Sunday, 16 June 2019

Write...Edit...Publish...+ IWSG : Caged Bird June 2019

In life nothing is constant but change, and I'm dealing with a whole slew of them. Some changes are expected, I'm okay with those - seasons, months, growth, the expected transitions...but not all. Especially discomfort-inducing are those changes which happen too fast and without reason, descend on me with a rush like a rockfall. But...thankfully, some changes are reversible. Storms in teacups, not much harm done to the cups or the tea. C'est la vie... the idea is to keep calm and carry on Write...Edit...Publish...  - where I’m continuing with my photo-essay spree, and it is strangely apt that someone who taught me the definitive lessons on navigating change, should be the subject of it. 

The original is way over word count, so my entry consists of a few sections only. To explain the title - the person was a posthumous child, his losses started even before birth and carried on from there.

Born into Loss

S.N. Maitra with two of his grandchildren at 18/68B Dover Lane in 1982.

Three things are indelibly associated with that time and place, and with him – the wall clock, the tobacco water-pipe, and the small radio with the wooden fascia. I asked about them years later, but they were gone by then. Sold off to the junk-dealers because the radio and clock had both stopped working. Not sure what happened to the water-pipe, maybe the scrap traders got it for the metal.

Unlike his wife, he left me nothing tangible. No childhood presents, no souvenirs, not even a book with his name signed on it. No photograph albums, fat chance! - no such luxury. There’s just one photo I have, with him, my little cousin and me together in one frame, the one above, I was nearly an adult then. But he did leave me three clearly enunciated names – Meghna, Machhpara, Faridpur. And he left me an example of how to calmly navigate change and carry immeasurable loss without disintegrating. Intangibles all. Nothing that I can quite close my fist around, but all worth holding on to.

He had a cigarette-holder too, small, jet-black with a filter incorporated, in which he occasionally smoked a brand called Capstan, one cigarette cut carefully into pieces, for reasons of economy rather than health. The family was hard up even then, even with his elder son working at a renowned architectural firm in the city. A decade back, the father had sold off his last valuable - his gold watch, in some vaguely grand, O’Henryesque gesture, to pay off the backlog of hostel fees of his adult child, without which the said child would not have been able to sit his final university exams. A whole cigarette in one sitting felt too extravagant still. 
Everything was eked out, cigarettes, coal, postcards. The last item he filled with XXS size handwriting, beautifully formed letters by a rocksteady hand, without a hint of a tremor, even when he was 90+. But again, I get ahead of myself, I was the recipient of those 15-p postcards in teenage, where an entire week’s worth of family news was written on less than 50 square inches. But then Bengali is a compact script, there are hardly any loops and flourishes below the line. There was a singular lack of loops and flourishes below the line in our lives then, his and mine.
The room had several windows, green louvred with straight, black, vertical wrought-iron rods - forbidding, cool to the touch. The ceiling was low, the floor was set a couple of steps down from the landing, the same polished red oxide as the rest of the house. The door frame was smaller, lower than the others in the regular rooms on the upper or ground floor. He was a tall man, very spare, very upright, he must have had to duck to get in. There is, of course, more to being caged than a cramped room and straight bars on a window. And one man’s cage can be his grandkid’s polestar.  

I once asked him why he didn’t show the papers of the village property and get due compensation that the uprooted from East Pakistan were given by the Indian government. His told me that there were other branches of the family still living in the property, the papers were with them, naturally. Besides, where was the chance? We didn’t really plan this move, we didn’t flee as refugees, we came here to work, to get our children educated. We just got trapped this side of the suddenly sprung-up border. There was no way to go back.
I don’t really know how that feels, I was born years after the Partition. But I can take a good guess.  From the rambling, many-roomed, haphazard homestead with four courtyards, built over centuries a wing at a time - to a new built, two-storey, tiny, suburban house with a courtyard the size of a hanky. From being one of the first families in a small village where everyone knew him by name to the huge anonymity of a city of millions. From the collective memories of generations rooted in the same patch of land to one where there was no memory to draw upon. No templates for living life - the old ways rapidly disappeared, the new ways were not yet devised. 
Sapta purush jethae manush shey maati mayer baRa – where seven generations have been brought up that land is greater than the mother.*  How to negotiate a change of citizenship in which your own birthplace, the land of your ‘seven-generational’ ancestors becomes foreign and forbidden to you? He lived nearly half his life in Dover Lane, away from his home and birthplace, both forever out of his reach. It must have been excruciating. Trapped on this side of the border. We are all trapped by our respective borders and yet we can never know the exact nature of anyone else’s struggles, regardless of how close they are to us. 

