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Interview Review

The Making of Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti

Aruna Chakravarti reveals how she wove a historic novel, The Mendicant Prince(Published by Picador India, 2022),  from a controversial court case that took place in the early twentieth century and created ripples through not just Bengal but the whole country and even England.

Aruna Chakravarti. Photo courtesy: Swati Bhattacharya

Perhaps we can call her the queen of historical fiction or an author inspired by history, but Aruna Chakravarti, an eminent award-winning Anglophone writer, evokes the past of a united Bengal – long before the Partition along religious lines in 1947 — repeatedly giving us a glimpse of an age where culture superseded beliefs. She recreates a period where we can see the seeds of the present sowed. In her last novel, Suralakshmi Villa (2020), she gave a purely fictitious account of a woman who pioneered changes in a timeframe that dates back to more than a century. Before that in the Jorasanko novels (2013, 2016), she brought to life the Tagore family history. By then, she had written her own family history set in the same period called The Inheritors (2004), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Award. Perhaps, her grounding comes from having translated Sunil Gangopadhyay’s First Light and Those Days, both novels set around the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She also won the Sahitya Akademi Award for translating Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, a novel again set in a similar timeframe. She started her journey as a writer translating Tagore songs for which she won the Vaitalik award. Perhaps, this grounding has made her what she is today – a powerful re-creator of history where the characters come to life. You emote and react to their statements and on their actions. Her narrative carries you with it.

Her novel based on the real story of the Bhawal Prince which was launched last month,  gives a clear glimpse of the event with historical accuracy. The Bhawal prince turned mendicant after losing his memory in 1909 in Darjeeling. He was recovering from a bout of syphilis. He fell prey to intrigue and might have been poisoned. The prince was abandoned as a corpse during his cremation and yet he survived …and then, twelve years later, he returned — having travelled through much of the country with a band of Naga sadhus — to claim his rightful place. Swapan Dasgupta, a journalist turned politician, wrote when he thought of the Bhawal case, the “Dreyfus affair in late 19th century France, the John F. Kennedy assassination in the US and the James Hanratty case in Britain are ones that come readily to mind.” He was reviewing an earlier historical narrative written by Partha Chatterjee(2002) called A Princely Imposter?, which Chakravarti tells us she has used as a resource.

Set against the independence movement and colonial era, she has painted a man, who though flawed, gains the sympathy and wins the heart of the reader. The writing is fluid and evocative. Given that the trial lasted for more than sixteen years, and his first wife and her family refused to acknowledge the prodigal prince, the story has been made into films multiple times, once Sanyasi Raja (Bengali, Mendicant Prince, 1975), the second time, a remake in Telugu Raja Ramesh (1977) and more recently somewhat anachronistic, a movie called,   Ek je Chhilo Raja (There was a King, 2018). The Mendicant Prince departs from the films in being a stickler for the period, the historicity and brings to fore events and nuances the author researched by interviewing surviving Bhawal family relatives. What is amazing is the way in which Chakravarti has fleshed out each character to make the persona real, to the point where, as in her earlier Jorasanko novels, the reader can visualise them. Aruna Chakravarti’s strength is definitely her mastery over the language and her ability to breathe life into the past.

In this interview, Aruna Chakravarti tells us how she has woven the novel into the timeframe and created a novel based on history – an excellent lesson for aspiring writers of historical fiction from the empress of the genre herself.

What moved you to write a novel on the Prince of Bhawal?

The controversial prince of Bhawal, Ramendra Narayan Roy. The top is a picture of the claimant and the bottom has the picture of the prince as a Naga sannyasi or mendicant.

I first heard of the Bhawal case in 1950 when I was about ten years old. The time was the aftermath of Indian Independence and Partition when many Hindus from Pakistan were relocating in India. A family from East Bengal came to live in the government quarter next to ours and became very friendly with us. One of its members, we called him Uncle, was an excellent story teller and regaled us with many tales.

One was about a legal case concerning a prince turned sannyasi [mendicant] then prince again. It had taken place in Bhawal, a principality in present day Bangladesh. The case was still fresh in his memory. The Privy Council verdict had been announced as recently as July 1946 and it was natural for him, still nostalgic for the land he had left behind, to wish to talk about it. I was so mesmerised by the tale that it stayed with me for decades afterwards.

I never thought of writing about it till recently, when some friends distantly related to the royal family urged me to. ‘You have already done two novels on the Tagores so why not the Bhawals?’ I didn’t take to the idea easily. It seemed too big and complex a project. Then, during the Covid years, in the state of incarceration we all found ourselves, I started thinking seriously about it. But I was constantly beset with anxiety. ‘Would I be able to pull off such a delicate operation?’ A meticulous adherence to the facts together with dates was called for since these were already out in the public domain. There was no way I could take liberties with them. A reconstruction of the life and times of the concerned people, within these limits, called for tremendous imaginative power and an equal amount of discipline and concentration. Covid worked in my favour. In the complete silence and absence of activity; in the total encapsulation of self by the mind; I found myself getting slowly entrenched in the world I was creating. A world of queens and mistresses, liaisons and stratagems, faith and betrayal and a desperate British imperialism slowly eroding under the pressure of an awakening nationalism.

