Sunday, 4 April 2021

Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, the Indian Renaissance Man & Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

 

Shaping Spaces for Multiple Equalities: Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, 

the Indian Renaissance Man

Shanker Ashish Dutt & Zaara Urouj


Biographical and historical studies have portrayed Ishwarchandra Bandopadhyay as a pre-eminent figure in the Bengal Renaissance. While the context of his education, professional life and socio-educational activism were located in Bengal, the latent inequalities that he challenged were pan-Indian. His passionate campaign for the Hindu Widow Remarriage despite belligerent opposition led to Lord Dalhousie finalising the bill that led to the legislation of the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act in 1856. Hence, he is being recast as an Indian Renaissance Man as his ideas and campaigns impacted the entire subcontinent, then a part of the Empire.

Vidyasagar’s pluralism melded the richness of the Indian knowledge system with the empiricism of the West and therefore he did not uncritically vilify English influences as was a common practice among the orthodox bhadraloks in 19th Century Bengal. Enumerating the positive off-shores influences modified with irony that occasionally carried a considerable weight of social satire, he had stated at a social gathering: “On the whole, I feel that we have received three good things from the English. The literature of Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Sir Walter Scott and others that we have got from them – do not under-estimate their value. Second gain – ice. In the searing heat of summer, put one piece of ice in a tumbler of water, and your relief is immense. And the third is sliced bread.... You laugh at what I say? But tell me, did we have anything comparable to sliced bread in our country before? Soak a slice of bread in a bowl of milk and have it, and you will be full, and you will also not fall ill. The third advantage cleverly satirises orthodoxy as bread was largely produced in bakeries run by Christians and Muslims and hence was a prohibited item in Hindu orthodox households. (Chaudhuri, The Telegraph Online 12th July 2020)

Born in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family, where hierarchy was the social norm, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar built spaces for multiple equalities. With or without him, the Bengal Renaissance would have certainly taken place but his credibility lies in the fact that he dared to transform Hindu society from within and brought out remarkable changes in the thought process of the people not by denying the al-ready existing beliefs but by interpreting them in a new manner. Neither poverty nor the erroneous beliefs of Indian Shastras could stop him from becoming the man he was destined to be: a social reformer and an educationist of rare distinction. An epitome of egalitarian com-passion, modesty and simplicity, he was a man grounded to the earth but blessed with a mind that was open to the pursuit of truth and the stark social realities. At a very early stage in his life, he realised his responsibility towards society and he dedicated his entire life to uplift the disadvantaged communities and helped enable women’s agency at a time when patriarchy was deepening its roots.

Vidyasagar carried forward and indigenised the social and educational reforms begun by The Serampore Quartet comprising William Carey, Joshua Marshman, William Ward and Hannah Marshman who believed in ecumenical pragmatism (Daniel 171), an egalitarian vision and edu-cation as an instrument of equality and justice. They founded schools for the girls in order to impart western education to them (Chatterjee 121). These schools were the first of its kind in Calcutta and the efforts of the Serampore Quartet was instrumental in their development. William Carey prepared books like A Grammar of the Bengalee Language, Iitihaasmala, Kathopokothon, A Dictionary of Bengali Language and the translations of the Bible in Bengali and several other Indian vernaculars as a part of the curriculum. They adopted the Serampore system of native education, encouraging knowledge in history, science, geography and mathematics apart from the general 3 R’s i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic – a blend of the traditional and modern, giving special importance to orthography and grammar of Bengali and English languages.

Vidyasagar was influenced by the outlook and liberal thoughts of Ramkrishna Paramhansa (Ghosh 44). His personality was forged with utmost dedication to his education and later his profession, vast knowledge in eastern and western disciplines, devotion to his parents, morality, mercifulness, kindness, empathy, cooperation, unconservative attitude, a heart filled with regret to the then situation of women and a vision to give Indian educational system a modern perspective. He is well known for his educational and social reforms throughout the world paving the way for introducing the modern education system in India. His linguistic, educational and social activities, which he was committed to from his early life till his death, are remembered by Indians from that time to the present day.

In 1839, he graduated in law examination conducted by the Hindu Law Committee. His education at Sanskrit College saw him amassing considerable knowledge and mastery in a number of shastras or disciplines – kabya (poetry), alonkar (rhetoric), Vedanta (vedic litera-ture and anthology), smriti (philosophy of law), nyaya (logic, science and jurisprudence), and jyotish (astronomy) (Bani, Alam 15). The title of ‘Vidyasagar’, meaning the ‘ocean of knowledge’, was conferred upon him by Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, who later with great affection addressed him as Vid. It is said that he derived strength from the knowledge and used it as a powerful instrument to eradicate the evils prevailing in the society namely child marriage, gender discrimination and other social taboos.

Having worked in the Education Department and having observed the education system very closely, he decided on radical educational reforms. He favoured English and Bengali as mediums of learning alongside Sanskrit and wanted to offer students a wider range of subjects and thus broaden their horizons, to inculcate critical and lateral thinking in examining European and Indian knowledge and practices side by side so they could apply their own judgement in discovering the truth for themselves. He was influenced by Western thoughts and was indeed one of the modern thinkers of his time along with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen and others. In addition to his responsibilities as the Principal of Sanskrit College, he travelled around Bengal in the capacity of Inspector of Schools witnessing the pervading darkness, stark realities and superstitions in which people of Bengal lived in the absence of education. He realised that it is only Education that can help in liberation and emancipation of people from the prevailing injustices and inequalities in the society. He opened twenty schools in just 60 days followed by thirty schools exclusively for girls’ education. He also established a normal institution for making competent teachers for these schools. He opened thirty-five schools for girls between 1857 and 1858. The significance is under-pinned by the realisation of the Bengali educated class of “the importance of female education for bringing social reformation and reformers like Roy, Vidyasagar and Radha Kant Deb endorsed education for girls. This was generally linked to caste taboo and superstitions among the Bengalis about sending girls to school. But now the new orientation toward Western ideas and missionaries resulted in the development of native female schools.” (Dutta 32) One of his major contributions was the establishment of Calcutta Metropolitan Institution for higher education which is now known as “Vidyasagar College.” He also was directly involved in the establishment of “Calcutta Female School” with the help of Drinkwater Bethune in 1849. Now it is called “Bethune School.” He has also made his valuable contribution in education through his writings. He wrote many text books, translated books, biographical books and was a continuous writer contributing to different magazines.

He commenced the process of education with his first book of alphabet (Part I and Part II) called Barna Porichoy first published in 1855 which laid the foundation of Bengali prose. Vidyasagar was a source of inspiration for Bengali writers such as Tekchand Thakur, Pyarichand Mitra and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Indeed, Tagore revered him as 'the father of modern Bengali prose'. He also translated a number of Sanskrit works to Bengali and wrote biographical notes on numerous noteworthy personalities in the history of the world so the young generation could be inspired. His notable literary contributions include Banglaar Itihaas (1848), Jivancharita (1849), Shakuntala (1854), Mahabharata (1860), Seetar Vanavas (1860), Bhrantivilaas (1869), Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Aabaar Oti Alpa Hoilo (1873), Brajavilaas (1884) and Ratnopariksha (1886). (http:// bengalonline. sitemarvel.com/vidyasagar.html)

Though Vidyasagar was not financially very sound, he was philanthropic from his student life. He would feed the poor and needy and buy medicines for the sick from the money received through scholar-ships and even borrowed money from others for his altruism. He opened the doors of Sanskrit College to lower caste students that was previously exclusive to only the Brahmins; he nursed sick cholera patients, went to the crematorium to bury unclaimed dead bodies, dined with the untouchables and walked miles in darkness to take urgent messages to people who would benefit from them. This was the beginning of his life as a social reformer. He was deeply affected by the inequalities in the society such as polygamy, ban on widows from remarrying, child marriage, gender inequalities, keeping them away from the light of education and depriving them from property rights. When he tried to call for dialogue to discuss social matters, he was rebuked and his efforts were rejected in the name of dictates of Hindu Shastras. He received threats of physical violence and death from the orthodox and narrow-minded priests but he stood fearless and continued his work with determination and diligence. Conducting extensive research into Hindu scriptures and Puranas he tried to explain that there was nothing evil in a widow’s remarriage and polygamy which was in practice unacceptable as it was an evil. He published two separate volumes on remarriage of widows and another two volumes on polygamy citing from the scriptures and explaining the validity of his arguments (https://biographypoint.com). These include Bidhobabivah (whether widows should remarry) the first exposure (1855), Bidhobabivah – the Second Book (1855), Bahubivah – (whether polygamy should be banned) the first exposure (1871), Bahubivah – the Second Book (1873) and Balyabivah (flaws of child marriage). To prove that his compassion for widows was not empty rhetoric as some might have assumed, he married his own son off to a widow. He compiled a list of 'distinguished' polygamous Calcuttans and another for surrounding districts. It is an infernal statistic that a considerable number of men on those lists married up to 80 times, often under-age girls, and yet were unable to control their boundless thirst for lust. (http://www.deshforum.com/showthread.php?tid=949)

