Culture and memory share a root, like branches of the same plant. That root is us, human beings, in our most creative and unself-conscious renditions. Once again, after the whirlwind of systemic violence and structural upheaval engineered through the COVID19 pandemic response, the time has come to honour the memory of those we love who have been lost to the novel coronavirus. My father, the late Professor Manabendra Bandyopadhyay (1938-2020), was one such deep loss.
Although he had been suffering from loss of sight and other health issues in his last few years, for over half a century, he contributed vastly to the field of Bengali literature and poetry, fiction/poetry in translation, and critical approaches to the early discipline of comparative literature— from the late 1950s until his retirement from teaching at the Department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. In his participation in the cultural and socio-political world of Bangla letters, my father often searched out unusual or unique writers— “against the grain”. While in his translations for adults, he often examined and explored different schools of writing from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, it was his love of books for kids that had a big impact on me as a young reader and thinker.
For my father, books for children were as eclectic and engaging as those for adults. He presented me with hundreds of books over the years, and it is especially those books of childhood I often turn to, for a break from the grinding neo-liberal world with its anxieties, bleakness, and inhumanity.
I fondly remember a range of books from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, to Toronto poet’s Dennis Lee’s Wiggle to the Laundromat. Along with these, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, James Kruss, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Erich Kastner, Rhoda Power, Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, and the inimitable Tove Jansson made paths into the rich and exciting world of books, a world that was both escape and confirmation, at different times. Through the reading of such international cast of characters, historical moments and types of books, my interest in historical periods, and how people live in different times and places, was piqued.
In particular, I am grateful to my father for sharing his love of Indigenous and Aboriginal cultures from both Turtle Island and Australia. This awareness of the space I inhabited as a brown child of an immigrant parent to Canada, set me apart from other primary and middle school children as did my experience of racism from a very early age at the hands of my peers in the pristine provincial primary schools of Ontario of the 1970s.
But when reading, the ability to imagine other worlds and ways of being, allowed me to understand and perhaps at a young age, confront the reality of racial inequality which I experienced. Books like Aguhana, Half-Breed, The Island of the Dolphins, A Nice Fire and Some Moon Pennies gave me a glimpse of a world that was made invisible and silent in the Canadian educational system, that of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Stories by Lois Lenski based on interviews with children and families, gave me an idea of how working class and rural children, especially girls, lived as recently as the 1930s-50s in the various United States of America, and how important they were to household economies as recently as the ‘50s and ‘60s. Stories about Harriet Tubman and Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave, were a part of my personal canon, as much as Anne Frank and Laura Ingalls Wilder were the staple authors for little girls at the school library.
In remembrance of the important role that fiction and poetry has played in my own life, I offer up today’s blog post as a tribute to all those amazing writers who tackled the daunting task of writing gripping and memorable fiction for children, writing that satisfies at any age, books such as Alice in Wonderland, and those of Roald Dahl. And through acknowledging them, I acknowledge the fount of this fictional diversity, my father.
This week on the second anniversary of his passing, I have been thinking of him even more. When my partner planted a butterfly bush in his honour, butterflies immediately came to visit. White, orange-patterned, and yellow, they fluttered down to the purple, pink and red flowers. We will always think of our absent loved ones when the butterflies float and dance by us on their invisible currents.
I want to end by sharing a musical piece about the world of Macondo, from One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A Colombian Nobel-winning writer who was popularized in Bangla by my father, and whose work he explored for many years. Here the lyrics are by Mexican accordionist and composer Celso Pina and performed by Leiden (Cuba-Mexico) and Andrea Echeverri (Colombia) formerly of the group Los Aterciepelados (The Velvet Ones). I am sure he would have enjoyed hearing this rendition.
Macondo by Celso Pina (Mexico) (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)
The hundred years of Macondo, sound, sound, in the air
And the years of Gabriel trumpeting, trumpeting, his announcement!
I’ve slowed down on my blog due to health and other very important circumstances. But I have not stopped… I have been, like so many of us in Canada, overwhelmed by the physical forensic evidence of a genocide so recent that it is actually on-going.
Kamloops Residential School, Cowessess First Nation Marieval Residential School, and other Residential schools have provided evidence of over 1300 deaths in the last two weeks. That is in addition to the approximately 4000 deaths recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission had recommended the forensic examination of all residential schools for indigenous peoples, but that was denied by the federal government of Canada on the basis that a $1.5 million price tag at the time was “too high”.
This callous indifference characterizes the Canadian State’s approach to First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples when it is not engaged in the antics of the Indian Act or helping its corporate partners in resource extraction.