It seems amazing to me now. But it worked.

What kind of research went into it? Did you travel to Jaidevpur?

No. That was one of the hurdles Covid put in my way. For all my other novels I have made it a point to do an extensive amount of field work. This time, travel being rendered impossible, I had to depend entirely on secondary sources. My chief source was Dr Partha Chatterjee’s book A Princely Imposter? It contained a treasure trove of information. Articles in Bangladeshi journals of which there was quite a significant number and other books, both English and Bengali, fiction and non-fiction, helped me to understand and visualise the context in which the drama had unfolded. The two films Sanyasi Raja and Ek je Chhilo Raja also offered a few glimmerings. These, however, were negligible. What came in truly useful was the first-hand research I had done for my earlier work such as my translations and other novels. As also the conversations I had with some distant relatives and family friends of the Bhawals.

How much of your story is fact and how much is fiction?

This question, invariably put to me in the context of my creative writing, is difficult to answer since it is impossible to put a quantum to either. All I can say is that the events the reader is taken through in The Mendicant Prince are historically accurate and documented. But the book is not history. It is a novel; an imaginative reconstruction of a prominent legal case fought in the dwindling twilight of British India. The fictional element travels beyond the case to the lives of the people it affected, particularly the women of the family. Nothing much is known about these women so I have had to give them backgrounds and contexts; personalities and distinguishing characteristics that are wholly imagined.

It is true that you have woven history and fiction meticulously and seamlessly in the book. In creating the ambience of the period, you have touched on prevalent myths such as the education of a woman results in her widowhood. You have also mentioned bedes and kheersapati mangoes. Were these actually part of what you found in the Bhawal story? Or is it something you introduced? If so, what was the intention?

No. They had nothing to do with the Bhawal case. These details were provided to intensify the ambience; to make the world of early twentieth century Bengal come dynamically alive. Reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore had advocated education for women. But the idea was fiercely resisted by the conservative section of Bengali society. Many clung to an age-old belief that educated women were liable to become widows. It was natural for Rani Bilasmoni [the prince’s mother], with her disdain for education even for her sons, to hold such a belief. In terms of the novel, this is a distinguishing trait of her character and brings into focus Bibhavati’s difficulties with her mother-in-law and her alienation in her husband’s home.

Pannalal Basu’s preference for kheersapati mangoes, along with other fictional details about his nature and tastes, takes him out of the realm of history and gives him a personality and voice. The presence of bedes at the river bank, just before the monsoon sets in, is a regular feature of the riverine culture of East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The addition of this detail enhances authenticity. In this case it provides a bit of dramatic irony as well. The band is travelling to Bhawal. Bhawal which has been the central focus of Pannalal Basu’s life for over six years…

You discussed the story with a relative of the royal family. What kind of interview did you have with him? Please share with us.

Actually I spoke to several members of the family. None of them are directly connected to the royal line. The person with whom I interacted most closely is the grand-nephew of the bara rani [the eldest queen], Sarajubala Debi. It was not a structured interview. Some family gossip and reminiscences, were shared, from time to time. That, too, mainly in connection with the bara rani. Among the bits of information I gathered, was the bricked over Bhawal vaults, filled with gold vessels, which ran across one entire wall of a room in the palace. Another was the conversation in which Bibhavati tells Sarajubala about the aridity of her sex life. I also came to know that the mejo kumar’s [second prince’s] second marriage was arranged by Sarajubala and that she had initial doubts about its suitability since Dhara Debi was small and slight and the mejo kumar very tall and hefty.

Your characters, each one are very well drawn, and the narrative makes readers travel back in time. How do you manage this? How do you gauge the reactions of the characters?

It is difficult to answer this. It has, I suppose, to do with instinct and the ability to internalise. In a historical novel, characters are conceived within a factual framework to begin with, then internalised and allowed to evolve through the course of the novel. The process is not planned. There is no strategy involved. It flows naturally and spontaneously. Not only the characters… the world that the author is recreating expands and grows in depth and richness as one goes along. Gradually it pervades one’s whole consciousness. So much so that sometimes one is not even aware of where fact ended and the imagination took over. I find myself in this state of confusion quite often. Did I read or hear about this somewhere, I’m often caught wondering, or did I imagine it?

Some women in your Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa are path breakers. But in The Mendicant Prince, they are more within the stream of history. Was this a conscious call or was it the circumstances? Please elaborate.

Suralakshmi Villa was pure fiction and I wanted to project a certain kind of woman as the central character. A woman who is far ahead of the times in which she lives; who breaks stereotypes and lives on her own terms; who dismisses societal expectations without giving it a second thought. A complex, enigmatic character whom people find difficult to understand, even a century later.

