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Magical Language of Others by award-winning poet, EJ Koh, is a Memoir of an abandoned Korean child — not abandoned in the sense of thrown out but abandoned by parents who put their career before child rearing.

An article in Asian Review says, “It isn’t uncommon for immigrants to return to their countries of birth for better employment opportunities, but in this case Koh and her brother would be staying behind.

In her new memoir, The Magical Language of Others, Koh shows the damage that ensues when leaving one’s children during their teenage years for no reason but selfishness.”

Eun ji Koh and her brother were left behind in California to struggle it out on their own by parents who returned to Seoul for nearly a decade in quest of better prospects.

Koh did come out of it with the help of poetry, and her writing. In an interview in Wildness, she said: “When I was a girl, I had terrible nightmares every night. My mother told me there was a curse upon the women of our family (for no reason I know). We could afford neither peace nor ignorance of our dreaming lives. At twelve or so, I figured out that if I wrote down the dream each morning, it wouldn’t haunt me the rest of the day.” And that is how started her journey as an award winning poet and writer.

 

By Hanish Rahane

Dedicated to the Mission to Seafarers and Seamen’s Club Tilbury

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I

Back in the year 2011, I was 22 years old — a ‘soldier’. It was December when the following events transpired. At the age when boys struggle to find their place in the world, a time when all thoughts and opinions are either black or white, my ‘soldier’ had decided to leave his surroundings and venture out to the sea. I was a panch sahab (5th engineer) on the majestic ship- MV Red Fin.

The crew was of mixed nationality. Our Chief was from Bangladesh. The other engineers from China, the Captain was from Russia, and the crew, from the Philippines. The voyage was from Mumbai to London over the Arabian sea and through the scenic Suez Canal. It was a day in the month of December when we were calling at the port of Tilbury docks near London. It was the last port of our voyage. Tilbury, at the time was a small, shoddy town whose only claim to fame was the newly built port. Also, ours was the very first ship to enter this new port and, as most of it was still under construction, the area around it still seemed like a muddy wasteland.

Now, any young seafarer will tell you that the moment the ship touches the jetty there are certain frequencies of sounds and vibrations that completely disappear on account of being ‘damped’ by the solid bulk of land. There are numerous such unconscious sensory observations that get registered in the seafarers mind continuously — awake or asleep, in dreams or in reality.  I call it the sailor’s sixth sense. The fuel transfer pump stopping to draw suction due to a choked strainer, the auxiliary blowers cutting in as the speed was reduced during manoeuvring, the sound of the telegraph bell ringing or the customary series of a hundred alarms as soon as you turn the engines off — sounds like muffled air horns– these were events that were automatically registered in my mind while I was in a state of deep sleep. And, hence, what happened might seem strange to a normal person. But I woke up knowing that we had berthed, although I had not seen it happen.

An excited panch sahab rushed towards the gangway ladder, scribbled his name on the gangway register, hurriedly snatched the nearest walkie-talkie, informed the Captain of his departure, and was soon out and about, walking along the muddy road, in this strange new land which he had only dreamt of visiting. But the story is neither about me nor the ship nor the landscape. The story is about one person in particular. As I walked into The Seaman’s Club that evening, a small tavern littered with the obscene commentary of crass sailors and drunken blue collared port workers and crane operators, a peculiar looking gentleman caught my eye. It was just a matter of time before he came over and introduced himself as Herman.

II

Herman, the German, was not a very good-looking man. He was short, stalky and spoke with a very strange accent which was neither German nor English. Herman was born in Munich a few years after the war had ended. His mother was Sudanese and his father, a Roman Catholic German. Let’s call him Senior Herman. Not much of Senior Herman was disclosed to me during our interaction but from what I gathered, he worked with the Catholic Church in a big capacity and was sort of a public figure back in his hometown.

A Republic Day Special

Nishi Pulugurtha reminisces about a past where India had emerged after the independence struggle as a republic with a strong belief in inclusiveness.

A group of young men were recruited to work at the newly set up laboratory in Bhubaneshwar. The laboratory was set up in 1961 by the Scottish geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane. They had made India their home. The institution brought together myriads of people from various parts of India who made it their workplace and home.

Hari Pulugurtha, my father, joined this laboratory as secretary to Haldane. He had been recommended by his childhood buddy Ramshastri Mangipudi who by then was already working at the laboratory. The job entailed a move to Bhubaneswar from Vizag, Visakhapatnam that is. Till then, Appagaru (that is how we addressed my father) had been doing all kinds of odd jobs. Appagaru always believed in the idea of inclusivity, the idea that however different we might be, there is something that binds all human beings together. He would tell us stories of how they were such a myriad group of people at the laboratory and the fun and camaraderie that they had celebrating life in its various aspects and of all the great work that went on there.

By Nishi Pulugurtha

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It was a Sunday or maybe a holiday, I think, as all of us were at home that morning. I think I was in grade two. I still remember that day so very vividly. It involved my maternal grandmother, ammamma, as we called her. The four of us, my parents, my sister and me, were all in the living room talking. The grill gate in our home had a big lock and to knock we used to bang the gate with the lock. As soon as I heard the sound of the lock banging on the gate, I ran out to the verandah to check out our visitor.  I saw ammamma, standing at our gate!

My joy and surprise knew no bounds. I rushed in to tell amma (mother) and appagaru (father) that ammamma was at our gate. They were stunned to hear the news, rushed out to open the gate and welcome her. Relatives from distant Kakinada coming over to our place in Calcutta did not happen often and as children we were always excited and overjoyed whenever they came over.

After a cup of piping hot coffee, ammamma freshened up before sitting down with all of us to talk. As amma had been unwell, my father had written to her folks in Kakinada. On receiving the letter, ammamma had decided to come to Calcutta to be with her eldest. Upon purchasing the train ticket, my eldest mama (maternal uncle) had been asked to send a telegram to my father letting him know of ammamma’s travel plans. She took the Madras Mail (as it was then called) from Samalkot Junction which is about 15 kms from Kakinada town.

The train reached Howrah station early morning. Ammamma alighted from the train and looked around. Hari garu, that was how she addressed my father, would surely be there to receive her. But he was nowhere to be seen. She then took out an inland letter that my mother had written to her some time ago, that letter had the sender’s address on it. She walked out of Howrah station after waiting for quite some time. Just outside the station she met a traffic sergeant. She showed him the address. He looked at it and started speaking to her.

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?