Sunday, January 29th, 2023 18:49:30

From My Bookshelf

By Sanjeev Chopra
Updated: May 24, 2021 5:08 pm

Deepankar Aron’s ‘On the Trail of Buddha: A journey to the East’ is a unique sojourn of an Indian civil servant posted to Hong Kong to China, Mongolia, Kora and Japan to discover the spiritual, philosophical and cultural linkages that bind India to East Asian civilizations. This cultural connect over the centuries was diluted, and then disrupted when Indic religions lost political power from the twelfth to the twentieth century; but in the millennia before that Asian countries made the journey of the mind together and serene depths of thought, art and piety came together to create a civilizational connect. Aron says that the attack of Bakhtiyar Khilji on Nalanda in 1193 meant that monks and seekers lost their fountainhead of knowledge.

Aron does a commendable job in resurrecting this tradition. We learn from this book that throughout East Asia, holy temples were invariably located atop mystical and beautiful mountains or amidst beautiful gardens with rivers or streams flowing nearby. The names of the temples too are taken from India – thus the Tripitaka Koreana tells us that Gayasan – and the hills that surround the temples – derive their name from Gaya. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is venerated as Wenshu in China, as Munsubosal in Korea and Benzaiten in Japan.  Sanskrit too gets a place of prestige – for in the Sanjusangen-do temple in Kyoto, almost every deity has a Japanese name, and next to it a Sanskrit name. Another fascinating discovery was the proliferation of relics of the Buddha in the region and the temples built around them, celebrating the trinity of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This exchange was not just from India to the East, for the famous Kushan dynasty can be traced to the Yuezhi tribe from the Gansu province of China. The extent of this empire ran from Xinjiang in China to Pataliputra from the first to the third century. We also learn about the Silk route – the North-South trading axis between China and Mongolia, and the maritime routes between India, China, Japan and Korea.

Apart the scholarly writing, the real beauty of the book is in the excellent kaleidoscope of pictures taken by him. Aron is an award winning lensman, and he captures the beauty of the temples, monasteries, people, places, artefacts and cultural performances. The editing and design of this Niyogi Books publication also needs a special mention.

The fiction offering this week is Dusk over the Mustard fields (The Browser) by Ranjit Powar – a sensitive story set in Sahnewal village in the Malwa region of Punjab just before the dawn of Independence (as in the nationalist narrative) or the tragedy of Partition (as the lived reality for millions who had to leave their home and hearth). For all those who want a peep in the life of a typical Punjab village, with dominant Jat Sikh landlords who professed Sikhism, but denied the Chamars the right to visit the Gurudwara, where everyday problems like the drying up of a buffalo’s milk, or a wayward son were resolved by making offerings to any of the different gods, or at the Mazar of Peer Murad Shah. The proprietorship of gods was like the village commons, the and the muezzin’s azaan from the mosque, the Japuji Saheb from Gurudwara Saheb and the melodious jingle of temple bells ushered in the dawn. This is the story of how everything changed in Punjab from 1942 to 1947.

All the Hindi and Sikh marriages were arranged by the Nais(barbers), and along with the Nain – they were the undisputed masters- of ceremonies for all the functions in the villages. This generation of Punjabis would also learn about the various items in a bride’s trousseau, as also the ribaldry and banter that marked a marriage ceremony, a welcome relief from the tedium of looking after buffaloes and crops!

This is then the story of Nimmo, daughter of Zaildar Kehar Singh whose neighbor Mian Ali Beg, was like him an active member of the Unionist Party (the party of dominant landholders). Married off to Hukum Singh, a commissioned officer in the Indian Army, she could not adapt to life in the British cantonment, because she had never been trained for it. On the contrary, the advice given to her was that that her husband was her ‘Maalik’ ‘Lord Protector’ and that she had to keep him and her in -laws in good humor, and suffer the fate silently, for she learnt from the example of her Bhua (father’s sister) that she would not be allowed to come back to her paternal home.  But she could not please her  husband , who was  frustrated by her inability to interact with his peers, especially his  English Commandant’s wife, and because she could not bear him a child in the first two years of her marriage So Hukum took  Hansa as his second wife , a  marriage of convenience : she  was elegant and educated and all of twenty four  ( which went against her) and Hukum’s sister ( who had a squint) was married to her brother , who was quite a wastrel, but  the scion of a Zamindar family. To the credit of Hansa and Nimmo, after their initial altercations, they had settled into a working relationship, and Hansa come out in support of Nimmo and her daughter from Bachana (Hukum’s brother) who had raped her when she was in the village home.

The hero of the story is Akhtar, the son of Mian Ali Beg. Although he and Nimmo had a special soft spot for each other, they had reconciled to the fact that they were perhaps not destined to meet in this lifetime. Akhtar had supported his sister’s decision to marry Ahmed, a Shia, although he had reservations about his adulation and admiration for Jinnah’s thoughts. When Nimmo runs away from the hospital after delivering Bachana’s daughter, he quietly asks her to join the caravan in which they are fleeing Sahenwal for Pakistan, and marries her after a few days, thereby marking a new beginning in their lives.

The book of translations under review is ‘Ratno Dholi: The best stories of Dhumketu’. Dhumketu ( the comet ) is the pen name of the most towering figures of  Gujarati literature Guarishankar Govardhanram Joshi , and  this  bouquet of tales  is pan-Indian  in  breadth , covers a wide range of issues – from Ratno Dholi   the story  of the drummer and his partner, the dancer Sundari, who were both vilified by the village , to The Post Office , where the letter arrives  after the recipient is in his grave,   and The prisoner of Andamans  where  after  two  decades of serving his term for a murder , Visaji  returns to his village , but does not  find acceptance for he is still Vihoji , the head-splitter  and murderer , and he decides that he must go back to the Andamans . As Jenny Bhatt, the translator tells us, curating a ‘selection’ is indeed difficult – for there are competing stories each vying for attention, Bhatt, who is a polyglot herself has done a great job – and as Jhumpa Lahiri said in a recent interview- a translator knows the text better than the author herself! This problem is compounded for a reviewer can only take up three to four stories from within this section.

Perhaps because I was posted in Darjeeling hills during my training days, my favourite story is The Queen of Nepal. Set in the tea gardens of Darjeeling, Dal Bahadur and Gopi – both tea garden workers in different plantations are attracted to each other, and decide to live together – but just before the D- Day, Dal Bahadur watches a play based on Sita’s abduction, their (Rama and Sita) pining for each other. He decides, unilaterally that he cannot get into this relationship, falls at her feet and addresses Gopi as his sister. Gopi   rejects this offer, but also leaves her husband Nobhu, and sets up a tea shop where the Bhotia and Lepcha workers reverentially address her as the Queen of Nepal. Later in the World War, where both Dal Bahadur and Nobhu leave for the distant battle fields of France, Dal Bahadur survived while Nobhu was ‘put to the sea’ because he was too weak to have fought or even survive   the passage. Dal Bahadur tells Gopi that Nobhu had been pining for Gopi even when he was injured, and on the verge of collapse.  With their respective spouses dead, Dal Bahadur holds out his hand to Gopi, but she spurns his offer, shuts her shop and leaves for Nobhu’s village to serve her mother-in -law!

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