Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

Sahitya Akademi winner Aruna Chakravarti

A woman who weaves stories from the past, from history, from what has been and makes them so real that they become a part of ones’ own existence – this has been my experience of Dr Aruna Chakravarti and her writing. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, Vaitalik award and Sarat Puraskar, Chakravarti was the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Jorasanko and its sequel are based on the women in the household of Rabindranath Tagore. Jorasanko one of the best and most impactful books I have read in my life and with a flavour of realism that transports you into that era. The focus on the strength that resided in women trapped with a set of patriarchal values in colonial India is amazing and attractive. Suralakshmi Villa, her latest novel which was released at the start of 2020, is also modelled on a woman from the past as she will reveal in this exclusive interview.

You are a multiple national award- winning writer. At a point you stopped writing. Why?

I had started writing during my childhood and had continued to do so through my school days happily and unselfconsciously. I wrote poems, short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. But when I joined the English Honours course in college and was introduced to the academics of literature; when I learned the principles of criticism and picked up the ability to distinguish good writing from mediocre, a change came over me. I suffered from a loss of self-worth. I felt I was not and could never be a good writer. Self-criticism is good but unfortunately it worked adversely for me. I convinced myself that my work was imitative and lacking in merit. From that time onwards I stopped writing.

When did you take up writing again? Did your translations come first?

It happened nearly twenty- five years later. Yes, my translations came first. The cycle of negative feelings about my writing, to which I had strapped myself, broke in a miraculous way. The year was 1982.  At a chamber concert of Rabindra sangeet, in which I was taking part, a Gujarati gentleman from the audience made a request. He asked if one of the participants could translate the songs that were being sung so that non-Bengalis, many of whom were present, could understand the words. Since I was teaching English in a Delhi University college at the time, all eyes turned to me. I was horrified. To be called upon to translate a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore, that too his lyrics, without any preparation whatsoever, would have daunted anyone leave alone me with my record of diffidence and self-doubt. But to my own shock and bewilderment, I agreed. The rest is history. There was a publisher in the audience who offered to bring out a collection of Tagore songs in translation. That was my first publication. Tagore: Songs rendered into English came out in 1984. Though the publisher was practically unknown, the book created waves in literary circles. Other translations followed. Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and later Those days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyaywere published by Penguin India. I also picked up a number of awards.

It was Sunil Gangopadhyay who advised me to try my hand at creative writing. After some hesitation I did so. My first novel The Inheritors was accepted by Penguin India and published in 2004. After it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, I found the courage to write more.

You were the Principal of a Delhi University college. Did your work impact your writing?

No strangely enough it didn’t. My creative inspiration never drew from my experience as a Principal. I was dealing with women from a younger generation. I was privy to their concerns, their joys and sorrows, their fears and aspirations.  I understood their psychology. Yet I never wanted to write about them except in a tangential way. As part of a larger context. For me the present failed to provide the spark that kindled my creative imagination. That came invariably from some past memory. In a strange way the past seems more meaningful to me than the present.

But my role as an administrator helped me in another way. Office work is dry and prosaic. But it is worthwhile work. And, much as I felt good doing it, I looked forward intensely to the end of the day when I could doff my Principal’s hat and don my writer’s one. And, having indulged myself by writing till late into the night, I was ready to take up my work schedule the next morning. The two interests sustained each other and created a balance.

Why did you translate the writers? What did you learn by translating them? Did it impact your own story telling or knowledge base?

My first translation, as I’ve just explained, was commissioned. But I would not have taken up the offer if I didn’t consider the original work a significant contribution to Bengali literature. My other books were self-chosen. For me the most important consideration when taking up a translation project has been the literary value of the piece. I had to enjoy the process of translation and could only do so if I thought the subject worthwhile. And, yes, I learned a lot. I learned how lyricism could be infused into prose from Rabindranath. I learned how to write with brevity and precision from Saratchandra and the art of simple, direct, almost colloquial communication with the reader from Sunil Gangopadhyay. The process also intensified my interest in Bengal and the evolution of its society, literature and culture. I was enthused to read and learn more.

Some awards nowadays ask for applications from authors. Did you apply for your awards? Did you work towards getting an award?

No. This is the first time I’m hearing that authors can apply for awards. I thought that was the publisher’s job. As for working towards getting an award — no, I’ve never even thought of it.  Networking is a totally alien term for me. I admire people who can do it perhaps because I, myself, have very little skill at it. Whatever recognition has come my way has come as a surprise. I feel some of the books that have brought me awards didn’t deserve them. On the other hand, the ones that I think should have attracted them, didn’t do so. However, I suppose writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. Assessment of quality should be left to critics.

How long does it take you to churn out a book?

In the case of novels, it depends on the amount of research that has to go into it. For example, Jorasanko took nearly three years. But Daughters of Jorasanko was completed in a year and a half. That’s because most of the research had been done already. Translations take less time depending on the length. Srikanta, Those Days and First Light, took about two years each. The shorter ones The Way Home, Primal Woman and On the Wings of Music were done in less than a year.

Were your novels Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko impacted by your translation of Tagore? Did having done the translations help?

I suppose it did… at some level. Some of the lyricism and emotionally charged quality of Rabindranath’s language must have seeped into my consciousness while doing the translation. But its manifestation is present not only in the Jorasanko series. It is there in all my writing. The Inheritors is suffused with a Tagorean kind of heightened sensibility. So is Suralakshmi Villa.

In your latest novel Suralakshmi Villa you have drawn a very independent woman in the last century — so independent that it would be difficult to find people similar to her in today’s world. Is she modelled on a real person?

I had heard of such a woman from a colleague of mine. The lady, a relation of my friend’s, belonged to a conservative South Indian Brahmin family of Chennai. A few years after her marriage she abandoned her husband and infant son, for no apparent reason, left Chennai and started teaching in an obscure village school. This was way back in the twenties when such an action was unheard of. She never came back. But that was all I knew. I had never met her or heard anything more about her. My imagination provided the rest. So, the answer to your question is both Yes and No. Suralakshmi has been modelled on someone I have heard of. That too only in partial context.

The Inheritors was based on your own family’s past if I’m not mistaken. What kind of research went into it? How long did it take you to write the book?

You are right. The Inheritors is a semi-fictional reconstruction of life as lived by previous generations of my paternal ancestors. Though names have been changed, many of the characters are drawn from real people. Most of the events, too, are located in family history. Not all though. Some are purely fictional. Since everything I wished to describe happened before I was born, it has all been seen through the light of the imagination.

To answer your query about research–there was a lot of primary reading involved. But I had been doing that for years before I took up the project. The ambience was provided by my reading of the classics. Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra, Bibhutibhushan, Tarashanker and many other writers provided sketches of rural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all of which were invaluable to my understanding of how life was lived in a Bengal village at the time.

I had very little real material to rely on barring faint memories. Anecdotes heard from my parents, uncles and aunts. Family legends passed down the generations. But I did visit my ancestral village a couple of times. I was shown the house in which my forefathers lived, the location of the Adi Ganga — now extinct, and the temple, Vaidyanath Mandir, which bore the name of the village in an inscription on a terracotta tablet above the door. I also managed to get hold of a family tree, dating from our earliest known ancestor Srikrishna Tarkapanchanan, and an ancient map of the area.

It took me about a year and a half to do the actual writing.

Both in Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa, you have strong heroines. Can you tell us if you are doing so with an intent?

Well, I do believe that women of the past had a lot of inherent strength. Most of them kept it hidden because that is how patriarchal society liked its women. Silence and obedience were highly rated qualities and most women abided by family and societal expectations. Some, of course, were exceptionally ahead of their times and displayed courage and independence even at the risk of upsetting the applecart. But even those who were apparently meek and subservient were seen to display enormous inner reserves of strength at a time of crisis. I have shown both kinds in my novels.

What are your future plans? When can we expect a new novel?

I am working on something but it is still in the initial stages. The pandemic has made travelling impossible so field work has had to be postponed. It is too early to share details and impossible to tell when the work will see the light of day.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

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Categories
Stories

The Witch

The witch is Aruna Chakravarti‘s translation of a short story by renowned writer, Tarasankar Bandopadhyay . The original story titled, Daini, was first published in 1940 in Probashi magazine in Bengali.

No one knows who gave the tract of land its name. Or when it was given. Those facts have been lost and buried in the annals of history. But the name has survived to this day as a vibrant reminder of its past glory. Chhati Phataar Maath — the field of the bursting chest.

