Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Many people have started to ask me why I have not put anything on this blog in more than a month. Since I started this project a year and half ago, I have tried to respond to issues that have moved me deeply, created a moral restlessness, and an artistic response. I believe that art– visual, poetry, story-telling, music– has a great and necessary role to play as we enter a global crossroads regarding poverty, climate crisis, and social inequality, in which we are consuming a heartless and profit-driven internet and mainstream culture, driven solely by profit.

But life and love got in the way, as my dear father became ill–necessitating hospitalization, and then contracted COVID19 in a hospital in India. Today’s post is a tribute I wrote for my father, as I was stuck due to coronavirus travel restrictions, a world and oceans away. I have had difficulty finding the focus to write on other things at this time, when we are already so isolated due to the pandemic. But the love so many students, artists, writers, colleagues, and friends have shown my father, and to me and my family, through their tributes to him, has been a heartwarming experience in the middle of so much grief.

Sometimes, it seems to me, that my grief has merged with so many others’, and my loss is both magnified by others’ and also shared. Many people are losing their loved ones due to COVID19 directly, or indirectly, as they are unable to seek help due to limited medical contact during this time of quarantines, lockdowns and widespread fear. For many of us, Facebook has become an obituary page, rather than a source of trivia or news. Honouring these strange times, I am sharing what I wrote about and for, my father.

My father and I, 1970s, Kaushalya Bannerji

The Swan Will Fly Away All Alone,

Spectacle of the World Will Be a Mere Fair

As the Leaf Falls from the Tree

Is Difficult to Find

Who Knows Where it Will Fall

Once it is Struck with a Gust Of Wind

When Life Span is Complete

Then Listening to Orders, Following Others, Will Be Over

The Messengers of Yama are Very Strong

It’s an Entanglement with the Yama

Servant Kabir Praises the Attributes of the Lord

He Finds the Lord Soon

Guru Will Go According to His Doings

The Disciple According to His.

My father, Manabendra Bandyopadhyay, was born in Sylhet in the mid 1930s, in what is now Bangladesh, but then, was British India. He came from a large family, and his mother, my grandmother, was the mother of many stepchildren as well as her own. 

A few years after the Partition of India, my father’s family left Bangladesh and settled in a small town on the edge of Assam called Karimganj. There on the edge of a river, in a small tropical town like so many, described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he became a student and developed friendships that lasted forever. 

I accompanied him back one year, and he was amused at my amazement when i saw elephants plowing the fields like humble oxen. My father was welcomed and feted when he returned to Karimganj, Assam and read his poetry and his work on translation. I remember we were accompanied by a group of admirers who took the bus for hours back to Guwhati, the state capital, with us, in order to spend more time with my father! He supported his own fatherless family for many years through his translations of Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes, and others, as my grandfather passed away when my father was young and had many brothers and sisters to look after. 

He studied Sanskrit formally and was already reading and translating from English by the time he started teaching in Yangon, Burma/ Myanmar, and then eventually at the Comparative Literature Department of Jadavpur University in 1956, which he helped to shape with a group of young scholars. 

It was where he taught for the remainder of his work life, pushing his retirement back to keep teaching a couple of years more. Jadavpur University was where he challenged thinking about story-telling, translation, and language.

He was always a fighter for mother tongues and for decolonization, and a big supporter of Indigenous and so-called “Minority” rights. As a foreign student in Canada in the early seventies, he sought out and learned from Indigenous history and culture, bringing me many books and posters and giving me a life-long awareness of the land to which my mother and I emigrated. He was the first to show me the work of Norval Morriseau who he met sometimes during his years in Vancouver. 

My father loved children’s literature and knew a lot about it! He started bringing me books from the time I was a few months old, preparing me for the incredible mutliverse of literature he shared with so many, through his belief in, and love of, translation. One of my favourite books, that he gave me when I was about 8 years old is the fantastic “Happy Islands Behind the Winds”, part of a trilogy by James Kruss, a masterpiece of fantasy geared to children of all ages! 