In earlier times, widow remarriages would occur sporadically only among progressive members of the Brahmo Samāj. The prevalent custom of Kulin Brahmin polygamy allowed elderly men – sometimes on their deathbeds – to marry teenage or even prepubescent girls, supposedly to spare their parents the shame of having an unmarried girl attain puberty in their homes. After such marriages, these girls would usually be left behind in their parental homes, where they might be cruelly subjected to orthodox rituals, especially if they were sub-sequently widowed. These included a semi starvation diet, rigid and dangerous daily rituals of purity and cleanliness, hard domestic labour, and close restriction on their freedom to leave the house or be seen by strangers. These hapless widows were prohibited (as spiritual sanc-tion) to abstain from consuming meat, fish, onion and garlic. Every day, they had to rise before dawn to conduct their diurnal religious rituals, bathe in icy cold water and wrap a clean white sari around their wet bodies without drying themselves, and pick fresh flowers with dew-drops, to offer prayers to the Gods. By custom, they were the last ones to eat in the household, or went without food observing various religious fasts. They had to dress in plain white cotton saris and re-main with their heads tonsured for the rest of their lives to render them unattractive to other men. (http://swpust2015.blogspot.com/2016/06/ ishwar-chandra-vidyasagar-as-social.html) Some widows would even be evicted from their homes or sent to religious places like Varanasi or Vrindavan, supposedly to pray and purify themselves, but in reality, they frequently ended up as prostitutes, rape victims and unsupported mothers. Unable to tolerate the ill treatment, many of these girls would run away and turn to prostitution to support themselves. Ironically, the economic prosperity and lavish lifestyles of the city made it possible for many of them to have quite successful careers once they had stepped out of the sanction of society and into the demimonde. In 1853, it was estimated that Calcutta had a population of 12,718 prostitutes. (http://www.deshforum.com/showthread.php?tid=949)

Vidyasagar took the initiative in proposing and pushing through the Widow Remarriage Act XV of 1856. He fought with the conservative society in the 19th century and influenced the Government to enact the Widow Remarriage Act which was legalized on 26th July, 1856. He also established the Hindu Family Annuity Fund to help widows who could not remarry; he took the initiative to finance many such widow re-marriage weddings, often getting into debts himself. To stop poly-gamy among the Kulin Brahmins and child marriage, the Civil Marriage Act was passed in 1872. His contribution in the uplift of the women by eradicating blind superstitions and tortures in the name of rituals will be always in the heart of the women. (Ghosh 46)

Vidyasagar was one of the earliest in India to realize that modern science was the key to India's future. He translated into Bengali the English biographies of some outstanding scientists such as Copernicus, Newton, and Herschel and sought to inculcate a spirit of scientific inquiry into young Bengalis. A staunch anti-Berkeleyan, he emphasized the importance of studying European Empiricist philo-sophy (of Francis Bacon) and the inductive logic of John Stuart Mill. He said, “Education does not only mean learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic, it should provide a comprehensive knowledge.” (Alam 14)

Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar managed to continue the social reformation movement that was started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy by picking it up from where he left. A staunch believer of humanity, he brought revolution in India especially in the uplift of the women and education system of Bengal. While Raja Ram Mohan Roy represented the new aspirations and the earnest work of the first generation of his country-men in the nineteenth century, Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar reflected their arduous endeavours in the second (Mitra I). The influx of western knowledge, art and culture as well as advanced moral values enriched the mental horizon of Bengal liberal intelligentsia. Playing a pioneering role in expanding modern education and social mobilisation during the nineteenth century Bengal that spread to the other parts of India, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar not merely confined himself to the role of a sermonizer towards spreading education within the superstitious notions engrossed in the Hindu community through their native language, but also engaged himself in the practical field of social changes that led to the beginning of the modern India. (Alam 12) He believed that there is no other religion and goodness than another person’s welfare.

In the book Makers of Indian Literature, Sarkar says that Ramendra-sundar Trivedi looked upon Vidyasagar as a giant of a man and wrote: “There exist instruments of a kind called microscopes that make small things look big. Physics has indicated [conversely] a big thing may be made to look small, but such a device is hardly ever used…. The people around us, who usually pass as big, suddenly get dwarfed if an account of Vidyasagar’s life is placed by the side of any of them.” (Sarkar 39)

In 1857, the Revolt against the East India Company was to radically alter the administrative and cultural relations between the coloniser and the colonised subject. With organic and structural changes in colonial policies of reform, the bhadralok began to protect and promote their traditional customs. The 38-year-old Vidyasagar left government ser-vice a year later citing exhaustion and increasing disappointment with British policy. Yet he remained active until his death, aiding malaria patients, caring for widows and orphans, and pursuing his work as an author and reformer. Plagued by poor health and disappointment, he retreated in 1873 to Karmatanr in western Bengal, where he built a home and provided homeopathic care to the tribal population. (Hatcher Instagram@Harvard Magazine May June 2014) An epitaph penned by Tagore, etched in marble below a modest bust of Vidyasagar at Karmatanr, reads: “The chief glories of [his] character were neither his compassion nor his learning, but his invincible manliness and imperishable humanity.”

Celebrating historical figures does not mean that we deify them, inviting persons of importance, usually those from the political class, to put marigold garlands on designated dates on their bust to the aplause of onlookers and a photo opportunity for a self-seeking media. It means to walk the talk; to emulate the words and deeds of nobility; to cultivate egalitarian compassion toward the anonymous ‘other’; to resist the human hubris that sanctions the repetitive wrongs of history and to uphold dignity, justice and equality. In emulating Vidyasagar, we can do our bit to express our humanity.

WORKS CITED

Banu, Dr. A. and Alam, S. (June, 2016). Influence of western know


ledge and cultures upon Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and his philosophy of education. International Journal of Education and Psychological Research, 5(2), 12-18. Retrieved fromwww.ijepr.org.

Chatterjee, Sunil Kumar. William Carey and Serampore. Sheoraphuli, 2004.

Chaudhuri, Rasnika. “The Unexpectedness of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar’. The Telegraph Online.2020.

Daniel, J. T. K. “Ecumenical Pragmatism of the Serampore Mission.” IJT 2 (2000): 171 – 177.

Dutta, Sutapa. British Women Missionaries in Bengal 1793-1861. Anthem Press, 2017.

Ghosh, Roni (July-September, 2018). “Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Contribution in the Development of Bengali Language and Literature and its Relevance in Present Context.” Asian Review of Social Sciences, 44-49, Retrieved from www.trp.org.in.

Hatcher, Brian A. Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar: Brief Life of an Indian Reformer: 1820-1891. Intsagram@Harvard Magazine, May-June 2014.

Luca, R. (19th March, 2018). Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Biography, Social Reforms and Quotes. Retrieved from https://biographypoint.com

Mitra, S. C. Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar, A Story of his Life and Work. Ashish Publishing House, 1975.

Sarkar, Ramatosh. Ramendrasundar Trivedi (Makers of Indian Literature), Sahitya Akademi, 1993.

http://www.deshforum.com/showthread.php?tid=949

http://bengalonline.sitemarvel.com/vidyasagar.html

http://swpust2015.blogspot.com/2016/06/ishwar-chandra-vidyasagar-as-social.html



·        Dr. Shanker Ashish Dutt, former Professor & Head, Department of English, Patna University, Patna, has been Chairman, Bihar Sangeet Natak Akademi. Writer and editor, his publications are in areas of Cultural Studies and Libera-tion literature. He has been a U.G.C. British Council and American Centre resource person for English Studies and has lectured and chaired seminars at various eminent institutions. He has also distinguished himself as a theatre actor and director. 

·        Zaara Urouj is Ph.D. Research Scholar in the Department of English at Patna University, Patna.


Re-Markings Vol. 20 No.1 March 2021. pp. 44-51.

Copyright Nibir K. Ghosh 2021.

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Overcoming Disaster: Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Saurabh Agarwal

Literature based on World War II reveals to us the horrific carnage that were unleashed on the Jews in Nazi Germany and forces us to think whether a parallel to such an act could have existed in the annals of the history of mankind. Writers, through their works, fictional and non-fictional, time and again have provided us with “the accounts and facts of the events” (17) that were suffered by millions of prisoners who led life in sub-human conditions and were subjected to mass brutality which may put even the barbarism of uncivilized world to shame. But, as Victor Frankl, remarks, Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that takes us to “hopeless, meaningless world” (52) where attempts were made to preserve the sanity in the state of utter despair. The book is ranked by Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books in America. The original English title of this work was “From Death-Camp to Existentialism.”

Victor Frankl’s fame stands on his widely read Holocaust testimony, Man’s Search for Meaning (originally published in 1959). Born in Vienna in 1905, Frankl was the founder of a school of psychotherapy known as logotheraphy, an existential form of analysis he described as therapy through meaning. He, from his first-hand account of his days in the concentration camps, has chosen to bring forth a book which seeks to overpower the pain and suffering with inherent love for life by treating them to be the integral part of it. The book resonates and follows the philosophy which embodied in the words of Nietzsche, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How” (84). It explores the meaning of life when life itself is nothing but misery without end. It is in the opening passage that the author states that this book” is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with multitude of small torments” (17). The book resets the capacity of humanity to undergo suffering and be able to retain ability to love and survive. “Auschwitz the very name stood for all that was horrible, gas chambers, cremations, massacres” (22) is where author has been brought to and enslaved. Conditions at the camp in which he and his fellowmen are made to live may not be fit even for the animals. Devoid of their identity through a system which reduced a person to just a number, one thousand five hundred prisoners were put up in a shed that had the capacity to accommodate only two hundred. A diet of a few ounce of bread and a pint of watery pea soup were given to sustain their body which is subjected to hard labour in harsh climatic conditions; for clothing, they were given “uniform of rags which would have made a scarecrow elegant by comparison” (33). Unprovoked beating by Capos and no news from family are factors enough to drive any person to terminate his own life by running into electrified barbed wires. The prisoners at these camps look at them-selves not as an individual but as “only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life” (60). In their earlier part of lives they may have occupied prominent positions in the society but in camps they would barely mention that. Here the structure of society has taken new shape with Capos occupying the helm.  

The author had ensured his survival by enduring the suffering that came to him within the world fenced by barbed wires. This discovery of his new self in the “world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated” (60) and “he thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people; his existence descended to the level of animal life” (60). Frankl’s work attempts to chalk out a road map which is to be seen as “effort to save his self-respect” (60) and regain the “lost feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal values” (60).

