REDWeb does not normally feature poetry or prose, or for that matter any other form of what is generally referred to as “creative expression”. The website sticks to the straight and narrow – discussions on the worldwide search for “alternatives”, their emerging theoretical coordinates and more importantly, their expanding practice. That’s what our mandate is, and we don’t deviate. And, then you have an occasion when you’re enticed into a swerve by a friend and comrade like Ashish Kothari! He offered me a poem, recently – an inspired variation on an iconic poem from the early 20th century, written by the celebrated Indian polymath and an enduring motif of Bengal’s cultural renaissance, Rabindranath Thakur. It would be considered audacious to riff off of Rabindranath, but then to do so with such aplomb as Ashish has, well! I had to take that swerve, and having landed safely, now I’m sharing that poem along with the original.
As is usual for Indian students, Ashish and I also discovered Rabindranath’s poem, “Where the mind is without fear” in middle school, in Ms. Meena Jacob’s 7th grade English class. A brilliant teacher, and, more than that, a thespian par excellence, Ms. Jacob executed hugely prominent and powerful roles on Delhi’s vibrant theatre circuit in the 70s. With her flair for the dramatic, Ms. Jacob could turn a casual class conversation into a chic dialogue reminiscent of a splashy classic, or an acid exchange among a surly clutch of Pinter characters. Her recitation of Rabindranath’s poem would leave us with goose bumps for the rest of the school day. We thought Ms. Jacob’s energy, and her passion for words and their accompanying sentiments could lift the poet’s prayer beyond the school, and slowly mist over the callous new rulers who had taken over Lutyens’ frigidly insolent imperial city sprawled all around us, to remind them of their forgotten promises. Alas, that wasn’t to be.
Fear had already enveloped India by the third decade of independence – fear of dissent, fear of the future, fear of each other. And, that fear has only intensified in the years following, not just in India, but all over the world. Could Rabindranath be invoked again, and in a more effective manner? Ashish’s poem revives the sentiments of the original work – a yearning for wisdom, sanity and wellbeing. It also brings the agency for change back to us, the people – to be able to lead toward a new future, and also be willing to be led by others on that path. It surely is a riff off of a classic, but with sparkling verve and urgent energy resting in the search for “alternatives”. So, tweaking the REDWeb mandate a bit, here’s a poem by an old classmate and an enduring comrade. I hope it resonates with you as much as it did with me!
Where the mind is without fear
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Where the mind is without fear
(In honor of Rabindranath Thakur)
Where Amazon is an endless rainforest, not an endless orgy of shopping
Where Cloud is lavishly rain bearing, not a data loaded aid to snooping
Where Reliance is what you have in your friends, not some capitalist’s hand in your pocket
Where Apple is a delicious fruit for all to adore, not a company with a rotten core
Into that world, my Indigenous friend, lead us
Where Shell is that wondrous thing we find on the seaside, not a corporation that tears up the oceans
Where Twitter is what birds do in the sky, not a playground of the chatterati
Where Jaguars are cats stalking their preys in jungles, not knocking down pedestrians on city streets
Where Microsoft is the gentle touch of a mother, not a monopolistic profit making machine
Into that world, my eco-feminist friend, lead us
Where my Face is a Book, but not to be sold to surveillance regimes
Where Musk is a Himalayan deer’s fragrant gland, not a fat-cat helping the rich to escape to Mars
Where Gautam is a teacher of compassion, not the head of a rapacious Indian corporation
Where Smart is 40,000 years of Australian aborigines living with the earth, not what IBM wants to make the planet
Into that world, my climate justice friend, lead us
Where religion at its radical core is about compassion, not a dogmatic theocratic fashion
Where power is everyone’s birthright, not the prerogative of a centralized state
Where intelligence is what nature has given us, not something forged in labs
Where wealth is a measure of wellbeing, not what puts you on Forbes (500) list
Into that world, my “disabled” friend, lead us
Into that world, without fear or dread, let us all lead and be led
Into that world, only a seeming impossibility, let us boldly tread
Ashish Kothari is a founder member of Kalpavriksh.
Poorva Goel is an India based illustrator and designer. Amongst her works are the graphic novels ‘Rites of Passage’ (on the rights of rivers) and ‘Amcha Jungle Denaar Nahi’ (We shall not part with our forests) in Marathi, on a movement for community custodianship over the commons in central India.
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