There is no water here. Nor a speck of shade. No trees. Only a few thorny bushes of seyakul and khairi. The land stretches to the horizon in a shimmering sheet at the end of which the clumps of trees that signify the existence of villages appear as a dark blur. Looking on it the heart grows heavy; the mind listless. Travellers walking from one end to another are apt to lose their lives, their chests bursting from thirst, by the side of some ancient water body dead and dry for centuries.

The number of deaths increase in the summer months. In this season it seems as though Chhati Phataar Maath springs into a new unholy life. Its tongue slavers for the taste of blood and it exercises all its powers to attain the dimensions of a mighty pestilence. Dust, dense as smoke, rises in swirls from the ground, higher and higher, till it meets the sky. Burning heat and the stench of death hit the unwary traveller’s senses. But he sees nothing for the thick pall hanging in the air renders Chhaati Phaatar Maath invisible to the human eye.

Tiny hamlets dot the four sides of this field. They have simple homesteads in which unlettered peasants live. They tell a story, heard over generations, of a gigantic snake that once lived in Chhaati Phaatar Maath. The poisonous fumes from its nostrils gradually destroyed all animate and inanimate life. Trees and animals perished. Even the birds and insects flying in the air felt their wings singe and crumble to ash and dropped to the ground like dead leaves straight into the jaws of the mighty reptile.

That snake is no more but some of its power still clings to the atmosphere. Chhaati Phaatar Maath is cursed territory. To its east is a marshy tract which the locals call Daldalir Jalaa. Daldalir Jalaa had been a shallow bog of slime and rotting vegetation, the size of a lake, till the Sahas of Ramnagar bought theland, drained it and planted mango saplings.  In time these grew into fine trees. But alas! Forty years ago, an old witch with fearful powers of destruction took possession of the orchard and made her home there.

People are still afraid of going near her for her ruthlessness is well known. Children see her at a distance and run for safety. Yet everyone can describe her. Her matted hair, crooked limbs and, best of all, her eyes. Those eyes, they say, have not blinked in forty years.

Beneath one of the mango trees is an earthen hovel. It has only one room with a dawa, a veranda thatched with straw, jutting out of it. The witch sits here all day long her body still as a statue. Her unwavering gaze is fixed on Chhati Phataar Maath.

She gets up once a day to sweep the mud floors and smear them with cow dung. That done she goes to the village to beg. She doesn’t need to stand outside many doors. Two or three are sufficient for the housewives are afraid of her and pour more rice into her tattered anchal* than they need to in the belief that their generosity would keep the evil eye away from their husbands and children. Once she is able to collect a seer of rice her begging is over for the day. On the way back she stops at the grocer’s and exchanges half her stock for some salt, mustard oil, chillies and kerosene. She goes out once more in search of kindling. She picks up whatever she can find. Fallen leaves and twigs, dried cowpats and bits of broken bamboo. Once she has cooked and eaten her meal there is nothing left for her to do except sit on her perch and stare unblinkingly on Chhati Phataar Maath.

The old woman does not belong to these parts. No one knows where she was born. But of one thing everyone is certain. She had lived in three or four villages in the vicinity and destroyed them all. Then, forty years ago, she had darted across the skies on a flying tree and looked down on Chhati Phataar Maath. Charmed by its desolate splendour, she had come down and made her home there. Beings like her prefer to live in isolation. Human society frightens them. For the moment they see a human being, a deep-rooted instinct to hurt and destroy flares into life. This malignant force hisses like the tongue of a snake and spews venom into the air. Fanning out like the hood of a cobra, the unholy urge dances in glee. Powerless to control it she submits to its strength. After all she, too, is human.

The knowledge of her own power makes her shiver. She has a mirror, dim and dusty with age, in which she examines her face from time to time. Two eyes look back at her, tiny eyes with bronze irises, the lights from them sharp and glittering as knives. Her hair is the colour of shredded jute; her mouth a gaping hole. Looking at her reflection she feels a stab of fear. Her lips tremble and turn blue. She puts the mirror down and looks out again on Chhati Phattar Maath.

The wooden frame of the mirror has blackened with age. It had been a lovely rose brown once, gleaming with polish. The glass, now spotted with mildew, once had the shining clarity of a sun warmed lake. The face that had looked out of it had been another face. A small forehead surrounded by waves of hair. Not black; dark brown with reddish glints. Below the arched eyebrows a delicate nose rose in an aquiline curve. The eyes were small, even then, but they shone like pieces of topaz. People were afraid of her eyes, but she loved them. Crinkling them even smaller she felt as though she could see the full expanse of sky from one end to another.

Those razor-slit eyes had a strange power. Whoever they looked upon with love came to harm. She had no idea of how it happens. But it did.

She remembers the first day…

She was standing on a cracked slab of the ancient bank of Durga Sagar lake facing the shrine of Burho Shibtala. She could see herself in the water; undulating, changing contours. Her body was swaying, growing longer and longer. All at once the ripples ceased and she saw herself whole and clear. A pretty ten-year-old girl looking at her with a shy smile.

Suddenly she felt a tug at her head. Haru Sarkar, of the Brahmin palli*, was behind her. Seizing the hair at her nape he twisted it viciously. “Haramjadi*!” he roared throwing her down on the broken flags, “How dare you cast your evil eye on my son? I’ll kill you for that.”

She remembers the hate and revulsion on Haru Sarkar’s face to this day…

O go babu*!” she had cried out in terror. “I don’t know what I have done! I beg you…”

“I’ll tell you what you have done. The boy has been tossing and turning, screaming with belly cramps, ever since you left the house. If your tongue had watered with greed when you saw him eating muri and mango why didn’t you ask for some, you bitch?”

It was true. The saliva had gushed into her mouth at the sight. But why that should give the boy belly ache—she hadn’t a clue. She wonders about it to this day. She remembers going to Haru babu’s house and crying at his wife’s feet. Crying and praying… “Make him well Thakur*! Please make him well. I’m taking back the evil glance I cast on him. Here… I take it back.”

Then the strangest thing had happened. The boy vomited a couple of times and rose from the bed completely cured. A relieved Haru Sarkar turned to his wife. “Give her some muri* and a mango,” he said. Sarkar ginni* picked up a broom and waved it in the girl’s face. “Mango and muri indeed!” she hissed. “I’ll stuff her greedy mouth with ashes instead. Ma go*! I’ve taken pity on her and given her food whenever she came to the house. A poor orphan girl…I’ve thought. And the ungrateful witch returns my goodness by casting her evil eye on my son! Look, look at those eyes. I’ve had my suspicions for a long time. I’ve taken care never to feed the children in her presence. She snuck in today when I was away at the ghat and did this vile thing.”

Trembling with shame and fear the girl had run away. The story had spread in the village and people had started shunning her.  Not allowed in any house he had slept that night on the portico of the shrine of Burho Shibtala. No… she hadn’t slept. She had kept awake all night weeping bitterly, praying, “O go Thakur! Purge my eyes of the unholy power. If not, strike me blind.”

…The old woman stirs. A deep sigh escapes her. The thin lips quiver; tears glitter in the tiny eyes. She knows, now, why God was unable to answer her prayer. The malignant power she bore was her punishment for the sins of a past life. She had to live with it. What could poor God do? It was wrong to blame him…

That night she had decided never to cross a householder’s threshold again. She would stand outside the door and beg the way other beggars did. It had been difficult the first time. Her throat was choked, and her tongue refused to articulate the words. But she forced herself and suddenly they came out in a high unnatural voice. “Ma go! Can I be given some alms Ma? Hari bol! Hari bol*!”

Ke re*? Who is that? Oh, it’s you. Stand where you are. Don’t dare come into the house.”

“No Ma. I won’t come in.”

But the very next moment a strange feeling had come over her. A greedy craving rose from her belly like a darting flame and made the saliva squirt into her mouth. What a lovely smell was coming from the kitchen! They were frying fish. Big fat chunks of fresh fish. She sucked in her cheeks. A ha ha! She breathed deeply.

Ei  Ei  Haramjadi! Look…look at her peeping into the kitchen with her snake eyes!”

