Ratnottama Sengupta travels down the path of nostalgia with her ancestors, her parents, eminent writer, Nabendu Ghosh and his wife, Kanaklata
Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh of Dhaka was an advocate who had mastered in both, Sanskrit and History. And he was a kirtan singer par excellence. Both these traits have familial roots: His father was a court clerk, his cousin a doctor of those times. And all the males in the Vaishnav family — devotees of Prabhu Jagadbandhu Sundar of Faridpur — were good singers, a talent that was to continue with his sons and grandsons.
It was for his kirtans in particular that P R Das, brother of freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das (1870-1925), asked Nabadwip Chandra to join him as his junior in Patna High Court. The year was 1920. Bihar which was a part of the Bengal Presidency, was steeped in casteism. The Ahirs — Yadavs who tended cattle and sold milk — were exploited by the Bhoomihars, who were Brahmins, and if they retaliated, they were arrested and put in jails. By 1920s, the freedom movement too had gained steam but the political prisoners were also clubbed with the ‘hooligan’ Yadavs. Nabadwip Chandra fought courtroom battles to win this deprived section their political right, and came to be highly respected – a father figure for a large section of people in Bihar.
In fighting those battles Nabadwip realised one thing: the acute need for education among the so called Backward Classes. “Unless a person has education, he or she is not respected and remains vulnerable to exploitation, economic or otherwise,” he maintained. And education is best spread through mothers. Consequently he sought marriage alliances for his sons with daughters of teachers, sisters of lawyers and doctors, and — later — with undergraduates and graduates.
His elder son was married to Kalyani, the daughter of a school teacher. His third son’s wife, IA passed Sundara, was the daughter of a BA-BL – a lawyer in Bhagalpur. His fourth son’s wife, Namita was again the daughter of a teacher from Ranchi — and she was a graduate who was already teaching before she married, and did her MA after her wedding. So had Nabadwip Chandra’s daughter Rani who, after her tying the knot with Mahesh Chandra of Jorhat, completed her schooling and mastered in Economics. Further she taught in JB College, Jorhat and went on to become the vice principal whose students included Tarun Gogoi who rose to hold the high office of the Chief Minister of Assam.
In fact, Nabadwip Chandra’s own wife, Suniti Bala, was the daughter of a minister in the minor royalty of Jessore — a man who won a gold medal as one of the first matriculates of British India. His entire family was keen on education — and Suniti was not only literate, she received formal education at home before she was married at the age of 15 — which was pretty advanced for the first decade of 1900s. All her life, after child bearing, rearing kids, attending to household chores in the kitchen, she would spend her ration of leisure hours reading books and in her later years, telling stories to her grandchildren.
Nabadwip and Suniti’s second son Nabendu inherited his parents’ love for letters. And he took it to a much higher level as a writer who carved a place for himself in the history of Bengali literature and of Hindi Cinema. He started writing early, when still in middle school, as he wrote for and co-edited a handwritten magazine. Even as a teenager he would attend Sahitya Sammelans and while in College he got published in sought-after literary magazines.
But Nabendu did not stop with words alone. Along with singing kirtans, a talent he inherited from his father, he trained himself to dance in the mould of Uday Shankar. He would regularly dance and act on stage, in Patna and elsewhere in the state, and subsequently played memorable cameos in Bombay films too. Before he passed away at the full age of 91, he had penned 16 novels, 28 collections of stories, and nearly a hundred screenplays for Bollywood classics.
On January 31, 1944 he married Kanaklata. Sister of advocate Bhupendranath Ghosh from Malda. She turned out to be an architect of human lives. Kanak was born to Chandrakanta Ghosh, a landed gentry who was forward looking enough to will large tracts of agricultural land to his daughters at a time when all they were entitled to was Streedhan — jewellery given at the time of marriage. Still, his wife Dakshayani, who was ‘Karta’ — head of the Hindu joint family — after his death, decided to live a part of her sunset years in Vrindavan, the holy land of Vaishnavs.
