If nations are imagined (but not therefore imaginary) communities, Bengal is a nation. The reality of nationhood rests on the quality of the imagination that goes into it.
Calcutta, where I was born in 1957, provided me with a cartographic point of entry into the imagined geography of Bengal. My Bengal began with West Bengal, within which lay a rough face-to-face society rich in visual and oral provenance. The everyday homeliness of rural thatched mud huts were reflected in the high gabled roofs which contoured the spiritual skyline of Dakshineswar. Minstrel bauls walked through the soul, half-starved on their way to seeking salvation for everyone. The very soil of Bengal broke out in bhatiali song. The chau dancers of Purulia dramatised Hindu epics in a language emotively accessible to all. The energy of santhali dances invoked the performative agency of a tribal culture that refused to let pre-industrial and pre-state time lapse into contemporary irrelevance.
Agricultural West Bengal encompassed the legacy of a land whose grasp was much longer and larger than the social circumference of middle-class life in Calcutta. In my own ancestral village in Hooghly district, a short train journey from Howrah station, boys my age could climb trees and run barefoot and naked across scorching soil, outpacing the shy urbanite in me. Young women, taught to avoid the roving gaze of male strangers, lowered their eyes to the ground in modest contemplation when men passed by. Farmers could bend unbearingly long to till the land, standing upright for only a few minutes before they resumed their toil. No one spoke English. No one needed to. No one needed me. I needed them.
To the west of West Bengal lay the rest of India. The “rest of the Indians” were decipherable. In Bihar and Odisha, once a part of Bengal Presidency, rump Bengal lived on in the linguistic and cultural traces of the colonial past. Farther west, West Bengal vanished into an eclectic Indian nationalism. I must say, though, that on a long train journey from Calcutta to Cochin in Kerala as a teenager, I thought (rightly or wrongly) that the particular shade of green found in the vegetation of West Bengal was lost till it was found in Kerala again. The renewed connection between Calcutta and Cochin made it possible for me to extend my Bengali-ness vicariously all the way to Kerala, making me quite a pan-Indian Bengali, I suppose. The connective nationalism of Indian Railways (like that of the State Bank of India) plays no small part in protecting the unitary reality of contemporary India.
Farther to the west of the rest of India lay the lands of Islam. They began with forbidden territory: Pakistan. Pakistan embodied the Partition of India, the departure of space from Indian time. For me, West Pakistan was unknown terrain: No one I loved or hated lived there. But if, indeed, there was an “Islamic world”, then I certainly inhabited it subliminally. I was (and am) a Muslim. I belonged to the global efflorescence of a great faith that had spread into my birth and self-recognition. West Pakistan had nothing to do with it. My mother was a practising Muslim (after a fashion), my father was a practising atheist. As a five-day-old, I had been “adopted” by a childless Hindu couple who lived in the same block of flats as my parents. Nilima Kurup (née Bose) took me to temples, and Parameshwara Raghava Kurup, well-versed in the Vedas, stayed away from the Puranas. But no one made me anything but a Bengali indebted forever to the Islamic religiosity of South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. Certainly, I belonged to the lands of Islam. There was nothing vicarious about this. It is just that West Pakistan had nothing to do with my identity. I respected its existence even as it stayed indifferent to mine (since it had no idea that I existed). That was all.
East Pakistan was different. I had relatives there on both my mother’s side and my father’s. I remember a childhood visit to my paternal uncle’s home in Narayanganj. It was raining. Unlike West Bengal (where rain falls on people), the people of East Bengal fall on the rain. A female cousin, all of six years old, made an excuse of going to the bathroom: instead, she took a bath in a roomful of rain as wide as the skies outside, within sight of the elders, dancing with the abandon of the water that flowed through her tresses, kissed her eyes, drenched her frock, and caused an uproar that led her to be dragged back to lunch, laughing unrepentantly. Meanwhile, her elder brother wanted to go to the “bathroom” as well. He was held back by his hair and resisted violently, raining cries of recrimination on everyone. Watching my wild bangal (native East Bengali) cousins in righteous ghoti (native West Bengali) awe, I decided that East Pakistan was too Bengali for me.
But it was not to be.
Baker-ul Haque came to live next door to our flat in Nasiruddin Road, Park Circus, Calcutta, in 1971. A year younger, he caught up with me in historical time with vivid stories of how he and his family had escaped Bogra, trudging through forests as the Pakistani air force strafed fleeing civilians, people fell dead on the left and the right, his mother held on his elder sister’s hand, he grasped his younger siblings firmly, his father led on, and all of them made their way — to me. I doubted specific details of his heroic journey, but not his visceral courage. I witnessed it when my pet dog chased him to the fourth-storey terrace, he climbed on to the parapet and kept walking on it calmly, I held the dog back, and I implored Baker to climb down. He smiled at me insouciantly. It was only when he saw tears in my eyes that he relented. Once he was safely down, I wanted to give him a hearty kick, but settled for a rib-shattering hug instead. Epaar Banglawins when Opaar Banglais safe.
Baker and his family lived next door, in the third-storey flat which the writer Syed Mujtaba Ali had occupied briefly earlier. Given his literary reputation, I stayed away from him, but he was rather fond of me, and I invaded his rooms whenever I found the door ajar. The family which stayed with my own family was that of Lutfar Rahman, an Awami League Member of the National Assembly from Khulna. Chachaji smiled a lot but was fierce, chachiamma was benign to a fault, their elder son Ornob took after his mother and their younger son Tulu (his pet-name) took after his father. Both brothers, who were much younger than I was, became mini companions on laughing excursions to the same terrace on which Baker had reduced me to tears.
The liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971 (which happily and sadly soon saw Baker’s and Lutfar Chacha’s families returning to Bogra and Khulna) was my rebirth as a Bengali. I had been born into the bifurcated mythos of Bengal, which was first partitioned administratively in 1905 in an act rescinded in 1911, and then partitioned along national lines in 1947 to produce Pakistan. The partition of that Pakistan in 1971 produced an independent Bengali nation called Bangladesh. It is only in the years to come that I would understand the reasons for the ontological security of Bangladesh: it is a sated or satisfied nation because its borders guarantee the two conditions of its existence — that it be Bengali and Muslim in co-determinate measure — with provision being made for the rights of non-Bengalis and non-Muslims within its borders. Indeed, so successful has Bangladeshi nationalism been that its majority population finds it unnecessary to seek links with West Bengal to achieve cultural completion. That attitude is reciprocated in West Bengal, whose incorporation into the Indian ethos makes Bangladesh its closest neighbour, but a neighbour nevertheless.
Yet, to look across the border within Bengal, to see its integrity, is to un-see its divisions. Bengal is named ground: To walk on it, even vicariously, is to recover the insights of Walter Benjamin on his visit to Moscow. Benjamin’s delineation of Russia as named ground (in his Reflections) leads him to proclaim that “you can only see if you have already decided… Only he who, by decision, has made his dialectical peace with the world can grasp the concrete. But someone who wishes to decide ‘on the basis of facts’ will find no basis in the facts”. The facts are always too many. The facts are contested. The facts might not even be facts. But Bengal is decidedly one — not because of its successes but because of its vulnerabilities.
The Refugee Within
The fragile figure of the refugee straddles the two Bengals. Achintya Kumar Sengupta’s poem,Udvastu, rendered unforgettably in the recitation by Kazi Sabyasachi, is a part of an aural tradition without which it is impossible to re-imagine the Bengal that existed once. What makes the refugee central to the idea of Bengal as a state of mind is that she embodies the land’s biological unity and integrity in the very act of losing her place in its stolen geography. Bearing the scars of uprooting, dispossession and exile, the refugee socialises the pain which lasts long after the immediate displacement of enforced migration has passed. To seek refuge is to pass from basha to bari. Basha is a temporary place of residence, no matter how long that temporarity lasts. Bari is an inherited abode which is both ancestrally personal and nationally interchangeable with desh, the native land. The udvastu or vastuhara from East Bengal seeking refuge in West Bengal since 1947 had to contend with what Nilanjana Chatterjee calls “epistemological denial in India”, wherein those who had crossed the border were treated as an economic burden.
The epilogue to the story of the refugees of 1947 was written in 1971, when it was the turn of Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan to join Bengali Hindus in seeking refuge in West Bengal. While the vast majority of refugees spent months in harrowing conditions, professional and other middle-class families were often hosted by middle-class families in West Bengal who could afford to do so. It was not unknown for the family of a Bengali Hindu, who himself had come from East Bengal in 1947, to share its basha with a Bengali Muslim family. The Bengali Muslim knew that he would return home if Bangladesh won the war. His Hindu host kept dreaming of a bari relegated forever to the nostalgic lay of a lost land.
My family was more lucky. Our first trip to Bangladesh was to Lutfar Chacha‘s home in Khulna across the land crossing in Benapole. Of course, I enjoyed the royal spreads at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. But what filled my eyes was the sight of Ornob, Tulu and their little sister (by then), strutting about their home as if it was theirs. It was theirs. Bangladesh restored in me my extended sense of myself, my identity as a resident of Epaar Bangla who sought completion in the autonomy of Opaar Bangla. Soon after, I visited Baker in Bogra. At one dinner, his mother sat down just the two of us together. Naturally, I got the larger piece of fish in a bowl. I cooked up an excuse for Baker to go and look for something. I exchanged the bowls. He returned to eat. When we began with the vegetables, he exchanged the bowls. That insouciant smile again. I hate him. He has outwitted me always inspite of being a year younger.