The signs that people are giving up faith abound. It is under these in-humane conditions that Frankl begins to see a pattern for survival through “delusion of reprieve” (20), revisiting past, revival of spiritual and moral being, looking for cultural escapes, humour and seeking bliss in trivial beauty. Frankl says, “In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as delusion of reprieve. The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad” (23). But then these shreds of hope don’t come easy in the grim times; they have to be sought out and though however small, have to be looked at as if magnified many times. This is seen when author clings to the image of his beloved wife, talks to her and seeks respite in the thought that one day he will be united with her, though simultaneously he is aware of the reality that she may not be alive. These lines reveal the epiphany he experiences through this fancy: “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers” (48). Frankl’s longing for his wife obviously preoccupied him during his internment and eventually led him to have semi-mystical experiences. As he says, “The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there” (52).

Love for the important person in life who had existed in the world outside the camps became a pivotal point around which one could rally all his emotions which would have eventually gone dormant in the environment so frigid that didn’t leave any other though but of death alive:  

The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment” (49).

Through this he had developed an escape mechanism which brought to him temporary respite from the heat of reality and through these fantastical musings he wove himself a rope of hope to cling to. These thoughts became his sanctum sanctorum which helped him preserve his sanity. This was done simply by revisiting the past. He terms it as “intensification of inner life” (50) by letting him escape into the past. The following statement by Frankl exemplifies this:

When given free rein, his imagination played with past events, often not important ones, but minor happenings and trifling things. His nostalgic memory glorified them and they assumed a strange character. Their world and their existence seemed very distant and the spirit reached out for them longingly: “In my mind I took bus rides, unlocked the front door of my apartment, answered my telephone, switched on the electric lights. Our thoughts often centered on such details, and these memories could move one to tears” (50).

The fearsome surroundings of camps, the torture at the hands of Capos and SS, impending death and filth in which the inmates dwell have smashed their ability to rejoice in art and nature. These trips down the memory lane had a therapeutic effect on the author and his inner ability to perceive joys in small things was restored. If one looked at the inmates watching the mountains of Salzburg, while being transported from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp through barred windows, one “would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty” (51). Similar experience of watching the changing colours of sky during sunset are used by Frankl as the “last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death” (Ibid.)

In concentration camps it should have been moronic to be thinking of entertaining oneself through any form of art. But for the author, who was on good terms with the Capo, because of certain service he had rendered, he comes to see crude form of art in the camps. On certain days the Capos “came to have a few laughs or perhaps to cry a little; anyway, to forget. There were songs, poems, jokes, some with under-lying satire regarding the camp. All were meant to help us forget, and they did help” (53). The effect of these activities was such that some of the prisoners missed their daily portion of food.

It is important to note what Frankl says about art: “Generally speaking, of course, any pursuit of art in camp was somewhat grotesque. I would say that the real impression made by anything connected with art arose only from the ghostlike contrast between the performance and the background of desolate camp life” (53).

Another strong link that Frankl discovers to keep himself connected to life was humour. Like art, humour in the times of war can be ephemeral but he saw it as “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humour, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (54). Journey in a train, which is so cramped that a person can take turns to squat “on scanty straw which was soaked with human urine,” (56) ended up in the camp without gas chamber or chimney had inspired prisoners to crack jokes and share a laughter in spite of the knowledge that new ordeals awaited them. Frankl collates these rare pleasures, which may be as scant as two in several months, in the balance sheet of good memories.          

There had been episodes where people succumbed to state of despair so deep that no amount of punishment or beating would bring them out as they lay in their own dirt and filth. It is mentioned that once cannibalism too had broken into the camp. Thus, Frankl has this realisation that the hope is the biggest factor that keeps a person going in the face of suffering. An individual has to come to terms with the sufferings for they are his own and no one else can suffer in his place: “Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand” (85).

It is evident that only the person who enjoys highest degree of sadism could have been able to perform the tasks assigned to them. Frankl has rightly questioned the “psychological make-up of the camp guards” (91) who could bring themselves to perpetuate the kind of crimes we see being committed. But here too, Frankl shows a balanced view where he refuses to classify them strictly as good and bad: “From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two—the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’—and therefore one occasionally finds a decent fellow among the camp guards”(94).  

Frankl does recount helping several prisoners who were suffering from typhus though he is without any medical amenity at his hand. It is his perusal of an active life at typhus ward that makes him realise, “if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete” (76). In a significant statement Frankl tells us that it is we ourselves, who permit others to “rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become moulded into the form of the typical inmate” (75).

Frankl’s work can be seen to be germinated out of pain that is intricately linked to the horrors of war and crime on humanity perpetuated in name of protecting nations, race and religion. Emptiness of the cause that can be seen in the life of concentration camps doesn’t leave the psyche of inmates unscathed. Their lives after being released from the camps were never the same. Many went to their homes to discover the fact that the individual in whom they had vested all their hopes and dreams was no longer there in the world. Their ability to integrate with the outer world had been marred by the torture they had undergone in the camps. Many of them had come to acquire the sadistic tendencies of their predators and would unflinchingly inflict pain to others as a justification to what they underwent. For many the sub-humane treatment that was accorded to them left their dignity in shreds.

It was Frankl’s existentialist approach that helped him find meaning in an oppressive and dehumanized situation. His testimony is full of many uplifting statements which form the basis of the popularity of this book. His solution relied upon the promotion of attitudinal values where he claimed that even in extreme circumstances, one can overcome apathy to find meaning in suffering.  Through his work, Victor Frankl, not only shows the way employed by him for coming to terms with his experience but lays down the strategies for persons who need to resolve their psychic turmoil through the events in life on which any human may not be having control.

WORK CITED

Frankl, Victor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Rider, 2008. 

·        Saurabh Agarwal, a Management graduate, is an Agra-based entrepreneur and freelance writer.


Re-Markings Vol. 20 No.1 March 2021. pp. 119-124


Copyright Nibir K. Ghosh 2021.


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Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Robin Lindley, Joanna Chen & Manoranjan Byapari in Conversation with RE-MARKINGS (www.re-markings.com) March 2021


In Conversation with RE-MARKINGS 

‘Art can comfort and disturb’: A Conversation with Robin Lindley

Nibir K. Ghosh

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer, artist, attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Re-Markings, Salon, 3rd Act, Crosscut, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, BillMoyers.com, ABAJournal (web), and others. He has worked as a law teacher and attorney for government agencies. He received his law degree, J.D., from the University of Washington School of Law. A focus of his writing is the history of conflict, human rights, medicine, and the arts. He lives in Seattle with his wife Betsy. This conversation is in continuation of the interview featured in the September 2020 edition of Re-Markings. Beginning with his views on the most controversial election in US history, Robin Lindley shares here many facets of his amazingly diverse experience as a historian, a journalist, a cartoonist, a human rights lawyer, an artist and a human being deeply rooted to the ideals handed to him as a legacy by his loving parents.

Ghosh: Like a self-proclaimed dictator, Donald Trump refused to accept the election verdict as the 'consent of the governed'. Consequently, how do you look at the January 6 outrageous incident at the US Capitol?

Lindley: January 6, 2021 will be remembered as a day of infamy in the history of the United States of America. For the first time in our history, a president incited a horrific, deadly attack on the Capitol, the temple of our democracy. The president riled supporters for weeks, proclaiming that the election was “stolen,” that he had won by “a landslide.” The reality was, however, that President-Elect Biden won an overwhelming victory by seven million popular votes and an Electoral College vote of 306 to 232. A Trump official acknowledged that the election was the most secure in our history and careful reviews of votes in all 50 states confirmed the result after finding no evidence of fraud.

In the face of the reality of Trump’s loss, right wing media spread his lies. The attack he launched on the Capitol occurred at the very moment Congress was certifying the election of Joe Biden, usually a mere formality required by law. The January 6 riot left at least five people dead, many more injured, and the august halls of Congress vandalized and defaced. Several rioters were bent on killing Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and other leaders. And now there are reports that some members of Congress abetted and aided the attackers. As a former employee of Congress for a couple of years, the siege of the Capitol was heartbreaking.

Ghosh: What are your views on Trump’s impeachment?

Lindley: The House of Representatives has impeached the president for inciting an insurrection. He will now face a Senate trial on the charges against him. Trump will be remembered as the only president who attempted to end 240 years of democratic government. He will be remembered for four years of lies, hate, corruption, and cruelty, enabled by Republicans who embraced his white nationalist authoritarian agenda. And he will be remembered as the only president ever impeached twice.

Ghosh: Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man had used the metaphor of the torch of the Statue of Liberty “lost in the fog.” With the proverbial change of guard at the White House, can we presume the fog to have lifted from US democracy?

Lindley: Our American democracy is uniquely resilient and fragile. Though Trump has tested its limits, it seems democracy has ultimately prevailed. I am very hopeful about the new administration. In his campaign, Joe Biden promised to unify and heal the nation, to serve all Americans regardless of political preference.

May the healing of our nation begin with the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and may America stand for tolerance, fairness, democracy, and justice for all. May we maintain hope at this perilous time for democracy. As Dr. Martin Luther King assured us, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Ghosh: In terms of the new administration, what changes do you foresee in government policy toward 1. COVID-19. 2. Terrorism. 3. Black/All Lives Matter. 4. Economy. 5. Immigration?

At this time, Biden’s appointees for the new administration reflect competency, deep government experience and political understanding. The appointees are from diverse backgrounds that reflect America with a significant addition of women, African American, and Hispanic citizens. And, for the first time, a Native American, Rep. Deborah Haaland, will head the Department of Interior with jurisdiction over federal lands and Indian Affairs. Finally, Biden and his team recognize the urgent need to address issues of economic inequality; systemic racism; xenophobia; punitive immigration policies; and advancing civil and human rights. I appreciate the renewed attention to the common good and improving the lives of all citizens.

It’s encouraging also that Biden has selected an experienced diplomatic and national security team as the US faces threats such as the massive Russian cyber attack and acts of terrorism. There’s sure to be a focus on domestic terrorists, particularly violent white supremacist militants. Another priority is restoring relations with the rest of the world and re-kindling our status as a beacon for human rights for the world.

