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Interview Review

The Storyteller of Singapore: Suchen Christine Lim

Singapore moved from being a little island to a trading port to an affluent glamorous city that bridges the East and the West. Spanning the spirit of the wide expanse of this movement within a century are some iconic writers. One of them is Suchen Christine Lim, an award-winning author who writes narratives embedded in history, lined with hope and love — two values that need to be nurtured in today’s war-torn world.

Dearest Intimate is her most recent novel that shuttles against the backdrop of Japanese invasion of not just China but of what was then Malaya and modern-day Singapore. The story revolves between the worlds of Chan Kam Foong and her granddaughter, Xiu Yin. A passion for Cantonese opera that spans across generations weaves all the threads together into a single multi-layered rich tapestry of life. That life is never about a single strand or a single facet is brought into play by her intricate craftsmanship.

Suchen has taken seven years to complete this novel creating a story that immerses the reader in different time periods. The time periods are congealed with a variety of techniques of narration. Both, the first-person narrative — the voice of Xiu Yin — and the third person — the diary which unravels her grandmother’s story — are seamlessly knit into a whole. Though to me, the diary is perhaps more compelling with its historic setting and its interludes of amazing passionate poetry, like these lines:

“Though hills and mountains, rivers and plains separate us,
nothing can separate our thoughts and dreams.
Though a thousand li separate our bodies, no mountains nor
rivers, not even the Four Mighty Oceans can separate our heart.”

As the book progresses, it unfolds Xiu Yin’s journey towards rediscovering her strength and love. She rises from the ashes of an abusive marriage which is in sharp contrast to the marriage of her grandmother, Kam Foong, arranged by the family in a traditional Chinese village in the early part of the twentieth century. That victimisation and abuse see no borders of education and can be born of a sense of frustration and an over-competitive outlook is skilfully reflected in the marriage of Xiu Yin, whose husband is from an educated Westernised Catholic background. She had been brought up on traditional lores among Chinese opera artists. Interesting observations on gender issues and local concerns — like the housing policies in Singapore — are wound into the narrative.

To me, one of the most enduring qualities of Suchen’s novels are that they deal with the common man against a historical backdrop. In an earlier interview, she had said: “I wanted to see the past from the perspective of coolies, the illiterate, who have largely been left out of history books. And yet without them, who would pick up the nightsoil?” In this novel too, she has dealt with the common man — farmers and opera singers only the historic setting and their responses have changes because of changed circumstances. We live, feel, emote with the common people before, during and after the second World War to the modern twenty first century Singapore. The author’s skilful characterisation enlivens her creations. The cruelty of Japanese invaders during 1940s is highlighted in the suffering of the people and their abuse. Published around the same time as Sumantra Bose’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics, which shows how the Indian leader thrown out of Congress took support from the Axis powers (German and Japanese), it gives a contrasting perspective. Though this is fiction, Singapore history does corroborate that the Japanese invaders were extremely brutal in their outlook, even among the colonials.  Suchen’s reiteration of their cruelty is heart rending.

She has through her characters reiterated on the need of art not just to express but to make people laugh, give them hope and cheer them in dark times. This is an interesting theme which in itself makes one wonder if it is a comment on the perspectives of writers depicting unmitigated darkness. We find this strand of hope in great fiction from the last century — like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. They all end with hope as do Suchen’s works.

Suchen’s oeuvre very often encompasses the story of migrants as it has done here. And the interesting progression in this novel is the migrants’ complete acceptance of their new homelands — Singapore and Malaysia. In an earlier interview, Suchen had said, “A man can rise and go beyond borders but the land that he leaves will always be in his bones and heart.” And some of her protagonists had headed back to China. But in this novel, one is left wondering if the characters from China have not transcended their national frontiers to embrace the Cantonese opera, declared an intangible cultural heritage, like Durga Puja, by UNESCO.  Art and love have overridden all kinds of borders — and perhaps, that is why the name of the novel Dearest Intimate, which is used by Kam Foong for her love and for Xiu Yin by her beloved justifies the title. At the end, it is a heartfelt love story between humans and even between humanity and an art form that evolved to embrace the common man. Like all good books — it touches hearts across all borders with its message of love and acceptance as do Suchen’s other novels. To discuss, her world view and her novel, we had a brief conversation with Suchen —

What made you write this novel, Dearest Intimate? What led you to it?

I had a strange dream while I was on the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) residency in the ancient city of Hoi An in Vietnam. I dreamt of a pale orange pillow embroidered with two mandarin ducks and two rows of Chinese characters. When I woke up, I wrote down the two sentences in English, which eventually became the opening paragraph of this novel. So, you can say it was an unexpected gift from the universe that led me to write this novel.

In your earlier novels like A Bit of Earth the protagonist always felt for part of their homelands. However, in Dearest Intimate, the protagonists dwelt on the theme of love and Cantonese opera, not so much on homeland. Has your world view changed since your first novel? How and why?

Well, I don’t think there is a quick easy answer to the how and why of change in worldview. The time gap between the publication of my first novel, Rice Bowl, and the latest, Dearest Intimate, is more than 30 years. Over that span of time my novels had examined issues of political /historical import, race and identity, moving from the past to the contemporaneous. Over the course of 30 years, it is natural for an author’s ideas and obsessions to change.  I would be very worried if I do not change, or my characters and themes do not change. For example, my sudden interest in the pipa led to the writing of The River’s Song, which in turn led me to Chinese music and Hong Kong Cantonese opera and the learning of Cantonese.

Tell us about why you took up the Cantonese opera in a major way in this novel?

It was the strange gift of a dream of two mandarin ducks embroidered on a pillowcase, which reminded me of the Cantonese operas I used to watch as a child with my grandmother and mother. Such pillowcases with embroidered mandarin ducks were symbols of love and fidelity and were sewn by young women in love in Chinese operas. Cantonese opera was a part of my childhood that was largely forgotten till this dream. Looking back, I think in writing Dearest Intimate I was reclaiming that forgotten part of my childhood.

Why did the novel take seven years to write? What kind of research went into the novel?

Partly because the research was such fun. I wasn’t concerned about deadlines. I had already flung away deadlines the moment I resigned from the Ministry of Education years ago. And I must admit I was fortunate that I didn’t have to write to fill my rice bowl. My research obsession began after I had watched a Hong Kong Cantonese opera troupe perform at the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, and later, other operas at the Esplanade during Moon Festival. Curious about the actors’ training, I went to the National Archives and listened to the many interviews with old opera actors and actresses of local Chinese opera troupes. Every year, I flew to Hong Kong to watch one or two Cantonese operas, and once I even met Chan Poh Chee and Bak Suet Xin, the icons of Hong Kong’s Cantonese opera. When I started writing the novel I would watch one Cantonese opera on YouTube every afternoon, even re-watching a few favourites. Unhappy that I could not understand the literary Cantonese used in the operas I joined a Cantonese class in Chinatown to deepen my understanding of Cantonese.

Why did the novel take seven years to write?  Well, one of the reasons is my troublesome health. I had several health issues to deal with. Very boring chronic issues which, naturally, gobbled up my time and distracted my attention. The most serious of these troublesomes was a minor stroke that affected my movement and speech for some months.

You have written many children’s stories, a play, short stories, non-fictions and novels. What is your favourite form of storytelling and why?

The novel. It is humanity’s greatest literary invention. Within the novel, raw messy lived experience is transformed into coherent narrative.

All your novels have a sense of hope and seem to reach out with the message of love and acceptance. Why is it you feel reiterating this is important?

I am glad you think my novels have a sense of hope. Hope is often the reason we live another day. Hope is what helps us to endure, to wait. To write, to make art is an act of hope.

What in your opinion is the purpose of art? You have repeatedly mentioned in your novel that people will respond better to hope or laughter in opera in dark times. Would you say this also applies to writing? Do you think people in dark times prefer books that give hope? Please elaborate.

I will quote Master Wu in the novel: “Play our music! Tell our stories! Sing our songs! Write our histories! Preserve our humanity! That is what the arts are for. Never, never for one moment forget who we are …”  in the age of robotics, story-generating AI and Twittering twitterati. 

Do you have any advice or message for budding writers?

Suffering is good for the writer. It will deepen lived experience and expand the heart’s empathy. 

Thank you for your wonderful answers and for giving us the time.

(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Categories
Essay Interview Review

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

An exhaustive essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, one of the best film critics from India, an editor and writer along with an interview with the writers of the book, The Ultimate Biography, on the film legend and genius called Kishore Kumar

Kishore Kumar

Introducing the Genius of Kishore Kumar

Singer, composer, lyricist, director, writer, actor — Kishore Kumar was all this and more. Apart from Satyajit Ray, I can think of no other person in cinema whose talents ranged across so many departments. As a playback singer, he had no parallels – not Mohammad Rafi, not Hemant Kumar, no one came close. As an actor, he was almost surreal in comedies like Half Ticket and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi[1]. It is only because we do not view comedy as an artform at par with tragedy and melodrama that his contribution as an actor has not been acknowledged. As a director and writer, he balanced the almost surreal Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi [2] with the minimalist Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin[3]. It is immensely sad that he did not have more films and songs to his credit as a composer and lyricist.

Take a look at these dialogues —

Kya dekh rahe ho, Prashant?

(What are you seeing Prashant)

Uss raaste ko jo duur pahariyon ke beech kho gaya.

(I lost myself in that distant road among the hills)

Haan, musafir aur raaste ka gehra sambandh hai. Shayad uss raaste ko dekh kar tum apni naye safar ke shuruwat ke barey me soch rahe hogay.

(Yes, the traveller and the road has a deep relationship. Perhaps seeing that road, you are thinking of a new start for yourself)

Jindegi ek safar hai, Joseph sahab, aur uss raaste ka koi anth nahin. Har purani raah ek nayi raah ko janam deti hai aur manzilon ke silsile kabhi khatam nehi hote. Sirf uska saath denewale musafir badal jatein hai.

(Life is a journey, Joseph sahab, and that way has no ending. A new path is born of old roads and the stories never end. Only the traveller changes.)

Theek kaha tumney, Prashant. Saath denewala musafir hamesha badal jatey hain. Magar na jane kyon log phir bhi jazbaati ho jatein hai. Darasal zindagi ka maqsad hai zindagi ka saath nibhana, par tum in raston ka saath nibhakar chaltey ho. Aisa kyon?

(You are right, Prashant. The travelling companions always change. But people for some unknown reason become emotional. Actually, the goal of life is to be with life, but you walk along the paths. Why?)

Unhi raaston mein hi toh zindagi hai, Joseph sahab … kahin khushi, kahin ansoo, kahin dukh, kahin hahakar, kahin itni bhook aur lachari ki insaan par zindagi bhari hain, aur kahin itni khushiyan ki aadmi sambhal hi nahin sambhalta. Hamein in sab ka saath nibhatey chalna hai … uss anjaney andekhe path par … jiska koi anth nahin…

(Those paths is where you find your life, Joseph Sahab… Our Life is full of happiness, tears, sorrows, despair, sometimes it is full so much hunger and desperation that life becomes a burden and sometimes there is so much happiness that it spills over. That unknown, untrod path knows no end.)

– A sequence from Door Ka Rahi[4], 1971

So entrenched is his reputation as a comic star that it might come as a surprise that this exchange above was scripted, directed and acted by Kishore Kumar in one of his most atypical roles.

In the wake of his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961), and the sustained lunacy of Half Ticket (1962, where he plays Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand alias the child Munna, as also his own mother, in a performance that has no parallel in Hindi cinema), Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein [5](1964) was probably what audiences and critics of the era might have least expected from Kishore Kumar.