The refugee is the first citizen of imagined Bengal. She will also be the last. That is, without Bangladesh and West Bengal being the ultimate refuge of the transitional Bengali self, there will be no Bengal.
There will be no me.
Birth matters. No one can be born in two places.
In his essay, “Englands of the Mind”, Seamus Heaney registers the birthing role of place in the “interlacing and trellising of natural life and mythical life”; what a land does is to afford a man “nurture that he receives by living among his own”. Bengal forms a similar geography of the mind. It received me among my own. Life was material, which is to say that it veered from the banal to the brutal, but it was redeemed by the furtive companionship of the imagination. The trellising which Heaney notes does not have to be idyllic. It rarely is. Australian writer Dorothea Mackellar’s poem, “My Country“, written while she was homesick in Britain, captures the native lore of a land that her ancestors supposedly discovered for her. She writes: “I love a sunburnt country,/ A land of sweeping plains,/ Of ragged mountain ranges,/Of drought and flooding rains.” Australia is nothing without its enervating drought and its equally uncaring rain. Mackellar dismisses the pastoral epiphanies of a promised expatriate land, particularly “When sick at heart, around us/ We see the cattle die”. Natural disasters provoke her to reclaim art from nature. She redeems a wayward landscape by offering it refuge in her lines.
I am no Heaney or Mackellar. Bengal has no need to find refuge in my words. May these English words of mine find refuge in the lap of Bengal from which I sprung into life.
 Epaar Bangla: This side of Bengal (West Bengal)
 Opaar Bangla: That side of Bengal (East Bengal or Bangladesh)
 Father’s younger brother is chacha and ji is an honorific in chachaji
The Schengen visa did not help much, being as it was on one of the pages of an Indian passport. I was told I could not get an on-the-spot transit visa to walk out of the airport and see the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, which was one upon a time Byzantium, which in turn was known as Nova Roma when the Romans ruled it. Well, that meant spending 24 hours at the Kemal Ataturk airport – waiting for the Turkish Airlines flight to Oslo the next day in the morning. Memories of Tom Hanks in Terminal flashed past the mind’s inner eye.
Coffee and vegetable burger later, I sat down to test if a free wireless connection was available in the precincts of the airport. It was, and I could check my e-mail; not just that, I could also thereby shoot across some crosswords’ designs that I do for a magazine. Great way to spend time, I thought. Time was, is and will always be money! My focus on the laptop screen was disturbed when a man walked past on my left, proferred his right hand and asked “Indian?”
“Yes,” said I, accepting the handshake.
“Pakistani, Shakeel,” he responded and sat down on the chair next to mine and immediately asked me if he could use my laptop for 5 minutes. I had heard about instances of threat mails being sent from cyber cafes or from laptops or desktops of totally-innocent, unsuspecting friends or acquaintances. Wariness did creep in instantly, but then I decided that I would not leap before looking… looking at the screen as he was accessing his mail. I did not wish to play into the hands of the ‘enemy’ as a noble do-gooder. There would have been nothing more disconcerting than that!
He spent more than 5 minutes and an edgy yours sincerely had to butt in with, ‘Boss, I have some urgent work to do; if you have finished.’ When I got back ‘possession’, I vowed to work on till the battery ran out, designed a crossword in the process, and then on the pretext of my fear of using unsecured wireless networks for too long, strapped the laptop back in my backpack.
After a long silence, I devised a means of dissociating myself from his company. “Okay then, I think I will just take a walk around the airport. It was nice meeting you.” I held out my hand.
He looked up and said, “I guess I shall also join you. What will I do sitting here all alone?”
I wanted to say, “That is none of my concern.” I did not. I would be saddled with Shakeel for the next 24 hours!
From my side, the ice was not broken. Hence, when he quizzed in Punjabi about what I did for a living, where I worked and how much I earned, I was a bit startled. I recalled being in the situation of the protagonist (played by amnesiac Aamir Khan) in the film Ghajini and wanted to say exactly what he says when a woman tries to get very informal with him – “I do not think I have known you so well as to be obliged to answer those questions.”
I brushed aside the questions however and decided to be as wary as wary could be. Shakeel, it turned out, had been living in Austria for seven years, managing a restaurant with his uncle. He had missed his Austrian flight in the morning, as the Emirates flight which got him into Istanbul from Dubai was delayed by 15 minutes. He had now asked his agent to rebook a seat for him on the flight to Austria next morning.
Shakeel talked of Indo-Pak business partnerships in Europe and lamented at the tension that has gripped the relations between these two neighbouring countries. I had the book, Wings of Fire with me. He pointed at Dr APJ Abdul Kalaam’s picture on the cover and commented that he is a very competent individual and wondered why he could not continue for a second term as President. During the conversation, mostly one-sided, he also said that people in India and Pakistan are more engrossed in producing babies while the rest of the world is pulling up its bootstraps and progressing fast. This statement, coming from a Muslim, took me aback a bit.
I treated him to Turkish coffee, after which he excused himself to go to the in-airport mosque, requesting me to mind his bags. “Risky undertaking,” I thought. What if…
He returned after a while though, and I scolded myself for having succumbed to paranoia and subsequent suspicion.
At around 6.30 pm, Shakeel insisted it was time for dinner and wanted to repay me for the coffee I had treated him to, by buying me dinner. I told him to carry on and said that it would be too early for me to dine. He looked at me and said, “Okay then, we will dine whenever you want to.” This was surprisingly very heartwarming and as we had known each other for just about 12 hours or so, seemed a bit too unreal. Such acts are the prerogatives of brothers and good friends.
As the day petered to a close, we decided not to sleep-starve ourselves anymore. Shakeel, still unsure of whether or not his agent would be able to confirm his booking on the next morning to Austria, dozed off and slept soundly. They say that anyone who can sleep without burdens or worries on his mind, has a clean and pure conscience. I, with a confirmed ticket, could not sleep for more than four hours – unclean and impure conscience? I was up at 5.00 am, and at 7.30 am when I headed to board my Turkish Airlines flight to Oslo, Shakeel was still sleeping! I did not want to wake him.
Once in Norway, I sent him an e-mail. At the time of writing, it has been quite a while since I did that, and there has been no response, Maybe, he will not respond. Maybe, he is a good person who was upset with my not having the courtesy to bid him a proper ‘Khuda Hafeez’. I would never know.
Strange lessons learnt at the Kemal Ataturk Airport.
G Venkatesh (50) is a Chennai-born, Mumbai-bred ‘global citizen’ who currently serves as Associate Professor at Karlstad University in Sweden. He has published 4 volumes of poetry and 4 e-textbooks, inter alia.
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Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of a woman impacted by the Partition, spirited enough to be a celebrated performer and to have a compelling saga written on her life posthumously, Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, published by Speaking Tiger Books. This feature is based on the book and Sengupta’s own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal.
Zohra Sehgal mirrors, in a strange kind of way, the story of the Indian subcontinent.
Born a Khan in 1912, raised in purdah by the Nawabs of Rampur in palaces and mansions in Lucknow and Dehradun, educated in Queen Mary’s College of Lahore; trained in Western dance in pre-Hitler Germany; whirling through the globe and basking in limelight as the dancing partner of the phenomenal Uday Shankar; setting up her own dance school with husband Kameshwar Segal in pre-Partition Lahore; rising to carve a niche for herself as a member of Prithvi Theatres; dominating the screen as a nonagenarian cast against the legendary Amitabh Bachchan… Sahibzadi bestowed with an impulse to find her way in the world, made of her life what she would.
So, was it all sunshine and moonlight in the life of the lady who, when she turned 100, had the wit to say, “You are looking at me now, when I am old and ugly… You should have seen me when I was young and ugly…”? No. She had seen the failure of Uday Shankar Cultural Centre in Almora; the closure of her own dance school in Lahore. She’d relocated to Bombay and be a less appreciated ‘side-kick’ to her ‘prettier’ younger sister in Prithvi Theatres. She performed in makeshift stages more often than in the Opera House; traveled in third class compartments with the troupe, slept on trunks, washed her own clothes. She had to worry about providing for her children and their father. She had to cope with the whimsicality, alcoholism, depression and finally, the suicide of her husband… But the caravan of misfortunes never dampened her spirit. “If I were to be reborn, I’ll be back as a blue-eyed, five feet five, 36-24-36,” she could repartee with humorist Khushwant Singh.
But then, much of the tragedy unfolded around the Independence cum Partition at Midnight. And I thank Ritu Menon’s ‘ABiography in Four Acts’ for lifting the curtain on this side of Zohra Segal – the phenomenon I had the good fortune to know through the years we spent in Delhi’s Alaknanda area.
Zohra’s father, Mohammed Mumtazullah Khan had descended from Maulvi Ghulam Jilani Khan, the warrior chieftain of a clan of the Yusufzai tribe and a religious scholar of repute who came to the Mughal court in Delhi possibly in 1754. Along with infantry and cavalry and the title of Khan Saheb he was given Chitargaon Pargana in Bihar, but since the British rulers were taking over Bengal and Bihar, he fled to Rohilkhand and joined the Rohilla chieftains who survived the battle against the Nawab of Awadh and rose to become Nawab of Rampur.
