Eric Khoo, the acclaimed filmmaker from Singapore, has another feather in his cap. His films have been acknowledged for contributing to ‘international solidarity’ with the Bishwaratna Dr Bhupen Hazarika award this year.
Said Eric Khoo, the fourth recipient of this biannual award: “I believe that every person has intrinsic value beyond his or her race, religion, nationality or social class. This belief I understand was also shared by the late Bhupen Hazarika in whose honour the Award for International Solidarity was named. In this spirit, my films seek to bring people together, despite their apparent differences and thus, I am truly privileged to receive this award and to be associated with the late Bhupen Hazarika and his philosophy of International Solidarity.”
The Bhupen Hazarika award was instituted in 2011 by the Assam Sahitya Sabha ( Assam Literary Society). Given to artistes who exhibit international solidarity through their works, the awards represent the best in bridging borders drawn by mankind as did the lyrics and writings of artiste after who the award is named.
There are twenty two ‘scheduled’ languages in India and dialects run into many more. The 2001 census put the count of all spoken languages and dialects at 780, second only to Papua and New Guinea which leads with 839 languages.
With such a huge babel of words at it’s disposal, some languages languish from neglect. Some profess Urdu is one such victim. Recently, much is being written about how Urdu is dying in the bylanes of Old Delhi .
Urdu, a language of the court and poetry, graceful and elegant in its usage, came to be recognised fully around the eighteenth century in India. Before that, Persian was used in the Mughal courts. Urdu evolved as a language that was used by both Hindus and Muslims, perhaps a language of harmony. It used the elegant Nastaliq script.
Tagore’s bust at his ancestral home at Joransankho, Kolkata
Debendranath, Rabindranath’s father’s bust
On May 7 th, 1861, was born a man who left an indelible mark in the world of literature, philosophy, music, education and on the lives of many people. He wrote the national anthem for at least two countries, India and Bangladesh, and influenced the writer of the national anthem of a third country, Sri Lanka.
Rabindranath Tagore, the first non- European Nobel prize winner, was a remarkable man. Despite having his songs picked for national anthems and providing inspiration to other national anthem writers, he was critical of a system that drew borders among men and created hatred or intolerance. He withdrew from the politics of nationalism. He wrote: “…my conviction (is) that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
Labli was woken up by the dawn chorus. It was hard not to smile at the chirping of the sweet birds. She grabbed her long scarf from the foot of the bed and threw it over her head. Brushing back a loose strand of black hair from her forehead, she opened the door quietly so as not to disturb her younger brother, Joynal. He still had a few hours of sleep before waking up to go to school.The door squeaked as she pulled it shut behind her.
Labli looked down at her red shalwar kameez and tried to brush out the creases. It didn’t look as rumpled as it had before. Anyway, it would have to do; her only other set was still drying in the kitchen after yesterday’s thunderstorm.
As she felt her way along the cold, dark hallway, she noticed her parents’ bedroom door was ajar. Her mother was stirring on the bed; her father’s place was empty. Labli unlocked the front door and made her way to the tube well at the bottom of the veranda steps. The air was crisp and cool. Doel birds flapped overhead and one landed in one of the betel palm trees, lifting its white tail as it whistled. The Adhan, the call to prayer, blared out over the masjid’s loudspeakers. She filled up a plastic jug with water and made ablution. After praying the four units of the dawn prayer, she collected firewood from around the courtyard and milked the cow. She had just lit the fire when her mother walked into the kitchen.
Title: Not Elegy, But Eros Author: Nausheen Eusuf Publisher: NYQ Books (US) and Bengal Lights Books (Bangladesh) Pages: 88 (NYQ); 94 (BLB)
It has been at least two decades since my university days that I made time to go through a poetry collection as mindfully as I have recently. It is no accident that it is the newly published collected works of Nausheen Eusuf, Not Elegy, But Eros, that helped me emerge out of my doldrums on the poetry front. The title certainly played its part in drawing me to this new work. It was not long before I delved into it properly, that the full spectrum of what was on offer became apparent. Here was a fresh new voice of a global citizen who stirs up emotions against a universal backdrop which nevertheless reverberate at an individualised, atomic and primal level. Who would not be able to identify, in their own way, with, for example, the language of the trees that ‘held court with the birds, and drowsed at noon with the dragonfly’ or marking the passage of time through a thousand moons that ‘fattened and fell’?
