A horror story

– Can you tell me a scary story today, baba?
–Do you want to hear about demons? Perhaps, villainous creatures that lurk in the night?
– No, those are all boring. Can you tell me something that is really horrifying?
– Yes, I think I can.
–Does this story have ghosts?
– No, this story is even more frightening than ghosts, because it is real. Let me tell you a secret first. Everything you see around you seems to follow certain predictable laws that you’ve been observing since you were born.
– And?
– And, today I am going to tell you that these laws work, but that they are not always true. What you have noticed in your life has been by a process we grown-ups call inductive reasoning. It is something a very bright man by the name of Sir Isaac Newton used to describe the world. He saw the world pretty much the same way that you see it.
– If he was a smart man, then why isn’t what he saw true?
– Well, there was another smart man, Albert Einstein who said that notions like space and time are connected and our observation of objects and time depends on how fast we are moving.
– I am not moving!
– I hate to disappoint your worldview, son, but we are all moving. You, me, the earth, the sun, the galaxy, the stars.
– That’s not too scary, I guess.
– Wait, there’s more. At another level, there are another set of rules that are the opposite of what even Einstein thought. And people call this quantum mechanics.
– I don’t much care for names. Why should I be scared of this?
– Because this is a real world around us. It is hidden to our eyes, because it is very tiny.
– Smaller than my Lego parts?
– Smaller than your Lego parts. These are, in fact the smallest parts. And there is even a small piece of light called a photon.
– If these parts are so small, how do I know they are there?
– That is because we can see what they do and smart men can do sums that show they’re there.
– Huh… but baba, why is this scary?
– Because in this world, things can be at multiple places at the same time, until you look for them. And then they show up in one. And then when you try to describe one thing, it affects some other different thing at the other end of the universe at the same time.
– But how can something be at more than one place, baba? How can it change something else far away?
– No one knows. Another smart man, Erwin Schrödinger tried to explain quantum theory by saying that there was a cat that was both dead and alive.
– How can a cat be both dead and alive? What will I see if I look at the cat?
– Well, if you look at the cat, it will be either dead or alive. It will be both until you look at it, then it will become either. At the same time you look. Not before. Not after.
– How is all this even possible?
– Because you are part of the story. That is the truly scary part. There are many reasons people give. Some people say that this is just the way it is. Some people say there are infinite parallel universes. Some people can do sums about wiggly strings that look very hard, so they must be on to something.
– So, what you’re saying is we don’t know?
– What I’m saying is we don’t know.
– I’m scared. I want my ma.

 

 

Of shifting rivers, shipwrecked colonialists, and Calcutta

The sky and the water were two different shades of mud. The distant bank where the Rupnarayan River met the Hooghly distributary of the Ganges River was a thin sliver. Walking along the road that hugged the side of the Hooghly, we noticed more silt and the carcasses of various rusting ships that had been abandoned. A group of street urchins began to follow us. We reached the edge of docks when one pointed out what appeared to a human leg with a tennis shoe floating next to the steel support of docks. Perhaps, someone had fallen over and had been carried away by the treacherous currents to this spot. The confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly rivers was a graveyard for both ships and humans.

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But it wouldn’t be the first time that such a tragedy befell someone. History is replete with many similar tales involving both local villagers and colonialists who were sucked in by the ever-shifting quicksand and silt of these rivers.

How much had the Gangetic delta of West Bengal changed over the centuries? I was curious, so I turned to all the sources I could find. In The Early Annals of The English In Bengal by Charles Robert Wilson, published in 1895, there is a valuable hand-drawn map depicting the course of the Hooghly River based on maps of early colonialists from the sixteenth century. I superimposed this map on to a current day aerial map of the delta region of the Hooghly River from Google Maps. I discovered that while much of the Hooghly River traversed a remarkably similar path even after more than four centuries, the deltaic region was markedly different. Of course, comparing a hand-drawn map of early colonialists with a more exact modern map invariably lead to some differences in scale, but even in my lifetime the landscape of the deltaic region of Bengal had been changing due to the massive amounts of sediment the rivers carried from across the Gangetic Plains.

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Even one hundred years ago, Nayachar, a large island off the coast of the port town Haldia, did not exist, though it can easily be spotted on a map and visited today.