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi*! The memory makes her bite her tongue in shame. She had peeped into the kitchen and her eyes had searched it from one end to another. It was not the first time that such a despicable urge had risen in her. Nor the last. It does to this day…

The motionless form, once moulded out of rich earth, is dilapidated now; colourless as dust. Slowly the chipped joints of the ancient limbs flex and loosen. Breaking out of their shackles they shudder into life. The twisted nails dig into the earth of the dawa. The white head bobs up and down in agitation. Why do these things happen?  She has asked herself the question over and over again, all her life, but never found the answer. What should she do about it? What could she do? If only somebody would tell her. Aanh! Aanh! Aanh!  She squeals in the voice of a beaten beast. Clamping her toothless gums in helpless rage she raises her hands to her dreadlocks and pulls them cruelly by the roots. Her eyes, sharp as a kite’s, scans the endless sweep of empty earth.

It is the month of Chaitra. The last month of the year and the first of the hot season. The cool of the morning has given way to a blazing afternoon. A haze of heat and dust shimmers over Chhati Phataar Maath rendering it almost invisible. But the razor slit eyes can see better than most. What was that trail of light flickering across the field? She could, if she wished, have blown the dust away with a puff from her lips and seen what it was. Ah… it was gone now but she could see something else. Something solid, substantial, in the smoky haze.  Arre*! It was moving. What was it? A living being? Human? Yes, yes, she could see it now. It was a woman. Suddenly the old hateful urge rose from within her. Should she blow a breath on the creature and make it disappear? Her toothless mouth opened in a cackle of cruel laughter. She rocked herself to and fro like a mad woman.

And then she pulled herself together. Balling her fists till the sharp nails dug into her flesh she fought the blood thirsty urge. No…no… she would turn her eyes away. She wouldn’t look towards Chhati Phataar Maath. If she did, the poor woman would die of asphyxiation. She would sweep the floor of her hut instead. Or she could stack the dry leaves and twigs she had gathered that morning into neat piles…

Unlocking her inert limbs, she picks up the broom and starts sweeping the floor. But the dust and leaves she gathers together take on a life of their own. Wriggling away from the end of her broom they coil around her form like snakes, hissing and spitting at the withered skin. Dust stings her eyes and nostrils. She doesn’t know how to withstand the assault. She bares her empty gums like a mangy old cat. “Out!” she shrieks waving her broom helplessly in the air. “Out I say! Leave me alone.”

But the snakes do not heed her. They wind about her form tighter and tighter till she can scarcely breathe. “Out! Out!” she howls in despair flailing herself with the broom. Suddenly, with cackles of rasping laughter, the snakes release her from their coils. Loosening their hold, they fly, as though on wings, in the direction of Chaati Phataar Maath.  Dust and dead khairi rise in swirls to greet them and together they form a giant tower that spirals its way to the sky. More such columns spring up in the air. Spinning in a joyous dance. There are a thousand now. Big and small.  Chhati Phataar Maath grows dark and terrifying.

Looking on the scene, the old crone is filled with glee. Waves of rapture lap around her. She chortles with laughter. Raising her bent body, she spreads her out her arms, broom in one hand. She twirls her limbs, slowly at first, then fast…faster. Round and round she goes, round and round, till overcome by fatigue, she sinks to the ground. She tries to stand up and resume her dance, but her legs will not support her. Her head spins and the world grows dim. Her chest crackles with thirst. Dropping on her hands and feet she crawls, like a baby, to the clay pot of water in the corner of her room…

“Is anyone at home? O go! Is anyone at home? Can I come in?”

Ke? Who is that?”

A young woman, coated with dust from head to foot, poked a long pale face through the door. She was clutching something to her breast, hiding it under her tattered anchal. It was dark within and all she could see was a knot of crooked limbs huddled together like a bunch of rotten twigs. She felt a stab of fear and moved back a few steps. “Water,” she murmured faintly, “A few drops of water.”

The old woman sat up slowly. “A ha ha! My poor child,” she clicked her tongue in sympathy. “Come in. Sit down and rest yourself.” The girl’s frightened eyes darted this way and that. Then, slowly, reluctantly, she seated herself at the farthest edge of the dawa. “Give me a drink of water Ma,” she said faintly, “I die of thirst.” The old woman’s heart melted. She poured out a large tumbler of water then, digging a bony hand into another pot she groped for a piece of gur* murmuring all the while, “Poor child! Poor child! What made you think of crossing that field of death in this terrible heat? You could have died.”

“I’m on my way to see my sick mother. Her village lies at the eastern boundary. But I lost my way and found myself in the middle of Chhati Phaatar Maath.”

Coming out on the dawa with the water and gur, the old woman got a shock. A male infant, a few months old, was lying on the floor. The poor mite was drenched in sweat and his tiny limbs sagged like boiled spinach. “Come, come,” she prompted pushing the tumbler towards the girl. “Sprinkle some on the child’s face. Quick.” The girl obeyed. Wetting her anchal with water she wiped the tiny face and limbs and poured some into his mouth.

The old crone sat and watched them from a distance. The woman was young and healthy and the infant, perhaps her first, had a plump tender body, moist and supple as a tendril on a bottle gourd vine. Saliva squirted into her toothless mouth. She sucked in her cheeks and swallowed.

A ha re! The child’s chest was going up and down like a pair of bellows. Perspiration was pouring out of him. More and more and more. A patch of damp was forming on the mud floor on which he lay. The eyes were misting; turning crimson. Was it…was it? But what could she do? What could she do? Why did they come into her presence? Why? The strangest sensations were pricking in her blood. A frantic urge to pick up the bundle of human flesh and hold it to her breast. To squeeze and mash it, like a pat of dough, against her ribbed, hollowed chest. To press the cool, watery limbs against her fevered skin.

Baap re!  How the child was sweating! All the water was being drained out of his body. She knew it from the sap that was filling her own mouth… warm and sweet. Oozing from the corners. Dribbling down her chin. “O re kheye phellam re*!” An anguished cry tore its way from her throat. “I’m…I’m swallowing the child. Run. Run for your life. Pick up your baby and run.”

The young woman who was drinking water in large thirsty gulps looked up with a gasp. The tumbler clattered to the ground. “You!” she muttered, her face as white as a sheet. “Is this Ramnagar? Are you… the one?” Without waiting for an answer, she snatched up the child and flew out of the house, the little one hanging from her arms like a fledgling folded in a mother bird’s wings. The old woman watched her flight. The tiny eyes dimmed with self-pity. She was helpless. If it were possible, she would have pierced her sharp twirling nails into her withered breast and torn the shameless urge out of it. She would have cut off her tongue. But all this, she knew, was useless. The malaise lay deeper. Far deeper.

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! How would she set foot on the village path tomorrow? How would she show her face? The child would be dead by then and everyone would know the reason. They wouldn’t taunt her with it. They wouldn’t dare. But the disgust and hate in their eyes would shame her more than words. Even now children ran away at the sight of her. They could burst out weeping. Some could even faint and fall to the ground. Chhi! Chhi! Chhi!

A similar self-aversion had led her to flee the village of her birth, in the dark of night, years ago. She was a little older then — approaching womanhood. A friend of hers, a girl from her own community, had delivered a male child the night before and she had gone to see him. Savitri was sitting in the yard sunning her limbs, her new-born lying beside her on a kantha*. What a lovely baby! Plump and healthy with a shining black skin. She felt her heart swell with love. She wanted to fondle the tiny bundle and squeeze it tight against her breast. To kiss the drooling mouth with hungry lips. She was unaware, then, of the evil power in her. She thought her feelings were those of maternal love.

All of a sudden, Savitri’s mother-in-law came rushing in. “Haramjadi!” she screamed at her daughter-in-law. “Have you lost your mind? Chattering and giggling with the accursed creature! If anything happens to my grandson, I’ll flay you alive.” Then, turning to the visitor, she pointed to the door and said grimly,   “Get out you slit eyed witch. Don’t dare come here again.”

Savitri’s limbs, still weak from childbirth, had trembled in fear. Picking up the baby she had run indoors and slammed the door. And she? She had walked out of the house head hung in humiliation. Tears had gathered in her eyes. Everyone said she was a witch. They could be right. She did not know. But even if she was a witch would she, ever, ever harm Savitri’s baby?  “Dear God,” she prayed, “Be the judge and prove them all wrong. Give the boy one hundred years. Let everyone know how much I love Savitri’s child.”

As afternoon came on the mother-in-law’s fears began manifesting themselves as the indelible truth. News rippled through the village and reached her ears. The baby was very sick. The tiny limbs were flailing and threshing, and the small trunk was twisting into an arch. Turning blue. Exactly as though some malignant creature was sucking the lifeblood out of him.

