaghata, BhanusingherPadabali)

Against the monsoon skies, heavy clouds wrack the deep of night.

How will a helpless girl go through the thick groves,Ofriend,

Crazed winds sweep by the Yamuna, the clouds thunder loud.

The lightning strikes, the trees have fallen, the body trembles

In the heavy rain, the clouds shower a downpour.

Under the shaal, piyale, taal, tamal trees, the grove is lonely and quiet at night.

Where, friend, is he hiding in this treacherous grove

And enticing us with his wonderful flute calling out to Radha?

Put on a garland of pearls, a shithi* in my parting…

Click here to read the translations

Leaden Wings & More…

First published in SETU, December, 2020



Sometimes, 
Sometimes, you need to throw off leaden wings to fly.
Fly — soar the skies. Reach up to the sun, moon and stars. To the universe. Sometimes you need to throw off leaden wings to fly.


Soar like an eagle, a bird high up in flight where wingtip to wingtip spans the infinite; where auroras have ceased to colour the sky. Where nebulae blink in the deep of night. Where the Great Bear speaks the truth and Orion’s Belt lights the darkness to a white. Sometimes, you throw the leaden wings to fly — not to be like Icarus and die — but detaching the wings fly, fly —


Like the bird that breaks all bounds despite the loud cannon sounds and across to the neighbouring skies. No lines are drawn. The lands can be at war. But the sky borderless lies. Unhindered the clouds float. Where songs soar in strange silent waves. Where silence a sound breaks with the speed of light.


There, there will I fly
in quest of an unbordered ...

Click here to read the poems

Why we need a Bunker Roy in Literature?

First published in Countercurrents.org, December, 2020

With the farmers marching out to demand their rights in India, with more consciousness of the need to close gaps between the privileged and non-privileged worldwide, with climate crisis becoming a major force to redefine our thinking, perhaps the time has come to rethink how literature can be moulded to serve the needs of the masses. That we wake up to the urgency of bridging gaps between different levels of education to create a more evolved world for mankind as a species is fast becoming an unspoken necessity to live with advances that time is unfolding for us. Leaving behind more than one half of the world is not really an alternative. The tiny corona virus has shown us, proven to us, we need to unify as a race.

Recently, I watched a TED talk by a man called Bunker Roy.  He was a squash champion in India for three years, with a privileged education from Doon school (where also had studied the scions of the Indira Gandhi family) and the high-browed St Stephen’s College of Delhi University. He was all set to be a diplomat. Then, he decided to see what a village was like and went to one during the 1965 famine. He came back with all the boxed ideals of a glamorous bureaucratic future replaced by a dream of digging 500 wells. He lived out his dream much to the chagrin of his mother. He started a barefoot college in arid Rajasthan, called Tilonia. This, he claimed in his talk, is the only college in the world where postgraduates and doctorals are not welcome. It has non-collegiates to teach the illiterate. They teach life skills. And now he has a bunch of grandmothers who are laying solar cells and lighting up the world from Afghanistan to India to Africa to Sierra Leone. His work has now spanned 64 countries, beyond all borders. He goes where there is a need to bridge a gap between the ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ worlds.

This is a man who broke out of boxed thinking, reached out to people and made changes in the lives of people. I would love to write of what made him choose as he did, what made him opt to leave a life of glamour and ease and work for developing a village. He did not see if they were bhakts or liberals, Republicans or Democrats or educated or non-educated entities. He just saw them as fellow humans and he touched their lives and work with his unboxed choices.

The reason I write of him is because I would want to use somebody like him as a role model for writing. But he does not write. He works with his hands. How could he be a role model? To me, he is a role model because he could break out from boxed thinking and create a new concept in learning and reach out beyond borders drawn artificially by mankind. Is that not what all great literature should be doing? Breaking out of boxed thinking to create new inroads into human thought, to discover new paradigms for the souls that thirst for succour in these trying times. He lived out Gandhi’s dream as I read it in the Mahatma’s autobiography — My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi was another man who thought beyond his times. He was talking of developing villages the way Roy has done, long before Roy decided to dig wells. And yet his books were not prescribed for any literature classes three decades ago, in my university days in India. We did read translations of Plato and Homer — but not anything that would bring us closer to the people of our own country, to their needs. If Plato can be seen as a part of English literature, then why not Gandhi?

Recently, I read a book called Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which has been prescribed as compulsory reading for my son’s international Baccalaureate English Literature course. I was happy to see this bridge. For, I would call it a bridge. The book is in the form of black and white cartoons with writing, which has effectively conveyed the plight of Iranians crushed between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini regimes. With a few bold strokes, it expressed so much. Though comments behind the book are many, some convey my own sentiments. This, written by Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, I felt was the most apt to describe my experience: “Part history book, art Scheherzade, astonishing as only true stories can be, Persepolis gave me hope for humanity in these unkind times.” Another by journalist Gloria Steinem, said: “You have never seen anything like Persepolis — Marjane Satrapi may have given us a new genre.”