This promising new administration represents a sharp contrast to Trump’s politics of division and self-interest. And the transition will not likely be smooth as the new administration faces health, economic and national security crises as well as the specter of Trump and his millions of fierce followers.

Ghosh: Your interest in history seems very deep-rooted. Did the motivation to be a historian by choice come from your parents? Kindly share details of your parents and the way they impacted your outlook to life?

Lindley: I don’t consider myself a historian, but I am strongly interested in history and human stories from the past. I have a BA in history and JD (law degree), but lack the credentials of the academic historians that I often interview. I admire the work of scholars and others who delve into the past, and speaking with them has been rewarding for me and I hope for readers.

And thanks for asking about my parents, Dr. Ghosh. They both had a couple of years of college and loved history. They also shared their own stories, their brushes with history.

My fascination with history was significantly influenced by the harrowing Second World War experiences of my father, Marion William Lindley (1920-1973). He didn’t talk much about the war but, over the years, I pieced together some of his story. Both of his parents (both teachers with MAs from Cornell) and his only sibling died by the time he was 20. At the behest of relatives, he joined the Oregon National Guard in early 1941 and worked as a clerk typist with the Army Air Corps.

Because my father was already in the Army when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, he was sent with one of the earliest units to fight in the South Pacific. He should have never served in combat because of his profound near-sightedness, but he fought in an infantry unit through prolonged, horrific campaigns in the jungles of New Guinea.

Because the US didn’t have much experience with combat in the early days of the war, my dad witnessed grave mistakes, such as American planes bombing and strafing US troops. He was constantly afraid of losing his glasses in the stifling heat and humidity of New Guinea. He saw friends maimed and killed. He survived brutal hand-to-hand com-bat. He lost his teeth to a Japanese rifle butt and his hair to malaria before a severe head wound ended his combat service.

My dad was haunted by the war for the rest of his life. He was left with chronic headaches, hearing loss, chronic pain, recurrences of malaria, and post-traumatic stress disorder with exaggerated startle reaction, hypervigilance, emotional liability, and other symptoms.

To support our family, my dad worked the graveyard shift for the extra pay at a physically exhausting, monotonous and unsatisfying job. We were usually in debt. Nonetheless, he was often funny, encouraging, and compassionate. Once, when driving through a snowstorm, I recall him stopping the car and giving his coat to a newspaper vendor who shivered in shirtsleeves. My dad had a sardonic sense of humor and could be silly, as when he skipped at our local grocery store in his heavy work boots and sang, “Here we go gathering nuts in May. . .” He made local newspapers in 1957 when the Army belatedly awarded him a Bronze Star for gallantry.

My father died at age 53. The arc of his life may serve as an example of how the forces of major historical events can affect an ordinary person. 

Ghosh:  In what way did the motivation come from your mother?

Robin: My funny and curious mother, Dolle H. Lindley (1915-2009), also piqued my interest in history as well as in art and reading. She was a talented artist, a pianist, an advertising manager, and autodidact with a creative spirit. Like my dad, she had a dark and earthy sense of humor. For a radio comedy show in Spokane in the 1930s, she impersonated her Scandinavian relatives with a broad accent.

My mother also talked about the difficulties of her impoverished immigrant parents on arriving in America. My mother was also acutely aware of injustice and economic inequality. Her family and friends knew deprivation and loss during the Great Depression. She admired FDR and Ike’s opponent Adlai “The Egghead” Stevenson. She was always a Democrat and she often repeated her Swedish American father’s view that “da goddam Republicans have never done any goddam ting for da workers.” My mom always wondered why the richest among us couldn’t share their wealth with those who had little or nothing.

My mom helped our family survive dire financial straits. Her humor and hope sustained us through furniture repossession; dunning calls from bill collectors; an eviction from our home. And she never gave up. To improve our lot, she entered contests until the last years of her life. The big prizes eluded her but hope sprang eternal.

She also encouraged my long-term interest in the history of medicine that was perhaps sparked by my dad’s medical issues and the ex-periences of my younger sister Diann (1953-1998) who was develop-mentally disabled.

By age nine, I decided to be a doctor. I read a lot of medical history and books about physicians from Galen and Vesalius to Harvey Cushing. I was especially interested in the brain. I was a fan of a popular television show, Ben Casey, the tales of a brain surgeon, and that became my career goal. For an oral report in sixth grade on what I wanted to be, I read about brain surgery and interviewed Spokane’s two neurosurgeons. In my class presentation, I shared my big chart of a step-by-step craniotomy that I had copied from a book called Understanding Surgery. With the aid of this chart, I described the operation to my class: shaving the patient’s head, the initial incision, sawing through the skull, revealing the soft, mushy brain, etc. My teacher was surprised by my ambition and concerned about my morbid sensibility. But future patients were fortunate: my shortcomings in mathematics and chemistry classes in high school put to rest my dreams of medical school.

Ghosh: From the four pictures you recently crafted and shared with Re-Markings, it is evident that you are endowed with enormous artistic talent. What invoked your interest in this area? What do you focus on while creating your drawings?

Lindley: The four images I shared emerged from nervous, rapid drawing using digital tools on an iPad. I’m certain events of the day affected these drawings. The image of tired health care workers certainly was a response to stories of overworked doctors and nurses who were risking their health to treat COVID-19 patients.

Ghosh: Did you go for any formal training in this field? Any art role models?

Lindley: I’ve enjoyed drawing and painting since preschool days. My parents were encouraging, and my mom, a gifted artist, helped me with drawing. But I was incapable of pretty pictures. My grade school teachers were concerned about my images of war, damaged people, natural disasters, fires, accidents. When we made November calendars in second grade, the other kids drew pilgrims and turkeys for Thanks-giving Day, but I was the only one who chose to illustrate Veterans Day and I created a bloody battle scene. My teacher said, “That tells a story, Robin.” I could hear her eyes roll.

I stopped most drawing and painting by high school. However, law school was so boring and frustrating that I returned to the easel and audited life drawing classes. I’ve taken a variety of painting and drawing courses on and off since then. Many kind teachers have encouraged and helped me. I also enjoy reading about art and art history, and I’ve interviewed several artists and art historians. I’ve also made illustrations for publications.

I feel a special kinship with the expressionists of the early 20th century, such as Kathe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and George Grosz. I also admire the work of other artists who address injustice such as Goya, Daumier, Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, Picasso, Ralph Steadman, William Kentridge.

A book I refer to often is The Indignant Eye: The Artist as Social Critic by Ralph E. Shikes (1969). This study of prints and drawings from the fifteenth century to Picasso chronicles how artists graphically responded to inhumanity and social injustice.

Ghosh: As an avid reader of literature, who are the writers/poets who have impressed you most?

Lindley: I recently re-read the great epics, Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. These tales of anger, love, hate, violence, and seeking home are timeless. I especially enjoy those who celebrate our human comedy, often with humor and irony. Some favorites: Voltaire, Swift, Defoe, Shakespeare, Twain, Kafka, Ralph Ellison, Garcia Marquez, Miguel Asturias, Luisa Valenzuela, Oe Kenzaburo, R. K. Narayan, Raymond Carver, Rushdie, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Gogol, Ambrose Bierce, Richard Wright, Kurt Vonnegut,Jr., Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Sinan Antoon, Albert Camus, Agota Kristof,  Michael Ondaatje, George Orwell, Flann O’Brien, Emmanuel Dongala, Ivan Klima, Nathanael West, Gunter Grass, Ismael Reed, Isabel Allende, Luis Alberto Urrea, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Carlos Fuentes, E. B. White, W. G. Sebald, and Olga Tokarczuk.

Rather than add a list of poets, I commend to your attention the powerful anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, edi-ted by distinguished poet and human rights advocate Carolyn Forche. This collection features poets from 140 countries who respond to conditions of extremity and calamity. I also recommend her moving memoir on her experience in El Salvador as civil war loomed, What You Have Heard is True. In an interview with Professor Forche we discussed her life in a war-torn land where fear was palpable as right-wing death squads patrolled the streets and the countryside.

Ghosh: Any interest in creative writing – story, poem, novel etc.?

Lindley: I have written some stories and poems, and enjoy these forms very much, but no widespread publication. After my feeble efforts at creative writing, I appreciate the effort, talent and brilliance of accomplished writers of all stripes.

Ghosh: Do you believe that art can transform lives?

Lindley: Picasso said that “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.” Art can introduce us to the lives of strangers and create empathy and understanding of our interconnected world. Art can comfort and disturb. Art can touch people emotionally and prompt social and political change. Think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a story of slavery and oppression. The book shocked readers, and created sympathy for abolitionism. Some readers saw the book as a cause of the Civil War. And Upton Sinclair’s vivid novel on the horrific conditions in the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, led to consumer protection laws.

In terms of visual art, Picasso’s monumental painting Guernica, his graphic view of the 1937 Nazi Luftwaffe aerial bombing of civilians in this Basque village, powerfully imagined the horror of war and the threat of fascism with a visceral immediacy that thousands of words could not express. He didn’t depict Stuka dive bombers or the enemy. Instead, he shared the perspective of innocent civilians who suffered the strafing and bombing, the mechanized massacre. The painting captures the terror of a brutal attack on unwitting humans and animals. A mother holding her dead child beseeches the broken sky. The figures are twisted. Faces emerge with shocked expressions and mouths seem to cry out against the wanton destruction: why?

Ghosh: What occasioned your passion for journalism? When did you join the celebrated History News Network?

Lindley: I’ve always admired reporters and have been a news addict. There’s a saying that journalism is the first draft of history. I remember reports from Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Huntley and Brinkley from the early days of television. And then I read the great reporters such as Martha Gellhorn, Ernie Pyle, David Halberstam, and many more. Murrow’s harrowing 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame on the plight of impoverished, nomadic farm workers in the US still stands out for me.