Zohra’s mother, on the other hand, descended from Najibuddaulah, another Rohilla Pathan in the service of Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Mughals, who founded Najibabad in 1740 and received the hereditary title of Nawab. By 1760, the tract of land he ruled included Dehradun, Najibabad, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Badayun, Bijnor and Bulandshahar. After 1887 his descendents, being incharge of the Regency Council that looked after the affairs of the Nawabs, set up schools to teach English, impart western education, encourage education of girls…
So, like many of India’s Muslim royalty and landed gentry, the Mumtazullahs were largely liberal, often westernised, and mostly secular. Their daughters, educated in English medium schools, went on to become hightly qualified professionals, including as ophthalmologist or Montessori teacher. Their sons went abroad for further studies, as did Zohra’s betrothed Mahmud — her maternal uncle’s son who went to school in England, graduated from Oxford, became a Communist, married a comrade and distributed all his inherited land in Moradabad to the peasants. Her elder sister Hajra married Z A Ahmed, an alumni of the London School of Economics who, as a committed communist, organised railway coolies, press workers, farmers and underground members of the then CPI.
Yet, even for such a family it was unusual to send the daughter to a boarding school — Queen Mary College, founded in 1908 — in a distant city like the cosmopolitan Lahore. It was a purdah school for girls from aristocratic families from where Zohra matriculated in 1929. By then she had imbibed the secular, broadminded values of her mostly-British teachers, and of an education that placed equal emphasis on physical activities – sports, to be precise. Here Zohra was initiated into both, art and acting – two passions of Uday Shankar who proved providential in her life.
It wasn’t so surprising then, that after matriculating, she set out on an arduous, even hazardous, overland trip across Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Middle East, with a kindred spirit: her strong willed maternal uncle Memphis who, being a maverick much like Zohra herself, endorsed all her unconventional choices. He enrolled her in Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden; he financed her stay as too her owning a teeny-weeny car so she wouldn’t have to travel by train! None of this, however, ruled out her performing Namaz five times a day or reading the Koran. Years later, it was he who unreservedly stood by her decision to marry Kameshwar Sehgal when her own family was wary of the choice. And they spent their honeymoon in his house ‘Nasreen’ – now well-known as Welham Girls’ School. Built by an Irishman on five acres of land, it had pointed roofs, gables and half-timbering with extensive lawns, gravel pathways and exotic trees…
‘Can you dance?’ Mary Wigman had asked Zohra. It wasn’t to her disadvantage that her sheltered childhood did not have the scope for that. A radical artiste herself, Wigman had rejected formal technique in favour of improvisation although Zohra had to master theories, alongside choreography and dramatic pieces that entailed limbering up exercises for the whole body, from fingertips and wrists to arms and shoulder, neck, head, back, chest, hips, knees, legs, toes… There were no mirrors: the training did not allow them to look at themselves while composing since, Wigman held, “consciousness and awareness should proceed from within rather than from an external image.”
All this was different from the grammar of classical Indian dancing – and by the end of her third year, when Hitler was hovering on the horizon, she was nimble on her toes dancing foxtrot, waltz, polka and tango. When she returned to Dehradun, she enjoyed a newfound freedom that expressed itself in cutting all her silk burqas to make petticoats and blouses!
Zohra delighted in the adventure of travel, in discovering new places and people. She sought out travel agents, pored over brochures, spotted packages to travel with groups, by trains or buses, walked with friends, rucksacks on their back and sandwiches in their pocket, to Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, France. This was the time when Uday Shankar and Simkie – Simone Barbier – were crisscrossing Europe. These stars of the Uday Shankar Dance Company were rapturously received by audiences who were mesmerised by the oriental exotica that had little to do with classical or folk dances of India. Instead, it offered romance and sensuousness wrapped in myth and mysticism. The blithe Adonis and his graceful energy cast a spell with his ‘physical beauty,’ ‘transcendental expression,’ ‘grandness’ and ‘command of muscles’. The ‘deep charm of the indescribable nobility’ of his dance became the face of ‘the rare yet mysterious personality of Modern India.”
When she joined Shankar in Calcutta as he prepared to tour Rangoon, Singapore, Moulmein and Kuala Lumpur, Zohra not only learnt to apply western make-up on an Indian face. She had to adapt if not unlearn her training at Wigman’s, to discipline her body and rehearse, rehearse and rehearse. For, at Shankar’s, there was no rule or theory. Instead, there were parties and dinners, meetings with the Viceroy and the Governor of Bengal, driving fast cars and boating, ballroom dances and cabarets too! If Zohra reveled in this, she also soon imbibed the almost religious atmosphere of Shankar’s performances that required them to travel regardless of the time of day or night and be in the theatre well before the hour in order to shed every thought other than the dance — one in which movements radiated from a concept and merged back into it.
Most of all, Shankar’s physical beauty and creative iconoclasm proved irresistible, and Zohra happily succumbed to the dancer and his stage lights. She saw how his unorthodox dance imagination reveled in sensuality and she marveled at its potential. None in India then was experimenting with form and movement nor choreographing for an ensemble. And then, Shankar was using a unique orchestra of violin, sitar, piano, sarod, gongs, drums and cymbals. The musicians composed for the dance, the dancers in glittering costumes moved on dazzling sets to their music. This transported audiences to unexplored aesthetic heights and conquered the world.
With Shankar, Zohra performed in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Switzerland. Belgium, Holland, Poland, Italy, France. By now, the company included Allauddin Khan, Ravi Shankar, Kathakali artiste Madhavan Nair, and Zohra’s younger sister Uzra. Names, all, that would go on to shine long after Shankar set up the Almora Dance Centre – modeled after Dartington Hall, a country estate in Devon, UK that promoted forestry, agriculture and education too, besides the arts. Before that, however, Zohra toured America performing love duets with Shankar, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia. Wherever they went, they were greeted by applause and bouquets, photographs, reviews and receptions. Besotted audiences treated them like rockstars and on one occasion Pearl S Buck presented ‘the princess’ an autographed copy of The Good Earth.
On a subsequent visit to Bali with Shankar, she had the heady experience of romance and passionate discovery – of the splendours of dance and music on the island as much as her very being. The magnetic field that was Shankar aroused her senses thrilling awareness of her body. And on her return to India, she met Rabindranath in Santiniketan…
When the Uday Shankar Cultural Centre opened in 1940 at Almora, there were only ten students. As its repertoire kept growing, so did its popularity. Soon they were joined by Nehru’s nieces, Nayantara and Chandralekha; Guru Dutt who would one day become a celluloid maestro; Shanta Kirnan — later Gandhi — who’d shine on stage; Sundari Bhavnani who’d become Shridharani, the founder of Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam; and Shiela Bharat Ram, of the industrial family, who gained stardom as Baba Allauddin Khan’s disciple. Classes in technique combined with training under gurus of Kathakali, Bharatanatyam and Manipuri — Sankaran Namboodiri, Kandappa Pillai, Amoebi Singh — and to music by Shankar’s brother Ravi, and Baba’s son, Ali Akbar.
Zohra, besides assisting Shankar just like Simkie, also prepared a five-year course for the learners to improvise intricate movements. If theories of Shankar’s art gave form to his dreams, Zohra also learnt the importance of walking elegantly, suppleness of facial expression, and relaxation of mood, prior to dancing. The training evoked in his dancers the consciousness of the body as a whole. A body that moved in space to form patterns of intrinsic beauty.
Kameshwar Segal, a Rossetti-like boy, slim and fair with curly locks, slender hands and feet, fitted right into the scenario. The great grandson of one of the dewans – prime ministers – of the then princely state of Indore, he was well versed in Urdu and Hindustani besides his mother tongue, Punjabi. Soon he was a painter, set designer, light designer, mask-maker, handyman. Though Zohra, being involved with Shankar, had decided never to marry, she admired Kameshwar’s ingenuity, loved his humour and responded to his banter. Soon he proposed to his teacher. Zohra, senior to him by eight years, was aware of the odds against them. Yet she responded, perhaps because by now, the air in Almora was thick with romance and its byproduct, jealousy. Besides Simkie, so far recognised as his prime dance partner, there was Amala Nandi, whom Shankar would garland as his life partner. Simkie herself settled down with Prabhat Ganguly; Rajendra Shankar married Lakshmi Shankar, and Ravi Shankar married Baba’s daughter, Annapurna.
Uzra, who had met Hameed Butt in Calcutta, also married the same year – 1942 – as Zohra. But, unlike Uzra she had to reconcile with a vegetarian, orthodox Hindu family of Radha Soami sect. Surprisingly, her uneducated mother-in-law welcomed the alliance more readily than Zohra’s own father who was used to the interfaith marriages of his own communist sons but didn’t wish for either Zohra or Kameshwar to convert. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the civil wedding which took place on 14 August 1942, in Feroze Gandhi’s mother’s house in Allahabad, Zohra had learnt from his secretary. Her brother-in-law being Nehru’s secretary, the future prime minister of India had even shared that he would gift them Persian rugs. But two days before that the Quit India Movement started, and Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed. Zohra, ever her sprightly self, had revealed her own story to me: “My brother received him on his release, and the first thing he asked was ‘Where is the young couple?’ I asked my brother, ‘Why didn’t you ask him where are the Persian rugs?’”
However, the dream wedding may have been the peak moment of happiness in the life of Kameshwar and Zohra. There on the WW2 gained in intensity, transportation became difficult, food and money too got scarce. In a couple of years, Shankar downed the shutters at Almora and went on to film his dream project, Kalpana. Simkie soon left India never to return. Sachin Shankar set up his ballet unit in Bombay. But before that, when Zohra put her all into starting Zoresh Dance School in Lahore of 1943, Kameshwar staked his claim as director.