In Jorasanko, some of the characters were indeed path breakers. Digambari forbade her husband entry into his own home because, in her opinion he had strayed from the moral path. Jogmaya refused to obey her brother-in-law’s diktat that his entire family embrace the Brahmo faith, resulting in the rift that divided the Tagores into the Hindu branch and the Brahmo branch. Tripurasundari refused to give up her husband’s property. Jnanadanandini introduced many changes in the way the women of the household lived. These were real people and their actions are documented facts. There were no such progressive women in the Bhawal family. So how could I present them as path breakers?

The Bhawal case had been a mystery for a long time and no one knew why the prince’s first wife, Bibhavati, refused to recognise him. Have you figured that one out? Do you have an opinion on it?

No one knows the truth. Bibhavati’s insistence that the sanyasi was not her husband has left people baffled to this day. The case was fought many years after the alleged death and cremation of the prince and the verdicts given were based mostly on circumstantial evidence. I have tried to rationalise her stance and find a cause for it.  This is where the fictional element comes in. It lies in the kind of person Bibhavati is and her relationship with her brother. In terms of the novel, I mean. Nothing has been made very explicit. But there are hints. I’m hoping readers will be able to figure it out for themselves.

You have written historical novels before this one. You have dealt with the Tagore family ancestry and your own. How different was working on this novel?

The difference was that this one dealt with a court case the details of which were already out in the public domain. There was very little known about the Tagore women and my own family of course. For the latter, I had to depend on what I had heard from family members, which was very little. For the Tagore women project I gleaned titbits of information from their own writing, biographies of Rabindranath, and Rabindranath’s autobiographical writing. The facts being few and far between the imagination was allowed full play.  

Writing The Mendicant Prince was a different proposition altogether. The facts were well known. What could I add to them to justify a new work? And then an idea came to me. How would it be if I were to bring to the fore the women of the family who were strongly affected by what was happening but about whom nothing is known? They were only names in the drama that was unfolding around them. I could flesh out these women, give them thoughts, emotions, aspirations and distinguishing characteristics. This component would be pure fiction. As a result, the book came to be structured on two levels. It is an authentic record of the Bhawal case supported by  documents like letters, diary entries, newspaper cuttings, legal papers and case histories. But the account is interspersed with the personal revelations of the women of the family. Gradually the musings of a few other characters were added. The District Judge and some of the subjects were also given a voice.

Do you have another book on the cards? What should we look forward from you next?

 A collection of stories titled Through a looking glass: Stories is scheduled for publication by Om International. It should be in the market in a few months. There are nine stories showcasing women from across the spectrum of Indian society. Though coming from diverse religions and provincial cultures, they are all trapped in the tradition of silence which is the woman’s lot. Each has a secret space within her with a hidden story.

Thank you for giving us your time.

The Prince of Bhawal before he became a mendicant, early 1900s.

Click here to read the book excerpt

(This online interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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Review

A Discourse on ‘Freedom as Mobility’

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Somdatta Mandal’s translation from Bengali to English, A Bengali Lady in England, is a first person account  of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class  Bengali lady who accompanied her husband to England for eight years between 1882 and 1890.Her narrative, England-e-Bangamahila was published in Calcutta in 1885. 

Women’s travel writing in Bengal circulated /proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the popular form of serialized publications in journals such as Bharati (1877),  Prabasi (1901), Bangadarshan , Kalpataru, among others, but Krishnabhabini’s account was the first full length travelogue. Though there followed a rich output of travel literature, it would be a fallacy  to box the many writings as a single, homogenous genre. Travel writing in this time undergoes several generic modulations and modifications as it journeys through the turn of the century. For example, Krishnabhabini’s account could also be described as ethnographic writing  as she turns her gaze on British society, culture, customs , manners.

In addition to being a wonderful addition to the archive of women’s writing, Das’s account seems to reverse the gaze. It offers a fascinating glimpse into 19th century English life and culture, as she attempts to set the record straight in many ways. Krishnabhabini’s capacity for observation is admirable in its sociological detail, especially so when we consider that she was barely out of her teens when she wrote the book. A Bengali Lady in England also offers a wealth of ethnographic detail on English life, character, interaction between classes, marriage, attitude to work, family organisation and life.

As Krishnabashini responds to a spectrum of sights, sounds, affects during her extended stay in England, we come across many nuggets of information. The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies. Her motive here is to overturn the largely negative view of British women that prevailed in colonised spaces like India, based on their view of the “memsahib” who were often stereotyped as being snobbish and indolent. Her endeavour seems to be to inform her Indian sisters that British women in England were more active than the colonial “memsahibs” they usually came across in India.

