Paan & the Mesabji

A couple of weeks ago I saw a series of NHS posters about the increased incidence of oral cancer in people who chew paan. One of them was in Bangla and it instantly brought to mind the image of the Mesabji, or teacher, who presided over the little ‘school’ at the house of my friend, N. I was ten or eleven at the time. The ‘school’ was held on Saturdays and was compulsory for my Bangladeshi friends, which inevitably meant it was something of a chore for them; whereas i attended of my own free will and loved every minute of the experience.

During the first half of the class we learnt how to read the Qur’an – and I do mean read: there was never any expectation that we should be able to comprehend the words we were reciting; it was enough that we could speak them. We started by learning the Arabic alphabet. Actually, what we learnt was the Bangla pronunciation of the letters: ا alif, ب ba, ت ta, ث sa. After that, we worked our way through vowel markers and joined up letter forms until we could read words and, eventually, sentences.

In the second half of the class we turned our attentions to Bangla. My friends had the advantage over me then, as they understood what we were reading. I struggled along with the help of N. I could already read the script however: I think I’d learnt it the year before with N’s assistance; but my grasp of the the language itself was minimal. I seemed to spend the whole time grappling with the first lesson in আমার বই, ‘Āmār Bai’ (‘My Book’). Āmāder desh shundâr desh* is the only bit of it I can still recall.

Nevertheless, I loved it: Arabic and Bangla alike. I even loved the fact that we had to do a funny ritual (uzu) in which we washed our hands, feet etc before we had the class. I didn’t understand why we had to do these things until a couple of years later when my friends’ dad acquired a couple of books in English, but it scarcely mattered: participation in a ritual generates a meaning of its own.

The mesabji himself spoke no English. He communicated with me entirely through smiles and via valiant attempts at interpretation by my friends. I remember how keen he was to try and learn though. He used to sit and pore over Ladybird books, even as we grappled with Arabic and Bangla. I can picture his face now: the childlike expression contrasting with his long grey beard, as he stares at an illustration of a toothbrush and attempts to say the word on the page opposite. “Tootbrash” is how it always comes out, no matter how hard he tries.

He was such a gentle old man, at least with me; and I revelled in my ‘special pupil’ status. As a ‘convert’ I could do no wrong**. At the end of the class my friends’ mum would bring the paan. The bright green leaf and the red stain on the Mesabji’s teeth were the signal that the class was ending; which explains, I suppose, why I’ve never liked the stuff.

* Our land is a beautiful land”, or thereabouts.
** By contrast, N’s brother A could do no right. The poor lad had a stammer. He was punished with a rap on the knuckles each time he fluffed a word, which happened more and more often, as he got more and more nervous.

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Aethelred the Misled & Misleading

On this day in 1002 the English king Aethelred the Unready decreed that all Danish colonists in England should be put to death. I have this on the authority of Wikipedia.

The information has come as rather a shock to me, I have to admit. Like many people (those who’ve actually heard of him) I’ve always imagined King Aethelred as a sweetly ineffectual figure, the Prince Charles of his day. How could he be otherwise with an epithet like “the Unready”?

Alas, it turns out that “Unready” is a mistranslation of the Anglo-Saxon “Unræd”, which actually means something like “no counsel”. It refers to the notoriously poor quality of the advice (“ræd”) that Aethelred received from his Council, known as the Witan. This advice, it seems, was the root of his political problems, rather than any “unreadiness”; indeed he seems to have been all too ready to act if the decree mentioned above is any guide. The King’s name translates as “noble counsel” (“æþel”= noble) so the epithet was a pun: “noble counsel, no counsel”. Get it? Ah, those Anglo-Saxon jokes, they do it for me every time.

Why on earth was Aethelred trying to “ethnically cleanse” his realm of Danes of all people though? After all, nowadays we think of Scandinavia* as a beacon of progressive ideals, cheap furniture and (excellent) crime fiction; the least likely military aggressors in Europe? Yet then it seems it was a different story. The last two and a half centuries of Anglo-Saxon England were a constant (and bloody) struggle against Danish Viking encroachment.

Again, for many years, in my mind, the Vikings were Norwegian. Why? Well, they were also known as “Norsemen”, weren’t they? “Norse” and “Norwegian”: that the former was just an alternative (archaic) term for the latter seemed obvious. Another example of the way words mislead us.

* I have to admit, I have no associations specific to modern day Danes except maybe a vague image of farmers (bacon? blue cheese?). Apologies in advance to any Danish person who reads this!

Four Welsh poets

1. Dylan Thomas

One week, when i was around twelve years old, our local paper printed his poem “The Hunchback in the Park”. I was awestruck. I cut the poem out and pasted it into the inside cover of my scrapbook. All week i waited excitedly to see what they would print next time, but there were no more poems. I suppose they must have unexpectedly had some free space to use up the week they printed “Hunchback”; some advert or other must have fallen through and left a hole in the edition. At home I learnt the poem off by heart and marvelled over the beauty of its language. Even now one phrase in particular

wild boys innocent as strawberries

fills me with wonder. Poetry has never got more magical for me than happened that week. As for Dylan Thomas himself, i went on to buy a volume of his poetry and a biography. Most of the other poems left me cold and i found him something of a drunken bore.

