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

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Chapter 4 — Ancient Capitals of China

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Chapter 5 — One World

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Chapter 6 — Christmas Stars & Pandas

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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

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Epilogue

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Love, Love Again…

Published in Daily Star, Bangladesh on April 11, 2020

Perhaps, the time has come to Love,

Love again

the Earth,

the water, the sand,

the little creatures

beyond the land.

Love the trees

Amaltaz heavy with bloom,

Gulmohar brightening the noon,

Angsanas spreading out to the skies.

The parakeets that noisily

fly in broods; the golden orioles,

the butterflies that flit,

the honeybirds that sing

The river that quietly flows

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Quantum or Love in Poetry & more (translated to German and English)

(Published Words and Worlds, April 2020)

QUANTUM OR LOVE IN POETRY

 

The moment of stillness

that deepens the night

 

The brightening of daylight

The nuomenon of time

 

in the palm of your hand —

Sparkling like a drop of Stardust

 

Have you ever held Stardust in your hand?

Silvery, Translucent, Wispy

 

You cannot see

but like Love

 

it stays. It holds

The formation of a single word

like drops that drip drip drip

 

to crystallise

Each forming

a unique pattern

a unique line

 

Drip drip drip

to crystallise

 

a unique pattern

a unique line

 

till it dissolves

in the aurora

across a brilliant sky

 

An abstraction that stretches out against time

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QUANTUM ODER LIEBE IN DER POESIE

 

Der Moment der Stille,

Der die Nacht vertieft

 

Die Aufhellung des Tageslichts

Das Nuomenon der Zeit

 

in deinen Händen-

Sie funkeln wie ein Tropfen Sternenstaub

 

Hieltest du jemals Sternenstaub in deinen Händen?

Silberglänzend, durchscheinend, dünn

 

Du kannst ihn nicht sehen

aber wie die Liebe

 

bleibt es. Es hält dich fest.

Die Bildung eines einzigen Wortes

wie Tröpfchen, die tropfen und tropfen

 

um zu kristallisieren

in jede Form

zu kristallisieren

ein einzigartiges Muster

eine einzigartige Zeile

 

Tropfen, tropfen, tropfen

um zu kristallisieren

 

ein einzigartiges Muster

eine einzigartige Zeile

 

Bis es sich auflöst

in der Morgenröte

In einen strahlenden Himmel

 

Eine Abstraktion, die sich gegen die Zeit erstreckt

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God in Poetry: Does he exist in a Postmodern World

(Published in Modern Literature, 10.3.2020)

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Father! Thou must lead.
Do Thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind
By which such virtue may in me be bred
That in Thy holy footsteps I may tread;
The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,
That I may have the power to sing of Thee,
And sound Thy praises everlastingly.

This is from a poem by the famous Renaissance artist, sculptor, poet and architect Michelangelo. This particular poem, ‘To the Supreme Being’, was translated into English by the romantic poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Here Michelangelo reaffirms his faith and talks of divine nature of inspiration, how God gives him the ability to write, paint and create. Michelangelo wrote about twenty poems, some of which bring to life the paintings of Sistine Chapel.

Centuries down the line, we find Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the opposite end of the world still acknowledging divine participation in his creative process. His experience seems to be close to that of Michelangelo. He finds that he is infused with a creative urge and inspired by divinity to create. In Kemon Kore Gaan Koro he Guni’ (How do you sing O Divine One), he acknowledges this divinity:

How do you sing O Divine One,
I only listen to you in awe.
The tune is like the light that flashes through the world,
The tune is like the breeze that flows through the skies,
It thunders like a torrent ripping through rocks
Flowing creating a wondrous music.
I try to sing in that tune
And yet I cannot find that tune in my voice.
The lyrics hesitate to say what I want —
My life surrenders itself to you
You have trapped me
In this web of tunes

When Tagore and Michelangelo composed these poems, they wrote of being in touch with an energy that led to the creation of the most beautiful. In ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ (1819), romantic poet John Keats had stated –

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Imagination, beauty and God all merged together for the Romantics to create a sense of wonder and awe. However, it is difficult to find a definition of beauty or God in today’s poetry or postmodern literary thought. Essayist Pete Lowman, a doctorate on God and the English novel, enquires into this: “But now we have a culture that does not believe in God, so what is beauty? Is it purely subjective?”

