Archive for March, 2012

Two poems for Agha Shahid Ali: his grave in Northampton

Chrestomather | March 30, 2012 in Shared Sorrow,Uncategorized | Comments (4)

 

 

A few years ago, I don’t know exactly when, my essay on the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali (which is posted here) was included in a textbook that is read by millions of schoolchildren in India. Since then I’ve received many letters and messages about Shahid through my website. One of the most touching of these was sent to me a few days ago by Shreya Jain, a Delhi teenager. Her message included two poems dedicated to Shahid. My correspondence with Shreya is posted below:

 

Good day Mr. Ghosh
I am a class 11 student in Delhi,in our supplementary reader we had your chapter,The ghat of the only world.
I would like to say that,that chapter changed my whole life,my whole thought process.
Especially the line from Shahid’s poem, “There is nothing left to forgive,you wont forgive me.”
I as a person used to only write romantic poetry or a little on breakup,but after reading his poetry i have completely changed,the way you encapsulated his life,the read was so emotional,his personality,his aura.
Just reading your chapter has left a void in my heart and it aches for his loss,so it is unimaginable what you would went through when he left this world.
Just like James Merill altered his poetry,his path,he has been the same inspiration to me. In his honour I wrote two poems and it would be great if you could read them and give me your honourable feed back.

Dedicated to Agha Shahid Ali,Hush the loved one has to leave ,always.

The loved one has to leave,always

Just as I thought it was my last breath,
The last sigh I could ever make
You awoke me,
You fueled life into me.
Forgave me,for something unforgivable.
You shaped me,
Into something you always dreamt of.
Brought me back from the land of the dead,
But for how long?
The loved one has to leave,hush.
The loved one has to leave,always.
The last drop of blood I dropped,
The last one you soaked into you.
Polished me,shaped me,
Into something you had always dreamt of.
This paradise on earth,
Has been ruined.
Now even I have no origin.
Don’t stoke me with life now,
Don’t revive what has been lost by you,
Don’t try to connrct the broken bonds.
It has been too late for me too.
Hush,the loved one has to leave.
Hush,the loved one has to leave always.
Say your farewell,
Bid adieu
For I am leaving this world,
The abandoned paradise.
To another world.
Hopefully with something to cherish,
Something above to rise.
The loved one is leaving,hush.
Hush,the loved one has to leave always.

The second one is,

Dedicated to Agha Shahid Ali,for you would live always in my memory,my history.

I put out a hand

I put out a hand,
An archive of thoughts.
Something has been lost,
And something is already forgotten.
The windows don’t open.
And sky a crimson red.
It’s a place far away,
A land with things unsaid.
I don’t find what I’m reaching out for.
I put out a hand.
Tumbling,falling,
Trying to clasp,grasp,
Of whatever is left,
Of something left to hold on.
And then comes the storm,
Wind,leaves and tears all around,
Taking away everything,anything left.
Nothing remains,
Everything is finished.
Come hold my hand,
A hand i had put out.
Let’s search together,
The archive of thoughts,
Let’s find,
What is lost.
Let’s remember,
What’s forgotten,
Let’s hold,
All the other hands that have reached out.

these were the poems i have written for him,I may have not personaly known him,but your essay have made him invariably close to my heart.
His poems have made a deep impact on me,and somehow messaging you makes me feel closer to him.

I hope you liked the poems.
Waiting your reply anxiously
Yours truly
Shreya Jain

 

_______________________

 

Dear Shreya

Thank you very much for this wonderful and touching letter. I liked the directness of your poems: they show a lot of promise. I know Shahid would have had a great deal to say about them. He was an extremely generous teacher and a very supportive and sympathetic critic.

Would you mind if I posted your letter and your poems on my blog? Do let me know.

And in the meanwhile, keep writing!

With my best wishes

Amitav Ghosh

 

 

________________________________

 

 

Dear Mr. Ghosh,
It is indeed an honour to get a reply from you,frankly I thought you would not reply to a 17 year old.
It would be without an aorta of doubt a privilege for my letter and poems to be featured on your blog.
I wish Agha Shahid Ali would have been here to teach and support me,but we do not always get what we want.I hope he is in a better place,with much more to offer than he could ever get in this world.

Yours truly
Shreya Jain

 

 

___________________________
Thank you Shreya. I will post your letters and poems soon.
Keep writing!
Amitav Ghosh

 

___________________________________________

 

Thank you so much sir,I just wanted to ask another thing,do have an idea why exactly Shahid changed his mind about going to Kashmir just before his death?
It quite intrigued me actually.

Yours truly
Shreya Jain

 

________________________________

 

Dear Shreya

It’s interesting that you ask that. In the last phase of his life Shahid felt very much rooted in America, which was only natural since he had lived in the US a long time and was moreover, a deeply and widely loved figure in American literary circles. A few months before he died he took US citizenship. He once told me a funny story about his citizenship interview. At one point the interviewer asked him whether he would be willing to take up arms against his former country if it ever became necessary. This was of course an absurd question, not only because Shahid was the gentlest and most peaceable of people, but also because he was terminally ill at the time. ‘So what did you say?’ I asked. Shahid burst into laughter: ‘What could I say?’ I gave him a big smile and said: ‘Oh yes!’

 

On another occasion he mentioned to me that he wanted to be buried near Emily Dickinson, who was one of the poets he most loved. She is buried in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Shahid’s grave is just a short distance away, in Northampton.

All the best

Amitav


Letter from Austria

Chrestomather | March 29, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 


From: Shankar Nath
To: chrestomather@yahoo.in
Sent: Wednesday, 11 January 2012 2:57 AM
Subject: khatirdari

 

