CRAFT OF VERSE
Here are Reflections that span a long period, four decades. Add to this the long wait for publication and the time seem to stretch even further. The long wait was worth it. The reflections soon become our own, and we find ourselves reflecting on these reflections, over and over.
This, however is not a review of Dr. Lakshmi de Silva's recently published collection of poems, 'Reflections'. My only intention here is to give an introduction to the book and the author. The reviewing the poetry of one of the greatest names in English literature in our country today, I leave to scholars far erudite than I. However quoting from the back cover of Dr. de Silva's '12 Centuries of Sinhala Poetry', Reflections too is what Yeats termed 'The Craft of Verse'.
I have always believed and will always believe that small is more beautiful. The 'slim collection of verse', as Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, introduces Reflections, is one more instance to convince us of this truth. Long before Shakespeare, and long before Dejan Stojanovi, the Serbian-American poet, who said "To write good poems is the secret of brevity", we were writing such great poetry, using just a few words as far back as the 5th Century. As she herself writes in the introduction to her book, "The Sinhalese in brief had devised a precision tool, a diction that combined maximum expressiveness with euphony". Similar to what we find in our ancient inscriptions, in Sihigiri Graffiti Dr. de Silva too knows how to use words to maximum effect.
She has dedicated Reflections to Marion Abeysuriya her teacher.
Jack Higgins has been accused of misquoting the Quaran, when he wrote "One sword is worth ten thousand words". In reality one word could be worth much more than ten thousand swords. In a world where we have poets writing a poem, (or more than one poem) a day, here we meet a poet who had written 26 poems over a span of 40 years, and each of them a gem reflecting a million thoughts.
Poets outside Japan try to write Haiku, and now Twihaiku on Twitter. Others try micropoetry. To read and appreciate 'Reflections', we do not have to give these poems any labels or try to categorize them. Poets do not have to imitate other poets or other poetic styles.
Many have written about one of the 20th century greats, Prof. E.R.Sarachandra. They have written pages and pages, in Sinhala and in English, but perhaps none could match what Dr. Lakshmi de Silva had written in eleven brief lines in her poem. She has also paid homage to Martin Wickramasinghe in the same manner, ending her fourteen line verse, with one poignant sentence, "he gave your stones a voice".
In addition to writing poetry Dr de Silva seems to thrive on translating Sinhala works which many would dare not touch for translation into English. She won the Gratiaen and the State Literary Award in 2001 for her translation of Henry Jayasena's Kuweni. She has also translated Sarachandra's Sinhabahu, which won the 2003 State Award, and the ever popular Maname. Dayananda Gunawardena's Gajaman Puwatha was her next translation. 'Twelve Centuries of Sinhala Poetry' won the State Award 2005. An admirer of Martin Wickramasinghe, she has translated Apegama, and Gamperaliya. The latter won her and Dr. Ranga Wickramasinghe the State Award for the Best Translation 2011.
2011 was also the year Lakshmi de Silva was awarded the highest literary recognition in our country, the 'Sahitya Rathana' for her contribution to English literature and education.
But we need not judge Dr. de Silva's skills as a writer by the awards she has won. That is why I picked Anne Ranasinghe's 'After the Fall' and Dr. de Silva's 'Tangalle, 9th April 1971' as the two poems to represent modern Sri Lankan poetry in English at the International Poetry Fair in Bangladesh 2012. Prof. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke describes Dr. de Silva's poem "In a beautiful Southern coastal town, the surface tranquility exploded with the realization that the insurrection too 'was real'. The sense of actuality in this poem is a contrast to ......'s poetry written in complete ignorance of the insurgency." (Sri Lankan English Literature and Sri Lankan People. p.76)
The Kelaniya University website mentions, "In the 1980s Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, the well known translator, critic and 'woman of words' joined the department, adding to the illustrious list of personalities the university had attracted." She is a 'woman of words', not only in English, but also in Sinhala.
"One of the many valuable attributes of Lakshmi de Silva (English/Sinhala bilingual, teacher, translator, critic and poet) is that the active support and encouragement of literature rate high among her greatest interests". Thus wrote Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne, in 'Celebrating Sri Lankan Women's English Writing'. About one of the poems in this collection, 'Addition and Subtraction', Prof. Gooneratne wrote, "(the poem)...conveys a good idea of Lakshmi de Silva's distinctive combination of concentrated intellectual power and deep feeling, and her ability to keep a complex image in play throughout a perfectly phrased and regulated piece of rhymed verse..."