Why only audiences and critics? As film folklore has it, even elder brother Ashok Kumar was sceptical of his ability to deliver the emotion required for serious songs. Composer Chitragupt had reportedly composed the beautiful ‘Itni badi yeh duniya’ [6](Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan[7],1966) only with Kishore Kumar in mind and even recorded it. Only to have the star of the film, Ashok Kumar, on whom the song was to be picturized, veto it. Ashok Kumar felt that his younger sibling did not have it in him to give the song the pathos it required and that only Mohammed Rafi could do it justice. The song was recorded again, this time by Rafi who did a brilliant job.

And yet in his directorial ventures, Kishore Kumar time and again presented a facet of himself that other filmmakers never tapped and no other producer had the vision to explore. Which is why each of these films had the singer multitasking as producer, director, actor, writer and composer.

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein

Based on the 1958 Western The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is the story of a soldier, Shankar (Kishore Kumar), who returns from a war to find that his wife and father have perished in a fire that has destroyed his house. The trauma has robbed his ten-year-old son Ramu (Amit Kumar in his maiden film appearance) of his voice. Shankar sets out on a quest to treat his son and restore his voice. On the way, they are waylaid by a villainous Thakur (Raj Mehra) and his thuggish sons (played by Iftikhar and Sajjan). They are rescued by the kind-hearted Meera (Bengali superstar Supriya Devi), who shelters them and becomes a surrogate mother to Ramu.

It is unlike any film that Kishore Kumar had starred in (barring probably Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir[8]). And though the inspiration may have been James Edward Grant’s story directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the influence of Satyajit Ray that is apparent in the making. The singer-director had reportedly watched Ray’s Pather Panchali[9] thirteen times before embarking on his directorial debut. The setting is rural (barring one sequence set in the city) and the director gives us a close look at the landscape, the ramshackle hutments, the swaying fields, the water rippling in the ponds, even the dog that follows Ramu every step of the way.

The film is of course now part of Hindi film legend because of its songs. Kishore Kumar himself wrote that ultimate father-son anthem ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’, a sequence that in the bonding between the two recalls the final sequences of Ray’s Apur Sansar[10]. Shailendra penned the other classics, including Koi lauta de meray[11]and Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai[12]and two Asha Bhosle gems. But it is in the way that Kishore Kumar eschews all trappings of his comic persona to capture the little moments around the characters that the film stands out in the midst of the fluffy entertainers that characterised the era. Interestingly enough, Iftikhar, who plays the main villain, also designed and painted the film’s title cards.

The film was critically well-received, with even the impossible-to-please Baburao Patel of Filmindia calling it a film that “just misses out on being a classic”. Though not a big commercial success, the film did well enough, and Kishore Kumar had the last laugh vis-à-vis another film at the time which was expected to be a blockbuster. As Kishore Kumar narrated in his now-cult interview with Pritish Nandy, “It started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself … Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar for 8 weeks for his film April Fool[13], which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So, he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? … Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?”

Door Ka Rahi[14]

With Door Ka Rahi (1971), Kishore Kumar goes a step further with his character. Hindi cinema seldom has a drifter as the protagonist. As a people, we do not take to characters who do not have a definite goal in life – in the world of Hindi films that either means pursuing the girl you love or avenging the death of your family and loved ones. Prashant (Kishore Kumar) is unlike any hero in Hindi cinema. He does not have a love interest. He has no family of his own. He refuses to settle down at one place. Prashant reminds me of Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Razor Edge[15].

The film opens with a sequence of an old man trudging his way through the snow before collapsing. As he breathes his last, he reminisces about his life and the many people he has known and whose lives he has touched. There’s Karuna who wants to set up home with him, there’s a group of orphans he takes care of, there’s his friend Vimal (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his family that includes his wife and her brother Jeetu (Amit Kumar) who are being exploited by their local zamindar and moneylender. In the final episode of the film, he comes across a widow Monica (Tanuja) and her father-in-law Joseph (Ashok Kumar). He reminds them of George, Joseph’s son and Monica’s husband. Even as Joseph proposes that he stay back and make a life with Monica, Prashant has to take a decision on the larger calling that beckons him.

If one thought that Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein would be a hard act to follow musically, Door Ka Rahi goes one better with what are possibly the finest philosophical numbers in any Hindi film ever. No other Hindi film in my view has songs that so evocatively capture the essence of a film. If Shailendra’s ‘Chalti chali jaaye[16]’, rendered by Hemanta Kumar in a splendid baritone, echoes the eternal journey that is life, Irshad’s words in ‘Panthi hoon main’, ‘Khushi do ghadi ki’ and the ephemeral ‘Beqarar dil tu gaaye ja’ evoke a spirit that few lyricists in Hindi cinema have managed. There’s also Manna Dey’s ‘Ek din aur gaya’ and the Kishore songlet ‘Mujhe kho jaane do’.

Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin

While Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Ka Rahi marked a break from the standard film fare of the times and Kishore Kumar’s image as an actor, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin (1980) demonstrated his penchant for experimentation – one that earned the filmmaker plaudits from none other than Satyajit Ray himself.

He not only did away with songs – in itself a huge creative decision given his stature as a singer – he decided to shun music altogether in the film. Thus, you have that rare Hindi film that does not have a background score. Instead, there is a remarkable array of natural sounds filling in – the crunch of feet on snow, the rustle of leaves, the soughing of the breeze, and silences which accentuate the bleak and forlorn ambience of the film. 

The film begins with an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes watching a bird in flight against the vast expanse of the sky, accompanied by the azaan[17] on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal a man holding on to the bars of a prison window. Aslam (Kishore Kumar) is serving a term in this jail set in the middle of inhospitable mountainous terrain. He talks to the warden (Raza Murad – who is nameless in the film and is always addressed as ‘Inspector Sahab’) about how suffocating imprisonment can be for a man, and how envious he is of birds. At the first opportunity he gets, Aslam makes a run for it with his prison mate Ghulam Ali.

While Ghulam Ali dies during the escape, Aslam finds himself in a farm inhabited by a mother-daughter duo, Olivia (Bindu, in quite a turn with her grating voice, in one of her rare starring roles) and Jennifer (Shyamalee). His presence sets off a chain of events involving the women, both of whom take a fancy to this man from nowhere. Interestingly, if in Door Ka Rahi, Prashant is a free spirit refusing to be tied down to one place or any human attachment, in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin, Aslam seeks to break free but fails. The escape from the prison only leads him to another one in the form of Olivia and Jennifer’s house. As he tells the inspector at the end, the world, life itself, is a prison. The only difference with his erstwhile prison is in scale. And the only escape lies in death.

Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein[18]

The last of these atypical films that he directed was his final outing too – Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein (1989). Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar passed away while the film was in production and it was Amit Kumar who completed it. Unlike the others in this list, Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein is not a very distinguished piece of filmmaking with a dated story celebrating the greatness of motherhood that belongs more to the hoary 1950s. It is surprising that Kishore, who broke away from established mores in the other films, zeroed in on this hackneyed theme for his swansong, which looks more like a love-letter to wife, Leena Chandavarkar.

The film tells the story of Gauri (Leena Chandavarkar) who brings up her son Niranjan (Amit Kumar) single-handedly. She nurses a secret about Niranjan’s father which forms the crux of the film. Niranjan grows up with the question about his father haunting him all his life. He travels to the nearby town for his higher studies, and it is here that he comes in contact with a man (Raj Babbar) who claims to know Gauri and gives Niranjan an unsavoury take on her past. Niranjan confronts his mother, but she refuses to divulge her secret, leading to the two falling out. The rest of the film deals with the story of Gauri’s past and Niranjan’s realization that he has been unfair to his mother.

It’s a poor film in every respect but it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic about a film that recreates one of Kishore’s cult crazy songs, ‘Allah Allah … Bhagwan bhagwan’ (Hum Do Daku[19], 1967). Or one that has what is probably Kishore’s last playback for Rajesh Khanna (who has a cameo in the film), aptly titled ‘Mera geet adhoora hai’[20]. It was reported in the media at the time that the director had wanted Amitabh Bachchan in the role. However, the star was not forthcoming and that affected the relationship between the two. Kishore in fact hinted at this in an interview at the time and named Manmohan Desai as the one responsible for the rift between him and the star whose voice he was.

Then there is the music of course. A standout album, this has some of Kishore’s most lovingly crafted songs. He himself sings two gems while Amit Kumar has four numbers which count among his best, including ‘Main ik panchhi matwala re[21](which he had earlier rendered in Door Ka Rahi) and the life-affirming ‘Beeti jaaye[22](the mukhda[23] of which harks back to the antara[24] of one of his hits from Jhumroo, ‘Ge ge ge geli jara Timbuktoo’[25]. The composer in Kishore Kumar could not have asked for a better album to bid adieu.

The Call of the Distant Horizon

There are certain aspects that one finds in common across these films. An old man looking back on life. A loner as the protagonist – a man with a love for the road as well as the road less taken. A man with a unique philosophy of life. Time and again in these films you have the protagonist articulating that he does not know who he is, nor where he comes from or is bound for. As the character in Door Ka Rahi says – door ko apne qareeb bula leta hoon aur khud ko apne se door kar leta hoon (I embrace that which is faraway while I distance myself from me). There’s a lingering sense of the fleeting nature of life, a longing for a lost past. These lines from the film that Kishore hums hold true for almost all the protagonists across these films:

Mujhe kho jaane do duniya ki nigahon se parey

Jahan na dhoond sakey koi nazar mera nishaan

Koi awaaz na pahunche, koi aansoo na bahey

Kisi tinke, kisi zarre ko na ho mera ghuman

Meri laash par rakhde kudrat hi ek safed kafan

Rooh ko meri nazaron mein hi kho jaane do

Dastaan meri hawaon ko hi dohrane do[26]

There’s an affinity for birds and the freedom they epitomize, for animals roaming in the wilderness, and for people at the margins, for example, the madman who befriends Ramu in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. And a genuine feel for harmony. It says something that the protagonist in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a Muslim (the climax has a beautifully understated sequence where Aslam offers namaz while the police officer waits to arrest him) while Christians are pivotal characters in two of these films.

None of these films is set in a city. The cinematography (Aloke Dasgupta in the first two and Nando Bhattacharya in the rest) captures the everyday sight and sound of the countryside. There’s a song in a bullock cart in each of these films (barring Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin) which articulate a philosophy of life and that of the film – Door Ka Rahi and Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein begin with such a song. There’s a feel for the topography that is very ‘Western’ in its look. Parts of Door Ka Rahi evoke Shane [27]as the man rides from one destination to the next (Shane was probably a favourite of the singer as his unfinished film Neela Aasmaan[28]has a song, ‘Akela hoon main is jahan mein[29]’, inspired by Shane’s theme). Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is of course based on a Western and Kishore invokes the look of the original at many places. Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin stands out for some breath-taking shots of the barren snowy terrain against which the drama plays out.

These film of Kishore Kumar may not have been great commercial successes. And his craft as a filmmaker may not secure him a rank among the best. There is however no denying his desire to go out on a limb and give us films that leave you with something to reflect on. He was seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the films wouldn’t run. As he told Pritish Nandy, “I tell my distributors to avoid my films. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most … Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made.”

And yet he made them. Why? “Because,” as he said, “the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say.”

On the evidence of these films, despite their flaws, the spirit behind them has the power to move the viewer too.