One Wednesday afternoon in April 1986, my father called me at work. Come to Dover Lane. By then my parents had moved back to Calcutta, my mother was in remission from cancer, I lived with them in their hastily-acquired new home and worked not too far from Dover Lane. 
I found the house fuller than usual, my father’s cousins had come by, my eldest aunt, Boropishi was there sat by his bed. She told him I had come – he opened his eyes, looked at me for a long moment but said nothing; and then shut them back again. My grandfather lay perfectly still, his face calm, the eyes shut, the bones of his jaw and chin very prominent, his lips thinned as if some invisible internal force was sucking them in.
Shortly after, he sighed  - a long drawn out, rasping groan. The usual rituals were observed, a drop of Gangajal was touched to the mouth. My father checked for a heartbeat and could not find one. The neighbours, who happened to be doctors and had treated him for years, were called in and medically confirmed the death.
There was no last minute rushing in and out of hospitals, no last words, no mortal agony – just a peaceful departure. One minute he was there, the next he was not. My grandfather died with the same quiet dignity with which he had conducted himself all his life.  The cage had finally broken and the captive had gone free.

WC 1075

*A line from a famous Tagore poem called Dui Bigha Jomi (Two Bighas of Land)

Read the other entries here -

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Fifty Percent


Tell me about the skilled women
who dye the cloth and spin the yarn,
who raise the invoice and basins,
who love and break and mend and darn

and yet they tread so light footed,
their prints are easy to wipe off;
the jingle of their anklets fades -
it rings just once and then it stops

and when the book’s opened again
there is no trace left on the page -
the work they did, the yarns they spun
are rubbed out of the percentage.

Speak of the quiet fifty percent
who’re rubbed out, the erased segment.

Last week, I posted a sonnet from a series I am working on - Ninety Nine Percent, and Elephant's Child commented - 'And teach me about women, whose work is both imperative for our survival and so often ignored.' Which was super uncanny because....!! well, great minds and all that... :) 

So I thought I'd put it up. 

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Ninety Nine Percent

Teach me instead about peacetime,
the chaps who did not go to war,
the peasant folk who stayed at home,
who tilled the land and manned the store.

Tell me about the millions who
toiled ceaselessly, but left no mark.
The doormen of old neighbourhoods.
The fishermen out in the dark.

Spell out the history of small men
whose footsteps wore out cobblestones -
the mason, the cook, occupations
that did not involve crowns and thrones.

Speak of the ninety nine percent,
and tell me how their lives were spent.

Sunday, 26 May 2019


I am stabbed by questions. Questions.
You’ll get a different set.
Will you remember to write home,
will you text, or forget?

Those who start with new beginnings
from moorings must unpin.
Will you pivot from everything?
shred the old like a worn skin?

Face forward, onward, be fearless,
never a shooting star.
Be steady and rise, step by step,
but don’t forget who you are -

forgetting the tap roots, and address,
doesn’t make for peace, or happiness.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Visit visa

Somewhere between the junk mail and the spam,
the old coffee ring and jingling doorbell,
between the clicks and cookies is where I am
and the form's a boiled bullfrog in a spell;
in the crumbs of breakfast rolls and plum jam,
the nervous laughter summed in a nutshell,
huge search portals and old blinking programmes,
algorithms that don't travel very well.