Dr. Lakshmi de Silva owes it to this country to write her memoir from her early childhood, so that our grand children could learn about our culture, our literature and our life styles of the times. She has a remarkable memory which would make this possible within a short time, if only we do not burden her seeking advise on our manuscripts, asking her to write introductions for books and invitations for book launches. For she is one writer, if I may quote Salman Rushdie's definition of a poet, who has the ability to “ name the unnamable, to start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
There is still hope for Mother Earth. She is very sick, and getting worse by the day. Yet when young people take an interest in trying to save her, we can look forward to a better future. It is the youth who can change the world, who have the courage, the strength and have a vision to save Mother Earth. When they decide to channel their energies for the good of mankind it is very heartening, and an encouragement for all of us.
The Rotaract Club of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura had launched a two day program for Growing Green Earth Day Event. They had commenced with a tree-planting program, with the confidence that they will make sure the trees will grow up to provide shade and serenity to the future students of their university, because they are grateful for those who planted the trees that are already there.
Even if we get a headache we blame America, but there is a lot we can learn from them, still. Earth Day began in the United States, on April 22, 1970 with 20 million Americans participating from around the country. It was started by Denis Hayes and an American Senator, Gaylord Nelson.. Today one billion people from 192 countries join in the Earth Day movement. Even Hollywood is contributing to save the Earth. Several studios are planning to attain 100% sustainability in the coming years. Prof. Ajith de Alwis of the Moratuwa University, in his address reminded us how the Earth Rise photo from Apollo 8 mission 1968, inspired the Americans to fight for our Earth.
It was the Earth Day Network which initiated 'Reading for the Earth' program for American children in 2012, to honour Dr Theodor Seuss Geisel (Life into Arts, 18th July, 2012).
Incidentally, it was a century ago, April 22, 1870 that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was born, and another Vladimir, the writer Nabokov was born in 1899.
What we have to realize is that Everyday is an Earth Day. This is our home. Our only home. We have nowhere else we can go to, if we destroy this home. Earth Day is really our Mother's Day. The earth is our Mother, our Mother Goddess, worshipped by early man.
The success of the first Earth Day in 1970 inspired Hayes to set up the Earth Day Network, and we hope and pray that the Jayawardenapura youth will be inspired to continue the good work they started, keep it alive throughout the year and spread their network to the rest of the country.
The presentation made by Prof. Ajtih de Alwis too would have provided greater motivation and new avenues for the students to explore. Prof. Alwis explained the contributions they have been making for over two decades to make our home a better place to live in. He showed how they were converting food waste into biogas, overcoming all the resistance and apathy of some of the students. How they are working on reuse and recycling of plastic, glass and paper. Here too our hopes are that what the students learn and experience here would be useful for them and for the country, when they move out in to the world.
Though we do not realize it, the changing climate can persuade the ground to shake, volcanoes to rumble, and tsunamis to crash on to unsuspecting coastlines. We ignore that this solid earth we stand on, is just a thin crust, the tectonic plates that move and shift and grind. Mother Earth could be writhing in pain, or growling in anger.
We should think of our Mother Earth as a living entity, named by James Lovelock as Gaia. Gaia could be sending us these warnings, one after the other, but we are too blind to see them, or too arrogant to accept them as warnings. She warned us in 2004 with the Indian ocean tsunami, 2008 Sichuan earthquake, 2010 Icelandic volcano and 2011 Japan tsunami, which are just a few of them. Gaia has shown that nothing man-made can withstand her fury. There is a possibility that the 2008 quake could have been caused by the 320 million tons of water in the Zipingpu reservoir. On 20th, April another earthquake hit Sichuan in the same area.
Man began to abuse and destroy Mother Earth from the day he became a biped and began to use his forelimbs for destruction, in the name of development. Culture became the major enemy of nature. We believe that our intelligence and our technology combined can outdo nature and that we are today more powerful than God.
We are fooling ourselves with the concept of 'Sustainable Development'. The terms are contradictory. All material and cultural development, progress of civilization, science and technology, always means destruction of our natural surroundings and our natural resources. The only way 'Development' can be 'Sustainable' is if we consider our spiritual and humane Development, devoid of desire, greed and envy.