When Job Charnock established the city of Calcutta as the hub of the East Indian Company at the site of local villages on the Hooghly River, little could he have known that it would soon become one of the most significant cities in the most powerful empire the world has ever known.  To establish the foundations of the mercantile and colonial powers, it immediately became essential to navigate the shape-shifting Hooghly River to ship men, materials, and ideas for the establishment of the imperialist infrastructure. But Charnock, who is now buried in a quiet spot at Park Street in the city he founded, did not live long enough to see Calcutta become a world city and an outpost of the British Empire in Asia.

In 1693, Francis Ellis became Charnock’s immediate successor. The noted writer, Sir Evan Cotton recalls in Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical & Descriptive Handbook to the City (1907) that Ellis was “a man of little character or ability.” Back then seas and rivers were highways, train-lines, and air-routes combined. Disaster struck the young colonial city within a year of Ellis assumed office, though in this case, to no immediate fault of his own. Cotton recounts the story of The Royal James and Mary which was on its way to Calcutta from Sumatra with a valuable cargo of trading supplies. On 24 September, 1694, this ship struck a dreaded shoal at the junction of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan rivers, near the spot I was visiting. The Royal James and Mary quickly turned over and sank, thus giving rise to the name of two moving quicksands “James and Mary” that would plague numerous travelers for centuries. In fact, navigating the last stretch of river extending from the Bay of Bengal up to Calcutta was perhaps more difficult that passage across the oceans!

During most of the 1800s through the early `1900s when the Hooghly was still navigable up to Calcutta for large vessels, such was the value of this route and the difficulty in its passage that there were expert “pilot sahibs” in the employ of the British Raj who guided ships through the last stretch.  Cotton says of these expert navigators that they were familiar with “every inch of the eastern channel” and that they knew all the tales of the wrecks therein.  Because the river bed changed more or less daily, charts were completely useless. Current river conditions were recorded hourly, much in the same manner than meteorological and traffic data is noted today, and these data were telegraphed up to Calcutta, from where it could be transmitted to stations down the coast. The development of the telegraph in India, and the first experimental lines from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour (which later extended down to Khejuri) was therefore necessary to stay up-to-date with the conditions of the Hooghly and Rupnarayan rivers.

The importance of keeping the river navigable cannot be understated. Calcutta, was the seat of the British Empire in the jewel in the crown. In those days, navigation from Europe was almost exclusively by sea. One could leave for Calcutta by steamer from ports as far away as Southampton and Marseilles.

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The city was very different back then as well. The vast plain, or Maidan of Calcutta, was during the late 1700s, a massive swamp, and many solid streets that came up in later centuries were navigable waterways. Devastating cyclonic storms impacted the city, which resembled more Venice than it did London.

Travel to Calcutta remained perilous through the 1800s. The British administrator and archivist, William Wilson Hunter commented on the perils of travel to Calcutta via the Hooghly river in his monumental series, The Imperial Gazetteer of India in 1885. He writes, “shifting quicksands are rapidly formed, and the channels have to be watched and sounded and supervised with almost the minute accuracy which a watchmaker would give to the repair of a delicate timepiece. If a vessel touches the bottom, she is pushed over by the current.” Many ships sank quickly in the water, including the ill-fated County of Stirling which sank in 1877 in eight minutes and a British steamer in 1878, which capsized in two minutes, resulting in great loss of property and life.

One of the most captivating eyewitness accounts of the difficulty in navigating the Hooghly River sandbanks is provided by a British solider, John Arthur Bayley, on his first assignment to India in Reminiscences of School and Army Life, 1839 to 1859 (1875). Bayley wrote at length on the horror of capsizing in what seemed to him to be a calm stretch of river.

“Everybody was on deck and the officers of the ship were pointing out the position of the quicksand which a ship of large size towed by a steamer was on the point of crossing just before them, The steamer with her long tow rope had followed a bend in the river, but the ship being badly steered followed the chord of the arc. Suddenly, it was evident that something was wrong with her, and she slowly heeled over.”

“’She’s touched,’ cried the crew of the Barham, and touched she had with a vengeance, for in half an hour, ship, masts, and all had disappeared, the crew having just had time to escape in their boats.”

So much has changed in hundreds of years. The British left. Bengal was partitioned. Calcutta became Kolkata. In the interim, many other forms of transportation developed and travel by ship across the kalapani  to Britain is not on anyone’s mind anymore.

Sitting by the bank, still, I couldn’t help but share Bayley’s thoughts. The confluence of the Rupnarayan and the Hooghly seemed so wide. The water seemed calm. There were people living in huts right up to the edge of the water.