Dear Amitavji
Being aware that this is one of a million bothersome Fan letters, attacking you daily like mosquitos in a tropical evening, i still could not restrain myself from writing it.  It has been obstinately haunting me, forming and deforming in my mind ever since i finished river of smoke. I had to vent my deep appreciation for your work.
Herman Hesse hated all the correspondence he would receive from his admirers, since responding to them would take up more than 3 hours of his daily routine. He pledged in his letters that they refrain from writing to him, that they stop dumping their philosophies and trivialities on his ailing self, yet he would never stop reading them, he felt it was his moral obligation not only to except honoraries like the nobel prize, but also writhe through redundant missives. I do hope you have no such persuasions and i surely don’t mind never receiving an Answer.
I have been an avid reader of all your books and am deeply impressed by your skill. Many of your writings have inspired me and accompanied me on the journeys of my life.  Having read the Glass Palace I started dreaming of Myanmar, i could see Mandalay and when i finally travelled to Burma it was as if i was tracing Rajkumars family. I reread the Glasspalace two more times during my sojourn through Burma
.
The Sea Of Popies was another Time capsule, once i started reading it I forgot everything around me, even myself. There were only your characters whom i could watch like from a storms eye . My wife feels jealous of your books, since i am rendered useless for the time that i am reading them, becoming oblivious to everything else. I had been to Gazipur during my school days in benares, but never realized the importance the opiumfactory had played for world history. Somehow now i understand why ghazopur had that weird feeling which i could’nt pinpoint.
Most of your characters are so deeply rooted in life that i feel i know them, that they exist. Many times, looking at the vagaries of my life, i feel myself to be in an Amitav Ghosh novel, not knowing if this is good or bad thing, cause your novels are neither abundant nor bereft of Happy endings.
It is river of Smoke that has finally made me write this letter. The way you have subtly shown the moral conventions behind the opium wars, the hypocritical approach to the concept of civilization, the tragedy of Bahram losing his sole to Ahriman and yet showing that there is something infallible left in humanbeings, something greater than profit, if we  strive for it.
The fact that modern day economics are based on the same ruthless axioms used by those merchants crippling a nation with drugs and yet believing it to be virtuous, was awe inspiring .
In case you are still reading my words, i would like to express a humble invitation. I see from your schedule that you will be in Prague coming October. This being not far away from Vienna, my present home, i would love to invite you to this charming city. I am sure Vienna would not fail to impress you.
I am an Austro-Indian (maybe the second in the tradition of Amrita Shergill, born to an Austrian Mother and an Indian Nath Baba somewhere in Himachal) thirty something, development and history scholar for passion and tour guide for a living. I spend my time between India, Sri lanka and Austria, it would be an Honour agar aap hamein bhi Mehman Nawazi ka moka dein, and a miniscule reciprocation for all the wonderfull stories you have gifted this worldYour work is truly appreciated.
With best Regards
Shankar Nath
On Jan 12, 2012, at 5:00 PM, A.k. Munshi wrote:

 

Dear Shankar
Thank you very much for this wonderful letter. For me it is always a pleasure and a privilege to hear from readers who appreciate my books. In this case it is particularly so because I am fascinated by stories of the diaspora. In that regard however I have to tell you that you are by no means only the second Austrian-Indian. Subhas Chandra Bose married an Austrian and I think his daughter still lives there.
And you may be surprised to learn that I myself have an Austrian connection. One of my cousins won a scholarship to study engineering in Graz, in the 1960s. While there he met and married Katalin von Mikes, a refugee from Romania. It so happened that she was from an Austro-Hungarian family with extensive estates in Transylvania. After the fall of the Communist regime my cousin went to Romania and fought hard for the restoration of the land.

Katalin, at the Guest House, Kastey Mikes, Zabola

It was eventually given back to them and my cousin’s sons, Gregor and Alexander (my ‘nephews’ as we would say in India) now live in the Kastely Mikes and run the estate. Gregor and Alexander grew up in Graz and are also Austrian-Indian. In fact they are now restoring some buildings in our ancestral village in Bangladesh. You can read the whole story if you go to their website: www.zabola.com.

Gregor, Komandau, Romania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been to Vienna many times and I love the city. You will be interested to know that the great Indian historian, Ranajit Guha, who is married to an Austrian also lives there. I would love to visit again but I don’t know if it will be possible in October. If you could send more specific proposals I could certainly think about it.

Would you mind if I posted your letter on my blog? I am sure many readers would be interested.

With my best wishes

Amitav Ghosh

 

 

 

 

 

Jan 16, 2012

Dear Amitavji

iT was wonderfull to recieve a letter from You and that too so quick.  I am humbled by the fact that i am by far not the only sprout of the strange union between this now tiny country and our  huge subcontinent, strange because there is so little the two seem to have in common. I had completely forgotten that Subhas chander bose was married to an Austrian, who lived in Vienna . Many times i wondered if some elderly lady walking next to me could have been Netaji’s wife.
 This reminds me of the arrogance i once had with 17, arriving in the city of vienna and believing that i might be the only person with the exotic name Shankar  (having always shared my name with atleast 10 others at every school in india), claiming it to be thus unique in the whole country. Little did i know that a Mathematician from calcutta with the name of shankar had arrived and settled in Vienna, walking barefoot from west bengal to austria decades ago. He had been a leftist and had started a commune in Austria.
Two years ago, another interesting connection came to light for me, I moved into the viennese country side to spend a summer and help refurbish the old withering house of my Mentor. It had been decaying for decades and if it wouldnt have been for my Mentor, and his romantic memories of having met his wife in that hut in the 70′s, the house would have been confiscated by the forest deparment, being in that deplorable state (yes austria has laws against the withering away of houses) . He faught a law suit and managed to secure the place for his future generations, being himself unable to dedicate much time in this venture.
When i reached Gaaden the little hamlet , some village elders told me that i am not the first indian to come there,  an elderly englishwoman who  dressed in the indian way had lived in that house with her Indian servant, way back in the 60′s . She must have been a very reclusive person and thus generated suspicion in the backward countryside. This person was no- one other than Mira behn (urf madeline slade), Gandhiji’s devotee and follower for over three decades. It seems that after Gandhiji’s Death she left India and settled in Austria for over 20 years, why she chose such a sleepy hamlet near the viennese woods is a mystery for me. I could not believe that someone who had lived and seen India’s freedom struggle in such minute detail had spent her last years in the same garden fighting the same tenacious weeds as my insignificant self.
Since you are fascinated by stories of the Diaspora i would like to share my favorite one. Your charachter kalua reminds me a lot of an haryanvi Dalit named jedi, had a dark complexion and two meters tall, whom i met some years ago. He was one of the few indian immigrants to Austria who seemed to keep a healthy distance from the resident punjabi community, though he shared their laguage.  Most Indians in Austria are from one district in Punjab, jallandhar, they work in the newspaper trade and delivering pizzas. They are mostly from landowning thekedar families and their parents sell large shares of their land so as to pay the Agents who organize the illegal migration. Coming to austria they realize that now their is a new caste system overshadowing the former one, you are either paper wallah or without paper wallah, the latter being the overwhelming majority. SO being illegal they have only other minor jobs, mostly for established indians who keep them as a cheap workforce. Yet remaining in the tight knit male soceity there is little cultural emancipation taking place and even after years of living in europe many still have the same set of narrowminded ideas, specially in regards to language, women and untauchables, which dominated their rural life in punjab.
Kalia (as jedi was called in Haryana) went another way, having no land to sell but a deep desire to leave his village, fedup being the underdog (in his own words).   He arrived in Austria because he had heard that some agencies provided free Tranfer to Europe if one agrees to take a concealed Bag to Europa and delivers it in some City. If you are caught with the bag its your problem. Having grown up near a small town notoriously known for smuggling Opium/Heroin between Rajasthan Punjab and Delhi he guessed the content of the Bag. He knew that in case he is caught it would most probably be Jail but he took his chance, jo hoga dekhaj ayega. He was flown through asian cities into Sweden, there he could deliver his bag and recieved an onward journey ticket to Germany. Arriving on his own he managed to steer away from other Indians and looked for work here and there. It so happened that he made some Europian friends who liked him and gave him shelter in their House. Having been taunted all his life for being black, he realized that now his exotic looks have the contrary effect, earning him very favorable conditions with the Ladies .
 Once they took him to a Trance festival where he saw his unique chance of making money. There were many stalls serving mediocre indian snaks and he was asked to help out. Learning the Trade very quickly he bought an old volkswagen bus with his mobile kitchen and started touring all major festivals cooking Vegatarian Food. Within Three years of meeting him he had already established a popular Vegetarian Indian Restaurent in Vienna, was fluent in German and had married an Austrian girl. I met him at his restaurent and was wondering about the steady climb he had managed, he just laughed and said that was nothing. His biggest satisfaction was that he was cooking and gore were loving his food, where as in India those fair skinned wannabes  didnt even allow me near a kitchen. His kids are also Austro indian thus adding to our  little tribe.
I wonder what happens to kalua in your story and eagerly await the sequel.
Anyway i have digressed too much.
 I will think of some specific proposal to make the Invitation to Vienna more attractive.
I dont mind if you publish the Letter, it is  an honour for me.
with best regards and wishes
Shankar