If we can accept that Mother earth is a living entity, then all we have to do is give her our loving kindness, practice ahimsa, try to treat her as our own mother. Then we will think twice, before doing anything that would hurt our mother, or her children. Her children are our brothers and sisters. We are all one family, all the human beings, all the animals from elephants to ants, and all the plant life from vanaspathi trees to algae.
Our university students are among the cream of intelligent youth on Mother earth, and they CAN make a major contribution in the attempt to save our only home.
To repeat Dr. Seuss once again, "I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues...Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better."
emperor and the peasant
There are over ten thousand visitors a day at what is now called 'The Forbidden City' in Beijing, which had been the emperor's palace for about 6 centuries. Most of the visitors could be the descendants of several hundred generations of people who had slaved, suffered and died in every way under these emperors.
This is a world heritage site today, but I felt it was a very incomplete heritage preservation. Adjoining this site, there should have been erected and preserved a model of an ancient village of the 14th century, or several villages during the times of the Ming and Qing dynasties, to remind the present day Chinese youth, and the world outside, the contrast between the lives of the emperor and his family, and the families of the rest of the country. While the emperor lived in a 185 acre complex of over 9000 rooms, the peasants would have lived in one room huts. This would also open the eyes of the youth of China how fortunate they are, that they do not have to live under such emperors today.
The Ming dynasty emperor Zhu Di ordered the construction of the palace in 1407. There would not have been anyone in his kingdom who could protest or question his decision. The 20,000 peasants who had to haul enormous stone cylinders from Fangshen could not disobey and their situation would not have been any different from the fate of thousands of horses who were used to pull the stone columns. It would have been the same with those who had to haul the massive tree trunks from far away.
We admire the architecture, because we do not see the devastation caused in felling a few thousand vanaspathi trees to satisfy the whims of the emperor, trees that would have been living for hundreds of years. There are no trees in the outer courts, and the explanation frequently given is that the emperor is the Son of Heaven, and supreme. A tree would grow to be taller than the emperor and would hover above him, which could not be allowed to happen.
In the inner courtyard, in his personal living area, there were many trees, most of them believed to give long life. All the symbols displayed, the crane and the turtle were also believed to give long life. Was it because the emperor did not wish to see the end of his life, but wished to prolong his life on earth, as long as he could, so he could continue to enjoy it? The rest of the country would have wished not just for his early demise, but for the demise of the entire system, which was only attained very much later under Chairman Mao. Till such time most of the common people would have preferred early death, rather than prolonging their suffering.
As the Son of Heaven the emperor mediates between heaven and earth, man's world and God's world. It is claimed that the Chinese people had worshipped Heaven for over 4700 years (since 2600 B.C.), but in the early days there would not have been a mediator.
The original Altar of Heaven had been built at the same time as the Forbidden City, in 1420. The temple is in the midst of a 700 acre park. At the Temple of heaven, we were informed that the emperor visited here, to pray for a birth in heaven. He had to pray for it, because he was enjoying the maximum pleasures and powers in this life, and there was nothing more he could attain here. The only thing he could pray for was the unknown and unseen pleasures that heaven could offer him.
The Hall of Prayers for Abundant Harvests would have been of importance to the entire country, even if the trickled down benefits to the peasants would have been meagre.
Yet, seeing the skyline of the New China and the New Beijing, I wondered if the present day people were trying to create their own version of heaven on earth, because they could not live like the early emperors. Or it could be that human beings all over the world, in their arrogance believe that they could reach heaven or create heaven on earth by using science and technology and by sacrificing the natural environment.
In contrast to the Forbidden city the Palace of Peace and Harmony is what a Palace should be, because it is no longer a residence of a king or emperor, but a Lama temple and monastery of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism. It would have been a place of worship for the people too, since it became a lamasery from 1722. In the Hall of Heavenly Kings stands a statue of Maitreya Buddha with the four Heavenly Kings on the sides. The statue of Gautama Buddha is in the Hall of Harmony and Peace. The 18 feet tall statue of Maitreya Buddha, carved out of a single log of white sandalwood is one of the most venerated statues in the temple.
Thinking along these lines, it made me rethink about Sigiriya, and if Kasyapa too had enjoyed this life and tried to live like Kuvera while the rest of the people in the country suffered untold hardships. Sigiriya too had been a monastery before and after Kasyapa, but unfortunately was not preserved or maintained.
