Fence consciousness

“there were days when I chose to serve as border patrol
before actually crossing over”

I begin by quoting Joaquim Mondal and by asking about fences. About what a fence might mean. We know how it has been represented by European writers, artists and auteurs. For instance, eviction and exile form strong recurrent themes in Ceslaw Milos’s later work as he speaks about a real city somewhere else filled with real people, plants, voices, amity, and love. Similar trends are sometimes dormant and sometimes active in Hispanophone poetry of the second half of the twentieth century; for example, these ideas are especially apparent in the work of one of Chile’s leading poets of the past century, David Rosenmann-Taub, reminding of his emigration from Chile to the US. They also form a key stream running through the foliage of Argentine Juan Gelman’s work. Of particular interest here is how Gelman, while developing a characteristic oeuvre whose themes focused on eviction and political isolation, referred to ancient Bengali poet Ramprasad Sen[1], citing the poet’s move from provincial Bengal to urban Kolkata, describing this as a displacement. So many examples of the theme of exile in western literature.

The backdrop

The picture differs slightly for most Asian languages, and particularly for Bengali. Crisscrossed by the river Ganga (Ganges), its main tributary Padma, and her other sisters, the Bengal plains are one of the most densely populated areas of the world.[2] A 2004 United Nations report states that Bangladesh is one of the top ten most densely populated countries, with 1,063 people per square kilometer. Likewise, according to the 2001 Indian census, West Bengal recorded the highest population density in India, with 900 people per square kilometer. Consequently, an intense and unhealthy competition to access and claim land, water, energy, and other resources has begun in these areas. While it is a challenge in many countries to find experts in rare disciplines of micro-specialization, in this part of world a hundred applicants show up for a single job opening. For the average newcomer from the West, a task as simple as crossing the street in urban South Asia proves an uphill battle. In other common areas fierce competition ensues, frequently proving the law of diminishing returns, and sinking man’s pride in humanity to the bottom of the trough. Quite often, morality drowns and an ethical imbalance becomes omnipresent. Competition intensifies power politics and leads to corruption. A rich, fertile land that provided easy availability of resources and nurtured the growth of human society, now, due to population explosion, has begun to erode. 

However, it is no wonder that the homo sapiens sapiens adapts to such social conditions — and adapts well. A living proof of the Darwinian struggle for existence in modern human society is no more elegantly expressed than here. We grew up reading about the importance of a clean, green environment for a complete organic growth of the human mind and body. However, as we stepped into adulthood, that need was forced out by other, more basic ones. The environment’s turning acidic did not, however, slow down population growth: the three P’s (population, poverty and pollution) remain closely and strongly connected. A countless number of children are stillborn every day on South Asian streets, in cities that resemble fairly modern and technologically advanced urban societies (albeit ones plagued by faulty resource distribution). In villages, this element of contradiction is alien. The arrival of a newborn in most Indian villages is often greeted with indifference. Thus social status in South Asia stands sharply contrasted with that of either the more developed (or should we say better resource-distributed) Western blocs or the relatively underdeveloped African or other sub-Saharan areas.

This daily struggle serves as the catalyst for uprooting young people like Joaquim Mondal. They turn the vestiges of local success into global opportunities, changing their geographical maps. A large Bengali population (in the millions), comprised of meritocrats, opportunists and desperate laborers, lives outside South Asia. A thick section of this migrant workforce, mostly laborers and contract dealers, use secret illegal contacts with immigration agents and middlemen to get out, especially to the Middle East. We, the middle class, know them, but not as closely as we might think. As relations improved in the early 90s between the two major world powers, as Glasnost and Perestroika attempted to liberate the former USSR, as free market economy began to spread in the BRIC countries, the situation changed quite dramatically in Bengal territory. Like ants and rodents drawn to an upturned wok full of decomposing food, people flocked to volatile funds that depended on India’s economic, political and diplomatic ties with the former Soviet Union. As the USSR collapsed, however, these funds camphorized. Simultaneously, aggravated by the pressing need to globalize business markets, and with the search for cheap labor, emigration rates catapulted — tripling in Bengal over the past fifteen to twenty years. An illegal trap has developed alongside this new trend — the machinery of immigration consultation.