I fear there may be thousands more children found before this is over. And as an ally of colour or person in solidarity with indigenous nations in this settler country, I feel we need to use all our means of protest to say that this Canada we have built is rotten, from and to, the core. Supporting both treaty and unceded nations, we have to add our voices to the Landback movement. Taking our cues from the demands of Indigenous people, water, and earth protectors from various parts of the country shows us how interconnected abuse and genocide of people is to dispossession from their lands
I am sharing below the art and haiku I have created in homage to these living struggles on our current lands. Justice must not only be seen to be done, it must be done. And words like “reconciliation” are hysterically cynical in my humble opinion. Where are the words, “accountability”, “due process”, “law enforcement”, “justice”? Some of the perpetrators of abuse and worse, are still alive– protected by the Catholic Church and Canadian state.
Why are aboriginal peoples incarcerated and survivors of a social apartheid at inhuman rates, while those who squeeze their life blood out of them, get to run free? All of us who tread this soil, who weep at the dehumanization of children and entire peoples, who struggle for equality, respect and liberation in our own lives, must realize that all of that is meaningless without a fundamental shift in what it means to live on Indigenous land.
Home, weeps this land, fenced by greed disguised as civil- ization. Landback.
Home, they cry, you have taken the ground beneath. Give us back our souls.
Thousands of children home. Weeping parents shattered. Kkkanada fed blood.
Home, they wept, take us back. Hug these small bodies back to families, lands, names.
Some of you may know I lost my father last summer to Covid. I was trapped by coronavirus policies and my own chronic health issues and unable to be with him. I miss him lots, especially when reading literature from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America that he introduced me to, so long ago. Although I didn’t know which poems would spring forth this time, I guess my sadness seeped through. Like one of my father’s favourite writers, Raymond Chandler, I sometimes dwell in “the long goodbye.”
What a year this has been. After the loss of my father to covid 19, I watched a lot of early Bengali films that I had seen first with him. Although I started watching Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, I could not continue. I remembered being a small Bengali girl in a white provincial Canadian suburb, harassed by passengers and bus drivers, as we went, in our “traditional garb” to distant movie theatres, dodging furious glances, and sometimes, spit. In went the adults, looking forward to mother tongue, as a kitten does to it’s mother tongue. The corners and crevices of vowels, the cushions of soft consonants, were hiding places and barricades against this crazy colonial world of exclusion. We were here in Canada, especial thanks due to the Commonwealth, the British Empire’s basket of plundered goods and destroyed worlds. We too, crossed the “kala pani” as adults sought their fortunes, safety, education. But the film’s amazing cinematography and script, the tenderness of the camera, the unsentimental tragedy of Apu’s life, the unbelievable acting– all led to a tidal wave of empathy. As a child, watching Apu’s life, Durga’s death, the ethos of a black and white nostalgia and memory–it was all too much. I was led by my poor father, sobbing and hiccuping to a dirty cinema lobby where popcorn and fountain soda had been temporarily replaced by tea and the even- then ubiquitous samosa. There he soothed and comforted me, telling me that it was all a story. Apu was fine and grown up, Durga was alive, their mother too, and that they were acting. It was perhaps my first lesson in the power of story telling and the breaking down of the fourth wall. Without my Baba’s intervention, holding my hand and smoking his cigarette, the perfect circles of smoke coming out of his mouth, I would have been disconsolate and lost in the story. For me, Satyajit Ray, Subir Banerjee, and Soumitra Chatterjee, are always intertwined in a pre-analytic moment of pure feeling. Being only a few years away from India, nostalgia, sadness, half-memories, swirl with racism, and the always present sense of being unwanted and othered that haunted my child’s life in Canada’s public school system of the 1970s. Perhaps, since then, belonging has been tinged with both joy and sorrow. Rest in power, Soumitra.
Before the Scales, Tomorrow,Otto Rene Castillo, Guatemala
And when the enthusiastic
story of our time
who are yet to be born
but announce themselves
with more generous face,
we will come out ahead
–those who have suffered most from it.
being ahead of your time
means much suffering from it.
But it’s beautiful to love the world
that have not yet
to know yourself victorious
when all around you
it’s all still so cold,
FRENTE AL BALANCE, MAÑANA
Y cuando se haga el entusiasta recuento de nuestro tiempo, por los que todavía no han nacido, pero que se anuncian con su rostro más bondadoso, saldremos gananciosos los que más hemos sufrido de él. Y es que adelantarse uno a su tiempo, es sufrir mucho de él. Pero es bello amar al mundo con los ojos de los que no han nacido todavía. Y espléndido, saberse ya un victorioso, cuando todo en torno a uno es aún tan frío, tan oscuro.