The visit to the Lama Temple lifted my spirits and raised my hopes, that mankind could still survive the devastation caused by our own greed and thirst. Almost all the visitors, even some of the Europeans, had not come as curious tourists, but as faithful devotees. Most of them were young, in their twenties and thirties, and it was a pleasing sight to see their devotion, how they paid homage and worshipped the Buddha and the Bodhisattva, touching the ground with their foreheads many times. The atmosphere and the vibrations of the devotees would have made even an atheist to feel the divine presence.
As I listened to the presentation by Prof. T. R. Premathilake on 'Sri Lanka's Earliest Bananas? Evidence from FaHien Cave', my thoughts wondered about the earliest hominids, agriculture and domestication. Did man domesticate plants and animals, or did plants force human beings to be domesticated where the food crops thrived, because plants would not grow where man wanted them?
Anthropologists, archaeologists, paleoenvironmentalists may not agree, but it would be interesting speculation, if man was domesticated by plants. Then we could look at human cultural evolution in a different way. Then it is nature which is controlling and manipulating man's destiny and his evolution. Then it would always be futile for man to try to meddle with and try to destroy the natural environment. If the paleoenvironmentalists could look at their findings with a more open mind, instead of going bananas with their present anthropocentric mindset, we could understand our life better.
Coming back to real bananas, Prof. Premathilake told us that man had been using wild bananas for the past 40,000 years, in Sri Lanka, based on the evidence found at the FaHien caves. We could only speculate they were species of banana. Was it used as a food item, and if so was it the ripe fruit, or was it the pith or the tuber that was eaten? Banana could have been a staple food in our part of the world too, like it is today in some parts of Africa.
As a food crop it would have been of real importance to early humans, and their ancestors too, if it had been a food source available throughout the year, and if planting and harvesting was not a chore like with cereals, where man had to breakup the topsoil, plant or scatter the seed, wait for the ripening, harvest the seed, and do it all over again during the next season. Anyway because it would grow on its own, man would have used and consumed banana long before he felt a need to cultivate it, which could mean that domestication could have happened very much later than speculated. It could have been the same with the coconut, which spread around the world on its own, often without the aid of man.
Was the banana leaf and the pseudo-stem used for decorative purposes or did they use the leaves to sleep on, like Prof. Premathilake speculated. May be the leaves and peeled stem were used for wrapping other food items, or as plates.
There could have been other uses. The stems could be tied together to float or row across waterways. Because the stems, once the outer dead layers were peeled off, would have appeared so pure white in colour and so soft, man could have used it for decorative work. Perhaps in the worship of whatever powers they believed in, during the stages of proto-religions, if we could use the term religion for the faith the ancients had on their environmental forces.
From the Vedic India, we too had inherited the use of banana trees heavy with fruit for decoration during festivals. Or was it from pre-vedic times, since banana phytoliths had been found at Kot Diji during the Indus civilization.
Prof. Premathilake used the term banana throughout his presentation. As we have bananas and bananas, we also have plantains. The Food and Agricultural Organization itself is confused using the outdated nomenclature Musa paradisiaca for plantains and Musa cavendishi for banana.
At the end of the presentation a question that was raised was about the names for banana, in different countries, and where the name used in Lanka had come from. Languages had developed long after man began to use banana, and the origin of the names would not have any relevance to the origin and spread of the plant. Like the speculations of the spread of the plant itself, some of the Lankan names for banana could have originated independently in our country. In a world where everything under the sun and even beyond are subjects for research, this presentation opens up many more topics, like the origin of the names, the origin of real indigenous domestication, the various uses for which the banana plant was used and the future of the banana, with the looming curse of human interference in genetical modifications.
It is also time we got out of the mindset that every thing we have in our country have been borrowed from other countries. Often scientists come to a conclusion and then try to find evidence to prove it. Could it have happened about the banana too? What I gathered at this presentation was that people who lived in Lanka 40,000 years ago had used or consumed banana and had continued to use it. However the line drawn between the wild varieties and the domesticated varieties appeared very vague and artificial. Could that line have been drawn for the express purpose of proving a point that the banana plant was taken by human beings from the East Asian islands, first to Lanka, then to the Indus valley and then to Africa? Another question would be about the East Asian islanders who came to this country with the banana plants. Did they settle down in this country and could we trace their descendants?
