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     Snake Maiden or Nagmati by Prafulla Roy: Translated by Aruna Chakravarti

Prafulla Roy is a Bengali author. He traveled all over the country to experience the struggles of the people. He lived for some time among the indigenous people of Nagaland,  the untouchables of Bihar and the rootless people of the mainland of the Andamans. He has written 150 books, received multiple awards like the Sahitya Akademi and the Bankim Puraskar. About 45 telefilms, tele-series, and feature-films were made based on his novels. He lives in Kolkata. Nagmati was first published in 1956.

Snake Maiden                                                                              

Sonai Bibi’r Bil.  A low-lying fen in a remote corner of the earth far away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life…   

In the bitter cold of winter, when winds from the north blow hard and dry, Sonai Bibi’r Bil shrivels into herself like the rotting carcass of an old woman. All that is visible are her skeletal remains. Patches of water, green with scum, shimmer between masses of earth risen from her breast. And around them, as far as the eye can see, are unending sweeps of wild reeds, bulrushes and tussock grass. There are deep shadows here. Shadows and silence. Water and verdure are locked together in restful sleep.

When the first monsoon showers fall upon the earth Sonai Bibi’r Bil awakes. Shaking off her torpor, she raises her face to the sky and drinks great gulps of pelting rain. Her contours change. She stretches and expands. Her newly awakened limbs unfurl and spread in all directions. To the north, south, east and west… all the way to the horizon. The river Meghna helps her. Swelling and frothing in a demonic dance she bursts her banks and makes her way into the fen. Wrapping her in a fierce embrace sheturns her into a great sheet of waving water. Sensuous, joyous, seductive…

Then, after autumn has waned and the fierce frosty winds of hemanta[1] have raped and battered her voluptuous form, Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sad, withered replica of her once glorious self. The sap of youth drains away from her limbs and, who knows from what dark depths, stretches of virgin soil appear.

Winter follows. And now flocks of birds…katora, imli, jalpipi, and innumerable others come flying in from distant shores. They have many names. Many colours. Descending on her in sweeps, they turn Sonai Bibi’r Bil into a rainbow. With them come other migratory creatures. Bedeys, nomadic snake charmers, anchor their boats in her shallow waters. The sound of rushing wings and soft footfalls enters her ears. Delicious tremors rise from deep within and her land and water sway and shiver with ecstasy.

That they are here this winter, too, is evident from the many tents that have blossomed like land lotuses all over Sonai Bibi’r Bil. Other flowers can be seen. Along with the krishnakali[2] that dapples the breast of the fen with clutches of purple stars are snake maidens, winsome creatures in motley-coloured skirts rippling seductively from narrow waists to slim ankles. Bunches of golden flowers wave coyly from tangled locks. Their eyes are long and languorous. But, at times, a sudden flame can spurt into a dark iris and flicker and dance like the head of a deadly cobra. They wear ornaments made from the bones of snakes and birds. Imli wing necklaces and kuchila spine bracelets adorn long necks and arms. Danglers, fashioned from the delicate neck bones of a shankha nag, swing from tiny earlobes.

The short days of winter provide a welcome rest for the nomads… a brief diversion in their wandering lives. A time to suspend floating over turbulent waters and experience the joy of putting down roots. To revel in the comfort and security enjoyed by the householder. Nagmati bedeyni’s snake maidens sit all day long, basking in warm sunshine, weaving trays and baskets. The men squatting beside them peel reeds and twine feathery tussock into ropes. They are young men with stone-hard limbs and staring eyes…crimson from mahua wine. Their rough tawny manes are tied with lengths of entrails pulled out of chakrachoor snakes and dried to ribbons. Dark lips are parted in foolish smiles. But not all are employed thus. Some pursue more arduous tasks. Stealing sheaves of mustard, sesame and kaoon paddy from the waving fields on three sides of the fen, is one of them. Stalking wild geese and bringing them down with skilled throws of sharp-edged harpoons is another.

They come every winter. Winter stretches into Springon the wings of mellow breezes. Summer follows. The parched earth bakes and cracks, raising swirls of scorching dust. Still, the call to resume their roving lives doesn’t reach their ears. But when the first monsoon clouds rise from the horizon and cool winds laden with moisture come wafting into Sonai Bibi’r Bil, they shake off their languor and ready themselves for their tryst with the waiting waters. Sails are unfurled and oars mended. Towing ropes stretch and tighten in muscled palms. Muttering fervent prayers to Allah and Bish hari[3], their preferred name for the snake goddess Manasa, they set sail once more. Frail barks ride high on the waves as the ferocious Meghna comes swaying and swerving into Sonai Bibi’r Bil.

Reeds, bulrush, tussock and broom disappear. Sonai Bibi’r Bil turns into a sea of black water. Boats fly over foam tipped waves and down again. From the Meghna to the Padma. From the Padma to the Kalabadar mooring, from time to time, on alien banks. Then sky and water resonate with the echoes of sharp, sweet voices. “Bish pathor Ma! Khanti bish pathor! Bish hari’r doai shob bish uithya aashbo. Dudhraj, Chandrachud, Aalad, Gokkhur… Jodhi booti niba Ma? Jodhi booti?”

 (Poison stones Mother! Genuine poison stones! Blessed by Bish hari herself. Guaranteed to draw out every trace of poison… be it that of adder, krait, python or cobra. Herbs and roots, Mother? Herbs and roots?)

Snake maidens hawking their wares. Calling out to the village women. To wives and mothers…

Hopes and dreams rise in heaving breasts. The nesting instinct pulls at their heartstrings.  A slumberous numbness creeps into their veins and blood flows slow and heavy as though scented with opium flowers. The mind begins to send out roots and tendrils. But as soon the sky darkens with cloud and rain comes pelting down, they remember their ancestral promise to the waters of the earth and resume their drifting, roving lives.

.

This winter morning, as on all others, they sit with their backs turned to the sweet warm sun weaving dried grass and reeds into bins and baskets to be sold by the men at the weekly market in Kamalaganj. Their hands work swiftly for soon it will be time for them to walk down the village paths with their pouches of poison stones and baskets of snakes. To persuade wives and mothers to buy their herbs and roots, potions, charms and amulets. To entertain the villagers by making the deadliest snakes dance to their pipes. To return with fistfuls of silver joy…

Sonai Bibi’r Bil resonates with quick voices and shrill laughter. Mohabbat looks up from his task of peeling a bamboo cane and turns to one of the younger girls. “Ki lo Palanki?[4]” he asks with a mocking smile, “Where’s Shankhini this morning? She’s not to be seen anywhere. Has her position of Amma turned her into a star in the sky?”

Shankhini is the mistress of this band of bedeys. The Queen Bee. Comments like these are tantamount to treason. Besides no one has the right to take her name. She must be addressed as Amma. She can, if she wishes, split any heart in two with a deadly thrust of her javelin. But Mohabbat is foolish and reckless. Quite often he forgets his place.

Palanka darts a timid glance at Mohabbat. There is something about her that sets her apart from the other girls. She is like a wildflower, small and humble, that knows it was born in the dust. Her eyes are misty with a faraway look in them. A scent, faint and sweet as a musk deer’s, rises from her limbs. It spreads around and beyond her like a cloud, soothing and calming all those who come near her. Eyes grow soft when they meet hers and the soul is filled with tranquility.

She has no answer to Mohabbat’s question. Her heart beats fast and she lowers her eyes. Another woman is quick to respond. A cackle of fierce laughter bursts from Atarjaan’s lips … so loud and bitter that the heart of the fen trembles with fear. Atarjaan’s body is tight and well formed, but her face is black and crumpled as though ravaged by a phantom fire. “O re Mohabattya! Spawn of a slave!” she shrieks, her ugly mouth twisted in contempt, “The nesting fever has gripped our Shankhini. Don’t you know? She has worn a red sari and smeared sindoor[5] on her brow and parting. She’s standing before a mirror admiring herself. Go take a look. Hee Hee Hee!” Turning to the girl she screeches with laughter, “Ki lo Palanki You’re pining for a home and husband too…aren’t you? Go … go. Turn yourself into a wife and mother you slut. Hee Hee Hee!”

Five boats containing all the necessities of a nomadic life stand anchored in the shallow waters. An angry  growl is heard from one of them. “Ke? Ke?[6]” Shankhini’s voice hits the ears like a clap of thunder. “Ei Mohabbatya, you dirty jinn! Ei Aatar… you whore! I’m coming…Just wait and see what I do. I’ll slaughter you two instead of a hen and drink your blood.”

 Shankhini storms in, her young body swift as a flash of lightning. The sindoor in the parting of her hair blazes like a streaking flame. Deep red silk flows around her limbs like a river of blood. Her magnificent breasts, heaving with passion, move up and down with every fierce breath. Her long eyes glitter like the spitting tongue of a deadly krait.

The fire goes out of Mohabbat. Aatarjaan trembles and turns pale. The rest of the band are struck dumb with terror. Only Palanka gazes at Shankhini with wistful eyes. An intense yearning rises from deep within her at the sight of Nagmati bedeyni’s fiery daughter in a sari and sindoor. The humble flower’s eyes fill with tears. Her heart is consumed with longing.

A scent, fresh and earthy, comes wafting into her soul as though from a vast distance. It brings promise of love and protection. Of peace and stability. Somewhere, in some alien village, someone is waiting for her. A man with a broad chest on which she rests her head in sweet surrender.A child is suckling at her breast. She feels his soft damp mouth tugging at her nipples; sending tremors of joy running through her frame. She sees a tiny hut with a vine growing over the thatch. Bunches of beans speckled with gold dust dance in the breeze. A yard, neatly swabbed with cow dung is surrounded by mango and lemon trees. Doves fly in and out of their shadows and sing from their branches on warm somnolent afternoons.

Walking through the villages bordering the Meghna, Padma and Ilsha[7], Palanka has seen these scenes. She has heard the legend, integral to their worship of Manasa, of how Behula had sailed over these waters with her dead husband Lakhai till she reached the abode of the Gods and persuaded them to bring him back to life. This great stretch of land and water is rendered holy, to this day, by Behula’s chastity.

Palanka’s dream of a peaceful nest in some obscure corner of the earth; of lifelong faith and trust in a man she calls husband, has made her drifting blood yearn to drop anchor. Perhaps the same dream has begun to haunt Shankhini, she muses wistfully. To beckon to her with shadowy fingers. Even so, Palanka knows there is no escape for her. She’s a slave to Shankhini’s will. Dozens of eyes guard her all the time.

Shankhini glared at the assembled men and women. Her brows were knitted together like a pair of scorpions. Her slender limbs, swathed in crimson, raged like a forest fire. Tongues of flame darted from her eyes. She looked like a wild bird ready to swoop on her detractors and tear their flesh into shreds with her talons. But before she could do anything, a whirlwind came spinning through the bushes. “Amma! Amma!” A fearful voice pierced her ears as Sikander came charging in, his flying feet trampling reeds and grass. “Disaster has befallen us,” he cried, “Another band is in the fen. They’ve anchored their boats on the opposite side. I saw them myself…”

The irises of Shankhini’s eyes changed colour. They took on the tawny hue of a tigress lurking behind a clump of keya with spiky leaves and towers of flowers exuding a pungent sweetness.

 “Zulfikar!” she hollered, her voice echoing like a roll of thunder.

Zulfikar, Chief of Shankhini’s warrior band, was lounging some distance away in the shade of some screwpine bushes. He had been drinking a local brew since morning and by now his stomach had swelled up like a barrel. He heard his mistress call out his name. There was something so immediate, so urgent, in her voice that his dim drowsy senses were shocked into a sudden awakening. The bottle got knocked out of his hand and its contents spilled out in spurts on the grass.

He rose to his feet. He was a huge hulk of a man. His face, which seemed cut out of a giant slab of coal, was devoid of brows and lashes, and his jawbones jutted out like mountain crags. Hibiscus red eyes glared malignantly. Grrrrrrr… a roar, like that of a lion rudely aroused from sleep, gathered in his throat and burst from his mouth.It was a war cry. The peace and serenity of the winter morning were shattered. Hands stopped their work and senses tensed at the sound.

 In this land of swamp and river there was an unwritten law. No one knew who had thought of it first, or when, but it was part of a code of conduct followed by all bedeys irrespective of where they came from. No band ventured into a space already occupied by another.

Zulfikar had arrived on the scene by now. Mohabbat, Sikandar and the other men stood up. The women had risen too. The air was filled with hissing sounds as the angry breath left their nostrils. Snake maidens had turned into snakes…

 The golden glory of the winter morning dimmed as though dark clouds had swooped on it with clashing wings. Everyone rushed to the boat where the band’s weapons were stored. Shankhini forgot her threat of tearing Mohabbat and Aatarjaan, limb from limb, and drinking their blood. Only Palanka sat immobile beside a heap of broom and dried grass. Conflict of any kind terrified her. Her heart quivered like that of a new-born egret. She shut her eyes in fear.

A sudden commotion startled Palanka. She opened her eyes to see Zulfikar marching towards the other side of the fen, a mighty lance held aloft in his hand. Shankhini was behind him followed by Aatarjaan, Dohor Bibi, Moina and the others. From Sikandar and Mohabbat to the youngest boatman…she could see the entire band. A contingent of men and women armed with weapons. Spears, axes and javelins glittered in the sun. Lengths of bamboo swung from powerful hands. The smell of death was in the air. Palanka held her breath till Zulfikar and his army disappeared behind a screen of trees.