A time slot please, for the biometrics,
the photo must be 2'' X 2",
take off the specs, not sure about the lipstick,
a clean background, spotless white is preferred.
Don't look for greys, don't say even a word,
look at the lens, there's no need to flinch.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Mother's Day : tips from a mother

I have, in my time, gone looking for advice -
sat at the knees of sage pundits,
sat with old women picking clean their rice;
wizened bodies housing wise souls, rheumy eyes,
stacks of life lessons, tips and tricks.

And each in their way, this is what they've said,
my child, don't label things too quick.
Be at home right inside your skin and head.
Every moment is its own watershed,
spot the shining silver in it.

Today I'd like to pass this on to you -
that everything has a nugget,
a core, a thread, and even scrap's got value;
you can't build with pure silver. It needs bamboo,
clay baked hard and hot into bricks.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Reflections A-Z: From Aghast to Agog via Zoned out

#AtoZChallenge 2019 Tenth Anniversary Reflections badge

Firstly, this song. May is Tagore’s birthmonth, he was born on 7th May, 1861. All through the A-Z I felt weirdly wrongfooted for not sharing more about his music and celebrity really, because he does impact Bengali culture in this overarching way.

It's been buzzing around in my head - the offspring reaches adulthood this month. Talk about a song summing up the current mood! The song has been sung by many stalwarts of Bengali music, a million others more accurate in their pronunciation, more polished in the technicalities of rendering, recording and production. But I found this rendition beyond moving – non-native speakers singing Tagore more than 1½ centuries since the songwriter’s birth. No fancypants visuals, no drama in the arrangement, just straightforward heartfelt emotions, voices raised unpretentious. The guy gives a translation at the beginning in Italian which I, sadly, don’t speak. Anyways, the gist is – as mine ends, yours begins, with you and me together, that’s how the stream goes on. 

Life, in other words, is a relay race. Enjoy!

Finally, my reflections on this landmark tenth A-Z Challenge

As usual, all yer who enters here, if yer gets this far, yer deserves and gets yo' choize -

The short version

I started this Challenge way less prepared than the other years. But no complaints, no regrets. In the end things fell into place, I survived and I had plenty of fun. A big, fat thank you to all those who read, and a big, fat thank you to the A-Z team for creating this space, for all the hard work to keep it going. Congrats! - on a super celebration of the decadal anniversary. See you next year same time, same place!

The lo-o-o-o-ng version

This blog is a duck. What a visitor sees from the lakefront is a bird gliding over water. More or less serene. Dipping her beak into the waves from time to time and bringing up a post. Poetry or fiction, or even creative non-fiction entries, either weekly or daily, go up here on a regular routine. The visitor gets no whiff of the mad-paddling that is going on underwater, out of sight. 

The blog is also the lake itself. Where I come to relax and detox, and I consciously write about things here disconnected from the fuss and fury going on elsewhere at that moment, keep it all separate and tidy. Madness below, sane above. Simple formula. Makes me feel I’m in control. Of course, that’s also an illusion, all a load of maya. But let’s not get into Vedantic philosophy here. Things are complicated enough without that.

For reasons various, life has been chaos since last December. As someone I know put it pithily – ‘hamster wheel tenterhooks combo.’  ‘Write it as it comes’ – hasn’t worked…what’s come to mind hasn’t always been worth writing down. But fortunately, I’ve been able to keep it from spilling over to the lake, or affect the duck, she’s had to mad-paddle extra-hard but she’s managed somehow to keep on swimming.

Why I’m saying this now is because every cloud is pure silver if turned inside out - my A-Z this year has been massively different because of this, underwater if not above. For a time, I considered not participating at all. But then it was the tenth year anni…fomo, I understand the youngsters call it…Then I toyed with the idea of the shortest possible posts – a photo and caption, a mini-essay, but short’s not really my thing, except for poetry. It felt half-hearted, low-involvement, and I don’t like doing half-hearted, I’m so not good at low-involvement, especially with writing. The upshot of all this stumbling around was that nothing much got decided, not much researched, even less got written.

