A rainbow cone at IKEA

For someone like me who has been in Australia for most of her life, it can sometimes be easy to forget about the things that bring a large number of people to these shores. When I came here, I was not forced to leave my previous home by war or upheaval. I came to start a new life of course, but it was not accompanied by anything greater than the usual sense of being separated from her parents that a newly married Indian woman might experience.

Now of course, the news is full of photos of asylum seekers and refugees on creaky boats trying to make the short trip between Indonesia and Australia undetected, there are waiting lists to Indonesia and back for humanitarian visas and even my own parents waited for seven years to get their permanent residence visas. For once you do get in, a world opens up that brings security, employment, peace, the best healthcare in the world and a hundred other benefits with it.

But yesterday at the shops, while we figured out how to get past the fifteen items or less rule at the self checkout aisle (it is easy, just stop after every 15 and pay for them before starting again), I noticed a group of about twelve young people, possibly in their twenties. They hadn’t bought much and yet they did not seem ready to leave. They each carried the free pencils and paper tape measures the store has for customers. Most noticeable of all was the fact that they came from at least four different places based on appearance alone; Africa, South east Asia, Afghanistan and Tibet or Mongolia. As I watched them move uncertainly as a group to the exit and back again, I realised they were part of a migrant education program, possibly being taught about shopping in Australia. I found myself thinking of the wonderful floor displays I had just seen minutes earlier and of the hundreds of Australian young people who cannot wait to start living away from their parents with things they have often grown up with; a childhood desk, a spare bed from the parents, an old dining table from the grandmother who might be giving her things away. I thought of how it feels like, to wake up each morning and not see a single familiar thing around you but not have to worry about being shot at or judged for your religion or your race. And just as I was getting very serious about the whole war and peace thing, I noticed the whole group move, very certain this time, to something to my left. I waited and wondered what it was that they were eventually buying. I did not have to wait too long; they soon appeared, each with a double scoop of soft serve in a cone, some covered in sprinkles, others with a Flake bar stuck on top jauntily.

At that moment, all that scholarly, grown up stuff about war and peace and boat people and population pressures on a rapidly drying continent flew right out of my head and I realised that what this country still offers to people who come here is this; the ability to have an ice cream when one feels like it, where one wants it and in the company of friends. No one bats an eye at the sight of men and women laughing at something or even nothing and most people do not mind if you wear a head scarf or if your head scarf slips a little to reveal a gorgeous head of curls. I am not saying that everything about this place is perfect, but for a good five minutes at IKEA yesterday, it seemed very close to heaven. It felt like home.

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Red Browed Finches in the Garden

It took two years of planting, growing, flowering, seeding and not tidying the garden up to get the New Holland honey eaters to come to the garden. They came tentatively at first, one at a time, cautious about where they sat and with an eye on the nearest bit of sky. In those early days they never stayed long and they never visited while there was a human around. I only saw them from the kitchen window.
Then they came in twos and then in crowds. Like teenagers at the mall, they showed interest in nearly nothing but still had to be there. They squabbled a lot, mostly over imagined slights to rank and roost.

Today, afternoon visits to the garden can be cut short by plucky honey eaters with families on their minds, checking branches for stability and nest bearing capacity. No bigger than a hand span in length, they make up for lack of size with fierce stares from white rimmed eyes, sharp beaks and quick darting flights. They seem to love sitting side saddle on bamboo canes put in to support beans and peas. Needless to say, the canes are left in these days to provide seating, long after the beans have been pulled out. They leave the chubby sparrows to sit on the more sedate seating provided by the fences, showing off as they fly away leaving the bamboo vibrating in response.

Last year I noticed finches in the garden for the first time. They were there one minute and gone the next, chipping away at thistle heads left by a lazy gardener who knows all about one year’s seed being seven years of weeds and still does not get to them all in time. She figures a weed is just a plant in the wrong place. Obviously, what is wrong for her is perfect as a finch snack. But the finches came only once that year. A little mob of four which looked so like our own Gouldian finches that I thought for a little while that ours had escaped. They weren’t Gouldians of course, but the much plainer red browed or even the zebra finches who are the poor Cinderellas of the finch world. They did not stay long enough for any kind of proper identification.