She is eloquent in lauding the virtues of British domesticity by pointing out the merits of companionate marriages, where the wife is active in being a true helpmate to her husband as well as being the custodian of the private domain. Her perception is that Indian women and men would benefit in emulating such models of domesticity, instead of remaining in segregation and separation. As the translator and editor Somdatta Mandal points out, Krishnabhabini’s opening of the veil as a means of freeing herself from the constraints of her family and society is probably the first step in “the discourse of freedom as mobility’’ that enables her to construct her own sense of self (Mandal p.xx). Though she deplores the materialism evident in English society, she is also acutely conscious of the difference between the two countries. Thus she writes, “the more I compare the two countries, the more I realise the great difference between them and looking at the poor condition of India, I keep on suffering within.”(150)       

The translation and commentary by Somdatta Mandal, a translator and academic of considerable reputation and experience, highlights Krishnabhabini’s keen and observant eye, both in her translation and her comprehensive introduction to it. Her introduction shows evidence of her scholarship as she contrasts Krishnabhabini’s narrative account with her husband, Devendra N. Das, who with “an Orientalist agenda”(Mandal xxiii) was trying to “educate his fellow Britishers with the myths, religion and lifestyle of Indians back in India-speaking about the jogee, the astrologer, the zamindars, the nautch girls, infant marriage, the matchmaker, the Hindoo widow, funeral ceremonies, et al-his wife was trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life-English race and its nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, education system, religion and celebration, British trade, labour ”, cityscapes and rural life. Both the editorial commentary and Krishnabhabini’s narrative are peppered with delectable nuggets of information.       

Exposure to European literature, proliferation of print culture and ideas of romanticism percolated into the ‘Bhadralok” consciousness creating new modes of self-fashioning and new reading publics that made space for the publication of serialised travelogues . Much of the travel writing which did emerge and prove popular at this time were those authored by Hindu, upper class, western educated males, who were often renowned luminaries, scholars, or litterateurs in their own right. Several of the travel accounts are of men travelling outside India, usually to England. These works contained observations on western culture and a comparative study with India’s own. Romesh Chunder Dutt wrote Three Years in Europe: 1868- 1871, which was published in 1896. Both Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda authored various works on travel. An earlier account of travel writing was Bholanauth Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo (1869) which chronicled his journey from Bengal to Punjab.

In contrast, socially sanctioned forms of travel for women till the mid nineteenth century was largely restricted to pilgrimage. However, with the advent of the railways and the opening of the Suez Canal, by the mid-nineteenth century we have instances of women, usually from educated Bengali upper-class families, travelling for entirely secular reasons—for convalescence, their husbands’ work, for leisure, or even for education. Aru Dutt and Toru Dutt went to England at around 1870 to pursue an education.

In 1871 Rajkumari Bandhopadhyay, wife of social worker Shashipada Bandopadhyay, became the first Indian woman to visit England. In 1877, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in -law, Jnadanandini , along with her children, travelled by ship to England to accompany her husband, Satyendranath Tagore(the first Indian ICS officer). This was against the wishes of her father-in -law, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. In each of these instances, the act of travelling to a foreign land was deemed sacrilegious and transgressive, with the women facing extreme social backlash and, in the case of Rajkumari Bandyopadhyay, ostracisation. However, these acts set the way for further instances of travel, and more importantly, written accounts for the same. In 1894 Jagatmohini Debi set sail for England, and in 1902 published Seven Months in England (England e Saat Mash).

Krishnabhabini’s work is indeed a pioneering effort as far as Bengali women’s documentation of their travels, at home or abroad, are concerned. Yet her travel to England came at a personal cost; she had to leave her daughter behind with her conservative in-laws, resulting in lifelong estrangement. However, what ultimately makes this book unique it the quality of its specularity, its simultaneous awareness  of the self and other. It is this quality of self-consciousness or self-reflexivity which makes it  truly a  text of modernity.

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Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Categories
Tagore Translations

Travels & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

Translated from the original Bengali by Somdatta Mandal

Translator’s Note

The earliest journeys of Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) were in his mind and he has left us accounts of these as well as of the later physical journeys in various travel writings – letters, diaries, poems, songs, and essays. Right from his childhood he made innumerable trips both within India and abroad. Apart from his regular full-fledged travelogues, we find many lesser known but interesting experiences of his travel. Included below are four such entries. The first essay is a trip to Hazaribagh with his nephew and niece. The second entry is a hilarious letter about his second visit to Darjeeling. The third a letter that narrates his trip to Satara in Maharashtra State, one of the towns where his elder brother Satyendranath Tagore served in the Civil Service. The last one is from Balia in Uttar Pradesh where Rabindranath complains that he is tired of travelling and wants to settle down peacefully as a bird in its nest.

Tagore in London, 1879. Courtesy: Creative Commons

In 1885, under his sister-in-law Jnanadanandini’s editorial venture, a children’s magazine called Balak was published from the Tagore household in Calcutta. Though the life-span of this magazine was less than a year and only eleven issues were totally published, it contained different writings of the young Rabindranath, who would handle a lot of things for the publication. This magazine was later merged with Bharati and edited by his elder sister Swarnakumari Devi. Among the different entries that Rabindranath contributed for Balak and published in Vol. 3, Ashar 1292 B.S. (July-August 1885) was an essay called “Dus Diner Chhuti” (Ten Days’ Holiday) that narrates his trip to Hazaribagh that year during the school holidays. The two children referred to in this article were Surendranath and Indira, son and daughter of his elder brother Satyendranath and Jnadadanandini Devi. The sketch of the bungalow below is also done by him.