Bill Moyers has served as an inspiration. I admire his thought-provoking, in-depth interviews of major writers, thinkers and artists. His book on his bus trip across America in the mid-1970s sparked my own Greyhound ‘round the US’ tour in our bicentennial year.

I especially admire Moyers’s interviews that are fueled by his deep knowledge of history, a passion for justice, a profound concern for others, a love of language, and an appreciation for the ethical underpinnings of the issues he tackles.  His research and erudition provide context and analysis that is missing in much of what passes for journalism now.  And he dares to imagine that members of his audience are willing to think and to learn.

Journalist Molly Ivins, who suggested that Moyers run for president in 2008, said: “He opens minds—he doesn’t scare people. He includes people in, not out.  And he sees through the dark search for political ad-vantage to the clear ground of the Founders. He listens and he respects others.”

His continuing work embodies these values and motivates my own search and desire to share what I learn with others.

Ghosh: The range and variety of the interviews you have done for History News Network is nothing short of phenomenal. What led you to this arena of journalism?

Lindley: Thanks for that kind comment, Dr. Ghosh. Curiosity is the greatest driver. Also, I enjoy connecting with people I admire and learn-ing about their work.

The tireless editor and founder of HNN, Rick Shenkman, never gave me assignments. He let me choose subjects and run with them. He’s a generous editor and kind friend. My focus on interviewing also was influenced by my reading of oral history and great interviews by the likes of Bill Moyers, Studs Terkel, Terry Gross, Walter Isaacson and others.

Ghosh: How do you decide on the personalities and authors you select for your interviews?

Lindley: I select people I’m interested in. I may read a review or see a reference to a book or author or hear an author interviewed on television or radio. With author interviews, I read their books and try to learn what I can about the writer. After an interview, I always send a draft of my article to the subject for any revisions so that my articles reflect all comments accurately.

It’s a privilege for me to meet—even if only by phone or email—these bright and devoted people and then share their words and wisdom with others.

Ghosh: What inferences can one draw from your various conversations on ‘trauma narratives’?

Lindley: Whether in literature or for therapy, these narratives serve similar purposes by addressing trauma that would be otherwise ignored. From these narratives we can learn about the nature and origins of trauma as well as the varied courses survivors take to heal and thrive. These stories often depict heroic resilience after terrible physical and emotional injury.

University of Washington Professor of Journalism Doug Underwood talked with me about trauma and literature, and his book Chronicling Trauma. “Understanding trauma is how we can understand world politics and diplomacy and everything else. Psychiatrists now will tell you that the whole human experience is about how well we adjust to trauma. It’s traumatic to be born. It’s traumatic to be a mother giving birth…. As we become aware of the nature of trauma, it can make us more empathetic and more aware of the hard experiences of life, and it brings us together in ways that we share because we all experience trauma at one level or another…. Trauma is unavoidable in our lives and, therefore, would we not be better off if we acknowledged that?”

He added, “I believe that studying trauma as hard as it’s been and it’s not always easy to read trauma narratives has made me a better person…. And I think it does make us better people even though it’s a hard process.”

Professor Susie Linfield wrote about political violence and photography in her book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Violence. I asked her about trauma and how photographs have been used to promote social change and human rights. She discussed how photographs of suffering and deprivation, especially of the innocent, can reach viewers at an emotional level and prompt changes in attitudes and, at times, lead to action. She explained:

One of the earliest uses of photographs to promote human rights . . . was in the movement that developed in England and the US in the 1890s and early twentieth century [to expose] King Leopold’s colonization and brutalization of the Congo…. Photographs of Black Africans—often mutilated, with their hands and feet hacked off—circulated in the West in the context of this anti-colonial organizing. Of course, that movement wasn’t perfect; it had elements of condescension and racism.  But nonetheless, those photographs were important in establishing a human connection between whites in the US and Britain and the colonized Congolese, and in asserting that a thread of common humanity unites us…. A universal im-pulse has to be behind any politics of human rights, and the denial of that kind of universal humanity is at the heart of the worst violence of the twentieth century.

I also talked about trauma and art with Professor Hillary Chute, an expert on comics and graphic nonfiction and author of Disaster Drawn. “I’m interested in how trauma inspires hybrid work that is hyper-aware of how it communicates…. The combination of the words and images allows meaning to be created in their interaction, or even in their disjunct. And all the work in Disaster Drawn is motivated by collective violence and its aftermath. . . For the painter and printmaker Francisco Goya, it was the Spanish War of Independence that began in 1808 against the French, part of the Napoleonic Wars. His Disasters of War series of etchings was conceived of in 1808, the year the Spanish pueblo rose up against their occupiers—a violent action met with great violence in return. For cartoonist Keiji Nakazawa, it was the US dropping of the atomic bomb on his home city in 1945 during World War II that inspired his comics. For Art Spiegelman, it was his Polish-Jewish parents’ survival—or inability, ultimately, to survive—Nazi death camps also during World War II.”

Ghosh: In his poem “Strange Meeting” Wilfred Owen remarks: “I mean the truth untold/ The pity of war, the pity war distilled.” In your view what lessons do war narratives impart to those who care to read them?

Robin Lindley: Some lessons from stories of war, perhaps: The randomness of injury and death. The chaos. The absurdity. The guilt. The waste. The fear. The insanity. The mistakes. The carnage. The lasting wounds. The preparation and disposal of the dead.

We should all learn about the reality of war and how people suffer in war and afterward so that we can respond with knowledge and under-standing whenever our nation calls upon its armed services to fight and sacrifice. Our recent forever wars in the Middle East have been wasteful in lives and resources at a terrible cost to our military and to the people we have attacked and to all who have suffered and died.

I appreciate award-winning author Chris Hedges’ view of modern war. "War is brutal and impersonal. It mocks the fantasy of individual heroism and the absurdity of utopian goals like democracy. In an instant, industrial warfare can kill dozens, even hundreds of people, who never see their attackers. The power of these industrial weapons is indiscriminate and staggering…. The wounds, for those who survive, result in terrible burns, blindness, amputation, and lifelong pain and trauma. No one returns the same from such warfare. And once these weapons are employed all talk of human rights is a farce."

I spoke with several writers and artists about the lessons from recent wars and what they saw and learned. They found no glory, no triumph. Award-winning photojournalist Peter Van Agtmael if he thought his graphic combat pictures would prompt people to question war. “I think so.  People end up at war through ignorance more than anything else….You don't necessarily change what's going on, but I do want the photographs to resonate and I take the long view with all of this.”

Michael Kamber, another award-winning photographer, stressed that civilians bore the brunt of the war in Iraq. “The vast majority of casualties I photographed in the war were civilians. That was the war and that’s what Americans don’t seem to understand…. There were no frontlines. There were no armies facing us. This was a guerilla war from beginning to end and it was fought among civilians. That’s where the insurgents were. They were dug in and hiding amongst civilian populations. That’s where the killing happened, and the civilians were wiped out in huge numbers. There was a terrible cost.”

Kamber’s photography reveals the human cost of war. “At times, I covered five or six car bombings in one day. These happened in civilian places, and the next morning the Iraqis have to go to work. They have to eat and go shopping and get their kids to school. They have no choice except to go down the same road where bombs went off the day before. I probably photographed hundreds of American and Iraqi casualties. You’d come on a car bomb scene where 20 or 30 people were killed. There’s grieving families and body parts and the wounded. It’s not like in the movies where there’s a clean gunshot wound. It’s people blown into small pieces. Sometimes large pieces. And it was every single day.”

I also interviewed acclaimed psychiatrist, expert on mass trauma, and author Dr. Robert J. Lifton on his memoir Witness to an Extreme Century. He sees recent wars as “atrocity-producing situations” that are “so structured that very ordinary people who are in no way particularly bad can engage in atrocities and that can be the case because of the way the environment is structured. In terms of Vietnam, body counts, free fire zones, and search and destroy missions were military policy that made killing civilians all too easy. The kinds of experiences of soldiers, especially angry grief they suffered [as] buddies were killed when they were unable to engage the enemy, [are] likely to occur in counterinsurgency wars where it’s hard to distinguish combatants from civilians.” An old saying that probably originated in antiquity is “When war is declared, truth is the first casualty.” I appreciate those who have shared the reality of war and hope their experiences will inform those who create and execute our policies.

Ghosh: In the light of your remark, “I could not help but be troubled by unfairness, violence, suffering,” how do you manage to come to terms with such situations in your role as a human rights spokesman?

Lindley: What can an individual do in the face of genocide and terrible crimes against humanity? I think we have an obligation to speak out and do something when we see unfairness, brutality, and evil. What’s perplexing now is that I never thought we’d see Nazi and KKK rallies in 21st century America. I’ve always disliked bullies and didn’t understand how Americans could support a thuggish racist as president. It’s disconcerting.

I hope to add to the conversation by sharing voices of historians and others who speak truth to power and value tolerance, justice, and democracy. And may the new administration under President Joe Biden restore our position in the world as a force for human rights.

In a 2008 interview, human rights advocate and then a future UN Ambassador Samantha Power discussed the US role in dealing with human rights abuses. At that time, in the waning days of the Bush administration, the US was seen as an international pariah in the wake of the bloody and wasteful Iraq war. Power’s words are again timely. “The United States has to get its own house in order and recover its regard for the principles that have made it a beacon for the world. To me, the regard for human rights makes America singular. If we’re just a country that pursues our national interest as defined in the short term, that won’t be good for our national interest in the long term…. We have to begin integrating a concern for human consequences at every stage of policy and be curious about what the effects of our policies are. And we’re not that curious sometimes.”

Ghosh: Could you please share your experiences as former chair and board member of the World Peace through Law section of the Washington State Bar Association? What were the issues and concerns that you liked to address?

Lindley: As section chair, I coordinated monthly continuing education programs for lawyers and recruited more women and people of color to the section.