The other group of bedeys had arrived only a couple of days ago. They hadn’t found time yet to put up their tents and settle down. As they stood surrounded by piles of bamboo and canvas, baskets of snakes and bundles of cooking vessels, a menacing roar reached their ears. “Ei bandi’r poot. Abba Amma’r shaadi dekhtey aichhos? Kalija phainrha dimu. (Sons of slaves! Have you come here to celebrate the nuptials of your parents? I’ll tear your hearts into shreds.)”

They looked up startled. A man of colossal dimensions stood before them. His mighty head nearly touched the sky. He was whirling a lance whose glittering edge seemed to be slavering at the mouth for blood. Some of the men ran towards the boats anchored haphazardly in the shallow waters. Others stared at the black mountain with bewildered eyes.

Now another voice rang in the air. ‘Sons of whores!’ Shankhini let out a yell that matched Zulfikar’s in power. ‘This is our fen. We come here every year. If you don’t disappear this minute, we’ll slit your bellies and pull the guts out.’

A deafening silence followed. But it didn’t last long. Shankhini’s adversaries had armed themselves in a twinkling and now they marched towards her with fire in their eyes and spikes and iron bars in their hands. The two armies advanced. Both were ready for battle.

A deadly combat could have followed. Heads, sliced from bodies, could have rolled on the forest floor. The waters of the fen could have turned crimson with blood. Hearts, lungs and livers could have been cut to pieces.

 But the clash was averted by a voice from one of the boats, deep as thunder but astonishingly musical. Both groups froze in their tracks as a man came walking towards them, arms raised in command. He was six and a half feet tall with limbs that shone like burnished gold. Raven black hair fell to his shoulders in sleek shining waves and the vast expanse of his chest looked as though carved out of granite. A rare courage and strength radiated from every pore of his body. Yet his eyes had a faraway look in them. A look that was not of this world.

“Why take up arms?” the deep voice boomed. “Can’t we settle the matter amicably?”

Before anyone could respond, what seemed like a flaming meteor whizzed past Zulfikar and stopped before the dazzling presence. It was Shankhini. Ten years had passed. Ten summers and winters had gone by but she had no difficulty in recognising him.

“Raja saheb?” she murmured. There was a catch in her voice.

“Who are you?” A pair of arched eyebrows came together.

“I’m Shankhini. Don’t you recognise me?”

“You’re Shankhini! Is this your band?”

“Yes,” Shankhini’s eyes passed slowly over the stranger’s frame… as though seeking something.

“Isn’t it extraordinary?” A radiant smile lit up his countenance, “that we stand here today as enemies with sticks and lances in our hands?” Then, addressing both groups, he said in a commanding voice, “Drop your weapons. There’s no need to fight…”

Shankhini stood staring at him. Her mind had left the present and reverted to the past. When she and the man before her were in the first flush of youth. When he could leap into the swirling waters of the Meghna, split a crocodile’s heart in two with his lance, and swim to the bank carrying the creature on his back. When he didn’t fear to venture into the densest forests to hunt the spotted leopard and bring the carcass back slung from a pole. When the hint of a conflict made his blood simmer with pleasurable anticipation and a roar, like a storm cloud’s, gather in his throat. When every muscle of his beautiful body swayed and rippled like the hood of a deadly cobra. Those days were history now. Like fairytales heard long ago. Today, he cringed from a simple fight between two bands. Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter gazed at him with wonder in her eyes.

 How he has changed… she thought…What divine snake charmer’s flute has subdued the snakes writhing and hissing in his blood?

They had both been members of Asmani’s bedeyni’s band… so long ago…it seemed as though aeons had passed. A time when Raja saheb’s hard, gold, tiger-eyes had softened, as though misted with a film of wine, whenever they met her long dark ones. And Shankhini’s heart had hummed, like a young bee’s hovering over a flower, whenever he came into her presence…

And then… disaster struck. A terrible storm in Daulatpur, where they were spending the winter, shattered their fleet of boats. Torn to pieces, they sank to the floor of the raging Padma. Swept away by the current, the members of the band got separated and were carried to who knows what unknown destinations…

Shankhini had tried to forget this painful period of her life and succeeded. But she couldn’t forget Raja saheb.

“Look Shankhini,” Raja saheb said peaceably. ‘You were here first. The right is on your side. We’ll go away. First thing tomorrow we’ll set sail towards Char Sohagi and pitch our tents there. Happy?’

“No. Never!” A sharp exclamation, more like a cry of pain, escaped from Shankhini’s throat. “Don’t think of leaving. I’m seeing you after so long. S-o-o long. Can I let you go?”

“But two rival bands can’t stay in the same place. I don’t like squabbling and fighting. Those days are over…”

“I’m the leader of my band.” Shankhini’s eyes blazed with triumph, “What I say counts. No one from my side will challenge your presence in Sonai Bibi’r Bil.”

Raja saheb shook his head and remained silent.

“Let me ask you a question. What has changed you so? Since when has the thought of conflict become so fearful? Only a few years have gone by since we…”

“I’m weary Shankhini.” A melancholy smile appeared on Raja saheb’s lips, “I’m weary of this roving life. Here today, there tomorrow. Endlessly warring and killing one another! And for what? A little space in which, by the rules of our nomadic forefathers, we are forbidden to put down roots. Ordinary folk hate us. Snake charming and selling poison stones don’t provide a living any longer. If we steal, we end up in prison. Of what use is this existence? Far better to farm a bit of land somewhere, build a hut and live in peace.”

Shankhini was startled. So were all the others. What was he saying? How could he even dream of disregarding the edict, laid down by Bish hari herself, and followed by the nomadic race from time immemorial? What terrible blasphemy! Even hearing such talk was sin! The snake goddess would be outraged!

“Don’t utter such words,” Shankhini shuddered, “Don’t utter them ever again! Beware of Bish hari’s wrath. She’ll send her deadly, conch-skinned snakes to destroy you. Jai[8] Ma Bish hari!”

Jai Ma Bish hari! Loud voices echoed hers till sky, water and land resounded with the sound.

 Raja saheb’s wan smile faded. “I understand your feelings Shankhini,” he said quietly, “but I can’t lie to myself any longer. This rootless drifting is not for me.”

“What has come over you?’ Shankhini broke the uneasy silence that had descended. ‘Are you ill? Or in some trouble? Come, open your heart to me.”

“I’m not the Raja saheb you knew. I’m a different man.”

Shankhini burst out laughing, “Don’t worry. I have a cure for your ills.”

“What cure?”

“I’ve learned the black art from a tantric sannyasi.” Peal after peal of merry laughter rang like bells from Shankhini’s lips as she continued, “I can change you to what you were with a handful of magic dust. Come to my boat tonight. We’ll dine together. And we’ll talk. I have so much to say to you… my heart brims over with ten years of unspoken words.”

Thoughts of Raja saheb kept Shankhini occupied for the rest of the day. What a fine figure of a man he had been in the past! His heart, mind and body intrepid and unflinching as though made of steel.  The world had been his for the taking. She remembered the time he had murdered twelve men, buried their corpses on a bank of the Kaldighi river, and returned with one hundred rupees tucked in his waistband and a smile on his lips. That blood had cooled. The same heart yearned to put down roots. For a quiet peaceful life. Alas! Shankhini knew no charms that could change him back to the man she had known and loved.

It wasn’t as though she, herself, was not lured by the prospect of putting down roots. As though she wasn’t consumed with envy at the sight of a woman flaunting the badge of wifehood. Didn’t she drape a sari around her form, in secret, and fill her parting with sindoor? But she couldn’t give up the power and privilege of being the queen of a band. She wanted Raja saheb as her husband but was not prepared to pay the price he wanted. She had to do something to bring the simmer back into his blood. To revive the old ruthlessness and lust for power. But she didn’t know how…

Raja saheb is coming. Raja saheb is coming. A thousand bees hummed in Shankhini’s heart. Looking out of the window of her hajarmoni boat she felt her senses sway in harmony with the lapping water. The sun was about to set. A cloud of red gold dust was clinging to reeds and bamboo clumps, tussock and broom. Suddenly she felt a wave of love for everything around her. For the changing hues of the sky. For the emerald-tailed kingfisher sitting on the arjun tree. For her own sensuous body. Music welled up in her throat and she sang…

Shaap er bishe jemun temun; prem er bishe du gun dhai

Gourango bhujango hoye dangshiyachhe amaar gaye

Bish er jwala jemun jwala; prem er jwalai aagun dhai…

(Snake poison is but little; love’s poison is twice cursed

The fair one, turned serpent, has lashed my limbs and heart.

Snake poison may sting; love’s poison is a flame)

Shankhini rose. Scrubbing her face with fuller’s earth she washed it clean. She smoothed her cloud of unruly hair with fragrant oil and stuck a green beetle’s wing between her brows. ‘Palanki!’ she called, her voice ringing with delight, “O re O Palanki! Come here. Come quick you foolish girl. Braid my hair and put it up in a khonpa[9].

Hurrying to Shankhini’s boat, Palanka combed out the long, tangled hair with a wooden comb then, braiding it in seven strands, twisted it in an elegant coiffure. She watched wide eyed as the older girl lined her eyes with surma, decorated her forehead with sandal paste and tucked a cluster of scarlet mandar behind one ear. Clothes and ornaments came next. Securing her heavy breasts with a green and gold kanchuli, she hung a long skirt of saffron silk from her slim waist.

Shankhini had spent all afternoon weaving a chain of diamond teeth plucked from the jaws of a shankhamoni snake. This she wore around her neck. A topaz flower glimmered from one nostril and bunches of blood-red stones hung from her earlobes. Her wrists were heavy with mirror-shard bangles and a band of kunchila bones rippled over her rounded hips. On her feet, brass anklets jingled and jangled. Her shapely body dazzled and glittered, with every movement, like shafts of lightning.

Palanka was gazing at Shankhini with awe in her eyes. The snake maiden had turned into a being from another world. She was as beautiful as the apsara Tillottama[10].

Ki lo!” Shankhini smiled. Palanka’s unconcealed admiration pleased her, ‘Do you like the way I look?’

Hunh.” Palanka answered in a dazed voice.

“Oh! my little bird…you like me…do you want to marry me?” Bursting into a peal of brazen laughter, she added, “The trouble is you can’t marry me even if you wish. I’m a woman.”

Palanka hung her head and was silent.

“You want to turn yourself into a wife…don’t you, littlebird? To build a nest of your own?”

Palanka raised her eyes and shot a timid glance at her mistress.  A faint sound, which might have been an affirmative, escaped her lips.

At any other time, Shankhini would have snarled with fury at this admission. She would have threatened the girl with severe punishment. Even death. But this green and gold evening was magical. It was meant for joy and laughter. She blew an indulgent kiss at Palanka.

“Listen Palanki,” Shakhini broke the silence that had fallen between them, “I know you dress like a bride in secret. You think no one is looking. But I’ve seen you. You look so pretty that sometimes I wish I could marry you. But beware. My lover is coming tonight. Don’t dare cast your eyes on him. If I catch you even…”

Shankhini stopped short. As suddenly as if she felt the forked tongue of a takshaka[11] lash her mouth. She was alarmed. Why had she uttered those words? Did she feel threatened by the lovely young girl? Her face hardened. Her indulgent tone became severe. “Go,” she commanded, “Get out of this boat.”

Shocked at Shankhini’s change of mood, Palanka hastened to obey.

The glimmering twilight faded. Dusk started to fall. Silhouetted against a sapphire and amethyst sky, a stream of ocean birds flew slowly towards the horizon. Shankhini stood by the window of her hajarmoni boat[12],waiting for her lover, as the shadows of night closed around Sonai Bibi’r Bil and the sound of rushing wings filled her air…

Mohabbat and the others had lit a fire on the bank into whose leaping flames they were throwing masses of waterbirds they had brought down with their harpoons earlier in the evening. Jalpipi, bakhari, dahuk and balihans — the flesh of these birds was plump and juicy.

 Ha la la la! Ha la la la! Bedeys and bedeynis yelled in excitement. Hui dhinak dhin! Hui dhinak dhin![13]Some danced around the fire while others played drums and flutes. Zulfikar looked on with bloodshot eyes. In his arms, clutched with protective care, he held a dozen bottles of heady wine. Raja saheb was coming tonight and Shankhini was holding a feast in his honour. What could be a happier prospect? The drums beat harder and harder as the night advanced; the tunes from the flutes grew wilder. A drunken voice laden with nostalgia sang…Kemon koira thaki lo soi Shyam er bihaney[14]. An icy wind blew in gusts. But no one felt its bite.  Ha la la la! Ha la la la! The night sky rang with intoxicated voices.

The long wait was over at last. At the sound of Raja saheb’s footsteps, Shankhini moved from the window and glanced at herself in the mirror. A deep blush rose from her neck and stained her cheeks. Her glowing eyes grew misty. A tremendous happiness surged through her limbs like the waving waters of the fen. Stepping out of the boat, she walked towards her guest and took his large cool hands in her small, fevered ones. “Come in Raja saheb,” she whispered, “It’s terribly cold outside…”

 Hand in hand they walked into Shankhini’s hajarmoni boat. After the biting chill of the bank, it felt warm and welcoming. A double wicked lamp cast a soft orange glow on the two as they lay on a carpet, backs resting against silk cushions. Cuddling up to her lover, Shankhini whispered amorously. “I’ve been looking out for you since evening. You took so long in coming. S-o-o-o long.”