She had run away in shame. Avoiding the village paths, she had pushed her way through the jungle and taken refuge in the burning ghat. She had hidden herself behind a bamboo thicket and thought of what she had done. But…but if she had drunk blood, as everyone was saying, it would be in her mouth would it not? Crouching on her haunches she spat on the ground. Thoo! Thoo! Several times. But where was the blood? Her spit was as innocently white as foaming milk. She dug her fingers into her throat and threw up. Yes, now she could see some dark flecks in her vomit. She dug deeper and a gush of fresh blood filled her mouth, warm and salty.

There was no doubt in her mind now. What people said was right. She possessed a demoniac power which surfaced whenever she looked on any human being with love in her heart. Love turned sour in her; took the form of hate and destruction…

It was well past midnight. Was it the fourteenth day of the waxing moon? Yes, of course it was. The old woman could hear the beating of the drums from the temple of Tara Devi. Tomorrow was purnima, the night of the full moon. The shrine would be full of people. They would sacrifice goats and ask for boons. Tara Ma was a powerful deity and no one who approached her for favours went away disappointed. Only she had been denied Tara Ma’s blessing. She had offered prayers year after year and begged, “Take pity on me Ma. Change me from a witch to an ordinary woman. I’ll slit my breast and offer you my blood.” But the goddess hadn’t heeded her prayers.

 A deep sigh rose from the shrivelled chest. Sorrow and despair were her constant companions now. She didn’t even resent them anymore. Thoughts drifted through her head like kites on broken strings. Floating this way and that on the whims of the wind. Dipping to the ground. A lost look came into the aged yellow eyes. She sat motionless looking on Chhati Phataar Maath. There was nothing to see. Only a dun coloured pall of dust. Still and unwavering. Not a whiff of breeze to stir it…

The child died a few hours later while the woman was still on her way to her mother’s house. Nothing she did would stop the perspiration that kept pouring out of him. Perspiration? Or was it something else? Someone was drawing the life blood out of him; sucking him dry. And who could it be but the diabolic creature in whose hut she had taken shelter? Whose water she had poured down the baby’s throat? “O go! What have I done?” She beat her breast and howled, “What possessed me to go there? To let the wicked creature set her eyes on my little darling? O go! Ma go!”

The villagers gathered around the weeping woman and her dead child. Some commiserated with her. Some cursed and threatened the witch. A band of ruffians made their way to her hut vowing revenge. She saw them from afar and started muttering in self defence, “It wasn’t my fault. Why did she come to my house? Why did she hold out the beautiful baby before my eyes?” Suddenly she felt a current of mixed emotions sweep through her. A shiver ran down her spine and the hair on her head stood up and spread around her face like a cobra’s hood. She screamed abuses at the approaching men in a voice that was no longer human. It was a predator bird’s screech — shrill and penetrating.

Her would be assaulters turned pale with fear and backed away. But the old woman’s fury hadn’t abated. Curses, bitter and corrosive, continued to fall from her lips, spiked with the poison she had held in her breast for so many years. Her breath came out, hot and hissing, like a wounded snake’s. Her arms, the skin on them thin and papery as a bat’s wing, flailed the earth.  And then she started laughing.  A ear splitting metallic laugh burst from her, ringing through the length and breadth of Chhati Phataar Maath. She pulled her hair by the roots weeping and laughing by turns. “Tck! Tck! Tck!” she cackled like a brooding hen. “What fun! No need to light the kitchen fire. No need to set rice on the boil. I’ve devoured a whole human child. Sucked it dry. I’ve had my fill for the day.”

Night came on. It was the nineth night of Shukla Paksha and Chhati Phataar Maath lay shrouded in silver moonlight. Jhir…jhir…jhir… a gentle breeze rippled the leaves of the mango trees. Crickets chirped and an unknown bird’s song, sweet and fluty, came wafting on the air. The old woman pricked up her ears. She could hear voices from behind her hut. Had the goons of the morning returned to harm her? She rose and turned the corner on cautious feet. There was a couple standing under the gopal bhog tree at the edge of the stream. She knew them. The Bauri* girl whose husband had abandoned her and the boy she loved. She crouched on the ground, a few yards away, listening.

“I’m going home,” the girl whispered, “Someone may see us.”

“Heh! Heh!” Her companion laughed away her fears. “No one comes here even during the day. As if they’ll come at night.”

“Even so,” the girl persisted. “I’m not staying here with you. Your father isn’t allowing us to marry. Then what’s the point…?”

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! The old woman bit her tongue. If the two were in love and wanted a quiet place to meet why didn’t they come into her hut? Why stand outside where someone might see them? Were they embarrassed to take her help? But why? She was an old woman…their grandmother’s age. She understood their predicament.

And now the boy was saying something that made the withered lips curl with amusement. “If we are not allowed to marry,” he whispered, “we’ll run away and settle in another village as far from here as possible. I cannot live without you.”

Aah maran*! The old woman snorted in contempt. Can’t live without her indeed! A girl as black and round bellied as a clay pot! Suddenly another scene came before her eyes. Another time. Another place. She had seen someone in the long mirror that hung over a wall of the paan shop in Bolpur. A tall slim girl, fourteen or fifteen years old, with a head of rough reddish hair, a small forehead, a delicate nose and thin lips. The eyes were small, it was true, but attractive… bright brown with golden flecks. Charmed with her own beauty she had kept smiling at her own image. She had never seen herself in a mirror before.

Arre! Who in the world are you?” A man’s voice came to her ears. A young man, tall and strapping. “Where do you come from?” This had happened on the day after the incident in Savitri’s house. She had run away from the village that same night and come to Bolpur. She had liked the look of the man but taken umbrage at his tone. “Where I come from is my business,” she had glared at him, “Not yours.”

“Your business! Not mine! Do you know who you are talking to? One blow and you’ll fall to the ground like a dead leaf. Have you seen the size of my fist?”

She had stared at the stranger. At the sculptured black marble torso, the strong thighs rippling with muscles, and had willed herself to suck the blood out of him. She had gritted her teeth and mouthed a stream of silent curses. Her tongue had watered like a fountain. But nothing happened. Throwing a bitter glance at him she left the place.

She encountered him again the same day. She was sitting on a bank of the big pond at the far end of Bolpur town, beyond the railway line, eating muri from a mound in her anchal. The sun had just set, and a saffron moon was rising like an enormous platter from the east. The light hadn’t turned silver yet. The sky was covered in a dim yellow haze. Suddenly she heard footsteps approach and looked up in alarm. It was the man of the morning. “Why did you run away?” he asked laughing, “I only asked you a question.”

She remembers the laugh to this day and the two dimples that pitted his cheeks…

“I don’t want to answer your question. Please go away. I’ll scream if you don’t.”

“You’ll scream, will you? I’ll wring your little neck before a squeak comes out and bury you in the weeds and slime.” He pointed to the pond. “No one will find you again. Ever.”

She had looked at him with terror-stricken eyes and remained silent. All of a sudden, he stamped his foot and shouted “Dhat!” Jumping up in fright at his menacing tone she burst into tears. The muri fell out of her lap and rolled all over the bank. The man was embarrassed. “You little ninny,” he said in a softened voice. “Stop snivelling.” He smiled as he spoke and there was tenderness in his voice. But that hadn’t taken away her fear. “You’re not going to beat me, are you?” she had asked between sobs.

Arre na. Why should I beat you? All I did was ask you where you’ve come from and you snapped my head off. That’s why…” He started laughing once more, the dimples deepening in his cheeks.

“I’ve come from far. V-e-r-y far.  All the way from Patharghata.”

“What’s your name? What caste are you?”

“My name is Shordhoni. Everyone calls me Shora. We’re Doms*.”

“I’m a Dom too.” The man sounded pleased. “So…tell me.  What made you run away from home?”

The tears brimmed into her eyes again. She remained silent not knowing what to say.

“Did you have a fight with your parents?”

“I have no parents.”

“Then…?”

“There’s no one to look after me in the village. No one to give me food and shelter. I came to the town to work for a living.”

“Why didn’t you get married?”

Married! She had looked at the stranger with wonder in her eyes. What was he saying? Who would marry a witch like her? But… there was something in his voice that was unnerving her. She trembled and a strange shyness came over her. She felt her cheeks flush and her heartbeat with an unknown emotion. She lowered her eyes and her fingers fiddled with the broken stones of the bank…

Suddenly the needle with which she was stitching her old memories fell to the ground. The thread snapped and her mind went blank. But the shy rapture of that moment stayed with her. The old woman sat with her head bowed like a young girl in the first flush of love. Like on that evening, her hands moved involuntarily gathering leaves and pebbles into a mound.