So. I started this Challenge way less prepared than the other years, I forgot the sign-up date, I plunged in with a fairly complex theme without a drop of due diligence, I did not check for the ‘QX-test’ which is my gold standard for any theme. I had just about half the posts written on 31st March, all the tougher letters were supremely unready, unresearched even, the music was all over the place, it was just anarchy exponential.

But no complaints, no regrets. My A-Z was more spontaneous because of the mess, though I had moments of blind panic as I flailed around for letters which I'd have thought wouldn’t be so hard to write to – U and Z, for instance. But…once you’ve set your mind on something, the universe conspires to arrange it for you. It miraculously conspired for those letters too, I found my topics, I posted in time on the day, even if it was by the skin of my teeth. I scraped through, I survived. The sixth time for me. The tenth anniversary of the event. 

In the end things fell into place and I had plenty of fun. Possibly more fun than if my posts had been scheduled to the gills, because I’m really a pantzer at heart. The final takeaway?  – scheduled is great, but unscheduled is not always as hopeless as I’ve allowed myself to believe. Why have I lured myself into this belief anyway? Why get into a mindset where only one way of doing things, of surviving challenges, is the valid way? Not a good habit to fall into. The brain knows it, there’s no right or wrong way of being on the lake and/or the lakeside, yet the heart panics and flaps around, such a waste of energy and emotion. Take it easy and be bindaas boss, it will pan out if only you jump in. A thing half-done can also be well begun.  Bas lagi raho Munnibai!

A big, fat thank you to all those who read my overlong posts (including this one! You’d have thought not being scheduled would mean less of the megarambles, but no, it didn’t work that way, not quite sure how it does work, but there it is. Less time for the ruthless big chop, I guess.)

And an equally big, fat thank you to the A-Z team for creating this space and for all the hard work to keep it going. Congrats! - on a super celebration of the decadal anniversary. Here’s to many more.

I shall be, as in all the other years, reverting back to my bloghopless self forthwith, to my weekly poetry/fic business as usual. Except WEP/IWSG of course. See you next year same time, same place! As the Bengalis say – aschhe bochhor abar hobe! (Lit. will happen again in the coming year). And who knows? - maybe I’ll learn to chop and edit better meanwhile.

Posted for the A-Z Reflections

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Z is for Zat's all, folks!

Well, hasn't the month just zipped past? Always a mixed feeling to get to the last post...   

Zinga Goshty was Bangladesh’s pioneering pop band, formed a decade before Bangladesh was independent. Here is one of their hit tracks from 1982 – Dhaka, sung by Nazma Zaman on Bangladesh TV. 

The following track is from an album called Beche Thakar Mane (The Meaning of Survival) sung by Nachiketa from West Bengal. The lyrics are by Zulfiqar Russell, a Bangladeshi lyricist, poet and journalist.

Mitthe is from Ekla Prothom, the first album by Zooel Morshed, known simply as Zooel. He is a sound engineer and artiste from Bangladesh. 

And the final track for this A-Z series on Bengaliana - is from Miftah Zaman, a Bangladeshi singer-songwriter and musician with a title called Dujon Dupothe (Two people on two paths) about drifting apart, about divergence. 

Zamindari...under the Mughals and the British...

Zamindar, from the Persian zamin=earth/land, dar=suffix indicative of possession, means a landlord. The zamindari system was first set up by the Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). In those times, the zamindars were tax collectors in charge of the land cultivated by peasants. They belonged to the nobility and were mansabdars (mansab= position in Arabic - commanders in the military with a fixed number of troops, varying from ten to over 10,000. Higher mansabs were granted to the princes of royal blood and to the non-Muslim kings who accepted Mughal suzerainty). The collection rights given to these collectors were not necessarily hereditary, the Emperor always had the final say and could allocate the office to another more favoured nobleman, all land belonged to the Empire. The zamindars were also responsible for certain policing, judicial and administrative duties in their domains.