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It is very much a false sense of security. The swift currents and the dangerous sandbanks have not gone away, as our discovery of the dead man in the water reminded. I recall a report in The Telegraph newspaper from just the last decade. One of the few passenger liners  that still embark from Kolkata (for Port Blair) MV Harshavardhan, ran into silt close the confluence of the Hooghly and the Rupnarayan rivers in 2002 with 700 people onboard. Fortunately, Indian Coast Guard was able to rush to the spot, so there was no loss of life. The ship was also salvaged, so ultimately this story has a happy ending.

Clouds descended over the rivers. So many ships with buried treasures and the ghosts of passengers were hidden in these murky waters.

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Exploring the ruins of a Jain temple in Paschim Medinipur

One morning while having tea and cream crackers, I was browsing through Chitralekha, local magazine on arts and culture, when I came across a short photo-essay by Prof. T.T. Mukherjee of Dantan Bhatter College on an abandoned centuries-old Jain temple only a few miles away from Medinipur town. I perked up. Although there are Buddhist sites scattered across Bengal, I had not heard of any ancient Jain temples in the region. I did know that the southern part of Bengal, including most of Purba and Paschim Medinipur districts had been a part of the kingdoms of rulers of Kalinga. Quickly researching the topic, I found out that the early rulers of the eastern Ganga dynasty did patronize Jainism, giving credence to the theory that any abandoned Jain temples had to be at least 600 (and more likely 900-1000) years-old.

What was more amazing to me was the fact that there was such a site right across the Kangsabati river from my hometown that I had never heard of! When I spoke to family members and friends, they were clueless as well. The only person I spoke to who could provide reliable information on its existence was a poet and essayist who had visited it years earlier. I searched for the precise location on Google Maps and found that at least one person who had visited it had been kind enough to drop a label. So, armed with confirmation from an article, an eyewitness, and a map I headed out to see if I could find the ruins.

On the way, we asked for directions and found that many villagers had no idea what we were talking about. We drove very close to the estimated location on the map, and knew we were on the right track when we saw fragments of architectural structures in front of farmers’ homes. There were a few that were used as milestones as well.  One person enjoying tea at a roadside stall was able to point us in the right direction, but road conditions deteriorated rapidly.

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Finally, after slowly plodding through a dusty trail that passed farmers’ homes and brick kilns, we reached a courtyard in front of a hut. Two women were soaking in the winter sun on charpoys. Two small children were looking at us with puzzled expressions on their faces.

We crossed the courtyard careful not to trample on the paddy that was drying there. Then we saw the structures. The farmers had tied their cows to the stones of the ruined temple. It was difficult to spot the structure, which must not have been more than 20-feet high, because the entire roof was covered with leafy vines. We pushed away cows grazing in the vicinity and entered the ruins. I was encouraged to go further because it was winter – not much of my skin was exposed and I didn’t have to worry about snakes.

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In the central sanctum was a centuries-old stone statue of Mahavira to which someone had more recently applied sindoor. In the outer part of the temple the roof had given way in many places. Without any efforts at conservation, the entire structure will collapse soon.

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In every village in Bengal there are temples that are centuries old that are still in use. However, none that I’ve seen are quite as old as the ruins of the Jain temple at Jinsar. It is possible this temple fell into a state of disrepair because of lack of patronage from locals, none of whom were practicing Jains.

Who built this temple? How old is it? We may never know.

That is the beauty of traveling. You only need the willingness to travel and to talk to strangers, plus a GPS-enabled device to have an adventure.

(An earlier version of this post was published as a column at M3.tv)

A visit to the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghalmari

Driving on a straight stretch of National Highway-60 from Medinipur to Balasore, you would be forgiven for missing the small sign unbefitting one of the most significant archaeological sites discovered in Bengal. After all, the sleepy hamlet Moghalmari, is similar to others in the southern part of Paschim Medinipur district, close to the border with Odisha. But after traversing a few hundred metres off the highway, you come across an impressive hillock, which locals refer to as the “mound of Sakhisena” and the “mound of Sashisena”. My own native village is in the vicinity so I’m familiar with the area, but even a day-trip will acquaint the casual observer with the geography of the region and to that the fact that this is an anomaly since most of the region is very flat.

In 1996, a local schoolteacher, Narendranath Biswas, informed Asok Datta, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calcutta about various ancient-looking artifacts villagers were finding near this mound. A very large number of medieval coins with Buddhist inscriptions, shards of pottery, and ornate bricks were being discovered.