Oof! There was a cloud of mosquitoes swarming around her. Humming like bees from a broken hive. Why! The pair under the gopal bhog tree must have left. She couldn’t hear their voices anymore. She rose softly and crept back to her perch smiling to herself. They would be back tomorrow. There was no other place in the village more suitable for a lovers’ meeting. No one dared come near her hut. But those two would come. Love knew no fear.

And now she felt a strange feeling coming on. The old urge was rising within her; the urge to hurt and annihilate. Should she suck the blood from the young man’s body? Such a strong, supple, muscular body! But the very next moment she shook her head violently. No…no… never. She mouthed the words. He was young and in love. No harm should come to him. She sat silent for a few minutes then started swaying gently, thoughts running in and out of her head. She was carrying a burden already. As heavy as a block of iron. She had drunk the blood of an innocent child. There would be no sleep for her tonight.

She wished she could cross Chhaati Phataar Maath and go far away… very far away. People said she had special powers. She could put wings on a tree and make it take her wherever she wished. How wonderful it would be if that were true! If she could sit peacefully in a cluster of leaves and be borne over the sky; drifting on cool breezes, floating between clouds. But then… then she wouldn’t see the young couple again. They would be sure to come tomorrow…

Hee! Hee! Hee! The lad was here. She could see him sitting by the stream his eyes darting this way and that. He was waiting for his love. Her eyes twinkled with amused affection. Be patient, the withered lips murmured in reassurance, she’ll come.

A scene such as this had played itself out in her own life years and years ago. Yet it came before her eyes, sharp and clear. The young man who had accosted her near the pond had returned the next day. To the same place; at the same time. He was sitting on the bank swinging his legs and gazing on the path which she would take.

“You’ve come! I’ve been waiting for ages.”

The old woman was startled. It was the boy’s voice. He was speaking to the girl who had walked in silently through the trees. But what a coincidence! The young Dom who had waited for her had spoken exactly the same words. She had pursed her lips and looked demure. She couldn’t see very well in the dark, but she could swear that the girl had the same expression on her face.

The young man had brought a leaf cone full of food that day. “Take it,” he had said holding it out, “You dropped your muri yesterday because of me.” But she hadn’t put out her hand. She couldn’t. The strangest emotions were coming over her. Desire, swift and sudden, was leaping up in her blood. Swaying and swinging like a snake to a snake charmer’s flute. Venom and fangs forgotten; it was tossing its head in an ecstatic dance.

And then? What had he done then? The memory made her blush. The youngsters of today, she thought smiling, have no idea…O Ma! O Ma! The boy was doing exactly the same thing! He was putting something, was it a sweet, in the girl’s mouth. Filled with glee, the old crone flailed her arms in the air and laughed quietly to herself.

Suddenly she stopped laughing. Stifling a sigh, she leaned against a tree trunk lost in thought. The strangest thing had happened next. The young man had looked at her with unblinking eyes and asked, “Will you marry me Shora?” She was so startled she lost her voice. She could feel her ears blazing and her hands and feet grow cold and clammy. Sweat rolled off her forehead in large drops. “I work in Marwari Babu’s factory. I earn lots of money. But no one in Bolpur is ready to give his daughter to me. That’s because I am an untouchable. But you and I are from the same caste and we’re both orphans.” He had held her light eyes with his fine dark ones. “Marry me Shora,” he had urged…

The two sitting by the stream were speaking softly but the silence around them was so deep she could hear every word. “The people of the village are against us,” the boy was saying, “your family as well as mine.  They’re making life hell for us. Let’s run away. We’ll go to some distant village where nobody knows us. We’ll marry and be happy.”

O Ma! That was exactly what she and the young Dom had done. They had cut off ties with everyone in the world and built themselves a shack by the side of the factory. His work was stoking the fire under an enormous barrel like contraption called a boila or something like it. He was paid higher wages than all the other workers.

“N-o-o-o.” The girl’s voice came to her ears, sulky, demanding. “You’ll have to buy me silver bangles first. And tie a ten rupee note in my anchal. Only then I’ll go with you. I’m not ready to starve in a faraway village for want of money.”

Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! The old woman spat on the ground in disgust. She felt like thrashing the girl with her broomstick. Did she have no faith in her man? Such a strong, sturdy handsome youth who loved her so much! Would such a man let her starve? “Death to you,” she muttered indignantly, “Silver bangles indeed! Why …if you stay loyal to him, you’ll wear conch bangles encased in gold one day. Chhi!”

The girl waited for a reply but there was none. “Why don’t you speak?” she snapped at him, “Have you gone dumb? Say what you have to say quickly. I can’t wait here all night.” The boy sighed. A deep sigh that hung on the air for a long time.

“What is there to say?” he murmured, “If I had the money, I would have given it to you. And the bangles too. I wouldn’t have waited for you to ask.”

“I’m going.” The girl tossed her head and swayed her body lasciviously.

“Go.”

“Don’t call me anymore.”

“Very well.”

She went away. Her white sari melted into the moonlight and disappeared. The dejected lover kept sitting by the stream, his head in his hands.  Poor lad!  The old crone clicked her tongue sadly. What would he do now? Would he leave the village never to return? Or would he, God forbid, take his own life? Drown in the pond or hang himself? No…no. He mustn’t do that. It would be better for him to give the girl the silver bangles. She had twenty-one rupees hidden in a clay pot in her hut. She could give him two out of it. Or even five. Five rupees would be enough. Once she got her bangles the girl wouldn’t make any more fuss. Aa ha! He was so young! Youth was the time for love. For happiness. She would give the boy the five rupees and tell him to look on her as his grandmother. She would laugh and joke with him. She would wipe the sorrow from his face.

She rose slowly, painfully, putting her weight on her hands. She tried to straighten the hump on her back but it was as stiff and heavy as stone. Hobbling towards the stream she called out with a merry laugh, “Poor little down cast lover! Do not despair. Your troubles are about to end. I’ll give you…”

The boy looked up startled. He saw a strange creature creeping towards him in the dark, closer and closer, like a giant crab. And now a face was thrust into his.  A face as ridged and contorted as a dried mango. And out of the ridges two tiny eyes glowed like pinpoints of amber light. The mouth was a gaping cavern. The boy’s blood froze. His heart started hammering like a blacksmith’s anvil. Springing up, he ran screaming into the woods.

Within seconds the old woman’s face changed. The amused indulgence vanished and hate and loathing took its place. The hackles on her neck rose like an angry cat’s and her slit eyes glittered with venom. Pulling her lips back from her toothless gums she snarled at the fleeing figure. “Die!” she screeched, “Die!” And now the old urge rose snaking up from deep within her bowels. She would destroy the ungrateful creature; suck all the blood out of him. Not only the blood. Flesh, fat, sinews, bones and marrow…she felt like consuming it all.

Suddenly the boy sank to the ground with a howl of agony. Then, picking himself up, he limped his way slowly through the trees. She could see him no longer.

Next morning a rumour spread through the village, leaving everyone turned to stone. The she-devil, who lived by the stream, had shot a Bauri boy with a flying missile. He had gone there in the evening and the blood sucking fiend had smelled his presence the way a tigress smells her prey. She had crawled stealthily towards him not making a sound. Then, when the frightened boy had tried to escape, she had brought him sprawling to the ground by blowing a dart through her lips. It was sticking to his heel when he reached home, a long thin bone sharp as a needle. The boy had tried to pull it out, but it was stuck so deep, the blood had gurgled out like a fountain. High fever and convulsions had wracked him through the night and now his body was arching exactly as though some malignant spirit had seized him by the head and feet and was squeezing the blood out of him.

The news reached the old woman’s ears. She tried to feel concern but couldn’t. An inexplicable apathy came over her. Never in her life had she felt so weary, so listless. The boy was dying. But what could she do about it? He shouldn’t have tried to run away. How dare the little weakling run away from her?  Even the toughest, most stout-hearted man she had known in her life, a man who had warred with fire all his waking hours, had not escaped her evil power.

More news came the next day. The boy’s father had sent for a clairvoyant who had promised to cure him. The old woman shrugged. The physician in Bolpur had said the same thing. He would cure her husband. But was a slow fever and a dry wracking cough a disease? He had left medicines, but they hadn’t helped. The symptoms had persisted. And, little by little, the flesh had fallen from the magnificent limbs and the skin that had once gleamed like polished ebony had turned to ash. What had happened to him? And why did he vomit blood in the end?