An illustration accompanying the essay ‘Dus Diner Chhuti’ (Ten Days’ Holiday). First published in Balak magazine. Somdatta Mandal suggests it could be the handiwork of the Kobiguru.

Trip to Hazaribagh – First published in Balak Magazine

Two children have made me homeless in this summer heat! Their school has been closed for ten days but that’s not just the reason. There would not be so much chaos in the house even if twelve suns appeared on the horizon. The older brother blunted the tips of all the pens he found within his reach, drew pictures on whatever paper he found; tried out the sharpness of a knife on his existing thigh; took out the machine from the watch he found and tried to rectify it; undid the bindings of all the books within his reach; climbed up on my shoulders if he found the opportunity – and so on! He moved on parapet walls in places where there were stairs for climbing; though everyone in the whole world believed in getting out of a car only when it stopped, he thought it was his only duty to jump out of a running car.

Everyone accepted the fact that the sun was too hot during the summer but the human child that I am talking about probably did not differentiate much between sunshine and moonlight. So during the school vacation, the difference in belief and behaviour between him and other ordinary people created a sort of revolution in the neighbourhood. The news that recently the elder brother has got leave for ten days spread everywhere. People were not so overwhelmed even when they received the news of the English-Russian war.

In the meantime, his younger sister came to me off and on and demanded – “Uncle–.” It would be nice if he called me ‘Uncle’ but I would receive new names at least three times in a day – names which were not heard in any civilized country. These naughty children also scattered and turned my own possessions upside down. My own name also did not have a proper address. I could not make them understand that my own name was my personal possession. Anyhow, the small girl (not that she was too small) came and pleaded, “Uncle, come with us to Hazaribagh.” After a lot of thought I did not say anything else and ventured out on this summer day.

One cannot see much in a vacation of eight or ten days but at least we can peek at nature outside. At least one can stand beneath the open expanse of the blue sky and the vast open green fields for a few seconds and feel free. We live in the city and occasionally it becomes essential to prove that the world is not built entirely with bricks, wood and mortar. So, four of us began our journey. I have already acquainted you with the boy and the girl. I need to introduce the other person. He was a fat, round and simple man. He was older than all of us but even younger than these children. His fair and stout figure was full of humour and he seemed like a ripe and juicy fruit. Just like the bubbles in a huge pot of rice being cooked, his humour came out from his nose and eyes. There are some people who resembled the ‘sandesh’ – the sweetmeat without a covering, without anything hard inside, without thorns – just a smooth, juicy blend of cottage cheese and sugar. Our innocent and harmless companion was that kind of a very edible man.

We boarded the train at Howrah at night. The swaying of the train confused one’s sleep – the sleeping conscience and the dream and waking up all got mixed up. There were occasional series of lights, sound of gongs, shouting, and calling the name of a station in a strange intonation. Again after three strikes of a gong all the sounds would subside within a few seconds and everything would become dark and quiet except for the continuous sound of the train wheels moving in the dark. Keeping in tune with that sound all the strange dreams would keep on dancing in my head all night. We had to change trains at Madhupur Station at four o’clock in the morning. As the darkness faded away, I sat at the train window and looked outside at the early morning light. This was a new country! It seemed that due to some disturbance our flat land had cracked and was torn apart. It was rough, broken and full of big and small sal trees and there were high and low undulations everywhere. There were plenty of sal trees but they did not endear each other as they did in Bengal. Each tree stood independently on its own soil. In Bengal all the trees, plants and creepers entwined each other in a familial bonding, but I did not notice that in this hard soil here. Maybe the people here were also like that. We did not notice much habitation. Only occasionally one or two huts stood friendless here and there. In the wet and salubrious climate of Bengal, trees and plants, men and men, houses and houses all stick to each other, but here in this rough and dry place everything seemed to be standing independently on their own.

The train moved on continuously. In the cracked fields one could sometimes see the sand of dry river beds and in those river beds huge black rocks and stones lay like skeletons of the earth. Sometimes a few hills stood up like severed heads. The hills in the distance were dark blue in colour. The blue clouds in the sky that came to play with the earth seemed to get caught up here. They had raised their wings to fly back to the sky but could not do so because they were tied up. The maidens from the sky came and embraced them. I saw one dark man with a broad face, with his wild hair tied up in a knot, standing there with a stick in his hand. The plough was attached to the back of two buffaloes; they had not begun tilling yet, and they stood still looking at the train. Occasionally there were some clear plots of land encircled with fencing made of ghritakumari plants and with a brick well that was constructed in the centre. The whole region looked very dry. The thin, tall and white dry grass looked like grey hair. The short leafless berry plants were shriveled, dry, and dark. In the distance a few palm trees stood with their small heads and one long leg. Occasionally a peepul or a mango tree was also visible. A lone old roofless cottage with its broken frame stood in the middle of the dry land and looked at its own shadow. Nearby there was a stump of a huge burnt tree.

