Rajesh K. Jha
The Lady who wanted to be Photographed with me
It was a typically middle class market in Seoul. Perhaps something like the Sarojini Nagar or the Janpath market in Delhi which operate on the roadside. There were of course fancy shops on each side of the road but the real activity was on the outside, on the pavement. My driver Kim who could only speak and understand Korean had somehow found a place in front of a shop behind the main market which had closed down by now to park his car. I could see some bit of tension on his face when he pointed to his watch and said ‘thirty minutes?’ To help us out, he showed us a short cut that was a narrow, unlit passage between two shops, actually similar to the makeshift Indian Paan shop. Once on the main thoroughfare on the Dongdaemun market, the hustle and bustle of the crowd greeted us. Some people were engrossed in eating noodles and meat of various kinds, others simply walking along the row of shops laid out on the pavement. I was struck by the particularly strong smell of meat cooked in the typical Korean flavour which the shopkeepers were busy serving to the customers. In fact this seemed to be the most prominent sight for me in the market.
It was next to impossible for us to engage in any actual buying because of the fact that we had hardly 500 US dollars in our pockets and we kept multiplying price of each item by 60 to arrive at rupee figure for the dollar denominated items in the relatively fancy shops on the sides of the pavement. In any case, prices marked in Korean Won were too daunting for us to venture into buying anything- a couple of thousand Wons for a cup of coffee or 1,50,000 Won for a dress that, we calculated to be about worth six to seven hundred rupees in say Karol Bagh or Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. But we were in the market to get the real feel of the country in the thirty minutes that Kim had given to us. We kept telling each other ‘eight thirty?’ and continued to savour the market. In order not to miss the moment, we kept exchanging our mobile phones to click each other’s photos as none of us was particularly capable of taking the selfies, irrespective of the fact that we were in Korea with Modijee who is known to be quite fond and adept at taking selfies.
We were now almost at the end of the small stretch of the market which opened into a crossing of roads at right angle. We looked for a relatively lighted place and I positioned myself on a stool lying vacant near a shop selling some exotic Korean herbs. My friend had clicked a few shots when I felt some body tucking at my elbow. I turned around and saw an old lady standing just behind me. She must have been close to 65 years or more. Short in build. Her dress suggested that she was a beggar, even though of Korean standards. She was trying to put her hand across my waist and stand with me for the photograph. Momentarily, I did not know what to do. My friend also looked puzzled. However, I regained my composure quickly. I now understood that she was standing there to have her photograph clicked with me and needed some money for the services thus offered. I jerked myself away and almost ran to the side where our car was parked. A few quick steps, I looked back and felt relieved that the old lady was not in sight. I only saw beautiful Korean girls and boys, well groomed, immaculately dressed, fragrant with deodorants and perfume.
Fragrance of Grass Flower
‘Namaste’, I said on the mobile. A halting, feeble voice on the other side responded something which I thought said Namaste to me. Encouraged, I spoke a few more words before I could realise that she did not know Hindi. I handed over the phone to my driver cum interpreter asking him to tell her that I would like to meet her today. Soon, we were driving from the grounds outside the ‘Blue House’, the Korean Rashtrapati Bhawan towards Seochojungang-Ro area on the smooth and wide roads of Seoul, criss-crossed by flyovers and tunnels. Every time, my car passed through a tunnel, the driver, with his improvised hybrid language, would remind me that the tunnel has been cut through the mountains with an air of genuine pride at Korean achievement. He would speak out the nouns (mountain) and indicate the verb (cut) with the gesture of his hands. Almost after driving for an hour, driver looked at the GPS navigation on his mobile phone and told me ‘5 minutes’. I looked up to find we were near Ganganam area, the posh locality of Seoul. I could not help muttering to myself ‘Ganganam style’ remembering the hugely popular Korean pop singer Psy who made waves across the world with his music video some time back.
Kim Yang Shik welcomed us warmly outside the Museum of Indian Art which she has built single handed over the last 4 decades. The frail body had the warm glow of smile on her face. Wrinkles on her face looked incapable of distracting one from her charm and grace.
The Museum was housed on the first floor. She led me to the first floor and asked me if I would like to have tea or coffee. I was a little hesitant in troubling the old lady but before I could say something, she was already preparing the tea. Pouring tea in my cup, she pointed out towards the displayed items in the museum- Sarees, Chunnis, Lehengas and clothes of various kinds collected from Bengal to Rajasthan, door frame with intricate wood work brought over from some corner of Rajasthan, large vessels of wood and metal whose geographical origins she did not know, artwork of metal and wood carvings lay neatly arranged in about 2000 square foot of area. She was showing each item enthusiastically. Pointing to one of the Sarees from Bengal, she told me that she had worn it and people had complemented her in that Saree.