Her eyes looked out on Chhati Phataar Maath. It lay like a bleached corpse under the midday sun. Not a breath of wind anywhere. Not a leaf stirred.

A strange restlessness seized her. She rose from her perch and walked about in the yard. Round and round she went, her thoughts running ahead of her. She had loved the man more than life itself. She had given him all she had to give. Heart, soul, mind and body. Yet she couldn’t protect him from her own evil power. It had drained him of his life force. Emaciated his body and left it dry and brittle as a fish bone.

 Suddenly she laughed. A harsh metallic laugh that rang through the length and breadth of Chhati Phataar Maath.  Who was this clairvoyant who thought he could cure the Bauri boy? She had cast a malevolent glance on the fleeing figure, hadn’t she? There was no way he could counter that. Not all the clairvoyants in the world could save him.

Oof! How hot and still the air was. She could barely breathe. She felt a weight on her chest. Suffocating her; crushing her lungs. Was the clairvoyant using his powers on her? Mouthing his most deadly mantra? Perhaps he was. It didn’t matter. Let him do the best he can she thought scornfully. But the pain…the pain was excruciating. It was killing her. If only her heart would burst open and the grief and agony she had held in it, for decades, well out in blessed release.

One thing was certain. She couldn’t live here anymore. She would have to escape the irate villagers. They would come after her any moment now, as the people of Bolpur had done after her husband’s death. They had hounded her out of the town. And all because of an indiscreet remark she had made to the wife of a worker in Marwari Babu’s factory.

 Shankari and her husband belonged to the Harhi community. Being fellow untouchables, a friendship had sprung up between the two women and they often confided in one another. Some days after her husband’s death, out of a desperate need to lighten the load of guilt she carried, Shora had opened her heart to her friend. She had told her about the evil power in her, a power that destroyed everyone she loved.

What happened next? Well…here she was living at the edge of a desolate tract of land at a safe distance from human habitation. She had fled from village to village, in the intervening years, but nowhere had she found a permanent home. It was time for her to move once more. But where would she go?

O Ki! The sound of lamentations, loud and bitter, tore the silence of the hot somnolent afternoon. The old woman’s blood froze with terror. She sat, immobile, for a few minutes. Then, tossing her head this way and that like one possessed, she crawled into her room and locked the door. A few hours later she stepped out of her hut, a small bundle at her hip, and walked into the deepening dusk.

All of a sudden, the world went dark. A deep, dense, unnatural dark. A thin trail of dust followed the feet of the fleeing witch. All else was still. Chhati Phataar Maath lay trapped and lifeless under a black velvet shroud.

After walking for a while, she sank to the ground. She couldn’t take another step. Her heart was pounding with exhaustion and her hands and feet felt numb and heavy. What do I do now… she thought fearfully.

 Suddenly, after years and years of frozen silence, a wail rose from her breast. A wail of lamentation for her dead husband. “O go!” she cried out wildly, “Come back. Come back to me.” She looked up. The black cover had shifted, and she could see a part of the sky. It was the colour of her eyes.

Moments later the storm broke. The first Kalbaisakhi of the season. Great clouds of dust rose from the earth and went spiralling across the field carried by cyclonic winds. Trees were pulled out by the roots. Animals were swept away. And the old woman…

Next morning, after the storm had subsided, the villagers found her hanging from a khairi bush at the extreme edge of Chhati Phataar Maath. Her body, light and fluttering like a bird’s, was pinned to the highest branch. There were patches of blood on the ground; the dark unholy blood from a witch’s veins. The men looked at one another. What had happened was obvious. She had tried to escape on her flying tree when a powerful mantra from the clairvoyant’s lips had entered her breast and brought her tumbling down like a bird shot in the wing. She had fallen on the khairi bush and, pierced by hundreds of thorns, had died an agonising death.

Today Chhati Phataar Maath is deadlier than ever before. Mixed with the venom of a prehistoric snake is the blood of a malignant witch. Reeling under a pall of dust that clings to it from dawn till dusk, it stretches to unseen horizons…

And now some specks appear through the haze. Tiny black moving dots. They grow larger. Then sounds are heard. A mighty flapping of wings. A cloud of vultures are swooping down on Chhaati Phataar Maath.

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(Published with permission from Amalasankar Bandopadhyay, grandson of Tarashankar Bandopadhyay)

Tarasankar Bandopadhyay, Wiki

Tarasankar Bandopadhyay (1898-1971) was a renowned writer from Bengal. He penned 65 novels, 53 books of stories, 12 plays, 4 essay collections, 4 autobiographies, 2 travelogues and composed several songs. He was awarded the Rabindra Puraskar(1955), the Sahitya Akademi Award(1956), the Padma Shri(1962), the Jnanapith Award(1966) and the Padma Bhushan(1969) in India.

Aruna Chakravarti (India) has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

Index of Bengali Words:

*anchal: The loose end of a sari                                  

*palli: colony

*Haramjadi: Bastard or bitch                                    

*O go babu: Oh sir

*muri: Puffed rice                                                        

*Thakur: God

*ginni: mistress                                   

*Ma go: Oh mother

*ghat: Bank of a water body   

*Hari bol! Hari bol: In God’s (Hari’s) name

*Ke re: Who’s it                                                  

*Chhi:  An expletive expressive of shame

*Arre: An expletive to express urgency                

*gur: jaggery

*O re kheye phellam re: I am eating him up       

*kantha: A rug made out of old rags

*Thoo! Thoo: The act of spitting                          

*Aah maran: Oh Death

 * dhat: An expletive expressive of frustration

*paan: betel leaf    

*O Ki: What was that?

*Bauri: Belonging to the Bhils

*Dom: Caste

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Review

‘A rich tapestry of narratives’

      Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Suralakshmi Villa

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, 2020

Suralakshmi Villa (2020) is a novel based on a short story in a previous collection of short stories by Aruna Chakravarti. In the afterword to the novel, the author explains how the novel came about: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, on whose fiction Chakravarti had done her Ph.D thesis many years ago, commented how the short story had possibilities of being extended into a novel. In doing so, the author’s redoubtable skills have come to the fore yet again.

In Suralakshmi Villa, Aruna Chakravarti has woven a rich tapestry of narratives of human interest, focusing particularly on women(which is the author’s strong suit)  intertwined with narratives of Bengal’s Hindu and Muslim culture, history , religion art, architecture, myths and folklore in a fusion which can be described as syncretic. All these elements are woven into the narrative in a seamless way, which is in no small  measure  a testament to the author’s immense  storytelling skills.

The novel is essentially plot driven with a diverse and complex cast of characters; it intersperses the main plot of Suralakshmi’s  seemingly inexplicable decision to leave her flourishing career as a gynaecologist, her marriage and life in Delhi with the subplots of a fairly large set of characters, spanning about 6-7 decades across most of the twentieth century. The story narrates the varying fortunes of the family of ICS officer Indra Nath Chaudhuri who chooses to settle in South Delhi, in a milieu which is relatively free of the stranglehold of traditional family norms and customs, along with his wife and five daughters, Mahalakshmi, Kanaklakshmi, Suralakshmi,Dhanalakshmi and Rajlakshmi.  For  all his professional stature, Indra Nath is putty in the hands of his larger-than-life wife, Lakshmi, who rules the roost . Prostrated by depression after the premature widowhood of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Mahalakshmi, she decides to educate her daughters rather than prioritise or focus on their marriages and have them choose their husbands, if at all, in their own time. This decision has varying repercussions. Suralakshmi decides to marry a married man seventeen years older than her, that too at the age of 31.     

Suralakshmi’s  story however is not the only plotline in the novel; in the tangled skein of the novel is also the disparate-but-intertwined story of Eidun and her family, which links this story of domestic abuse with a rescue and redemption narrative of sorts. It also maps the story of Indra Nath’s nephew, Pratul, his coming of age and marriage with Nayantara and  that of their children– Kinshuk and Joymita.  

For a story with such a large cast of characters, the parallel plots are juggled with amazing skill and dexterity. What also redounds to the author’s credit is her handling of the complex timelines as well, as the novel loops back and forth chronologically, covering the better part of the twentieth century from the 1930s to 1998. The plot works in a cyclical and circular way, as it spirals and hurtles  towards its final conclusion, which seems random until its causality is made evident.  There is a conscious and carefully calibrated  structure and architectonics involved in the apparent seamlessness of the novel.