The section was established in the 1980s when nuclear arms control was a major issue. We continued to consider international treaties and also focused on human rights and international law at a time (2005-2006) when US troops and officials were accused of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Experts presented engrossing programs on the law of war, forensic pathology and war crimes investigation, torture, human trafficking, truth and reconciliation commissions, presidential power, health and human rights. A couple of local lawyers spoke their work with the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. I learned a lot in this role and was pleasantly surprised by how many Seattle-area attorneys, professors, and other experts had worked with these complex international issues.

Ghosh: What are your views on American imperialistic ambitions of being at the top of the international power game?

Lindley: We have serious problems at home, and our experiences with imperialism and nation building have been fraught and costly, especially in terms of human lives, both Americans and those who live in the targets of our ambitions.

Renowned author Stephen Kinzer talked with me about his book The True Flag on the US imperialism during the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars (1898-1901). He stressed that “Violent intervention in other countries always produces unintended consequences.” He explained, “We tend to forget episodes that don’t show us in the way that we like to think that we are. The Philippine War falls in that category. We left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos dead in a horrifically brutal campaign. We had our first torture scandal. We had serious war crimes committed as a matter of official military policy. And yet very few Americans are even aware that this war ever happened. Actually, it’s been a huge scar on the minds of Filipinos and it’s well known in East Asia, but because it doesn’t fit into our narrative of what we do in the world, we’ve allowed it to fall out of our history books and our con-sciousness.”

Kinzer added, “What I find even more puzzling is that we don’t seem to learn from these experiences. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the number of times we can crash into another country violently and have it come out terribly…. The more we crash into other countries, the more we weaken ourselves. This is the lesson our interventions teach us.”

Ghosh: In this context, could you please mention your conversation with Professor Daniel Immerwahr?

Lindley: I interviewed Professor Daniel Immerwahr on his ground-breaking book How to Hide an Empire on the history of US territories and possessions beyond the 48 contiguous states. He stressed how racism affected our colonization of other lands: “Racism didn’t only shape people’s lives within the country. It also shaped the country itself, determining the placement of the borders and, within those borders, which places would count as ‘American’ and which as ‘foreign.’ There’s a long history of US leaders seeking to control which people are ‘in’ and which are ‘out’ of the country. Unfortunately, they’ve largely succeeded in writing Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and Hawaiians out of U.S. history.”

And Professor Immerwahr shared the unlikely story of bird poop and US imperial expansion. “It was in search of guano that the United States started annexing islands overseas—ultimately nearly a hundred of them in the Pacific and Caribbean. These were uninhabited, but someone needed to be there to mine the guano. Guano companies came to rely on non-white laborers, essentially marooning them on these rainless, godforsaken islands with instructions to pick, shovel, and blast loose as much guano as possible. Unsurprisingly, guano workers mutinied. One such uprising, on Navassa Island in 1889, led to the killing of five white overseers and, ultimately, a Supreme Court case. It was where the Court first considered whether overseas expansion was consistent with the Constitution. It ruled that it was, thus laying the legal foundation for em-pire.” The US empire building brought prosperity to some at a terrible price for others.

Ghosh: What impact can political cartoons have in molding public opinion through media journalism?

Lindley: Editorial cartoonists and caricaturists have a gift for taking complex issues and creating a visual scene that presents a point of view, usually with humor. Cartoons can bring clarity and understanding in an instant, in ways that scholarly treatises and articles cannot. They may simplify to a fault but the comic snapshot can be powerful and moving.

Consider the special contributions of the prominent cartoonists such as Gary Trudeau (“Doonesbury”), Bill Mauldin, Oliphant, Herblock, David Horsey, David Levine, Ted Rall, and Ann Talnaes, among others. And then you have the recent innovations in graphic novels and histories such as Maus by Art Spiegelman, and a graphic history of the Civil War, Battle Lines, by historian Ari Kalman.

I asked Professor Hillary Chute why graphic novels are popular now. In my view, the trauma of World War Two, in which conventional forms of expression came to seem inadequate to express human atrocity, and the highly televisual and photographed Vietnam War that followed, allowed the hand-drawn form of comics to reinvent cultures of expression. In 1972 both Keiji Nakazawa, a Japanese Hiroshima survivor, and Art Spiegelman, a Polish-Jewish immigrant to the United States whose parents both survived Auschwitz, created some of the very first mea-ningful nonfiction comics from different parts of the globe: Tokyo and San Francisco…. Something was happening in the 1970s to those who were directly affected by the war: they were finding new—and in this case, older—forms to register the violence that had devastated their families. And their work took off.”

It seems I’ve tapped into a vein of darkness. I must say that each of the people I’ve interviewed has left me with hope even when discussing the darkest themes in history. For example, medical historian Frank Snowden finds hope in the history of cruel epidemics in this age of COVID-19. If I thought that the history of infectious diseases was exclusively a study of disaster and despair, I would long ago have abandoned the subject as unbearably depressing. Fortunately, however, along with the dark sides of human nature, epidemics also demonstrate our brighter and more hopeful qualities. One can see that again and again in the heroism of physicians, nurses, and caregivers; in the dedication and ingenuity of medical scientists; and in the slow, but steady advance of the science of public health and hygiene. That history fills me with the hope that we will, in the end, survive COVID-19, and with that experience behind us, we will resolve to organize our society in such a way that we are not again scourged by a deadly pandemic.”

I’d like to conclude with the words of Professor Susie Linfield, the journalism professor: “I hope that readers will go to the history books and the testimonies and the newspapers and magazines, and that they will delve more deeply into the complicated realities that photographs can only suggest.  Which is to say:  I hope that we will all become historians—at least sometimes—and, equally important, citizens.”

Ghosh: Thanks Robin for sharing your views so generously.

Lindley: Thanks for the opportunity to share, Nibir.


Published in RE-MARKINGS Vol 20 No.1 March 2021. pp.14-28. 20th Birth Anniversary Special Number.

Copyright Re-Markings 2021.

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‘Learn the narrative of the other’A Conversation with Joanna Chen

Nibir K. Ghosh

Joanna Chen is a British-born writer, poet and translator, currently living in the Ela Valley of Israel. Her poetry, essays and literary translations have been published in GuernicaMantisNarratively and Waxwing, and Re-Markings, among many others. She teaches literary translation at The Helicon School of Poetry in Tel Aviv. A former journalist, her work has appeared in international publications such as NewsweekThe Daily Beast and Marie Claire. Her full-length literary translations include Less Like a Dove (Shearsman Books), Frayed Light (Wesleyan University Press) and My Wild Garden (Pantheon-Random House).  She writes a column for The Los Angeles Review of Books. She states: “Poetry and prose are intertwined in my writing, as is literary translation, which enriches every single word I write. Writing has always been my preferred medium of expression, the best way for me to explain myself to the world.” Joanna loves the outdoors and is always happy to spread the word about poetry and poetry in translation! Discover more at www.joannachen.com

Ghosh: Greetings from the city of the Taj! Our acquaintance began with the publication of your poems in the Re-Markings’ special number, A World Assembly of Poets. How did you feel being a part of such creative diversity?

Joanna Chen: I welcome creative diversity and am always interested in what other people are writing and creating around the world.

Ghosh: Did you experience any kind of cultural lag in moving to a new place?

Joanna Chen: I was 16 when I arrived in Israel. For many years, I suffered because I didn’t speak either Hebrew or Arabic and the culture felt alien to me. It took me a while to acclimatize – perhaps I’m still acclimatizing now. 

Ghosh: When did you start to write poetry and what inspired you to write?

Joanna Chen: I was always scribbling in the margins of school notebooks and writing snippets of poetry on pieces of paper for as long as I can remember. I was inspired by particular moments – oak leaves moving in the breeze outside the classroom window, the sound of foot-steps coming up the stairs – and I often got into trouble at school for not paying attention in class.

Ghosh: Who would you consider your mentors in poetic composition? Name a few poets who attracted your admiration in your formative years.

Joanna Chen: Adrienne Rich for her honesty and daring; Jane Hirshfield for her delicacy and precision, who is also a wonderful literary translator; Wendell Berry for never failing to remind me of the immediate beauty in nature; the Bronte sisters, whose home I visited many times in the North of England, where I lived; Ethelbert Miller has been an inspiration and a dear friend to me for a number of years. A literary activist, he's constantly encouraging writers to push forward. He taught me the importance of sharing – work, resources, ideas. 

Ghosh: Referring to the lines from Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck” – “the thing I came for:/ the wreck and not the story of the wreck/ the thing itself and not the myth” – you state: “This is why I write poetry.” Are you suggesting that your concern is with lived reality rather than imaginary stories or myths about reality? Please elaborate.

Joanna Chen: Exactly. As a former journalist, I’m deeply cemented in the here and now, and the fact that what we write about people is not a story: it’s real life.

Ghosh: In popular perception Israel is “a pressure cooker of constant changes, political, ideological, social and familial intensity and density, permeated with an anxiety about claustrophobic suffocation.” What is your view?

Joanna Chen: That and so much more.

Ghosh: Who are the emerging Israeli poets to look out for?  What are the emerging themes?

Joanna Chen: Tehila Hakimi is a wonderful writer of prose and poetry who writes about the role of women and their place in society. I just finished translating a wonderful novella of hers called Company. Yonatan Berg is another fine poet and prose writer. He has written extensively on growing up on a Jewish settlement, on serving in a combat unit in the Israeli army, and how all this affected him.

Ghosh: What is your take on the process of Americanization in Israeli life and literature?

Joanna Chen: I don’t see this is any different from any other country really.

Ghosh: What subjects do you consider closer to your heart in your poetic compositions? Why do you consider them important to share them publicly?

Joanna Chen: I want to share my work as much as I want to read and discuss the work of other people. We do not live in a bubble and in order to write I think it essential to read. 

Ghosh: What kind of challenges have you encountered as a woman writer in Israel? Was it easy to find writing colleagues and outlets to publish?