But suddenly today I see a little crowd of them, red about the face and plain beige in the body with little black bars across the tops of their wings, swinging among the bamboo canes like a group of retired clowns in too tight tuxedos, breathless with too much drink and too little practice whooping it up one last time under the big top. Even the sun came out briefly to shine a light on them. But this did not last for long. A solitary honey eater came out of nowhere and darted this way and that, causing a great deal of squeaking and chirping. Before the camera could be activated, it was all over. The honey eater even flew back and took a little swing on the cane itself, self important and smug. I put the camera away, quite annoyed with all the honey eaters in all the wide world. But more than a little pleased secretly that the bamboo appeals to more than one kind of bird. There will always be another chance to take a photo. Let’s hope they will not be put off by the reception and make the garden a regular stop.

Here is to more untidy bits and thistle heads!

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সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে/If I had learned to play the Sarod

সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে

আমার এমন কিছু দুঃখ আছে যার নাম তিলক কামোদ
এমন কিছু স্মৃতি যা সিন্ধুভৈরবী
জয়জয়ন্তীর মতো বহু ক্ষত রয়ে গেছে ভিতর দেয়ালে
কিছু কিছু অভিমান
সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে বড় ভালো হতো।
পুরুষ কিভাবে কাঁদে সেই শুধু জানে।

কার্পেটে সাজানো প্রিয় অন্তঃপুরে ঢুকে গেছে জল।
মুহুর্মুহু নৌকাডুবি, ভেসে যায় বিরুদ্ধ নোঙর।
পৃথিবীর যাবতীয় প্রেমিকের সপ্তডিঙা ডুবেছে যেখানে
সেখানে নারীর মতো পদ্ম ফুটে থাকে।
জল হাসে, জল তার চুড়িপরা হাতে,
নর্তকীর মতো নেচে ঘুরে ঘুরে ঘাগরার ছোবলে
সব কিছু কেড়ে নেয়, কেড়ে নিয়ে ফের ভরে দেয়
বাসি হয়ে যাওয়া বুকে পদ্মগন্ধ, প্রকাশ্য উদ্যান।
এই অপরূপ ধ্বংস, মরচে-পড়া ঘরে দোরে চাঁপা এই চুনকাম
দরবারী কানাড়া এরই নাম?

সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে বড় ভালো হতো।
পুরুষ কীভাবে বাঁচে সেই শুধু জানে।

~ সরোদ বাজাতে জানলে
হে সময় অশ্বারোহী হও, পুর্ণেন্দু পত্রী


If I had learned to play the Sarod

Some of my regrets I have named Tilak Kamod
Some of my memories sing of Sindhu Bhairavi
Some of my deepest scars still live on like Jay Jayanti
Some of my injured pride, Yaman Kalyan.
It would have been wonderful if I had learned to play the sarod
Only it knows how a man weeps.

The tide has entered my beloved home with its carpeted floors
Again and again my boat sinks, the contrary anchor floating away
There, where every lover’s seven masted fleet will sink
Blooms a lotus, fair as a woman
The currents smile, water spilling from her jewelled wrists
Insinuating, with each move like a dancer’s twirling skirts
It takes your all, it gives it all back, again and then again
Lotus scented air within the stale heart, in the open garden
This magnificent ruin, this gold varnishing of my rusted doors
Is this Darbari Kanara?

It would have been wonderful if I had learned to play the sarod
Only it knows how a man lives.

~If I had learned to play the Sarod
Time, the hour to ride is now
Purnendu Pattrea

Sarod: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKfItsXycHk&index=6&list=RDm0oX6dy76Vw

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John Lang: From Botany Bay to Bombay

John Lang was born in Sydney, a second generation Australian whose grandfather had been sent to the fledgling penal colony at Botany Bay for stealing a pair of spoons. He was educated partly at Cambridge and partly at other less stuffy institutions after being thrown out of Cambridge for drunkenness and climbing onto a roof to tip a chamber pot over one of its spires.


He went to Calcutta to practice law and ended up defending Indians against the corrupt East India Company. His clients ranged from Indian business men that the Company had conveniently forgotten to pay all the way to the fiery queen of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai. The Company was trying to confiscate her estates as she had no children!

While not practicing law and being a thorn in Britain’s well padded side, he learnt Hindi and Farsi and managed to write over twenty novels, poetry, essays and sketches. He was always typically Australian, a champion of the downtrodden and fiercely sarcastic in his observations of the British in India.

He also published a newspaper the Mofussolite, mofussil being a word that denotes provincial in India.

He died at 47 in 1864, his drinking and the heat being what killed him in the end. His grave can still be seen in Mussoorie.