Book Review of The Ultimate Biography

Given the range of his contribution and the eccentricities that defined his personal life, a biography of Kishore Kumar that adequately covers his life and times is a tall ask. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Parthiv Dhar’s exhaustive biography of the legend, audaciously titled The Ultimate Biography, pulls it off – well, almost.

For one, it is a pleasure to come across a biography of a legend like Kishore Kumar that does not seem like an armchair hack job (refer to, say, Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor, Yaseer Usman’s on Guru Dutt, Rajeev Vijaykar’s atrocious ones on Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Dharmendra and the many banalities that go for biographies these days). At close to 600 pages, this one is a painstakingly researched tome. And it does not even talk about his repertoire as a singer in that great a detail. As co-author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells me, “If I were to make a selection of even a hundred of his songs – an impossible task – and talk about them, this book would have gone beyond 2000 pages.”

Despite that, what the book covers by way of the trajectory of Kishore’s life is commendable. The authors have gone to great lengths to get first-person accounts, supplementing that with a great eye for trivia and other obscure facts. They incorporate all of this in bite-sized chapters, most of them three to four pages long, so that the reading never gets tedious. It also gives the book that essential quality in an era of short attention spans: you can open to any page and start reading. Though it does come at the cost of a detailed analysis of any one aspect.

And it is a delight to have such detailed indexes – a general one and a song index – in a book. Most publishers have abandoned the index to cut costs.

If I say the authors ‘almost’ pull it off, it is because the language leaves something to be desired. It could have done with a more rigorous copy-edit. The book gets off to an unfortunate start with the preface whose first paragraph had me scratching my head. And the inelegancies continue to haunt the careful, close reader off and on, with erroneous words, wrong sentence construction, often the syntax at odds. The authors seem to get carried away with the information they have to share, and some passages are a trifle overblown.

One would also have loved to see the authors playing it a little less safe, assessing Kishore Kumar vis-à-vis his contemporaries, or providing a more comprehensive reading of his directorial ventures. Or for that matter talking of what accounts for his popularity in the years after his death. During my growing years, I distinctly remember reading about him being dismissed offhand – Naushad’s comments are part of cinematic folklore (he in fact left the jury when it was decided to honour Kishore with the Tansen Samman). I grew up with people who swore by Rafi and Manna Dey, Naushad and Madan Mohan. And Kishore, despite his popularity, was someone who always came off second best in these conversations. Something shifted in the last thirty years. It would have been fascinating to understand what did. In response to my question on this, Parthiv Dhar says, “Nothing changed. Naushad was an aberration.” He goes on to mention the crowds at Kishore’s funeral. Which is not the issue here. Something in the way we consume music has led to a Kishore and RD [30] fandom like it probably never existed during their lifetimes. Why is it that with the opening of the airwaves, so to say, Kishore and RD have ruled almost all channels broadcasting music? None of their contemporaries – not Rafi, not Laxmikant-Pyarelal, definitely not Naushad or Mukesh – have enjoyed the kind of revival they have. 

The authors do not leave anything out – but the text often tends to become a chronological litany of facts. Fascinating, no doubt. And invaluable. But I could never shrug off the feeling that a book that has so much history and offers such delights, with authors who know the subject so well and don’t stint on research, should have been a little more.

Interview

Tell us something about the process of writing the book. Given that all the dramatis personae are long gone, how difficult was it to put information together.

Parthiv Dhar: Anirudha-da and I go a long way. In fact, around 2004-05, we started a campaign for the Bharat Ratna for Kishore Kumar, and did quite a fair bit of work. Probably it was at that time that writing a book on Kishore Kumar crossed our minds. I remember, we were clueless on the structure of the book owing to the multidimensional persona that Kishore was. My visit to Khandwa in 2010 and Anirudha-da’s book on R.D. Burman (with Balaji Vittal) winning the national award provided the much-needed impetus. Graduating to Kishore was a natural progression.

The visit to Khandwa made me realise that it would be a crime not to write a book on him, given the paucity of knowledge. Kishore himself did not help matters much by being extremely economical with the press. The Khandwa and Indore visits brought me close to his friends and their families, his caretaker at the Ganguly House, his college professors who went out of their way in sharing with us breath-taking anecdotes and documents. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Khandwa. Apart from that we had a fantastic time at Bhagalpur, interacting with his relatives like Ratna-di, daughter of his cousin Arun Kumar, getting a treasure trove of unknown events related to his maternal side. Meeting his secretary Abdul was also a high point in the making of the book.

The decision to structure the narrative by ragas and their times: dawn, afternoon, evening. You slot Aradhana[31] in the evening. I found that interesting.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The structure with ragas developed organically given the enormous amount of material we had. The first draft was over a 1000 pages long. Giving it the structure enabled us to get clarity. As for Aradhana appearing under an evening raga … Madhubala passed away in 1969. That was probably a setback. His mother too passed away after a year. Kishore’s tenure as a hero had almost come to an end. He was forty. If we go back in time, K.L. Saigal passed away at the age of forty-two. Critics were urging Lata to stop singing in the late 1960s. She withdrew from the Filmfare awards after 1969. Hence, we equated the time with the evening of their lives. And extrapolated it to Kishore Kumar’s as well. Kishore had great strength of character and turned the tide … but that’s another story.

Would you say that Kishore was the one true maverick genius of Hindi cinema, maybe even Indian cinema? The only other person who comes to mind is Satyajit Ray.

Parthiv Dhar: Kishore Kumar was a phenomenon, the likes of whom you rarely encounter. He was perhaps the only person in showbiz whose reel and real lives were mirror images of each other. Precisely why there was no reason for him to ‘act’. You never knew whether he was acting on screen or being his own self. That held true even for his real life. His ratio of hits to total songs composed must be one of the highest in the world. He tried everything that the camera and the studios offered but unfortunately there were occupational hazards that clipped his wings. Had some of his unreleased songs and movies seen the light of day, he would have been unassailable. That he did all these only by pure observations and without any formal training made him a genius. As Rama Varma told us in a chat, he had the ability to identify shortcomings in a particular guitar string in the midst of a session without even looking at the guitar or the guitarist. Genius would be too small a word for him. However, we have not assumed much in the book and left the readers to judge for themselves.

What in your view is his greatest contribution to the art of playback singing in India? The one thing that sets him apart from all the rest.

Parthiv Dhar: Definitely the fact that he made singing appear so easy that emulation became an everyday affair. The clones would, of course, realise that the songs were after all not everybody’s cup of tea. But everyone would attempt a Kishore song. The very fact that he was an actor made him think like one when he would playback. Also, he was perhaps the only one to develop his texture and baritone with infrastructural progress each decade after independence. This led to him being probably the only one to realize that tragic songs need to make the audience cry, not the singer.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: All our male singers except Bhupinder and too some extent Yesudas have been tenors. Maybe the timber has varied, but they are tenors, nevertheless. In my opinion, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Mullick were tenors who had a unique quality in their voice: ‘dhaar’ and ‘bhaar’ (sharpness and weight). This they used to great advantage. For other singers, it was a case of either/or. Hence, Kishore could playback for Dev Anand using his ‘dhaar’ (Hum hain rahi pyaar ke[32]), complement it with some ‘bhaar’ and ‘mizaaz[33]’ when he sang for Rajesh Khanna (Kuch toh log kahenge[34]), and use his ‘bhaar’ when he sang for Amitabh Bachchan (O saathi re[35]). He also had a strong swarranth[36], which gave the songs resonance. Plus, his flux density was unique. Even with such a heavy voice, it would remain steady when negotiating long notes, something very difficult to achieve. I know from experience as I sing.

He sang Saigal’s ‘Dil jalta hai[37]in reverse, set the Malthusian theory to tune, introduced scatting, yodelling, nonsense/gibberish words (bam chik chik) to music in India … where would you place these innovations in his output? Do you think his comic genius came in the way of him being taken seriously as a singer for the longest time?

Parthiv Dhar: He was born to innovate, and his childhood is testimony to that. Lateral thinking and he went hand in hand. Domesticating jackals, singing in reverse, giving nicknames to almost every friend, composer … the list is endless. How he handled the goof-up in Baap re Baap [38]is a terrific example of his innovation. Similarly, making a wardrobe malfunction in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi the reason for executing anything and everything as a director’s prerogative could be another.

However, it is probably not true that his comic persona had anything to do with his singing. He started his career with several serious songs while simultaneously making people laugh in his movies. He gained recognition as a serious actor courtesy his roles in Bandi[39] and Naukri and was known as a sufficiently good actor. He sang for all the top music directors till as late as 1958. That he had a long gap after that could be attributed to his preoccupation with Madhubala’s health.

Let’s talk about him as an actor … would you agree that as a comic he had no parallels in India? It is only because comedy is not regarded as a genuine art form in India that there has been little recognition of him as an actor.

Parthiv Dhar: A very difficult question and not proper to say that he had no parallels. It should not be forgotten that he was a hero in almost 99 per cent of his films, a fact renowned actors would be proud of. While reviewing Bandi, critics had placed him above his more famous brother (in those days). As mentioned earlier, he did not enact comedy, it was in his DNA although by nature he was an equally serious person. His comedy was a mix of slapstick, mimicry, antics. Very few would enact comic role as a hero for the entire length of time without appearing stale. Kishore Kumar had that quality.

Where would you rank him as a filmmaker? Do you think he tended to overcompensate for his madcap image with his own films which were ‘serious’? Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a rather daring experimentation, even if the execution is amateurish. Even Ray commended its sound design. Your comments.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: As a filmmaker, he was a lateral thinker. He tried unique subjects. But the issue is that he got entangled in too many activities at the same time and could never devote himself properly to making films. Had he concentrated only on filmmaking, he might have made some great films. Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin could have been classics.

You devote an entire chapter to Laxmikant Pyarelal. His songs with LP are not spoken of as much. You correct that, though you focus on their early collaborations…

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: We focused on Mr X in Bombay[40], Sreemaan Funtoosh [41]and Hum Sab Ustaad Hain[42] primarily because these films gave him the dimension of a singer first and a hero later. Till then Kishore was viewed as an actor who also used to sing. People forgot Mr X in Bombay (it was a bad film) but remembered ‘Mere mehboob qayamat hogi[43]. Ditto for Sreemaan Funtoosh and Hum Sab Ustaad hain. Most did not even see these films. But ‘Yeh dard bhara afsana[44]’ and ‘Ajnabee tum jaane pehchane se lagte ho[45] became classics. So, on one side, Kishore emerged as a singer, while the actor gradually faded into the background. LP had a key role in this transformation.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).


[1] 1958 movie produced by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[2] 1974 movie directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[3] In the Distant Valleys, 1980 film directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[4] The Distant Wayfarer, 1971 film

[5] Under the Shelter of the Sky

[6] Such a Large World

[7] Is there Love in Stormy Weather

[8] Traveler, 1957 film where Kishore Kumar played the lead

[9] Song of the Little Road, 1955 Satyajit Ray film

[10] The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray film 1959

[11] Someone return my… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[12]  Where nights do not have a dawn… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[13] 1964 film

[14] The Distant Traveler, 1971 film written, directed by Kishore Kumar who acted in the lead role.