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In 2003, the mound and two other adjacent sites were selected for excavation by Dr. Datta. This small village, Moghalmari was hypothesized to be a part of a flourishing ancient center known as Dandabhukti. Further, just as today the village is situated just off of a national highway, in antiquity, it was thought to be on a trade route connecting Tamralipta, one of the most important ports in Buddhist times, to other sites of significance to Buddhism.

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Further examination of the site led Dr. Datta and his team to believe that the Subarnarekha River, which now flows approximately 4 kilometers southwest of Moghalmari was close to the mound, further strengthening the argument that the village was once a center of Buddhist learning.

Excavation began in earnest, but proceeded slowly through five stages over nearly a decade, more often hampered by lack of sustained funding and bureaucratic bottlenecks, than by any shift in significance. Excavations leading up to 2012 revealed that the mound was the site of an extensive Buddhist monastery complex built over centuries and perhaps as early as the sixth century, the likes of which have yet to be discovered elsewhere in Bengal. Many human figures including that of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, bowls, terracotta lamps, tablets for worship, and seals were found within the central region surrounded by massive brick walled structures ornately decorated with stucco panels and floral motifs.

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A brick stupa was discovered in 2012 along with proto-Bengali scripts. Shortly before Dr. Datta’s death in 2012, he wrote in a local magazine, Ebong Shayak that “Moghalmari possibly exhibits the largest monastic site so far discovered in Bengal.”

Not much has been gleaned about the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghamlari from the standard texts of the time that historians rely on for information. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) may have alluded to it in 638, when he visited Tamralipta, but he did not mention any specific name. Tamralipta is extensively mentioned by Xuanzang and Faxian (Fa Hien) before him, but to date, no archaeological site corresponding to this major Buddhist centre has been discovered. As such, Moghalmari may be the best preserved site in the vicinity and could hold the key to unraveling the secrets of Buddhist society in Bengal at that time.

I visited the mound at Moghalmari in October, 2012. Up until that time, only small areas of the mound that had been excavated by Dr. Datta’s team. The area had not been cordoned off by the Archaeological Survey of India. In fact, the only sign mentioning the historic significance of the Buddhist complex at the location had been erected by a club of local citizens, who had also taken up the important task of safeguarding the excavated sites. Some relics had been shipped to Kolkata, while others had been kept in a small clubhouse converted into an archive. We were the only visitors that day.

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This was in marked contrast to the situation earlier this month. The Directorate of Archaeology & Museums of West Bengal is currently undertaking a complete archaeological excavation and restoration of the Buddhist monastic complex at the mound. I visited the site last week and was greeted enthusiastically by experienced, local diggers who had previously worked with Dr. Datta, and state archaeologists, who guided me around the site and eagerly answered all my questions regarding the layout of the complex. Work is progressing rapidly and many artifacts are being uncovered every week. I also saw a flat site adjacent to the mound, which in the near future will house a small museum of antiquities.

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I am very excited that we will finally learn more about this important site, and this unknown facet of our history, but I also understand there are underlying responsibilities. For many years, the Buddhist monastic complex at Moghalmari was safely buried under layers of soil because no one knew about it. With excavation will come the challenge of protecting the structures from tourists, vandals, and thieves. The structures will also be exposed to the vagaries of local weather such as high humidity and water erosion.

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Elsewhere on the subcontinent, in Mohenjo-Daro, concerned authorities are contemplating reburying exposed structures under soil to protect them from further damage as exposed walls are crumbling from the foundation. Preservation is an ongoing activity, and the people I spoke to at Moghalmari this month told me that they had thought seriously about this important duty. I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to rise to this challenge. Moghalmari contains extensive evidence of our early cultural heritage which deserves closer inspection: the responsibility of protecting it lies not only with the authorities who plan to safeguard it, but also with us.

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December 19, 2013- update: Archaeologists uncovered a gold coin from the Gupta period (likely sixth century A.D.) and a locket yesterday. The coin has the image of an emperor on the obverse, and the image of what seems to be a goddess on the other side.

(An earlier version of this post was published as a column for M3).

A conversation with a barber

I have been flying in to Netaji Subhas Chandra International Airport in Kolkata since 1980, but even after so many years, it is a thrill to arrive in Bengal after a series of long flights. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new Kolkata International Airport was in service.

This year having arrived from a city that was literally below freezing when I left it, I was a little taken aback by the layers everyone was wearing in 20 degree Centigrade weather- scarves, sweaters, shawls, monkey-caps, and windcheaters. I am sure they all thought that I was some sort of lunatic for wearing a half-sleeve shirt and trousers during the evening! Apparently, there was a cold-spell going on at the time.