“It behoves me, however, to inform the reader that, recently, the tone of Anglo-Indian society during the hot seasons is very much improved. Six or seven years ago there never was a season that did not end as unhappily as that which I have attempted to describe; but it is now four years since I heard of a duel in the Upper Provinces–upwards of four years since I heard of a victim to gambling, and nearly three since there was an elopement. It is true that the records of courts-martial still occasionally exhibit painful cases; but, if we compare the past with the present, we must admit that the change is very satisfactory. I do not attribute this altered state of things to the vigilance of commanding officers, or the determination of the commanders-in-chief to punish severely those who offend. It is due chiefly to the improved tone of society in England, from which country we get our habits and manners. The improvement in the tone of Indian society has been very gradual. Twenty years ago India was famous for its infamy. Ten years ago it was very bad. It is now tolerable. In ten years from this date, if not in less time, Indian society will be purged entirely of those evils which now prey upon it, and trials for drunkenness and other improper conduct will happen as rarely as in England. Year by year this communication between our fatherland and the upper part of India will become more speedy and less expensive; and thus will a greater number of officers be enabled to come home on furlough for a year or two. Nothing does an Indian officer so much good as a visit to Europe. When a man has once contracted bad habits in India, he cannot reform in India. To be cured he must be taken away for a while from the country. There have been instances of officers who have had strength of mind to alter their course of life without leaving the East; but those instances are very few.

The East India Company should do all in its power to encourage young officers to spend a certain time every seven years in Europe. Instead of six months’ leave to the hills–which six months are spent in utter idleness, and too frequently in dissipation–give them nine months’ leave to Europe. This would admit of their spending six months in England, or on the Continent, where they would improve their minds and mend their morals, as well as their constitutions.

The East India Company should also bring the Peninsular and Oriental Company to reasonable terms for the passage of officers to and from India. A lieutenant who wishes to come home, cannot at present get a passage from Calcutta to Southampton under one hundred and twenty pounds. So that he gives up more than four months’ pay for being “kept” thirty-six days on board of a steamer. Three pounds ten shillings per diem for food and transit!”

~ John Lang, Wanderings In India

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Translated poetry: JUST FOR YOU, Nirmalendu Goon শুধু তোমার জন্য, নির্মলেন্দু গুণ


My God knows, how often I have pulled back
Just as I was about to touch you.
My God knows, how often I have held my tongue
Just as I was about to tell you of my love.

Just to hear the sound of your hands gently tapping
I have glued my ears to the door like magnets
Some day at lonely midnight you will come and call
‘Here I am, I have come! It is me!’
And I will rouse and say, ‘What is this! Is it you?’
And fling myself at you in ecstasy –
My God knows, how often I have imagined just such a scene.

My God knows, my hair has turned white for you
My God knows, I have shivered with fever for you
My God knows, I will die for you
And then some day like that God, you too will know
I was born for you, just for you.

                                                                                                            Nirmalendu Goon
(Translation, mine)

শুধু তোমার জন্য

কতবার যে আমি তোমোকে স্পর্শ করতে গিয়ে
গুটিয়ে নিয়েছি হাত-সে কথা ঈশ্বর জানেন।
তোমাকে ভালোবাসার কথা বলতে গিয়েও
কতবার যে আমি সে কথা বলিনি
সে কথা আমার ঈশ্বর জানেন।

তোমার হাতের মৃদু কড়ানাড়ার শব্দ শুনে জেগে উঠবার জন্য
দরোজার সঙ্গে চুম্বকের মতো আমি গেঁথে রেখেছিলাম
আমার কর্ণযুগল; তুমি এসে আমাকে ডেকে বলবেঃ
‘এই ওঠো,
আমি, আ…মি…।‘
আর অমি এ-কী শুনলাম
এমত উল্লাসে নিজেকে নিক্ষেপ করবো তোমার উদ্দেশ্যে
কতবার যে এরকম একটি দৃশ্যের কথা আমি মনে মনে
কল্পনা করেছি, সে-কথা আমার ঈশ্বর জানেন।

আমার চুল পেকেছে তোমার জন্য,
আমার গায়ে জ্বর এসেছে তোমার জন্য,
আমার ঈশ্বর জানেন- আমার মৃত্যু হবে তোমার জন্য।
তারপর অনেকদিন পর একদিন তুমিও জানবে,
আমি জন্মেছিলাম তোমার জন্য। শুধু তোমার জন্য।

                                                                                                                         নির্মলেন্দু গুণ

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King For A Year

King For A Year
There was once a merchant whose only son had been saved from drowning by one of his slaves. The grateful merchant did not just grant the slave his freedom; he also gave him a ship filled with the best of everything and said, ‘Go to the lands across the sea – sell these things and all the money is yours to keep.’ The freed slave thanked his master and went off on his voyage.