[15] 1984 book with a title based on the Upanishads

[16] Let’s go on… lyrics of a song

[17] Prayers calls of the Muezzin

[18] In the Shadow of a Mother’s Love

[19] We, Two Bandits

[20] My song is half sung

[21] I am an intoxicated bird

[22] Past goes

[23] Middle of the song

[24] Start of the song

[25] Those who go to Timbuktoo

[26] Translation of the lines:

Let me loose myself from the sight of the world
Where no one can find me:
No voices reach me, no tears be shed for me, 
No straw, no inklings trace my thoughts.
Drape my body in a white shroud.
Even spirits should lose sight of me --
My being should only waft in the breeze…

[27] 1953 American film

[28] Blue Skies, 1961 film

[29] ‘I am alone in this world’

[30] RD Burman (1939-1994), Indian music director who composed film scores for more than 300 movies.

[31] Worship, a 1969 film

[32] ‘We are wayfarers of love’

[33] Mood of the song

[34] People will say somethings…

[35] O Companions…

[36] Ending of the song

[37] ‘The heart burns’ sung by legenedary singer KL Saigal(1904-1947)

[38] My God!, 1955 film starring Kishore Kumar

[39] Slave, 1957 film starring Kishore Kumar

[40] 1964 film starring Kishore Kumar

[41] Mr Funtoosh, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[42] We are all Experts, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[43] ‘My Sweetheart will be a astounding’

[44] ‘This moment filled with pain’

[45] ‘Stranger you look familiar’

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Review

Through the Looking Glass: Stories by Aruna Chakravarti

Book Review by Reba Som

Title: Through a Looking Glass: Stories

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Om Books International

Aruna Chakravarti is a formidable storyteller. Her collection of short stories Through a Looking Glass reflects images from different periods of time and walks of life. Recounted with a compelling realism, these are characters from daily life, primarily women, that Chakravarti might have encountered or read about. She draws out in each, the woman’s inner cry of anguish and despair.

A keen observer of life, with an ability to discern the complex nuances in human relationships, Chakravarti’sstories are riveting. They reveal the continuing vulnerability of women even as they find their inner strength and voice to overcome age old prejudice and gender stereotype.

Chakravarti began her literary career as a translator into English from Bengali, first of Tagore’s song poems and then select writings of giants of Bengali literature like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay which earned her the Sahitya Akademi award and much recognition. In the process, she absorbed the vocabulary, cultural nuances and colloquialism of Bengal’s rural life so thoroughly that in her own works of fiction such as Inheritors or Suralakshmi Villa her descriptive imagery of rural Bengal, conversation among villagers and depiction of poverty in village life acquire a rare authenticity remarkable for an author who has never lived in Bengal.

Her hugely successful translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay in First Light and Those Days introduced Chakravarti to a new genre of literature where narratives of famous personalities in a historical time frame are woven together in a rich tapestry of storytelling. Aruna ventured into historical fiction with her Jorasanko and more recently with Mendicant Prince. In all her writings, the woman’s voice remains paramount to the extent that in her Daughters of Jorasanko the key figure of Rabindranath Tagore remains conspicuously absent as with an author’s imagination she pieces together the little known details in the lives of the women of the Jorasanko household.

Through a Looking Glass is an attractive and compact production containing nine short stories. ‘Mobile Mataji’, added from Chakravarti’s previous collection, describes superstition ridden rural Bengal where barren couples turn to a spurious god woman rather than seek medical advice. Cases of sexual treachery and forcible impregnation still figure in newspaper reports and Aruna’s story chillingly conveys the grim reality of woman’s vulnerability. The contrast between the inner strength of widow ‘Satwant chachi[1]’, who stoically raises her children and then experiences a sense of liberation once they are out of her hands is contrasted sharply with the weakness of her landlord who on his wife’s sudden death realises rather pathetically that he cannot live another moment without a woman. Incest within close families born from sexual inadequacies within marriages, which are never talked about or addressed, figures in several of these stories. However, her punchline in many of these stories is how after years of suffering in silence women can reinvent themselves and resist their destinies.

The characters in Aruna’s stories are drawn from diverse backgrounds and timelines battling their own conundrums and prejudices. In ‘Second Sight’, the Scottish missionary in Srirampur Bengal spreads the inclusive teachings of Christ and yet is ironically unable to accept his brown skinned native convert socially in marriage. The hapless plight of the Anglo Indians searching for an identity of their own is showcased powerfully. ‘Crooked House’, “a tall narrow house with two chimneys standing high on a hill beside the sea”, is the tale of a family in Goa at the turn of the century narrated by a girl who worked there. It is a tale of lovely women, ballad evenings with sailormen, sex, romance, marriage and family jealousy ending in violence, displacement and poverty. The story ‘From an Upstairs Window’ reads like a play where a woman’s plunge to her fall, is seen from different points of view – of the suffering wife, the jealous husband, the lover, and the helpless mother-in-law. In the end the wife recovers from her fall which leaves her an invalid for life, the lover moves on to another life, the mother-in-law is remorseful but the possessive husband is smug in the realisation that his wife can now be his alone.

Many of Chakravarti’s stories are in the form of flashbacks from imagined encounters after decades with protagonists known early in life sparking off an exploration into the past. The storyteller is inevitably a distanced observer whose life has taken a different path although curiosity to unravel family mysteries trapped in the innocence of childhood draws the author’s pen to write vignettes with empathy.

The author has an easy, flowing prose style with graphic description of the settings in which she places her stories. Her pictorial portrayal of characters helps to paint their image firmly in the minds of her readers. Take for instance her description of Mandeep in her story ‘Satwant Chachi’ (p 41):

“Words fail me when I try to describe Mandy. I’ve tried and tried but nothing I say can capture it all. She was a tall girl, very thin, with a long face as keen and eager as a greyhound’s. An amazingly attractive face! What was most striking about it was its mobility. It was as though her features hadn’t been set in a mould but left to ripple and flow at will. Her mouth looked full and smooth one moment and like crushed velvet the next.  Her eyebrows danced as she laughed and talked; her nostrils quivered – the tiny diamond in one winking wickedly. Her long shining plait, with the pink and green pompom at its end, flailed up and down her tall, narrow back with every toss of her head, and the earrings that came down, almost to her shoulders, rang like wind chimes. Even her bindi flashed and sparkled on her shining brown forehead as though it had a life and will of its own.”

[1] Aunt, father’s younger brother’s wife

Reba Som is an author and academic. She was the recipient of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 2000–02 and the founder director of the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, ICCR, Kolkata, from 2008 to 2013. Her publications include Gandhi, Bose, Nehru and the Making of the Modern Indian Mind (Penguin 2004), Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (Penguin, 2009) and Margot: Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda (Penguin Random House, 2017). She is also a trained singer of Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti.

.Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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Review

The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises

Author: Shehan Karunatilaka

Publisher: Hatchette India

When Hatchette India sent the reviewer’s copy of Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka’s collection of short stories, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises, it had two eulogies on the cover, namely “From the Commonwealth Book Prize Winner” and “Booker-Shortlisted author,” assuming both would add to the USP[1] of the volume. Karunatilaka’s debut novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew had received a lot of critical acclaim when it was first published in 2010 and received the Commonwealth Prize. In the meantime, on 17 October 2022, the author did manage to win this year’s Booker Prize for his third novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka. This award definitely garners more attention to read this new book of short stories. According to the publishers, The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises offers a pointed conversation “about religious fanaticism, social prejudices, and the devolving state of democratic order in the Indian subcontinent”. Replete with unexpected twists, it is a “vivid and engaging commentary on privilege, class, and societal ills” and offers a collection of fantastic short stories that serves up fantasies for both doomsday and everyday, marking the return of one of South Asia’s most compelling storytellers.

As a writer with an English literature background and having studied in Sri Lanka and Australia and lived and worked in London, Amsterdam, and Singapore, Karunatilaka’s style of writing is unique. He has not only written about the Tamil-Sinhala conflict plaguing the island nation both from an insider and an outsider’s point of view but has, at the same time, experimented with the postmodern literary form where many entries resemble the magic realistic mode of narration. Ranging from short entries of half a page to stories covering several pages, it seems that the author has put together all his assorted unpublished writing within the two covers of this volume. In an interesting entry at the beginning titled ‘How to Read This Collection’ the author with all his blessings to the readers prescribes seven different categories in which to read his work and clearly tells us not to read them in sequence – “I don’t with other people’s work. Why should anyone with mine?” He then tells us, “If you like stories with twists, try …. If you prefer tales where things happen, go for …. If you enjoy fiction, where nothing happens, start with …. If you’re okay with tales that force the author’s worldview down your throat, read …. If you prefer stories that hope there’s a God, try …. For ones that allow you to accept godlessness, read ….and if you like stories that everyone hates, start with ….”

With such a prescription, it becomes clear that the author himself is at a loss to classify the multifarious nature of the thirty stories of differing length under specific categories.  There is the story of unpleasant truths that await a Sri Lankan president in the back of a London cab. In ‘Small Miracles’, an advertising agency must come to terms with a blown-up collection of pictures of the employees’ penises. ‘If you’re Sad and You Know It’ talks about suicidal tendencies in poetry form. A man presumed missing, quietly journals by the sea – “while he sat alone, free of noise, on an island not far from here, writing his story in a yellowing journal…Staring at sunsets through large binoculars, surrounded by books and fruit and no one.”

Written in an interesting format in the nature of mobile text messages, ‘Easy Tiger’ has a husband and wife cheating each other while attending a movie show on Sylvester Stallone with someone else. With the background firing in the movie, the man pretends he is in the war front where the shooting has started and his phone would die soon; he knows adultery is a crime but doesn’t want a divorce, but his story of being in the warfront in the east is busted by his wife who came to watch the same movie with her paramour and a special camera and films her husband with another woman and asks, “Who’s the hag next to you?” Looks like everyone texts at the movies these days.” In ‘The Colonials’, an Englishman, a Dutchman and a Portuguese walk into a Ceylon bar and profess their grand narcotic designs and counter proposals–“Let us plant our poppies while we can.”

Karunalilaka experiments with the narrative mode once again in the title story ‘The Birth Lottery’ where he tries to depict the historical past and present condition of Sri Lanka through the point of view of forty-two different men and animals each written in the first person. For example, in entry number 27, we read:

“It is the first alliance between the Tamils, Cholas, Moors, Malays and Sinhalese, and I, the Great Arasaratnam, am charged with leading it. With an army of four thousand, we rout the Portuguese and hold the Sithawaka kingdom for three hundred moons. Then they return with bigger cannons, eviscerate us all, and erase our names from history.”

Entry number 29 states:

“I am the justice who signs as a witness the agreement between Wimaladharmasuriya and Joris Van Spillbergen. The one that hands the coast to the Dutch and the kingdom to Ceylon. A treaty that both parties break. I never marry, never amass wealth, never create. Never do anything aside from putting my name on a document that will outlast anything you have ever touched.”

The plight of indentured labourers becomes clear once again in entry number 32:

“I am brought to the hill country as a slave and made to pluck the sweet leaf. I am imprisoned with coolies from South India, even though my family has lived here for centuries. I bear children for five different masters, and each are taken from me. I take my life before my ovaries dry up. I am not unhappy to go.”

Wry humour is also revealed in entry number 37:

“I am an elephant in the Kandyan kingdom, and every few months, to celebrate being conquered by foreign invaders, they parade me in chains and walk me miles carrying burning objects that scald. I don’t mind, because I get to go home to Ravani, who lives with me all my life and bears me many calves.”