We started talking about her work. When I addressed her as Professor Kim, she politely told me that she was not a professor and Kim is a very common family name in Korea. Soon, she was talking about her younger days when she was just about 12 years old and her brother had given her a book of children’s poetry written by Rabindra Nath Tagore. This had sown the seed of love for India in her heart. She began to dream of becoming a poet, going to India and learn more about Rabindra Nath Tagore. The opportunity to go to India came quite late but her love for India never faded. It was bound by Tagore’s poetry on the one hand and ‘TattvamAsi’ (I am That) philosophy of India on the other. She took up translation of Tagore’s works and enrolled in the Indian Philosophy department at Dongkuk University in Seoul, the only university in Korea where Indian philosophy is still taught. India acknowledged her contribution by conferring on her the Padmashree in 2002. She was also honoured as the Honorary fellow of Sahitya Academy. Photographs of Indira Gandhi to Venkat Raman, Shankar Dayal Sharma to Sonia Gandhi and many other dignitaries from India with Kim Yang Shik adore the tastefully decorated staircase of her Art Museum. Clearly, her love for India has been amply reciprocated by India.
Her cultural and literary accomplishments are many. She showed me a couple of her books of poetry in Korean. By now she has written more than a dozen poetry books in Korean which have been translated into Chinese, Russian and many other languages of the world. I could not resist the temptation of asking her to give me a signed copy of her books of poetry translated into English which she did happily. By now it was quite late and I was feeling guilty for troubling her for more than an hour and half. I got up to seek her leave. She picked up some chocolate bars from her table and almost thrust these into my bag. Sensing my hesitation she assured me that I would need these on my long flight back to India. Looking at her watch, she told me that we should have dinner together in the Indian restaurant down below the museum as it would be quite late for me by the time I reached hotel and more importantly, she liked to eat Dal and Roti. I was too hungry and overwhelmed by her spirit of generosity to say no. After a sumptuous dinner of Dal, Roti and Tandoori chicken I took her leave. She was to catch the High Speed train to Busan in the morning as she liked to relax in her apartment there on the sea side while teaching poetry to some of the young people who wanted to meet her there.
On reaching Delhi, leafing through her book of poetry, I realised that she lost her brother when she was 15 and also lost her son Jehan, to whom she dedicated the book.
He lived to one and twenty
I was fifteen then.
He died at one and twenty
fifteen I was.
He remains one and twenty
but I am nine and thirty.
Twenty one he is always
twenty one he will be
When I die.
Like her poetry, she is unassuming yet captivating. In her poetry, Kim Yang Shik invokes the grass flower often- the simple and powerful metaphor of love. The grass flower of Korea may be old at the age of 84 but I felt assured that she will continue to spread the fragrance of love and friendship between people of India and Korea for many more years to come.
King Su-ro and the Princess of Ayodhya
It all started with a dream. A princess in Ayodhya dreamt of a handsome king who wanted to marry her. Thousands of miles apart, across the sea, a king also had the same dream. The princess dared. Travelling a thousand miles from the holy city she reached the shore and set sail on a boat with her brother and a retinue of servants. She carried a potted plant of tea and a magic stone that could tame storms and help her weather rough sea. The journey was long. It took her three months to reach Gimhae ( call it Kimhae, if you like, since in Korean there are no separate sounds for Ka, Kha, Ga and Gha) in Korea in AD 48. Princes Suri Ratna was 16 years old when she reached Gimhae in Korea.
King Kim Su-ro had already had a premonition about the arrival of the princess. He sent his people to the shore to watch out. On the horizon, they saw a boat with red sail approaching the shore. The King’s messengers asked Suri Ratna to come to the royal palace which she refused. How can she go with strangers? King Kim Su-ro was the man of her dream but it was still inappropriate to go to him without rituals of union being performed. The king understood and pitched a tent for her on the hill slope close to his palace. Today, at that spot stands the Chimpungtap or wind calming pagoda built by Kim Suro in the memory of the princess who carried with her the stone that could calm the storms. After the marriage, Suri Ratna (the Sun-jewel) took the name Hwang Ok or Yellow jade.
The royal couple had ten sons and two daughters. According to the legend, King Kim Su-ro bestowed the maiden surname of Suri Ratna, as translated into Korean- Huh, Heo or Hoon, on her two sons. The remaining eight sons got the surname of father. Both the clans exist in Korea even today. Marriage between the two clans was forbidden till about a hundred years ago as they consider themselves to be brothers and sisters. Thus was founded the Karak clan from the descendants of Queen Suri Ratna and King Kim Su-ro. Today, after 77 generations, more than 60 lakh people with surnames Kim or Huh, Heo or Hoon claim to belong to this clan in the Korean population of 5 crore.