She waited for a reply then, receiving none, she added fretfully, “You don’t love me anymore. Some wicked woman has ensnared you. Changed you. But don’t forget that I’m Nagmati bedeyni’s daughter; well versed in black magic.I know how to dispel the witch’s charms and win you back. This night will be our night…”  

 At her words Raja saheb felt the old love of lust and power, bequeathed to him by generations of his nomadic ancestors, stir slowly in his blood. His eyes fell on the woman beside him. A snake maiden of incredible beauty! Sitting close…so close her scent filled his nostrils. The warmth of her limbs pervaded his. An unknown mystique clung to her like a gossamer web. She was saying something, but he couldn’t hear a word. The clash of cymbals and the beat of drums from his own heart filled his ears. He turned to her with infinite tenderness and drew her to his breast.

“Ten years have gone by,” Shankhini whispered ruefully. “Ten long years. If the storm hadn’t separated us; if we were still in Asmani bedeyni’s band, we could have been together for all time to come…”

 Raja saheb had just opened his mouth to reply when Palanka walked in. Behind her were Atarjaan, Gahar and Dohor bibi. They carried wine bottles in their hands and clay pots full of different kinds of meat. There was khashi korma in one; roasted jalpipi in another. Imli bird curry, fried dahuk wings, juicy chunks of tender waterfowl cooked with garlic and spices, kunchila snake kababs. So much variety! So many flavours! Dohor Bibi spread a piece of cloth on the carpet and arranged the dishes with loving care.

Raja saheb’s eyes wandered all over the deck. To the bunches of roots and herbs piled on one side and baskets, full of deadly snakes, on the other. It was a picture he had seen many times before; typical of the way bedeys lived. Suddenly, his roving eyes fell on Palanka who stood behind the other women. A sweet, pretty girl in a red striped sari and hijal flowers in her hair. There was something about her eyes that made him think of a humble cottage at dusk. His own grew misty with yearning. It was through this girl, he realised suddenly, that his dream could come true. In the quivering shadows of her gentle soul, he would find sanctuary… 

 Two women…Shankhini and Palanka. He looked from one to the other. Shankhini fired a man’s blood; intoxicated him. Set his nerves on edge like a bow, strung taut. In Palanka he found a cool shadowy bower in which to rest them. Raja saheb’s gaze grew soft; his heart melted with love. Shankhini was lightning. Palanka a humble flower.

 “Ei Palanki!” Shankhini’s voice, like the sudden growl of a wounded tigress, shattered the silence. “You whoring bitch! Get out of here. Get out this minute.”

 Palanka had been gazing dreamily, all this while, at the man before her. She had read the message in his eyes and surrendered heart, mind and soul to him. Shankhini’s harsh command broke into her reverie, and she hastened to obey. But she was stopped. Putting out his hand Raja saheb gripped hers “Why do you run away dearie?” he smiled at the girl, “You’ve brought so much delicious food and wine. Stay and share some with us.”

“Let her go.” Shankhini laughed uneasily, “She doesn’t drink wine. And she has given up eating meat. The pretentious harlot has turned herself into a Boshtumi[15]. Hee hee hee!”

“I too have given up wine …”

“What?” Shankhini couldn’t believe her ears. Were they playing tricks with her? She sat dumbstruck for a few minutes, then burst into a peal of hyena like laughter. “Then you and the skinny myna-bird will make a wonderful pair. Boshtom[16] and Boshtumi! Hee hee hee!”

 Raja saheb was startled. Shankhini’s laughter lashed at his eardrums like the deadly tongue of a hooded cobra, and he released Palanka’s hand. She hastened out of the boat with Dohorbibi, Gahar and Aatarjaan close behind.

Hours passed. The winter night grew colder and darker. The wind shrieked and howled like the agonized cries of a soul in torment. The fire outside had burned down and the men and women sitting around it huddled together for warmth. Their excitement had waned by now. Heads were lolling on breasts and the thunderous voices that had set the heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil quaking with trepidation, were mute.

Shankhini moved closer to her lover and wound her arms around his neck. Her voice was drowsy with mahua[17] fumes as she murmured dreamily, “I can’t live without you Raja saheb. Be mine… only mine.”

“Do you really mean that?”

“I do. Ask me to swear on Allah or Bish hari… whoever you consider holier…and I’ll obey.”

“If that’s the truth; the way you truly feel,” Raja saheb sat up in excitement, “let’s build a home together. You’ve seen how village folk live. A deep bond of loyalty and faith binds couples till death. The husband loves and protects his wife. She serves him, bears his children and raises them. Doesn’t such a life attract you?”

“It does. But I love my life as a bedeyni even more. The danger and excitement of sailing over tumultuous waters, making snakes sway in rhythm to the tunes of my flute, preparing potions and working magic with poison stones…these things send a thrill through my bones and make my blood dance in ecstasy. We have been nomads for generations. A love of roving is in our blood. Don’t even think of another way of life, Raja saheb.  If you deny your heritage, you will invoke Bish hari’s curse and all you hold dear will be destroyed. Be your old self again. Become the man you were when I saw you first.”

“I don’t believe in Bish hari.” Her companion said dismissively. “I have wanted to give up this wandering existence for many years. I haven’t been able to… so far. But I can’t wait any longer. I have to leave.”

Shankhini froze at these words. She lay in her lover’s embrace, limp and lifeless. She could scarcely breathe. She was a bedeyni; a devotee of Bish hari. Every muscle, tissue, cell and fiber of her being yearned for freedom. Freedom to sail her boat on uncharted waters. To weather storms and tempests. To feel the sun on her limbs and the wind on her face. Impossible for her to build a nest and stay confined within it. She couldn’t do it. No… not even for the man she loved.

Raja saheb stirred. “It’s time for me to go back,” he murmured, disengaging her arms gently, “Goodbye Shankhini.”

“But you haven’t eaten anything!”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You’re leaving!” A cry of pain escaped Shankhini’s lips. “One night! You refuse to be mine for even one night!” Tears clung to her eyelashes, like dewdrops on grass.

“You don’t need me.”

“I need you. More than anyone or anything else. But what do you want from me?”

“You must leave the band. The bedeyni must turn herself into a farmer’s wife.”

Shankhini was in a quandary. One half of her heart was drowned in love for Raja saheb. The tug of her roving blood and the rights and privileges she enjoyed as mistress of a band swamped the other. The two were mutually exclusive. She had to make a choice.

“Give me time to think,” she said, “You’ll come to my boat again, won’t you?”

“Of course, I will. I’ve discovered another love here.” A low, mysterious laugh escaped Raja saheb’s lips.

Shankhini shivered. An unknown fear took possession of her. She shut her eyes and tried to overcome it. There was something in Raja saheb’s voice. An insinuation. What was it? She mulled over his words for a long time but couldn’t fathom it.

She opened her eyes, after a while, to find him gone. She was alone. The boat was empty. As empty as her heart. She felt a bitter rush of bile in her throat. It corroded her mouth and set fire to her limbs. Suddenly a name rose to her lips.She spat into the food spread before her as she uttered it. Palanka. Every drop of her blood burned with hate. Her body swayed like a wounded snake with the pain of envy and thwarted love…

Raja saheb made his way carefully in and out of tussock clumps that stood as high as his chest. The merry chirping of crickets, alternating with the joyous croak of frogs from waterholes, came to his ears. Sonai Bibi’r Bil was wrapped in a shroud of dark mist. The only light came from clusters of glowworms glittering, like sparks of emerald fire, from trees and bushes. The air was so cold it cut into his skin like a knife. He had a long way to go. He had to cross several streams and acres of kasharh jungle before he reached his boat and found the comfort of a warm bed. He redoubled his pace.

Passing a piyal tree he stopped in his tracks. “Raja saheb,” a soft voice had called out from the dark.

 “Who is it?” He looked this way and that.

“I’m Palanka.” A slight figure slipped out of the shadows and stood before him. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”

The light was so faint that he felt rather than saw the eyes fixed on his face. They were glowing like lamps. A pungent wild-flower scent, rising from her limbs, suffused his being.

Raja saheb felt as though he was in a dream. “I knew I would find you again,” he murmured.

“I heard what you said to Shankhini.” Palanka moved closer, “I hid behind the boat and heard every word. I want a home too. A home and a husband. I’m tired of drifting from bank to bank. Will you take me away from here? We’ll live like peasant folk do. Build a little hut and …”

“You’ll come with me?” Raja saheb felt the blood leap joyfully in his veins. Before he realised what he was doing he put out his arms and drew Palanka to his breast. Hours passed before Raja saheb released her. “I must go now,” he said, “The night is almost over.”

“You’ll come again?” Palanka’s voice throbbed with longing, “When will l see you next?”

“Every day. I’ll come to your band, every day.”

“Un hunh. Not to the band. Shankhini will be there. Come here again tomorrow. At dusk. I’ll be waiting. If you fail me, I’ll kill myself. I swear by Bish hari… I will.”

Raja saheb gazed at her wild-flower face with love. The love, untouched by lust, he had kept hidden in his heart for the one who would be his soul mate. She’s a bedeyni, he thought, yet the blood runs pure and free in her veins. Untainted by the venom of her inheritance…  

“I’ll come,” he said, “if that’s what you wish. I’ll meet you here tomorrow.”

Raja saheb walked away. Palanka’s heart felt as light as a bird’s. Spreading her arms, like the wings of a dove, she flew through patches of light and shadow, over grass and water, towards the fleet of boats that belonged to Shankhini.

Next evening, in the green-gold dusk, Raja saheb met Palanka under the piyal tree. He came again the next day and the day after. Every evening. The scent of their love filled the air like fumes of heady wine.

“Come closer bedeyni.” Raja saheb held out his arms. “Come straight into my heart.”

“I am always in your heart Raja saheb. But don’t call me bedeyni. Call me wife.”Palanka whispered against his lips, “When will you make me yours?  I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. Like a love-sick bird I long for my mate.”

“A few more months. We’ll leave after the rains. I’ll marry you and take you away. Far away.”

“Where?”

“To Char Behula. Some farming folks are setting up a village there. We’ll join them…”

“What will you do with your band? Your men, your boats, your snakes and weapons…?”

“I’ll give them all to Shankhini. She loves me but she’s unwilling to leave her band. It is more important to her. What can I do? Besides,” a shadow fell on Raja saheb’s face, “I’m taking you away from her. I must pay the price…”

“It is true that she loves you. Every evening, before I come here, I see her all dressed up waiting for you. She has begun to suspect me. She has set up spies everywhere. I have managed to evade them so far but only Bish hari knows with what difficulty! I’m afraid Raja saheb. Mortally afraid. She’ll kill me if she catches us together. She’ll tear my limbs to shreds.”

“Why?”

“Why not? I have taken from her the man she loves. Can she forgive me?”

.

Another evening comes. Palanka stands under the lengthening shadows of the piyal tree locked in Raja saheb’s arms. “I can’t bear being parted from you any longer,” she murmurs. Her tears fall on her lover’s chest like a monsoon shower.

“I can’t bear being parted from you.” Her own words accompanied by a screech of mocking laughter sizzles Palanka’s ears as the lithe form of Shankhini slips from behind the piyal tree, where she had been hiding, and stands before her. “Haramjadi! Whoring wench!” She mutters between gritted teeth. Her mouth is twisted and ugly. Palanka’s dream shatters into shards. Springing apart, the lovers stand like stone figures and stare at Shankhini with frozen eyes…

.

“Zulfikar!” Shankhini roared like a tigress whose cub has been snatched from her breast. The black mountain bulk of her right-hand man materialised from the shadows. His eyes sprouted columns of fire like twin peaks of a volcano. His giant fists clenched and unclenched with fury.

Bajaan go[18]!” Palanka screamed and buried her face deeper in Raja saheb’s breast. Her frail body trembled like a leaf in a storm.

Bajaan go!” Shankhini’s voice, hissing like an adder’s tongue, echoed through the trees. “No Bajaan can save you from my clutches Haramjadi[19]! I dress up every evening and wait for my lover and you, you loathsome spawn of a worm, dare to lure him away? You’ve struck a cruel blow at my heart. I’ll exact a terrible revenge. No, I shan’t kill you. It would be too easy a death. I’ll have vultures feed on your living limbs; gouge your eyes out with their beaks. Oof! So much venom lay concealed in your heart! I’ll drain every drop of it out of your blood. I’ll pull out your poisonous fangs from their roots. Take her away Zulfikar. Take her to my boat and keep her tied to the mast till I come.”

The suddenness with which all this happened had left Raja saheb in such a state of shock that he looked on, paralysed, as Zulfikar flew at the girl like an enormous bird of prey and snatched her away from his breast. Minutes passed. The feral glare in Shankhini’s eyes dimmed. Her heaving breast calmed and stilled. Her eyes turned dewy as she murmured in a honeyed voice, “Raja saheb.”

Raja saheb turned to her. She looked dazzlingly beautiful in saffron silk and snake-bone ornaments. The statue came slowly to life. “What is it?” he asked, his voice slurred as though still in a dream.

“Is Palanka more beautiful than me?”

“No.”

“Then why did you give her your heart? Be mine…only mine.” Shankhini came close, so close, he could feel her breath, hot and moist, against his lips.

“I will be yours. But you must be mine first. You must come with me to Char Behula.”

Shankhini’s limbs turned rigid. The colour left her face. “But what about our bands?” she asked in a frightened voice. “Our heritage, our livelihood, Bish hari… won’t her curse fall on us if we abandon them?”

“That’s the trouble,” Raja saheb’s voice was cold. Detached. “You are a bedeyni to the core. You cannot be a wife. You’ll never be able to leave your band…”

“Let me think about it. Give me a few days.”

“It’s no use. You are not made for a humble life.” Raja saheb took her soft hands and gripped them in his own hard ones, “Palanka is. Give her to me Shankhini,” he begged.