It is not possible to point out further details of other stories within the short span of this review. But one needs to mention two excellent long entries, ‘Time Machine. I have Built A (Part One)’ and ‘Time Machine. I Have Built A (Part Deux)’. In the first part the author speaks about stealing the time machine though he was not the one who built it. That credit belongs to Professor Cyril Ponnambalam, Dr Kumar Thiruchelvam and Chancellor Sivaram Duraiappah. Though some would say not. …All three resigned from their posts in 2004 to return to Sri Lanka, though not with their families. Two were executed by the Tiger leadership a week before the end of the war, five years later. One was reported missing in action.

“They weren’t the only scientists, engineers, financiers and logisticians from the diaspora to return to Sri Lanka following the 2002 ceasefire. Many came on humanitarian missions or for peace conferences, most to assist with reconstructing the north and the east, fractured from decades of war and about to be pounded by a tsunami. A majority were recruited by the LTTE, some by force, some by extortion, some by the memory of wrongs.”

The author’s political allegiances become clear in several places in the narrative. He says he “pondered whether this government would want to share examples of Tamil brilliance, when they were trying to convince the world of the enemy’s savagery.” Again, in another place he writes, “The Sinhala bullies had over the decades chased some of the brightest Tamil minds from the island and Prabhakaran had electoral rolls in 75 countries and conscripts to track down long names ending in consonants.”

Karunatilaka  ends the story by saying that he does not have any clue how time or history moves. If he assassinates a Milosevic, a Pinochet or a Cheney, how sure would he be that another butcher would not rise in their stead? Maybe certain destinies are made to play out as written and it is not their place to meddle. So he concludes, “Maybe the only thing I can affect and take responsibility for is my own could-have-been-better life.”

Karunatilaka begins the second part of the story with a more personal and direct statement:

“The history of Sri Lanka since 1945 is a catalogue of me missing out on sex. In 1958, when SWRD was sprouting the vitriol that would divide a nation, I was going to Aunty Sumana’s piano class. She used to put her hand on my shoulder as I played Chopin…. When the 1962 military coup was taken down with whimper and without bang, I was also whimpering and not getting banged in my first year of cadetting…. When the 1971 insurrection happened, I had a girlfriend in Polonnaruwa who only let me touch them under the umbrella. When the island changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in ’72, I fell into a whorehouse in Nikaweratiya along with nine other cadets and even though I ended up with the prettiest I was unable to spark the flame. By the time the ’83 riots came along, I was married with three, transformed into my wife’s peon and unable to raise a flag nor fire a gun.”

In an interview Karunatilaka had admitted that he took almost two decades to finish the entries in this book. The oldest story was written during the millennium bug and the newest during a global pandemic. These were stories that he wrote while procrastinating on things he never finished, or to win prizes that he never entered, or to try out ideas that wouldn’t leave him alone. All in all, Karunatilaka’s love and concern for his homeland comes out in different ways through these multifarious vignettes and he can certainly be labelled as a current spokesperson of this small, beleaguered nation of Sri Lanka, a strong and concerned South Asian voice indeed. Reading the book is surely recommended.

[1] Unique Selling Proposition

Somdatta Mandal, critic, reviewer, and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.

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Review

The Life and Times of George Fernandes

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: The Life and Times of George Fernandes

Author: Rahul Ramagundam

Publisher: Penguin /Allen Lane

“Always for the people and never with the establishment”- that sums up the persona of George Fernandes. One of India’s firebrand leaders, Fernandes (1930-2019) lived his life fully and with resolve. He was a multifaceted personality: a trade union leader, a socialist, and a powerful orator. No other politician in India had risen to such heights of popularity as Fernandes was. A down–to–earth politician, he has left behind him an unparalleled legacy.

The Life and Times of George Fernandes by Rahul Ramagundam is one of its kind biographies – well-researched, colossal, and one which tells the story of a leader in minute detail. It is hard to find a biographer so immersed in the subject that it becomes a monumental work.

Reads the blurb: “George Fernandes is popularly known for leading the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) in 1974 and calling upon its approximately 1.7 million employees to strike, which brought India to a halt for twenty days. Often described as a rebel, he pursued every cause he took up with passionate devotion, heedless of the many ups and downs in his life. From the early years of fighting for the rights of the dock and municipal workers of Bombay through the Emergency, which he resisted by going underground, to his last private decade as a bed-ridden Alzheimer’s patient, his fights were always persistent and single-handed. It chronicles the story of George, who rose from the streets of Bombay to stride the corridors of power.”  

If Fernandes was known for trade union militancy, politically he was dauntless. A rebel political leader, he was an anti-capitalist dreamer. George could call Bombay to shut down and rose from its streets to become India’s Defense Minister.

In this amazing biography, Ramagundam records George’s political evolution and traces the course of the Socialist Party in India — from its inception in the 1930s to its dissolution into the Janata Party in the late nineteen-seventies. In the process, the book explores the trajectory of India’s Opposition parties that worked to dislodge the long-ruling Congress Party from its preeminent position in the thick of the emergency. 

Ramagundam received his doctoral degree in modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was associated with a grassroots movement in the united Madhya Pradesh for many years. Presently, he teaches at a Delhi-based university and also is the author of Gandhi’s Khadi and Socially Excluded.

In the prologue, Ramagundam writes: “The book tells the story of India s tortuous post-Independence building and the role of George Fernandes in it. In some ways, the book presents a contemporary history of India through the lens of George’s life and his political work. The story has George’s political emergence at its center but does not emanate merely from his perspective.” 

Explaining the basic objective of the book, the author says, “This is not a narrative of events – however defining they might have been. A biography is a chronicle of an evolutionary process and not a conglomeration of self-standing events in the subject’s life. Events shall feature here, as they are bound to be in a book dealing with a political personality. But more than the events, the book is a delineation of processes that define Indian politics. It delves deep into the evolution of India where George lived and worked tor. He also attempts to enter the political mind and probe the political choices George made.” If the book tries to present an insider’s account it also strives to construct those processes with documentary evidence and oral testimonies.

Divided into a dozen chapters with acronyms, a chronology of events, dramatis personae, and a guide to sources, there is nothing that the author has not covered about George’s action-packed life.

From his Christian beginning to the revolutionary road, George’s Bombay days, the sobriquet that George earned — More Dangerous than the Communists– the most hunted man, George’s underground days, how he was chained and confined, the gritty years — the book has all that Fernandes was made of. But it is in the last chapter (‘They Hate My Guts’) that Ramagundam exposes the double-speak of leaders who were close to Fernandes. 

Says the book: “The pedigreed hated him. The plebeians felt jealous at his powerful expression of their predicament with a perspective they lacked. Left with Bihar alone, the English-speaking socialist imports (J.B Kripalani, Asoka Mehta, Madhu Limaye, and George) won there because of their national and wider outlook to the disadvantage of the homegrown socialists. Sooner or later, to survive in Bihar politics, when caste-parochialism was raising its monstrous head all over, it was inevitable that George would have to depend on the accruing local elements and accord them primacy.”

This particular incident was one of the saddest ones in George’s life and was played out in full glare then. Ramagundam recollects the episode in the book: “In the 2004 general elections, Nitish Kumar made his return to Muzaffarpur, where he won, but in 2009, when he again desired to stand for election from the same constituency, his party headed now by Sharad Yadav, a front of Nitish Kumar, denied him a nomination. As a consequence, a fumbling George, Alzheimer’s disease already having taken some visible grip over him, was made to fight the election as an independent and he lost his deposit, denying him a graceful exit. The unsavoriness of George contesting the election against his party was opposed by his family members, who blamed Jaya Jaitly for it. Michael Fernandes wrote to Jaya about it and asked her not to make a mockery of him. And, after the election, in which he not just lost his deposit but showed up as decrepit his inability to campaign exposed to the world, Leila Fernandes put out a public statement expressing her displeasure at the goings-on in his life and politics.”

Concludes Ramagundam: “George Fernandes lived a life driven by a commitment that was experientially born, he had ideologies to believe in, and for most of his life these ideologies seemed to be personified in his endeavors and struggles, but beyond that, he lived a life of experiences, up close and personal, that is left for future generations to sort out and sift through, and learn from.” 

Comprehensive, evocative, and unputdownable, this definitive biography of George Fernandes is a tour de force. It is not only the biography of George Fernandes but also an account of the times gone by in contemporary India.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Categories
Interview Review

Born Free to Follow your Heart

Anthony Sattin, an award winning journalist and travel writer in conversation about Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, his recent book published by Hachette, India.

A breath-taking narrative that travels with the freedom of nomads, drawing from folklore, history and modern movements to give voice to an idea that might help move towards a more progressive and hopeful future — Anthony Sattin has achieved all this in a single book called Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, a non-fiction that touches the heart with the concept of unifying humanity beyond the borders of ‘isms’ drawn over time. It explores the history of people who often have not been chronicled in conventional texts.

We are living in times where floods, forest fires, wars and divides are ravaging humanity as it wakes up from the coils of a pandemic that had almost stilled all normal interactions and economic activities for more than two years. The unrests and the changes attributed to “climate change” call for “continued solidarity” and a united front from all humanity as indicated by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres and global guru Harari. In times such as these, an attempt to revive the concept of asabiyya, or bonds based on felt interests, is laudable and a necessity for the world to move forward. And that is exactly what Sattin has done in his recent book.

He has travelled with nomads; folklores, starting with Cain and Abel, Gilgamesh and Enkidu; history, Gobelki Tepe or Potbelly Hill, the place where he locates what might have been Eden, Achaemenid kings, Persian nomads, Mongols, Mughals to global nomads — spanning 12, 000 years of history.

In his book, Sattin tells us: “We are living at a time when the world — our world — shaped by the age of Reason and Enlightenment, powered by industrial and technological revolutions is faltering.  Social contracts are fraying and communications are breaking down. The raw materials and natural resources are becoming scarce, and the consequence of our actions … are written large across landscapes, the climate, the fabric of our lives…Change is needed.”

Sattin “traces the shifting relationships between people who move and those who were settled” to find the concept of asabiyya or the sense of bonding popularised by an Arab philosopher called Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). Perhaps, this is an ideal that could benefit humankind if we were all to see ourselves as one tribe. He has mentioned modern attempts at asabiyya, like the call given by ‘Black Lives Matter’, to contextualise the concept for us and to show how a movement born from within the hearts of people could touch and change attitudes.

The book is divided into three parts after an initial introduction from Mount Zagros, where Sattin was rescued from a bout of sunstroke by nomads: the first part is called ‘The Balancing Act’, where he explores ancient folklore and history, Huns, Hyksos, Scythians, Xiongnu and more: the second part is called ‘The Imperial Act’, from  ‘The rise of the Arabs to the Fall of Mongols’ where kingdoms and world history is brought into play and the importance of asabiyya is introduced with historic instances and the last part is called ‘The Act of Recovery’, where changes towards redefining the world in terms of ideals aligned with asabiyya are explored.

The scope of the non-fiction is clarified at the start of the book from Mount Zagros. He starts the first section interestingly in a locale, termed by him as “Paradise” in 10,000 BC with a global population of ‘Perhaps 5 million’, of which he lists the nomad population as ‘Most of the number’. As he unfolds the history of mankind, from the past we find echoes of what could be called mobile or nomadic bonds that embrace to expand and heal civilisations. Sattin has been exploring such bonds for the last forty years.

Described as “a cross between Indiana Jones and a John Buchan hero” and “one of the key influences on travel writing today”, Sattin started his interactions with bedouins at age nineteen and found them nurturing. He elucidates: “After I left school, I went travelling in the Middle East. In the Sinai Peninsula, at that time, there were no hotels or other facilities outside of Sharm el Sheikh. So, I and the friend I was travelling with relied on the Bedouins for many things — they brought us fish and other food, they told us stories about the magical places in the desert mountains and although we had been told that they would rob us, they looked after us.”