Speaking of evenings, the first few days after I arrive always go by as a blur and I’m never really ever sure if it is morning or night. However, because I travel internationally more than I used to, my experiences with jetlag have become more manageable than in the past. That said, I still find myself waking up very early in the morning for the first week or so.

But there is something I have to do within the first day or two of arriving in Bengal. And that is to get a haircut and a shave from a friendly barber.

Make no mistake, an interaction with a barber is not solely about getting a haircut or a shave, though certainly that is the primary goal. There is a binding contract that a grown man has with his barber. In America, my elderly Vietnamese barber is a well of anecdotes, unsolicited advice, and general chitchat. As time has passed, I’ve gotten to know more about her early struggles as a poor immigrant in America and as a single parent raising a daughter.

With Abhi, my barber in India, for obvious reasons, I have to schedule a session before I arrive through my in-laws, so that he can close shop to make a house-call. At the designated hour, I sit on a chair on a verandah with a gamcha around my neck. Abhi’s starts to work with his scissors.

“What news, Abhi?” I ask.

“Dada, did you know that the Khagen babu is selling his house in February? His daughter is getting married to a decorator.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, dada. Should I cut your sideburns, dada?”

“Yes, make them equal. Abhi, where did you hear all this about Khagen babu? How are you so sure of it?”

“Dada, I go to cut his hair. “

Abhi knows everyone in the neighborhood. We continue talking as Abhi puts the finishing touches on my haircut, and then starts to work up a lather for my shave. By the time Abhi has shaved my face, I have received a complete intelligence report on my hometown. Some of Abhi’s stories are invariably false, but they’re all very good stories.

As Abhi applies aftershave, he asks, “When should I come again?”

“I’ll send you a message.”

Achha, dada. Aaj ashi.”

Abhi packs up his tools, puts the money I offer him in his pocket without counting it, and takes my leave. I head straight for the bathroom to take a shower.

(An earlier draft was published as a column at M3).

Kali Puja memories

After you’ve witnessed many seasons along with the return and passing of holidays, they all seem to blur in the mind. A childhood filled with many Kali Pujas has turned into one massive remembrance for me. There were years I went with my parents to buy fireworks from seasonal stalls that sprung up in front of “stationery” shops in my hometown. There were years clapping in anticipation as we lit the aforementioned fireworks which often fizzled out with more of an acrid smell than a dazzling show of light and sound. There were years of bans on “burimar choklet boma” complete with waxing and waning enforcement of a 65 decibel noise-limit. There were years, we would all get into a car in the evening and travel to Kharagpur to see the massive pandals and puja mandaps that came up – as those with the right information mentioned with their voices lowered –through the patronage of well-to-do residents with very shady dealings. All these years have jumbled together to form an inseparable tangle of what I think of when I recall Kali Puja, except for one year, when I was still in college, which is vivid in my recollection.

Back then we celebrated Kali Puja and the day after, which was nominally called Dipaboli, but in reality just the second day of Kali Puja. Kali Puja was two days, Durga Puja was four, and Saraswati Puja one or at most two, and that was it. We had not heard of Dhanteras, and a five-day long Diwali with Kali Puja as an ancillary component was not the norm. I am talking about a time before the current puja inflation.

I didn’t visit mamabari every year, but that Kali Puja is special because it holds enduring images of boromama and chotomama –my uncles –and is one of the last times that I saw either of them. They chaperoned us, a boisterous bunch of cousins, as we went on a walk that commenced quite late in the evening after the crowds and the commotion had died down. I remember during that walk, boromama did not need a GPS or a map: in his mind he had charted out the perfect path so that we could see all the major mandaps in the town and loop back after a few hours of leisurely walking through neighborhoods, bazaars, and the banks of the canal that passed through Contai. Kali Puja is wonderful for walking in a way that Durga Puja generally is not; typically the temperatures are cooler and the chance of rainfall much lower.

The night was capped off by dinner, which we had at a restaurant very close to mamabari just around their closing hours. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves, so it was a very special. The first course always had to be moghlai porota, and everyone got one of their own regardless of age. After washing down this crispy, yet not overcooked treat with cold drinks, we waited for chili chicken accompanied by fried rice. A word or two about chili chicken is in order; there really is no single recipe for it. The only real requirement for chili chicken is that is contain chicken, sliced green capsicum, and an extremely spicy red sauce made from a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and potent chili peppers. I have not found it anywhere outside of Indian Chinese cuisine, but it is a staple of Bengali Chinese food where it is consumed with fried rice. There is also one basic rule to ordering fried rice that must be followed: if you order a chicken entrée, you pair it with vegetable or egg fried rice because to order mixed fried rice or chicken fried rice would be to waste money on the extra protein.