The present scene

These rates of competition and emigration are not without precedent. From accounts of migrating villages to the saga of European colonization, many trends throughout history fit the bill. A reverse-colonizing syndrome seems to be the trend — people from this continental space are continuously trying to change their socioeconomic position by relocating to new geographical spaces. No matter what intellectual capsule we find for this geographical displacement, it’s hard to argue that its motivation is not an organic one. In a Darwinian light, this indeed is a struggle for existence. Just as the successful middle- or upper-class student goes abroad in search of a “better” academic and economic future, the struggling underprivileged worker from Uttar Pradesh lands up in a remote landfill in Doha. Wherever the immigrant might drift, he is able to find his own cultural content — a fusion of all the geographical spaces he has covered — and his cultural identity mutates.

Man carries his own geography with him. No wonder the Hungarian youth roaming New Delhi’s Jorhbag area seeks out Hungarian spices; no wonder an Indian tracks down samosas in a remote corner of Madrid. Someone born in the Caribbean in the 70s might be called Shiunarain Chander Paul, but he might as easily have been named Shibnarayan Chandra Pal if born far apart in Bengal instead. In this sense, Joaquim Mondal is no exception: he was named by a Goanese priest who had only Portuguese names in his book. We migrate with our own memory-filled geographies that progressively dilute through the generations that follow and get shattered into smithereens; identities haze out. Dad’s copy of the Upanishads amicably settles down beside his teenage daughter’s birth control pills, both in the same drawer. As migrations and displacements increase, known cultural landscapes are tessellated more and more.

We will focus not on the second or subsequent generations but on the freshly uprooted, on those who aren’t keen to simply pin their own maps to their newly acquired geographies, but who find a way to sow seeds taken out of the new land into their cultural memory. As such, our primary aim is not the self-conflicting world of new diasporic literature, but rather the internationalist being of the Gandhian globe-trotter Amiya Chakravarty,[4] the diary of a veritable paribrAjak.[3] In other words, a supersocial individual, someone who would travel without a mAdhukari, in a quest for the essential, the universal and the particular. Few would know that Chakravarty, who was professor of comparative oriental religions and literature at Boston University, traveled around the US during the Civil War years, lecturing on the Gandhian politics of ahimsa.

Our global circumcontent identifies — inside poetic space — with works that house the mixed streams of geographical sensitivity. It identifies with the soulfulness of a paribrAjak, who believes that confluence is about the sonorous overlapping of cultural waves.

Translated from Bengali by Aryanil Mukherjee.


1.“Com/posiciones” de Juan Gelman o como traducir los mil rostros de la realidad, Maria del Carmen Sillato, Hispamerica, Ano 24, No. 72 (Dec., 1995), pp. 3-14.

2. The term “Bengal” refers to the pre-colonial Indian province of Bengal, which today comprises the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Jharkhand, parts of Bihar, and the independent country of Bangladesh, areas still dominated by the Bengali language and its dialects.

3. Amiya Chakravarty (1901–1986) was a major Indian (Bengali) poet, essayist, international scholar, critic, and teacher of the post–Tagorian era. He was secretary to Rabindranath Tagore for some years (1924–1933), a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, and a friend of Albert Einstein. He walked with Gandhi in the historic Salt March of 1930. Amiya Chakravarty lived the second half of his long and illustrious life in the US. A DPhil from Oxford University, Amiya taught at Selly Oak College, Birmingham, UK, Calcutta University, India, and in the US, first at Howard University, then at Yale and Princeton as a visiting fellow. Finally, he taught for many years at Boston University as professor of comparative Oriental religions and literature in the Department of Missions and World Religions. Amiya won many awards, most notably a UNESCO Prize and the Sahitya Academy (Government of India) Award (1963). His poetry is currently the object a renewed interest, as scholars are find renewed meaning in his attention to humanist values in the current moment of globalization. Please see Norman Finkelstein’s review of Another Shore.