 



‘Tristful’ post makes news in Trieste!

Chrestomather | March 27, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

 

Amazing to relate, but my post of  (March 13), ‘Trsitful Trieste’ has occasioned an article in a leading newspaper of the city, Il Piccolo.

 

 

 

 

 

I was told about the article by Anna Nadotti,

 

 

 

who has been a close friend ever since she translated The Shadow Lines into Italian twenty-two years ago. She has translated all the books that followed after that one (the last two in collaboration with Norman Gobetti).

Anna has a great gift for friendship and is a friend also of Elisabetta D’Erme, the author of the article, who was kind enough to send it to me as a jpg (the Italian text is appended to the end of this post).

Although my Italian is rudimentary, with Anna’s help I was able to translate a few paragraphs (posted below in italics).

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”. A saying which is especially true with cultural events on the other side of the border, while cultural synergies with Slovenian main towns remain a mirage.
This consideration is born from the (belated) discovery that in early March one of the most celebrated contemporary anglo-indian writers was wandering in the streets of Trieste, and visiting the castles around the city unbeknownst to all of us.
What happened? A.G., the great narrator of exotic and faraway places, of remote and surprising realities, the author of ‘storie preziose’  like In an Antique Land and River of Smoke, was a guest of the World Literatures FABULA in Ljubljana. Being an extremely curious and indefatigable traveller, A.G.  took advantage of his stay and visited some literary places that he holds particularly dear:  “tristful” Trieste and the Duino of R. M. Rilke’s Elegies. The Duino Elegies are of course an important key to the interpretation of The Hungry Tide where, in Nirmal’s diaries they become ‘a scripture, a personal anthem.’

Every moment of this journey which  – with a different perspective on our across-the-border cultural relationship (with Slovenia) – could have been also an occasion to meet the readers of the Trieste, has been documented by the writer himself in his blog: a journal that shows Ghosh’s incredibly quick way of pouring in his blog all that he does, sees, meets, reads and studies. Recipes, photos, thoughts.

‘He has decided,’ says his translator, Anna Nadotti, ‘to do no more reportage, a genre he has mastered; he has opted instead for a constant and continuous rapportage on his blog, doing it in such a way as to fill in the background of his books – it is a narrative through which Amitav Ghosh the social anthropologist provides some keys to his own stories.’…

‘…Our only regret  is for the missed opportunity of a meeting where we could hear from the author’s own voice the stories of Il Fiume dell’oppio [River of Smoke]: stories of war, shipwreck and culture in the XIXth century that reflect the conflicts of a globalized world.’

 

 

Here is the Italian text of the article:

“L’erba del vicino è sempre più verde”. In questo caso l’adagio ben s’adatta alle attività culturali che si svolgono oltre confine, mentre le sinergie in campo culturale con le maggiori città slovene restano un miraggio. Riflessioni che nascono dalla (tardiva) scoperta che all’inizio di marzo uno dei più grandi scrittori anglo-indiani contemporanei era in giro per le strade di Trieste e in visita ai suoi  castelli – per così dire – a nostra completa insaputa.
Cos’è accaduto? Amitav Ghosh, il grande narratore di mondi esotici e lontani, di epoche remote e sorprendentemente attuali, l’autore di storie preziose, da “Lo schiavo del manoscritto” all’appena uscito “Il fiume dell’oppio” (Neri Pozza, a cura e trad. di Anna Nadotti e Norman Gobetti, pp. 590, euro 18.50) è stato ospite a Ljubliana del festival letterario World Literatures FABULA , che si è tenuto al Cankarjev dom dal 27 febbraio al 10 marzo. E Ghosh, curiosissimo, instancabile viaggiatore, ne ha approfittato per visitare anche luoghi “letterari” che gli sono particolarmente cari: la “tristful” Trieste e la Duino di Rainer Maria Rilke. Non a caso le “Elegie duinesi” sono uno strumento d’interpretazione del suo romanzo “Il paese delle mareee” dove, nelle pagine del diario di Nirmal, quei versi diventano “scrittura (sacra), inno personale.”
Tutti i momenti di questo viaggio che – con una diversa gestione dei rapporti culturali transfrontalieri – avrebbe potuto trasformarsi anche in un’occasione d’incontro con i lettori triestini,  sono stati documentati dallo scrittore nel suo blog (www.amitavghosh.com), più specificatamente alle giornate del 6, 8, 12 e del 13 marzo 2012.
Un diario che mette in risalto il modo straordinario e la rapidità con cui Amitav Ghosh riversa nel blog tutto ciò che fa, vede, incontra, legge e studia. Annotazioni gastronomiche, foto, pensieri. “E’ come se, – commenta la sua traduttrice Anna Nadotti – avendo deciso di non scrivere più reportage, genere in cui è un maestro, avesse deciso di fare del suo blog un reportage – a partire da sé – senza soluzione di continuità. Un mezzo attraverso cui fornire ai propri lettori il background dei suoi libri. Un narrare di sé per parole e immagini, in cui Amitav Ghosh antropologo sociale fornisce a chi sappia leggerle le fonti e alcune chiavi delle sue narrazioni.”
Le prime impressioni sono riservate alla città che l’ha ospitato, Ljubliana, che percepisce come una città “poetica”, in un’accezione più lirica che epica. Per rendersene conto basta camminare lungo il fiume Ljublijanica e incontrare una profusione di testimonianze di un passato multiculturale, come una collezione di caffettiere usate, “dove cezves turche urtano contro macchinette per il caffè espresso italiane.” Ghosh allerta i sensi e il suo flirt col lirismo culmina davanti a “una superba zuppa di funghi sloveni. (…) talmente buona – scrive nel suo blog – da ricordarmi un altro climax nella mia carriera di degustatore di funghi, che avvenne in un villaggio chiamato Xizhou nello Yunnan, in Cina”, dove nei giorni di mercato i funghi raccolti freschi nelle foreste circostanti nel giro di pochi minuti vengono trasformati dai bettolieri “in versi lirici.” Anche il dessert sollecita associazioni che lo riportano alla città indiana di Ghazipur e al suo romanzo “Mare di papaveri”: “una torta di semi di papavero, specialità locale. Mi chiedo: quanti dei tanti versi lirici sloveni saranno germogliati dai semi di papavero?”
Ma il pensiero di Ghosh già corre a Duino: “Una mattina mi svegliai e ricordai il verso: “ché non si può restare, in nessun dove” e si mette in viaggio attraverso “villaggi sonnacchiosi e ameni ristoranti” per raggiungere quanto prima le sponde dell’Adriatico. Lo scrittore vuole percorrere il sentiero che “s’arrampica attraverso una foresta cedua verso gli scogli, dove il poeta usava passeggiare ogni giorno, con il bello o il cattivo tempo”. Lì – dove Rilke fu folgorato dal verso “Ma chi, se gridassi, mi udrebbe, dalle schiere degli Angeli?” – si sofferma a pensare “alla magia che permette ai versi, scritti in questo luogo, di rivolgersi direttamente ai cuori di poeti di continenti lontani, nella lingua bengali. Penso alla meravigliosa traduzione delle Elegie duinesi di Buddhadeb Bose, solida e risonante; penso alla versione di Shakti Chattopadhyaya, selvaggia e ipnotica.”
La successiva tappa è Miramare: “Alcuni toponimi sono così attraenti da avere appeal mondiale. Come Capocabana o Tivoli. Miramar è uno di questi nomi. (…) Ce ne sono dozzine sparsi per il mondo (…) ma pochi Miramar sono belli come quello che si trova poche miglia a sud del Castello di Duino.” A colpire Ghosh sono i balconi del Castello di Miramare, che trova “incredibilmente bizzarri (mi ricordano un palazzo in “Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace” dov’era ambientato l’idillio del giovane Anakin Skywalker con Padmé Amidala, la regina del Pianeta Naboo.)” Infatti sia l’Anakin delle Guerre Stellari che l’arciduca Massimiliano non erano contenti “della gran buona fortuna che gli era toccata in sorte.” Riflettendo poi sulla triste fine dell’Asburgo, Ghosh immagina cosa possa aver provato “Carlotta quando guardò il Golfo di Trieste per l’ultima volta.”
Ed è a Trieste che si conclude questo viaggio. “Per me la parola “Trieste” ha sempre avuto un suono languidamente malinconico, forse perché evoca la bellissima parola “triste” (che sfortunatamente è considerata arcaica nell’inglese contemporaneo, anche se è rimasto in uso il derivato “tristful”)  (…) Al crepuscolo, c’è un che di melanconico attorno alle sue eleganti piazze e ai suoi graziosi edifici pubblici.” Camminando per le strade e tra i palazzi, Ghosh ammira la peculiare eredità architettonica, lascito dell’impero austroungarico. Si mette sulle orme di James Joyce, che ha la sensazione di “incontrare dappertutto” e di Italo Svevo.
Ma Trieste per Amitav Ghosh “è anche indelebilmente associata con il brillante fisico, Abdus Salam, il primo pakistano e il primo mussulmano a ricevere il Premio Nobel per le scienza, che nel 1964 qui fondò il Centro di Fisica Teorica”. Ghosh ne ricorda le opere, la religiosità e il desiderio d’essere sepolto nella terra nativa. Stupito riporta la casuale scoperta di una manifestazione d’intolleranza fondamentalista: “Nel 1996 Salam fu sepolto a Bahishti Maqbara, un cimitero creato dalla Ahmadiyya Muslim Community di Rabwah, vicino alla tomba dei parenti. L’epitaffio riportava “Primo premio Nobel mussulmano” ma, poiché in Pakistan con la XX ordinanza gli Ahmadis sono considerati setta non mussulmana, un magistrato locale ha fatto cancellare la parola ‘mussulmano’, lasciando il nonsense “Primo premio Nobel”.”
Resta il rimpianto per un incontro mancato, l’opportunità d’ascoltare dalla voce dell’autore l’epopea del brigantino Ibis e del suo variegato equipaggio, narrata nel romanzo “Il fiume dell’oppio”: guerre, naufragi e culture che dall’800 ci riportano ai tanti conflitti del mondo globalizzato.

Elisabetta d’Erme

AMITAV GHOSH nato nel 1956 a Calcutta e cresciuto in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka è tra i maggiori scrittori indiani contemporanei. Dopo aver frequentato la New Delhi University completa  gli studi di antropologia a Oxford. Oggi vive tra la sua città natale e New York. I suoi romanzi esplorano i temi del colonialismo, dell’interculturalità, dell’emigrazione e della diaspora. Tra i tanti ricordiamo: “Il Cerchio della Ragione” (1986) , “Le linee d’ombra” ( 1988), “Lo schiavo del manoscritto” (1992), “Il paese delle maree” (2005) e i primi due volumi della trilogia di Ibis: “Mare di Papaveri” (2008) finalista del Man Booker Prize, e il recentissimo “Il fiume dell’oppio” (2011). Le sue opere sono tutte egregiamente tradotte in italiano da Anna Nadotti (gli ultimi due romanzi in collaborazione con Norman Gobetti) e pubblicate da Einaudi e Neri Pozza che ne sta ora curando l’opera completa. (e.d’e.)

 


More on Zoroastrian rites

Chrestomather | in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

Further to my post on Zoroastrian Hong Kong, Shernaz Italia writes:

 

Dear Amitav,

There seems to be some degree of confusion regarding the disposal of the dead in the Zoroastrian tradition. A brief explanation:
Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body a pollutant – and hence had rules for disposing of the dead as “safely” as possible so as not to pollute either earth or fire. This is why the bodies of the dead were placed on an elevated surface or tower – Tower of Silence or dahkma – exposed to the sun and birds of prey.

In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition, the towers were built atop hills or low mountains in desert locations distant from population centers. In the early twentieth century, the Iranian Zoroastrians gradually discontinued their use and began to favour burial or cremation.

The decision to change the system was accelerated by three considerations: The first was the establishment of the Dar-ul-Funun medical school in Iran. Since Islam considers unnecessary dissection of corpses as a form of mutilation, thus forbidding it, there were none to be had officially, and the dakhmas were repeatedly broken into, much to the dismay and humiliation of the Zoroastrian community. Secondly, while the towers had originally been built away from population centers, the growth of the towns led to the towers now being within city limits. Finally, many of the Zoroastrians themselves found the system outdated and substituted the dakhma with a cemetery. In the early days graves were lined with slabs of stone, concrete or rocks, to prevent direct contact with the earth. In 1970s the dakhmas in Iran were shut down by law.

