Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Inaugural talk at the 97th world congress of Esperanto at Hanoi

Probal Dasgupta’s inaugural talk at the 97th World Congress of Esperanto, Hanoi, Vietnam, 28 July-4 August 2012

[This English version has no formal validity. The Esperanto original is available at

Your Excellency Madam Vice-President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, dear Mr Loi, President of the Vietnamese Esperanto Association, and friends,

We have all been getting ready to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Esperanto in our various contexts. But Zamenhof himself was only twenty-eight when he launched the language. It thus gives us great pleasure to be able to gather in this special year in a country that is known for the youthful demography of its Esperanto movement. You are aware that our youth wing TEJO has already held a wonderful International Youth Congress here and is about to hold another. Speaking as I am to an audience this young, I must sound really ancient when I start my talk by quoting from the January 1968 issue of the monthly Esperanto! But you do understand that I remember especially vividly the first issue I received as a new member of the Association back then, please bear with me. That issue carried an official communication from the Akademio de Esperanto. I ask you to think about a grammatical example sentence in that text: “The buildings destroyed during the war will be rebuilt from 1970 onwards.”

Think carefully. In the year 1968, my predecessors in the Akademio de Esperanto were able to build an example around the phrase “the war” on the assumption that this had to be World War Two. Could the members of the Vietnamese Association for Esperanto and the Defence of Peace in 1968 have imagined using the phrase “the war” to mean anything other than the war raging around them in Vietnam and its neighbours? Were they willing to fantasize that the buildings smashed in that catastrophic war were about to be rebuilt, starting in 1970? In the Vietnam of 1970, was anything or anybody being reconstructed?

The board members of the Akademio de Esperanto, finalizing their text in November 1967, had no way of knowing that the uniqueness of the comprehensive war that their continent had once initiated was already giving way to new foci of attention in a changing world. Even the young in the Esperanto world had no idea in 1967 that as early as 1969 they were going to sign a Tyresö Declaration, which would start a process drastically changing the face of the World Esperanto Association itself. And yet, precisely on 30 January 1968 – far away from the Akademio and its piece in the monthly Esperanto – the respective visibilities of the various wars of the twentieth century were being massively reconfigured.

I am referring to that turning point campaign in the war in Vietnam that is apparently officially termed Cuộc Tổng tiến công và nổi dậy, the General Offensive and Uprising, I apologize for my pronunciation. The western press calls it the Tet Offensive because it started during Tet, the new year festival. I understand that Vietnamese also tolerates the informal designation Tết Mậu Thân, ‘Tet in the year of the monkey’. From Tết Mậu Thân onwards, it became clear that the foreign aggressors would not prevail. And something more important happened: the whole world started paying full attention to the fact that the Vietnamese people were willing to risk all for the sake of their freedom.

Those paying attention in the world of 1968 included many young people; the young were concerned, desperately concerned, about the burning issues of the day. Some of these attentive young, from the 1969 Tyresö Declaration onwards, transformed UEA into an association sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the perennially exploited in the countries of the south. Without the example of Vietnam, which aroused the conscience of the youth worldwide, perhaps UEA would have taken longer to remobilize itself as an association with a world-changing agenda.

Am I willing to leave the impression that it was mainly the war itself, with milestones like the 1968 Tết Mậu Thân offensive – or the earlier decisive 1954 victory against the French in Điện Biên Phủ – that has made sure that Vietnam will never be forgotten in the history of humankind? If you mean the history of nations, perhaps. But Esperanto congresses are not about nations; our congresses are gatherings of “human beings with human beings”.

To make this a lot clearer to you I shall now read out a passage about one Vietnamese woman whose courage attracted the major feminist Dorothy Dinnerstein’s attention and was mentioned in her book The Mermaid and the Minotaur. In this feminist classic by a well-known American feminist we find the following on p 164 – and I quote:

“See also the memorable scene in [Jonathan] Schell’s The Village of Ben Suc [a book about a village demolished during Operation Cedar Falls in January 1967], in which a tiny and helpless Vietnamese peasant housewife managed to alarm, abash, and for a moment stymie the tall soldier who (representing U.S. armed might, and self-righteous male conviction of historical necessity) had come to demolish her home: What intimidated him was her angry “What the hell do you think you’re doing in my kitchen?” clearly understood across the language barrier. This archetypal assertion of the sacredness of the hearth carried for him, one gathers, a tone of not-to-be-trifled-with female authority despite his overwhelming physical advantage over her and despite the fact that her kitchen was by his standards pathetically, outlandishly meagre and fragile.” I end my quote from Dorothy Dinnerstein.

The point of highlighting this example of a courageous peasant woman from Vietnam is to revisit with you the sixties, the decade in which the world began to notice this country. But the heroine of Jonathan Schell’s story retold by Dorothy Dinnerstein is not the only Vietnamese woman we need to pay attention to in our gathering of “human beings with human beings”. Permit me to draw your attention to a woman portrayed by Nguyễn Du in his epic Truyện Kiều (The Story of Kiều). Although the protagonist of that work, Vương Thúy Kiều, was a figure from Beijing who was celebrated by Chinese authors earlier, nonetheless it is the Vietnamese reportrayal of her tragic but heroic life that has inspired an entire nation – culturally speaking, Kiều is Vietnamese by adoption. This epic has now, in an Esperanto rendering, become part of the book series Oriento-Okcidento and entered the world market of Esperanto books at this congress in Hanoi. For the great translator Lê Cao Phan and the industrious colleagues who worked closely with him to fine-tune this popular Vietnamese classic for our audience, I have nothing but applause – and I ask you to please clap with me!

After epic suffering and heroic resistance to aggression and injustice, it becomes necessary after all to indeed rebuild the houses destroyed during the war. And even if we agree to set aside the unrealistic deadline of 1970, the Akademio de Esperanto rightly emphasized in 1967 the fact that such houses will be under reconstruction. The rebuilding of a worthwhile, healthy, happy life is an unending task. That journey towards true peace points up the major role played by women who, whether they wish for it or not, have the work of leading everybody thrust upon them – the role played by women who “will never tire of the labour of peace”. It is of great importance that the protagonist in The Story of Kiều is a woman.

In Vietnam we can be sure, for instance, that the women who survived the expulsion of the entire population of Ben Suc village have continued to play a major role in the reconstruction of collective living. But, ladies and gentlemen, it is not just soldiers who in the course of a war destroy normal life and annihilate villages. The imprudent construction of huge dams in my own republic has also inflicted this catastrophe on innumerable communities; there too it is women who have taken over the lead role in the rebuilding of a human existence after such a catastrophe of human origin.

From the theme of women I now return, with your leave, to the topic of the youth that was at the forefront when I began to speak this morning. For we rightly expect counsel and even leadership from the younger generation as well.

We have all noticed that the Vietnamese have brilliantly exemplified the art of building bridges with former enemies in order to play their part in “the labour of peace”. To practise this art does not perhaps involve extreme emotional difficulties for the generation of the young who have not directly experienced the war. Possibly. None of us should dare to second-guess what others have experienced or felt. We must continuously learn a lot from each other at all times. This is the main lesson we learn in the pedagogy of Esperanto.

It is now time for you and me to learn from the other speakers on this podium. Many thanks for your attention!


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