Akbar put in place a taxation system which was thorough and generally fair to the farmer. Though it was not that abuses on the ground did not happen. But by and large the system was based on the fertility of the land, and actual yield potentials. The tax amount varied from 1/3rd on top grade fertile land to 1/26th of the yield on poor quality land. Extortion and abuses, if complaints were brought, were dealt with very severely. Seeds were made available to the farmers by the state, wells were dug, loans were given also. In the case of droughts or famines, taxes were remitted on a case to case basis. Not necessarily a cushy life for the farmer, but it wasn’t a total write off either, crushed by taxes and the state. This system served the Mughal Empire very well. Consider this, the land revenue at Akbar’s time was Rs 175 million; it rose to Rs 211 million under his grandson Shah Jahan, and finally to nearly Rs 300 million during Aurangzeb’s reign. Things kind of fell apart for the Mughals after Aurangzeb and that is when the EIC made its move on Bengal/India, as we have seen earlier in this series.

Some zamindars came to wield enormous power at the grassroots level and sometimes ran their zamindari almost independent of the Empire. Notable examples of such zamindars were the Baro Bhuiya (Baro=Twelve/Several; Bhu=Land, Bhuiya=One with land) of Bengal, around the Bhati or the Delta region in the late 16th century. The Baro Bhuiya included both Hindu zamindars such as Raja Pratapaditya of Jessore, and also Muslims such as Isa Khan. These formed a confederacy that repulsed attacks by the Mughal Empire itself, through superior use of naval power and strategies. The Mughals were pathetic at naval warfare and the navy was the weakest branch of their defence forces. While any ruler of lower Bengal clearly had to be conversant with a riverine warfare regime – the Bhati/Delta region of Bengal is really more water than land. It was only in the reign of Jahangir, Akbar’s son, that Bengal was finally and properly brought under Mughal control. And incidentally it was during his reign also that the first firman granting the British the right to trade was issued.

Getting back to the Bengal zamindars,  they were great patrons of the arts, built many monuments, promoted cultural, educational, and economic developments, played key roles in the Bengal Renaissance and the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. However, they were also known for developing the urban centres at the cost of the rural masses and exploitation of the peasant farmers. Both Raja Ram Mohan Roy  and Rabindranath Tagore, two monumental figures  of the Renaissance, were connected to zamindaris, the Raja was himself a zamindar and Tagore was the youngest son of one. Both were vocal in condemning social evils of their time and advocated for social reform.

After the British gained control, Lord Cornwallis put through the Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1790's, as part of the Cornwallis Code. This affected life in Bengal on many levels and created a powerful landowning class that initially supported the British. In the Mughal era, the zamindars were functionaries of the Empire reporting to the imperial Diwan, whose responsibility it was to make sure that the system did not tax farmers so as to jeopardise future tax collections.

When the EIC took over the Diwani of Bengal in 1764, it found itself short of trained manpower well-versed in the local customs and laws and agricultural practices. (The setting up of educational institutions to train local Bengalis to serve in the British administration, and also the interest in local languages and systems so that Britishers could run the province, were direct by-products of these.) As a result of this gap, zamindars remained unsupervised and/or reported to unscrupulous/clueless/corrupt officials – farmers were taxed without any thought for local welfare or future income.

Once the British took India, many zamindars were granted/assumed the titles of Raja, Maharaja, Rana, Rai and Nawab, all meaning ruler, king or viceroy. While the British retained the zamindari and its associated systems, they changed the land revenue calculations, withdrew the facility of loans without any thought for the future or farmer. The landlords were given lifelong tenure, the zamindari became hereditary, effectively the zamindar became the landowner. However, they were no longer allowed to maintain their own troops anymore. Under this system, the zamindars were liable to pay a fixed sum to the British, pegged at 10/11 parts of the amount realised from the land, and retain one part for themselves. They were free to set the taxes due from farmers to the zamindari. The zamindars thus brought in a certain amount for the British irrespective of weather conditions, fertility of land or any other considerations. Absentee landlords who bore no burdens of the cultivation but claimed the lion’s share of produce appeared as a consequence of this policy. A switch to cash crops like sugarcane, jute, cotton was forced through at the expense of food crops, ultimately resulting in food insufficiency and famines. No-one, neither the British nor the zamindars did anything for the peasants during famines. Not exactly a great system - what had survived under the Mughals for 200 years, did not complete even a century under the new rulers.