When the school was inundated with students, she was forced into motherhood. When she returned to the stage, they went on a national tour with boxes and curtains from Lahore to Amritsar, Bareilly, Dehradun, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad, Patna, Asansol and Calcutta. Artistically a huge success, the school, however, left the coffers dry. More importantly, at the end of the Big War in 1945, Britain didn’t rule the waves and India was restive. The Muslim League was at loggerheads with the Congress, equations between the Hindus and Muslims had soured, their Muslim friends were looking at them with misgivings. Lahore clearly was not an ideal place for a couple like them. Kameshwar and Zohra relocated to Bombay, where Uzra and Hameed had set up home.
But in the city of celluloid dreams Zohra did not stand a chance in cinema. Not only was she short, somewhat plump, not quite a beauty; in cinema, a nachnewali was merely a nautch girl. In fact, she did not ever dance on stage again. She re-invented her fluidity of movement and expression to make her mark as a choreographer in Prithvi Theatres where her sister was already a leading lady. Eventually, in mid-1950s she choreographed for a few films such as Navketan’s Nau Do Gyarah and Guru Dutt’s CID.
Their bungalow on Pali Hill – a neighbourhood that was home to British, Catholic and Parsi families — was surrounded with Uma and Chetan Anand, his brothers Dev and Goldie, Balraj and Damayanti Sahni, Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, the Kapoors… Frequent visitors included Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Mohan Segal, Geeta Dutt, Nasir Khan, writers Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Amita Malik, composers S D Burman, and Ravi Shankar … Names that would in the next decade become Bollywood royalty.
Cinema was of course the big thing in Bombay of 1940s. Bombay Talkies had already heralded glory days with titles like Achhut Kanya (1936, untouchable maiden), Kangan(1939, Bangles), Bandhan (Ties, 1940), Jhoola(Swing, 1941), Sikandar(Alexander the Great, 1941). Devika Rani, Ashok Kumar, Leela Chitnis, Sohrab Modi, Prithviraj Kapoor were stars who would soon be joined by Punjabis from Lahore such as K L Saigal, Jagdish Sethi, B R Chopra, F C Mehra. Partition wasn’t a certainty yet, in the city of the political beliefs of Right and Left, mixed with industrialists and progressive writers and struggling artistes, the cry for freedom had created a ferment of ideas and the house resounded with scripts, arguments, reading, dancing, painting. K A Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, Sadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Shahid Lateef – they would associate with Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Salil Chowdhury, Hamid Sayani, Ebrahim Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and Prithviraj Kapoor, to pledge that they would present the crisis of the times through the medium of theatre.
Prithviraj, although a superstar on screen, believed that theatre should proliferate every city, not temples and mosques. Instead, he urged, “spend on theatres that would become centres for cultural education.” After the first election, when he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1952, he’d said, “In that temple called theatre, a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Parsi and Sikh all come together. No one cares whether it’s a pandit or a mulla sitting next to them. Communists sit with communalists, to laugh together and cry together. It would be the biggest temple for the benefit of the nation.”
Such a person could not reconcile to the Partition of the subcontinent. It meant, in his own words, that “You will turn me out of Peshawar, and leave my unfortunate Muslim brethren here in the lurch, with their roots uprooted from the soil!” His protest took the shape of four plays that started in 1945 by underscoring the folly of dividing lives on religious basis.
The quartet began with Deewar (Wall), an original play thoroughly contemporary in its politics and communicating its message in a language everyman could follow. The Partition was symbolised by two brothers who, egged on by the foreign wife of one brother – played by Zohra – insist on dividing their ancestral home into two halves by erecting a wall. At a time when Jinnah was raising his pitch for a Muslim nation, the play interpolated the dialogue with speeches by him, Gandhi and Macaulay. So prescient was the message that the British government refused to allow the performance without a green signal from the Muslim League, despite the go-ahead by its CID and the IG Police.
Eventually, despite objection by certain Urdu papers, the play continued to play till 1947 with the peasants pulling down the wall in the climax. In reality, though, the Radcliffe Line concretised the division on the midnight of 14/ 15 August, unleashing bloodshed and misery for millions. On that fateful day, the play was exempted from Entertainment Tax for one full year. Deewar was performed 712 times between 1945 and 1959, until Prithvi Theatres folded up.
The secular credentials of the company is summed up in one practise: The actors began their days with voice production handled by Prithviraj himself, and singing rehearsed by the music director Ram Gangoli. And what did they sing? The base tones were practised by singing Allah Hu! While the high pitches intoned Ram! Ram!
In another expression of his secularism, after the Direct Action Day riots unleashed on August 16th by Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan, leaving 5000 dead and 15000 homeless in Calcutta alone, Prithviraj drove through the city in an open truck with Uzra and Zohra on either side. However, this Hindu-Muslim amity resulted in death threats for them.
And on the eve of Independence, the entire company gathered in the compound of Prithvi Theatres, unfurled the Indian Tricolour, sang Vande Mataram, then took out a procession. Zohra danced with abandon on the streets of Bombay, while Prithviraj’s son Raj Kapoor played the drum. The euphoria did not last: at a personal level Kameshwar was annoyed; on a larger level, death and destruction stalked the streets and the country was engulfed in the horror of untold violence.
Prithviraj’s immediate response was to stage Pathan, the story of two friends – a Muslim Pathan and a Hindu Dewan. When Tarachand dies, Sher Khan promises to look after his son as his own. Local feuds result in a revenge killing where Vazir is implicated. When tribal custom demands an eye for an eye, Khan sacrifices his own son, Bahadur. And when this scene was enacted, there would be no dry eye in the auditorium. Uzra and, in particular, Zohra immersed herself in the play along with Raj and Shammi, the two sons of Prithviraj, who played the two boys. Raj, then only 23, also travelled to Peshawar to design and redesign to perfection the single set of the play. The play was staged 558 times between 1947 and 1960, when curtain fell on Prithvi Theatres.
When rehearsals for the play were on, so was rioting in the cities and towns across India. Prithviraj would, without fail, visit the affected mohallasand hold peace processions. The one dialogue that resonated long after the play ceased to be staged is still pertinent: “Do you want that Hindus should sacrifice their lives for Muslims and the Muslims should not sacrifice their lives for Hindus? Why should they not when they know they belong to one country, eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe in the same air? Knowing this, you still raise this hateful question of Hindu-Muslim?”
Prithviraj truly believed that religion does not make for conflict, only the abuse of religion, turning it into the handmaiden of vandals, created conflict. “And it is the responsibility of art to present the true aspect of reality.” So, his next production, Ghaddar (Traitor) covered the period from Khilafat Movement to 1947 to deal with the question of the four million Muslims who had remained in India. If they were traitors, who had they betrayed – Islam or Pakistan? Prithviraj as Ashraf and Uzra as his wife join Muslim League but remain staunch nationalists. Shattered by the violence unleashed in Punjab after August 15, he vows to stay back and serve his motherland. He is therefore shot dead by a ‘friend’ Muslim Leaguer.
Zohra loved the cameo she played of a maidservant who refuses to go to Pakistan. Fully identifying with the sentiments of the character — whom she crafted after the family retainers in her mother’s home — she would add extempore dialogue, and these endeared her to the audiences. She was deeply pained that the Partition created personal loss in her family as many of her own people moved across while she, married to a Hindu, never even considered it. But, in covering the thirty-year span of the play she had to enact an old woman – and “feeling old from within” was against the grain of the ever-exuberant lady who, even at 102, would go to bed with a smile on her lips as she whispered to her long dead husband, “Wait just a little longer Kameshwar, I’m on my way to be with you…”
As with Deewar, Ghaddar too faced problems with censor board clearance. The chief minister of Bombay asked Prithviraj to approach the Central government. Sardar Patel introduced him to Nehru, who sent him to Maulana Azad. The Education and Culture minister not only gave him a letter of clearance but also a 50 percent reduction in train fare for all cultural troupes. But the Muslims boycotted the play; Muslim Leaguers in Cochin threatened to burn down the theatre; and some crazy elements wanted to shoot Prithviraj. When he invited people from Bhendi Bazar to watch the play, they concluded that, “People who have been shown as Ghaddar deserve to be shown as traitors.”
Meanwhile the entire population of villages — where their neighbours were their community, their family — were being uprooted in Punjab and Bengal. They were going crazy trying to decide, “To go or to stay?” People who didn’t know any borders were figuring out if, by crisscrossing the imaginary line, they would remain Indians or become Pakistanis. Would they forego their lifestyle by going or ditch their religion by staying? The questions assumed frightening proportion as two of Zohra’s brother, one of her sisters, and even her dearest Uzra relocated themselves in Lahore and Karachi.
However, the real tragedy in all this for Zohra was that Kameshwar had distanced himself from her. Never having found a foothold for himself in Bombay, he had taken to alcoholism, substance support, and perhaps occult activities. Her touring with the Theatre did not make matters easy. But the need to put food on the table combined with the draw of footlights, and acting became Zohra’s calling and, yes, her second nature.