Suddenly, something like a bolt of lightning struck the snake maiden’s veins and, branching out in roots and shoots, struck her heart. She snatched her hands from Raja saheb’s grip and ran out of the forest with the speed of a fleeing doe. Raja saheb looked on. A little smile flickered at the corner of his mouth.

A week went by. The rising sun continued to spread a soft, red-gold radiance across the sky. Mellow afternoons followed. Then, with day’s end, a sad wan darkness fell like a mist over Sonai Bibi’r Bil.

 That night, after Raja saheb begged her to give Palanka to him, Shankhini had fled like a hunted creature and, flinging herself on the deck of her hajarmoni boat, had broken into great shuddering sobs. Her lungs felt ripped and lacerated. Her heart burned with humiliation. Tears rained from her eyes, till there were none left. She was a bedeyni. She had been taught to endure the vagaries of nature. The assaults of the elements. Pain, sickness and fear. But she couldn’t… she wouldn’t endure defeat. Palanka’s small wild-flower face came before her eyes. To think that she with her timid eyes and tiny bird body had stolen her lover! That she was her rival! The thought was too painful to be borne.

It was true that Raja saheb had started tiring of the life their kind had lived from time immemorial. He wanted to put down roots. But Shankhini could have stalled him. She knew she could. It was Palanka who had stirred his emotions and encouraged him to follow his heart. The wretched harlot had tempted him; had offered to be his wife. She had to be punished. Shankhini knew that the slightest gesture from her would send Zulfikar charging towards Palanka. He would twist her head from her body, as easily as plucking a flower from its stem, and bring it to her. He would scatter her torn limbs over Sonai Bibi’r Bil as lightly as dron petals. But Shankhini bided her time. For the present she kept the girl locked in a dim dark cabin in the boat that housed the panha ghar …a temple dedicated to Bish hari. Every band had a panha ghar in one of the boats. Let the wretched creature spend a few days starving and pining for her lover she thought. She would think long and hard before deciding what to do with her.

Vengeance! What she needed was to wreak a terrible vengeance on the vassal who had betrayed her queen’s deepest trust. The girl was unaware of what she had done. She had stretched her hand out towards the cruelest, fiercest of fires. Shankhini would make every inch of her flesh burn with mortification; every drop of her blood turn to liquid flame.

A few days later Shankhini stood on the deck of her hajarmoni boat and called out to Zulfikar. It was a cold night. Dark and bitter, with a whistling wind. Instructions were given in sharp hissing tones.

An hour later the two stood outside the room in which Palanka had been confined. In his right hand Zulfikar held a metal rod the tip of which glowed with scarlet fire. In his other was a basin filled with coarse boiled rice. Shankhini unlocked the door. A lamp burned feebly in one corner. Palanka’s naked body crouched close to it, arched like a bow; half dead with cold.

‘Ei!’ Shankhini turned the girl over with her foot, ‘Get up.’

Palanka rose to her feet. What followed was a volley of agonized screams as Zulfikar drew a line across her brow with the burning rod. Again and again, seven times, till it was furrowed with crimson streaks.”Ki re!” Peals of demonic laughter burst from Shankhini’s lips, “Will you try to snatch my lover from me again… spawn of a serpent? Will you? Answer me. Is your mouth still slavering for a home and a husband? With the marks I’ve drawn across your forehead you look like a Boshtumi beggar. Not even a whore.” Shankhini dropped down beside the weeping girl. “I’ll bring a mirror tomorrow,” she said laughing, “You can see your face for yourself. Do you think Raja saheb will bother to cast another glance at you? Tell me little bird. Are you still in love with him?”

“Of course, I am.” Palanka raised her head and looked at her tormenter. Her eyes were still streaming but, with a fearlessness she hadn’t even known she possessed, she added, “And I’ll continue to love him till I die. You’ve lost him because there is no love in your heart. No…not for anyone. All you can do is take out your frustrations on others.”

Arre arre! The worm turns into a snake!” Shankhini’s lips twisted with scorn. “You haven’t learned your lesson yet, I see. You need a little more teaching. Remember one thing. I’m the daughter of Nagmati bedeyni. I can root out every kind of venom. Be it snake or human.”

Leaving therice on the floor Zulfikar and Shankhini walked out of the room. Shankhini turned the key in the lock and looked at the sky, a dim sky streaked with mist. How Palanka had changed she thought with a pang in her heart. What was the source from which the broken bird was deriving her strength? Could it be Raja saheb’s promise of a nest? What if she, Shankhini, followed her example? If she allowed her lover to lead her by the hand to a tiny hut in an obscure village by the bank of some distant river? If she turned herself into a loving wife and caring mother?

.

Next morning three men arrived with a message from the leader of the Barui community of Bajitpur. A snake had bitten a worker in his betel grove and Shankhini’s expertise was required to save his life.

Shankhini made haste to obey the summons. One of the tenets of their faith was rushing in answer to such a call. It was Bish hari’s implicit command. With a bag full of poison stones slung from one shoulder, a basket of roots and herbs on her head and an earthen plate in her hands, Shankhini came to the panha ghar.Dohor bibi accompanied her. Before venturing on an important task, members of her band came here to pay obeisance to Bish hari and seek her blessings. A clay image of the goddess they had moulded themselves, was set atop a coil of seven snakes. The giant hood of a kaliya nag formed an umbrella above her head. An udai nag hung from her neck like a garland and a khoijati was her bracelet. A kanchuli formed from the intertwining bodies of a chakrachud and a shankha nag covered her voluptuous breasts. Takshak and laudaga wove themselves into a skirt for her lower limbs and shuto shankha, thread-snakes, wound themselves into rings for her fingers. A couple of deadly danrash were her anklets and swinging merrily from her ears were the fanned-out hoods of white sada chiti. Incense burning in a censer filled the room with fragrant smoke.

Shankhini prostrated herself and touched the ground with her forehead. Her hands were folded in a humble plea. Drawing out snake venom was arduous; even dangerous. She could do it, she had done it often, but she needed the goddess’s blessing. She shot a glance at the image. And what she saw shocked her. The tender love that irradiated Bish hari’s face had vanished. A stern, cruel gleam had replaced the benign light in her eyes. Even the snakes around her coiled and uncoiled their bodies in agitation, fanned their hoods and spat venom from angry tongues. The air was full of hissing sounds. The incense burning before the image gave out clouds of evil smelling smoke. Shankhini’s limbs grew numb. Her senses swam. The blood running in her veins stood still.

“Make haste Amma,” Dohor Bibi’s voice came to her ears, as though from a vast distance. “We are very late as it is. Who knows what we’ll find on reaching Bajitpur.”

Shankhini shut her eyes and ran out of the panha ghar. She dared not stay there any longer. Any moment now, she thought with dread in her heart, the snakes will come streaking out like meteors and crawl over me. They will lash my face with their hoods and dig their fangs into my limbs. Sweat ran down her body like rain. In her heart was the roll of distant drums. She realised the truth. Bish hari had turned away from her; had taken away the right to utter incantations in her name. Shankhini had lost her power. A scream, trapped in her chest, did not reach her lips…

Meanwhile, the men from Bajitpur were getting restless. “Make haste bedeyni,” they said, “We have a long way to go.”

Shankhini was in a quandary. She couldn’t refuse to go with them. It would mean disobeying Bish hari’s express command. She had to shed all her misgivings and rush to save a victim of snake bite. But could she do so without the goddess’s benediction? As though in a dream Shankhini followed the men, Dohor Bibi walking by her side, into the wilderness of thorn, tussock, screwpine and bulrush, till they reached the piyal tree. Here her footsteps stopped. Her eyes widened with horror. For what she beheld was another world. A world one entered only after death…

She had been trying all this while to compose herself. To clear her mind of doubts and fears. To concentrate on the incantations that would enable her to do her task. But the figure waiting under the piyal tree, as though on a lover’s tryst, drove everything out of her head. Raja saheb’s large dark eyes pierced into hers; held them with an unflinching gaze.

“Where is Palanka?” he asked her, “I haven’t seen her for a long time.”

The anger and frustration she had been trying to subdue all this while came gushing out of Shankhini like steam from a boiling kettle. Her fears vanished. Her listless spirit sprang to active life as though lit with a blazing torch. “Palanka is in her grave,” she muttered through clenched teeth, “Listen Raja saheb. You cannot stay here any longer. I’m on my way to Bajitpur. I wish to see the fen cleared of you and your band on my return.” She walked away without a backward glance. But, no matter how hard she tried to dispel it, a thought kept tearing at her heart. Torturing her. Did she really want Raja saheb to leave Sonai Bibi’r Bil? If so, why had she entreated him to stay that first day? Why? 

Shankhini returned two days later, her limbs burning with fever, her eyes the flaming red of hibiscus flowers. Her hair was a tangled nest and her clothes soiled and disheveled. Like one possessed she ran to the panha ghar and threw herself on the floor at Bish hari’s feet.

It was late afternoon. The sun’s rays, hard and glittering like mica, enveloped the earth in white-hot light. The members of Shankhini’s band stood waiting outside the panha ghar. A little distance away Dohor Bibi stood weeping and trembling. All eyes turned to her. “Ki lo Dohor!” Mohabbat muttered uneasily, “You went with her to Bajitpur. What happened there? I don’t understand…”

Dohor Bibi threw a fearful glance in the direction of the woman in the panha ghar. Shankhini lay curled, like a snail afraid to come out of its shell. Her body shuddered with sobs. Tears streamed out of her eyes in an unstoppable flood. “Bish hari’s curse has fallen on her,” Dohor Bibi answered, “She was unable to utter a single mantra. She was speechless, unmoving, like a block of stone. She just sat by the boy’s side and watched him die.”

The faces around her turned pale. Eyes popped out of their sockets. “Bish hari appeared to her in a dream,” Dohor continued, “I heard her pacing up and down the room, all night, weeping as if her heart would break. By morning her body was shaking with a raging fever. Her eyes were fire-red. She ran all the way here swaying and staggering like a drunken woman. I tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen to a word. What could I do? I ran after her as fast as I could.”

 Shankhini lay on the floor of the panha ghar all through the day, so still … life seemed to have left her limbs. Then, with the falling dusk, she rose to her feet. She had spent her tears. Her eyes burned like smouldering coals. But her mind was clear. She knew that she had committed a grievous sin and Bish hari had meted out a terrible punishment. She had taken away her powers. For the first time in her life Shankhini saw herself for what she truly was. A cruel, thwarted woman in the throes of an unrequited love. She realized that Raja saheb was a distant star she could never hope to reach. She had thought she could, through force of will. But it was only an illusion.

 Outside, in the darkening forest, a pair of jackals were yelping love calls to one another. Between them, they sent eddies of sound across stretches of reeds and humps of earth that rose from the shallow water. Dohor bibi, Moina and Atarjaan sat outside the panha ghar with Shankhini in their midst. She had ripped off her skirt and kanchuli. Theylay by her side in a discarded heap. Her jewels she had flung all over the floor. The snake maiden’s nude body, lay coiled like a golden snake, in hibernating slumber.

Presently she rose. Taking up an enormous censor of burned clay in both hands she commenced waving clouds of incense smoke before the image of Bish hari. Dancing and genuflecting she offered obeisance. She had sinned. She had allowed herself to stray from the path laid down by the goddess. She had put her love of a mortal above that of the divine. She had desired her lover with so much passion that she hadn’t stopped to reflect on the cost. Stripping oneself in body before the goddess, surrendering all thought and feeling at her feet, was the way bedeynis had atoned for their sins from time immemorial.

The dancing went on through the night. Smoke from the censer clouded the room. The air in the panha ghar turned opaque and acrid. Then, with the first pearling of the east, Shankhini fell to the floor in a dead faint. The censer crashed and broke into shards. Pieces of burning husk flew about the room and dropped on her motionless form, scorching the silk-smooth skin; blistering it.

 Her eyes opened to a flame of the forest dawn turning to liquid gold. She sat up. A deep peace, such as she had never known before, pervaded her being. She lifted her face to the sky and sang:

It is at Her bidding that the sun rises from the east.

Lakhai wakes from the dead, sits in his boat and smiles.

Ah me! So great is Bish hari’s mercy…

The sound of footsteps brought her out of her trance. Raja saheb stood before her. She felt the blood leap and whirl in her veins. A hundred joyous chords jangled in her ears. But only for a minute. Then her pulse fell into a gentle rhythm and her heart was still and tranquil.

“We would have left the fen just as you wished,” Raja saheb said, “Only…”

“I know what kept you,” Shankhini stopped him in mid-sentence. She felt a strange disconnect. As though she was speaking to a stranger. As though there had never been anything between them. “You’ve come to ask me for Palanki.”

“Yes,” Raja saheb exclaimed, his voice eager, “Let me have her. I’ll give you everything I possess in return. My band, my boats…”

“I don’t want anything. Except to be relieved of the burden I carry. The girl who never ceases to remind me of you. Take her away from here. Save me from Bish hari’s wrath. Only promise me one thing. That you two will never come into my presence again.”

“Do you really mean it? Do you? Swear on my head…” He moved towards her.

 “Don’t come near me,” she shrank involuntarily from his touch. “You smell different. Of home and hearth. Go to Palanki. Tell her you’ll marry her tomorrow. I’ll make all the arrangements.” Seeing his bewildered eyes fixed on hers, she added, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep my word. A bedeyni does not lie.”

Raja saheb stood transfixed for a few moments. Then turning, he fled as though on wings into the forest. Shankhini watched him go. Waves of pain lashed against her heart, but she subdued them. Never again would she allow herself to weaken; to go against the laws framed by her ancestors.