2. R.S. Thomas

We only did one book of poetry for O-Level and it was nearly all drivel. I was so disappointed! The only true poem in the book was “Cynddylan on a Tractor” by R.S. Thomas, Anglican priest and Welsh nationalist. The English teacher singled it out for mockery because it wasn’t humorous or entertaining like the other poems in the book (supposedly) were. It was dark, brutal, anti-modern – and worse still, its themes were rural:

Ah, you should see Cynddylan on a tractor.
Gone the old look that yoked him to the soil,
He’s a new man now, part of the machine,
His nerves of metal and his blood oil.

Not one of the man’s greatest works, but it was real, and i understood that instinctively. Discussing this post with a friend, i discovered that she too retained vivid memories of encountering the poetry of R.S. Thomas at school. As happened in my case, the poem (“On the Farm”) was in the book they used but was passed over in class:

There was Dai Puw. He was no good.
They put him in the fields to dock swedes,
And took the knife from him, when he came home
At late evening with a grin
Like the slash of a knife on his face.

R.S. Thomas remains one of my favourite poets. I love him despite – perhaps because of – his unfriendly character. I feel a certain kinship with him in his frustrated love for Wales and the Welsh language, doomed as it was by idealism and nostalgia. Like him i have always wished i were a native Welsh speaker. Unlike me he at least achieved fluency in the language, but too late in life to achieve the creative freedom in it that is needed to write poetry. And so he was always trapped in English, always an interloper, rather like the clergyman he describes in his verse play “The Minister”. Its Welsh language epigraph describes his life well i think:

Swn y galon fach yn torri
The sound of the little heart breaking

3. Saunders Lewis

I discovered him on the poetry shelf of the public library. Most of the books were reference only, so i used to sit on the carpet and copy out their contents by hand. This was during my seventeenth and eighteenth years. Hours and hours i sat on that damn floor! Where R.S. Thomas was austere, Saunders Lewis was rich and sensual. It came as no surprise to me that learn that he converted to Catholicism. “Mair Fadlen” (“Mary Magdalene”), his poem about the Crucifixion, is the one which i know and love best. The first stanza breaks my heart in its English translation:

About women no one can ever know. There are some, / like this one, whose pain is a locked tomb; their pain is buried inside them, there is no flight / from it nor any giving birth to it. There is no ebb / nor flood to their pain, it is a dead sea without any movement to its depths. Who – is there no one – who will roll the stone away from the tomb for a time?

This is exactly how the stanza was laid out in the book, forward slashes and all. I copied it faithfully, determined not to change a single thing, so overwhelmed was i; yet sadly forgot to note the name of the translator. I was too young then to understand what is involved in translating poetry. The original Welsh, on the other hand, is beyond me (except in its glorious sound!) and probably always will be; but for anyone whose command of the language allows them to appreciate it and because these are Saunders Lewis’ own words:

Am wragedd ni all neb wybod. Y mae rhai,
Fel hon, y mae eu poen yn fedd clo;
Cleddir eu poen ynddynt, nid oes ffo
Rhagddo nac esgor arno. Nid oes drai
Na llanw ar eu poen, môr marw heb
Symud ar ei ddyfinder. Pwy – a oes neb –
A dreigla’r maen oddi ar y bedd dro?

I only discovered later how Saunders Lewis had become tainted by his refusal to support the British war effort during World War 2 and his earlier enthusiasm for the Nazis. Like many nationalists he seems to have subscribed to the notion that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. His nationalism was so tied to yr hen iaith (‘the old language’) that he refused to countenance any space for English to be spoken in the nascent Welsh nationalist party, weakening the movement as a populist force. I have read that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the early 70s. I don’t know if this true, but i do know that when he died in 1985 i had no idea he was even still alive.

4. W.J. Gruffydd

Finally, W.J. Gruffydd, about whom i know nothing. I assume he is the same poet who is known by the bardic name Elerydd, but i can’t be sure. For me he’s a single poem, “In Memoriam”, which i discovered in the same long since forgotten book which also introduced me to Saunders Lewis. Interestingly, this is a poem where the Welsh made more of an impact than the English so i’ll give (the first stanza of) that first and then the English (which i think is very flat in comparison):

Pan glywai Gwen o’r diwedd
Yr Angau du gerllaw
Hi gofiai am goed y Gelli’n
Diferu yn y glaw.

When Gwen heard at last
black death come near
She remembered the trees of the Gelli
dripping in the rain.

For me death is forever associated with the dark, dripping “trees of the Gelli”. And poetry with these four Welsh poets.