If we can accept that coconut was not introduced by man to other countries, that they had been carried from one country to another by the sea, perhaps that is how banana too could have spread. If banana had been brought to Lanka from the East Asian islands, then man would have conquered the sea 6000 years ago. Man also would have introduced other plants to Lanka and then from Lanka to the Indus Valley, along with the banana.
Thinking about domestication, perhaps man was domesticated by woman, another topic for another day.
At a business conference in Srinagar last month, I felt ashamed to have been calling myself a bilingual writer. In our country being bilingual is something to be proud of. Yet in the presence of businessmen like our host Bharat Shah who could address the gathering in English, Hindi, Marati, and a little of Bengali and even Kashmiri, all in one breath, I was really humbled.
Shah is not a linguist, nor a writer, but a businessman with a Masters in Pharmacology. He is not from the metropolitan Mumbai, but from a town named Akola. When I first visited Akola way back in 1998, most Indians in Mumbai or Delhi had not even heard of such a town, and I had to explain that it is in Maharashtra, several hours drive from Aurangabad or Nagpur airports. Access was by train, an overnight journey. I still use the term 'Akola in Maharashtra', at Immigration counters or hotel registrations, to explain where the place is found.
Even the Indian-African businessmen and their families who were with us could speak their mother tongue, Marati, Gujarati or Bengali, in addition to Hindi, English and the native language of their country of residence.
Many of the SAARC writers I had met at Literary festivals are multilingual, able to talk to each other in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and their own mother tongue, in addition to English. They would not have learned all these languages at school, but in the university of social life. This is what makes me doubly ashamed, because I had the opportunity to learn Tamil in my childhood, as we had so many Muslim friends speaking in Tamil, in my hometown Galle, and a greater opportunity during my two years in Jaffna in the late 60s.
In our country, when we consider ourselves bilingual, we mean we can read and write in our mother tongue and in English. In reality our bilingualism should be the ability to use our mother tongue and the mother tongue of the other community, be bilingual in Sinhala and Tamil.
We learn, we adopt and we ape many things from India, but this is a very important lesson for us to learn, a practice we must adopt. We have to learn, and we have to encourage our children to learn, the tongue of our neighbour. It is only then that we would be able to understand him, his culture, his creative arts and his feelings.
We take pride in the fact that most popular and interesting world literature is getting translated and published in Sinhala, while we do not have any opportunity to read and enjoy the writings of our brothers living next door. We never get an opportunity to read the fiction and poetry of the new and young writers from Jaffna. We have not even heard of most of them. The young people in Jaffna would not have heard of most of the young Sinhala writers, except a bold few who had ventured out to get their works translated into Tamil, and who have been trying to contact the writers from the north.
We have the doors open for ethnic harmony, when we have learned each other's languages, when we have learned to read the Baghavat Gita and the Tirukural and the Thera Theri Gatha in their original forms. Then we can travel anywhere in the country and communicate with the people in their own language, in the north, the south, the east or the central hills. Then we can sit and enjoy a drama in Sinhala or Tamil, watch a film without seeking sub-titles.
Translating from Sinhala to Tamil or Tamil to Sinhala should not be difficult. Other than the difference in the two languages of Dravidian and Indo-Aryan origins, we share all other cultural and religious values, and we have so much in common. Such translations also would help us further in learning each other's languages, by reading the translation and the original.
Being multilingual is how India is still united, and the people identify themselves as Indians wherever they go, instead of by their language group. That is why there are no communication gaps or misunderstandings among people who speak different languages. Only 41% of Indians speak Hindi and only 0.027% or 226,449 speak English according to the 2001 census. There are only 10 languages spoken by more than 3% of the population, while there are 447 living languages and that is why people have to be multilingual.
India is not perfect. There are many people who believe that Hindi should be learned and spoken by all Indians. Some of them are intentionally monolingual, while others try to pretend they speak only Hindi or Tamil. But the numbers of such people have been gradually decreasing. We cannot expect to be like the United States or Britain, where everyone has to use English, whatever their mother tongue or ethnicity is.
Man has the ability to learn, speak and write in many languages, if he is really interested. Our schools should first teach the second mother tongue before trying to teach French, German, Korean, Chinese or Japanese. If all of us can make use of this ability, and encourage our children to learn as many languages as they get exposure to, then we can still hope for a more peaceful world.
43 years ago on April 14th 1970, Martin Wickramasinghe proposed that the Sinhala New year should be made a National Festival to be celebrated by the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher people of our country.