Raja saheb and Palanka stood on either side of a waterhole the bedeys had dug earlier that day. A muga curtain separated them. Surrounding them in a ring were men and women from both bands. The bride’s petite form was wrapped in deep red silk. Sandalwood etchings marked her brow. A garland of white lotus swung gently on her breast and snake teeth jewels glittered from her neck and arms. Raja saheb was equally resplendent in a kingfisher blue silk lungi with peacock feathers waving from his raven locks. The two faces glowed in the amber-gold light of the setting sun. From the deck of the panha ghar, Shankhini watched the scene.

Homra bedey from Bhataar Mari’r Bil had been invited to perform the ceremony. His hair was the colour of straw, his eyes fogged with liquor fumes, and his skin so dry, it seemed to flake with every movement. A bow was fitted at his waist and a quiver of plumed arrows hung from one shoulder. Puffing out his stomach with self-importance he said,”The moment of Shanazar (the auspicious exchange of glances) has arrived. Are the bride and bridegroom willing?” Raja saheb swayed his head solemnly and Palanka trembled in response. Homra bedey lifted the curtain and the lovers saw each other’s face reflected in the clear water.

“The nuptial ceremony is over,” Homra announced, “The couple are married.”

 A volley of delighted exclamations accompanied by bursts of song rose from the crowd. Sonai Bibi’r Bil shared their joy. Her trees swayed from side to side and her leaves and grass rippled with ecstasy.

Shankhini covered her ears and ran into the panha ghar. She sat, for hours afterwards, gazing at the goddess. Imploring her to take away her pain…

Outside, around a glowing fire, members of both bands were celebrating. Dozens of empty bottles rolled about on the bank. The sky reverberated with drumbeats and the music of flutes grew wilder with every passing hour. The heart of Sonai Bibi’r Bil rumbled with ecstasy akin to fear.

The bride and bridegroom sat in a vast grass boat, surrounded by bedeynis in motley-coloured skirts and kanchulis. The smiles on their faces glittered sharp as knives. Lightning darted from kohl lined eyes. Each was wrapped in a dream. A beautiful dream that had seemed unreal; unachievable so far but was no longer so.

Shankhini walked out of the panha ghar towards the group. Her eyes were fixed on Raja saheb as he sat among the women. Shafts of light flashed from his form as though from the petals of a diamond lotus. There was something strange about him. Unreal. As though he had appeared to her in a vision. Currents of illicit passion ran through her blood. All the vows she had made to the goddess receded. Bish hari’s warnings disappeared like lines drawn on water. ‘Listen Palanki,’ she whispered feverishly in the girl’s ears, ‘Come out for a moment. I have something to say to you.’

Shankhini’s breath, hot and stormy, blew in the girl’s face as they stood on the bank facing each other. Her eyes glittered like pieces of burning glass. Her limbs quivered as though snakes were wriggling in her blood stream.

“What is it Amma?” Palanka’s voice was a frightened whisper.

“I’ll give you my boats, my band, my jewels… everything I have. All I want in return is Raja saheb. Give him to me.”

“No. Never,” Palanka covered her ears and ran towards the boat. “I can’t. I can’t.”

Shankhini stared at the retreating form. “You think you’ll lie in my lover’s arms tonight, don’t you?” she muttered out of clenched teeth. “Be prepared for a shock.” She strode into the forest, determination stamped on every line of her face. She needed something. She had to find it before it was too late…

 An important ritual of a Hindu marriage is the exchange of floral garlands by the bride and bridegroom. It is called mala badal. Nomads from the river-swamps of Bengal follow a similar custom. The only difference is that what the couple hang on each other’s neck are living snakes.

The night turned dense and dark. And now the women who had been humming like bees around the bride and bridegroom sat up. “It’s late.”  Aatarjaan said yawning, “Time for the mala badal. Bring the snakes Dohor.”

“I’ve brought them,” Shankhini appeared suddenly in their midst, a basket balanced on each shoulder. “I’m the queen of this band. It is for me to do the honours.” The women noticed the secretive smile on her lips and the two tiny flames that flickered from the pupils of her eyes. They stared at one another in horror, but no one had the courage to utter a word.

“Come Raja saheb. Come, my little blackbird.” She held out a basket to each. “Take out the snakes and garland each other. The bridegroom, first, as is the custom.”

Palanka glanced fearfully at her mistress. Raja saheb appeared unfazed. His lips parted in a pleased smile as he took the basket from her. But the moment he pried open the lid the smile vanished. For, what shot up from the depths of the basket was an enormous kalchita, caught fresh from keya clumps growing in the heart of the fen. Swift as a blazing meteor, it stood on its tail hissing viciously, then, with a dart of its fanned hood, dug its fangs into Raja saheb’s brow. Two drops of blood, like glittering rubies, appeared on the golden skin as Raja saheb’s body swayed and fell to the floor. Palanka stood, as though paralyzed, watching her husband’s limbs turning blue from the deadly poison. Her throat was choked. She could neither speak nor weep. An eerie silence fell on the wedding party.

It was broken by a peal of cruel laughter that tinkled like breaking glass. “Ki lo Palanki!” Shankhini mocked the hapless girl. “You wanted to take my lover from me, didn’t you? Take him. He is all yours. Embrace him. Enjoy his kisses.”

 A moment later she threw herself at Raja saheb’s prostrate form with a blood curdling scream. “What have I done? Ma go! What have I done?” She leaned over him and shook him violently. But the man she was so desperately trying to bring back to lifelay motionless in her arms.She rose to her feet and looked this way and that, her eyes blank. The venom of kalchita isn’t so swift to act, she thought wonderingly, then why did Raja saheb succumb to it so quickly? Was the poison the reptile spewed in Raja saheb’s veins not its own? Was it mine? Was it I who gathered all the venom, that burned like fire in my heart and limbs, and thrust it under the kalchita’s tongue? Was it I who turned myself into the fanned hood of the creature I caught from the depths of the fen? Were those my deadly fangs that lashed my beloved’s brow?

 Wave after wave of guilt and bitter regret passed over her as her body became as cold and lifeless as the one which lay at her feet.


[1] Late autumn

[2] A tropical wild flower

[3] The god who conquers poisons

[4] What ho!

[5] Vermilion powder used by married Hindu women.

[6] “Who? Who?”

[7] Rivers in Bengal

[8] Praise be to

[9] Coiffure

[10] Heavenly nymph Tillotama

[11] The tree snake

[12] A boat weighing a thousand maunds: a maund is about 40kg

[13] Drum beats

[14] ‘How do I live this life my friend bereft of my Shyam.”—translated by Aruna Chakravarti

[15] Vaishnavi – followers of Vishnu who pursue vegetarianism and do not drink alcohol

[16] Vaishnav – masculine form of Vaishnavi

[17] An intoxicant

[18] Short form for Abbajaan or father

[19] Female bastard

(Translated and published with permission from the author)

Aruna Chakravarti 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 JorasankoThe Inheritors, Suralakshmi Villa have sold widely and received rave reviews. The Mendicant Prince is her sixteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.

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

Categories
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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Categories
Review

Tagore’s Play Performed 105 Times in WWII Concentration Camps

The Post Office by Tagore was written, translated and performed in multiple languages throughout Europe, eventually made into a Bengali film by Satyajit Ray (Postmaster, 1961). Rakhi Dalal revisits the original translation done by Devabrata Mukherjee in 1912.

Title: The Post Office

Author: Rabindranath Tagore

Translator: Devabrata Mukherjee

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Dakghar was written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. Devabrata Mukherjee, an Oxford University student at the time, translated the play into English in 1912. It was first published in London by Cuala Press in 1914 with an introduction by W.B.Yeats.  He, along with Lady Gregory, had also directed its first staging in English in 1913 by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The production then transferred to the Court Theatre, London, later the same year before the Bengali original was staged at Tagore’s Jorasanko theatre in Calcutta in 1917.

This play was translated into French by André Gide and was read on the radio the night before Paris fell to the Nazis. During World War II, there were 105 performances of The Post Office in concentration camps in Germany. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy was its staging by Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator who ran a Jewish orphanage in a ghetto in Warsaw. It was there that the play was organised for children just a few weeks before they, as well as Korczak, were deported to the concentration camps of Treblinka.

The story revolves around a young child Amal, an orphan adopted by his Uncle Madhav, who suffers from an ailment. On the instruction of the physician treating him, he is restricted within the house and is not allowed to go outside. In his quest to explore the world beyond the confines of his home, he sits near a window facing a road and talks to people passing-by. He becomes fascinated by the newly constructed post office near his window and imagines receiving letters from the king. The play presents a vivid picture of Amal, his longings, his ideas of life and the limitations that he faces.

Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, in the introduction to this edition, quotes the bard from the letter he wrote to Andrews in 1921 where he says, “Amal represents the man who has received the call of the open road – he seeks freedom from the comfortable enclosure of habits sanctioned by the prudent and from the walls of rigid opinion built for him by the respectable.”

The narrative traverses through the realms of a mind born free, eager to understand and appreciate the beauty of the natural world and, yet with time, constrained by the ideas fostered as acceptable by societal norms. Amal would rather venture outside and hop like a squirrel than sit at home, toiling at books which his Uncle thinks makes a man learn. He would rather cross mountains and go farther to seek work than be disheartened by their imposing structure. To his Uncle, the hills are barriers whereas to Amal, they are the hands of earth raised into the sky, beckoning people from far off.

The play also explores the nature of human dealings with outsiders, the usual conventions of a society while dealing with persons we may only come across as strangers and seem to emphasise upon the virtue of the sense of fraternity which the otherwise busier life tends to disregard. Amal meets a dairyman, a watchman, a flower gathering girl, a gaffer and a headman while sitting at his window and leaves an impression on each of them. He endears as a persona in harmony with nature as well as in his interactions with other people through his life so that the journey becomes more joyous for everyone. 

This play is written in two acts. In the first act, Amal wishes to discover the world outside his restrictions while sitting at his window. In the second act his condition worsens, and he is confined to his bed where he spends his time waiting for the postman to deliver a letter from King. And finally, he sinks into his last sleep.

In its October issue of 1914, The Times Literary Supplement wrote: “This is the first impression that the play gives, as a play should: an impression of actuality, complete within the limits of human life as seen and heard in a real world.” The second act may be seen as a wait for the messenger of God/death which delivers the final fate for Amal. W.B. Yeats says that the “play conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace” which is epitomised by Amal’s character.

This play translated by Mukherjee more than a hundred years ago continues to touch hearts to this date. Given our present context, impaired by the excessive capitalistic tendencies of the age, marred by wars, blurred by frenzies of hatred seeping into the fabric of societies, this comes as a gentle reminder of the necessity to live in peace, to approach nature and humans, even strangers, with compassion and to show more consideration in our dealings with them. It helps us understand that a mind that can live in harmony with nature and with humankind, can eventually embrace the final call in tranquillity.

The Post Office is a splendid play written with a poetic cadence which has elements of tragedy and yet manages to leave the reader with a sense of serenity that seems to be the writer’s message for a life to live in harmony with nature, with humankind and with oneself.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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Categories
Interview Review

Akbar: The Man Who was King

In Conversation with Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar: A Novel of History, published by Speaking Tiger Books

“I profess the religion of love, and whatever direction
Its steed may take, Love is my religion and my faith.”
— Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman

These lines were written by a mystic from Spain who influenced Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), a ruler who impacted the world with his broad outlook. Based on such ideology as preached by Ibn-i-Arabi more than three hundred years before him, with an urge to transcend differences and unite a world torn by strife, the great Mughal founded his own system of beliefs. He had few followers. But Akbar chose to be secular and not to impose his beliefs on courtiers, many of whom continued to follow the pre-existing religions. He tried to find tolerance in the hearts of practitioners of different faiths so that they would respect each other’s beliefs and live in harmony, allowing him to rule impartially.

Akbar is reported to have said: “We perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Jews and the Christians are all different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” Of such discussions and ideals was born Akbar’s new faith, Din-i-ilahi.

Was it exactly like this? Were these Akbar’s exact words?

They have been put in perspective by an author and a journalist who has written a novel based on his research on the grand Mughal, Shazi Zaman. He tells us in the interview why he opted to create a man out of Akbar rather than a historical emperor based only on facts. He has even mentioned that Akbar might have been dyslexic in the introduction. But Zaman’s admiration for the character he has recreated for us overflows and floods the reader with enthusiasm for this legendary Mughal. Akbar is depicted as a man who was far ahead of his times. He talked of syncretism and secularism in a world where even factions within the same religion were killing each other.

Akbar by Shazi Zaman in Hindi

The novel was first written and published in Hindi in 2017 by the bilingual Zaman, who started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since, worked with several media organisations. Zaman trans created his Hindi novel on Akbar to English to reach out to a broader audience. The whole experience has been a heady one for Zaman as the interview shows but for the reader what is it like? To start with one felt like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, except one was flitting around in the Indian subcontinent of the sixteenth century, with a few incursions to the Middle-East, but mostly within India. Transported to a different age, it takes a while to get one’s bearings. Once that is established, the novel is a compelling read.