Ahooti (Sacrifice), Prithvi’s final play in the Partition Quartet, was the story of Janki, who is abducted and raped on the eve of her wedding. She’s rescued by Mohammed Shafi and reconciled with her father in a relief camp. But when the family moves to Bombay, she is subjected to slander, and although her fiancee is willing to marry her, his father forbids that, compelling her to commit suicide. The story mirrored the life of countless ‘Partition widows’ – on either side of the border — who have found place in literature and, much later, in films like Shahid-e-Mohabbat Buta Singh(The Sacrificing Lover, Buta Singh, 1991) and Gadar:Ek Prem katha (Rebellion: A Love Story, 2001)too. The published estimates of the number of women abducted by the governments of both the fledgling countries put the figure at 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 non-Muslim women in Pakistan. The enormity of the problem led the two governments to enter into an agreement to locate, recover and restore all such women to their respective families. But what of the women who had, in the meantime, acquired a new family?
In the original script it was to be the story of a mother and daughter but since Uzra had left the country, Prithviraj rewrote it as the story of a father and his daughter. Zohra did not have her heart in the play: first, becaue Uzra was not there; then, because her original role had been altered. Here too, she discerned Prithviraj’s self-indulgence. The play opened in 1949 to tepid reception and dull reviews that dubbed it ‘boring’. But the Deputy Genral of Bombay Police was moved by the girl’s plight and offered his services to help all such women. Prithviraj introduced him to one refugee whose daughter had been separated in the chaos of fleeing – and within days the daughter was found and restored to him. That is not all: at the end of the play the larger-than-life personality would stand with shawl spread out to collect any donation dropped into it, to help the relief work. Such was the emotional response that women even dropped their jewellery in the shawl – which Prithviraj soon requested them to desist from doing.
The Partition Quartet was to first perhaps to see where the rhetoric of religious difference can lead, the contest over territory can entail, the violence and violations that can result. Whatever the quantum of success or criticism they earned, they certainly provoked debate and affected political discourse that still hasn’t lost its sting. Zohra’s heart would swell with pride when Prithviraj rose to address conventions; call on people to turn his moves into a movement for peace. Through him she found herself performing in Punjab’s Firozpur jail, for prisoners who sat with hands and feet in chain… and she also got to witness the hanging of a man scheduled for the next dawn.
All this changed Zohra in a fundamental way: she shed her arrogance; she learnt to respect the dignity of everyone she worked with; she understood the transformative power of theatre. And perhaps she came to love her country, her people, her roots a little more.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
“It sucks, man”, he muttered and took a deep breath. His hands were folded on the back of his head as he reclined in the chair.
“And then count the age gap. Here I am barely twenty; just trying to acclimatise to the Varsity culture. And she? Well, I guess, not short of her mid-thirties”, he frowned.
Between the two of them they shared the rented flat.
He was from a remote small town and had arrived in the metropolis one year ago. After joining the University, he found that the hostel was already occupied to its total lodging capacity. So, his parents reluctantly chose to let him stay in a private accommodation, and this had landed him in the flat.
She was already a renter there. Initially, they had kept their newfound acquaintance restricted to a tacit exchange of casual glances. Then ensued the short verbal greetings, which eventually led to intimacy. She told him that she was from another big city and had been transferred to this city by her employers.
Earlier, he had been going to a small restaurant in the neighbourhood for his meals. Then she told him that she would make meals for both of them, and they could split the expenses. He readily agreed.
Every evening she would walk over, carrying two cups of tea to his partially furnished room. Sitting across the oblong table, sipping the tepid tea, they often made small talk. During one such session, she said she had got a Masters in Political Science. However, she hardly ever commented on national or international politics. Once or twice, he tried to plumb her political leanings, but she disappointed him. She exhibited the same stolidity in religious matters.
“Why are you so cold on the topics which intrigue almost everyone these days?” he asked her once again.
“Is it necessary to toe the line of others?” she retorted with a discomfiting smirk.
“Um-no, not at all. I only asked it out of curiosity,” he sounded flustered.
In physical terms, she was sensuous. But her personal aura did not encourage much passion in the opposite gender. He had to admit that she had something about her, which stirred awe rather than evoked salacious thoughts.
As their relationship became more frank, he began to cherish some private longings for her. When she was away, he would often try to conjure her tall, lithe figure to indulge in a mock act of dalliance, but could never get much further with it. Thus frustrated time and again, he ultimately came to weigh the possibility of marrying her, but in her presence, could not breathe a single syllable on the topic.
“What is she? Why is she so courageous and confident, while I am neither?” he used to wonder.
One day, he felt touched on the raw. “Do you have any girl friend?” she looked him straight in the face.
“M, me. No, no, not at all”, he jerked out.
“Hmm” she took a deep breath, and smiled coquettishly.
“Would you like to have one?”
“Well, am not sure what to say”, he replied meekly.
She burst into a guffaw. “Looks that you have yet to be weaned, boy!”
Her sudden vivacity flummoxed him, as he sat there gazing at her.
“Is she trying to flirt or is it a serious attempt to seduce?” he asked himself.
Meanwhile, she got up, collected the crockery and came near him. She stood beside his chair. Her intent gaze and the intoxicating fragrance of her perfume rattled his assumed composure.
“Let’s spend this time together and have fun. Who knows how the sun goes down tomorrow?” she whispered and made for her room.
The next day, as he entered the flat at the usual hour, he felt quite weird. She had not yet come back from her work. His patience began to run thin when after making several attempts to catch a glimpse of her, on the chance that she might have tiptoed onto the premises to give him a surprise.
He waited and waited until dusk set in. Still there was no sign of her.
“Where could have she gone? Over these past several months, she has never got late even for a short while. Has she met with some accident?” lost in such thoughts, he got up to go and dine at the restaurant. While dining, he cast a quick glance all around the hall, and then forgot that he had been hungry. The breaking news that flashed on the television screen rendered him insensible to his surroundings. The police had arrested a woman on the charge of first-degree murder of an aged prayer leader. The camera was constantly zooming in on her face. He gulped incredulously still glued to the screen. No further details of the case came in.
He hurried to the flat, collected all his effects and made for the
“Who knows how the sun goes down tomorrow?” her passionate words echoed in his ears, as he bade a tearful adieu to the city for good.
Amjad Ali Malik is a Pakistan–based writer. By profession, he is an Assistant Professor of English. The story “Before The Sun Goes Down” is his debut work.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.
One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.
When and how did you pick up a pen to write?
I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page. I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.
During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.
English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.
Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.
That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.
What gets your muse going?
Anything, and everything. A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.
Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.
You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in?
Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.
Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.
In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!
What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why?
To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.
I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.
Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.
It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.
Tell us a bit about your journey.
I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.
Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.
Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.
Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.
When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living?
There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.
What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit.
My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.
I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.
You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.
That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.
I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman. These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.
But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.
For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.
By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.
Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.
There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.
In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why?
I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.
In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.
However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.
There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.
What are your future plans?
One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.
I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.
So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.
Thank you for your time.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata
She was a “pint-sized bundel of musical genius,” wrote the TIME Magazine. The melody queen of India was, they said, “a singer with moonlight in her throat.”
Dr Javed Iqbal was the former Principal and HOD (Surgery) in Qaid-e-Azam Medical College, Bahawalpur, the 11th biggest city of Pakistan. Until a week ago I knew its name only because of Bahawalpur House, the mansion of the former monarch in Delhi, which is now the National School of Drama in the Capital’s Mandi House area. But on February 6, 2022, I gained acquaintance with this surgeon courtesy Whatsap. I heard in wonder as he paid a personal tribute to the just demised Nightingale of India. And I bowed my head twice in deference to the legendary singer and then, to the doctor who, by his own admission, was no scholar of music, yet provided a unique significance of Lata Mangeshkar.
Let me translate what I heard him say in Urdu. “As you know, I’m a surgeon. And when I came to Bahawalpur, I introduced a number of new procedures which contributed to my popularity as Principal and professor. So, students came to interview me for the college magazine. They asked me, ‘Sir where did you learn such good surgery?’ I don’t know why but instantly I answered, ‘From Lata Mangeshkar.’
“The students were surprised, ‘How can that be? She’s not a surgeon! How can you master surgery from her?’ ‘Have you heard her sing?’ I asked them. ‘The way she clears the dues of each harf, every letter of the alphabet; the way she conveys the nuances of every word without erring on even a fraction of the note or messing with a beat – this is the artistry that should permeate the work of every artist. Just the way a single stroke of a painter’s brush can make the painting a masterpiece or can mar it, in the same way a single movement of the finger holding the surgeon’s scalpel, a single cut, a single stitch, a single dissection through a cautery can transform the entire operation into an exemplary art or spoil it for life.’
“Many years ago, it struck me that the way Lata Mangeshkar does justice to every inflection of her songs, should be the yardstick to measure any art. Every breath should transform your performance into the best of your ability. If you listen to any song by Lata Mangeshkar, you will realise that, if the word is written with a chhoti-ii (pronounced: ‘e’) then you will hear a short vowel; and if it is a badi-ii (pronounced: ee) you will hear a long vowel. If you hear ain you can tell that it is written with ain/ euyin and if it is the Arabic letter qaaf then you will hear the guttural sound. But at the same time not a single demand of the melody will be ignored. I’m not an expert nor a scholar of music – and in the past few years I have not been hearing her often – but I can say that this is one quality that makes her mumtaz – the Best.