But he did not get to sell anything. When he reached the middle of the ocean a storm rose and the ship splintered into a thousand pieces. All the sailors drowned and the precious cargo sank to the sea bed a hundred fathoms below.

The slave managed after much struggling to reach an island. When he recovered and looked around, he saw no signs of his ship or its crew. He was very crestfallen and sat down on the sand in despair. When evening fell, he got up and decided to walk inland. There were huge trees there, and then a vast grassland. In the very middle of that stood a great city. Crowds milled about the gates carrying blazing torches. As soon as they saw him they hailed them saying, ‘Welcome King! Long live the King!’ Everyone then greeted him with much pomp and put him on a ceremonial coach that took him to a huge palace. There the servants brought him clothes fit for a king and dressed him with care.

Everyone called him, ‘King!’ and scurried about to carry out every command. He was completely taken aback and thought he had gone mad and was imagining all of this. But gradually he found he was fully awake and full possession of all his senses. He then asked, ‘Why are you doing all this? I cannot understand why everyone is calling me King either or paying attention to every word I say?’

Then one of the oldest ones there said, ‘King, we are not people – we are all ghosts, although we all look just like humans do. Many days ago we had all prayed to be given a ‘living king’; because who else is as clever as a real live human? Since that day we have never had a day without a human to rule over us. Every year, a man arrives and we make him king for the year. Just the one year, mind you. At the end of the year he has to give up all of this and we take him back to the desert where there is nothing but a few fruits to be found and one has to dig through the sand all day to find a mug of water. And then a new king arrives and so on – this has been going on year after year!’

Then the slave King said, ‘Well, tell me – what kind of people have you had kings before I came along?’
The old man said, ‘They were all very whimsical and careless. They spent the whole year in fun and games without a thought spared towards what waited at the end of the year.’

The new king listened to all this and for a few nights he could hardly sleep for thinking about what would happen to him when his year as king was up.
He then called for the wisest men in the kingdom, and he asked them with great humility, ‘Please advise me – so that I can prepare for that horrible day at the end of the year.’

Then the oldest and the wisest of the old wise men said, ‘King, you came here empty handed and empty handed you must go – but you may do whatever your heart desires in this whole year. What I propose is that you should send experts from this country to your own and get them to build houses, plant gardens and plant crops. People will settle in the places where you will do this. As soon as your reign here is over, you can go there and start ruling them. The year will pass easily enough but what I propose is a lot of work; so start doing all the things as soon as possible.’ The king immediately sent off people to the faraway desert with all the things they would need – seeds to grow trees and fruits, seedlings, machines to drill wells and build roads, so that the desert could be transformed into a paradise.

When the year was over, the subjects took back his silk umbrella, his gold crown and his sceptre, stripped of his robes and put back his old rags before they put him on a ship and sent him to the land of the deserts. But it was no longer a desert, for it was filled with houses, and paved streets bordered by neat gardens. There were people in each house and they all came and took him to his palace and placed him on his throne with a lot of fanfare. The king who had ruled for just a year now prepared to rule for a lifetime.

The original:

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বুঝি না, বুঝতে পারি না, চাইও না/We do not understand, we are incapable of comprehending and we do not wish to either: http://www.anandabazar.com/editorial/bengalis-do-not-want-to-understand-rabindranath-never-understood-him-1.151521#


Regardless of whether Bengalis read Rabindranath Tagore’s work with attention or not, lately curiosity in Rabindranath as a person has flared up. This eagerness has recently found a new focus. This is what might be described as Tagore’s ‘love life.’ One notices a lot of discussion, writing, serialized accounts and films that deal with this. There is no point rueing this eagerness. Rabindranath never labelled himself an ascetic of any sort. But one must look into the recent phenomenon affecting Bengalis, namely their overwhelming interest in Tagore’s ‘love life.’ It is worth considering what Tagore has been reduced to in this cyclical waxing and waning.

One might describe this current uproar over Tagore’s loves as an ‘opposing reaction.’ He was the founder of the school at Santiniketan and his robed and bearded appearance as Gurudev is the image most Bengalis think of. Many adore him, almost as an otherworldly presence…

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