The first part deals with Akbar’s developmental years and the second part with his spiritual outlook which helped him create an empire with many colours of people and religions. This is a novel that has been written differently from other historical novels, like Aruna Chakravarti’s  Jorasanko (2013), for the simple reason that it belongs to a different time and ethos which was farther from our own or Tagore’s times.  Akbar has a larger tapestry of people across a broader canvas than Jorasanko and it takes time to grasp the complexities of relationships and interactions. The other recent non-fiction which springs to the mind while reading Akbar is Avik Chanda’s Dara Shukoh: The Man Who would be King (2019) about the great grandson of the emperor who lived from 1615-1659. Again, this was a narrative closer to our times and was not a novel, but a creative non-fiction based strongly on history. While Dara’s character painted by Chanda showed weaknesses like an inability to respect the nobility or plan wars, Akbar painted by Zaman is kind but a man of action who ruled and intended to rule well. A leader — one has to remember — is not always the most popular man. Nor was Akbar with his eccentricities and erudition despite his inability to read — the book does tell us why he did not learn to read and how he educated himself. Most of the novel is a work of passion based on extensive research over two decades. As Henry Kissinger had said at a much later date, “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.” And the Akbar recreated by Zaman does just that.

Shazi Zaman

Zaman who had been with the ABP (Anand Bazar Patrika) News Network as their Group Editor, was on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak, Zee News, Star News and also with the BBC World Service, London. He has served as the Director, Video Services of the Press Trust of India. Akbar is his third novel. He has authored two novels in Hindi earlier. In Akbar: A Novel of History (2021), Zaman with his journalistic background and his love for literature inherited from his novelist father, Khwaja Badiuzzaman, has done the mammoth task of astutely bringing to life a character who might have been a perfect solution to the leadership crisis that many are facing in the current day.

If you are still wondering how close this novel comes to the Bollywood movie called Jodha Akbar (2008), the major things in common were the grand Mughal’s sense of justice and his ability to tame wild elephants! For a deeper understanding of both the emperor and the book, in this exclusive, Zaman tells us what went into the making of this novel and his journey.

Why did you choose to write of Akbar?

One has to have a bit of Akbar inside oneself to write on him—and to read about him as well. Writing on Akbar was not a conscious decision. By the time I realised that I was going to write a novel of history on Akbar, my sub-conscious was miles ahead. Of course his personality had attributes that appealed to me consciously and sub-consciously, especially his belief in primacy of ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind imitation of tradition) and his ability to question all orthodoxies.

Do you think Akbar is relevant in the current context?

I believe that his message is so ennobling that it transcends the boundaries of space and time. Across ages and across geographies, and within a geography by various groups and communities, his memory has been kept alive.

There was a book a few years ago called Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Would you say he would be more relevant for our times than Akbar or is Akbar a better choice?

It is difficult to give them a comparative score. Dara could have been a very worthy successor to Akbar. And his initiatives and writings are really inspiring. Robustness of ideas and your resolve to push them are tested when faced with exigencies of statecraft. Sadly, Dara did not get that chance and Akbar did. I find that Akbar could navigate but sometimes be audacious to the extent that his courtier poet-musician Tansen had to caution, ‘dheere dheere dheere man, dheere hi sab kachhu hoye (Slowly, slowly, slowly, all happens at a slow pace)’.How would Dara have navigated while on throne is an unanswered question in Indian history. Having said this, his defeat in the battle of succession should not undermine the originality of his initiatives.

Why did you choose to write this in a novel form? Dara Shukoh was a non-fiction. Have you introduced fiction into this?

History largely tells us what happened. Most often it does not tell us of the state of mind that brought people to the point where we find them take momentous decisions. I think momentous events or actions are rooted in mental journeys. And these journeys are seldom documented. When Akbar faced a mental crisis—‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ (a strange state) as a contemporary called it— in the summer of 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum, one wants to map what was happening in his mind and what had brought him to that point.

What lay behind the agitation of this man who was one of the mightiest emperors of the world, who had never lost a battle and was at the peak of his power ? Were there some forces testing his patience ?  Or as he stood at a place linked to the history of his forefathers, did he wonder about the trauma they had faced ? Or when he dealt a physical blow to a top cleric of yester years, there must have been a mental journey preceding this act. One can try and go into a person’s mind by closely studying his actions and utterances as also that of people and texts that influence him. We all know that people often mean much more than what they choose to say and sometimes, they say one thing and mean the other.

A close examination of this maze can give a glimpse of what was happening inside the great mind. As you try to create a period piece around his state of mind you mine information from all available sources—textual, aural, visual, architectural. For me fidelity to known facts is essential even in historical fiction. But there does come a point when the trail goes cold. Even the best documentary evidence might be insufficient in finding all the pieces of the period piece. For example, we do not know what Akbar was wearing the night he experienced the ‘haalat-i-ajeeb‘ but we have a Mughal miniature in all likelihood of the next morning when Akbar takes an unexpected decision about the great game. Now, it has come down to us that he appeared wearing last night’s clothes. So we know what he was probably wearing at the time he was in ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ of the previous day. Or we do not know the details of the carpet of the room where he lay dying. Nobody recorded that. Thankfully, some details have come down to us of carpets of those times. I have chosen to use them. After exhausting all means of finding the right pieces of this period piece, I have exercised my imagination. So this is fiction very much rooted in history. If I have been able to do what I had intended, you would feel you have read his mind as also feel that you are actually standing backstage in the Akbarian arena.

In the debate I often encounter about the element of history in historical fiction, perhaps we miss a basic point. Most fiction has history in it. Some have history that is known. Some have history that is personal or unique to the author. It is only when known history figures in your work that the issue of reality versus fiction surfaces. Otherwise, this mingling is not questioned.

What was the kind of research you did? How long did it take you to research and write this book? Tell us about its evolution.

The idea had been simmering under the surface since early years. As I have mentioned in my preface, a childhood incident imprinted Akbar on my mind. During my school days, a member of the education department of the government made a surprise inspection and gave a short introduction to Akbar’s life and his relevance to our times. It left a mark. I was especially blessed to have teachers who stoked my interest. I shall be eternally grateful to my teacher Muhammad Amin–Amin Saheb as he was called at St.Stephen’s College (Delhi University) — to have brought history to life in classroom and sessions outside classroom. Amin Saheb taught us Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ , which he said stands not for tolerance or co-existence because even these terms denote some separation. He said, Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ meant harmony. Amin Saheb taught us about Akbar’s desire to build bridges and his respect for diversity. Many like me graduated from the university but never left his class. I feel privileged that for quarter of a century after leaving College I continued to sit at his feet and learn about Akbar. A good teacher teaches and also shows the path to further learning.

My interest in Mughal miniatures took me to various museums within the country and abroad and of course to places like Fatehpur Sikri–a city that Akbar created with a purpose– very often.  Over decades I have gathered in my personal collection most of what has been written about Akbar and almost all books published on his art and architecture. I can say that all published Mughal miniatures reside in my study now.  So Akbar was a character I had been breathing much before it became the idea of a novel.  However, for a period spread over two decades I did consciously try to piece together a story.

 How did you create the character of Akbar ?

Akbar was not merely a historical figure. He was also acutely conscious that he was making history. And as a person conscious of this, he left ample footprints.

When you try to get into a person’s mind you piece together all he saw and read (or in case of Akbar, was read to) and experienced; all he interacted with; all he surrounded himself with; all he spoke and wanted to be spoken, read and spread; and all that he created. Foremost, of course, is  Akbarnama which was a monumental image  building exercise entrusted to a close and trusted courtier, Abul Fazl. Abul Fazl knew what went on in Akbar’s mind. This work is rich in details and is a comprehensive history of Akbar and his forefathers. Akbar also commissioned others who knew his forefathers to write histories that would help Abul Fazl in his work. Akbarnama is an official account. It was vetted by Akbar and tells us how Akbar wanted to be seen by his contemporaries and by future generations. It is extremely useful in giving us the image the emperor aimed to project.

Then there were many others who wrote their histories during his reign. But it is the history called Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh by a disgruntled cleric, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, which was written secretly that gives us an unofficial perspective.  I am grateful to the anonymous author of the historic Rajasthani work, Dalpat Vilas, for giving an informal and unique access into the emperor’s mind. Anybody studying Akbar feels especially grateful for the elaborate atelier —tasveer khana — as it was called — that the emperor established. Paintings made under his direction and patronage give us a vivid picture of what he thought was worth projecting. If you look closely, Mughal miniatures of his time often have a story and even a back story that gives you an indication of the emperor’s mind.

Akbar built at a huge scale and many of his buildings still stand tall and the stones speak even now of why he gave them the shape that he did. Then of course are works related to his ancestors like Baburnama which Akbar was fond of and later, of his son’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Akbar’s public contact and communication was prolific. We might well have seen him if we were living in that age. He travelled and interacted widely.

Almost every morning of his half a century long reign he appeared at the balcony so that the subjects could see him. Even those who did not see him felt his presence. Banarsidas, a trader of his time, who also wrote a chronicle, notes the widespread alarm amongst common people when the emperor fell ill. Letters  Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar wrote to Uzbek and Persian kings, the emperor of Spain and Portugal, to nobles and others have been handed down to us. His interactions with religious persons find mention in Vaishnavite, Jain and Mahdawi literature. The letters that Jesuits at his court were writing to their superiors are useful for their perspective as also for the ‘unofficial’ details. Then there were personalities Akbar drew to his court who were poets, warriors, administrators and diplomats who were themselves eminent enough to be written about, or  were writers themselves. I closely studied them.

Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan was like a son to Akbar and wrote poetry that is timeless in its appeal. Tansen, an eminent poet and musician at his court wrote ‘takhat baitho Mahabali ishvar hoye avtar (the mighty Emperor sits on the throne as incarnation of God)’, which is how Akbar would have wanted to be described.  Works written on Raja Mansingh like Mancharit and Mancharitra Raso helped me understand a mighty noble, who again was like a son—‘farzand’—to Akbar. Akbar himself is believed to have been a poet and pieces of poetry deemed to be his have come down to us. His memory resonates even now in folk songs.

In terms of material evidence of personal effects, we have an armour of Akbar which was helpful in ascertaining his approximate height. Of course, this was achieved with the help of experts.  Not all that one gathered necessarily went into this work but I tried to gather as much as I could so as to know how Akbar lived, ate, slept, worked, played, deliberated, relaxed, fought and thought and what was the world he inhabited, and also what was the kind of world he wanted to inhabit.

I must say that I tried to access original sources in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages with the help of experts, in addition to what I could read myself in English, Hindi and Urdu.

In your introduction you have said Akbar might have been dyslexic or bipolar. Why? What made you think he might have been dyslexic or bipolar? Could it not be that as a child he was not just into books and therefore did not learn to read?

There has been some academic work on some of the issues Akbar faced. I think his behaviour on the full moon night of the year 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum and on occasions before that definitely call for more investigations in that direction, though one is conscious that the emperor himself is not available for close examination. As for dyslexia specifically, one can say that the man loved books. He commissioned and collected them at a huge scale but he did not read them. They were read out to him. Historical sources indicate that he could not read or write. Though I have seen copies of his handwriting, they seem laboured. It would be a fair assumption that he was dyslexic. I think he was a great visual learner. That is why no Mughal emperor before or after had as big a tasveer khana as him.

You have repeated this phrase thrice in the book. ‘Hindus should eat beef, Muslims should eat pork, and if not this, fry a sheep in the pan. If it turns into pork, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it turns into beef, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it becomes pork, Muslims should have it. If it becomes beef, Hindus should have it. A divine miracle would thus happen.’ Why?

More than one account reveal puzzling behaviour and utterances of the emperor. This forced one person to say that this was ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’. Nobody at that time could fully understand his state or his words. I feel that it was reflective of his anguish over religious disputes and religious orthodoxy. An emperor who had never lost a contest was getting impatient. In moments of mental crisis it is possible for a person to  say things which have layers of meaning. One has to peep underneath the words to fathom the anguish of  a sensitive mind. This was one such utterance. 

What is the most endearing quality you found in Akbar? And why?

It is difficult to pinpoint one in a person who embodied numerous qualities. His belief in giving precedence to ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind adherence to tradition). His spirit of enquiry and his desire to provide space for differing thoughts. He believed—“It is my duty to have good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will, interference with them would be in itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”

There is an incident mentioned in the book. The Jesuits who came with the intention of converting Akbar finally despaired because he would give them ample space and ample attention but stop short of conversion. So one evening, they came and sought leave since their embassy had failed in its purpose. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar replied, “…how can you say that the time you have spent with us has been profitless, seeing that formerly the Muslims had so much credit in my land that if any had dared to say that Jesus Christ was the true God, he would straightway have been put to death; whereas you are now able to say this, and to preach the same in all security ?”

You wrote the novel first in Hindi and then trans created it to English. Why? What is the difference between the Hindi and the English versions?

The novel Akbar naturally came to my mind in Hindi, a language the emperor would have been comfortable with had he been alive. Having said this, I am grateful to my publishers, Rajkamal and Speaking Tiger, for initiating the idea of an English  version. And I did immediately see the need to take Akbar to a wider audience because the novel has an idiom and language rooted in Hindustan but Akbarian thought and vision have an appeal that is wider than the regions he ruled. So the challenge was to take the text, sub-text and the idiom to an English audience. The challenge was also to make Akbar’s 16th century intelligible to 21st century English-speaking world. I have tried my best with help of editors at Speaking Tiger to make it a work English speakers would be at home with. I am sure they would be able to savour the milieu, the plot and the sensibility of 16th century Hindustan in their preferred language.  A good translation should in fact be a trans creation and should read like it has been written in the same language. 

You have two novels in Hindi. Do you plan to translate those too to English? Why? Why not write directly in English?

I believe that no thought is completely translatable into words and no words are completely translatable into another set of words. Thus the word transcreation. The first two novels Premgali Ati Sankri (The Narrow Alley of Love) and Jism Jism Ke Log (Various Bodies) have intense conversation between characters which is rooted in their shared understanding of an idiom. Translation is desirable and relatable because stories strike a chord across space but works have texts, sub-text and idiom. The problem and the challenge lies in taking the sub-text and the idiom into another language. That is why trans creation requires a deep understanding of the text, the sub-text and the idiom of the original work as also of the sensibilities of the audience for whom you are trans creating. Having said this, I would be happy to translate the first two novels for an English readership. The theme would strike a chord, the idiom would need some fine work.