“Today when she has passed away, I feel like sharing this: The reason why humans are distinct from other living creatures is that physicality is the dominant need of other animals whereas humans are driven by the combined needs of physicality, intellect, emotion and spirituality. The creature whose life revolves around physicality alone will end when Death comes. But the more a person’s intellect, emotion and spirituality contributes to his/her actions, the greater will be his/her claim on immortality. Death is inevitable, Death is mighty, but Death is only so powerful as to make the 5-feet-something Lata Mangeshkar disappear from the face of the earth. Death is not so powerful as to end her art and erase her voice and make her songs disappear. Because the Lata Mangeshkar who was a khatun, a 5-feet-something lady has passed away. But the Lata Mangeshkar who made her ‘The Lata Mangeshkar’ will never die…”
Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), the late Classical vocalist whose signature style refused to be bound by gharana traditions, once said that “Often people ask about Lata Mangeshkar’s place in the pantheon of Classical music. In my opinion, this question is redundant, because there can be no comparison between classical music and film songs. While serious development of notes is the constant concern of one, fast beat and fickleness or agility is the main trait of the other.”
At the other end is Nitish Bharadwaj who is still revered for his much-loved evocation of Lord Krishna in the phenomenal serial Mahabharat. The actor has been like a brother to me since he debuted on the Hindi screen with Trishagni directed by my father Nabendu Ghosh. In his homage to the legend, he said, “Since her childhood Lata Didi has lived her life in pursuit of her art, as upasana, contemplation. Her career has not been to amass wealth, it has been as upasak, a worshipper or sadhak, devotee. Which is why she has succeeded in leaving behind thousands of songs for us…”
It is a fact that Lata Mangeshkar has more recordings to her name than any singer in the world. But it is not merely the number, it is the impact of the songs that astounds the world. I will quote an unidentified fan with whom my generation can easily identify. For she writes, “As a child you woke me up with Jago Mohan pyare (Rise my child, Krishna) and lulled me to sleep with Aa ja re aa nindiya tu aaa (Come, Sleep to rest in my baby’s eyes). You made me feel good as you sang Bacche man ke sacche (Children are born pure, with heart of gold). When you sing Humko man ki shakti dena, (Give us the strength to win over our mind) you take me back to my classroom. Solah baras ki bali umar (Sixteen going on seventeen), I experienced in your voice the blossoming of my first crush. Ajeeb dastaan hai ye (What a strange story, this!) stirred the deepest chord of my heart. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai you gave voice to the abandonment of a spirit freed from bonding. And the countless times I heard Aye mere watan ke logon (Cry, O people of my land)tears flowed down my cheeks…”
Three days after Lata Mangeshkar bid adieu to sunlight, Rabindra Sarobar – close to my house in Lake Gardens – offered a unique proof of her abiding life. Let me share it in the words of Mudar Patherya, my secularist friend who initiated a revival of the lake by hosting morning concerts and inculcated pride in one’s neighbourhood by painting icons on otherwise defaced walls.
“DEAR LATA AUNTY,” he wrote on his FB wall, “this morning, for a change, we sang for you. Beginning with Allah tero naam, Ishwar (God are your names too) – we feel you are that too. Then, we went on to Naa jeyo naa (Do not go away), Lag jaa gale (Come, hold me in your arms), Rahein na rahein hum (If I’m there or I’m gone), Piya tose (My eyes have met yours, beloved) and others. We ended with Ai mere watan ke logo.
“We were a few. We took kalam, printouts of the lyrics. We read the words. Emphasised the huroof, letters of the alphabet. Sang from deep within.
“‘Singing for you,’ we said.
“Nobody said Wah wah, Well done. Nor kya gaaya, encore.
“One Sarobar walker stopped and joined us.
“Another doing his press-ups did not rise, easing into restfulness after the fourth.
“Rowers – members of the Rowing Club next door – came close to where we were sitting, lifted their oars and glided lazily for seconds.
“The lady walking purposefully said ‘Wait a sec’ to her husband and stayed till the end.
“A yogi, engaged in the specific type of controlled breathing called anulom-vilom,, dropped his fingers halfway and meditated.
“A lady, who was a part of our audience, closed her eyes and rocked gently.
“The surgeon who played the harmonium for us shook his head in a gentle parabola as if he’d just comprehended something new.
“The lady with a DSLR to shoot birds capped her lens and sat down.
“The stranger who chanced by perched himself on the durrie and asked ‘Gaaitay paari? Can I join in?’
“Schedules were interrupted, agendas disturbed, focus distracted.
“At the end, someone suggested something radical.
“‘Can we have this for the whole day?’ “
Don’t worry dear, I would say in reply. We will — for the rest of our lives.
Khatun: A woman of rank
Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai: I want to live again today.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Sardar Dayal Singh had lived all his life in a predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood. The cluster of Sikh families provided a feeling of warmth, making him feel safe even when the threat to life and property assumed horrific proportions. In 1984, the entire colony was converted into an impenetrable fortress, with the men and boys ready with a stockpile of soda bottles and swords, prepared to put up a brave fight against the pillaging mob. Fortunately, the area remained safe from any such orchestrated communal attack. Despite the presence of over a hundred Sikh families, it was a mystery why Kishanganj was not looted when the entire city witnessed sporadic incidents of violence against the minority community in those three days. The most plausible reason that surfaced was its distant location on the outskirts of the city.
The Sikhs of Kishanganj gave asylum to persecuted Sardars who fled from other localities and stayed with them for several weeks before returning to their burnt homes to salvage what remained, to collect the debris, and make a fresh beginning. For Sardar Dayal Singh, it was mentally less agonising as he realised how being together with people of the same community ensured safety when the entire city was up in communal flames.
Three decades later, after retirement from his job, Sardar Dayal Singh was not the same man who basked in the warmth of his community. A series of incidents had shaken him. All he wanted was to sell the ancestral house in Kishanganj and move into a gated community, a mixed society where he would feel safe. With the young generation relocating to foreign countries in search of a better future, those left behind in Kishanganj were small traders and pensioners.
With rising intolerance against the minorities, the high-rise complex was the safest place for Sardar Dayal Singh who did not want to flaunt his nameplate on the door. The flat number was a safe identity on the letterbox or the initials of his name on the main door of his apartment. The upper floor apartment in a high-rise building would keep him closer to God all the time and also provide him with safety from an irate mob. He did not expect any frenzied outsider, armed with a weapon, to climb the fifteenth floor to reach his flat and hack him into pieces.
Sardar Dayal Singh and his spouse, Charan Kaur moved into a spacious luxury apartment, equipped with Jacuzzi and Spa, with an extra-wide balcony to enjoy the sunset and a glass of whiskey. His Canada-based son was glad to hear that he had sold his ancestral house and bought a three-bedroom flat where the old couple would now get trained to accept a cosmopolitan daughter-in-law.
Charan Kaur, fondly called Charno by her friends and relatives, did not find the new life exciting. She missed her Punjabi friends in Kishanganj. Within a few months of moving to the apartment, Charno started feeling lonely — as if she was living in a foreign country. She had to mingle with neighbours who spoke other languages she was not fluent in. While Sardar Dayal Singh was happy to adapt, Charno often complained that the gurudwara was located far away from the residential complex. She had not found a single Sardar family in the entire building with who she could interact. This was the place where she felt she was living in a minority environment but in Kishanganj, with scores of Punjabi families around, she never felt she belonged to a minority community.
To stay connected to her roots, Charan Kaur began to listen to Punjabi music and watched Punjabi channels. Even if others spoke in Hindi or English, she replied in Punjabi, as if it was her duty to keep the language alive and in circulation inside the residential complex. When she spoke to the housemaid, the liftman, or the security guard, she used Punjabi all the time without bothering to know if they understood it or not.
Sardar Dayal Singh noted the emergence of a communal streak in his wife. He hoped the people would not take the old lady seriously. His advice to become liberal and speak in other languages was ignored by her. She started organising a small together every weekend and invited her Punjabi friends from Kishanganj, to make her new neighbours understand that she had a robust social network of Punjabi women who would rally behind her if the situation demanded. Charan Kaur was happy to spend time with them and sometimes she went to Kishanganj to revive old memories.
During her last visit, Charan Kaur stood in front of their ancestral house that was demolished. A new building was yet to come up, but the old mango tree stood tall in the vacant land. She told her close friends she was not happy with the decision to sell such a big house and live in a flat. She blamed Sardar Dayal Singh for the reckless decision and wiped her tears.
On the eve of their fiftieth marriage anniversary, she invited the entire Sardar community from Kishanganj to her flat. Sardar Dayal Singh used this opportunity to influence some other retirees to move into this residential complex by selling their properties in Kishanganj, but Charan Kaur fiercely opposed his suggestion, “Never sell your house. Guru would protect all in Kishanganj even if the younger generation is away.” Turning to Sardar Dayal Singh, she asked, “Is there a place or an address where death does not come, Sardarji?” He could not reply to her in front of the guests who supported Charan Kaur on this issue.
Gathering the courage to explain his point of view in the hope that he would not be misunderstood by his people, Sardar Dayal Singh said, “Cluster living was dangerous for a small community these days. We did not have the option of apartments then, but now with so many complexes coming up we should mix and spread everywhere, to avoid detection based on religion. Mobs do not come looking for one or two heads – they need hundreds to loot and plunder and a Sikh locality is a prime target.”
His views were diametrically opposite now and there were no supporters. His old-time friend, Sardar Jasbir Singh finally spoke his mind, “Dayal, only the fear of death does not keep us together. We are together in Kishanganj because we love to be together, for culture and bonding. It is good for mental wellbeing and mutual help. You live in a flat now, but I am sure you miss the manji (charpoy) sessions in the courtyard where we sat together and drank and discussed everything under the sun.”