I also was introduced to historical fiction and mystery stories, as his love of Sherlock Holmes, shared with me when I was young, underpinned my later devouring of the genre. And he introduced me to the best of police procedurals, Maj Sjwoall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck series. 

My father was anti-islamophobic and committed to a just, equitable, secularist world where culture would flourish because common people would flourish. 

I remember his belief in regional and south asian literature being just as fervent as his love of international humanism and peace, his belief that culture, and especially poetry and story-telling, could make a difference in our lives, that goes far beyond the page. 

My father committed to translating into Bangla, the stories of well known Malayali writer, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, at a time in India’s history when the fascist gang led by the BJP was flexing its muscles by destroying the Babri Masjid and Islamophobic violence directed by Narendra Modi, among other criminals, was on the rise. I remember the nervousness of the publishers, who feared they might be targeted by Hindu nationalists for publishing his translations. But he remained steadfastly committed to an India of diversity, peace, and inclusion which did away with caste, religious, gender, and class oppression. He could often be found in the early 90s, blasting the beautiful voice of Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan or the Warsi Brothers, or the songs of Sant Kabir, on his cassette, and later cd, player. 

In his time in Canada, he enjoyed Caribbean music and culture, sharing a love of cricket with many people from the islands. He loved Bob Marley and Dave van Ronk, Osibisa, and many popular musicians he heard in Canada. 

He grew up amid the “hot winds” of independence, grief, and nation-building and never forgot to wonder at the world the city laid before him, full of ideas, talk, chess, endless cups of tea and coffee at the coffee house, or faculty club. The ability to engage with other intellectuals and artists! Bengalis do love to pass the time through adda, which is the nexus of anecdotes, philosophizing, and gossip!

He was not shy with his views and opinions and was know as a lively, engaging and perhaps, sardonic, teacher to many generations of students at Jadavpur University. Tributes from Comparative Literature Colleagues, students and other writers have poured in, from the Bangla speaking population. It’s very beautiful to feel that so many were positively touched by his work!

No mention of my father’s passing would be complete without the ugly reality of Covid19. It is devastating to have joined those hundreds of thousands of people who could not be with their loved ones in their time of need. I found a poem he had translated that speaks to my feelings about this.

A Song on the End of the World

BY CZESLAW MILOSZ

TRANSLATED BY ANTHONY MILOSZ

On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover,

A fisherman mends a glimmering net.

Happy porpoises jump in the sea,

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet

Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

There will be no other end of the world,

There will be no other end of the world.

Warsaw, 1944

And finally, although I have a lot of work to do, I try to believe my father’s departure from this life means that he is once more among us, in everything I see, and try to create, myself. Because the loss of his eyesight and autonomy gave him a great deal of pain, I am grateful that his physical and emotional pain are now over.

As a Bengali, my father was also an admirer of Rabindranath Tagore, and I want to end with a verse from him.

Tagore:

Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end in the folding of the wings over the nest.

Let the last touch of your hands be gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment, and say your last words in silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light your way

Additionally, I include some poems I shared in honour of my father at memorials for my father organized by the Comparative Literature Department and the African Studies Department at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

The Word

Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil

I no longer want to consult 

dictionaries in vain.

I only want the word

that will never be there

and that can’t be invented.

One that would resume 

and replace the world.

More sun than the sun,

in which we all could 

live in communion,

mute,

savouring it. 

Agha Shahid Ali

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land—

There is no sugar in the promised land.

Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love, 

I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?

If home is found on both sides of the globe,

home is of course here—and always a missed land.

The hour’s come to redeem the pledge (not wholly?) 

in Fate’s ‘Long years ago we made a tryst’ land.

Clearly, these men were here only to destroy, 

a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.

Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy, 

when springtime returns to our dismissed land?

The prisons fill with the cries of children.

Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?

“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”

I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.

A hurricane is born when the wings flutter … 

Where will the butterfly, on my wrist, land?

You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there 

though summer had finished in that tourist land.

Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes 

when we steal their gods for our atheist land?

Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels 

so Rome—on our descent—is an amethyst land.