Will you shuttle between English and Hindi in the future? Are you planning more books?

Shuttling between Hindi and English is an interesting thought. I am already seized by an idea that came to my mind as an English text. It is germinating. As for more books, I have already sent a Hindi novelet for publication which could be thematically seen as third in series after Premgali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism Ke Log. While telling stories to my children, and making them up as I went along, I created a short novel for children which awaits publication. I am also in the process of writing another novel in the genre of historical fiction.

Thank you for your time.

This is an online interview conducted on behalf of Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from Akbar: A Novel of History

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Review

Golden Bangladesh at 50: Book Review by Aruna Chakravarti


                                                                   

Title: Golden Bangladesh at 50, Contemporary Poems & Stories

Editor: Shazia Omar

 Publisher: The University Press Ltd, 2021

The title of the collection of poems and short stories under review is apt for two reasons. First, that it derives from Rabindranath Tagore’s lyric Amaar Shonar Bangla … the national anthem of the country. Second, that the book has been published in 2021, the Golden Jubilee year of the formation of Bangladesh.

The political partition of Pakistan in 1971 caused one of the greatest convulsions in the history of the subcontinent. The Bengalis of Pakistan suffered barbaric violence and bloodshed because they valued their distinctive identity above everything else and refused to submit to a harsh regime’s determination to quell and subdue it. Civil wars have been fought before but never, in the history of mankind, over a language and culture.

Interestingly, Rabindranath’s poem, too, was written as part of movement led by him against Lord Curzon’s infamous Partition of Bengal bill in 1905. The intention of the government was clear. Bengalis were waking up to a sense of nationhood and coming together through the growth and spread of the Bengali language and literature. A blow had to be struck to curb it. And what could be more effective than division based on ethnicity and religion?

The editor Shazia Omar deserves our congratulations for bringing together a vast range of voices. Some are new and unknown, some old and established and some culled from across a wide diaspora. From New York, Chicago and San Francisco. From London, Rome, Toronto and Hongkong. This anthology, to use her own words is, “a way of honouring all that we have learned, yearned for, found and let go. To give our readers a sense of who we are now.” Accordingly, itencapsulates the joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations, losses and anxieties of two generations of Bangladeshis both from home and abroad.

That partition trauma continues to shape the literature of Bangladesh is apparent from this volume. But the new enquiry has moved away from a nationalistic obsession with the horror of the event to a closer probe into people’s history through recollections of lived experience. Social, familial and personal attempts at restoration of identity seems to be the primary concern in these stories.

The contributions are all in English. The last few decades have been marked by a great deal of discourse about the decolonization of the language. In the past, much colonial creativity has felt throttled by the dominance of English as written and spoken by the ruling class. Today the fragmented pieces of the old empire are striking back with a vengeance. Each erstwhile colony has come up with its own brand of English. This book is a triumphant vindication of Binglish… tried and tested in the literature of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The volume is replete with cultural nuances. Phrases like eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi and names of seasons and festivals phagun, boishakh, agrahayan, eid, nabanno are used freely without footnotes or glossary. The writers have felt no compulsion to translate kinship terms, exclamations and natural phenomena. English has triumphantly broken its original grammatical and syntactical mode and become a hybrid — both a native and a foreign language.

The issues examined in this collection are varied. Class struggle, patriarchy, dogma, superstition, displacement, loss and reclamation of identity. The characters are culled from a wide spectrum of society. From the very rich to the very poor; from the shamelessly privileged to the shockingly deprived. Such yawning gaps, some of the writers seem to imply, are a reality in Bangladesh even in its 50th year of Independence.

 Some stories depict a polarisation of power along the lines of gender. Women are victims of exclusion and varied forms of subjugation. Some are seen as trapped in the iron fist of a feudal order. A few others, westernized and seemingly empowered, share the same fate though the mode of suppression is refined and sophisticated.

Yet, that is not always true. Many of the stories are set in the bustling metropolis of Dhaka where women from all religions, classes and persuasions roam freely. The city is seen as a place of pluralism and diversity. One senses freedom of thought and action as well as a strong sense of belonging to larger whole.

The book is a rich multi-site ethnography that spans continents and traces personal histories and movements of Bangladeshis. It is a notable addition to the literature of the diaspora in that the stories present sensitively nuanced accounts of the East West encounter. In ‘Neighbours’, Nadeem Zaman explores the dilemma of a Bangladeshi woman trying to make a life in Canada during the Liberation war. Struggling against a harsh climate and what she considers an unloving culture, she is forced to pause and reflect when she becomes friendly with her next-door neighbour. She finds his identity troubling, since he seems to combine a sensitive, warm and compassionate outlook with a violent relationship with his wife and indifference to his daughters. The Other seems embodied in paradox.

 Neeman Sobhan’s ‘Bengali Lessons’ is a poignant diaspora story stretching across space and time. Employing a seamless mix of three languages, English, Bengali and Italian, she moves her story between two worlds and timeframes. Two eras run parallel. War ridden Bangladesh of 1971 and Covid afflicted Rome of 2020. The central character, a professor teaching Bengali to a group of Italian girls on Zoom, remembers her traumatic childhood, trapped in her grandfather’s house in 1971, and finds it astonishingly similar to her present-day situation in another country and another time. It is a severed world she remembers but one in which a Muslim child saves a Hindu soldier from an excruciatingly painful death.

Another excellent examination of child psychology is contained in Fatma Ahmad’s ‘Phultokka’ . Childhood is often considered to be the happiest phase of a person’s life. That the notion is far from the truth is seen in the mental struggles, failed aspirations, jealousies and misunderstandings suffered by the intelligent and sensitive teller of the story. She is called Taalgaach (palm tree)a derogatory reference to her height and complexion, by the school bullies. Why do bullies bully? Why can’t some children, especially exceptional ones, cope with the real world and retreat into an inner one, while others have no difficulty in merging and being part of a larger whole? These are some of the questions raised in the story.

 ‘Charaiveti’ and ‘Kalpanta Sthayina’ by Lubna Mariam, derive from the ancient Hindu texts Rigveda and Hitopadesha. The first describes an undefined urge to go on a journey without a destination. Man’s existential freedom drives him towards an imagined Utopia. Keep going,” the sages say, “because life itself is the journey; an inner journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge”.

Kalpanta Sthaniyah is a Sanskrit phrase meaning enduring till the end of the Universe. A grandfather’s replies to his grandchild’s innocent question about where the river comes from and where it goes, encompass deep philosophical concepts. He speaks of beginnings and ends, past and present, old and new…flowing in an unbroken stream. A glorious merging in the free flow of time. An unending celebration of life.

I conclude with a few words on the poetry section. From the whimsical effusions of ‘Ode to a sari’ to evocations of sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel of their beloved country in ‘Daydream’ ‘Midnight blues’ and ‘For you’, the writers offer a carpet rich with colour and design, light and life. Capricious and fanciful at times, a glimpse of truth is invariably offered at the end of each poem.

 Zeesham Khan’s ‘Banglar desh’, one of the best of the collection, portrays the generosity and compassion of nature as against the callous brutality of the human race. Here is a personification of nature that is amazingly poignant, graceful and symmetrical. The world pulsates with life. Trees have flesh and blood. All organisms speak; feel pain and pleasure. An achingly immediate, hauntingly sensuous, world! The all too real river under a canopy of moon and stars. Paddy fields, bamboo shoots, wild flowers, butterflies and moths. Should not all meld together with humans to make a complete whole? But does such a whole exist in the universe? The writer thinks not. He deplores…

I have seen blissful harmony pause
To give way to aggressive survival
And humans being homo sapiens
Unencumbered by unnecessary compassion.

Glossary:

Amaar Shonar Bangla –My Golden Bengal.

eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi – what is this, my dog, or name, sweet smile

Phultokka — A game played by children. Phool means flower and tokka, touch. One child is blindfolded while others touch the youngster lightly. The blindfolded child has to guess who the person is.

Aruna Chakravarti 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 JorasankoThe 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.

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Bhaskar's Corner

Tagore & Odisha

Odisha and West Bengal, two geographically contiguous states of India, are as much a proximate in culture and language. Both states have a close link – from people movements to culinary familiarity. More to that. Puri attracts lakhs of people from Bengal. In truth, it is the Bengalis around whom the holy city of Puri revolves. They contribute greatly to the city’s economy. The Tagore family of Jorasonko too had a close connection with Odisha and it stretches back to generations. Rabindranath Tagore’s great grandfather Nilamani Thakur had come to Cuttack as a ‘Sirastadar‘ (revenue collector) duly appointed by the British.

In 1840, Rabindranath’s grandfather Prince Dwarakanath Tagore had bought a small estate near Pandua in the present Jagatsinghpur district. Tagores even had a house built in Cuttack’s Tulasipur area. Later, Rabindranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore visited Odisha sometime around  1851 to supervise the estate at Pandua  from where he visited Puri.

Records of those times bring out how the Tagore family was fascinated by Puri’s pristine beach, the camaraderie, and the cool breeze.

In 1891, Rabindranath Tagore visited Odisha for the first time to oversee the land his ancestors had bought. Tagore’s maiden visit to Odisha was memorable and soul-stirring. The bard’s fascination for Puri finds mentioned in ‘Chinnapatra’ — his letters to Indira Devi, Tagore’s niece. In one such letter, Tagore wrote: 

“The road from Cuttack to Puri is good. It is high with low-lying fields on both sides. There are big shady trees, mostly mango. At this time, all the mango trees are in blossom, filling the way with fragrance. Some villages are seen surrounded by mango, pipal, banyan, coconut and palm trees.”

Tagore informs further:

“In places covered carts are standing on the banks of shallow rivers. There are confectioners under palm-leaf thatches. Inside the huts in rows, under the trees on both sides of the road, the pilgrims are taking their meals. The beggars are shouting in strange languages, whenever they see fresh batches of pilgrims or carriages or palanquins.”

He wrote fabulously about what he saw on his way to the glorious city of Puri:

“As one approaches Puri, the pilgrims are seen in greater numbers. Covered carts are seen moving in lines. People are found lying down, looking or gossiping together on the banks of tanks. On the right side of the road, a big spire of the Jagannath temple rises. Suddenly at one place, crossing the line of trees and bushes, the wide stretch of sandy sea-beach and the azure line of the sea become visible.”

Tagore visited Odisha once more in 1893.This time it was Cuttack with his nephew Balendranath. Tagore was a guest at the then District magistrate BL Gupta, ICS ( Malati Chaudhury’s grandfather). Having spent a few days there, Tagore  set out to Puri  on a palanquin and he was spellbound  over the unspoiled  sceneries on both sides of  the Jagannath Sadak as it was called then. Tagore’s last visit to Odisha was in 1939. 

 He came on the request of Biswanath Das, the then Chief Minister (called Prime Minister) of Odisha   to visit the province. When Das was in Kolkata to attend a meeting of the All India Congress Committee, he personally met the poet to pay respects and extend the invitation.

Tagore reached Puri on 19th April in 1939. He was warmly received by the ministers and government officials. The poet stayed in the Circuit House as the state government’s guest. But all his engagements were canceled as the poet developed a slight fever and the doctors advised him complete rest.

On 8th May 1939, the poet was given an ovation on behalf of the women of Odisha. The next day — his birthday – was celebrated with gusto. The birthday bash was held on a well decorated pandal with an opening song. The poet was welcomed with the chanting of Vedic hymns by the pundits of Puri’s Sanskrit College. Flower, sandal paste, vermilion and coconuts were offered to the poet as a mark of veneration.

So enthralled was Tagore at this spirit of love and affection that he wrote in a letter to his former Secretary Dr. Amiya Chakravarti:

“I have come to Puri. I am the invited guest of those who are now at the helm of the affairs of Orissa. There is something novel in this fact. In older days, they who were kings or heads of the state, used to honour the meritorious, thereby honouring their own countries and governments. By this liberality, they used to keep contact with human culture and admit the universal heritage in the development of faculties.”

He further wrote:

 “We have learnt the modern system of political administration from the English. The talented have no place in it. The statesmen of Europe wield the outward aspect of that power which is based upon economic and administrative laws. They cannot have the right to govern the spirit that lies underneath but it is needless to argue that having acknowledged and paid due regard to it, a noble environment can be created for the government. In oriental system of administration, the scope for acknowledgment of the individual talent has, however, not been neglected.”

In the same letter, he was a bit apologetic: 

“Let me now tell you about myself. I have no work here, nor am I of any use to anybody. Those who are taking care of me here, expect no material advice from me. That salutary and refreshing effect with which the sea breeze is touching my body and mind is the very symbol of the hospitality of the newly responsible Orissa Government. Administrative procedure has created no obstacle to it, nor has it been affected by the budgetary economy.”

On human relations Rabindranath wrote when he was convalescing:

“Sitting on the first floor of the Circuit House, I have unhesitatingly given myself up to pure idleness. The ministers here, having noticed the tired condition of my health, come every day to encourage me to spend my days without any purpose. The mentality of admitting human relationships even in the midst of heavy pressure of work is still inherent in our country; and this has been felt by me especially after I have come over here.”

