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Satyajit Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan & Nabendu Ghosh and a Famous Triology

Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay was a classic immortalised further by Satyajit Ray’s films, also known know as the Apu Triology. Here is a translation from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography which introduces how the film came to be. This portion has been excerpted from Eka Naukar Jatri (Journey of a Lonesome Boat) and translated by Ratnottama Sengupta as a celebration of the Satyajit Ray Centenary.

Pather Panchali : Unprecedented

The year, in all probability, was 1938. (This was the year of the Prabasi Bengali Sahitya Sammelan in Guwahati. Nabendu met Bibhuti Bhushan later, probably in 1942 or 1943, when the Bengal Famine was on.) Nabendu Ghosh talks of his meeting with Bibhuti Bhushan, reading whose novel, he was transported to Nischindipur, where the narrative was set. When he met Bibhuti Bhushan, he felt he had met Apu. When he saw Song of the Road, he could only chant, ‘Apurbo!’

The Prabasi Banga Sahitya Sammelan ( Bengla festival of expatriate writers) was being held in Guwahati. Delegates from all over the country were to meet and discuss Bengali authors, novelists and poets, enjoy cultural evenings, and to tour the city in between the sessions. From Patna we – five of us – set out with printed copies of the annual number of our magazine, Prabhati. The chairman that year was Anurupa Devi (1882-1958), one of the most reputed women novelist in the British colonial era. This eminent writer was the younger sister of Surupa Devi who also wrote under the pseudonym of Indira Devi. Anurupa Devi’s Poshya Putra (Adopted Son), when staged as a play, had become a super hit. I had read two of her major novels, Mahanisha (1919) and Mantra Shakti (1915), which were made into films in 1954 with a star-studded cast. Finally I was face to face with the formidable personality. To me, to this day Anurupa Devi tops the list of women writers.

The other name that made a deep impression was Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. Everyone was talking about his Pather Panchali – apparently it was “mesmerizing.” At the end of the session, as soon as I reached Patna, I visited the city’s biggest bookseller, Burman Company. The owner Bidyut Burman hailed from Madhya Pradesh but spoke flawless Bengali. The minute I mentioned Pather Panchali, he brought out two copies. I bought one for myself.

I finished reading it in three days. Every night I was supposed to switch off at 11 pm but, on the pretext of writing an important tutorial for my college, I stayed up all night to finish it. Three days later I shook my head and shouted at the top of my voice, “Apurbo!” (That is the name of the protagonist, and it means ‘unprecedented.’)

Maa heard me shout and came running, “What is the matter? Why did you scream?”

“For the heck of it, Maa,” I assured her, “in sheer delight.”

“Delighted? By what?” – Maa asked me.

“This book Maa,” I pointed to the copy of Pather Panchali.

“Put it on my table,” Maa said. “Let me read it.” 

Morning till evening Maa had so much work, it took her two weeks to read the book. When she finished reading she returned it to me with these words, “What a lovely reading re! Soaked in sadness, yet it enriches you from within. In fact, it loyally reflects reality – life is such! Reading this book purifies the soul.”

The way Maa put it, my admiration for the greatness of the work went up manifold. Truly, Pather Panchali is a vivid chronicle of the journey of life. Simple in its language, unadorned but poetic in its descriptions. I learnt to look at Nature anew. I got acquainted with many a tree that I had only heard about. I discovered many that I was not even aware of. The names of many creepers brought me the story of a world so far unseen. Now I was in communion with Benibabur bagan, the widespread garden that surrounded the rented house we lived in.

Bankim Chandra was my first guru in literature but honestly speaking, I could not identify with many of his characters. Sarat Chandra evoked a world much closer to the one we inhabit. I could understand the motivations of his characters who were of my age. But Pather Panchali revealed one hundred percent the inner world of my childhood. Particularly in my case. I was raised in the happy environs of our house and yet, even in my young life I had witnessed extreme unhappiness too. In every station of life innocent children with their sinless minds are drawn to happiness. The way they raid the natural world to seek out the bare minimum quota of joy from nature, what they dream of — all this is stuff this novel is made of. When I finished reading it, I felt I AM Apu — Apurbo Kishore, the protagonist of Pather Panchali: timid, faultless,  ever keen to drink of the honey of life – much like a butterfly. Apu who is not ‘smart’ or clever, Apu whose constant hunger is for flowers and fruits and dreams…

After reading Pather Panchali my attachment with Benibabur bagan grew manifold. I felt that it was the abode of Nischindipur (where the novel unfolds). In the hazy light of morning, in the stillness of sun scorched noon, in the lazy twilight of sundown and the stifled darkness when night has swallowed day, I would be transported to Nischindipur.