Kanaklata had not completed her school years when she was married to Nabendu. But being a doughty soul, the 16-year-old not only read Nayak O Lekhak — Nabendu’s first published novel; she got it critiqued by an academic cousin (who later became a professor) before she consented to the marriage with a man older to her by ten years.
Kanaklata’s own education had to be shelved as she became a mother twice over; lost her first born; faced an uncertain future as Nabendu lost two successive government jobs because of his ‘seditious’ – anti-imperialist — writings; and then Partition uprooted the family that had to leave Bengal and seek livelihood in Bombay’s tinsel town. But, despite her young years, it was she who instilled in her husband the spirit to soldier on with his pen and not succumb to any compromise in his literary efforts.
She herself did not surrender her appetite for formal education to circumstances. Years after her sons and daughter had graduated from universities and she had become a grandmother thrice over, she enrolled in Open Classrooms and got her Master’s certificate in Bengali language.
In the intervening years? Her home provided a platform to umpteen writers, country cousins, sisters, nephews, nieces, even to nobodies. She was there at 2 Pushpa Colony when they wanted to pursue higher education in Bombay, or make a career in the country’s financial capital, or shine in the tinsel town. She helped to negotiate marriage proposals, and she supported in every way she could, those who sought medical intervention by specialists. Simultaneously she secured the financial future of her nuclear family by judiciously building houses and investing in government bonds.
Most of all, Kanaklata was the architect of the lives of her three offspring. Her eldest son Dipankar who, as a child, was legendary in family gatherings for his mischiefs and pranks, was groomed in Shivaji Military Preparatory School. Thereafter she ensured that he trained in Medicine at the Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College in Kolkata. Once he became a doctor he served with Oxfam during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
This education stood him in good stead when he went to UK and joined the Royal Army Medical Corp that swung into action during skirmishes in Belize, the Carribian country in Central American land, in 1986, and again in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War of 1991. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, he was serving in Belsen, where the Nazis had set up a concentration camp sometime in 1943. He went to the minefields of Bosnia, which Princess Diana visited in 1997. In mid-1990s he was stationed in Brunei, where the British Military protects the Sultan; at the turn of the millennium, he was in Cyprus, which the British forces use as base for both military and humanitarian operations in the region that often saw dissonance. What a rich life of experiences in helping the injured and ailing!
At her insistence, Kanaklata’s second son Subhankar was trained in direction at the Film and Television Institute of India. He came out to be Associate Director of Damul (1984). He rose to partner his father in the making of the classic, Trishagni (1989), to direct the National award winning Woh Chhokri (1993). With teleserials like Yugantar, Nishkriti and Dances of India showing on Doordarshan he was a name to reckon with on the National network in its heyday. Then he went on to teach filmmaking in Mumbai’s Whistling Woods and to set up the wing of Filmmaking Studies in the National University of distant Fiji.
And Kanaklata raised the youngest of her brood, their only daughter Ratnottama, to cultivate the inheritance from her father, in literature, cinema and the arts. Even before the word global environment gained currency, by demonstrating how not to chuck everything in the bin, she drove home to her daughter the concepts of ‘re-use and re-cycle’. Blessed with green fingers, she shared with neighbours and friends the fruits of her ‘farming’ in the patch of green surrounding their Goan-style bungalow in the Mumbai suburb of Malad – and inculcated in her children the importance of green environs. Cooking, she taught me, was as significant in our everyday life as banking or management of money. And she drilled into me when I was still in school, that “you must earn, even if it’s only a hundred rupees every month. Else, even your own children will not respect you.”
I am always delighted to give this one example of her practical thinking. Soon as her daughter joined college, the home-maker booked a Life Insurance policy for her and directed her to pay the annual premiums. And how could she do it without compromising on her studies? “Simple. Clean the house, sell the waste to the raddiwala; put the ‘income’ in the bank.” At the end of the year, she had the money for the insurance premium and also the experience of banking. This, at a time, when majority of account holders in the bank were men.
Through all this, long before the world started celebrating International Women’s Day, Kanaklata had taught her daughter to be “no less than a son.” For, she ingrained in her, “there is nothing you cannot do if it spells well-being for people in your care…”
 Religious songs
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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