The predominance of the plot and the large cast of characters however come at a cost, albeit a minor one, in the light of what the novel achieves. Chakravarti does not explore the interior psychology of most of her characters barring a few crucial briefly sketched in character traits. Characterisation  is often done through a mirroring effect where the response of other characters convey character traits; also, analogues, contrasts and conversations are used  to convey the varied workings of people’s minds. Thus , Suralakshmi’s decision to marry a philandering bigamist Moinak Sen is conveyed through the outrage of her sisters and her stubbornness and intransigence comes up in the course of Pratul’s conversation with his docile wife, Tara or Nayantara. Her impulsiveness is conveyed but  not the inner-workings of her mind and both her ‘love’ and the conjugal bliss that follow are not entirely  convincing.

In a different register, while Eidun and her sisters-Ojju, Meeru and Jeeni’s stories are convincing in their depiction of the oppression  and  travails  of women in impoverished Muslim families, the tale of domestic abuse raises some questions. There is of course the generational aspect of it with the saga of dispossession  portrayed  in the stories of their mother, Ruksana  and the grandmother, Zaitoon-Bibi` as well, but the depiction of the Muslim male as depraved and amoral does leave one with an edge of discomfort. It seems too stereotypical, too pat and cliched,  too two-dimensional. While misogynistic patriarchies and toxic masculinity is not restricted  to  one religious group, in the novel it is one religious group that bears a disproportionate burden of it. The uneducated lower class Muslim men hardly bear comparison with the educated  upper class Bengali men (mostly Hindu) in the novel, and while this disjunction may have  been  created by the exigencies of the plot, it does leave one with a niggling sense of discomfort.

Having said that, Suralakshmi Villa is a tale well told, on almost every count. The unsentimental treatment of motherhood is worth commenting on and when Suralakshmi decides to leave Kinshuk in Delhi with his father, we are made to realise her alienation and her affiliations. She comes across as a dignified and idealistic figure, in her steadfast commitment to protect Eidun, a responsibility she has taken on herself. Even if Suralakshmi’s — and others’ — lives are embedded in a web of materiality, her decision, dignified and noble, transcends her immediate material conditions.

Suralakshmi’s decision to go away and start a charitable hospital in Malda, is depicted in the novel as an act of conscious choice, although it  is  a choice which elicits surprise from others since she leaves her house to Moinak, her errant husband and his offspring. 

Suralakshmi goes away with Eidun, leaving  her son  Kinshuk in the care of his father, with no evident sign of regret or a backward glance.  Her decisiveness here comes as no surprise since it chimes  in with what we know of her already. Even if there is no formal separation, we (and the characters in the novel) are left in no doubt about her intentions. I would go so far as to describe her choice — and her power to choose and live by her choices as feminist, since,  there is definitely an element of agency in the way she decides on a significant moment of transition and then goes ahead with its execution.

Suralakshmi Villa is definitely a welcome addition to the canon of women’s writing in India, multi-textured and multi-layered. Its complexity does not take away from its readability but  adds to its depth and power to attract and hold the attention of the reader.    

    Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review  

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Discussion

Rabindranath Tagore: A Universal Bard

Aruna Chakravarti in discussion with Sunil Gangopadhyay

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was born on May 7th. He was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath — and of course, we all know of him as the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world.

Today to jubilate this great writer on his one hundred and fifty ninth birth anniversary, we have a conversation by two greats of our era. They, like Tagore, are from Bengal — both Sahitya Akademi award winners; Aruna Chakravarti , a writer who has translated his famed Gitabitaan, and she talks about the great poet with Sunil Gangopadhayay (1934-2012), a renowned Bengali author who authored a novel on Tagore in Bengali, Prothom Alo or First Light.  Aruna Chakravarti has translated Gangopadhyay’s novel too and she also has her own novel on the Tagore family women, Jorasanko, which has been a best seller in India.

The conversation brings out the relevance of Tagore in the current day world and many more interesting details. It was part of the celebrations organised by Sahitya Akademi to jubilate the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore in Kochi in 2011. Borderless is very privileged to host the transcript of the discussion that took place between the two giants of Indian literature, on one of the greatest and most impactful writers of this Earth, a thinker and creator who ascends the boundaries of time – our Kobiguru Rabindranath Tagore.

Aruna Chakravarti:  Sunil da. You have maintained in a number of your public statements that, as a young writer, you had no great admiration for Rabindranath. Neither did your contemporaries of the Kallol group. You considered his work sentimental and archaic and wanted to get out of his shadow. Which you did by writing in a very original and dynamic way. Yet, now that you are in your seventies, we see in you a great admirer of Tagore. You have read his works conscientiously. And I’m told you can sing at least two lines of each of the two thousand songs composed by him. Not only that. You have made him the central character of your novel First Light and used the awakening of his poetic inspiration as a metaphor for the awakening of an entire nation. When and how did this change take place?

Sunil Gangopadhyay :   Yes. We were rebels who wanted to write in a stronger, more down to earth and powerful language. We rejected Rabindranath as a model and had mixed feelings about his work. Some of his poems we thought were dated and some others were too long. But that does not mean we did not admire him. We did admire him particularly his lyrics which we knew, even then, would be immortal.

In one of my poems I have said that even if everything else Rabindranath has written dies out with time — his songs will live. My friends and I used to compete with each other as to who knew the greatest number of his songs. We would spend our evenings singing Rabindra Sangeet and reciting his poems. Some of us could recite reams of pages. But it is true that we admired him in private and rejected him in public. We made our dislike of the Rabindra scholars, who lionised  him shamelessly, quite apparent. They declared that he was the last word. That the pulse of poetry had stopped with him. They turned him into a god.

We couldn’t accept that. We were young and hot headed and reacted strongly. And sometimes we used abusive language. One of my friends declared publicly that he had kicked out a collection of Rabindranath’s poetry. But, in reality, nothing like that had happened. And we hated the term Gurudev. Why Gurudev? Why such blind adulation?

Aruna Chakravarti:  Has any of your work been influenced by Rabindranath’s?

Sunil Gangopadhyay:  No. We tried, very cautiously, not to imitate Rabindranath and if we found the faintest traces of imitation in the work any of our friends, we ridiculed him.

Aruna Chakravarti:  I don’t mean consciously. And I’m not referring to your early writing. Later, when you realised the value of his work, did it not rub off in any way? Subconsciously perhaps?

Sunil Gangopadhyay :  Can any Bengali writer escape Rabindranath? I’ve learned the basics from him. Poetic structures, the use of rhymes and metres—from where else did I learn all this?

Aruna Chakravarti :  Sunil da.  Though you started writing while still in your teens it was exclusively in Bangla till 1987, when your novel Arjun was translated into English. Which makes it a little over a couple of decades that you started reaching out to a Western readership. Something similar happened to Rabindranath. He wrote from childhood upwards in Bangla then, suddenly, chose to turn bilingual at the age of fifty when he translated the lyrics of Gitanjali. Why do you think this happened? As I see it neither of you had any particular compulsions to make your work a part of the literature of the West. Please share your thoughts on this in the light of your own experience.

Sunil Gangopadhyay:  Rabindranath had travelled widely by that time. He, as we all know, was the most widely travelled man of his times — a kind of roving ambassador for India.  He had met many eminent men and women from other countries who were impressed with his personality and curious to know what and how he wrote. They urged him to translate his work. And he did so. That was the primary reason. His family didn’t think much of this endeavour.  Dwijendranath Tagore, his eldest brother, writes in his Memoirs that one day he saw Rabindranath lying on his bed with books and papers spread out before him. On asking him what he was writing Rabindranath told him that he was translating some of his work because the sahebs wanted to read it. Dwijendranath was quite annoyed and told his younger brother, ‘If the sahebs want to read your work they should learn Bengali.’ People did not care for translations then. Bankim translated his own work but did not like them at all.

Aruna Chakravarti: And what about you? You have said, often enough, that you are perfectly content with your Bengali readership and with using Bangla as the sole language of your literary expression. Yet you did commission translations of your work. Why was this?

Sunil Gangopadhyay: Aruna, I must tell you that I’ve never, in my whole life, requested anyone to translate my work. People have done it. I have not stopped them. There is a reason for it. I consider myself a poor writer and believe that my books do not merit translation. I do my best but genuinely believe that a really good and perfect book still remains to be written by me. Besides my English is not so good. I can’t tell if the translation is worthwhile or not. You have done an excellent job. People who know English tell me that your translations are better than the originals.