Many many days have passed since then. I was a youth who was knocking on the doors of manhood, thereon I have advanced towards super annuation — but that little boy Apu still resides within me. The Apu of Pather Panchali who grew up into the teenaged Aparajito, Unvanquished, and then the young man who marries and sets up Apur Sansar — Apu’s household — and travels into fatherhood, stands frozen in time there. But he sets out on a new journey into childhood through his son Kaajal. This child breathes life anew into Nischindipur.

To me, Nischindipur equates the land of No-Worry. I am reminded of W B Yates’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ :

And I shall have some peace there, for

Peace comes dropping slow 

Dropping from the veils of the morning

To where the cricket sings…

***

Without prior notice I got an opportunity to go to Calcutta. The occasion was the wedding of my paternal aunt’s son Radha Gobinda Ghosh, who had just completed his Master in Arts studies with distinction and secured a government job.

Let me confess here that the wedding was but a pretext to go to Calcutta.  My real intention was to meet the author of Pather Panchali — Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay.

Mani Bhushan Da, the editor of our magazine, Prabhati, had provided me with his address on Mirzapur Street. He lived in Paradise Lodge, next door to the famous sweetmeat shop Putiram. It was a seven minute walk from Sagar Dutta Lane where my cousin Radha Gobinda Da lived.

The day after I reached Calcutta I told my aunt that I was going for a stroll up to College Square. “Don’t stray too far,” she cautioned me. “No, I won’t,” I assured her and set out.

I walked down Kalutola Street and across College Street, the hub of books and publishing industry in Bengal. There, on my right was Putiram, beckoning me with its array of sweets. I ignored them all and turned into the three-storeyed structure next door. The dominating signboard at the gate read ‘Paradise Lodge’.

I entered and asked for Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. An elderly person directed me, “Climb non-stop upto the terrace and walk into the room there.”

It was like a chilekotha – a garret. It had the touch of middle class living all over it: a table with chair, a cot, the floor covered with a sheetalpati woven out of mat, an almirah full of books.

Clad in a cotton banyan a gentleman seated on the chair was reading a book. The minute I showed up at the door he looked up with a question in his eyes, “Yes?”

“I would like to meet Bibhuti Bhushan, Sir.”

“I am that very person. Where are you from?”

“Sir I am from Patna. I am carrying a letter from Manindra Chandra Samaddar of Prabhati Sangha.” I touched his feet before handing him the letter.

“May you prosper,” he blessed me with a raised palm. Then, before opening the letter he said, “Come, sit — you have come all the way from Patna!”

He smiled after reading the letter. “So you are in Mani’s team. Well well, I know Mani — a splendid person with matchless character and breathing idealism. I have gone through the last annual number of Prabhati. Very good effort. Mani mentions that you also write.”

He called out a name.

“Yes sir, here I c-o-m-e –” the name replied. He was one of the attendants at Paradise Lodge. “Get some sweets, and tea for my guest — he has come from Patna,” Bibhuti Bhushan looked at me. Then he started asking me for details about me and my writing. It was his way of getting acquainted with Nabendu.

When he paused, I ventured to speak, “I am charmed by your Pather Panchali.”

He smiled at me. “I am happy to hear that.”

Out of the blue I popped my query, “Tell me, are you Apu?”

He smiled as he nodded, ” Sure I am there in Apu. Actually every writer blends himself in with what he has seen and heard to create his characters. They see the people around them, their joys and sorrows, they laugh and cry with them, they get involved with the problems and crises in their lives and then they adapt them to their novels and stories. You are also penning stories — be a bit more aware, observe more carefully, objectively, and you will find that you are also doing the same.”

Until that moment I was not aware that such a process was at work behind what I wrote. After I heard Bibhuti Bhushan I realised the truth of his words.

The tea and sweets didn’t take too long to appear in the chilekotha room. I decided that they must be from Putiram.