Though the British had sought to create a class of native Indians loyal to the Company/Crown through this system, the zamindars ultimately formed a separate, powerful, elite interest group, caring nothing for the cultivators and often at loggerheads with their British masters. The zamindari system was abolished after independence in the early 1950’s in both Bengals in major agrarian reforms. 


So. Zat complete’s my A-Z Challenge 2019… Heartfelt thank yous to those of you who came along on this heady trip home, I hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as I did. Off for some much needed zzzzzz now...see you next month! 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019 

Monday, 29 April 2019

Y is for...Yatri... Yen... n... Yonder

Here's a track from a band called Yonsample. They are one of the most prominent metal bands out of East India/Bengal. Have a listen - a very different sound -

The next two tracks are from multi-award winning playback singers Sabina Yasmin (Bangladesh) and Alka Yagnik (India). Sabina has been singing for more than 50 years and has been awarded the highest civilian honours of Bangladesh. Alka Yagnik is a Bengali by domicile, also an award-winner and a very highly regarded singer from the films, mostly of Bollywood. Here she is singing Bengali Adhunik (modern). Two different voices from two parts of Bengal.

Yen...n...Yonder, preferably blue...

The Bengali is an indefatigable traveller (=yatri). According to a BBC estimate in the late noughties, more than 50% of Indian domestic tourists were made up of Bengalis. Though the percentage might have moved as incomes and standards of living improve in India, I don’t think the essential conclusion of that exercise has changed majorly in ten years. Travelling, like politics and poetry, is a Bengali passion. 

Famous poem by Tagore on mindfulness and nature
(translation by yours truly). But why I am putting it 

up here are the opening lines - that even a hundred
years ago there was much travel and much money 
spent on it by Bengalis. Needless to mention,Tagore
here is assuming a persona, that of the ordinary,  
middle-class Bengali, an inveterate leisure traveller. 
I have elsewhere in this A-Z series mentioned about Atish Dipankar travelling to Sumatra and Tibet and Sri Chaitanya travelling all over India with their respective spiritual messages and missions. Similarly, a 19th century monk, Vivekananda, took the message of the Vedanta as far as America. Travel in Medieval and Ancient Bengal was primarily religious tourism – the few who could afford to do so, went on pilgrimages to the Himalayas, or to Varanasi. Majority of the people who travelled were religious scholars or monks – both Buddhists and Hindus. Muslims were obliged to go to Mecca once in their lifetime as a religious duty and some surely did, but many did not - both the Emperor and the pauper for obvious reasons. The sea route to Mecca was pirate-infested and dangerous, so much so that the Haj pilgrimage was declared non-mandatory at some point by the Mughal court. But apart from that deviation, it was common for affluent Muslim men, noblewomen and royal consorts to go to Mecca. 

Leisure travel, like many other things, arrived with the foreigners. The Anglicised Bengalis would travel by horse carriage for a ‘change of air’ to the ‘dak bunglows’ even before the railways started. Others took more conventional routes. In 1850, Ishwar Chandra Gupta recorded his journey by boat to the Sunderbans and published it in his newspaper Sambad Prabhakar - this was the first travelogue in Bengali. Incidentally, he was primarily a poet and used the penname ‘Bhromonkari Bondhu’ which translated means Travelling Friend.

Once the railways were introduced, travel got a major fillip. And Bengali literature, where the first slew of super-creative, innovative Bengal Renaissance writers were beginning to pen the first Bengali novels, magnified the effect through heroes who took the train ‘West’ at the drop of a hat. As the century turned, this trend of traveller-heroes continued. From Ghona-da to Teni-da to Felu-da the fictional characters were always going off on adventures  - to Dooars, to Lucknow, to Gangtok, to Rajasthan, to Mars even! And of course their fans had to check out for themselves what the forts and forests and the general terrain looked like. The tradition of travel writing and essays continued too, to motivate Bengalis to pack their bags and hop onto the nearest train.

