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Writing Matters: In conversation with Dr Mohammad A. Quayum

By Shikhandin

Dr Quayum

Dr Mohammad A. Quayum is the author, editor and translator of 32 books in the areas of American literature, Asian Literature and Postcolonial literatures. He is also the author of more than sixty articles in distinguished peer-reviewed journals. His research interests range from 19th and 20th century American literature to contemporary Asian literature, with special focus on Indian literature, Bengali literature and Malaysian-Singaporean literature.

He is the Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Asiatic: An International Journal of Asian Literatures, Cultures and Englishes (indexed in Web of Science and Scopus) and is on the advisory board of several leading journals including Journal of Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, UK; ISI indexed), Transnational Literature (Australia; ERA indexed), Interdisciplinary Literary Studies (USA; WoS indexed), Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies (USA), Literature Today (India), The Apollonian: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies (India), and The Rupkatha Journal of the Interdisciplinary Studies of the Humanities (India; Scopus indexed).

Dr Quayum is dean of the Kulliyyah (Faculty) of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), and an Honorary Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University, Australia.

 

Shikhandin: Most of us only know of you as Dr M.A. Quayum the academic and mentor. Tell us a bit about your early life, and what drew you to pursue literature.

Dr M.A. Quayum: I was born in a small town called Gopalganj, in the district of Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was before Bangladesh was formed and was still known as East Pakistan. I grew up in this small, near-idyllic town and got my early education in the only Government school for boys there, S.M. Model Primary and High School. When I was eleven, my father sent me to a public residential school several hundred kilometres away, known as Jhenidah Cadet College. This marked a turning point in my life. It was an English medium school and the fees were very high. My father could hardly afford the fees and yet he sent me there, mainly to secure a good future for me. A second reason was that my father, who was a lawyer in Gopalganj, had a great admiration for English language and literature. Probably he thought that sending me there would also give me a good grounding in the language. I don’t know how and where he picked up his love for English, because my grandfather was a religious teacher at a primary school in our village who had little interaction with the language. My father was, however, educated at the Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta (Kolkata), and perhaps it was there that he developed his great love for both English language and literature. You would be surprised to know that my father could recite several poems by Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Browning from memory. He would take enormous pride in reciting Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in particular. Maybe I was infected by his love in childhood and therefore developed a natural penchant for literature from an early age, reading all kinds of books, in both Bengali and English. My father would often buy me books and take me to the local library and encourage me to participate in various literary activities such as essay writing and poetry recitation competitions. I remember participating in an essay writing competition on the life of the Prophet when I was seven or eight years old, and then being invited to read my essay at a local mosque. I also remember my father giving me a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of short stories, Galpagucchha, for my eleventh birthday, and I recollect reading almost all of it in a great rush. My recent attempt to translate some of Rabindranath’s short stories into English, which was first published as Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories by Macmillan India in 2011 and then as Rabindranath Tagore: The Ruined Nest and Other Stories by Silverfish Books Malaysia in 2014, was a means to share that childhood excitement and discovery: firstly with my daughter who, being born and brought up in Australia, has in a way lost touch with the language and the culture; secondly, with my students and friends in Malaysia and elsewhere, who have great curiosity about and admiration for Tagore but cannot read his work in the original because of the language barrier.

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The wife’s letter

This is one of Rabindranath Tagore’s most acclaimed stories in which voices of women are brought to the fore

(Translated by Shawkat Hussain)

Respected Lotus-footed one,

We have been married for years fifteen years but this is my first letter to you. Since we have always been together, there was never any need to write letters.

Today I have come for a pilgrimage to Srikhetra and you are in your office working. Your relationship with Kolkata is like that of a snail with its own shell. Kolkata is a part of your body and soul, and so you did not apply for leave. Perhaps that was what God wanted; but He has granted my application for leave.

I am the second daughter-in-law in your family. Today, standing by the sea-shore, fifteen years after our marriage, I have realized that I have another relationship with the universe and its Creator. This realization is what has given me the courage to write to you today. This is not just a letter from the second daughter-in-law of your family.

In my childhood, when nobody knew about my ill-fated connection with your family except He who willed it to be, my brother and I were once stricken down by typhoid fever. My brother died but I recovered from my illness. All the women in the village said that I survived because I was a girl; there would be no escape from death if I were a boy. The Angel of Death is excellent in the art of theft; it steals things only of value.

I am deathless. It is to explain this more fully that I am writing this letter to you.