The Critical Attitude,Bertolt Brecht, Germany
The critical attitude
Strikes many people as unfruitful
That is because they find the state
Impervious to their criticism
But what in this case is an unfruitful attitude
Is merely a feeble attitude. Give criticism arms
And states can be demolished by it.
Canalising a river
Grafting a fruit tree
Educating a person
Transforming a state
These are instances of fruitful criticism
And at the same time instances of art.
What They Did Yesterday Afternoon, Warsan Shire, Somalia/England
they set my aunts house on fire i cried the way women on tv do folding at the middle like a five pound note. i called the boy who use to love me tried to ‘okay’ my voice i said hello he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying, and these are what my prayers look like; dear god i come from two countries one is thirsty the other is on fire both need water.
later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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
Dawn of Darkness ngugi wa thiongo, Kenya/UK
I know, I know,
It threatens the common gestures of human bonding
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,
Reading the stories of so many Indian women, I am reminded of this, my only heirloom. I want to tell too, of my hidden memories. My Dida’s house, the noise, the open sewers, the eternal mangy cat with her multi-hued descendants. The ceaseless summer war between cat and human, mosquito and human. The long afternoons after the lovingly prepared meal, the smell of the bus station, the market’s discarded rotting food and always the flies buzzing, as if to remind us there is something else, another species more desperate and persistent than ouselves.
Since infanthood these noises and smells. The afternoon heat bringing our blood to a boil, the power-cuts, the grafitti, the red sickle like an unfinished question mark amid so much poverty.
Here, the distance of empire and geography, my own unchosen but present desires seperate me far more than oceans from my land. A land which I was made ashamed of by others, and which today, in a sad irony, might be ashamed of me. And thus, we make our own circle of desire and fear.
My Dida’s house saw so many dreams deferrred, so many roads not taken, so many wombs and hearts burning with unclaimed victories. In those early days, I explored like a fearful, cunning Columbus— every dust ball, every crack in the gray concrete veranda. I still remember the bathroom, the barred window like a small sadistic ornament through which the drivers of the 8B bus could be seen, drinking strong tea and spitting paan juice like macabre avant-garde painters.
I saw men wilt and shrivel like sad dried flowers, betrayed by a politics they did not choose, by a patriarchy which hung loosely like an ill fitting dhoti. In the women’s faces, I saw a thousand resentments (like the faces of prisoners in solitary confinement, who envy the crowded regimentation of those still locked up, but yet more free).
And after the slow afternoon tea, the sweets bought specially, the women’s talk (so often described as gossip) soared into the sudden, coming dusk. My world was always one of communicative women, harsh-voiced or sweet, and silent men appearing like fullstops at the end of hurried sentences.
Dida = Grandmother, colloquial.
Paan = preparation with betel leaf and nut, delicious and addictive! produces a red spit.
Dhoti = men’s lower garment in traditional Bengal. More formal than a Lungi.
On my recent visit to Kolkata, India, I was struck by many things, but one that stands out for me in the wave of pollution that blankets the city, is the harsh cawing of the crows, who proclaim their resilience much like people.
Their ubiquitous presence was a big part of my urban childhood summers in the stifling heat and monsoony days, when humidity enervates the human body, but the crows in the giant tree in front of the veranda, never ceased their active and raucous lives, although they were often drowned out by the cacophony of horns, beeps, and engines that took over the main road between seven a.m. and 10 at night.
Many of those evenings (or parts of them) were spent in “loadshedding” or power outages, reducing the noise of radios and even the televisions that were just starting to take over the upper-middle class residences of Kolkata. While adults talked and joked over tea and coffee, I often sat and looked through the plaster railings of the wide veranda, where wicker chairs had sprouted blooms of people trying to catch even a tiny breeze. The crows meanwhile, cawed, looked for food, argued and harmonized on the tin awning of the floor beneath us, raised generations of children in the giant tree that stood by the bus-stop, and generally entertained me with their antics above the heads of street vendors, the paan shop, and the constant line-ups of people at the bus stand.
Crows, like people enjoy shiny and bright things, and the twilight gloam with kerosene lamps lighting up the footpath, where vendors sat in flimsy shacks with the colours of the universe spread around them in fabric and plastic, shiny lozenges and Cadbury chocolate bars stored appetizingly in glass jars, were as appetizing to the crows as to humans. They often collected shiny wrappings from the ground, and I imagine, spruced up their dusty nests, demonstrating their kinship with human foibles, such as making culture.
They bond monogamously and raise usually 3 chicks at a time. They live in large social groups. Their use of tools puts them in a category apart from many animals and birds, though I have long suspected that more species use tools and are capable of analysis than we humans realize!