During his stay at Puri, the Raja of Puri – an institution by himself – and the Superintendent of Sri Jagannath temple, bestowed upon Rabindranath, the title Parama Guru (the great teacher). As the poet was indisposed, the ceremony was not held publicly. The Dewan (manager) of the king came down to the circuit house in a procession to confer the title. The panegyric was read out in the hallowed Sanskrit language. Then a camphor garland, head dress and a pair of silk clothes were offered as a mark of respect by the chief priest. 

Historian Prof. Pravat Mukherji later wrote about Tagore’s acceptance of the recognition thus: “He had been warmly received in many countries of the world, but the reception which was given that day by the people of Odisha touched his heart, as it was according to the traditional Hindu style.”

Tagore’s stay in Puri had a few other blissful moments. Many poets and freedom fighters met him. Among them were Lexicographer and compiler of ‘Purnachandra Bhashakosh’ (Odia Encyclopedia), Gopal Chandra Praharaj, Pandit Raghunath Mishra, freedom fighter Sarala Devi, poet and novelist Kalindi Charan Panigrahi and yet another gentleman from Jajpur, Chandrasekhar Das, about whom Tagore penned a few lines:

“O’ my unknown admirer,

Today you have become known.

With my blessings I repay

My admirer your loan.”

Two contemporary Odia poets — Bhaktakabi Madhu Sudan Rao and Kantakabi Laksmikanta Mohapatra (creator of the state song ‘Bande Utkal Janani’) – were inspired by Tagore and wrote two books – Kusumanjali (Posy of Flowers) and Jiban Sangeeta (Life Song) respectively, which are rare beginnings in modern Odia literature. 

It was also during the Puri layover that Tagore wrote the dance drama ‘Chitrangada’ – the theme he seemed to have overheard from the local epic-sayers. Tagore also wrote some of his famous poems: Pravasi (Expatriate), Janmadin (Birthday) and Epare Opare (This side and that side) in Puri. In Pravasi, Tagore describes himself as a “man of the world and he does not consider anybody to be alien”

Tagore loved the people of Odisha so much that he concluded: 

“From a distance I have formed an idea about the love of the people and the efficiency of those who are at the helm of the administration of Orissa at present, and now I am appreciating it from close quarters.”



References:

Guru Kalyan Mohapatra: Puri & the Poet

Sambad by Prof Basanta Kumar Panda ( Odiya translation of Chinnapatra). The excerpts from the Chinnapatra have been translated by Bhaskar Parichha from Odiya.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Review Tribute

Under the Shadow of Death: Memoirs of Tagore’s Last Days

To Commemorate Tagore’s 80th Death anniversary, we present a review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of memoirs around Tagore’s last days with a forward by Professor Fakrul Alam

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs

Translator/ Editor: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021

The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, selected, edited, translated, and put together from the original Bangla by Somdatta Mandal, hovers along a fine line between biography, autobiography and perhaps a bit of hagiography around the account of a life lived in the shadow of imminent death. Mandal draws on all these genres to create a rich chiaroscuro of effects, with a chorus of the memoirs of a few caregivers, mostly women, who were in close proximity to Tagore and served and took care of him in the last year of his life.

Criss-crossing between bouts of illness and creativity, the caregivers also doubled as scribes and notetakers, transcribing the precious words of the great poet. Together, they create an incredibly rich web of narratives, which have been very ably selected and translated by Professor Somdatta Mandal. The memoirs also convey a sense and flavour of the place, whether it is Santiniketan, Jorasanko, Kalimpong or Mongpu — the various places and haunts of Rabindranath in the twilight of his life. The interesting thing is that many of these ancillary memoirs were written by young people who later became famous as writers and artists, their talents often nurtured, encouraged and incubated by the greatly revered poet himself.

The titles of their respective memoirs attest to their unique writerly talents: ‘Nirbaan’ by Pratima Devi, representing a release and freedom from a painful state. Rani Chanda, the second section talks about the ‘alapchari’(Musical) Rabindranath and Gurudev, highlighting his sensitivity to and concern for others.  Mongpu-te Rabindranath and Swarger Kachakachi (Rabindranath at Mongpu and Close to Heaven) by Maitreyi Devi are deeply evocative pieces. Nirmalkumari’s “22nd Shravan” is perhaps given the most space by the editor/translator and shows his anxieties about the fate of the university built by him, a unique educational experiment very dear to his heart. Living in the shadow of the great man, it is as if each memoir and person measures up their life which gains in meaning and significance, as a result of the unique legacy bequeathed to them, with love and affection, by the poet.    

In reflecting and refracting, through the prism of their care and service, the closing year of Rabindranath’s life, the memoirs lay bare several facts. The bard was often a difficult patient, experiencing several crests and troughs as far as his moods — creative and otherwise — were concerned. Too intelligent and perceptive to avoid facts, he could see his imminent death, but did not want his caregivers to be morose and mournful. On them, fell the job of entertaining him, creating laughter and fun, in which he would participate when his health permitted him. He was less scared of death, he said, than of surgery advocated by his very eminent doctors like Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (later he Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1948-1962) and Dr Nilratan Sarkar.

That this book is a labour of love is evident from Professor Mandal’s careful selection and editing, as well as her meticulous and competent translation. She has presented the momentous and moving final months of Rabindranath Tagore’s eventful life up to the day of his death which witnessed an outpouring of grief from many quarters. It is the final months of his life which is transcribed and inscribed by his memorialists, among whom are Pratima Devi, his daughter-in-law and son Rathindranath’s wife; Rani Chanda, his secretary Anil Chanda’s wife and a writer herself; Maitreyi Devi, the well-known writer and a protégé and favourite of Tagore’s; Nirmalkumari Mahalanabis, whose exchanges with the kobi-guru (great poet) have been detailed in Kobi and Rani (translated by Professor Mandal in 2020) and Amita Thakur, his granddaughter.

The first selection Pratima Devi’s ‘Nirbaan’ (1942) demonstrates his faith in and affection for his conscientious daughter-in-law, who, along with Rani Chanda and others, become an embodiment of care and nurture. He is aware of being a difficult patient and this awareness, which shines through in many of his comments and pet peeves, not only redeems him, but makes him more human. Musing “fondly on the poet’s twilight moments” while punning on the Robi (Bangla for sun) in the poet’s name, Maitreyi Devi, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning novelist writes: “The almost setting sun…was no less pleasant than the glory and radiance of the afternoon sun” and even within the sickroom, the poet continued “playing” his tunes, along with the march of time.

In his sensitive and nuanced foreword, Professor Fakrul Alam points out the memorialists’ refusal to minimize or sentimentalize Gurudev’s illness. In fact, Rani (Nirmalakumari Mahalanobis) expresses her impatience and criticism of the happenings and the people around the poet in the last stages. Amita Thakur, Rabindranath’s granddaughter was a notable exponent of his songs in her time, and he would depend on her to note down the songs as they came to him. Her work is chosen, says Alam, “as a coda for her assemblage of extracts from the memoirs of the five devoted caregivers who were women who had served him selflessly for sustained periods.”

The literary and archival value of such a work is undeniable and its benefits for exploring literary culture is immense. Between its glimpses of a towering giant in the world of letters with a truly international perspective to its comments about Tagore’s closeness to women and his seeking women as caregivers, the collection is also a testament to Tagore’s faith in the selfless capacity of women.

The book and Rabindranath’s close relationship with his many caregivers and later, memoirists, sometimes created a family dynamic of some tension between his natal family and adopted one. At one point, Maitreyi Devi (called “Mongpobi” or “Mitra” by the poet) talks of the negative comments made about her by Indira Debi (Bibi), one of Tagore’s favourite nieces, daughter of Satyendranath Tagore and Jnadanandini Debi. Later however, Maitreyi Devi also mentions the kindness shown to her by Indira Debi when they are together in Santiniketan.

Like in Kobi and Rani, the memoirs of Rani Mahalanobis (called Prathama or first to differentiate her from Rani Chanda who was referred to as Dwitiya or second) show the many facets of the great man himself — his many moods from his mellow moods even when he was in extreme pain to his irascible mood to his playful and humorous moments. It is to the credit of the editor/translator that she has organised and arranged the material very skillfully to bring out his mercurial nature, his flashes of temper and his expectation that his caregivers would wear their responsibilities lightly.

Overtly committed to personal memory, life narratives and biographies occasionally come  close to hagiography. They also lay bare a  performativity inscribed in the very form, implicit in the relationship between the great man/ luminary and those who are satellites in his orbit. The many layers of feeling get reflected in a plurality of forms that are both sedimented and fluid in structure — comprising letters, diaries, poems, fragments. These innovative narrative structures are evolved to convey through an overlapping of various genres: non-fiction, poetry, memoir, autobiography, letters, etc. Extending well beyond any coherent theoretical coordinates to streamline its disparate forms, life narratives are as much constructed by an individual artist — subject as they are the product of her/his intersecting textures of historical, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts.

The socio-cultural context  is specifically that of the progressive environment of Santiniketan and Vishwa Bharati. We see how the ambience of cultural efflorescence and Brahmo liberal ideas helped shape these young women. Perhaps, because of the reformist cast of Brahmo womanhood or the holistic educational schemes fostered by Tagore, in his caregivers, we see the emergence of relatively independent or mobile women, cast in agentic roles of decision making. We see an extraordinary sense of  a tightly-knit community of caregivers whether in Pratima Devi and Maitreyi Devi during the harrowing journey back from Kalimpong to Calcutta when Tagore’s illness worsens, the encounters of Maitreyi Devi with British doctors in Kalimpong or the journey undertaken by Maitreyi from Mongpu along with her young daughter immediately after a landslide, when her husband, Manmohan Sen, undertakes  to get the landslide cleared.

With a vibrant assembly of many pictures and voices, the story emerges from a collage. Piecemeal in bits and pieces, like the oranges sent to Rabindranath by Maitreyi Devi from Mongpu. Each experience, like the fruit, is savoured slowly and with relish. The remaining fruit, both actually and figuratively/symbolically, is given to the students.

A life, even one as extraordinary as Rabindranath Tagore’s, unfolds in time, simultaneously, it also participates in eternity. Thus, even as his nearness and the promise of proximate greatness draws his mentees into his magical orbit, we see him worrying about his imminent death and the fate of Santiniketan. We have to also see the life of the women, details of which get inscribed in their memoirs. The demands placed upon them are often relegated to the margins as they form part of the enchanted circle around the ailing poet, who at times seems to assert his claim on their time, albeit often  in jest, sometimes in a semi-serious way, competing for their attention with their other affections and preoccupations. Their lives, they realise, are given significance and irradiated by his presence, endowed with value through the care they could extend to the great soul.  

Ultimately the collection testifies to the power of great literature and poetry. As the poet himself says:

“Of course, literature is based upon lies — from beginning to end. Whatever I have said, whatever I am saying, how much of that is true? I have done a lot of farming for 80 years. I cannot vouch that all the grains will be stored in the barn. Some will be eaten by rats, but even then, something would be left behind. I cannot say that with certainty, eras change, times change and along with that everything also changes. But I can say with certainty that my songs will last the longest. Especially Bengalis will have no other way except to sing my songs in grief, sorrow, joy and happiness. They will have to go on singing them for ages.”

Kumar Sri Jayantanath is aptly quoted in Appendix B of the memoirs: “There is nothing new to say about Rabindranath because whatever we had to say has already been said by him.” Therefore, we pay a tribute to the poet in the poet’s own words:

You had brought along with you

 Deathless soul

In your death you have

Donated that

You have donated that

In your death.”

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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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Author Page

Aruna Chakravarti


Aruna  Chakravarti  
has been  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 on record. They comprise four novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations. Her first novel The Inheritors (published by Penguin)was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko (by Harper Collins)received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta  and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days, First Light and Primal Woman: Stories. Daughters of Jorasanko, a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews. Her latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, has been published by Pan Macmillan Ltd under the Picador imprint, last year in 2020.

Among the various awards she has received are Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi  Award and Sarat Puraskar.

Interviews

In Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti: Click here to read.

The Making of Historical Fiction: A Conversation with Aruna Chakravarti unfolds the creation of her latest novel, The Mendicant Prince, based on the prince of Bhawal controversy in the first part of the last century. Click here to read. 

Discussion

Rabindranath Tagore: A Universal Bard.

This conversation between Aruna Chakravarti and Sunil Gangopadhyay that took place at a Tagore Conference organised by the Sahitya Akademi in Kochy in 2011. Click here to read.

Translations

Songs of Tagore translated by Aruna Chakravarti

We launch our Tagore section with the translation of seven of his songs by the gifted Sahitya Akademi winning translator and author, Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read.

  • Tomar eyi Madhuri Chaapiye ( This Loveliness of Yours…)
  • Jibon Moroner Shimana Charay ( Beyond the Horizons of Life and Death..)
  • Esho Shyamalo Shundoro ( Come, Dark, Beauteous One)
  • Asha Jaaoar Pother Dhare (By the Path)
  • Shopney Amar Money Holo ( I Thought in my Dream)
  • Amra Notoon Jibonyeri Doot (We are the New Youth)
  • Amar Bela Jey Jaay (My Day Wanes)

Janaganamana by Tagore (Lord of Masses, National Anthem of India) — complete version translated by Aruna Chakravarty at the end of the essay. Click here to read.

Abhagi’s Heaven

A poignant story by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay translated by Sahitya Akademi winner, Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read.

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. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

An excerpt from The Mendicant Prince (based on the Bhawal sannyasi case) by Aruna Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Aruna Chakravarti reviews Golden Bangladesh at 50: Contemporary Stories & Poems edited by Shazia Omar. Click here to read.

Aruna Chakravarti reviews Devika Khanna Narula’s Beyond the Veil. Click here to read.