Anthony Sattin. Photo Courtesy. John Murray/Hachette India. 

Sattin has several non-fictions under his belt and is an award-winning journalist, who writes in a number of well-known journals, like the Sunday Times, the Conde Nast Traveller and the Financial Times. An editorial advisor to the Geographical magazine, he is also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a founder-member of Travel Intelligence and ASTENE (the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East). He was the director of the Principal Film Company, has written, advised and presented on television and radio productions, including the BBC.

In this exclusive conversation, Sattin discusses Nomads, and tells us how the book came to be.

What made you think of writing a book on nomads, who — you have stated in your book — now constitute only 40 million in a world of 7.8 billion humans?

Every book has its moment, and this is the right time for Nomads. It came out of a lifelong interest in people who live on the move and on the problems of settled society, especially with cities – some of the first thoughts in Nomads occurred decades back when I read Lewis Mumford’s The City in History[1]. But I also have many ideas for books in my head at any one time and they don’t all get written! And some of them sit around for ages and then it seems to me to be the right moment to write. The way our world has changed in the past decade helped shape my sense that this is the moment to write about open borders and freedom of movement. I also wanted to write something that would stretch me more than anything else I had written. Twelve thousand years of history seemed like a big enough challenge…

How long did it take you to research and write the book? What kind of research did you do?

I began shaping the idea nine years ago, after I finished my previous book, Young Lawrence[2], about how the second son of an anonymous, middle class Oxford family became Lawrence of Arabia. The proposal took more than a year to get right – as my editor at WW Norton in New York pointed out, a subject this big can be about everything and nothing. Then there were years of research, particularly in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the London Library, which is a wonderful place, the largest private library in the world and which serves as my home from home. I had many conversations over the years with scholars, people in publishing, fellow writers, travellers and nomads. And then there was the travelling with nomads, the writing and rewriting.

You travelled and lived among nomads for some time? How many years? Were your travels affected by the pandemic? If so, how did you bypass that?

I have been meeting nomads for more than forty years, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, where I have travelled extensively. When I was 19, I was looked after by Bedouin in the Sinai Desert. In 2010, I was back there on a camel trek with a guide who impressed me because he knew every mountain, every watering place and every cave, including one which he pointed out as the place where he was born.

In Mali, I spent time with Touareg nomads, who came together each year at a place in the desert beyond Timbuktu – these tribes used to be at war with central government (and are again), but a treaty had been brokered and one of the terms was that tribal and government leaders would meet once a year to sort out grievances. They also played music, danced, raced camels… How could one not be swept away?

Specifically for Nomads, I went to Iran to spend some time with the Bakhtiari, a large nomad tribe who I had chosen in part because they claim lineage that goes back millennia, because they had played a part in the making of modern Iran but also because in the 1920s, a movie[3] was made of their annual migration into the Zagros Mountains, amazingly by the director and producer[4] whose next movie was the original King Kong! The Bakhtiari taught me much about the challenges facing nomads today.

Can you tell us of a few interesting experiences while moving with nomads which are not part of the book?

When I first went into the Zagros Mountains to meet the Bakhtiari, I was taken by a guide (being British, I had to have a guide for my entire stay in Iran) and he could not understand why I would waste my money and my time going into the mountains. He was from the city and exhibited age-old prejudices against people who lived on the move, whom he called ‘primitives”. But I am not a nomad and although I don’t find them primitive, I do find some aspects of their lives very challenging: years ago, on a camel trek in the Thar Desert, I caught what I now assume was sunstroke and thought I was going to pass out. My guide – there were just the two of us travelling – got me out of the desert. At the first village we reached, he had someone bring a bed out of a house and placed in the shade of a tree. I lay down and remember no more until about four hours later when I woke to find myself surrounded by the whole village. They had been angry with the guide for bringing me to them – think of all the trouble they would face if I died! When I woke, in the middle of this scene, the whole crowd burst into cheers like a scene out of a Bollywood movie.

You have spoken of ‘asabiyya’ taught by Ibn Khaldun. Can you explain the concept briefly and tell us if this can be of relevance in the current global situation?

Asabiyya is a sense of group feeling, something that binds people together. Ibn Khaldun thought it had shaped the world and found that it was most powerful among nomads and people who lived in the desert, in part because they must rely absolutely on each other. When this group feeling is channelled by a leader – the Prophet Muhammed, for instance – it can lead the group towards extraordinary achievements, as when the first Arabs overcame the might of the better-trained and armed Byzantine and Persian armies. It might all sound like something from long ago but I think there is a sense, in our own time, of someone like Greta Thurnberg having channelled that same feeling to force our leaders to pay attention to the climate emergency.

At a point you tell us that “…cities posed existentialist risks, and their temptations could overwhelm the asabiyya and nomads would lose their identity.” Why was maintaining their identity for the nomads so essential? Do you think this is something that needs revival in the present?

The existential risks I mention are the ones that rob nomads of their asabiyya and therefore of their power. Ibn Khaldun had seen this first hand: in North Africa, several small reformist movements had come out of the harsh desert or mountains to the south and overwhelmed the courts and kingdoms along the north coast. But each of those movements had fallen apart within a few generations as the pure people of the desert found themselves corrupted by living in cities. As for identity, it is important for all of us to know who we are and where we have come from — that was one reason to write the book, because very little is taught about nomads in western schools.

Your book touches upon number of issues — including faith. Given the fact that the great Khan had a Nestorian church, a mosque and a Buddhist temple in his capital city despite following the Shamanistic faith, would you say that an openness or tolerance in beliefs and faiths led to a more strongly tethered kingdom, as they did not really seem to have concepts of permanent national boundaries then? Is this not a dichotomy that you create a strongly tethered kingdom and yet are open to move on, leaving the old capital behind? And is it not wasteful?

I think there are two things going on here. On the one hand, a belief in freedom of conscience, the right to follow any or no religion. This was certainly something the great Mongol khans believed in. They were mostly animists, believing in the Sky Father and reliant on signs and omens, but they were not adverse to being prayed for and blessed by an imam or priest. Even the Ottomans, who came out of a nomadic tradition and were clearly Muslims, thought it important to allow freedom of conscience in their empire. What mattered was not who you prayed to, but whether you were prepared to acknowledge the sovereignty of the khan or the sultan. Some of the most successful periods in human history have flourished because of this idea.

A strongly tethered kingdom is another issue. For nomads, cities and capitals were not as important as lands, particularly hunting and grazing lands. The Mongol khans, like ancient Persian emperors and many other nomad leaders, recognised the need for a pivotal meeting place, a capital, but they were mostly more interested in spending time elsewhere and on the move. A leader such as Attila, the Hun ruler, had no interest in the cities he conquered.

You mention British author, Bruce Chatwin(1940-1989), as having said “we are born to move, that we must move or die.” Can you explain what that would mean? In the current context, people talk of roots and homeland. If they keep moving what happens to their firm conviction in homeland?

It depends what sort of ‘moving’ we are talking about. On a mundane and personal level, research now tells us that we are less likely to get ill and more likely to live longer if we walk 10,000 steps a day. On a national and global scale, we need interaction, we need to live lighter, we need to be nimble on our feet and in our thoughts.  

You have divided the world into two groups — nomads and settlers — and said we need a bit of both. Can you tell us how and why?

Humans began to settle and cultivate some 12,000 years ago and since then, like Cain and Abel, humans have broadly been divided into those who stay in one place, usually either cultivating the land or living in towns/cities, and those who live on the move. For most of history they have lived in a state of mutual dependence and often even in harmony. A world without nomads, with everyone fixed in one place – which seems to be where we are heading – is a smaller, less rich, less fertile world.

In a post-pandemic world, would the nomadic lifestyle you have written of be feasible, especially with all the governmental issues creeping in? 

The word nomad comes from a very old Indo-European word meaning pasture or a fixed area, which suggest the right to graze. But if you take a broad view of what it means to be a nomad in the 21st century, you might also include digital nomads and others who move to work or just because that is how they want to or have to live. That might not have been possible during the pandemic, when we were all locked down, but the number of people on the move now in many parts of the world is right back up and that can only be a good thing – we need to mix and meet, to exchange experiences and opinions.

If we opt for a mobile lifestyle, would we need to redefine borders as of old? Would that take us back to a pre-nationalistic era? Do you think we should be redefining our mindsets and our isms? Do you suggest we all go back to an intermittent nomadic lifestyle?

We should always be questioning mindsets and isms! Happily, we are living through a golden age of revisionist history shaped by a number of forces, decolonialism, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo among them. We also live in an age of misinformation on a massive scale. Nomads has come out of a need I had to shine some light on a way of life that is either entirely missing, or misrepresented in our histories.

Are you planning to write more on this issue or move on to something else? Would you share with us your next project?

There is much more to be written about this issue, but after spending most of the past eight years working on Nomads, it is time for me to look elsewhere. I hope I have stimulated a debate about nomads that will encourage others to look further. Meanwhile my thoughts are turning to Egypt — and to Italy, from where I am writing today.

Thanks for giving us your time during your travels.


[1] First published in 1961

[2] First published in 2014

[3] Grass (1925)

[4] Merian C. Cooper (1893-1973)

(This review and online interview is by Mitali Chakravarty)

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Review

Satyajit Ray Miscellany

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More

Author: Satyajit Ray

Publisher: Penguin Randomhouse

There could be any number of books on Satyajit Ray. Even after thirty years after his death, he continues to be written about. The present book Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More, as the title suggests, is everything that the veteran filmmaker India had put in black and white.

As part of the Penguin Ray Library, the book has more than seventy rarest essays on filmmaking, screenplay writing, autobiographical pieces, and rare photographs and manuscripts.

“Ray is a singular symbol of what is best and most revered in Indian cinema” as the film director and scriptwriter, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has put it and the actor, Ben Kingsley, complimented him: “Satyajit Ray, I salute you. The greatest of our poets of the cinema.”

One of the doyens of world cinema, Ray gave a “unique aesthetic expression to Indian cinema, music, art, and literature. His writings, especially, autobiographical works, thoughts on filmmaking, screenplay writing, and eminent personalities from art, literature, and music, among others, are considered treasure troves, which largely remained unseen and therefore less known till date.” Ray was a writer of repute – his short stories, novellas, poems, and articles, written in Bengali and translated into English, have been immensely popular. Author of the famous Feluda stories, Ray’s Bengali books have long been bestsellers. 

Ray was awarded the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992 – the year he was also awarded India’s highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna, and also when he breathed his last.  

Writes Sandip Ray in the ‘Foreword’ to the book: “Since his schooldays, my father was a cinema addict in the true sense of the term – lapping up Hollywood movies of Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and others as well as the timeless comedies of Chaplin and Keaton. The hobby gradually turned into a serious interest. The formation of the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with a few like-minded friends opened to him the diverse range of European cinema, and in a sense, acting as a catalyst to his writings on cinema. In his first two articles, he heavily criticized the make-believe stereotypes of erstwhile Bengali cinema and called for soul-searching among the filmmakers. The result as he himself remarked later amusingly – ‘Nothing of that sort happened. The piece was simply shrugged off by the people of the trade as yet another piece of tomfoolery by some arrogant upstart who saw only foreign films and knew nothing of local needs and local conditions.’”