4. A paribrAjak (in Bengali) or pariVrAjaka (in Sanskrit and Hindi) is a wanderer monk, both Hindu and Buddhist.

'Woodense': A close twinning

Aryanil Mukherjee with a detail of a “thought-schema” sketch of his poem “Woodense.”

A caged tiger who is regularly fed is probably not too keen to escape the quadrangle. Look at him — he’s mostly in the midst of a lazy yawn. A child who has never seen a tiger would find it hard to discover his ferocity behind the metal nets, and might instead be moved by his deep eyes, incisive canines and checkered fur. “Here is my new pet!” he might exclaim.

Aryanil Mukherjee’s “Woodense” is not a poem that takes such a juvenile jab at the tiger (one might be erroneously lured to think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Panther”). Rather, it is more about the “woods,” and about the “mouli,” or the “wives”; it is about the “bees,” the “honey,” and the “forest-department.” A whole network of closely connected themes. The “wood” seems to read as an extended metaphor at times, and at other times not. The specificity of transaction traditionally associated with metaphor is mostly missing from the “wood” and all its related concepts.

The poem is based on a newspaper feature (Appendix I) on the problems confronting a marginal community of honey collectors in the Sundarban area of West Bengal, India. During a discussion Mukherjee disclosed that he had graphed a thought-schema as a pre-text, much like a scenario, to use the language of films. The thought-schema, borrowing from graph theory, is an “object-oriented” diagram in the sense that the key themes mentioned in the report are objectified. Each “object” is represented by certain well-defined characteristics (usually descriptors), has a figuration in the theme hierarchy, and is interrelated with other objects.

The poem seems to intertwine two texts, a regular poetic text and a part-poetic-part-informative text, so as to guide the reader through the poem’s desired flow of logic. The thought-schema, in a nutshell, suggests structure that arranges the poem’s thoughts. It also tempts the reader to consider the objects in the poem as metaphors.

Parallel to the traditional metaphor there could be another kind that is indefinitely indiscrete, one that is not used to convey meanings or feelings. A whole commune of metaphors or “A-phors,” as we choose to call them, each with its clouded orbits uniting to initiate a collective thought-stream. The poem, as a result, dissipates ideas rather than controlling them. Because this A-phor-assembly is huskless and granular it seems to fit a wide range of thought-patterns.

The thought-schema of “Woodense” as sketched by the poet.

It might be possible to compare the concept of Six-Sigma to the thought-schema of the poem. Six-Sigma is a technological philosophy, a vision; initiative- and goal-oriented, it can also be seen as a tool. In a nutshell, Six-Sigma can be used as a means to stretch out the thinking process. Essentially a business and technological production management strategy, the term “Six-Sigma” is borrowed from the statistical representation of certain phenomena in process capability study. It is defined by a 5-step process — Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify — expressed as a pentagon with the desired product (in our case, the poem “Woodense”) at the center.

Step I: What would be the first step of the process — “Define”? We feel it would probably be the newspaper feature from which the poem’s thought content originates.

Step II: In the “Measure” step, the poet selects certain facts from the report and/or other related sources, conceives and germinates ideas, develops an understanding of the relationship model that connects the “subjects” (expressed as “objects”) of the story.

Step III: For the poet, the “Analyze” phase is perhaps most important. The acquired data is digested in this step, which helped Mukherjee construct his thought-schema. This object-oriented relational model helped him discover a complex nexus of interrelations and dependencies that are not in the newspaper report and are apparently unseen. For example, he discovers the hidden connections between the tiger as state-machine and the worshipped wood-goddess Banbibi; how the poor, struggling mouli and his family become the proletariat, secretly opposed to the powerful (yet endangered) tiger and its protector, the forest department.