So, that night we all sat down to a meal of extremely spicy chili chicken and vegetable fried rice, both of very dubious quality. Of that experience I can say that I certainly have had countless meals that have been better, but to this day, I remember the taste that meal very well. Dining isn’t about the food; it is about the company.

And so it was that year. We had looked forward to it and it had not disappointed.
It has been many years since. Those of us, who were young and unemployed when we went on that walk, now have desk-jobs and potbellies. Some of us are married and have children. But when I think of Kali Puja, I always end up thinking back to special year.

(Also, appeared as a column this week)

On translating Tagore

Robert Frost once famously quipped that what was left behind was poetry, what translated, was in fact prose. Judging by this austere parameter, you could very easily argue that attempting to translate poetry is a perilous act. Jorge Luis Borges took the diametrically opposite view when he asserted that translations of poetry are in no way inferior to originals, only completely different.

For the most part I am inclined to agree with Frost, in particular when it comes to the translation of poetry from Bangla to English. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the language and cannot be circumvented easily by any translator: for example, Bangla, like many other Indic languages has three forms of “you” (aapni, tumi, tui) complete with complementary verbs, but no pronoun or verb form that distinguishes between the male and female “him” or “her”. But there is more that lies beyond the nuances of language and the mechanics of meter and rhythm. Words in languages have meanings with specific cultural connotations; they tap into unique symbolism which cannot be transferred. For example, because Bengal is inextricably linked to its rivers, words associated with their waters are metaphors for life, love, sorrow, and loss.

The “problem” is compounded further when you audaciously attempt to translate Rabindranath Tagore, whose mastery of words and rhyme are unparalleled in the Bangla language. I have come to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to convey an iota of the feeling expressed in his original poems and songs in any other language. Should you then resist the temptation to translate Tagore?

George Steiner in After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation argues forcefully that since language can only imperfectly express thoughts and ideas, all speech, even speech considered original, is translation, and that “attacks on the translation of poetry are simply the barbed edge of the general assertion that no language can be translated without fundamental loss.” In essence, what he is saying is that translations provoke our sentiments because we emphasize territoriality over languages and their incipient totems.

This leads to an obvious question: is the act of translating poetry useful?

Well, it certainly is useful to the translator. If I experience the majestic grandeur of a sunrise from a mountain-top, I am not dissuaded from sharing a glimpse of it in a photograph, even though the photograph cannot capture the thrill of being there. I perceive translation done with integrity to be similar. I was there when I read the poem, and my translation is a snapshot of it. Of course, by translating it, I changed it: I added filters of words and connotations, but it gave me pleasure to share it, even though it pales in comparison to the original. Isn’t the desire to share what is perceived as beautiful, universal?

Songs have an added layer beyond words. They are masterful, even if you don’t understand the language. Nearly 100 years ago, Prince Wilhelm of Sweden visited Jorasanko, the home of the Tagores, and was fortunate enough to listen to a private concert put together in his honor. Of this experience he writes in a memoir, “Seldom or never have I been present at a moment so instinct with feeling; it actually brought tears to one’s eyes, and one scarcely dared to breathe for fear of breaking the spell.”

Lines linger and often serve as bridges between others. Repetition and cadence add richness to meaning. I am certainly not the first to say so, but I do think that it is appropriate to represent songs, even in translation, not as they are written in their original language, but as they are sung. In listening to one of Tagore’s songs that is very close to my heart, today I had the wild temerity to attempt to translate it. I encourage you to view it from my perspective- as Vasco Núñez de Balboa looking for the first time at the wonders of the Pacific Ocean. But if you understand Bangla, the language in which it was meant to be seen, you really should visit it firsthand instead of looking at my discolored snapshot.

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Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

I have picked them up; I have placed them at your feet
Take them, take them in your caring hands

When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
Let the fingers you use to weave garlands
Remember me in sweet sorrow.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The two of us whispering carefree words
The two of us longing desperately to be united

Lost… All is lost in a stream of moonlight on this dol purnima night!
Their traces will remain to be woven into a garland
For another day, for an afternoon you will spend absentmindedly.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

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(A version of this post appeared earlier as a column).