Art is perhaps as close as we can get to it. French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, an atheist and one of the major influences on postmodernism, defines the concept of art“The rising ground is no longer below, it acquires autonomous existence; the form reflected in this ground is no longer form, but an abstract line acting directly upon the soul. When the ground rises to the surface, the human face decomposes in this mirror in which both determinations and in determination combine in a single determination which ‘makes’ the difference.” This kind of thought is often applied to poetry, making it an intellectual maze -perhaps too complex for the common reader to comprehend. But such art is not beauty or God. It is more an exclusive artistic expression to which only some can relate.

South Asian English poetry, while often influenced by occidental thought, seems to have continued having a stronghold in the voice of the people. Though whether God has ceased to exist as an entity or inspiration is not really talked of, the angst of the people has often been reflected in poetry. Amrita Pritam wrote passionate poetry in Punjabi. Her poetry, often feminist reflected on the issues faced by a woman in a patriarchal society. Her most famous ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ (Today, I Invoke Waris Shah), around Partition (1947) cried out against the violence that ripped through the subcontinent piecing it into India and Pakistan.

Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from your grave,”
And turn to the next page in your book of love,
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab,
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.

Some South Asian poets have gone deep into the politics of national identity to appease occidental critics. Nissim Ezekiel in his ‘Very Indian Poem in Indian English’ has tried to create a poem which is supposed to be depictive of how Indians think and speak.

I am standing for peace and non-violence
Why world is fighting and fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understand

He did what he was advised to by opinions such as that of Paul Gieve who states“A writer needs a national or cultural identity, without which he becomes a series of imitations, echoes, responses; he does not develop, because there is nothing at the core to develop.” But, is that not rather a limited definition of a writer? Should poetry not be universal rather than defined by an outmoded concept borne off the steel mills of Lancashire in the eighteenth century?

While South Asian English poetry still reels under occidental influences, recognition, awards, communism and Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’, in the mid-twentieth century, around the time Nissim Ezekiel was twenty and, two years after the death of Tagore (1941), Sartre explained the lack of God in his essay called ‘A New Mystic’ (1943): “We should not understand by that that He does not exist, nor even that he now no longer exists. He is dead: he used to speak to us and he has fallen silent, we now touch only his corpse. ”Was this a reaction to the World War that bore existentialism as its own child and adopted Kierkegaard’s absurdism and nihilism as its foster children and wove them deeply into the intellectual thought process so that it continued to bear fruit into our times?

Lowman traces the start of this disbelief to romanticism, imagination and then to Camus, a strong proponent of this philosophy. He explains, quoting Camus: “‘Up till now, man derived his coherence from his Creator. But from the moment that he consecrates his rupture with him, he finds himself delivered over to the fleeting moment, to the passing days, to the wasted sensibility.’ He (Camus) illustrated that waste on another occasion by remarking, ‘A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.’”

Then, can there be a reason left to write?

A current day favourite, Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges, finds one. He says wrote poetry because the lines came to him and bothered him till, he wrote them down.  “If I don’t write this down, it will keep pushing on and worrying me. the best thing I can do is to write it down.” And the source of inspiration? Borges says“I know for a fact that I accept my inspiration, but I am not sure where exactly it comes from.” Borges never admits his inspiration rests on the divine.

In an age of disbelief, Cambridge has taken on cudgels to foster religious imagination in contemporary poetry.

Read the rest in Modern Literature

Marginalised?

(Published in Countercurrent, 7.3.2020)

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Marginalised? Who said we are marginalised?

We are humans walking side by side.

 

Women, Men and Children

Dalits, Tribals and the Abused —

 

Who said we are different?

 

Who said that Woman is born of Man’s rib?

Who said caste is by God writ?

 

Who said women cannot enter temples or mosques?

Who said Menstruation and Widowhood are both to be abhorred?

 

Who made these rules?

 

Did Durga menstruate? Did Kali?

Did Mary have a husband before she conceived Christ?

 

Who created religions and rites?

Who made castes and border lines?

 

Who created these and why?

 

Radcliffe for Manchester Mills drew a line

that split homes, created the Great Divide

 

Corpses without heads rolling on trains of death

Burnt, decapitated.

 

Zombies looking for blood

Zombies rising out of the death of love

Zombies that cannot tolerate

Zombies that hate—

They no longer think

But Kill—

Kill for Cows,

Kill for Country,

Kill for Dowry,

Kill for Concealing Rape,

Kill in the name of Different Gods.

 

Who made these different Gods?

Who? Who? Who?

 

Read the rest in Countercurrent,org

 

Lalan Fakir in Outerspace

(Published in Countercurrent.org, 26.2.2020)

 

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I have seen the world recede behind the trees;

the world that was for you and me —

a vibrant blue world, dotted with green,

swirls of ocean and breeze painted

by Van Gogh — A Starry Night,

and then came a tsunami

that wiped it all from site.