There is so much content in a wood! Trees, the strangely branched assemblies of their limbs, the bird collective, dread and curiosity. One imagination leads us to another — of human society and its demographics, its members as one monolithic block of life. Imagine their brain-wires as a single assembly — that makes a forest:

the hunter comes full circle and gets hunted
circles overlap                as in a Venn diagram

Each singular feeling, every sensuous drive of every human adds up to mimic a forest’s density. Each individual is trying to live his own life according to a personal strategy. No one is ready to yield a bit. This leads to a social balance where every member is self-centered, making another kind of forest.

Step IV: The “Design” step is mostly about presentation; it involves the actual writing of the poem. In the case of a technological production procedure, the design and manufacturing phases are the most laborious, painstaking and practical. For a writer, this step might include the selection and structuring of language and the writing of the poem (the presentation). It is possible that for “Woodense” this step involved a forked activity where two texts were written separately and then plaited into one.

Step V: Art is usually not made to “Verify” anything, thus this last step might mean something very different for the writer. This could be seen as a reconsideration phase, where the writer either abandons his freshly composed work to gel or rot for a while and then re-examines it, or discusses it with fellow writers and friends before finalizing the work. This step marks the time when some of us would go back to Step I to revise the entire poem and the process that led to its creation.

Six-Sigma often uses a diagram popularly known as the Ishikawa/Fish-Bone diagram that highlights cause-effect relationships. It is often assumed that creativity is a spontaneous activity. The truth is that creative people use proven tools and techniques to forward their thinking. An augmentative schematic for the poem, different from Mukherjee’s thought-schema can be expressed in the form of a fish-bone diagram:

A fish-bone diagram represents the theme-data.

A fish-bone diagram helps in analyzing collected data. It should not be seen anything more than a tool for constructing thought structures and relating themes, ideas and concepts; by no means can it substitute or enhance poetic ability or imagination.

Now, in this wood, the tiger arrives. With its structure of social power, of political preference and economic disequilibrium, “a quarter on the left pan / a nickel on the right,” the poem seems to simulate the phenomenon of modern money mechanics via the complex tale of a rural society from the coastal forests of southern Bengal. Traditional narrative is avoided; instead, a mixed-media prose language derived from news, cut-up and embroidered with poetry, is interspersed among the poetic stanzas. In the end, it does become a poem of the self-devouring tiger — the common man of everywhere.

There is also an impending politics of religion. The common man begins to think — so much is still hazy, indistinct and obscure. That defines the birthplace of dread, of realization and submission. This is made clear through the figure of the mouli-wife, who submits to the ritual of augur and practices widowhood when the mouli enters the forest. She worships the forest deity and obfuscates truth by complying with superstition. However, positions of social power shift, quacks and clairvoyants assume immediate importance. Scales tip, reversing these binary gradients. The pure spiritual devotion of the mouli-wife is also present; she faces resistance from social consensus passed around as law:

forest department knows it all
observes            measures
we accept the proprietor’s law as just

But she survives it. So does poetry, as it defeats and escapes the tiger’s prowl —

culture of workplace is above all
where bees swarm over the tiger



Appendix: Honey collection expedition begins in the Sundarbans
Anandabazar Patrika, April 15, 2010
Gosaba correspondent

The official honey collection season began in the Sunderbans last Monday. It’s likely that the intruders might encounter tiger attacks in the process of collecting honey from the deep forests. In the past, several collectors have lost their lives. The professional lives of the people of the Sunderbans have an intimate involvement with the tiger. Because most people live either as lumberjacks, honey-collectors or crab-hunters in the rivulets of the forest region, encounters with tigers are a regular affair for them, very often leading to the loss of human life. Since the Royal Bengal Tiger has been identified as an endangered species, guns or weapons are not allowed in these woods. The forest department occasionally uses shotguns with tranquilizer bullets. Faced with lives of extreme economic hardship, the local people choose to ignore the tiger. Tiger attacks are accepted as destiny. When the man goes into the forest, the wife knows that his return is uncertain. She has learned to accept it. When a family head has to venture into the woods, the wife practices a “mental widowhood.”