When your uncle and your friend Nirode came to see me as a possible bride for you, I was only twelve years old. We used to live in a remote village where jackals howled even during the day. To reach our village you had to travel miles in a bullock-cart from the station and three miles on a palanquin along a dusty road. It was a very difficult journey for both, and then they had to suffer our bangalstyle of cooking. Even to this day your uncle remembers the horrible food that was served to them. Read more

Source: Dhaka Tribune


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India: Assam govt to hold seminars on Rabindra Jayanti from next year

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal today described Rabindranath Tagore as a great humanist and said Tagore made indelible contribution to glorify Indian literature at the world stage.

He was speaking at a Rabindra Jayanti celebration organised by the Greater Guwahati Rabindra Jayanti Celebration Committee in association with the Directorate of Cultural Affairs.

The Assam government would hold seminars on Rabindra Jayanti across all districts in the state from next year, the chief minister said. Read more

Source: India.com


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When Jibanananda translated his own poems

By Abdus Selim

There are perhaps innumerable examples of poets translating their own poems in the realm of literature, but what I am focused on in this brief writeup is sketching the trends in Jibanananda Das’s translations of his own poems. We all know the first most successful poetry translator of this subcontinent happens to be none other than Rabindranath Tagore, for, his renderings of his own poems into English brought him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. But of course no such thing happened to Jibanananda Das.

The English translation of four poems, “If I Were” (Jodi aami hotem), “O Kite” (Hai chil), “Banalata Sen” (Banalata Sen), and “Meditations” (Manosharani) came out in the anthology titled Modern Bengali Poems in 1945. All four of them were translated by the poet himself. Abhijeet Roy comments on Jibannanda’s translation in his lecture that he delivered at The Open University, UK, “Jibanananda as the translator of his own poem . . . was anxious to retain his lifetime obsession with the meaning of human history in the context of an unfathomable universe.” The poet himself held that, “Poetry and life are two different outpourings of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet’s talent nor the reader’s imagination . . . poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.” This mysterious new world referred to by Jibanananda Das was perhaps the anxiety and obsession for retaining the meaning of human history in the context of an unfathomable universe, that Abhijeet has tried to imply. Read more

Source: Dhaka Tribune

 


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Book Review: Orpheus in Kolkata by Joe Winter

By Lakshmi Menon

kolkataOrpheus in Kolkata opens with its titular poem, and there can be no better introduction to the poetry of Joe Winter, or to this collection.

Kolkata is presented as every note from the seven strings of a divine veena, carried by the musician best known for the tragic beauty of his playing, Orpheus himself. Each string is a section of the city; the para and its nest of roads, the Esplanade and the heart of the city, and the quiet of Jorasanko Thakur-bari, where Tagore the master musician lived and wrote. Orpheus hears the music of the city, plays the music of the city; and in Kolkata, Winter sees the heart of an “India of old”. The myth of Orpheus can be seen as what links this collection of poetry together. Like the myth of the man who could not gaze back on his love to keep her, there is the ceaseless movement of time, the change that time brings, and the constant reminder that one cannot return to the past. As a translator of some of the stalwarts of Bengali poetry, Jibanananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore, Winter is no stranger to the city or its people. In his poetry, Winter takes us on journeys into Kolkata and its psyche, and to the world beyond.

The other poems in the collection flicker from the intimate to the quotidian, all bound by different strings, like Orpheus and his veena. This collection of poetry is more of a collection of remembrances, a constant journey linking past and present. A 125-year-old bookshop in Kolkata bridges that gap, while the death of a dear friend represents the time that has passed. Winter draws his inspiration from art, from literature, from the daily news. His scholarship is clear when he likens the world as it has become today, to Beowulf’s monsters, of a mankind changed from the heroic to the terrible in the space of “World News Headlines”.

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Russian poet laments the lack of awareness about contemporary Indian authors

Eminent Russian poet and essayist Maxim Amelin has lamented lack of awareness about present-day Indian writers among Russian readers, which he blamed on the absence of “direct communication” between the two countries.

Only a handful of contemporary writers, for example Arundhati Roy, enjoys some familiarity back in Russia and for that matter in Europe, but that too because their writings got to be translated in native languages, Amelin observes.

“It’s a far cry from Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay whose works are hugely popular in Russia and several other European countries,” Amelin told PTI on the fringes of the 41st Kolkata International Book Fair where he was a guest. Read more

Source: DNA India


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Book Review: Daughters Of Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti

daughters

The world may not know of Jorasanko, but to Bengalis it’s the epoch of extraordinary creative output now known in history as the “Bengal renaissance”. For Jorasanko, a neighbourhood in north Kolkata, was the Tagore family seat and home to Asia’s first Nobel laureate.

