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:


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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Day Three after my father’s passing

“নৈনং ছিন্দন্তি শস্ত্রাণি নৈনং দহতি পাবকঃ
ন চৈনং ক্লেদয়ন্ত্যাপো ন শোষয়তি মারুতঃ”

~ গীতা

The soul is –

That which cannot be severed by sword nor burned by fire
That which cannot be dampened by water nor dried by wind.

~ The Bhagavad Gita

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Sarwate and Banerjee – hardly your typical tail enders!

249 runs scored by a couple of Indian tail end batsmen against a team abroad – something unusual even by today’s standards. And yet two Indian batsmen did just that on this day way back in 1946.

Wisden said about the Indian team that year, ‘By their cricket they won the hearts of the English public; by their modesty and bearing they earned the respect and admiration of everyone with whom they came into close contact.’

Had the weather been better that summer, the cricket might have been even better from our viewpoint; the team had 11 wins and 4 losses from 29 games.

When the score stood at 205 for 9 after CS Nayudu was out, Shute Banerjee joined No 10 Sarwate. The British bowlers probably felt it was all over for the visitors but the two Indians had different ideas. They were not strangers to high scores, both having scored well in Ranji Trophy matches. They found the gaps, played carefully and thanks to a botched stumping finished the day with 193 runs added in the last couple of hours. There was no play on the next day as it was a Sunday. By the time they finished on Monday, Banerjee had scored 121 and Sarwate was not out on 124. This is still the only time that a No 10 and a No 11 scored centuries in the same innings.


Sarwate and Banerjee (espn.cricinfo)

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Translated poetry: তোমার চিবুক ছোঁবো, কালিমা ছোঁবো না/I will touch you but not the sadness within, Abul Hasan

তোমার চিবুক ছোঁবো, কালিমা ছোঁবো না
~ আবুল হাসান

এ ভ্রমণ আর কিছু নয়, কেবল তোমার কাছে যাওয়া
তোমার ওখানে যাবো, তোমার ভিতরে এক অসম্পূর্ণ যাতনা আছেন,
তিনি যদি আমাকে বলেন, তুই শুদ্ধ হ’ শুদ্ধ হবো
কালিমা রাখবো না!
এ ভ্রমণ আর কিছু নয়, কেবল তোমার কাছে যাওয়া
তোমার ওখানে যাবো; তোমার পায়ের নীচে পাহাড় আছেন
তিনি যদি আমাকে বলেন, তুই স্নান কর
পাথর সরিয়ে আমি ঝর্ণার প্রথম জলে স্নান করবো
কালিমা রাখবো না!
এ ভ্রমণ আর কিছু নয়, কেবল তোমার কাছে যাওয়া
এখন তোমার কাছে যাবো
তোমার ভিতরে এক সাবলীল শুশ্রূষা আছে
তিনি যদি আমাকে বলেন, তুই ক্ষত মোছ আকাশে তাকা–
আমি ক্ষত মুছে ফেলবো আকাশে তাকাবো
আমি আঁধার রাখবো না!
এ ভ্রমণ আর কিছু নয়, কেবল তোমার কাছে যাওয়া
যে সকল মৌমাছি, নেবুফুল গাভীর দুধের সাদা
হেলেঞ্চা শাকের ক্ষেত
যে রাখাল আমি আজ কোথাও দেখি না– তোমার চিবুকে
তারা নিশ্চয়ই আছেন!
তোমার চিবুকে সেই গাভীর দুধের শাদা, সুবর্ণ রাখাল
তিনি যদি আমাকে বলেন, তুই কাছে আয় তৃণভূমি
কাছে আয় পুরনো রাখাল!
আমি কাছে যাবো আমি তোমার চিবুক ছোঁবো, কালিমা ছোঁবো না!

I will touch you but not the sadness within

~This journey is nothing but returning to you
I will go to where you are, to that incomplete pain within
That lives in you,
If it says to me, purify yourself, I will
Leaving no trace of sadness.
This journey is nothing but returning to you
I will go to where you are, where mountains grow about your feet
If it says to me, bathe
I will move the rocks aside and bathe in the first rush of those waterfalls
Leaving no trace of darkness.
This journey is nothing but going to you
Now I will go to where you are
Within you lies a power for easy healing
If it says to me, wash your wounds, look at the skies
I will do just that and look at the skies
I will not hold the night close
This journey is nothing but returning to you
Those bees, lemon blossom, white milk,
Those fields of crops
The shepherds I no longer see – in the dip of your chin
They must still live.
In the dip of your chin, the pure white of milk, the golden shepherd
If it says to me, come nearer meadows of grass,
Come to me, old shepherd!
I will go to you, touch that dip in your chin but not the sadness within.

Abul Hasan

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