India is the only place where Towers of Silence remain in use, and there are very few in number. The concentration of Parsis in a geographical area dictated the type of disposal. Very early on a decision was taken that burial in cemeteries – Aramghas – was acceptable in places where there were not enough Parsis to maintain a Tower of Silence; for instance Ajmer is the furthest north in India where there is a tower. In hill stations in India, a section of the Christian or Catholic cemetery was set-aside for Parsis.

The same applied to Parsis who died overseas, hence this beautifully maintained cemetery at Hong Kong. A Trust was formed in 1822 in Macao for the establishment of a Parsee cemetery there. The first Parsi association, known as the ‘China Canton Anjuman’, was formed in Canton in 1834. In1845. A wider Anjuman body covering Hong Kong, Canton, and Macao was created for establishing and maintaining burial grounds and having places of association. In Hong Kong, the first premises for use of the Zoroastrian community were rented in 1852. In 1993, the 23-storey Zoroastrian Building that you have photographed so beautifully on this blog was inaugurated.

 

To this Shernaz appends an excerpt from an article in a magazine, Zoroastrians Abroad, on the Parsi cemetery in Whampoa (Huangpu).

 

 

 

Whampoa, 19th century (note foreigners in the foreground)

 

“Fourteen Zoroastrian graves in the cemetery at Huangpu, also known as Whampoa, an industrial city in south-east China in the Pearl River Delta region, a part of Guangzhou province, have been restored by the Chinese government. A group of 30 Zarthoshtis from Hong Kong made a three-day visit (April 4 – 6, 2008) to the Chinese mainland to see the place for themselves. “We were under instructions not to burn incense and were content to pay homage to our dearly departed with a silent prayer,” writes Jal Shroff, president of the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hong Kong, Canton and Macao, recounting the 10-year development.

“The actual graveyard site is on the top of a hill within the grounds of the CSSC Guangzhou Huangpu Shipping Company Limited. A guarded gate blocked access to all vehicles and pedestrians initially, despite the necessary permits having been obtained. We were, however, eventually let through and made our way up the neatly paved 150+ steps…Some of the inscriptions were worn out and hard to read; others had only parts of the inscription because vandals had made away with pieces of masonry. One grave could not be restored because a tree had grown from underneath it and displaced it completely,” notes Shroff.

“While the age of the deceased is not mentioned on three graves and one is minus a headstone and hence there is no record of its contents, the men buried there seem to have succumbed at an early age, the youngest being 21, the eldest 55. There appears to be no notation to indicate the cause of death. And though there are no adult women buried there, the presence of four-year-old Ruttee Billimoria, a still-born child and a newborn son attest to the presence of families in that remote trading outpost. The cemetery seems to have been in use for about 76 years, from 1847 to 1923.

“At the bottom of the hill stands the “Picnic House,” a structure originally built in 1861 and possibly used as a bungli, as notes Shroff, adding, “It was later redeveloped in 1923 into a two-storey Picnic House as there were no more burials taking place there.”

 

 

Sailships, Whampoa, 19th century

 

 

 

 


‘Glass Palace’ translator wins Myanmar National Literature Award!

Chrestomather | March 25, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

On October 20, 2008, I received a message that all but knocked me over on my beam ends. It was from the distinguished American novelist, Robert Coover, author of The Public Burning and many other celebrated works of fiction and non-fiction, including the provocative 1992 essay The End of Books (Robert is a pioneer in hyper-textual fiction and I strongly recommend this essay to anyone who has an interest in the future of storytelling).

Robert was then running the International Writers’ program at Brown University and this is what his message said: ‘At Brown we run a freedom-to-write program called the International Writers Project. We offer an annual fellowship providing institutional, intellectual, artistic, and social support to published international writers facing personal danger and threats to their livelihood. … This year our Fellow is the distinguished writer and surgeon Ma Thida from Myanmar/Burma. We would be greatly honored if you could join us for a reading from your work  …. I might mention that we have [also] invited Nay Win Myint, translator of The Glass Palace.’

This was how I learnt that The Glass Palace was being serialized in translation, in one of Yangon’s best known literary journals, Shwe Amyutay. I was delighted, for I had long assumed that the book’s themes and content would prevent its being translated into Burmese. Aung San Suu Kyi and her weekend meetings


figure prominently in the last part of the book, and in years past Burma’s censorship authority

 

 

 

 

 

 

(the notorious ‘Press Scrutiny Board’, as it used to be known)

Offices of the Press Scrutiny Board, Yangon, 1996

was completely paranoid about references to ‘the Lady’. So extreme was the Board’s sensitivity on this subject that it once banned the publication of a picture of a  penguin on an ice floe for fear that the image would be interpreted as

 

 

a reference to the Nobel-prize-winning resident

of No. 8 University Avenue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ‘Press Scrutiny Board’  has now been re-organized and renamed, as a part of the reforms that are now under way in Myanmar, but it was very much in operation when the first instalments of The Glass Palace began to appear in the pages of Shwe Amyutay.

 

 

 

signboard, Press Scrutiny office, Yangon, 1996

 

 

 

 

 

Undeterred by the risks, the magazine’s editor, U Myo Myint Nyein published the book in instalments, accompanied by illustrations by a noted Burmese artist, Wathone.

 

 

 

The translator, U Nay Win Myint, is a very well known writer in Myanmar’s, having published some two hundred short stories and several translations. He is among the country’s most distinguished critics and essayists and has won the Myanmar National Literature Award three times, most recently for his novel, Buffalo Festival. Like many Burmese writers, he has also faced much harrassment over the years: it is a tribute to his resilience and courage that he has continued to publish despite his tribulations.

 

 

 

On February 6 this I learnt, to my great pleasure, that U Nay Win Myint had again been awarded the Myanmar National Literature Award, this time for his translation of The Glass Palace. The award was presented to him by the President, U Thein Sein (who is widely credited with having initiated the current, extremely promising, processes of change in Myanmar).

 

 

I met both U Myo Myint Nyein and U Nay Win Myint in 2009, in Providence, Rhode Island, when they traveled there to attend the ‘Freedom to Write’ conference at Brown.  As a part of the proceedings U Nay Win Myint presented a paper on The Glass Palace (his remarks were deeply meaningful to me and I’ve appended a few excerpts from his paper to the end of this post).

 

 

Later U Myo Myint Nyein published a brief account of our meeting in Shwe Amyutay (it is on page 12).

 

Also present at the conference was the distinguished and courageous Burmese writer Ma Thida. A doctor by profession, Ma Thida was sentenced to 20 years in jail in 1993, for her writing and her political activities: she was released on humanitarian grounds after serving 5 years six months and six days in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison.