The core point Sardar Dayal Singh was making was that the safety of Sikhs was high in residential complexes. He defended his stance: “Nobody knows a Sardar family is living here. I am safe from mad mobs, but you are still facing the same threat we survived in 1984. When you have a chance now, why not spread here and there? We can still keep meeting wherever we want and keep our social connections strong.”
Sardar Jasbir Singh responded with greater conviction, “One crazy man is enough to kill a dozen. Such mad people are there in these residential complexes as well. If something untoward happens, if Sikhs hog the headlines for the wrong reasons anywhere in the world, imagine the possibility of the liftman stabbing you in the elevator to seek revenge. Have you given this a thought?”
Sardar Dayal Singh was hit hard, and he could deny this possibility. There were many such incidents of men going berserk and opening fire, those racial attacks of stabbing and firing at point black range.
The next morning, Sardar Dayal Singh was wary of the liftman who glared at him. There was a case of sacrilege in Punjab and a youth had been lynched. The liftman charged him while he was coming out of the lift. “Sardarji, do you think what happened in Amritsar yesterday was right? All Sikhs come together and beat a young man to death. Is this Sikh justice?”
When the security guard also joined the liftman, Sardar Dayal Singh tendered an apology and condemned the incident. The tobacco-chewing security guard sought updates from the liftman who checked his smartphone for the latest feed on this issue.
Sardar Dayal Singh came home from the market and sought a candid opinion from his wife, “How likely is that the liftman goes mad and stabs me in the lift?”
Charan Kaur gauged something was not right but maintained her calm demeanour. Handing him a glass of water, she replied, “It is very much possible. You are wrong to think the people inside this complex will not turn into a crazy mob and attack us if the situation worsens. If a riot breaks out in the city, maybe a big mob does not get in here but two crazy people like the liftman or the gardener can open fire at us. Even if they do not kill us, they can threaten us, abuse us, make barbed comments, or torture us. Such repeated attacks will hurt sentiments and disturb our mental peace.”
Sardar Dayal Singh kept observing their behaviour in the coming days. He found nothing worth complaining to the committee. But there were undercurrents he could feel. Such behaviour or reaction based on stray incidents in a far-off place was really strange and he was not supposed to answer anything. He thought if he complained and the liftman lost his job, he could become violent and seek revenge.
Sardar Dayal Singh reduced his daily trips downstairs. He tried to placate the liftman with smiles whenever he met him. He followed the same strategy with the security guard who made a weird statement one evening: “We thought Sardarjis are good.” Sardar Dayal singh avoided answering it but his reticence seemed to annoy the guard who waited for a reply while he stepped out of the main gate.
Sardar Dayal Singh spoke about the simmering discontent with his son on the telephone and he advised him to keep some emergency helpline numbers ready.
When the farmer protests started, Sardar Dayal Singh sensed a fresh series of verbal attacks. He desperately wanted Sikhs to remain out of the headlines. Just keep the culture beat alive with Bhangra and Balle-Balle and keep making sacrifices at the border to keep the nation convinced of patriotic fervour.
Whenever the Khalistan issue was raised abroad, the domestic atmosphere got vitiated. What happened on Republic Day was indeed shameful and he felt the Sikhs were inviting trouble for no reason. Those extremist-minded groups wanted to destabilise the state by demanding a separate homeland. He felt ashamed and wrote fiery letters to the editors. He felt it was important to assert his national identity to stay safe.
Charan Kaur wanted to visit Kartarpur in Pakistan, but Sardar Dayal could not decide. On the one side, he also wanted to visit the place where Guru Nanak lived for so many years and on the other side, he was fearful of the consequences of visiting that country.
“If you don’t dare to go, I will go there with my friends from Kishanganj,” Charan Kaur clarified. Finding her determined, Sardar Dayal Singh agreed to join her and Kishanganj friends on this pilgrimage trip.
After returning from Kartarpur, Sardar Dayal Singh warned his wife to keep it a secret. He urged her not to reveal where they had been to, not to any neighbour or even the housemaid. But within a couple of days, he was surprised to hear the liftman say with a grin, “Pakistan settle ka plan, Sardarji?”
Sardar Dayal Singh was numbed to hear that. He found almost the entire complex had come to know of their visit to Pakistan. So, there was no point denying and creating further discord. To be called a spy at this age would be really humiliating for the elderly couple.
Sardar Dayal Singh remembered that the small reaction he gave to a national TV channel reporter at the border was a blunder. Neighbours started to isolate themselves and their gnawing silence was felt by Sardar Dayal Singh and his wife. There was nothing to explain but they thought he was a Pakistan sympathiser at heart. He had just gone to pay respects to Guru Nanak. Was this modern nation not going to allow him that?
His car parked in the covered parking zone was likely to be attacked. IK Onkar sticker on the windshield was immediately removed to avoid identification. But the security guard knew it was Sardarji’s car. Sardar Dayal Singh was reminded to be careful by the liftman whenever he met him. He felt the old couple could get killed in the flat by crazy people any day.
Charan Kaur decided to move to Kishanganj, and Sardarji supported her decision. He rented his flat to a company instead of an individual and went to stay in a rented house in Kishanganj. Although Sardar Dayal Singh faced no direct threat, he lived under the gaze of threat all the time. A lot had changed in one year. The farm laws were repealed, and the farmers returned home after several incidents of violence.
In Kishanganj, some TV reporters came to report the reaction of the Sikhs. They were bursting crackers to celebrate victory when the reporters arrived with guns in a black SUV emblazoned with a press sticker. “You Sardars still depend on Kirpan, have some AK-47, and stay secure.”
Sardar Dayal Singh stood in front and urged them to go back with their guns. The local Sikhs chased them away and gathered their swords and soda bottles. They did not want to launch an attack but were prepared to defend themselves. The video of Sardars with swords on the rooftops went viral and they were projected as bloodthirsty goons. While no offensive was launched, it was a clever move to lure them with guns and get their reaction. The identity of those reporters who came with guns remained unknown. It was certainly an act of mischief, and the Sikhs were trapped.
As Republic Day was approaching, Sardar Dayal Singh wanted the community to hoist the national flag, shoot a video and post it online. They wanted Kishanganj Sikhs to be seen as patriotic and nation lovers.
While addressing the mixed crowd of Sikhs spanning three generations, Sardar Dayal Singh thundered: “Sikhs have to stop talking of past sacrifices. They have to make new sacrifices and avoid taking credit for what their earlier generations did. With new sacrifices, we become known as real patriots and assert our love for the country…We should be the first to hoist the flag early in the morning and conduct celebratory events the whole day. The blood donation camp is the best event planned for Republic Day tomorrow. Sikhs must give their blood to save the nation and save human lives. If health permits, all Sikhs must donate blood. Instead of spilling it on the roads due to mob attack, we should donate blood.”
Sardar Jasbir Singh raised a query at this point: “Should we call it Sikh Blood Donation Camp? Or Blood Donation Camp?”
1984: Riots between Hindus & Sikhs after the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi.
‘Pakistan settle ka plan’ — You plan to settle in Pakistan, Sardarji?
Devraj Singh Kalsiworks as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Ideally, I would love to start the New Year with laughter and happiness! Then perhaps, the whole year would be dotted with humour …
Laughter clubs often practice laughing for health benefits. I know the pandemic makes both guffawing outdoors or in a group hard but think of the funniest possible thing and, perhaps, you will start laughing. For me what works other than children’s and monkeys’ antics, are my trips to the dentist, especially the trip where I wondered on the fringe benefits of ‘laughing gas’ (as given in the PG Wodehouse novel of the same name), only to be informed that it was used exclusively for young children. For me, an adult, there was only — you have guessed it — the jab that numbs your lip function to lubber. I discovered if I could make light of a dentist drilling by learning from Harry Potter (the spell to get rid of the terrifying boggart, who took the shape of the thing you feared most, was to imagine the funniest thing, focus on the humour in it, and shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a wand pointed at the creature in the form of your worst nightmare), then I could pretty much get rid of most fears.
The other thing I have been wondering for sometime is can one write an editorial that is humorous when the content is serious? I would have wanted to ask that question to many, including Ruskin Bond, who continues as one of my idols. I would love to touch hearts with the humour and the sensitivity that flavours his writing. It is tough to convey a complex thought with the simplicity and elegance of a writer who can be read and understood easily. I think we have a few of them around and I interviewed one. You all probably know him well— Rhys Hughes. I have given the reasons for the interview in lieu of Mr Bond, who continues a distant star beyond the horizon of online interviews. We discussed humour and its role in literature, leaving out completely in the cold, the fictional Mr Bond who answers to the names of James and 007 and has made entertaining films, which can be seen as serious or non-serious.