The long summer vacation for schools and the court got institutionalized, and the fortnight’s break during Durga Puja. In 1864, the British formally moved their summer capital to Shimla, a thousand miles away from Calcutta, to escape the relentless heat of the plains. This break was another opportunity for the Bengalis to travel -  more ‘hawa bodol’ (change of air) at places with restorative properties. Many of the more affluent Bengalis acquired vacation homes in Darjeeling, in Puri, in Giridih, even as far as Benares. The landowning families such as the Tagore’s acquired or built properties up in the hills and/or at the waterfront.  In time, the lower income classes joined the wanderlust club. Both the mountains and the seaside started offering less exclusive accommodations for the Bengali tourists.

By 1933, one of the oldest Indian tour operators had started up in Calcutta – Kundu Special. They have been organising package tours for over 80 years now. Particularly popular because they cater to all the food quirks and culture-specific requirements that middle-class Bengalis have.

Outside the five-star luxury orbit, Bengalis remain the most well-travelled community in India. Wherever one might look - from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Ajanta to Kamakshya, there will be  Bengali travellers out to improve their health and broaden their horizons. With rising incomes and better air connections, Bengalis have now started venturing out of India as well. The Bengali travel-maniac has crossed the seven oceans. Read more here and here.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019

Saturday, 27 April 2019

X is for...Xikes!!!...Xrumbs!!! ...Xood Xrief!!

Like Q, there's no X in Bengali so I thought there won't be much choice today, can’t be picky or anything, but even so…managed to find some nice numbers. Quite surprised frankly, phew! 

Starting off today with this lovely track – Tomar jonno (For you). For you. It's from X-Factor, a fusion rock band from Bangladesh.

Next is a modern rendition of Karar Oi Louho Kopat (Those Steel Prison Doors, 1924) by the Bangladeshi group Xodiac. The original was written and composed by Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) during the Independence Movement against the British, reportedly while Nazrul was himself incarcerated. It is an incredibly powerful revolutionary song and has been sung by heaps of professional artistes as well as in rallies and protest marches by ordinary people. Forget the exact meanings of the lyrics, the internal rhymes and the robust marching beat can be felt by everybody. The song played an important role in the both the Indian Freedom Struggle and Bangladesh’s Liberation War decades later. Nazrul, Bangladesh’s National Poet,  combined both Hindu and Islamic imagery seamlessly in many of his compositions, drawing upon his own vast knowledge of both faiths and the syncretic traditions of Bengal. Enjoy!

Finally, here’s Chronic Xorn featuring Lakkhichhara with Paliye Berai (I’m on the run) in a live performance. Both bands are from West Bengal, and both have been featured earlier in this A-Z series.

X is for… eXactly Xilch...n...Xero in Bengali  

What do you do when you can’t dredge up an X-word from your own alphabet? You call upon your neighbours for help. That’s what I’m doing, and I’ve gone to them in the past too…they’ve never turned me down yet. China has Xplorers and poetry and pilgrims and monks for the most challenging of the Challenge letters. Ask and you shall receive.

So. Today I’m talking about Xuanzang, a Chinese traveller/monk who literally helped write Bengali history. Xuanzang, also written Huan Tsang, (602-664) was born in Henan province of China during the beginnings of the Tang dynasty. Born into a scholarly, erudition-crazy family, he was given a Confucian education. He had a keen interest in Chinese classics and the ancient sages. Encouraged by his elder brother who was a monk, Xuanzang became a monk himself at thirteen, was ordained at twenty and his interest turned to Buddhist subjects. He travelled in his early years in China’s different provinces to collect and study old Buddhist manuscripts. However, he came across many discrepancies and conflicting ideas in them which his Chinese teachers could not resolve. Xuanzang therefore decided he would travel to India, to the very fountainhead of Buddhism, study and figure things out for himself.