 

from left to right: U Myo Myint Nyein, Ma Thida, AG, U Nay Win Myint

 

 

 

When I met her in 2009, Ma Thida was already optimistic about Myanmar’s future (the fact that U Nay Win Myint,  U Myo Myint Nyein and she herself had been allowed to travel to the US was itself proof that changes were under way in the country). Since then her messages have grown steadily more optimistic. In 2010, she wrote: ‘I hope you follow some new news about my country and find both happy and sad news. And now I have to edit the last chapter of my book. This book will be published early next year.’

A year later she wrote to me about a book club meeting in Yangon (something that would have been unthinkable in the past). The book under discussion was The Glass Palace: ‘People of book club are very diverse, from teens to 72 yrs old. They all agree that the book is marvelous. They talked how much they appreciate your writing style and effort of research for this book. I also contributed what you talked at Brown…. Here things get a bit better and I’d like to expand our freedom bit by bit by some new (unusual) literary activities.’

 

 

Ma Thida’s new book, a memoir of her prison experiences, has recently been published in Myanmar. I await a translation with the greatest eagerness – I can’t wait to read it!

 

 

To return to U Nay Win Myint’s and his translation – soon after I learnt of his award, I discovered, to my utter amazement, that his was not the only Burmese translation of The Glass Palace. Myat (Emma) Arrowsmith, who is from Myanmar (and is married to the brilliant British art historian, Rupert Arrowsmith; see my post of Oct 11, 2011) told me that another translation had been published at almost the same time. The translator is U Hteik Tin Thet, a forestry officer with no previous experience of publishing. Forestry was what brought him to the book: ‘I am crazy about the timber industry and also interested in elephants,’ he has said in an interview. ‘That’s why I translated The Glass Palace. Timber and elephants are important parts of the story.’
These words of appreciation, coming as they do, from someone with an intimate knowledge of Burma’s forests, are of inestimable value to me. I look forward very much to meeting U Hteik Tin Thet when I next visit Myanmar, which I hope will be in November this year.
Recently Myat sent me an article by Moh Moh Thaw on the two translations of The Glass Palace. It was published in the in-flight magazine of Air Mandalay. Here it is [text appended below]:

 

 

[Pointing his thumb at his chest, U Hteik Tin Thet says forcefully, “I’m a former forestry officer – can’t you see?” I follow his gaze to a painting of the Department of Forestry logo hanging on the wall of his house. I had asked the former government officer what was his motivation for translating bestselling novel The Glass Palace from English into Myanmar.

“I am crazy about the timber industry and also interested in elephants. That’s why I
translated The Glass Palace. Timber and elephants are important parts of the story.” He
says he got a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s popular work from a friend in his neighbourhood.
He then read the whole book from cover to cover, without taking so much as a break.
“The book starts with a burst of cannon fire by British troops arriving in Mandalay.
People in a small restaurant, when they heard the loud noise, became nervous and
whispered to one another, ‘What was that? What’s happened? What could make that
sound?’ At that time, a 10-year-old Indian boy suddenly says to the people, ‘It is from a
British cannon. They are shooting from the river because they want Myanmar timber.’
When I heard that phrase it immediately sucked me in and I read the whole book
through to the end,” U Hteik Tin Thet explains, taking the original version of The Glass Palace. “Actually, the friend who gave me the book does not really like reading fiction but he was hooked by The Glass Palace. When he finished reading it, he gave it to me because he knew I would definitely like it. Once I finished, I started translating it,” he added. Five months later, U Hteik Tin Thet completed Mhan Nandaw (The Glass Palace) and it was released in 2009
by Yangon-based publishing house Arlinkar Wintyee. It marked his first foray into the
publishing world, and he has since published two more novels.

“I didn’t have any difficulty translating the book. I have had articles published in some local magazines, like Cherry, in the past, and the writing style of the original version is very clear and easy tounderstand,” he said. However, the ex-forestry officer admitted he developed reservations about publishing his novel shortly after finishing the translation. Famous writer and translator U Nay Win Myint had begun serialising sections of The Glass Palace each month in Shwe Amu Tay magazine, under the title Yaykanthar Kyartine Aye. However, he felt the different translation styles of the two authors made it worthwhile to push on with publishing the book. “I have read Nay Win Myint’s translation in that magazine and I like it because he tried to translate in his own style,” U Hteik Tin Thet said. “My book is more like a direct translation – that’s my style.”

This difference is evident even in the titles. Mhan Nandaw literally translates as “The Glass Palace”, while Yaykanthar Kyartine Aye is a reference more to Nay Win Myint’s translation style than the content. Yaykanthar Kyartine Aye was published over a period of twoand- a-half years in Shwe Amu Tay. The popular series was then released in book form by Bagan book publishing house earlier this year. “I have seen sometimes three or four people translate the same book at the same time because it is difficult for us to know what others in the industry are working on,” said the 58-year-old U Nay WinMyint. “That’s why I didn’t think it was a problem that we both released translations of The Glass Palace; we  translated it in our own styles and we have our own readers.”

Like U Hteik Tin Thet, he got the original English version  of The Glass Palace from a friend and decided he would translate it soon after he finished reading the first chapter. The Glass Palace was U Nay Win Myint’s third translation book, after bringing two works by Russian author Turgenev to Myanmar readers.

So what was it exactly in Amitav Ghosh’s novel that caught U Nay Win Myint’s imagination? The mixture of historical fact and fictional protagonists, he says. “The first chapter, ‘Mandalay’, starts with a barefaced challenge by the British to the Myanmar throne; it meant that they were going to colonise all of Myanmar. The Myanmar troops in Sagaing, Nyaung Oo and Myingyan around Mandalay were trying to stop the British and King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat were about to be taken away, together with their retinue, but the Myanmar people were wavering in the face of the war,” he says. “It was a historical moment; the fall of Mandalay broke the feudal system, which was the dawn of a new world for Myanmar people. I was so excited when I read the book I began translating it in my mind before writing it down on paper,” he says. “It was so interesting to read about this time, particularly because the characters in the book are blended with the historical facts.”

“King Thibaw in Madras, his exile to Ratanagiri. The Myanmar forest, the nature of elephants, Indians who migrated from India to together and are fascinating topics so it is difficult for me to say which chapter I prefer.” To complete the translation, U Nay Win Myint said he had to read many history books, theses and political history journals to learn about the royal customs and formal language of the Konbaung era, which he then used in his translation.

“I think doing translation is often like seeing a carpet laid upside down; we can sometimes lose or change the meaning when we translate from one language to another. But I tried to catch the spirit of the original novel and infuse it with the smell of Myanmar,” Nay Win Myint explained.

U Hteik Tin Thet also praised Amitav Ghosh’s efforts in researching Myanmar history for The Glass Palace and said he would like to meet the man if he had the chance. “I was really impressed that he did five years of research before he started writing the book. He had to read a lot of reference books and to make many research trips as well. That is why his book is so good
and has been translated into nineteen languages,” he said.