We reached Giridih station at six o’clock in the morning. There were no more train lines after that and so we had to take carriage drawn by human beings from here. Could we call this a car? It was a small cage over four wheels. As we began our journey in the morning, the four of us started chirping inside it like four fledglings. The young brother and sister began to talk about many things and also pester me with joy. Our stout companion mingled with the children and turned into such a child that by just looking at them my own age was reduced by fourteen years and eight months. At first we went to the Giridih Dak Bungalow and refreshed ourselves. There was no sign of grass anywhere as far as we could see. There were a few trees in between and waves of red earth everywhere. A lean pony was tied under the tree; after looking all around it didn’t know what to eat. Having nothing to do it stood scratching its back on the wooden post. A goat was tied to another tree with a long rope and after a lot of research it stood breaking a sort of green plant with ease.

We resumed our journey from here. There were coal mines in Giridih but we could not see it due to lack of time. The road was hilly. We could see a great distance both in front and behind us. The long and winding road lay on the dry and empty terrain like a serpent basking in the sun. The car was pushed on the uphill road with a lot of effort and then it would slide smoothly downhill. As we went along we saw hills on the way. There were tall and thin sal trees, termite heaps, stumps of trees that had been cut down. At certain places some hills were covered with only tall, thin and leafless trees. The starving trees seemed to spread their lean dry fingers towards the sky and the mountains seemed as if they had been pierced by hundreds of arrows like the bed of arrows on which Bhisma rested on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The sky was overcast and it began to drizzle. The coolies were letting out loud shouts while pulling the carriage and when their steps occasionally hit pebbles on the road, the carriage would suddenly shake up. Somewhere on the way the road ended and we saw a huge bed of sand with a narrow river in the distance. On asking the coolies we were told that it was the Barakar River. The carriage was pulled across the river and taken to the road on the other side. There were shallow ponds on both sides of the road and four or five buffalos leaning their heads on one another, dipped half their bodies in the water to relaxed themselves and gave us very casual glances.

When evening descended we got down from the carriage and went walking for the rest of the way. We saw two hills in the distance and the road went up and down through them. Whichever way we looked, there were no people, no human habitation, no grains, no tilled land. On all sides the undulated earth stood silent and barren like a hard ocean. The golden hue of dusk in the horizon cast dark shadows on us. Though there were no human beings or animals around us, there was a feeling that this huge earth was preparing for a huge person to come and sleep on its bosom. Like a sentinel someone was guarding the place with fingers on his lips and so everyone felt scared to breathe. The shadow of a traveller with luggage on his horseback came along from a distance and gradually crossed our path.

The night somehow passed between sleep and waking and tossing and turning sides. Upon waking up we saw a thick forest on the left hand side. There were creepers on the trees and the ground was covered with different kinds of shrubs. Above the forest we could see the blue peaks of distant hills. There were huge rocks and among their crevices were a few trees, their hungry roots growing long and spreading out on all sides. It seemed as if they wanted to break the rock in search of food and grasp it with their strong grip. Where did the forest on the left disappear all on a sudden?

There were fields stretching at a distance. Cows were grazing. They looked as small as goats. Farmers were tilling their land with the plough attached to bovine shoulders. Sometimes, they twisted the cows’ and buffaloes’ tails. The tilled lands rose like steps on the hills. We had come close to Hazaribagh. One or two of the hills stood as relics of some great natural revolution.

We reached the dak bungalow at Hazaribagh at three o’clock in the afternoon. The town of Hazaribagh looked very clean amidst the wide landscape. There was no city-centric ambience here – no narrow lanes, dirt, drains, jostling, commotion, traffic, dust, mud, flies or mosquitoes. Amid the fields, trees and hills the town was absolutely clean. The giant houses in Kolkata are proud as stone – they stand treading the earth below, but here it was different. Here the clean and small thatched roof houses stand quietly in friendship with nature; they do not have glamour, they don’t exert might. The town seemed to be like a nest in the trees. There was deep silence and peace everywhere. We hear that even the Bengalis who live here do not quarrel among themselves. If this was true, then there would be no enmity between the crow and the eagle or between the cat and the dog.

One day was gone. It was afternoon now. I sat alone quietly in a couch on the verandah of the dak bungalow. The sky was blue. Two thin pieces of clouds sailed by. A mild breeze blew an earthy, grassy smell. There was a squirrel on the roof of the verandah. Two shalik birds (mynahs) were hopping about on the verandah and shaking their tails. I could hear the sound of cow bells as they from the adjacent road. People were moving in different ways. Some carried luggage on their shoulders and walked with open umbrellas on their heads; some were chasing a couple of cows, and some moved slowly riding on the back of a pony. There was no commotion, no hurry, and no sign of worry on their faces. It seemed that human life here did not pant rapidly like a fast railway engine or move with screeching noises emanating from the wheels of a heavily laden bullock cart. Life here moved in the manner of a gentle breeze blowing beneath the shade of trees.