People make resolutions on January 1st. In the same manner we could make resolutions on this day of the National New Year on April 14th, to learn each other's languages and be truly bilingual.
Garbage in Storage
The International Conference on Waste Management was held in Colombo recently. It is time to think about the digital waste too. We are all aware of, or trying to ignore our Carbon footprint and the legacy we are leaving our children, due to the effects of the release of so much CO2 to the atmosphere. And we gloat about our contribution to push back global warming by minimizing use of paper and print media.
Dr. Alexander Wissner-Gross at Harvard University estimates that "every second someone browsing a simple web site generates roughly 20 milligrams of CO2". Recently CNN quoted the computer security organization McAfee, that electricity needed just to transmit the trillions of spam emails sent annually equals the amount of electricity required to power two million homes in the U.S. while producing the same level of greenhouse gas emissions as more than three million cars.
Youtube has claimed that they have crossed the one billion threshold recently. There had been only 50 million visitors a month when Google acquired it in 2006. Facebook had reached this figure five months ago. Facebook had 1,526,360 users as at March 21st, 2013, while the global audience was 963,675,160 on the same date. Still there is no waste management with any of these sites.
We accumulate trash and garbage in our computers, android phones and even in e-book readers, in the same way we collect such unwanted material in our homes and our offices. We often believe that if we clean up our store-rooms, our filing cabinets, our hard disks and thumb drives, we would suddenly be in urgent need of what had been trashed. That is why we are reluctant to clear the trash folders in our computers.
When we had to work with a 512 k memory and a 10MB hard disk, we used to keep all our data and files in diskettes, and as the memory and storage capacity kept on increasing, we kept on storing everything that we came across. Some books, old newspapers, even our school notebooks we keep, "for sentimental reasons". Now no one talks in Kilobytes or Megabytes, but in Gigabytes and even Petabytes, (10 and 15 zeros). The technological answer is to digitize all the old documents and save them on our own computers or on the clouds. This is really good and useful technology when it comes to preserving ancient documents, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or our own ola leaf documents. It is very useful for the museums around the world, and archives.
Like every invention, technological development of mankind, the evil and destructive effects of our new technology far outweigh the benefits. It is like the latest drugs for cancer. The harm these drugs do to the human body is far more destructive than the cure it brings. In the same manner the new digital storage technology will only increase the garbage in storage. Storage space is virtually unlimited and we never for a moment think of the cost of this storage, not just the carrying cost, but the total cost to nature, our Mother earth.
In the early sixties the saying among the computer users was "Garbage In - Garbage Out", meaning if we feed garbage into the computer we only get garbage out of it. Today the problem is we input all the garbage, which not only process them into more garbage, but we are storing all the input and output data in the computers. Some of the household garbage in the city garbage dumps would deteriorate soon, but the garbage of the hardware components of the computer world would take millions of years to deteriorate. The soft garbage of data and documents would never deteriorate as long as the storage facilities are maintained, and the garbage dumps will go on growing till some day they will smother mankind out of existence.
In the old days, we were very careful with our photographs. Cameras were expensive. The photographic films were expensive, developing and printing was expensive. In low light we had to use flash bulbs, one bulb for each shot. Colour films had to be sent to India for processing. We would print only the best photos we had taken, and they would lie around in boxes or photo albums gathering dust.
Now photography is of unlimited capacity, we can go on taking photo after photo as long as the memory card and battery would last, but we can always replace the card and the battery, or dump the photos in another storage dump and recharge the battery. We are happy that it costs nothing extra. We do not even need a camera today, because the phones are sometimes better as a camera. What we do not realize is the massive Carbon footprint we are leaving as we store all these unwanted photographs. We do not have time to enjoy a visit to a landscape where natural wonders still remain, or at any social gathering, because we are so busy taking photos. We only see where we had been only at home later on a screen.
We have forgotten, that we have the best cameras on earth, our own eyes. We have unlimited storage capacity and memory power, to store every beautiful and memorable thing that has happened in our lives. We do not need to continue to leave a digital carbon footprint. Prof. Paul Reber estimates that the human brain has a storage capacity around 2.5 Petabytes. This capacity could hold three million hours of TV shows, most of which would be real garbage.
Nothing is permanent in life, we don't live forever. Nothing lasts for ever, either natural or man made. So why should we try to beat the universal system by trying to preserve them? And in preserving all the digital garbage, bring a quicker end to the Earth as we know it.