Joanna Chen: I write in English. There’s a small but thriving community of English writers in this country. As for finding places to publish, I publish my work outside of Israel, mostly in the U.S.

Ghosh: What is your vision about the future of poetry in Israel and elsewhere?

Joanna Chen: I think poetry is on the rise. People are less inclined to say today – oh, I wasn’t good at poetry in school – or – I don’t really understand poetry. It’s become more accessible, and today especially I believe more people are turning to poetry as a way of taking refuge from what is happening in the world.

Ghosh: Do you believe that poetry can transform lives? What is your take on writers using words as weapons?

Joanna Chen: I believe that poetry can move people but we must be our own change, do you know what I mean? A poem itself doesn’t change the world, but it can make people think, it can offer a new perspective. As for words as weapons, let us hope we are all a little more resilient than that.

Ghosh: What got you interested in the art of translation?

Joanna Chen: Literary translation is a wonderful bridge to other cultures. You asked about cultural diversity earlier. This is it! For me, literary translation is a way of holding each word up to the light and turning it around, to see new perspectives and meanings. It’s a way of delving down deeply to the roots of words – their social, cultural, political and religious implications. Just as reading is an essential part of writing, so is literary translation. When I’m translating a poem, I am honing my own writing as well.   

Ghosh: You teach literary translation at The Helicon School of Poetry in Tel Aviv. Please enumerate the nature of your work as a translation teacher. What are the various translation projects that you have worked at? What methods do you follow to ensure that good poetry is not lost in translation?

Joanna Chen: Let me put it this way. I share my love for words with my students, I encourage them to explore writing in other languages and to translate into their native language. One of my students has published the poetry of Jericho Brown in translation; another has translated Ocean Vuong.

We work first on a literal translation of a given poem, we research the background of that poet to make sure we understand the cultural context. Then we do the real magic – the transforming of the poem into the target language, and then we look to see: What did we gain and what did we lose?       

Ghosh: What motivated you to learn both Hebrew and Arabic after you migrated to Israel? When did you begin to think you could use your knowledge of these languages in translating poetry into English?

Joanna Chen: The answer is simple: You can't live in a country without speaking the language of everyone else who lives here, right? One of the problems immigrants face, particularly older ones, is a lack of proficiency in the language of the country they find themselves in. It's debilitating, it sets you apart. You can never fully integrate unless you are able to grasp the language, and that's not always possible. 

It was just as important to learn Arabic as well. In my journalism days, it was crucial to be able to walk into a Palestinian home and say hello to everyone in Arabic, it shows respect. 

One day, while driving up to Jerusalem, I was listening to a song in Hebrew on the radio and I suddenly realized I knew all the words by heart, and I also understood the deeper meaning of the lyrics. I had taken a course that year in literary translation given by poet Linda Zisquit, and absolutely loved it. I realized I might turn my knowledge into a profession. I began translating poetry, and now translate prose as well, although I believe there is always poetry in prose, there is always the lyricism and rhythm of that source language. It's a bit like music, listen-ing for the voice and the tone.   

Ghosh: What motivated you to the choice of translating Less Like a Dove by Agi Mishol and Frayed Light by Yonatan Berg.  Do these two poets have anything in common in terms of their poetic concerns? Also, what attracted you to translating Meir Shalev’s My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer's Eden?

Joanna Chen: Agi Mishol's poetry spoke to me immediately with its clear images and accessible language that I was sure would resonate for the English-speaking community as well. Her writing is steeped in the multiple layers of the Hebrew language.  Similarly, Yonatan Berg's writing taps into the flexibility of Hebrew, its ability to convey past and present simultaneously. Both poets dig down deep into their own lives and that of the culture they were born into, with all its flaws and all its beauty. As for Meir Shalev’s My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer's Eden, I must say that though a prose writer, Meir Shalev’s work is often lyric, verging on the poetic, in this particular book I translated. 

Ghosh: What skills did you acquire as a student of the creative writing program at Bar Ilan University? 

Joanna Chen: The Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program at Bar Ilan University is a marvellous place to hone your craft and exercise your creative muscles. It provides an excellent toolbox for writers of all genres and also a warm and nurturing community that I still enjoy today.         

Ghosh: What are your priorities as a journalist? Did you ever have to face a situation where you felt constricted to be silent about something that mattered to you as a person?

Joanna Chen: Don’t expect to necessarily agree with people you’re interviewing! You can’t change the world but you can enter into people’s lives for a brief time and try to understand them.   

Ghosh: You begin the poem “The Art of Journalism” by saying, “It takes three years and I’ll tell you why.” Kindly shed light on the layers of experience that a trainee journalist has to contend with in acquiring the art of reporting.  

Joanna Chen: A bureau chief at Newsweek told me that three years is the maximum to stay in any given location: the first year you’re in shock when you see a child wandering the streets, shoeless; the second year you know the ropes, you know how to speak to that child so she won’t run away from you; the third year you’re so accustomed to it all you don’t even see the child anymore.   

Ghosh: Your poignant essay, “When Poetry is a Crime,” written in protest against the Arab poet Tareen Datour’s arrest and captivity, showcases your conviction to speak out against repressive measures employed by the State to curb dissent. Do you ever find yourself at the receiving end on account of your courageous stand at the level of your community or nation?

Joanna Chen: I’m not courageous. I wrote that piece in order to highlight Dareen Tatour’s personal plight. I wrote it because I believe that every-one has the right to free speech even if her opinions may not always mirror my own.  

Ghosh: According to Margaret Atwood, “Women are still expected to be better than men, morally that is, even by women, even by some branches of the women's movement; and if you are not an angel, if you happen to have human failings, as most of us do, especially if you display any kind of strength or power, creative or otherwise, then you are not merely human, you're worse than human.” What are your views in the context of Atwood’s contention?

Joanna Chen: Let’s just get on with our lives and do the best we can.

Ghosh: “Fire, charred buses, men lined up against a wall, roadblocks, guns at intersections, shards of glass on the street, the fear on people’s faces, the funerals revisited on the 8 o’clock news” – these images from one single poem of yours reflect the gloom that we are prone to see all around us. How do you manage to create a balance between what is and what really ought to be?

Joanna Chen: The world isn’t a kind place. But there are kind and courageous and daring people who live and breathe in it and that makes life worth something, right? I write about subjects that are meaningful to me. I hope someone reads my writing and says, yes, I feel that way too.  

Ghosh: How would you respond to a statement that Thomas Paine had once made:The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum”?

Joanna Chen: The whole world is a bit of a lunatic asylum actually! 

Ghosh: In terms of the Arab-Israel conflict, if you were to be appointed an ambassador of peace, what measures would you suggest as a poet of humanity and citizen of Israel?

Joanna Chen: There’s no easy solution but I can say this: learn the narrative of the other. You don’t have to agree with this narrative, but at least accept there is another narrative, another way of looking at the world. 

Ghosh: You have been writing a regular column for The Los Angeles Review of Books. What are some of the major events, themes and issues that you have enjoyed addressing?

Joanna Chen: I write a lot about literary translation as a bridge to other cultures and other people. I interview writers whose words speak to me. I most recently interviewed the Irish writer Colum McCann on his book Apeirogon, about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because no Arab langu-age or Hebrew language publishers will publish the book.       

Ghosh: As a writer, poet and journalist how do you view the cataclysmic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic on a global scale?

Joanna Chen: People are reading more. People are discovering the positive side to keeping close to home. On the other hand, this is an incredibly challenging time in which many have lost jobs and are struggling to make ends meet. 

Ghosh: In this age of digitization and social media explosion, do you consider it ironical that, though interest in reading has waned, the publication industry has registered a huge growth?

Joanna Chen: On the contrary, people are reading more and more today. Poetry too!

Ghosh: Names of cities and places, near and distant, frequently make their appearance in your poems and prose narratives. Are you fond of travelling to “faery lands forlorn” like John Keats or do you feel the urge to visit places where all is not well in terms of ideals like liberty, equality, fraternity and the like?

Joanna Chen: The only place I’m traveling to this year is Dublin, where my beautiful eldest daughter and granddaughter live. COVID-19 has shut the door to everywhere else. Because of my love for them, Dublin has become second home to me.

Ghosh: Mutuality of political interest has created close ties between Israel and India. In case you happen to visit India someday, what would figure in your list of preferences?

Joanna Chen: I would love to visit India one day. I’d love to learn about the many layers of language that exist in India and am so curious about the social structure of this huge country.

Ghosh: What message would you like to give to young upcoming poets and journalists worldwide?

Joanna Chen: Look close to home when you write. Right in front of your nose there is so much going on. And on the other side of the world there is someone who would love to read it.    

Ghosh: Thanks, Joanna. It was real pleasure talking to you.

·        Dr. Nibir K. Ghosh, former Head, Department of English Studies & Research, Agra College, Agra, is UGC Emeritus Professor. He has been a Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA during 2003-04. An eminent scholar and critic of American, British and Post-colonial literatures, he is Author/Editor of 15 widely acclaimed books and has published over 175 articles and scholarly essays on various political, socio-cultural and feminist issues in national and international publications. His most recent work is Mirror from the Indus: Essays, Tributes and Memoirs (2020).

Published in RE-MARKINGS Vol 20 No.1 March 2021. pp.36-43. 20th Birth Anniversary Special Number.

Copyright Re-Markings 2021.

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                                                 From Dalit Rickshaw-Puller to Celebrity Author: 

                                            A Conversation with Manoranjan Byapari

Anuradha Sen

A few years ago, the venue of the Patna Literature Festival was abuzz … a rickshaw puller from Bengal was to address the august gathering! Interesting snippets of information were doing the rounds and arousing audience curiosity and excitement. Manoranjan Byapari, it was said, had requested the organisers to book a plane ticket for him from Kolkata, ‘only one way,’ he said. He had seen the world for long from the ground level, he wanted to have a glimpse of that world ‘…once from above.’ A flair for significant metaphors!