As I made to take leave, he said, “Read a lot. Read the established writers. As you keep writing you will yourself realise where to start and where to stop, how much to tell and how much to leave out.”

When I left I was convinced that I was leaving Apu of Nischindipur. By this time he had become an elderly relative of mine — a well-wisher.

***

Years later. Could be 1952. 

Puffing on his Chesterfield in between the sips from his teacup, Bimalda said, “Now that Maa is complete, What next? We need new work. Bombay Talkies is in a precarious state now – in case Maa is not a hit, we will be like bad penny to them. So, before Maa is released in the theatres, we must get a new contract. And for that to happen we need a stock of stories. Hiten Chaudhuri is talking to two possible producers, two others have got in touch with me. But without a story none of these will work out.”

So we needed stories. But what kind of stories? The kind that wins over viewers when it is reflected on the silver screen in a darkened theatre. One that compels them to repeat, “And then? What now? What will happen?” But what will happen to whom? To the problems and crises in the lives of the characters. If the problems are pregnant with drama, that will blend with the skill of unfolding the narrative and keep pumping the adrenaline of the viewer and raise his blood pressure higher and higher and they will wonder, “And then? What now? What will happen?” In unison with the persona, seeking a resolution of their conflicts, they will wordlessly demand, “And then? What now? What will happen to them?” 

In our country most people gravitate to stories that revolve around the crisis called ‘love’, perhaps because desire to love is universal and to be loved is eternal. So love is a safe bet, especially in cinema. We have just completed Maa for Bombay Talkies, but that does not revolve around love between a man and a woman — it is structured around a mother’s love, for her husband and her sons. It is a family drama. We will know the power of this love only when the film releases.

So what kind of stories shall we narrate to the producers? Which stories will assure them that their investment will be secure and prompt them to say, “Yes sir! We will film this very story!” Because, no matter which story you decide on, to make it into a film means investing lakhs of lakhs — and every producer prays that he should recover his investment if not make a profit.

Over the next five-six days, we discussed and narrowed down the list to a few ideas. We listed some stories and novels from Bengali literature.  Bas – done — we were equipped for one more round of chess with success. 

The problem with cinema as a mode of livelihood lies in this: the success or failure of each film decides the film you will get to do or not do next. The director’s team is engaged to constantly come up with ideas, concepts, narration that will appeal, first, to a producer and then to a financier.

That is the first stage. And, in the final stage, the viewer will give his verdict, “Waah!” “Lovely!” Only then will the moneybags be willing to hear your next story. There is only one problem: What if the aesthetics of the moneybag is not evolved? Or, sometimes, for the sake of livelihood you bow to his ego and settle for a story idea he supplies, then all your effort might go waste like a falling kite. In short, the art form we have embraced as our mode of eking a living is a dicey form — we are constantly walking the razor’s edge.

***

Suddenly I remembered the novel that had mesmerized me. I went up to Bimalda and said, “I want to remind you of this classic novel which you must have read…”

“Which novel?” Bimalda was curious.

“It can translate into a spellbinding movie. I am talking about Bibhuti Bhushan’s Pather Panchali.”

For a few seconds Bimalda gazed fixedly at me. Then, slowly, pondering over every word he said, “Yes, it is an amazing novel. But in this Hindi film industry nobody will be able to appreciate its innate rasa. No Nabendu Babu, there will be no taker for it in this market.”

End of story. But I could not forget Pather Panchali. That very evening I met Phani Da (Majumdar) in his office and, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned it to him. I did not stop there: for almost an hour I narrated the highlights of the novel to him.

Phani Da also responded, “It will be extremely difficult to sell this in Bombay. But,” he went on, “there is no doubt that it has the possibility to become a movie of an entirely different flavour. Let’s do this: Let’s buy the rights to the story. You please write the letter.”

Write to whom? In 1950, at the age of 56, Bibhuti Bhushan had left for his heavenly abode. I did not know where his son lived. So, the next day I wrote to the publisher, the noted writer Gajendra Kumar Mitra. His company, Mitra & Ghosh had published Pather Panchali and I was lucky to claim his affection. So he would certainly guide me in the matter.