Let me clarify at the outset that when I learned that the poet was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was intent on picking up deshi points of attachments from the get go. Part I, which barely contained the reference points I was looking for, initially almost disappointed. Then, of course, I came to “Ubi Sunt”, which chants an ode to the ‘ordinary sacraments’ of everyday life that are at once deeply personal and yet inherently universal. A poem woven intricately through shiny red seeds of sandalwood and garlands of jasmine freshly fallen after a night of rain, assures us of a continuity with all those who have gone before us and reminds us that sometimes the answer we are ‘hoping to find, if not what I seek, at least something that might suffice.’ “Ubi Sunt” is quickly followed by other gifts of homely indulgences – from the dining room and its many flourishes in “Musee Des Beaux Morts” to the almost delicious smell of Kiwi shoe polish and the rich feel of stiff-bristled horsehair brushes in “Shining Shoes”. What I found interesting in this particular clutch of poems is a quiet elusiveness of the poet herself. If it is by design, then it is pulled off cleverly – to invite the reader to such an intimate sanctum, yet remaining just beyond the line of visibility.
The old city rises out of the mist on the Buriganga River on a cold wintry morning. Slowly, it gropes its way into the many byzantine alleys that are proverbial for their lost tales and histories. After a long, chequered life, these alleys still contain old houses with frieze cornices, fretted eaves and worn out wooden doors and casements; mosques with egg-shaped domes and towering minarets; centuries-old red forts; kattras and landing ghats — all witness to many generations of local and foreign rule.
The alleys of this part of the city are packed with people and shabby tea stalls, groceries and trinket-selling vendors. Houses with one or two feet frontage scrabble for the sun all year round. Throughout the winter their residents come out on the street to gather in the narrow, twisted alleys, to squat by small fires. Children hopscotch all day and chase after stray dogs that are periodically inoculated by dog catchers.
Today is such a dog inoculation day. A small group of dog catchers gathers at the intersection of Dhakeshwari Temple Road. A faded blue jeep waits for them. They carry odd instruments: three hand nets with wooden handles and large hoops; a long pincer that closes on hinges made of iron clamps; and an obsolete rifle equipped with darts to tranquilize dogs that bark too much or are identified as disease-stricken.
There are five dog catchers in the group, all wearing white caps with an embossed seal on the front panel that reads: Mosquito Repelling Department. Since the city is yet to diversify its Animal Control Department, which is supposed to respect differences between the canine and the mosquito world, these men will always masquerade as catchers of the entire animal kingdom, except their own species. The youngest one in the group is a little boy in grey sweater, who carries a frayed leather bag with many pockets. Each of them is full of syringes and vaccine-filled vials that will inoculate dogs against rabies. The little boy seems to be excited and hoots like an owl. The eldest, the leader of the group — a middle-aged man with a thick beard — hushes the boy, slapping the back of his head, ‘Save it for when you notice a dog, you little punk!’ The other dog catchers, of mixed ages, notice it and remain silent; they haven’t been able to rub the sleep from their eyes yet.
A small crowd, amused by the dog catchers’ instruments and the little boy’s hooting, swirls around them like bees. They swarm the group on all sides until the blue jeep driver revs up the engine and whooshes past them. But before it reaches the next bend that leads to the Lalbagh Fort, a three-and-a-half-centuries-old architecture, the driver stops the car. The little boy in grey sweater hoots cheerfully as he spots two half-asleep dogs lying curled up on the pavement.
Have to – there are so many stories to tell! And if I go too long without writing, I can feel myself getting out of sorts with the world. It’s as if some critical dimension of my existence has gone missing.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
Most recently, I completed a longish short story, set a few decades into the future, about a Bangladeshi family of climate change migrants that migrates along the ‘New Silk Route’ and ends up camped on a suburban lawn in southern England. It’s told through the perspective of the eight year old boy who lives in the house and secretly makes friends with the girl from the family. It’s essentially a story about the often brilliantly transgressive nature of children’s friendships. Their capacity to transcend adult-imposed boundaries provides the hope for the future.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
‘More is less.’ I am always trying to pare my writing down, to say the most I can in the simplest way. I really enjoy reading dense, rich styles but I think my own strength is in economy with words. And I’m not at all keen on adverbs!
Who are your favorite authors?
Oh, how does one choose? The world is full of brilliant writers. Some current contemporary favourites: Africa – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; South Asia – Neel Mukherjee, Michael Ondaatje; America – Barbara Kingsolver; Middle East – Naguib Mahfouz, Elif Shafak; Britain – Hilary Mantel
Title: The Inheritance Powder
Author: Hilary Standing
Publisher: Red Door Publishing Limited (1st ed. 2015)
(Bangladesh: University Press Limited, 2016)
Price: £8.99 (Kindle 2.99)
Intrigue in the Development Sector
Professionals in the development sector often complain that putting together the notoriously impersonal, jargon-filled proposals and reports eats away at their ability to write evocatively. In her novel, The Inheritance Powder, Hilary Standing proves that it is possible to be otherwise. A long career in international development allows her to draw out a relatively refreshing story from this field.