The Tear Drop
It has been called a Shrine of Love. Gurudev Tagore called it a "tear drop on the cheek of time". It is a historic site. A great monument. It also would have caused not just one tear drop but rivers of tears to fall from the 20,000 men who laboured for 22 years to build it, to flow into the ocean of sweat which poured from their bodies.
It is the tears and the sweat and the blood that I would have seen, seeping through the marble slabs, had I gone in to see the Taj Mahal. Instead I roamed around the vehicle park and the innumerable tourist shops while the other delegates who attended the SAARC literary festival walked into see one of the seven wonders of the world.
I sat in the shade of a neem tree and watched the tourists walking in and out of the gates. I tried to imagine a flow of humanity numbering over two to four million a year through this monument. I wondered what they saw, and what their feelings were. They would have heard of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, and listened to various versions about the Taj Mahal, as recited mechanically by the tour guides. The total interest of the guides would have been to get the maximum sales commissions from what the gullible tourists purchased. The visitors purchase replicas of a mausoleum, said to be of the same marble as had been used for the Taj Mahal. They collect chains, bangles, pendants and invariably the Agra delicacy, 'Petha', which is said to be unique to Agra. But in our country we too know it as 'Puhul Dosi' made from ash pumpkin.
I had always wondered what was the true love of Shahab Uddin Muhammad Shah Jahan. As his name implies, did he want to become the 'King of the World'? Was it love for power and glory, or love for one woman amongst his eleven wives? Was he considered the 'greatest Mughal' because he conquered so much land, or because he caused the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of human beings in the wars he initiated? He was considered great because he won the wars, because he walked to his victory over dead bodies.
Arjumand Banu was married to Shah Jahan when she was 19 years old. She had 13 children over a period of 18 years. She had died during the birth of her 14th child. She had been given the title Mumtaz Mahal (Chosen one of the palace) by her husband, because of his deep love for her. Poets had extolled her beauty and gracefulness, yet she had also enjoyed "watching elephant and combat fights", which would not have been so graceful.
We only hear about, talk about and think about Shah Jahan, but we do not pause even for a moment to think of the poor people who slaved to build the Taj Mahal, not because they were interested in creating a work of art, but because they were compelled to work. No one would have been able to refuse. We also do not know, probably because there would not have been any record, of how many of these workers had got injured or had died during the construction. We have no record of how many would have been punished for failing to carry out their task satisfactorily. Shah Jahan not only exploited human labour, but also is said to have caused immense suffering to one thousand elephants to carry all the building materials from all over India. This fact has slipped the minds of our animal lovers.
There are also many legends about how Shah Jahan had cut off the hands of the workers, of the architects, had even blinded the chief architects. Though there is no evidence to establish any of these legends, they would never have arisen if Shah Jahan was such a sensitive person, with so much love for his wife, and had such good taste as to visualize the Taj Mahal.
We also do not talk about the architect or architects who designed and supervised the construction. Ustad Ahmad, also known as Isa Khan, is mentioned as the chief architect, while other names have been mentioned in Mughal histories: Ismail Afandi who had worked for the Ottomans, Qazim Khan goldsmith, Chiranji Lal lapidarist, Amanat Khan calligrapher, Mohammed Hanif, Multan and Quandhar master masons, Mukrimat Khan and Mir Karim supervisors and administrators. If not for these people and all the other unnamed and unknown artisans the Taj Mahal would never have been built. If the Mughals had not conquered all the land around them, and looted all the wealth of these lands, Shah Jahan would never have been able to find the funds to build this.
There is no mention of how the money was found, because none of these rulers had ever done an honest day's work in their life time. Perhaps we could say this about most ancient projects, which were of no apparent benefit to mankind, like the pyramids. They could be considered as monuments of exploitation. Megalomania leading to the erection of mega-monuments.
One more question which came to my mind was, the reason for all the million to visit the Taj Mahal or any other historical site. Could we really see the beauty, the majesty and appreciate the craftsmanship in just about one hour?
The ideas of Stephen Knapp also came to my mind as tourists carried with them the tiny replicas of the Taj Mahal. P. N. Oak's book 'The 'True Story of the Taj Mahal' claims that the name Taj Mahal is a corrupt form of the term Tejomahalay, signifying a Siva temple. That is another story, perhaps for another day.