I did not know as a child, the English language term for a collective of crows, was a “murder”. This term comes, like many descriptions of groups of animals, from the old English terms of venery— hunting. For approximately five hundred years, these appelations have survived the industrial world and our encroachment on nature. Other examples are an “ostentation” of peacocks, or a “parliament” of owls, a “school” of fish or a “pandemonium” of platypuses! The terms are colourful and poetic, if not scientific. Mystery writer Ruth Rendell has a chilling book called “ An Unkindess of Ravens”. Ornithologists generally, I think, refer to all birds as a “flock”.
Mythologically speaking, the crow’s scavenger status and alert, collective bonding has long perturbed the human world. While others from the corvid family, such as the raven, are associated with wit, humour and intelligence in many North American indigenous cultures, the crow has also been associated with death in European and British cultures.
Humans have seen crows hold “funerals” en masse, where they come to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. Scientists now believe this is another sign of their intelligence and allows them to collectively understand the demise of their fellow being and to spot sources of ongoing danger and predation. This teaches us that crows understand causation and thus are considered intelligent and perspicacious.
I am constantly amazed at the endurance of so many species against the vile chemical onslaught that is our current state of existence on planet earth. While so many animals and birds and insects are nearing extinction, the resilience and communication shown by the crow in the midst of overwhelming urbanization and smog is nothing short of a miracle. They are a worthy example to us, embodying the strength of collective survival by all means necessary! They are one of the brightest species in the world
I want to start off the new decade with a symbol of hope, intelligence and communication and can think of no better bird to symbolize the plight of common people than the misunderstood and often reviled crow, who like the poor people of this earth, astonish us every day with their survival, compassion, and hope for a better future.
I also want to thank all of you for viewing and sharing this blog, it is a labour of love and commitment to another more just and inclusive world. With your participation, Eartotheground has reached over 4000 views! I hope to keep sharing culture, politics, and hope over the next year. A happy and hopeful New Year to all of you! I’ll leave you with a documentary on these extraordinary birds as we enter a new decade!
I have been travelling and experiencing the world through the eyes of my childhood and the “now”. The city I return to is not the city of my childhood and teens, nor the city of my twenties and thirties, where the excitement of women’s liberation, the furious exchange of ideas, politics, and philosophies at the Universities, and the lack of consumer culture and indeed, “things” to buy were notable for their presence. Books, not bottles of cheap perfume from Forever 21, were our currency.
Perhaps that is why I feel at home in places where people still get excited by the art of the narrative, the meaning of the narrative and want to know more about the narrators. That is why, in a world which reveres the emoji, we need to encourage words and art to flourish. But equally, it is why half of what passes for “new” ideas in art and literature, is actually regurgitated without acknowledgement by contemporary figures, because they have already forgotten yesterday.
How many ways can we describe our worlds? I would say, nearly 8 billion. Because we all see the world from our vantage points, our standpoints, and each one is slightly different. How many ways are there of being a human? 8 billion.
How many ways are there to dehumanize others? Not that many.
Political neglect and oppression, unchecked male entitlement and patriarchy, and the disparagement of formerly colonized people– especially black, indigenous and brown, always looks more or less the same, and sounds it too. Whether insulting African men by calling them “Boy! as I witnessed regularly in Amsterdam, or throwing acid on women, as is the practice with women who are seen as transgressors in South Asia, or blinding protestors in a visceral fascist response to those who have witnessed neoliberal glory at the barrel of a gun in Chile, or those simple citizens of Mexico who co-exist with fear and deprivation in the same house, all over the world the possibility of the human story is being destroyed by human cruelty to those considered less than human. And this human cruelty is rooted in two things, profit— which needs deprivation and fear, to be in the red– and domination to make that profit.
I think the time is coming when we will realize that there are other ways to “succeed”. Breathing oxygen is already reserved for those who can afford it, in the hellish world of the Third World bourgeoisie with their Honeywell air purifiers, oxygen bars, and N99 masks (which, by the way, make a great profit for those same corporations that spew genocidal chemicals into the air).
I recently heard a story about a man who polished marble floors for a living in high-rises that are being built at a flying pace. He worked, as do millions of others, without a “health and safety” committee, in bare feet, with no mask, and for a pittance. When he dropped dead, they took him to the crematorium and his entire body burnt except his lungs. Why? They had hardened into cement and marble from all the dust the poor man had inhaled. What horror indeed.
What is going to happen to all those who buy and sell the bodies and labour power of the poor, when the poor are unable to breathe, to see, to move their mosquito and tick infested joints, to respond to commands as they lose their neurological faculties to insect-borne illness and chemical genocide?
As the old song says, “we are born on the same earth, we have the same blood in our veins and the same sky is above us”. And they have not yet built that surveillance camera or satellite that can see our souls, though they may demonize our very bodies.