The courthouse was in front of us. But even the court was not that rigid here. While the two lawyers in their black coats fought with each other inside, two papaya birds sat outside on the peepul tree and conversed among themselves constantly. The people who came here seeking justice sat in a group in the shade of the mango tree and laughed loudly among themselves. I could hear them. Sometimes, the midday gong started ringing in the courthouse. Its sound seemed very serious in this leisurely ambience and slow rhythm of life. The occasional sound of the gong was a reminder that time did not flow by in the casual slow cadence of life here. Standing in between it seemed to pronounce in its iron tone, “I am awake, even if others are not.” But the writer’s condition was not exactly the same. I felt sleepy. It was not a deep sleep. I realised that though the all-pervading stillness of nature and beauty encircled me with great care, my senses were failing to capture the details.

I spoke whatever I had to say about Hazaribagh (some might be thinking that I could have spoken much less) except that I did not mention that we became newly acquainted with the children of one of my friends. Upen Babu read the Akshanmanjari so we had to treat him with respect. I had mistakenly confused the alphabet sequence and he had instantly corrected it. That is why I was grateful to him. But in spite of many entreaties his sweet-looking naughty sister did not speak to us. I threatened to write an article and take revenge on her, so according to that promise I am spreading the word today letting the whole world know about her shy and coy words, and how she would run away whenever guests came to her house.  I also cannot keep it a secret how we had received sweet sandesh and even sweeter welcome from our friend.

In order to save time on our return journey we came down in a two-wheeled small carriage. If nothing else happened, at least it reduced our longevity as the whole body got shaken up with the bones and the joints fighting against each other. As the body went on jerking and dancing like mad, the five elements with which it was composed gave us a tough time. I could hold it together somehow but nothing much beyond that. With so much of revolution in the whole body, I could not hold books in my hands, the cap on my head, the spectacles on my nose, food in my stomach.  To add to all that was the scorching heat of the sun. I had left home with the full sixteen annas of my body intact but when I returned, I could not even account for twelve annas of it. The ten days’ holiday is over. Ah!!

More Humour: Letters from Tagore

I

Darjeeling

September 1887

Here we have reached Darjeeling. On the way Be_____ behaved very well. Didn’t cry much. Shouted a lot, created commotion, made various noises with her mouth, turned her wrists and even called birds, though we couldn’t see birds anywhere. There was a lot of trouble in boarding the steamer at Sara_____ Ghat. It was ten o’clock at night – hundreds of pieces of luggage, a few coolies, five women and only one man[1]. After crossing the river, we boarded a small train – in it there were four berths and we were six people. The ladies along with their luggage were put up in the ladies’ compartment. Though it sounds pretty simple, the actual process wasn’t so. There was a lot of calling, shouting, and running around but even then Na___ said that I did nothing. That means that the image of a terribly annoyed grown up human being was the only one suitable for a man. But no gentleman of twenty-six years has done what I have done in the last two days – opened so many boxes and closed them, pushed them under the benches, again pulled them out from there, run here and there behind so many boxes and bundles, so many boxes and bundles have chased me like a curse, so many have been lost, so many regained, so many not found and so much attempt made to recover the lost ones. I am surely suffering from box-phobia – my teeth start chattering whenever I see boxes.

When I look all around me, I see boxes, just boxes – small, big, medium, light and heavy, made of wood, tin, leather, and cloth—one below me, one above me, one next to me and one behind me – then all my natural strength to call, shout and run around totally disappears. And then my blank look, dry face and poor countenance makes me seem like a mere coward; so whatever Na____r have said about me is correct. Anyhow, let it be. After that I went and slept in another coach.

Two other Bengalis were there in that coach. They were coming from Dhaka; one of them was almost totally bald and his language was very different. He asked me whether my father was in Darjeeling. If Lakshmi was around she would have replied to him in his incorrect Bangla but I did not have such an instantaneous answer.

The way from Siliguri to Darjeeling was filled with continuous exciting comments from S_____: “Oh my god!”, “How strange,” “How wonderful!” – She kept on nudging me and saying: “R_____ look, look.” What to do, I had to look at whatever she pointed out – sometimes trees, sometimes clouds, sometimes an indomitable flat-nosed girl from the hills, sometimes such things which passed by because the train was moving forward and S______ lamenting that R_____ could not see them. The train kept on moving. Gradually there was cold, then clouds, then running noses, then sneezing, then shawls, blankets, quilts, thick socks, chilly feet, cold hands, blue faces, sore throats and just after that Darjeeling. Again those boxes, those bags, those beddings, and those bundles! Luggage upon luggage, coolies after coolies! It took me about two hours to retrieve our luggage from the brake-van, identify them, put them upon the heads of coolies, show the receipts to the sahib, have arguments with him, unable to find some things and then make necessary arrangements to retrieve them.