Like her, one of the two main characters is Carl Simonovsky, an agricultural economist based in London. He specializes in East Africa but feels compelled to take on an assignment in Bangladesh so that he can add to the income generating portfolio of his employer, the fictional Institute of Poverty Alleviation. Carl is needed for a cost benefit analysis of solutions to Bangladesh’s arsenic problem on behalf of an aid agency. He is not convinced he should take on the task—he has not heard of the problem before and has no experience in South Asia. His faith is dwindling in the kind of economic models he has been asked to make. However, he reminds himself that ‘in the last year, considerations of ignorance, ethics and scepticism had not stopped him from providing policy advice’ on topics as far-flung as tourism and healthcare in other geopolitical regions outside of his expertise. Even after he arrives in Bangladesh, Carl muses about this ‘small, slippery compromise with integrity’.
In Carl, the author puts a more human face on the stereotype of the ‘male, pale and stale’ international consultant. His hesitation, confusion and regret are just some of the aspects of the development sector that the book portrays realistically. The harried director of the aid agency who hires Carl’s services is, perhaps regrettably, seen all too often. Ahmad, the national consultant who knows all the key contacts and local context of the arsenic problem, but is only paid a third of Carl’s fees, is also uncannily familiar.
A profoundly ignorant chorus of denunciation has descended upon Aung Sang Suu Kyi over the treatment of the Rohingyas — while ignoring the historical baggage of colonial policies that created this tragic conundrum. And critics ignore the role of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which mounted coordinated attacks on police stations, army posts and civilian targets in November 2016 and August 2017. Here are some facts for your to consider:
1. It all goes back to the 1932 election in Burma (then part of British India); the Brits wanted to separate Burmese from India, and propped up the Separatist League, but the Anti-Separatists (led by Ba Maw) won. They wanted to remain loosely federated with India. Nonetheless Burma was separated from India in 1935. When Ba Maw won the next election too in 1937, the British policies of Divide and Rule were stepped up — and led to anti-Indian rioting in 1938 in Rangoon (after the Brits imprisoned Ba Maw for seeking Japanese support for his campaign of full independence from the Brits).
2. When Japan liberated Burma in March 1942, Ba Maw was restored to power (formally becoming Prime Minister or Adipati in August 1943), with Aung San as his DPM and Defence minister. The British had ensured that the British Burma Army contained no Burmese (instead comprising Karen, Kachins, Shans and Chins) while the bureaucracy contained mainly Anglo-Burmans and Indians. The majority Bamars only got opportunities in the military and bureaucracy in alliance with the Japanese.
Collections of place-themed fiction can be powerfully evocative with descriptions of indigenous sights and sounds, unique references to the geographical landscape, and above all, glimpses into the minds of local characters, who, with their attitudes, mindset, dialogues, dreams and desires represent the collective ethos of the place in the given time setting. Examples include Dubliners and The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran which transport the readers to early twentieth century Dublin and Bangalore in the late nineties respectively. The Book of Dhaka aspires to add to this worthy genre. As K. Anis Ahmed mentions in the introduction, this collection of stories by various writers tries to capture the present-day ethos of the “world’s most densely populated city” of rice fields, lakes that overflow during the monsoon and “concrete structures, among roads far too narrow for anything to thrive but despair”. This intrinsic sense of despair hangs over the book, manifesting itself in the steam-of-consciousness monologue of a timid Chemistry lecturer who gets captured and tortured by the military in “The Raincoat” (written by Akhteruzzaman Elias and translated by Pushpita Alam), the story of a promising student whose poverty forces him to leave school and eventually become a gangster in “The Weapon” (written by Syed Manzoorul Islam and translated by Arunava Sinha) and that of a housemaid who resorts to peddling drugs in order to give her son a better future in “Mother” (written by Rashida Sultana and translated by Syeda Nur-E-Royhan).
The sense of gloom creeps like fog into the stories of the middle-class characters too. “The Decision” (written by Parvez Hossain and translated by Pushpita Alam) portrays the apathy of a young woman towards her ex-husband on coming across him at a book fair, as she rather indifferently contemplates on what went wrong in the relationship. “The Widening Gyre” (written by Wasi Ahmed and translated by Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman) is a chilling glimpse into the dangers lurking in the city roads where citizens are alleged to be shot dead in broad daylight.