At the moment the heart turns terrorist,

are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land? 

Wislawa Szymborska, Poland

Possibilities

I prefer movies.

I prefer cats.

I prefer the oaks along the Warta.

I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.

I prefer myself liking people

to myself loving mankind.

I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.

I prefer the color green.

I prefer not to maintain

that reason is to blame for everything.

I prefer exceptions.

I prefer to leave early.

I prefer talking to doctors about something else.

I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.

I prefer the absurdity of writing poems

to the absurdity of not writing poems.

I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries

that can be celebrated every day.

I prefer moralists

who promise me nothing.

I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.

I prefer the earth in civvies.

I prefer conquered to conquering countries.

I prefer having some reservations.

I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.

I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.

I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.

I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.

I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.

I prefer desk drawers.

I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here

to many things I’ve also left unsaid.

I prefer zeroes on the loose

to those lined up behind a cipher.

I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.

I prefer to knock on wood.

I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.

I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility

that existence has its own reason for being.

By Wislawa Szymborska

From “Nothing Twice”, 1997

Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Home, by Warsan Shire (British-Somali poet)

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city

running as well.

your neighbours running faster

than you, the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind

the old tin factory is

holding a gun bigger than his body,

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay.

no one would leave home unless home

chased you, fire under feet,

hot blood in your belly.

it’s not something you ever thought about

doing, and so when you did –

you carried the anthem under your breath,

waiting until the airport toilet

to tear up the passport and swallow,

each mouthful of paper making it clear that

you would not be going back.

you have to understand,

no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days

and nights in the stomach of a truck

unless the miles travelled

meant something more than journey.

no one would choose to crawl under fences,

be beaten until your shadow leaves you,

raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of

the boat because you are darker, be sold,

starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,

be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,

make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,

stripped and searched, find prison everywhere

and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side

with go home blacks, refugees

dirty immigrants, asylum seekers

sucking our country dry of milk,

dark, with their hands out

smell strange, savage –

look what they’ve done to their own countries,

what will they do to ours?

the dirty looks in the street

softer than a limb torn off,

the indignity of everyday life

more tender than fourteen men who

look like your father, between

your legs, insults easier to swallow

than rubble, than your child’s body

in pieces – for now, forget about pride

your survival is more important.

i want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home tells you to

leave what you could not behind,

even if it was human.

no one leaves home until home

is a damp voice in your ear saying

leave, run now, i don’t know what

i’ve become.

Dawn of Darkness ngugi wa thiongo, Kenya/UK

I know, I know,

It threatens the common gestures of human bonding

The handshake,

The hug

The shoulders we give each other to cry on

The Neighborliness we take for granted

So much that we often beat our breasts

Crowing about rugged individualism,

Disdaining nature, pissing poison on it even, while

Claiming that property has all the legal rights of personhood

Murmuring gratitude for our shares in the gods of capital.

Oh how now I wish I could write poetry in English,

Or any and every language you speak

So I can share with you, words that

Wanjikũ, my Gĩkũyũ mother, used to tell me:

Gũtirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa:

No night is so Dark that,

It will not end in Dawn,

Or simply put,

Every night ends with dawn.

Gũtirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa.

This darkness too will pass away

We shall meet again and again

And talk about Darkness and Dawn

Sing and laugh maybe even hug

Nature and nurture locked in a green embrace

Celebrating every pulsation of a common being

Rediscovered and cherished for real

In the light of the Darkness and the new Dawn.

Rainbow at My Back, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2019

https://frontline.thehindu.com/dispatches/eminent-writer-translator-manabendra-bandopadhyay-dies-of-covid-19/article32278845.ece?fbclid=IwAR2OS2iEDCQ3KYtFTaznmj__VIxdFG9GM8VqV6sS3b2FJUg1IAjREsaW_9Y

2 Comments Add yours

  1. lesl33wood says:

    Thank you for this. Your father sounds wonderful. My thoughts are with you. sigh.

    Like

    1. Red Balloon says:

      thank you, it’s been a hard summer!

      Like

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