II

Calcutta

June 1889

As soon as the train departed Be___ looked all around and sat seriously thinking from where we arrive in this world, where we move, what the intention of life was. Thinking about all these issues I saw her yawning frequently and after a little while she put her head on the ayah’s lap, spread out her legs and went to sleep. I too kept on thinking both about pleasant as well as unpleasant ideas about life but could not sleep. So I started humming the Bhairavi raga on my own. Once you hear the melody of the Bhairavi raga, you develop a strange attitude towards life. It seems as if a routine mechanical hand is constantly winding the organ and from that pain of friction a deep and sad raga emerges from the centre of the whole world. The light of the early morning sun seems to fade. the trees listen quietly as the sky seems to be engulfed by a world full of tears. In other words, if one looks at the distant sky, it seems as if a pair of tearful blue eyes are staring at you.

Near the backyard of the station we saw our sugarcane fields, lines of trees, the tennis field, houses with glass windows; for a few moments my heart felt sad. This was really strange! When I lived here, I did not have much sympathy for this house – I cannot even say that I was very emotional when I left it. But when I saw it for a split second from the window of the running train, the way the lonely house was standing with its playground and empty rooms, then my entire heart went and pounced upon that house – a sound inside my chest from left to right – the train passed by quickly, the sugarcane field disappeared, everything ended, only the strings of the heart got fixed on a lower scale. But the engine of the train didn’t bother much about these things; it went on moving at the same speed over the rails; it doesn’t have the time to notice who was going where. It only drank water, belched smoke, gave loud shouts and went on rolling. Its movement could be beautifully compared to the motion of life, but it was so old and hackneyed that I just mentioned it and stopped. Once we came near Khandala the sky was full of clouds and rain. The mountain tops looked blurred because of the clouds – as if someone had drawn some mountains and then later rubbed them with an eraser – a few outlines were visible and in some places the pencil marks had got smudged.

At last, the bell rang for the train to leave. From a distance one could see its sleepless red eyes; the earth started quivering, the people working at the station emerged with their shoes and sandals from different rooms — their decorative jackets and round caps with metallic labels on their heads; the huge lantern in their hands radiated light in all directions; the servants stood alert taking care of all their belongings. Be____ went on sleeping. We boarded the train. Be____ started being restless for no reason. Though there was no sunshine, we started feeling hot as the day advanced. But time didn’t seem to move. It seemed that we had to touch every minute and push it forward. Fortunately, after travelling for some time it started raining heavily. Shutting the windows all around us, it was a pleasant experience to watch the clouds and the rain through the glass panes. At one place I was amazed to see the activities of the river in this monsoon season. It had swelled up and ran at full speed, digging its head on the stones, encircling them, then flowing over them and creating a sort of commotion. I hadn’t seen such wildness anywhere else. In the afternoon when we came and had our food at Sohagpur, the rain had stopped by then. When the train started again, the sun with its bright redness was setting among the clouds. I thought that all the other passengers were spending their time quite comfortably by eating, gossiping playing or reading and therefore were not bothered about the existence of time at all; whereas I was swimming upon time, its entire expanse was hitting me on my face and body … The train reached Howrah in due time. One by one we saw different people – first the sweeper of our house, the Jo___, after that Sa___. After that we dumped the rolled up luggage, my dented tin suitcase and a big basket (which contained milk bottle, different utensils, tin pot, bundles etc.) on the roof of the second class carriage, we reached home.

A commotion, gathering of people, salute of the durwans, obeisance of the servants, the greetings of the clerks, all the contradictory opinions about who had reduced and who had gained weight among us, the exuberance that S___ and company had with Be___, people surrounding the table during tea, bath, food, etc.

III

Balia

Tuesday, February 1893

I do not feel like travelling any more. I really wish to sit down in one quiet corner in a relaxed mood of adda. India has two parts – one part is domestic, and the other ascetic; some do not move out from the corner of their house at all, and some are totally homeless. I have both these parts of India within me. The nook at home pulls, and the outside world also beckons me. I wish to travel a lot and see everything and again my perturbed and tired mind gets lured by a nest. The feelings are like that of a bird. It has a small nest to live in and the huge open sky to fly. I love the nook only to pacify my mind. Within my mind I feel a desire to work untiringly and I am perturbed when it gets deterred at every step in such a way when I am among people — it keeps on constantly hurting me from within a cage. It can think freely in solitude, it can look all around, and express all its feelings in a satisfactory manner. It wants eternal rest day and night. Just as the creator is alone within his own creation, it also wants to live alone in its world of emotions.


[1] The people in this trip included Rabindranath, Mrinalini Devi, Madhurilata, Soudamini Devi, Swarnakumari Devi, Hironmoyee Devi, Sarala Devi and a maidservant. This was his second trip to Darjeeling.  He had started for Darjeeling for the first time on 19th October 1882. The details of this travel are found in Swarnakumari Devi’s article “Darjeeling Patra” published in Bharati and Balak.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

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

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