Search for one’s roots is a powerful motivation. Many people in Korea look at Ayodhya as their mother city. It brought the national archaeologist of Korea from Hanyang University Prof. Byung Mo Kim to Ayodhya five times. In 2004, the South Korean government declared Ayodhya as the sister city of Korea. A monument was also set up in Ayodhya to mark the connection between Ayodhya and Korea. Interestingly, the gate of the royal tomb of King Kim Suro in Gimhae city of Korea is decorated with the twin-fish symbol which is also the state symbol of Uttar Pradesh. Does it provide some historical clue to the story of Suri Ratna and Kim Su-ro?
Perhaps it is a true story. May be it is a myth. Be that as it may, it does not take away my excitement to imagine that more than 2000 years ago, the love of a woman proved stronger than the rough seas and joined two distant lands into an unbreakable bond. While I regretted not going to Gimhae, I remembered that the princely state of Darbhanga too has the twin fish as its royal insignia. Was there a Suri Ratna in Darbhanga too, my birth place?
The United World
Overlooking the statue of King Sejong, the great 7th century king of Korea, on the main thoroughfare in Seoul, the road was closed for traffic. For almost a kilometre on the road as wide or perhaps wider than Delhi’s Rajpath, rows and rows of people were sitting in an orderly manner. At the end of the road, near the statue a monk was giving a sermon to the people in English. It did not strike me as unusual since I believed that South East Asian countries like Korea are predominantly Buddhist. However, I casually remarked to my local host that Buddhism seems to be quite popular in Korea despite strong American influence. He hesitated for a moment and expressed his surprise at the large congregation and told me that the majority of Koreans may not be Buddhists. Indeed, the 2005 census of Korea reveals that almost half of the Koreans profess no religion. Out of the remaining half, 26 percent are Christians and 22 percent Buddhists. In fact, South Korea is also the second-largest missionary-sending nation, after the United States.
The population of Christians in Korea was about 1 percent in the year 1900 while the remaining population practised some kind of neo-Confucianism which was promoted vigorously by the Joseon Kingdom which ruled Korea from 15th century upto 1910. Buddhism had entered Korea in the 4th century. Along with Confucianism it remained a strong force before being almost wiped out during the Joseon Kingdom. However, after being annexed by Japan in 1910, there was a revival of both Buddhism and Christianity in Korea. In the 1970s and 1980s, in its pursuit of modernisation of south Korean society, the government is said to have cracked down on neo-Confucian and other indigenous forms of worship wiping out almost all traditional shrines. This gave a push to Christianity and various strands of Buddhism in Korea.
Travelling through the undulating landscape of Seoul one notices a number of Churches rising tall on the skyline of the city. I did not come across any mosque or temple, though there were a number of ancient Buddhist places of worship such as the Jogyesa temple in the centre of the city and a few others. Jogyesa is the headquarter of the Jogye order of Buddhism or Korean Zen. When I asked my driver if he goes to the temple to worship, he informed me that his mother still comes to the Jogyesa temple to pray. I came to know later that there is a grand mosque in Seoul in Itaewon, Hannam Dong and also a Krishna temple run by ISKCON in the same area.
The religious profile of South Korea only reinforces the fact that South Korea has embraced the path of modernity and Industrial market economy unhesitatingly. It seems to have worked too. Seoul looks like any western European city with wide roads, absolute cleanliness and orderliness on the public spaces despite traffic congestions during peak hours. It looks all the more credible since Seoul has one of the densest population in the world.
For a casual visitor to Seoul, no slums are visible. However Seoul does have a number of slums which have been carefully relocated outside main areas so that they are away from public eye. Guryong (‘Nine Dragons’) for example is very close to the luxurious and opulent ‘Ganganam’ area which was made famous by the Korean rapper Psy.
Similarly, a restaurant boy narrated me the story of the Itaewon locality, close to the place where Indian embassy is located. Itaewon today is the centre of attraction for expats in Seoul as it offers international cuisine at par with New York or London. The streets of Itaewon are full of fancy shops and eateries catering to the taste of expats working in South Korea as well as the 30000 American army personnel stationed nearby at Yongsan. However, war leaves its shadowy imprints much deeper than the borders. In Korea too, Itaewon area was the creation of war where ‘poverty, social and political chaos…..millions of young orphans and widows, mass produced prostitutes’. It was a place where Japanese soldiers would come to ‘relax’ in ‘comfort stations’ and later Americans too followed the practice. Around the time Olympics were held in Seoul in 1988, more than 7 lac people were evicted from their places often violently to ‘beautify’ the city. The restaurant boy said nobody knows where those ‘dirty’ people from the slimy streets of Itaewon were sent overnight and the whole place acquired a new face very soon.
It was a timely reminder for me before I started believing that only Delhi and Mumbai have their under-bellies with stories of evictions and demolitions of slums and shanties. I knew that from Delhi to Seoul, Kolkata to Sao Polo, the world is united in some fundamental sense.
Nice piece of writing especially about tatvam asi..it seems you are in love with the nice lady..captivating too..