The book has been enchantingly divided into: ‘Satyajit Ray – A Self-Portrait’, ‘A Director’s Perspective’, ‘Personal Notes’, ‘Reminiscences’, ‘Festival greetings LP Sleeve Notes’, and ‘Miscellaneous Writings’. There is also a chapter on the ‘Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives’. Together, these writings bring to the fore fascinating anecdotes of Ray’s eventful life.    

About the art of Rabindranath Tagore, Ray wrote: “Tagore took to painting at a later stage in his life. Some manuscripts dating back to his youth show doodles in the margin which suggest a natural flair for drawing. After that, there is nothing to show that he had any interest in visual expression until, when he was well over sixty; fantastic forms began to appear in his manuscripts. Where one would normally cross out a word or a sentence, Rabindranath turned them into grotesque creatures. These emendations were stung together until the whole page took on the appearance of a tapestry of words and images. In time, paintings and calligraphic drawings began to appear as independent efforts, unrelated to manuscripts. Blue-black ink gave way to transparent colors, and the subjects became more and more varied. The output clearly suggests that Rabindranath was absorbed in his new pursuit and enjoying the experience. The lack of formal training was compensated by an instinctive feel for rhythm, texture, and spacing. There was also the calligraphic virtuosity when he used the pen. (His unique and beautiful Bengali handwriting– which came to be known as the “Rabindrik” script has been widely imitated.) But the brush, too, was frequently used. Some of the efforts were purely abstract while others dealt with subjects which covered a wide field.’

Ray considered scriptwriting to be an integral part of direction. Initially, he refused to make a film in any language other than Bengali. In his two non-Bengali feature films, he wrote the script in English; translators adapted it into Hindustani under Ray’s supervision. Such was the purist in Ray!

In the section ‘The Outlook for Bengali Films’ Ray was fairly real-world: “It is generally conceded that the film industry in Bengali is facing a big crisis. Some have gone so far as to predict a total annihilation of the Bengali film as such, and the sprouting up in its place of a product not dissimilar to the well-known type created by Bombay. This may be the height of pessimism, but there is no denying some alarming symptoms. Firstly, the area of exploitation of the Bengali film has been considerably reduced by the Partition; secondly, for reasons we shall presently examine, the exhibitors in Bengal have grown increasingly distrustful of the home product preferring the unpretentious, brassy, and frankly escapist products of Bombay and more recently, Madras.”

Nemai Ghosh was Satyajit Ray’s only cinematographer who did almost all his films. Ray wrote: “We founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with the help of a few friends and associates. Nemai Ghosh was one of them. Like me, he was also enamoured by the cinema; so we got along very well. I was a mere cineaste then but he was already a practitioner as a cameraman. However, he harboured the desire to direct films himself at the back of his mind. The chance came his way during the late forties when he made Chhinnamul (The Uprooted, 1952) on the theme of Partition. It was the first instance of realism in Bengali cinema. But thereafter he was compelled to head for Madras for want of work in Calcutta and had to spend the rest of his life there. Being a leftist to the core, he did a lot for the cinema workers in Madras. We exchanged correspondence only occasionally. But whenever we met, the old warmth of friendship was revived. Today I am feeling his absence intensely and I am sure the cine workers of Madras are also feeling likewise.”

Satyajit Ray Miscellany, the second book in the Penguin Ray Library series, brings to light some of the rarest essays and illustrations by Ray that opens a window to the myriad thought-process of this creative genius. With more than seventy gripping write-ups and rare photographs and manuscripts, this 275-page book is undoubtedly a collector’s item. 

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Categories
Review

Of Ghosts and Tantriks

Book review by Basudhara Roy

Title: Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural

Author: Bibhutibhushan

Translator: Devalina Mookerjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

The book decides to arrive on a crisp Friday morning, its sunshine so keen and abundant that any thoughts of the supernatural can only be merrily chuckled over. The cover, however, is strangely disconcerting. It takes me time to mark that the brilliant art on it actually depicts skulls. Not ordinary enough to be dismissed as mere biological specimens, the skulls seem to represent, in their complexity, vibrancy and the silhouette of birds that haunt them on every side, a text that is both hauntingly familiar and eerily not so. Bibhutibhushon’s short stories exploring the supernatural and tantra, a practice associated with dark forces and the Goddess Kali, translated by Devalina Mookerjee from Bengali — could not, perhaps, have been showcased better.

Bibhutibhushan (1894-1950) was an eminent Bengali writer whose best known works are his novels, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) and Aparajito – both immortalised into films by Satyajit Ray,  Chander Pahar (Moon Mountain) Aranyak (Of the Forest). Some of these books can be found in translation.To one even remotely acquainted with Bibhutibhushan’s oeuvre, his stories offer a definite assurance of being in good company. In reading , Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, however, what the reader might fail to bargain for is the almost complete obliteration of the physical world by the world of the book, and by the time the journey through the nine translated stories therein has been made, one is no longer sure where one world ends and the other begins.

It takes time to step out of the frame and to express admiration for the conduit that has led to this extraordinary experience in fiction – the translator. To transcend spatiality and temporality and conjure these tales again for an entirely different readership in an entirely different language is likely to have been a project fraught with its own pointed challenges. Mookerjee, however, seems to have successfully met them all, so much so that in the context of the English language, these spooky, unsettling tales offer not the slightest semblance of foreignness, even when they deal thematically with something as acutely local and specialised as tantra. The language is sparklingly contemporary and in its inflections, energy and dreaminess to allow these nine narratives to carve their own particular niches. The pace of the collection stays heady throughout and the atmosphere is completely overpowering.

Of special significance is Mookerjee’s nuanced and insightful twenty-seven paged ‘Introduction’ to the collection that calls upon the reader to visualise concrete connections between social justice and the genre of the supernatural. Mookerjee writes: “Seen against the background of what people are capable of doing to each other, stories of ghost may be seen as corrective mechanisms in the scales of justice. A person who has been wronged returns to tell their story, perhaps to wreak havoc on their tormentors. A disbeliever sits in a séance for which the medium is clearly not prepared, and chaos ensues. We have a word for this already. We call it karma.”

The ‘Introduction’ serves, also, as a brave attempt to place Bibhutibhushan’s writing in current socio-cultural perspective, and to bridge the disparate worlds of rural Bengal that birthed these stories and that of the contemporary English reader of these tales who could belong to almost any geographical space on the global map.

The first two stories of the collection are centred around the protagonist after who the book has been named, a dabbler in the dark arts, Taranath Tantrik. The remaining seven stories are each unique in their own ways as they chart their individual journeys into the terrain of the invisible and the occult with remarkable skill and clarity. “Human beings have historically shown very little need of support from the otherworld to behave in perfectly horrible ways with other people. This is the point at which the darkness of the uncanny and the darkness of people converge,” avers Mookerjee, pointing out how the surreal is often only another dimension of the real revealed in a disjointed spatial-temporality.

Not all of the nine stories strike with equal power. If ‘The Ghosts of Spices’ appears quite facile and juvenile in its description of a march-past of spice sacks on the deserted nocturnal streets, ‘A Small Statue’ appears rather simplistically cinematic in its  dream presentation of the tableau of the monk, Dipankar’s life. In the most evocative stories of the collection like ‘Maya’, ‘The House of His Foremothers’, ‘Arrack’ and ‘The Curse’, however, the quiet, intricate weaving of setting, psychology and idea dazzles in its brilliance, leaving behind a sense of both fracture and healing.

Bibhutibhushan’s poignancy is at its unsurpassable best in his delineation of place and in his exploration of links between physical place and human placed-ness. His most unforgettable stories are those in which people and places interact with each other organically and without inhibitions, creating a documented identity of both being-in-place and place-in-being. In ‘Maya’ for instance, the house acquires an identity of its own as its past inhabitants gently draw its present dweller/s into the folds of its mystery and inexplicable self-sufficiency. In ‘The House of His Foremothers’ similarly, the ghost-girl Lokkhi mourns for the bereft house more than her lost family and consistently haunts its silences in the hope of resurrection for the house which, unlike her, still lives across the family’s generational lifetimes.

To allow one’s imagination to be overpowered by these stories is to experience a strange welding of the probable and the improbable into the arc of the possible — to be awakened to a new dimension of being in which while vision remains at par, the other senses experience a heightened participation with what is positively undefinable but utterly undeniable.

Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, by thus placing the reality in the larger context of a world that still evades the cartography of reason, becomes a portal to a widened, heightened and more enlightened worldview. It helps remind of the intersections between our own human finitude and the infinite world with its geo-historical consciousness incapable of forgetting and thoroughly unable to forgive.

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Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.

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Click here to read the book excerpt from Taranath Tantrik

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Review

Is it a Story, a Novel, or a Memoir?

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: The Dreams of a Mappilla Girl: A Memoir

Author: B.M. Zuhara

Translator: Fehmida Zakeer

Publisher: Yoda Press & Sage

 The terms ‘autobiography’ and ‘memoir’ are sometimes used interchangeably but the former is more fact-based and tends to be historical, whereas a ‘memoir,’ derived from the Latin word ‘memorandum’, is chiefly a personal, minute recollection of events, not necessarily intending to cover a person’s entire life, but often written from an epiphanic perspective, a significant event, or a particular aspect of the memoirist’s life. Thus, memoirs are essentially subjective and can never claim to be bio-bibliographical narrations. B.M. Zuhara, the writer and columnist from Kerala and a Sahitya Akademi awardee who writes in Malayalam, had penned The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir (2015), which was recently translated by Fehmida Zakeer to English. It traces the childhood years of the writer, growing up in the village of Tikkodi in rural Kerala as a young Mappila girl from the Muslim community in post-Independence India.

For Zuhara, the things she remembers from her childhood act as vignettes which we readers string together to form a wholesome picture of the feudal system and social issues that were significant in her mind as she was growing up in the Malabar Muslim community in the 1950s. The tenth and youngest child of her parents living in a huge ancestral house called Kizhekke Maliakkal, Soora’s narrative gives us details of the things she remembered about the place till the point where at the age of thirteen she moves with her family to live in a rented house at Kohzikode to be admitted in a high school and begin a new chapter in her life. But even after she gets admitted into a prestigious school at Kozhikode, uncertainty looms large over Soora’s life as her mother stays adamant about not allowing her daughter to wear a skirt as a uniform as mandated by the school. In the ‘Preface’, Zuhara mentions that her childhood ancestral home does not exist anymore, but its memory is so strong that it appears as a character in many of her writings.

From the very beginning of the memoir, we form a clear picture in our minds about the location of the house, its detailed set-up filled with characters of the extended family including servants and cooks who lent a helping hand to run it smoothly. Like many other narratives, food plays a significant role in developing the ambience of Soora’s household. We get details of the elaborate tea ritual every evening, the eating of pathiris soaked in coconut milk, the aroma of fried plantains and coconut residue that filled the air, the details of the betel leaf chewed by her mother and grandmother with their decorative boxes and copper spittoons, the attempts to hatch chickens from eggs that were undertaken in the storeroom, the rearing of hens and ducks and goats by her brothers, the midday meals offered in their village school which their mother did not allow them to partake considering that it was solely meant for underprivileged children, and so on fill up a considerable portion of the narrative. Apart from visiting the village fair, Zuhara recounts the social mores of the society she lived in and offers glimpses into the secluded lives of Muslim girls and women who, despite obstacles, made the best of their circumstances and contributed positively to their communities.