Environment and Literature
Agra in Uttara Pradesh, India, was a symbolic location for the 2013 SAARC festival of literature, in the shadow of a true work of art and a source of inspiration for many a creative work of literature, the Taj Mahal.
The annual conference organized by the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature is not a carnival, and it is not a business venture. It is a genuine effort of the founder and president Ajeet Cour to inspire and gather together as one family, 108 writers from the SAARC region. It was a festival of Writers Without Borders, writers who had brought down the political and ethnic barriers, and crossed over geographical barriers. The only barrier was the barrier of language, but it did not deter the family of writers to listen to, and really appreciate the poetry.
FOSWAL was founded in 1986 and had organized 42 major SAARC cultural and literary events, Festivals of Folklore, Conferences on Buddhism and Sufism, in all the countries of the SAARC region, which now includes Afghanistan. The theme of the conference this year was 'Environment: Our Earth: Our Only Home'.
Breaking down political and ethnic barriers itself is a contribution towards a better environment, and all the delegates who presented their papers emphasized the need of continued efforts by writers to use their skills and their creative powers to save our Mother Earth. Breaking down barriers should always be easier than building them. Most barriers among mankind are erected by a handful of men, for their selfish gains. Thus a few writers should be able to demolish them as easily.
One of the papers presented was about the condition of the Yamuna river, the once majestic river, now one of the most polluted. This is just one example of the threat to our environment. Most of the time we take each problem separately and look at them and try to solve them separately. It is this kind of forum of writers from many countries, which help us to realize the Yamuna as just one minute part of the whole picture, the total threat to Mother Earth. This is where all of us can get together, pool our information, our resources and our creative abilities to convince the world, that what has happened to Yamuna would happen to all the rivers on earth, today, tomorrow or the day after. It is an inevitable process of destruction, as more and more pollutants get into the river, as industrial waste, as agri-business poisons, and garbage.
The problems become worse, when rainfall fails, and the volume and flow of water grows down, concentrating the pollutants further in the little water that remains. This polluted water seeps into the ground water, into the wells and into the farmlands. In Agra the Taj Mahal is threatened as the polluted ground water could damage the foundation. Here again it is an example of what could happen at other such world heritage sites.
We also heard of the land once known as the 'God's Own Country' which is changing into 'Devil's own Hell'. The whole world was a paradise, as we read in the creative works of our early writers. Today we try to deceive ourselves by describing in our poetry, fiction and works of art, that our world is still wonderful, beautiful and memorable. It is time to accept reality and expose the threats we are faced with.
At the conference we also heard about Ecopoetry, which flowed through the verses of Upanishad, Geeta and Vedanta, in the environmental philosophy we find in them. We were reminded of the concept of Ecocentrism, which we should embrace instead of the present day Anthropocentrism.
Another topic discussed was on the environment and women. The concept that culture is superior to nature is a belief among mankind in the same manner as their belief that man is superior to woman. No human development, progress or technical achievement could ever surpass nature. Nature keeps on reminding mankind of this fact, throughout history. Nature and Mother Earth suffer all indignities and destruction in the same way most women suffer in silence, but when nature decides to hit back, it is to leave a lasting memory on man.
Murray Bookchin wrote in 'The Philosophy of Social Ecology', ".....the present ecological crisis has its roots in human social problems, and that the domination of human-over-nature stems from the domination of human-over-human". It is this human-over-human domination which has to be eliminated.
We can not leave only memories for our children and their children. And it is our responsibility to make the dreams a reality once again. We have to use our efforts to bring back empathy among mankind. For if we were concerned about our fellow beings and all life on earth, as we are concerned about our own personal wellbeing and safety, we need not take any extra efforts to save our environment. No one would even think of discharging factory effluents, or garbage into a well or pond from which they had to get their water for drinking. No one would discharge these poisons into a river if he had to draw water from the same river. Yet no one really shows any concern about polluting the rivers or the ground water which other people have to drink.
Ajeet Cour said in her Welcome Address, "Can there be world of memories? Beautiful as they might be, can future generations subsist just on stories? Will only the ghosts of the bounties of nature be left for posterity? These are the questions that we should be asking ourselves.... it is only befitting that the pen wielders of the SAARC region make it their primary concern. "
Let us, the pen wielders and keyboard tappers of the SAARC region show to the world, what we can do by pooling all our resources to save our Only Home.