Aruna Chakravarti:  Really Sunil da! Please don’t embarrass me. But let’s move on from this to another point.From the advent of English education in India writers have sensed a tension within themselves regarding choice of language. Michael Madhusudan and Bankimchandra began their literary careers in English then switched over to Bangla. With Rabindranath the opposite happened.  But not quite. He continued to write prolifically in both languages. But it seems as though he chose English for certain genres and Bangla for others. English—to express his ideas on politics, religion, education and philosophy. In short, he chose to use it as a language of communication with a wider world. But Bangla was the language of his heart. It was his language of communion—the language of his music and poetry. Here I’m reminded of the song Gaaner bhitor diye jakhan dekhi bhuvan khani (I see the universe through my songs) in which he concedes that it is only through his music that he can commune with God and all created things. And, though he doesn’t say so, the fact that he can do this only in Bangla is implicit.  It is interesting to note that he did not write a single song in English. He could have done so. He was sufficiently knowledgeable about Western music and his English, too, was impeccable. We see traces of Western influence in some Bangla songs. But he never, ever, wrote an English song.

Sunil Gangopadhyay:  Quite true. He loved Bengal and the Bengali language. He travelled to so many countries and wrote so much during those times. But the places he visited are conspicuous by their absence in his poetry. Even during his travels, the focus of his songs and lyrics were fixed, unwaveringly, on his own land. Wherever he went — be it Iran, Italy, England or Argentina — he never recorded his experiences there in song. Rather, whatever he composed during those times, reflected the melancholy of parting and a bitter sweet nostalgia for what he had left behind.

Another thing.  Rabindranath always maintained that the English renderings were not good. And I agree. Leave alone the works of others even his own translations are a feeble shadow of the original. Sometimes I wonder why Yeats and Rothenstein liked his English Gitanjali so much. It is nothing compared to the Bangla. And I don’t think his best work has been translated. There are no good translations of the poems of Balaka and Purabi. His work in English are remarkably slender.  It runs into 56 volumes in Bangla and in English we have only four.

Rabindranath may have been a world writer in his views, but he had the heart and soul of a Bengali. He loved Bengal and loved her language. During the Partition of Bengal in 1905, when the language was threatened, Rabindranath came out on the streets, for the first time in his life. He was not that type at all. He hated publicity. But he led his people in protesting against what he considered was an infringement on the lives of Bengalis and a move to crush them by diluting the power of their language. Fortunately, the Partition of Bengal did not happen in his lifetime. It happened six years after his death along with the Partition of India.

Aruna Chakravarti:  Coming back to your comment that, during his travels, he never composed a song on the land in which he was staying, I am put in mind of the song he wrote in Germany once just before Durga Puja. He wrote Chhutir banshi bajlo…ami keno ekla boshe ei bijane (the holiday flute played… why am I sitting alone in this foreign land). Pure déjà vu! To move on to another aspect of Rabindranath’s engagement with the West — we know that Rabindranath fell back on the notion of Gurukul when he started his school in Shantiniketan. He conceived it as a brahmacharyashram with himself as Gurudev or Preceptor. 

This was an expression of his lifelong discomfort level with the western system of education. He had fared badly in all the English schools to which he was sent including the ones in England. Yet Rabindranath responded enthusiastically to European literature, art and music and even studied the new scientific theories with interest from his early youth. The poetry he wrote in his teens was largely inspired by that of Dante and Petrarch. Another interesting fact is that he had not only read the major poets he was also aware of the obscurer ones. For instance, he had read the boy poet Chatterton and saw a close resemblance between himself and him…

Sunil Gangopadhyay:  Bhanu Singher Padavali (Bhanu Singh’s verses)?

Aruna Chakravarti:  Yes. This was particularly apparent when Rabindranath was writing the lyrics which were published as Bhanu Singher Padavali.  Both young men were incurable romantics and obsessive dreamers who lived in a visionary world they half believed in. Like Chatterton, who concealed his identity behind that of the non-existent medieval poet Rowley, Rabindranath used the pseudonym BhanuSingh — a non-existent Vaishnav poet. Do you see a contradiction between his absorbing interest in everything European and his rejection of it in terms of an educational process?

Sunil Gangopadhyay:  Rabindranath couldn’t stand the rigid discipline of the British public school system. He hated confinement of any sort and the notion of being dosed with quantities of knowledge within the four walls of a school room was obnoxious to him. That is why he fared badly in all the English schools to which he was sent—both in India and in England.

Aruna Chakravarti:  Yes. His brother Somendranath, who wasn’t quite normal as a boy and became distinctly unhinged in later life, fared better.  But Rabindranath’s inability to benefit from a structured system of education wasn’t restricted to English schools. His brother Hemendranath, who had taken charge of the primary education of the children of Jorasanko, told his father often — Robi mon dei na (Robi doesn’t pay attention). His music tutors complained that he didn’t attend his classes regularly and even when he did, was inattentive and careless.

Yet Rabindranath rose to be one of the world’s greatest composers and could be numbered among a dozen of its most learned men. What, in your opinion, lay behind the strange amalgam of qualities that made up Rabindranath? The meticulous self-education he put himself through with no aids other than simple lexicons and dictionaries indicate rigorous self discipline.  A wondrous ability to imbibe knowledge and an instinctive rejection of a formal, structured process of education! How does one explain it?

Sunil Gangopadhyay:   Well. He was a genius Aruna. And who can gauge the psyche of a genius? Or even try to analyse it?  And what is more he developed his art slowly and carefully. He did not rest on his extraordinary abilities. He worked hard at them. He was one of the most disciplined and hardworking men born in this world. He made some mistakes in his life, but doesn’t everyone make mistakes? When he established the brahmacharyashram he did it on the advice of his friend Brahma Vidya Upadhyay. The idea appealed to him, but he did not realise that it was a highly impractical one. Impossible to implement. 

He began by enrolling students without charging fees. But he could not keep it up. He had to sell his wife’s jewellery, even his own favourite watch, to pay his teachers. But how long could these funds last? He couldn’t make ends meet. Finally, he had to start charging fees.

Another defective system he introduced was the observance of caste. Brahmin boys would not touch the feet of Kayastha teachers. But Kayastha teachers would touch the feet of their Brahmin colleagues. Even that had to be given up.

But the great thing about him was that he never failed to admit his mistakes and rectify them. He realised that even a guru has to grow and evolve. And he learned steadily and continuously from the journey of his life. He was truly successful with his experiment of Viswa Bharati, the meeting of Bharat with Viswa—India with the world. He realized that India’s greatness lay not in her ancient system of education but in her ability to assimilate and bring together all the nations and cultures of the world.  Ei bharater mahamanaber sagar teere (In this land of Bharat, rests the ocean of all races of mankind).

Aruna Chakravarti: Very true. But some of the systems he introduced in Shantiniketan have remained to this day.  For example, his belief that a child can learn only if he’s in the midst of nature, which must have been behind the concept of the “open air schoolhe started, is still respected. No class rooms. Learning only on bedis (platforms) under the trees.

Sunil Gangopadhyay:  That was a foolish idea! And it didn’t work. It rains three months in the year in Birbhum and the rest of the year, it is either burning hot or bitterly cold. There are only short spells of pleasant weather in spring and autumn. The open-air school was impractical. It was at best a gesture. And it has remained a gesture. And to tell you the truth—I’ve never understood why Rabindranath had to open a school. He was a poet and should have remained content with writing poetry. Why did he have to pose as an educationist? Where was the need?

Aruna Chakravarti:  The time is running out, Sunil da, and I can see the Chair gesturing to me to start winding up.  I had many more questions and was looking forward to hearing your views on the conflicting Western responses to Gitanjali prior to the Nobel Prize and after. But it looks as though I’ll have to keep it aside for a private discussion. I’d like to end with one observation. Though it is not a question I would be happy to have your response. Many of your admirers, among whom I count myself, are of the opinion that no other Indian writer has come closer to Rabindranath’s prolificity, his vast range of genres and the depth and expanse of his vision than yourself. Many of us see you as Rabindranath’s legitimate successor and feel sure that you will be recognized as such and invested with his literary mantle in the not so distant future. Would you like to respond to this prophesy?

Sunil Gangopadhyay:  Thank you Aruna. But no. I have nothing to say.

Aruna Chakravarti:  Thank you, Sunil da, for your inputs. They have been most interesting and have certainly pushed the borders of our understanding of Rabindranath substantially. Thank you once again. 

 This conversation took place at a Tagore Conference organised by the Sahitya Akademi in Kochy in 2011.