A week or so later I heard from Gajen Da. The movie rights of the novel have been purchased by the art director of the established advertising firm, D J Keemer, Mr Satyajit Ray. Initially the name was not significant to me but then, within brackets Gajen Da had written “He is the son of Sukumar Ray, the author of HaJaBaRaLa (Habber Jabber Lawand Pagla Dashu (Mad Dashu).” The name acquired a certain significance then. 

At the same time I felt a sense of loss. For three years after that the sense of loss would surface like a bubble, at unguarded moments.

One day all of a sudden I learnt that Pather Panchali will be screened for a private gathering. Along with Bimalda we made a beeline for the show. By then Bimalda had become an international celebrity thanks to Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land).

During the interval, lighting up his Chesterfield, Bimalda said, “You can do justice to a classic of Bengali literature only in Bengali. West Bengal government has sponsored the making of this film — that is a rare happening in the history of cinema worldwide. Director Satyajit Ray deserves congratulations.”

***

Indeed everything about Pather Panchali was unprecedented. The casting of characters, the creation of environment, the re-creation of Nischindipur where the actions unfold, the cinematography, and — finally — the background score: I repeat, every single aspect of the film was unprecedented. Apurbo!

Since that evening the sense of loss has never surfaced to torment me. After watching the film I was convinced that the Good Lord had created Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay to write Pather Panchali, and that very Lord had created Satyajit Ray to transcreate the novel on screen.

Nabendu Ghosh and his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

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Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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

Categories
Review

Vignettes of Bengal

Book Review by Gopal Lahiri

Title : One Dozen of Stories

Author: Naina Dey

George Steiner says, ‘Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence’. In her fascinating book titled One Dozen Stories, Naina Dey captures the shades and tones of Bengali short stories written by well-known storytellers into the folds of English language and gives it her own distinctive stamp. One can not only see Bengal in her words, but also can smell it, feel its very texture.

Sanjukta Dasgupta, the eminent writer and academician, has rightly said, in her Foreword, “The translator of the twelve short stories in this collection has exhibited both sense and sensibility in her selection of the short stories originally written in by some of the best storytellers of Bengali fiction. Naina Dey’s training as a literary critic and translator become obvious as the authors, whose short stories that have been selected for translation cover a wide trajectory.”

Short stories, can also be a welcome diversion from the barrage of images we’re often submitted to in long narratives. The writers feel sometimes it’s worth showing less and hiding more and that is the essence of the short story. Through the power of observation, Naina Dey takes hold of the essence of the stories “each equally griping in intensity” and gives it to the reader with a power that is, paradoxically both strange and familiar. She portrays the influence of images and their seductiveness and their complexities as depicted in the original with expressionist clarity and feelings.

One Dozen Stories includes translation of selected stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Ashapurna Devi, Narendranath Mitra, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Nabakumar Basu, Anita Agnihotri and Esha Dey.

The twelve stories offer astounding depictions of desire, dream, love, belief and the power of the natural world and the translator tracks the inner monologue of an impoverished world with skill and purpose. There is no dream fog about these stories. There is no slapdash, no satire, no postmodern signs and flashes either.

Naina Dey has mentioned in her ‘Introduction’, “Edgar Allan Poe, considered the father of the short story and its first critical theorist had defined what he called the prose tale as a narrative which can be read at one sitting from half an hour to two hours, and is limited to ‘a certain unique or single effect’ to which every detail is subordinate.”

The stories in this collection are appealing in their richness and variety, in the sharpness of their perceptions and the clarity of even their complicated psychological unpicking and above all in their stylistic forms.

Tagore is a master storyteller and his stories are associated with events of our life that touched. Dey has selected two poignant and powerful short stories of Tagore. In ‘Shesh Puroshkar’ (The Last Reward), Tagore excavates the flaws and examines the truth to heal wounds and reward thereafter. The settings feel fresh because the author refuses to draw on worn-out descripted tropes with a thing of shreds and patches.

 ‘Streer Patra’ (The Wife’s Letter) is a landmark short story in Bengali literature.In the life of poor Bindu, Tagore has infused portrait of several generations of tortured and exploited women in Bengal. The deprivation and the denial are all encompassing. The protagonist, Mrinal, unearths the suppression that women undergo and renounces the injustice meted out to the young girl Bindu. Mrinal leaves her house, as a mark of protest at the atrocities against the women and becomes a free woman at the end.