Value based writing like that of Satrapi is important in educating and bridging gaps between those who have time to indulge in literary cogitations and those who grow food or build roads for us, both of these being the necessary function to survive in this world. Of course, the farmers and road makers may not be able to read in English but that is where translators can help. And if they cannot read in any language at all, literacy and making books about things that concern them so that they can be weaned into reading…

Click here to read the full essay

Bapu

First published in SETU, October 2020

Will he be reborn again?


Nonviolent, tolerant, defiant of norms
that lock people into boxes


Searingly honest


Who said he was great?


He was like you and me —
A student who evaded
difficult courses in university,
who was scared to give speeches.
A timid man was he — looked for easy options.
The only redemption,
his love of truth—


Who said he was great?


A quiet man who silently
sliced, analysed from inside
till peel by peel, he unravelled the mysteries
that life invited. Self-reflected devoid
of the glory that borders weave,
spliced hatred, dirt
till it all changed to tolerance and love.
Weaponised unviolenced silence


Who said he was great?


Lived for his passion — One world
undivided by faith, colour or creed.
Caste he defied when he crossed
the seas. No hatred for skin colours.
Fought with his wife. And yet
tried to give every human their rights.
He was a man — not a divine.


Who said he was great?


He nursed. Loved goats.
His own sons wept for uncare,
for they suffered — no school...

Click here to read the full poem

Bapu in 2020

First Published in SETU, October 2020

The sun streaked an orange-gold across the Himalayan range in Dehradun. There was a chill in the air. Bapu wrapped the shawl closer to his body and looked out sadly. He was dressed in his traditional dhoti and a light wrap. It felt too cold in mid-September to be dressed like that and yet, it was too warm to don a warm shawl. Global warming had truly set in as God had said.
He adjusted his glasses — though they were more cosmetic now. His body was different too — not his own but borrowed from a stripling of twenty-four! 
If you are wondering what was happening, here is the flashback. 
It was 2020. Delhi riots in March had shattered Bapu's dream of a united India — where all religions co-existed. The mishandling of the Citizenship Amendment Act had been a bad blow. But the riots in New Delhi around Holi where there were Hindu- Muslim clashes had Bapu in Heaven weeping and beating his chest. What had happened to his India? 
In Heaven, there is but one rule that is compulsory for all the souls. They need to be happy. If they expressed unhappiness, they were sent back to Earth to serve another lifetime to find peace and happiness. And if it was something that needed emergency handling, God exchanged souls — kept the other in limbo anaesthetised. 
So, when God caught Gandhi weeping, he asked him, "What has happened to you?" Kasturba, Gandhi's wife, was stroking his back with concern written all over her face.
Gandhi, between broken sobs, expressed what had happened, God said, "Fine, you need to fix it now. You had said hate the sin, but not the sinner, and were a friend to the underprivileged. And now, worldwide, there is a spree of envy, hatred — more for the sinners than the sin, widespread violence, intolerance, and no peace anywhere. The world as you knew it is no more. Nature has also unleashed COVID 19 to discipline mankind — so that the planet continues habitable and man ceases to be rapacious in his greed and outlook. You need to get back there al pronto. Let me check with the human resource to see what can be done to have you there."
Kasturba said, "Can I go too...?"
God interrupted, "No Kasturba. Don't complicate matters. Hopefully, this can be fixed fast and Gandhi can return in a few days."


God returned after half-an-hour. "Gandhi, we have found a perfect spot. One 24-year-old boy is in a coma as he has had a motorbike accident. Only his head was injured because he rode without a helmet. So, his soul is already in limbo. You might as well go into his body — do your hunger fast or whatever and get back soon. Then we will awaken his soul and send it back!"


Gandhi had no choice, but to accede to God. He came down on Earth and twenty-four-year-old Abhishek woke up calling himself Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi! 


He was instantly put under psychiatric care. Meanwhile, as lockdown had emptied hospitals off patients, Abhishek or Gandhi was considered safe and non-violent enough to be sent home. He came home. To his mother's distress, he turned vegetarian and took to dressing in a loincloth and wrap! 


When he tried to go on a hunger strike, no one listened. He was back in the hospital with a glucose drip! And force-fed. He did not have the media attention or following that made hunger strikes effective in the twentieth century. The COVID19 lockdown had imposed restrictions on gatherings. He would be in jail if he tried to use Gandhian tools as a lunatic lawbreaker! He had already broken it once speeding on his bike and riding without a helmet.


Gandhi felt distressed. He could do nothing. The hatred raged. The economy was in the doldrums. And the China border skirmish was an ongoing discomfort. No one listened to Abhishek — for that is what the world regarded him as. 
On top of that, there was something called television that raved about the suicide of a Sushant, as if poverty had ceased to be an issue or the collapsing economy or the China conflict... Bollywood, a strange name for talkies makers, hogged all the news! And the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, organisations to which his killer Godse had belonged, seemed to be in ascendancy along with something called the BJP... it was chaos. 
He felt unvalued. His teachings were ignored despite his title — Father of the Nation. Congress had fallen into weaker hands of those who had distanced themselves from the pain of the poverty-stricken. 


He could see it all from a distance so clearly. Why could not his countrymen?


Social media was a major player — he ...

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