Rabindranath is the most recognised, but he was merely the brightest spark in a family of remarkably talented members, many of whom were pioneers in their own right. Their contributions no less important, but now only known to specialists. His father, Debendranath, for instance, was the founder of Brahmo Samaj, his sister Swarnakumari was one of Bengal’s first women writers, sister-in-law Jnanadanandini was credited with improvising the modern style of wearing the sari, and many others whose achievements could cover the whole page.

The family was full of creative energy, but the Tagore women had an ambivalent existence—liberated and limited at the same time; speaking English and playing the piano like memsahibs, but having no say in whom they married or if mistreated by their husbands.

This is the world in which Aruna Chakravarti sets Daughters of Jorasanko, a historical novel about life in Jorasanko Thakurbari’s “andar mahal”. Like its bestselling prequel, Jorasanko, published in 2013, this one too has the poet as its protagonist. Read more


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Rabindranath Tagore 2nd most popular Literature Laureate after Dylan: Nobel Prize Organisation

tagore

Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize in 1913 and the only Indian in the literature category is the “second most popular Literature Laureate right now” going by the number of visits on the website, the Nobel Prize Organisation tweeted late on Wednesday.

Tagore is only second to this year’s winner Bob Dylan. Unlike Dylan, whose popularity was global with fans from all over the world, Tagore was comparatively unknown in Europe or the West in general when he won the prize in 1913, only the 13th to win a Nobel for literature.

In fact, the award ceremony speech in 1913 reads: “…After exhaustive and conscientious deliberation, having concluded that these poems of his most nearly approach the prescribed standard, the Academy thought that there was no reason to hesitate because the poet’s name was still comparatively unknown in Europe, due to the distant location of his home.” Read more


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A new collection of writings from ‘The Modern Review’, and the history of intellectual journalism in India

patriotspoets-and-prisoners

Ramananda Chatterjee was arguably the most influential Indian editor in the last few decades of colonial rule. He began publishing The Modern Review in 1907. In an obituary of the departed editor in 1943, the historian Jadunath Sarkar wrote that the list of contributors in the 37 years that Chatterjee edited the journal was actually a dictionary of the greatest Indian intellectuals of that time, plus several notable foreigners. There is a dash of hyperbole here—no B.R. Ambedkar, for instance—yet the claim is not altogether off the mark. Every issue of the review packed a lot of intellectual punch. Besides the new Indian elite that devotedly followed The Modern Review every month, the British colonial authorities too read it closely to understand Indian nationalist opinion on contemporary issues.

An excellent collection of writings from the The Modern Review has now been published—Patriots, Poets And Prisoners: Selections From Ramananda Chatterjee’s The Modern Review, 1907-1947. The pieces selected for this book give us some idea about the quality of writers who contributed to the journal—Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sister Nivedita, M.K. Gandhi, Verrier Elwin, Premchand, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and several others. There is an essay in the book by Tagore in which he criticizes the cult of the charkha propagated by Gandhi. Bose interviews the French writer Romain Rolland at a time when Europe was hurtling mindlessly towards yet another conflagration. And of course there is the famous essay in the November 1937 issue, in which someone hiding his identity behind the pseudonym Chanakya warned readers that Nehru had the makings of a potential dictator. It was only revealed much later that the writer of that playful essay was Nehru himself. Read more


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Throwing out actors, hating an entire people is small and reductionist: Saba Naqvi

saba-naqvi

I was invited in February 2013 to the Karachi literature festival with my book on India’s popular religion and syncretistic practices. I was surprised and touched to see that the opening ceremony of the festival included a dance-drama called “Tagore”. Gurudev’s poem “Where the Mind is Without Fear” was recited to a dance, included in which was a rendition of Gandhiji’s favourite bhajan, Raghupati Raghav Rajaram, patita paavana Sitaram, Ishwar Allah tero naam …

I later overheard some important citizens of Pakistan grumbling about the kind of projection being given to Indian visitors and the theme of the opening. But no matter: what that little event symbolised is people’s search for compassion even as doctrines of hate jolt their worlds. By the time the festival ended there was curfew in Karachi after a massacre in Quetta claiming over 80 lives. Many international visitors had to leave with security escort.

In the worst of times and places people always look for ideas that separate their sanity from their circumstances. Indian political thinkers, writers and poets have been evoked across the world for the sheer breadth and scale of the grand humanitarian visions they posited. Let’s not diminish ourselves because we have a consistent and real problem with our neighbouring country.

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