 

A fakir overnight,

as Lalan, I sing afloat in space

in an intergalactic haze of nebulae

of a world lost;

of God

Burnt and Ripped out of Mosques;

Harried out of Temples with a bovine stampede;

Shot or Sickened out of Churches with Corona.

 

Will you, O God, create a new world again?

Where Lalan can pace and sing

of the wonders —

 

A blue ocean amidst swirls of green trees

Star-dotted skies sprinkling stardust each night

 

Mankind will have only one God this time

 

Read the rest in countercurrent.org

Baboo

 

Old people live with memories…at least that is what Baboo did at eighty.

He had a daughter in Bangkok, two wonderful grandchildren and a son-in- law. His wife, Shyama, had been dead for the last five years.

She went just like that…

Shyama had served him dinner and cleared up before retiring for the night. She herself had had her dinner earlier because a late dinner induced wheezing. She was asthmatic.

That night, they lay down in bed. Baboo fell asleep watching TV. Shyama was still reading when he woke up around 1 am. Sometimes, Shyama read late if she had mild wheezing and then when it stopped, she dosed off. At 1 am, Baboo had asked her if she needed an injection to breath normally.

Baboo was a celebrated surgeon and Shyama, an anesthetist… that is how she had survived into her seventies despite her severe asthama. Baboo could treat her, inject her whenever she got an attack and Shyama was quick to catch her own symptoms. This time Shyama responded to her husband’s query saying she was fine. At four in the morning, she went to the bathroom and Baboo woke up to a loud thud.

She had fallen in a crumpled heap on the floor.

She was dead, dead, dead…his companion of 49 years…

Baboo was lonely. He lived with his memories… his daughter was too far away. She had come for her mother’s funeral and for the first anniversary of her death. But, she preferred to have him over in her own home. Relatives and friends came intermittently, but it was not the same. His daughter encouraged him to have guests.

He just wanted his daughter to come. She would not and sent others instead.

When his daughter critiqued his choice of place for retirement, he was angry. To hurt her, he asked her not to come. Sometimes, he did not want to talk to his daughter, especially because she thought differently. She did not understand him. Despite that she would call him. She loved him and needed the reassurance he was well. Baboo knew that. He fought but he needed his child desperately.

Baboo’s housekeeper and her family kept him company. He did a free clinic three times a week and chaired committees in a mission but it was incredibly quiet and lonely.

Baboo had retired and moved from Bombay to this house near the hills. His wife and he were supposed to live out their old age, close to the hills, nearer to God and eternity. For eight years, they did have an idyllic retirement, at least from Baboo’s standpoint.

Occasionally, Shyama had complained of boredom to her daughter. She missed her life in Bombay, the gaiety of concerts and the glamour of city life.

Eventually, she reconciled. She liked the hills and did not mind the life Baboo immersed himself in. She seemed to mould herself to his needs, also this retirement gave her the advantage of living away from her in-laws. Shyama, like many daughters-in- law, could not stand her husband’s family.

Baboo and Shyama read religious books in the morning, held discussions through the day. Some days, of course, they had the free clinic. Then they went to the temple in the evenings, prayed and discussed the Vedantic way of life with a select few… for almost a decade.

And then came the blow. Baboo had thought he would go first because he was four years older. But his wife cheated on him. She died first…just went off… like that. She was and then she wasn’t!

Baboo found it difficult to move as he had a huge fibroid at the joint of his back and hips. He was bent double now.

Another place, another time…when he had been young, people compared him to Omar Sharif. He was a medical doctor with degrees from Scotland. He had a job offer when he finished his FRCS in Edinburgh. However, like a good, filial elder son, he had returned to India to care for his father who was retiring then. But his child did not return for him. He had only one… a single daughter. She continued living away… in another country.

She telephoned him every day. But who would clear out Shyama’s cupboards… not his housekeeper… it had to be his daughter. There were termites finally but his daughter could not come…

He needed to close his bank locker, pay his online bills… His son-in-law helped him pay the online bills from Bangkok. He needed them both to clear his out his bank locker. But they did not come.

His nephew and daughter spoke of a smart phone. That was impossible for him to handle. People spoke of what’s ap; but he was too old. He just wanted to meditate and pray…

Or, did he? His wife had died on him. It was an unfair trick!

He was supposed to be the first one to die. After all he had had a stroke, high blood pressure, fibroid and once his guts had spilt out…hernia. That time his wife had saved him. Shyama had called a doctor friend. Baboo did not like him… but still the much-critiqued doctor had saved his life.