But…not so fast! The then Tang Emperor came to know of his wish and promptly forbade his trip on security grounds, since the Tang were at war at the time with the Gokturks, the Eastern Turks. Xuanzang was not discouraged though, he made his plans in secret and fled, travelling by night and hiding by day, without guide or companions, facing the hardships of the road and the Gobi desert alone.  In 629 he finally reached the western border of the Chinese Empire, the start of the Silk Road, where the local ruler invited him to the court in Turfan. Though the ruler’s plan was to detain Xuanzang indefinitely as the ecclesiastical head of the court, the monk was able to persuade the king to let him leave. Xuanzang was sent on his way with letters of introduction to all the kings and kingdoms en route, down to the formidable Turkish Khan on the borders of India, so that he was no longer a fugitive fleeing the country, but a scholar and pilgrim.

Xuanzang reached India in 630. He travelled widely within the country to various Buddhist monasteries and centres of learning. In all he spent some 16 years in India spanning the length and breadth of the land from what is now Pakistan to modern day Bangladesh, Assam, Bihar and West Bengal. His entire itinerary is super interesting but may not be relevant here, so I’m going to restrict the focus to Bengal/the Delta region alone. He reached Bengal in roughly 638 and spent around half his time in India in travelling the various regions of the Delta.

Credit. 7th century Bengal.
He arrived in Bengal during the reign of Shashanka, one of the early rulers of great importance. Shashanka is thought to have been in power from roughly 600 to 625, a major political figure of his time. Xuansang's account of this kingdom form a significant source in understanding Bengal's history. However,  Xuanzang painted Shashanka as anti-Buddhist, recording his religious persecution of specific Buddhist leaders. Though Xuanzang himself studied in Nalanda with thousands of other Buddhist scholars in Shashanka's domain and noted the flourishing presence of other Buddhist monasteries within the kingdom. Therefore, several eminent historians believe that Xuanzang was partisan (he favoured Harshvardhan, Shashanka's rival and a Buddhist as opposed to Shashanka who was a Shaivite Hindu).

Okay, let's forget the partisanship issues, what did he actually say about Bengal? He recorded that Shashanka's kingdom was “rich in all kinds of grain-produce.” And that it was thickly populated. The people valued learning and scholars. There were around 20 Buddhist monasteries close to the capital with a 3000 strong community of Buddhist monks and scholars. (How this is possible if Shashanka was anti-Buddhist beats me!) He also remarked on the presence of Jains and Jain temples. 

Passing from the northern areas to southeast and into the lower coastal region, Samatata, he observed “the land lies low and rich and is cultivated with many crops.” That the climate was mild and the people agreeable. Here too they valued scholarship and learning. There were 30 Buddhist monasteries with 2000 priests.

In Tamralipta, to the west of Samtata, Xuanzang found Buddhists and non-Buddhists living side by side (early evidence of religious tolerance in Bengal). There were 10 monasteries and a sangha of 1000 Buddhists there, and Brahmanical temples there numbered around 50. “The coast of the country is in a recess of the sea; the land and water embrace each other. Wonderful articles of value and gems are found here in abundance, and the people of the country are very rich.”

The main impression of Bengal  he creates is that of a prosperous, populous agrarian economy, keen on education and scholarly pursuits. Xuanzang also, very helpfully, gives the exact areas and distances between the kingdoms and their capital cities which I am not recapping. Read more about his travelogue here.

Xuanzang went back home to China in 645, he was received by the Emperor with great honour  and was offered an imperial position. He declined the job and went into  a monastery where he, with the help of a team of translators, translated the 600-odd Sanskrit texts he had collected from India. Many original Buddhist texts which were subsequently lost in India, were recovered from their Chinese translations that Xuanzang did. He also translated Lao-tzu’s works into Sanskrit and sent them to India.

On the request of the Emperor, he wrote his travel experiences in the book Great Tang Records of the Western Region, which became one of the primary sources for understanding the early medieval history of South and Central Asia. His influence on Chinese Buddhism was far reaching. He died in 664. Read more about his contributions to Buddhist philosophy here.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019