In that regard, U Nay Win Myint has been luckier than his counterpart; last year he met Amitav Ghosh while attending a Southeast Asia culture and art festival at Brown University in the US state of Rhode Island.

“He was so happy when he knew I was translating his book and he presented me with some of his other works. That was a very rare opportunity for me to see the author whose book I was
translating,” U Nay Win Myint said with a satisfied smile. “Then, when I apologised
to him for translating The Glass Palace without asking his permission, he said he understood the situation, that we [Myanmar writers] cannot ask his permission. And he even said he was proud that I translated his book.” ]

__________________

 

Here are a few paragraphs from U Nay Win Myint’s presentation at the 2009 conference:

The Glass Palace reflects the evil consequences of evil deeds of kings. King Thibaw detained and killed some fifty cousins in order to get the throne. He himself was later detained by the British. In Burmese we call this kind of similar retribution as ‘Wut’. Every evil act is followed by evil reaction. I notice ‘Wut’ in this book …(and) I am sure our Burmese readership appreciates the concept of ‘Wut’ in The Glass Palace.”

“In the era of last Burmese kings, we already had newspapers, telegraph, diplomatic and economic relationship with foreign countries. As you all know, this novel is somewhat related to the last days of King Thibaw, the last king of Myanmar before the British annexation. In the year 1885, King Thibaw was extradited to India, then a British colony also. The king along with the Queen and her royal entourage had to leave Mandalay on the fateful day of 29 November, 1885.

“Among the unfortunate few who had to go along with the Royal Family were some ladies-in-waiting. The dethroned King and his family took their residence first in Madran and later were forced to settle in Ratnagiri. Nearly one-third of the novel deals with the life of the Royal Family in Ratnagiri. As expected in an historical novel, there are facts and fiction intermingled but ‘facts’ were not much distorted or compromised by the writer’s imagination. Some of the facts are ‘revealed’ to me only after I’ve read the novel. During the translation I’ve to check some of the works by Myanmar historians and one of the works happened to be the ‘Glass Palace Chronicle’, a well-known reference book of Myanmar history. It is to be noted that there are some historical incidents described in the novel which are not in accordance with those of Myanmar sources. However I’ve to say that is of too little importance to make this great work less significant.

“The remaining two-thirds of the novel dealt with the love story developing between a lady-in-waiting and an Indian boy who came to Mandalay to seek his fortune. Each chapter was alive with colourful events, made more interesting by the author’s skilful weaving of historical facts into the story. The author has also demonstrated that he is able to capture the ‘air’ and ‘atmosphere’ of the day, which is actually over 100 years distanced.”

 


Marvelous Histories

Chrestomather | March 22, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

‘Magical realism’ is as much a part of history as of fiction. It could not be otherwise, for history is replete with instances of the ‘marvelous’, at least in the sense of the highly improbable (my favourite instance, which I’ve described at some length in my essay on the Babarnama, is the story of the death of the first Mughal Emperor, Babar).
It is no coincidence, I think, that much of the fiction that is considered ‘magical realist’ is actually about history. Historians too were once deeply interested in wonders and marvels. ‘Tales of wonder’ – or ‘ajâib in Arabic – were staples of historical and geographical scholarship for centuries, in many parts of the world. Today, no historian would want to be called a ‘magical realist’, yet some of the greatest historians of our time do in fact write about marvelous – or at least, highly improbable – situations  and personalities. And of late it has been my singular privilege to participate in events with some of the greatest practitioners of this art. Jonathan Spence is one of them: his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, The Question of Hu and The Death of Woman Wang are all masterpieces of the genre.
On November 3, 2011 I did an event with Jonathan Spence at the Asia Society in New York (I put up a post about it soon after the event).
A video recording of the event is available here.  Later I was also sent a clip in which Jonathan Spence recommends Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke.
On March 2 this year I did an event, entitled  Storytelling and the Global Past with Natalie Zemon Davis in Cambridge. It was a very special occasion for me, because I have long been a devotee of Natalie’s work, especially The Return of Martin Guerre and Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives (which has a wonderful essay on one of my favourite historical figures of all time, the painter, botanist and traveler Maria Sybilla Merian – a ‘highly improbable’ person if ever there was one). Natalie’s  Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth Century France is another book I very much admire: I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in what I call ‘archival fictions’, a rubric that includes The Aspern Papers, The Name of the Rose, The Da Vinci Code and much else.
It’s not always easy to meet someone whose work you greatly admire, but in this instance Natalie certainly made it so. She is utterly charming, and a terrific speaker besides. One of the revelations of the evening was that she has 41 honorary degrees – that must surely be a record of some kind! A recording of the event is now available here.
The event was conceived and organized by John-Paul Ghobrial, a brilliant young historian who is currently teaching at Cambridge. An Egyptian Copt by origin, John-Paul is a specialist in Eastern Christianity (he has alerted me to some fascinating new work on the medieval connections between Christians in Syria and Kerala; for more on that subject, watch this space). He is now working on the life of Elias of Babylon, a 17th century Christian traveler from Mesopotamia. He describes it as ‘a microhistory about the first Ottoman traveller to South America, ca. 1670.’ He sent me a chapter, which I read with utter fascination: it’s the kind of material no novelist could make up. These paragraphs may explain why.

‘In 1668, a Chaldean priest named Elias, son of John of Mosul, left his home and family in Baghdad for good.  His reasons for leaving are a mystery, nor is it clear whether he intended ever to return home.  What is certain is that by the time of his death, Elias had travelled across Europe and as far away as the Spanish colonies of Latin America—a part of the world, Elias would write years later, that had been ‘unknown even to the great St Augustine’. As he travelled the world over, Elias left traces of himself scattered across archives and chanceries in the Middle East, Europe, and South America.  And while he walked across the world, he also walked across the boundaries between fact and fiction.  For when Elias emerges out of the dust of the archives, long enough for us to see him, he usually does so not under his original name, Ily?s ibn Hanna al-Mawsul?, but rather under that of a new persona.  Sometimes it is ‘Don Elias di San Giovanni’, other times ‘Don Elias de San Juan’, but most often simply ‘Elias de Babilonia’—or Elias of Babylon.

‘It was under this second identity that our Ottoman Columbus made his way across Europe and all the way to the Spanish empire of the Atlantic world.  But if his new name was an act of creativity, when it came to his appearance, Elias did his best to play the part of a character from the ancient world of the East.  When he was spotted in Mexico City in 1685, for example, a Spanish chronicler wrote in his diary that Elias had been dressed ‘like a Turk’ with a magnificent beard, a long black cassock, and the white collar of a priest. This description of Elias was repeated by most of the people he encountered, along with a constant refrain about the objects he carried with him: sacred relics from Jerusalem, an arsenal of medicines and potions from the East, and, most importantly, a letter of recommendation from none other than Pope Clement IX.’