One significant point about the memoir is the presence of Soora’s mother throughout the narrative and the strong influence that she had over her. While growing up, Soora often accused her of not looking after her well because she was an unwanted child. A religious woman who prayed five times a day, she not only tried to apply the teachings of the Quran to her life, but also shared her newly acquired knowledge with the people around her. Any deviation from the traditional lifestyle was, according to her, punishable as an offence by Allah. A pampered cry baby who would often burst into tears for the slightest reason, Soora from the very beginning was a sensitive child, who was often admonished for her interest in playing with boys and learn Kalari Payattu like her brothers, play with them in the rice fields, stand on the bridge and listen to the songs sung by the farmhands as they worked. She was also scolded for eavesdropping into conversations made by adults and like all traditional Muslim women, her mother wanted to get her married at a very young age. The real and perceived slights that Soora was subjected to, were primarily targeted at her physical appearance, specifically her dark complexion and her tendency to cling to her mother. But paradoxically for a seemingly timid child, Soora’s propensity to constantly question what is established as normative behaviour for a girl earns her the nickname of ‘Tarkakozhi’ – one who argues. What these contradictory impulses perhaps reveal was a girl who was overwhelmed by the big and small battles she must constantly fight, a life burdened by gendered expectations, yet a girl whose deepest desire was to be like Unniarcha, a mythological woman celebrated for her fearlessness whose ballads Soora grew up listening to.

But soon Soora realised that some of her dreams would never materialise because of her gender. Certain details, such as that of Soora’s grandmother passing away at the age of thirty when Soora’s mother was fifteen; or that two of Soora’s sisters were married even before she was born, reveal the dark reality of women’s lives in those times. In the ‘Preface’ Zuhara categorically states:

“I grew up at a time when Muslim girls did not have the freedom to dream. When I started writing, I had to face a lot of criticism and threats, and I found many limitations imposed on me. Until then, only men had recorded the inner lives of Muslim women. Even though I could not comfort my sisters physically, I have tried through my writings to give them a voice by speaking about their dreams, chronicling the obstacles and difficulties faced by them, and providing a perspective from the point of view of women. In the process, I have tried to define a space for myself in the literary landscape.”

In her ‘Preface’, the author also wonders if her work is a “story, or a novel, or a memoir.” Her words became the wings upon which forgotten, and deeply bruised memories travelled out into the world. She recreated the stories of her dear and near ones around whom she had spent her childhood. She coloured her childhood experiences with her imagination and penned them all down. Even though all the names are of actual people, if she is asked if the stories are real or imagined, she can only say that they are both. So, she leaves it to her readers who have encouraged and supported her writing journey to decide.

Here one needs to add a few words about the translation. The translator Fehmida Zakeer also hails from Kerala and being a Muslim herself, her effort to make this book read as smoothly as the original Malayalam text is laudable. There is no italicisation of non-English words throughout the text and the list of kinship terms at the beginning, along with the elaborate glossary at the end, makes the book as reader friendly as possible while trying to retain the flavour of the original. The only occasional problem this reviewer faced while reading the text was that too many authentic words and salutary terms for relationships of even a single individual often turned confusing for a lay reader like her who had to pause and recollect who the actual person referred to was. For the protagonist, mention of Sora, Soora, Sooramol, and Zuhura is understandable, but addressing members of the extended family and others residing in the neigbhourhood in different salutations sometimes becomes difficult for people not acquainted with the South Indian Malayali culture. However, despite such a minor lapse, the book is engrossing and offers a wonderful slice of life of the rural and semi-urban Muslim community in Kerala, of its customs and lifestyle which otherwise would remain unknown to us in a muti-cultural and multilingual country like India.

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Click here to read an excerpt from The Dreams of Mappila Girl: A Memoir

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Somdatta Mandal, critic, translator, and reviewer, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.

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Interview Review

The Fearful Trill of Freedom & Equality

A conversation with VR Devika, author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, Niyogi Books.

“Education, Freedom and Responsibility bring out the best from the individual and race. This will apply to all men and women irrespective of caste, creed or colour.”

—Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights

 Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights by VR Devika is a biography of a woman who shouted out to demand reforms among devdasis ( women who had been ‘married’ to lifelong service of a deity or a temple) and prostitutes in the nineteenth-twentieth century. The biographer, V R Devika, is a storyteller, educationist and Gandhi scholar.

Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was born to a devdasi mother and transcended the system that had deteriorated from when a devadasi was considered ‘auspicious’ as she would never be widowed or married, and she could maintain her status quo, the book informs, adding a historic perspective to this ‘norm’. By Reddy’s times, these women had been reduced to become mistresses to rich men. In ancient times, before malpractices set in, a princess is said to have opted to become a devdasi. The decline started in the sixteenth century when devdasis were transferred from temple to temple.

The narrative is simple and straightforward but what stands out is the value of the content, the strength of the woman who could speak up boldly and demand reforms — even have some of them instituted. She spoke out for reforms with searing words. The author quotes from many of her speeches.

“Muthulakshmi used strong language to explain her position on the Devadasi question. ‘Of all the laws, rules and regulations which down the centuries have helped to place women in a position of inferiority, none has been so very powerful in creating in the minds of men and people a sentiment of scorn and contempt for women as the degrading idea of the double standard of morals.’

“She thundered, ‘From this double standard that has sprung that worst attack on women’s dignity, that safety valve theory that a certain number of women should exist, should sacrifice their self-respect, their honour, their comforts, their health and happiness to satisfy the lust of the other sex. At the present day, the continuance of such a doctrine and of the laws which are founded on it, is a shameful anachronism unworthy of our civilisation. Both in the past and in the present, women have disproved their inferiority, and how then can we at the present day tolerate or connive at a system which transforms a woman of whichever caste or class she may be, into a mere chattel, a piece of tainted merchandise? The inequity of the system is too deep for me to give expression, and further under that inhuman and unjust system the innocent children of a certain caste or community are trained to become proficient in all the arts of solicitation that they become captives to vice.’”

That men and women perpetrate social norms to justify the existence of the so-called ‘world’s oldest profession’ is well brought out in the book. That women forced into the sex trade are not doing this out of choice is conveyed with conviction. Names of Reddy’s associates include Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) and the well-known singer whose mother was a devdasi too, MS Subbulakshmi (1930-1997).

Reddy was one of the first female medical graduates[1] in India, the first woman[2] to enter an Indian Legislature and the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly. A recipient of the Padmabhushan and more accolades, she, as a doctor founded the Addyar Cancer Institute in 1952 after her sister was caught with cancer, and, as a humanitarian, started the Avvai Home in 1931 for those rescued from brothels and streets. Her spirit is well captured by the author when she writes:

“In 1942, during the World War II, soldiers of the British Royal Airforce camping in tents on the banks of Adyar river had made some derogatory remarks about the girls and harassed them. Muthulakshmi stood vigil all night with a stick in her hand and dared any soldier to come near the Home. She even went up the ranks to the commander’s house near Fort St. George to complain to him about the conduct of the soldiers and curb their behaviour.”

VR Devika has extensively shown that Reddy was a force to be reckoned with but she has not given way completely to adulation. She has objectively shown how Reddy over ruled her son’s choices for the well-being of her own institutions. It brought to mind Gandhi’s attitude towards his own family. An established cultural activist, VR Devika has been associated with the inception of Chennai’s Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum and Tamil Nadu INTACH[3], has been visiting the Avvai Home and in this exclusive she tells us the story of how the book came about and why she visited this home and its impact on her.

VR Devika. Photo provided by Niyogi Books

Tell us why you felt that Muthulakshmi Reddy’s story needed to be told. What was the readership you had in mind when you wrote the biography?

The dance scholarship [donors] consisting of mainly outsiders who had a hypothesis, got a good grant, employed interpreters and cherry picked to denigrate her in a fashion that took dance academic world by storm after the 1980s. I had also bought into them when I began to learn Bharathanatyam. But when I joined INTACH Tamilnadu and Madras Craft Foundation in 1985 after having been a schoolteacher since 1974, I began a project of English language as a skilling programme and theatre as empowerment for Avvai Home. That is when I began to get the other side of the story that was really fascinating. I kept thinking I must reach this story out. Dr.V.Shanta, chairman of Cancer institute, said I must write her [Muthulakshmi Reddy’s] biography and I decided to work on it after she passed away. I had young people who were studying English but had no access to English other than their textbooks as the target audience but I am a story teller and I just began to tell the story in simple way as I always do.

You tell us in the authorial note that you went on ‘work’ to the Avvai home. Tell us about the home. Why were you there?

Geetha Dharmarajan and I lived near Avvai Home. I had no idea about the history of the home etc. But I knew very poor girls studied there. Geetha had spoken to them and I went along but Geetha relocated to New Delhi and started Katha[4] and I stayed on helping Avvai Home in many different ways. I have written a full story of Avvai Home in the book. It was volunteer work. Rajalakshmi of Avvai Home requested me to help them on a production on Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy. I interviewed Sarojini Varadappan, Dr.Shanta, and several others to write the script for the production. I am now on their school advisory committee.

For me, the most interesting aspect was how Muthulakshmi Reddy made the transition from being born a devadasi to empowering herself enough to outlaw the custom. Did her parents ever marry?

No there was no way they could marry as a girl born in the system was barred from ritualistic marriage according to Hindu custom. She was his companion.

Your narrative is direct and eulogistic of great names and associations of/ developed by Muthulakshmi Reddy and the lady herself. The personal is largely left out, except to emphasise her achievements. Why?

I cannot [describe that] as I never met her. I had to sketch a portrait from her writings, her achievements and her son’s writing.

Would you regard the devdasi system as a social ill that has been erased or is it an ongoing battle?

There is no social evil that has been erased completely. Nostalgists for devdasi system denigrate her [Reddy]. But there is the social evil of discrimination against Dalits still, but should Ambedkar be blamed for giving a legal handle for those who wanted to come out and achieve something of their own despite the caste hierarchy? Those who benefited from the abolition of dedication are in thousands while those who bemoan the loss of culture in the way they want it are in hundreds.

The devdasi system is a generic system in a number of states in India. Did Reddy’s reforms benefit all the states? Was the Avvai Home open to all devdasis or only from her state?

Avvai Home never claimed to be only for devdasis but for girls who needed protection and access to education. No reform benefits everyone. Her law was for the Madras Presidency of the time which consisted of parts of Andhra, Orissa and Karnataka too as part of it.

Muthulakshmi Reddy started a number of things, including the second oldest cancer hospital in India. But all these were reactions borne of personal experiences. Do you think if she had been born into a regular family, and her sister would not have had cancer, would she have striven for these institutions too?

I can’t answer a hypothetical question. How do we know what she would have done?

What was the driving force behind the reforms instituted by Muthulakshmi Reddy?

Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly.

Would you justify the “emotional blackmail” on her son to fulfil her own dream by giving up his own? Do you think that it is right of a parent to impose their will in this way?

I am not justifying it. It happened that way. Just telling the story. She did not force her elder son who went into Electrical Engineering. Her second son never resented the “emotional blackmail” He went along whole heartedly.

What for you was the most endearing quality of Dr Reddy?

I have many who worked with her telling me she was very kind, but she was also a tyrant and would not bend. Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly. She was a mother (Amma) was the unanimous opinion.

Thank you for giving us your time.


[1] Anandi Gopal Joshi(1865-1867) and Kadambini Bose Ganguly (1861 –1923) graduated and practiced as doctors in other parts of India.

[2]  Muthulakshmi Reddy joined the Madras Legislative assembly in 1930.

[3] Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage 

[4] Katha is a non-profit and non-governmental organisation that has established itself in the field of community development, child welfare, education and literature.

(This review and interview is by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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