That day Manoranjan Byapari kept the audience enthralled for two hours! And I had been wondering how he would communicate, con-sidering his mother tongue was Bengali. However, he was a wonderful communicator and an entertainer, and in workable Hindi he had the audience chuckling and clapping throughout. He spoke about various things – his difficult life and the life of the poor and the oppressed in general, the need for social change, the simmering rage of the Dalit writer such that only a Dalit could write about their life not any other writer, howsoever sympathetic to their condition they might be. In this context, even while acknowledging the contribution of writers like Munshi Premchand, Byapari felt one cannot really write the Dalit story on a full belly and from the sanctuary of a cushioned existence. He ex-pressed his disappointment, for instance, on the ending of Premchand’s famous short story “Kafan,” where the chamar father- son duo are seen drinking liquor with the money meant to buy the kafan, for their deceased wife/mother. Byapari sees this as the age-old upper caste prejudice in type-casting all lower caste and passing judgement on them. Byapari said, being a Dalit who has felt the pangs of raw hunger and privation, he would have ended the story differently – he would have shown the father son opting for a good square meal of lovely white rice with the precious money. In an interesting ex-change at the venue, when I spoke to Alok Rai (grandson of Munshi Premchand and retired head of the English Department at Delhi University) and asked him what he thought about Byapari’s critique, Rai smiled and came up with a blasé rejoinder: ‘maybe there should be another story called “Phir se Kafan.”

I was invited to be in conversation with Manoranjan Byapari on the 27th of August 2017 by ‘Kalam,’ an initiative of the Prabha Khaitan Foun-dation and a Kolkata based organisation which hosts a literary event at Patna every month. An author is invited for interaction with a select group of interested book lovers.

My interaction with Byapari was a life altering experience; during my conversation I was transported from the comfort zone of my life of privilege and security into a hitherto untraversed world of life lived at the margins. Byapari was a man who had lived life at the edge – a life of privation and hunger, oppression, and neglect, of crime, violence, and punishment. The trials and tribulations of a Bangladesi refugee, a Chandal, the lowest in the caste hierarchy … real lived experiences, anecdotes, of exile, jail, police beatings, in refugee camps, in different locations all over the country. Here are some snippets of that rather long conversation.

A.S.: Tell us your life story…

M.B.: I don’t know when I was born, probably 1950. I came from Barisal in Bangladesh when I was about 3 years old. Mine is a life story of hardship and privation. We survived on dole for seven years at the Bankura Shiromanipur Refugee camp. One day the government stopped the dole and sent all the refugees to the Dandakaranya. There, I collected firewood from forests to help my family make a living. As a hungry ticketless traveller, I travelled all over in search of work –Darjeeling, Assam, Uttar Pradesh etc. As a child I worked as a cowherd, a tea stall boy, a washer of dishes and later as a cook, labourer, munshi, a rickshaw puller, a crematorium guard and as a forest chowkidar in Naxal infested Chattisgarh. I came in close touch with Shankar Guha Neogi, the legendary labour leader in the tribal belts of Madhya Pradesh. His murder by contract killers left an indelible imprint on my mind. He was champion of the oppressed and ignored people of this society. I had a close brush with death at least thrice in my life. But all this and more I have narrated in detail in my auto-biography Itibritte Chandal Jeevan which was published in 2012.

A.S.: How did you become a writer?

M.B.: Mine is a strange story. I learnt my letters at age twenty-four in one of my sojourns in jail. (With a chuckle he added) Jail for me those days was a haven and a respite as there at least I did not have to worry about getting a square meal and a warm bed. My experience in jail proved life altering. I came across an inmate who claimed to have gone mad after reading Sarat Chandra Chattopadhya’s novel Charitraheen. I was surprised. One kind inmate seeing me distressed and feeling hopeless suggested that if I became literate, the tasks assigned by the authorities wouldn’t be as exacting as those assigned to illiterate inmates. Also, there was the added incentive of my jail term getting shortened. He taught me my letters on the jail floor with sticks and later with chalk. Then I read and read, whatever I could get.

Many years later while reading a novel, waiting for passengers in front of a girl’s college at Kolkata, an elderly lady with a young student got on my rickshaw. She evinced surprize to see me reading, and I surprised her further by asking her the meaning of the Bengali word ‘jijibisha’ which in Bengali means, ‘will to live.’ It was my lucky day! The lady who had boarded my rickshaw was none other than the famous writer-activist Mahashweta Debi herself! She was taken aback to see that it was her novel Aghigarbha, that I had been reading. She then asked me if I had ever written anything, and she encouraged me to write for her magazine Bartika, a Bengali quarterly – a forum for peasants, agricultural workers and urban proletariat. My article was very well received upon publication. Seeing this I wrote four more sto-ries and sent it to four different magazines. Thus began my journey as a writer.

A.S.: Who are the writers and personalities who influenced you?

M.B.: I have read some Hindi and Bengali writers, as well as some translated Russian works. From Mahashweta Debi I learnt the ex-pression of unrelenting rage. Srilal Shukla I admire for his portrayal of powerful characters. Jajabar’s use of language influenced me. My heart has expanded after reading Samaresh Basu and I find Shankar Guha Neogi’s leadership qualities inspiring. The Adivasis have taught me simplicity and honesty.

A.S.: Do you feel that a Dalit alone can narrate the Dalit experience? What about the efforts of writers like Munshi Premchand?

M.B.: While I acknowledge the efforts of these writers who took up our cause, I feel it is impossible for them to actually narrate the experience of hunger, oppression, deprivation and the consequent simmering rage of the Dalit. They cannot empathise, they can only sympathise. Besides, I have read the works of the greatest writers whose language and mindsets are tainted with the age-old caste prejudices. How will they know about the pangs of hunger I have experienced … when one’s entrails curl up into hard knots of pain and one’s vision gets blurred and hazy? How will they know about the struggle for survival in an unjust, discriminatory society such as ours when they come from the privileged ‘bhadralok’ class?

A.S.: You have been awarded the highest literary award of West Bengal, the Paschim Banga Academy award. How much literary value is embedded in your writing?

M.B.: I wish to convey through my writing the oppression Dalits are subjected to. I wish to tell their untold stories, to make them visible to society. I should not be judged according to preconceived literary para-meters. I am not a scholar, I merely tell my story, my lived experience is not fiction.

A.S.:  Why did you feel the need to write your autobiographical novel?

M.B.: I had a strong urge to document my life-story in print, or else it would be lost with me. That I survived is a wonder. Thrice I have come back from the jaws of death. Police thrashings, starvation, jail, physical and mental torture, homelessness, and a fugitive’s life, I have borne it all. My writings represent all those like me who continue to live in such inhuman conditions. People need to be made aware.

A.S.:  What is Professor Meenakshi Mukherji’s role in your life?

M.B.: I am eternally grateful to her. She wrote an article in The Economic and Political Weekly (2007) where she referred extensively to my work. The article was titled “Is there Dalit Writing in Bangla?” I became known in both national and international forums as one of the first Dalit voices coming out of Bengal.

A.S.:  What do you hope to achieve through writing?

M.B.: I give vent to the seething rage of my people through my writings. My stories are actual lived experiences but they depict the social realities of our times. I hope my writings will make people aware of the gross injustice, discrimination, neglect the marginalised in this democratic country professing equality for all, are subjected to. I am very hopeful that social change will come with justice. That is my firm hope and belief. I write with purpose. I am hopeful of a new society which can provide justice, food, clothing, and medical service for all. My literary characters resemble me.

A.S.: With 10 novels and 100 articles that you have published, I hope your days of hardship have ended?

M.B.: My struggle has not ended. I still work as a cook in a school. It’s a hand to mouth existence. An injury from old police beating incapa-citates me. As I raise my voice against the present regime, I get no state aid as do people who kow-tow to the powers that be. I am lauded at Literature Festivals and am a frequent invitee to Presidency College and Jadavpur University. Students and scholars write their thesis on me. For them I have become a ‘topic’, a ‘discourse,’ for them I am no longer a human being with needs. My lot remains the same where I still have to worry about my next meal.

A.S.: What about the royalties from the books that are sold?

M.B.: In my autobiography I have written about the murky world of the publishing industry. Since mine is not part of mainstream fashionable literature, the big publishing houses are not interested. I had to pay Rs.16000, to get my book of short stories published. I was given 498 copies which I was required to sell myself. The print and paper quality are terrible. I was later told that I had been grossly overcharged and fleeced. The presentation and packaging of my autobiography is not attractive. There are proofreading errors, the narration is not organised into chapters. All these factors adversely affect sales. Such books are summarily dismissed by the elite readers and critics as the output of the ‘chhotolok’ (lower caste).

A.S.: Perhaps if you wrote humorous or entertaining books it would gain more popularity. You are gifted with a unique sense of humour…

M.B.: I have often thought so myself. But whenever I tried, it was the angst of the underprivileged which gushed out. That is what life has made me; I guess I cannot really change.

A.S.: Meeting with you has been a life altering experience and a trek into an unknown, untraversed world. Hope that your works get trans-lated so that more people can read the Dalit story, and slowly social change will surely come? Already you are an entity in literary circuits. Alka Saraogi, the Hindi novelist, has created a character resembling you in her novel Sesh Kadambari. Joydeep Ghosh has screened his documentary film, Subaltern Ego, on your life. In the international film circuit, he is also shooting a feature film based on a story penned by you. There is hope yet, Dalits have moved from the margins to the centre, at least in literary fashions. Wish you the absolute best in all your endeavours!

M.B.: Thank You.

·        Dr. Anuradha Sen is Associate Professor in the Department of English at A.N. College, Patna.

Published in RE-MARKINGS Vol 20 No.1 March 2021. pp.95-99. 

20th Birth Anniversary Special Number.

Copyright Re-Markings 2021.

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