Zoroastrian Hong Kong

Chrestomather | March 19, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

Parsis have played an important role in the Hong Kong’s history since the time of its founding (the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to the British, was signed on a ship called the Cornwallis which was built in a Parsi-owned shipyard in Mumbai). Eve. Today, reminders of this aspect of the city’s history are to be seen in street names like Mody Road and Kotwall Road; then there are buildings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

like this one:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the most poignant memorial is the Parsi cemetery,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

which is right beside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Hindu Temple, in Happy Valley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Founded a decade after the island was colonized by the British

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the cemetery is beautifully maintained

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a haven of tranquility in the busy city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gravestones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

speak of long journeys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

many of them undertaken in the 19th century

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

soon after the city’s founding.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Hong Kong People

Chrestomather | March 14, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

Hong Kong

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

is home to many interesting people, like the novelist Xu Xi

 

 

 

whose book, Habit of a Foreign Sky was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian literary prize last year. It is a terrific book, about a successful Hong Kong businesswoman who, in dealing with the death of her mother, finds herself confronting her family’s troubled past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then there is the amazing linkister and lexicographer Kingsley Bolton.

 

 

 

 

 

Kingsley has lived in Hong Kong for decades and is an authority on contemporary Cantonese. He is also perhaps the world’s leading expert on the South China pidgin. His book Chinese Englishes: A Sociolinguistic History (Cambridge University Press, 2003) is a magisterial study of the historical evolution of English in China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But amongst his many works, my favourite is a dictionary (and yes, I do read dictionaries from cover to cover, like novels). It is called  A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang: The Language of Hong Kong Movies, Street Gangs and City Life and it is co-authored with Christopher Hutton (Singapore University Press 2005).

Cantonese is a racy, slangy language and it is extraordinarily rich in obscenities, insults and earthy expressions. Here are a few examples, picked at random from the dictionary.

juk chuhng yahp si fat: [to grab a worm and put it up one's arse] to make trouble for oneself, to cause unnecessary difficulties for oneself.

paauh dung gwa: [to peel winter melon] a humorous name for the official language of the People’s Republic of China, Putonghua.

mh faat fo dong behng maau: [if one doesn't explode one is treated like a sick cat] used to complain that someone is not taking the speaker seriously.

diu neih louh mei chat choi yun yeung faa laahn doi hahm lung lauh seui daaih sai bin jo king faa lauh daaih chun doi: [fuck your old roasted meat colourful pair of lovers getting smelly and rotten scrotum piss running water lop-sided leaning to the left syphilitic great big scrotum] an expression of extreme anger.

Another memorable gali is one which, if it figured in the Ibis Trilogy, might read: Go charter your mother’s flowery rotten chute!

 

 

 

 


Tristful Trieste

Chrestomather | March 13, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)

 

A few kilometres from the Castello di Miramare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

is the city of Trieste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me the word ‘Trieste’ has always had a faintly melancholy sound, possibly because it evokes the beautiful word ‘triste’ (which is unfortunately considered archaic in English now, although the derived form ‘tristful’ was in use until quite recently).

Or maybe Trieste owes its tristfulness to the fact that it figures so often in stories (and histories) of war and intrigue. At twilight certainly, there is something melancholy about its elegant piazzas and graceful public buildings.

 

 

 

It was for centuries the chief port of the Austro-Hungarian empire,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and has thus been endowed with  a distinctive architectural legacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the Lloyd’s insurance building, a necessity for any old port, is unlike any other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The city’s most famous resident

 

 

 

 

 

 

is still everywhere to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cafe Stella Polare was a favourite haunt of James Joyce and Italo Svevo (who is thought to have been the model for Leopold Bloom).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This hotel claims to be located in one of the many buildings where Joyce lived.

 

 

 

 

 

But for me Trieste is also indelibly associated with the brilliant physicist, Abdus Salam -  the first Pakistani, and the first Muslim to be awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences. In 1964 Abdus Salam founded the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste and was its director for almost thirty years.  While at the Center he encouraged and mentored many young scientists from all over the Indian subcontinent. Some years ago, while visiting the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, in Mumbai, I met several theoretical physicists who spoke of him with great warmth. The Trieste center is now known as the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics.

Abdus Salam was a deeply religious man and had an abiding love of his country. Although he lived abroad for many years he always maintained a close relationship with Pakistan. I remember reading, at the time of his death, in 1996, that he had asked to be buried in his native soil.

Today, on consulting his Wikipedia entry I was astonished to come upon this: ‘Salam was buried in Bahishti Maqbara, a cemetery established by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Rabwah, Pakistan next to his parents’ graves. The epitaph on his tomb initially read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate” but, because of Salam’s adherence to the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, the word “Muslim” was later erased on the orders of a local magistrate, leaving the nonsensical “First Nobel Laureate”. Under Ordinance XX, Ahmadis are considered non-Muslims.’

 

 


Castello di Miramare and Anakin Skywalker’s Idyll

Chrestomather | March 12, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

 

Some place names are  attractive enough to be claimed by the whole world. ‘Copacabana’ is one such; ‘Tivoli’ is another (as a child I thought ‘Tivoli’ was a Bengali coinage, invented by the residents of a well-known apartment building in Calcutta).

Miramar is another such name. The word, which means ‘sea-view’,  is apparently of Spanish-Portuguese origin. But there are dozens of Miramars around the world – one of the nicest parts of Panjim, in Goa, is called Miramar.

But very few  Miramars as beautiful as the one that lies a few miles

 

 

 

 

to the south of the Castle of Duino,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

in the part of the Istrian peninsula that falls in Italy.

 

It is the Castello di Miramare and it was built for a Habsburg Archduke, Ferdinand Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium.

 

 

 

 

It is a fine example of Austro-Hungarian architecture and the setting is spectacular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The balconies are wonderfully whimsical

 

 

 

 

 

 

(they reminded me of a palace  in Star Wars I:The Phantom Menace -

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the setting for the young Anakin Skywalker’s idyll with Padmé Amidala, queen of the Planet Naboo).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story of the Castello di Miramare carries a faint echo of Anakin Skywalker’s.

Like Anakin. the Archduke Ferdinand was not content with the great good fortune that had fallen to his lot. He accepted an invitation to become the ruler of Mexico and moved there with his wife in 1864.

 

 

 

 

His was a brief reign: in 1867 the newly-crowned Emperor was assassinated at Querataro in Mexico.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His wife returned to Castello di Miramare but slowly lost her reason. Eventually her family took her back to Belgium.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hard not to wonder what she felt when she gazed on this view for the last time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is not the castle’s only association with the New World.

 

 

It also served as the Headquarters of the Trieste United States troops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

from 1947 to 1954.

 

 

 

 

 



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