With the official start of the honey collection season last Monday, the mouli-wives have begun offering prayers to Banbibi, the wood-goddess. Temporary widowhood is being practiced in more than a thousand families. Until the husbands return, the wives and their families turn vegetarian. They refrain from using soap, oil, and vermillion; they take off their wedding bangles; and they stay barefoot and milk-clad, wearing white saris only.

Karunabala Sarkar, Laxmi Roy of Satjelia, Parul and Minoti Mandal of Lahiripur, Debaki Naskar, Sita Mistri of Sonagaon said, “This is an ancestral ritual for us. Until our husbands will return we will mourn their absence this way. Twice a day during this season we would offer water and honey to the sacred Banbibi and pray to her for the safekeeping of our men.” Tarubala Mondal, a sexagenarian from Jamespur, said, “We have had more tiger attacks this year. Quite often the tiger has entered the village. Now our folks have invaded its den. Mother Banbibi will protect them.”

The forest department has stated that the moulis are allowed up to two weeks for collection. All honey and wax collected will be purchased from the moulis by the State Department at government-stipulated rates. Anjan Guha, director of the Sunderbans Tiger Project and his team of observers are stationed on the river. Mr. Guha told us, “Some believe in superstitions, voodoos, some in the Banbibi, some in clairvoyants and jungle magicians. They all have their own ways to beat the dread. But most importantly we’ve given masks to the moulis. Masks that’ll scare away the tiger. They have been asked it use it at all times.”

Translated from Bengali by the authors.

A short response to Alan Dershowitz

In his Huffington Post piece, “Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art” (May 1, 2012), Alan Dershowitz writes: 

Stein, a “racial” Jew according to Nazi ideology, managed to survive the Holocaust, while the vast majority of her co-religionists were deported and slaughtered. The [Metropolitan Museum of Art] exhibit says “remarkably, the two women [Stein and her companion Alice Toklas] survived the war with their possessions intact.” It adds that “Bernard Fay, a close friend … and influential Vichy collaborator is thought to have protected them.” That is an incomplete and distorted account of what actually happened. Stein and Toklas survived the Holocaust for one simple reason: Gertrude Stein was herself a major collaborator with the Vichy regime and a supporter of its pro-Nazi leadership.

Dershowitz seems to have forgotten that, unlike her “co-religionists [who] were deported or slaughtered,” Stein was an American citizen and the US was not yet at war with Germany. Indeed, when the war broke out in September 1939, the United States immediately recognized the Vichy Government and sent an Ambassador — William D. Leahy — to Vichy: the idea, originally, was to pry the Maréchal away from the Germans. At the time that Stein and Toklas settled in the small village of Belley, near Bilignin, where Stein first bought a house in the early twenties, they were not yet in physical danger.  The US declared war on Germany on December 11, 1941 — two years and three months later. After that point, of course — think 1942 — American citizens were the enemy and were rounded up and imprisoned, and Stein makes clear that she and Alice were deeply afraid. Nothing happened, not because Stein was a “major collaborator with the Vichy regime” — an assertion that is simply absurd —  but because, as two old American ladies more or less hiding in the village where they were on good terms with their neighbors, they were left alone.  

Myself an Austrian Jewish refugee from Hitler in 1938 and knowing how complex the situation was in wartime France, I find Dershowitz’s blanket accusations appalling. Maybe he now wants to pronounce Roosevelt a “collaborator” because he sent an ambassador to Vichy; our embassy there, incidentally, was open until the spring of 1942.

Gertrude Stein: September 1942–September 1944

from 'The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder'

Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo included this detailed accounting of Stein’s wartime experience as “Appendix IX — Gertrude Stein: September 1942–September 1944” in their landmark volume, The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder (Yale University Press, 1996).  You can read the complete text here in PDF format.

A letter to the editor

'The Nation,' 1987

Published under the title “Three Lives,” this letter by Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo — written in response to Natalie Robin’s article, “The Defiling of Writers,” appeared in the December 5, 1987 issue of The Nation.  You can read the complete text here in PDF format.