Now, Baboo watched his blood pressure twice daily. He discussed it with his daughter on phone everyday. When he visited annually in Bangkok, his son-in-law tried to force an automatic blood pressure machine on him. But he did not want it. In India, he had taught his housekeeper to take his blood pressure. He did not want to become an invalid. He still wanted to do more. His physical inabilities made him feel helpless. That upset him and he wanted to die.

His neighbours told him, he was old. He must leave action to youngsters. He needed to pray, to attain moksha, freedom from the cycle of birth.

But his daughter asked (on the phone),

“Why do you want freedom from the cycle of birth? Life is so beautiful. The world is so wonderful, why do you want to leave it?”

Baboo saw suffering on television, in newspapers and around him. He himself was suffering life… and yet, she said: “Life is beautiful…” Would she do that at his age? At eighty?

There were so many deaths. And yet he lived…

His daughter never read the scriptures. She was immature at fifty. Old age had to be one of renunciation and drawing closer to God…. and waiting to die…

His wife had left for her heavenly abode. The first few years after she departed, he dreamt of her…

Now, he wanted a companion. It was so difficult not to have anybody to talk to when he wanted to discuss the scriptures… His daughter called up.

But she did not understand…

Moksha, old age, physical handicaps.

 

Why do people grow old?

Why can they not continue young and die at the age of hundred?

 

 

 

Book of the Year

 

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Title: Educated

Author: Tara Westover

 

Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, struck me as an unusual read because it touched my heart. It had to do with people, their reactions and their ability to override adversities and find their way in a world very different from the one they were born to. Philanthropist and tech giant Bill Gates summed up the most important thing in the book in his review in Goodreads. “Her dad taught the kids that they could teach themselves anything, and Tara’s success is a testament to that.”

Born into a conservative Mormon home that rejected even basic civic services like education and medicine from the state, Tara and her six siblings received almost no schooling except how to fend for themselves and survive in a difficult and hostile environment. Three of the seven children, including Tara, despite not even having regular home schooling, went on to earn PHDs. The urge to learn came from within. The only schooling they had was from the lessons taught by life.

Transcending the limits and boundaries laid out for her by her parents, rebelling against odds, trying to dance in a sweatshirt instead of a tutu, attempting to conform to be like her peers who attended school and went for movies, Tara earns the sympathy of the reader as she finds it natural to love and battle for acceptance from all the members of her unusual family, a family that could have been termed abusive in their use of children in the current day context. The children were made a part of her dad’s “crew” and would labor under unsafe conditions, so much so that her brothers and father ended up with permanent scarring through life and her mother ‘changed’ after her head injury went untreated in a car accident. Her mother was a healer. The whole family turned to herbs and energy healing for medical needs and avoided hospitals and conventional health care. The father would hoard food for the advent of a hypothetical apocalypse when all the modern systems would collapse. While Tara studied in university, she discovered her father could be having psychiatric problems. Yet her love, tolerance and kindness towards him, though he refused treatment, remains unparalleled. That she could find love and learn from every adverse situation she faced with the family is fantastic and admirable.

It is difficult to sum up a memoir that journeys into a world that is so unusual, one whose parallels for me lie in the fifteenth or sixteenth century witch hunts described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter and by Arthur Miller in his play, Crucible. To find strength and emerge unscarred from a world that is dark with misconception and yet a critique on what our current beliefs and way of life are, is an amazing feat that has been successfully performed by Tara Westover. It is an education to learn that such an island of belief systems still exist in the heart of America, a set of thoughts and lifestyle which are perhaps as unique as that of indigenous tribes that stay removed from modern life. That basic humanitarian needs are often flouted by such a group within a leading philanthropic, charitable country is amazing.

The transition from her family’s world, the movement away from staunch Mormonism to being a liberal educated thinking person is stretched over a long journey into which Tara Westover is pushed by her siblings, and perhaps, her mother too. Finally she emerges into an independent entity, a scholar from Cambridge. She describes this process as “selfhood”. The last lines best describe what she feels she has become.

“You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.

I call it an education.”

To talk of stylistic perfection and literary devices in a book of this stature would seem superfluous. All one can say is that the book is so perfectly conceived and written that it is an unstoppable read, one that cannot be put down till the last page is reached. It has won the Goodreads Choice award for Memoirs and Autobiography. It has been a finalist for a number of awards and The New York Times listed Educated as one of the top ten books of 2018.

What I see myself take away from this classic is a lesson in tolerance, innocence, humility, kindness and love, the values that create a human being; an education in human excellence and what wonders unstructured learning can do for people, despite the risks the Westover family children faced on a daily basis.

This is one of the most impactful and wonderful books I have ever read.