You had cloaked me in the darkness of your customs. Bindu had come for an instant and caught sight of me through the hole in that veil. With her own death, she had ripped at the end my veil from top to bottom. Today I emerged and saw that there was hardly any place where I could keep my pride. Those eyes that had beheld and loved my neglected beauty, now look at me from the entire sky. Mejobou is dead now.’”(Steer Patra)

For readers looking for a more interesting story with twist at the end, ‘Chor’ (Thief) written by Narendranath Mitra, an accomplished short-story writer, shows the relationship between two enigmatic characters who embark on unusual life path; the husband, a kleptomaniac, compels his innocent wife to steal. The story shows pleasure cannot sustain either itself or any meaning.

Today Renu was truly her husband’s worthy consort. This was what Amulya had been wishing for all these days. Today was his day to rejoice. But Amulya was frozen stiff in his wife’s tender embrace. It was as if every beauty, every charm had disappeared from this earth. And those familiar arms which encircled his neck were not the bangle-laden slender arms of a beautiful young woman- they had become loathsome, defiled.”(Chor)

Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Puimacha’ (The Spinach Vine) is a captivating investigation of the life. The author depicts human fallibility and the tragic ending with the untimely death of Khenti, the eldest daughter of Sahayhari. Families dissolve through vagrant desire and inner disconnection. Relations between mother and son becomes insensitive and fail to cohere at times.

The depiction of a family’s routines, rituals, and idiosyncrasies in the midst of rule is reflected in Ashapurna Devi’s deft and gripping story ‘Chinnamasta’(The Severed Head). The power of apprehension and its scaring presence is a theme of the story. The broken down, disheartened, surging negative energies emanating from the Hindu widows, echo through the story.

“In the women’s circle, the newly widowed wife’s fare held the same interest as the manners of a newly-wed bride… Frequently therefore, one found Kanaklata, the eldest of the Lahiri wives, Monty’s mother, appearing at opportune moments at Jayabati’s house.” (Chinnamasta)

Nabakumar Basu’s ‘Faydaa‘ (Gain) grapples with harsh effect of generation gap where everyone is under suspicion and the artificiality of the modern life especially while staying abroad. Lives are shaped by ordinary neglect: of spouses, of children and of selves.

Esha Dey’s three stories ‘Anya Jagat Anya Nari’ (Another World, Another Woman), ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and ‘Satilakhi‘(A Devoted Wife) centre on the beliefs and variances in life laced with humour and warmth. Her stories are delicate, unfixed and evanescent. These qualities render it an exclusive place among the narratives and reflect on a way to attain a life without boundaries.

Suchitra Bhattacharya’s two stories are all about the power of life sketches, their lightness and complexities as well. In ‘Atmaja’(The Son), the mother and son relationship being at once compulsive and embryonic, and the mental and physical disentanglement is suggested in unsettling details. It is poignant and the ending is tragic. ‘Ashabarna‘ (Discrimination) portrays the hollowness of the middle-class life with dark undertones of class difference.

In ‘Ranabhoomi’ (Battlefield), Anita Agnihotri conjures a natural chemistry from the start with the historical context of the battle of Plassey and the emblematic mango tree and keeps the dramatic tension till the end. The writer is especially good at capturing its longings while the historical, the political, and the personal overlap within society are clearly evident in the story.

“No one remembers, no one remembers anything. Place, history, time…they themselves get entangled in the web of antiquity and remain silent covered with dust.

Abraham will remember. His mother’s anger, his sister’s ill-humour, his wife’s tears and keep them hidden in his breast like the mango tree struck by the cannon-ball!’(Ranabhoomi).

Translation from one language to other always poses a challenge to convey the nuggets of nuances of the original language. The key to the translation is the choice of words and the need of transporting the soul of the culture into another language. Dey finds her vein of expression by attending to the miniscule details and offers new areas that goes beyond the prevailing.

One Dozen Stories is striking, impressive and of significance even now. The readers will feel the desolation and misery and the sweat and tears that run through the stories. The cover page is impressive. This immensely readable book offers us the chance to escape into a world that is worth a revisit.

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Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata- based bilingual poet, critic, editor, writer and translator with 21 books published mostly (13) in English and a few (8) in Bengali, including three joint books. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals of India and abroad. He has been invited in various poetry festivals including World Congress of Poets recently held in India. He is published in 12 countries and his poems are translated in 10 languages.

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