Another major issue in this world currently is climate change. In keeping with the need for acceptance of this reality, Keith Lyons introduced us to a nature lover, author and adventurer Kenny Peavy, who loved the fictional adventurer called Indiana Jones and has been working towards living in harmony with nature. He moved to Indonesia from America and is trying to raise awareness. You can find much, though not elephants, in the interview that encompasses the story of a man who cycled across a continent on a bike made of bamboo. However, you can find some writing on a king who acquired the skill to ride and tame elephants in our book excerpt from Shazi Zaman’sAkbar: A Novel of History. The excerpt does not showcase his elephant taming skills as did the Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar but is focussed on bringing out the syncretism in the Mughal monarch’s outlook which made him seek out exponents of other religions. Sangita Swechcha’s and Andrée Roby’s anthology, A Glimpse Into My Country, with excerpts of short stories from Nepal and Zimbabwe, like Kenny Peavy, cycle across multiple borders as does our fiction. We feature stories from within and without the continent with Fazal Baloch recombining a couple of folklores from Balochistan to a single tale. Fiction from young writers highlight compassion and a varied perspective. Steve Ogah has a story from Nigeria which almost rings with overtones of Alex Haley’s Roots. Sohana Manzoor has given us a poignant narrative with an inspiring twist at the end, an absolute antithesis of the humorous one she rolled out for us last month. Candice Louisa Daquin has also given us an exceptional short fiction along with her column where she discusses the changing face of families in the current context.
While Daquin’s focus is mainly towards the West, we have an essay from Sanjay Kumar on families that live in the greyer zones of big cities, children from an outcropping called Nithari in Delhi, where they or theirs suffered neglect, abuse, carnage and cannibalism in their formative years. Introducing the impacted children, Kumar explains how they transcended the wounds that lacerated their lives. This piece is a precursor to a column called ‘Children of Nithari’. Starting February, the abuse victims will give us a story a month which will be translated by young volunteers from pandies’, an activist theatre group founded by Kumar, and published in Borderless. Another article from Balochistan reflects on the lack of literacy and efforts to bring children into the folds of schooling. Pakistan ranked 99th out of 132 countries on the literacy survey in 2021. We are privileged to be the voice of the unheard.
Two essays that ring of concerns raised in the Kenny Peavy interview are to do with climate crisis in the Sunderbans and waste disposal in Delhi. Both of these are written by researchers who are working on these issues.
We have travel pieces from Australia – one is a sailing adventure by Meredith Stephens and the other is about a trip to the Sand Dunes of Western Australia by Shernaz Wadia. Ravi Shankar has also taken us through winters from the Everest to New York with his globe-trotting non-fiction. Penny Wilkes takes us on a flight of creativity with beautiful photography.
We have a stellar layout of translations. Professor Fakrul Alam translated another poem by Jibananada Das and Borderless is honoured to publish it to the world for the first time. We have a translation from Korea and another of a Brahmo hymn, Aji Shubho Dine, by Tagore, which is sung often during festivals. The icing in our Tagore section in this issue is Ratnottama Sengupta’s translation of the Kobiguru’s ‘Two Birds’ (Khanchar Pakhi Chhilo) along with a musing which reflects on the perspectives of the two contemporaries, Tagore and Saratchandra. She has also translated a well-known Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt wrote just before the advent of Tagore and had an interesting past which has been vividly depicted by Sunil Gangopadhyay in Those Days (Sei Somoy in Bengali), a novel that has been translated by Aruna Chakravarti. Bhaskar Parichha has given us a tribute on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Fakir Mohan Senapati, who, he claims, has the same standing in Odia literature as Tagore in Bengali or Premchand in Hindi.
Parichha has also reviewed Amit Ranjan’sJohn Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee. It looks like an interesting read where an immigrant Australian came supported Rani of Jhansi in India. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Selma Carvalho’s Sisterhood of Swans, again a story of migrants and their lives. The theme seems to echo among the books that have been reviewed this time, including Gracy Samjetsabam’s take on Anuradha Kumar’s The Hottest Summer in Years, a story about a German immigrant to India in the twentieth century. Meenakshi Malhotra’s review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885) highlights the views of a traveller rather than an immigrant as the lady did return home after a ten-year sojourn in Britain. As Meenakshi contends, “The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies…”
I was supposed to try my hand at a humorous editorial, but I realise that is tough when the ground is small. For humour, we need rolling acres where we can etch out each detail till it cannot be milked further for laughter. But I promise you I will keep trying to please the readers till one evolves to write like Ruskin Bond.
I would like to thank my fabulous team who even if not actively contributing to content are always at hand to advise and help. I would especially want to thank both Sohana Manzoor and Sybil for their fantastic artwork, which is as wonderful as their writings. I would like to give heartfelt thanks to all the contributors who have made this journal possible and each reader who comes back to our journal for more every month. Some of the pieces remain unmentioned adding to the mystery of the content, just like, Christmas gifts which need to be unwrapped and continue a reality even in January in some parts of the world – the Russians celebrate on January 7th and the Spaniards extend their festivities to January 6th.
Do take a look at this month’s edition for not just the stories mentioned here but for more.
I wish you all a wonderful New Year filled with laughter.
Commemorating fifty years of Bangladesh which struggled for the right to freedom from oppression and succeeded finally on 16th December, 1971
Bengal went through three Partitions, the final one being in 1971, when Bangladesh came to be its own entity. The first Partition of Bengal was in 1905, when Lord Curzon sliced it along the lines of faith, which as Ratnottama Sengupta points out in her musing was the result of the colonial policy of divide and rule implemented along religious lines for earlier when Hindus and Muslims had combined forces against colonials, it took a year to quell the revolt of 1857. Due to opposition from many, including Tagore, the colonials were forced to revoke the Partition in 1911.
In 1947, the subcontinent was again divided along religious lines. So, technically, there was Pakistan and India. Pakistan included East (Bengal) and West. As Fakrul Alam tells us in his essay, the Bengalis resented the imposition of Urdu by Pakistan. After a struggle of three decades, and a war in which India supported East Pakistan and America supported West Pakistan, Bangladesh gained complete independence in 1971 with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the country, at its helm.
We present to you a glimpse of this part of history as told by various contributors on our forum.
Professor Fakrul Alam, the translator of Bongobondhu (friend of Bengal) Mujibur Rahman’s autobiography, to takes us on a journey to the inception of Bangladesh and beyond. Click here to read the interview.
Aruna Chakravarti reviews Golden Bangladesh at 50: Contemporary Stories & Poemseditedby Shazia Omar, bringing to focus the Partition between 1905-1911. She also explains the story of the creation of Aamar Shonar Bangla (My Golden Bengal, the Bangladesh National Anthem) by Tagore around this period. Click here to read.
Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University.
In Dhaka University: the Convocation Speeches, a volume compiled with an introduction by Serajul Islam Choudhury in 1988, we read that the university was established by the British as a “splendid imperial compensation” for the Muslims of East Bengal (Choudhury, 26). They had wanted the current rulers of India to make up through it for the loss, they felt, they had suffered because of the reunion of Bengal in 1911. Delivering his inaugural speech as the Chancellor of Dhaka University (DU) in 1923, Lord Lytton had not only made this point but had also expressed the hope that it would soon become “the chief center of Muhammadan learning” in India and would “devote special attention to higher Islamic studies” (26). However, Lytton had ended his speech by urging graduands to conceive of the institution “as an Alma Mater in whose service the Muhammadan and the Hindu can find a common bond of unity” (Choudhury, 29). The subsequent history of the university reveals that while some of its future students would viewed it as a site for cultivating Islamic values and consolidating the Islamic heritage of the part of Bengal in which it was located, others would claimed it as a space where a democratic and secular notion of being Bengalis could be disseminated.
DU started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. It became the center of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971. The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali.
The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country. In response to this ruling DU students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action.” Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 224). When he made the same point in addressing the DU Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that soon spread across East Pakistan, ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan, a state built entirely on Islamist nationalism.
A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been held responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards.
In retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. DU teachers and students played a crucial part in the confrontation. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatus failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life.
It was to be expected, then, that when the Pakistani state made one last desperate attempt to suppress Bengalis clamouring for full autonomy and democracy on March 26, 1971 they would do so by targeting DU and attempting to mow down Dhaka university faculty members and students ruthlessly. When the Pakistani government decided to postpone the National Assembly meet, where the Awami League had got an absolute majority and where they were in a position to claim self-rule for East Pakistan and dominate Pakistani politics for the first time in that nation’s history, the campus broke out once again in loud protest. On the 7th of March, when the Awami League’s chief, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave his historic speech claiming full autonomy and threatening to launch an armed movement that would drive away the Pakistanis from East Pakistan forever, DU student leaders were at his side as he spoke in Ramna Park, which borders the university.
What happened on 26 March was nothing less than a calculated bid to blast DU to smithereens, murder student leaders and selected faculty members, and drive out all students from the campus for playing leading roles in the movement against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army was nothing short of murderous in attempting to neutralize dissent. Inevitably, DU bore the brunt of their initial fury. Anybody found in the university that night was mowed down and dorms, faculty residences and the DU Teacher’s Club were shot at indiscriminately. The Shaheed Minar was razed to the ground and Bangla Academy was subject to artillery fire. Even university non-teaching staff and cafeteria officials were not spared. Madhu’s canteen – the favorite haunt of student politicians throughout the sixties – was attacked and Madhu – the benign owner of the cafeteria – was murdered. The huge bot tree (banyan) which provided shade under which student leaders delivered speeches and from which they had given the declaration of independence on one of the turbulent March days – was blasted out of existence.
It was clear that the Army had decided that DU was the ultimate symbol of the unacceptable form Bangladeshi national identity formation was assuming. As Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury observes in “Ekattor O Dhaka Visva-Bidyalaya (1971 & DU),” the university ambience encouraged people to not merely dream about freedom and equality but to create an environment where the dream seemed to come close to reality. Also, the University had been consistently a site of resistance in its efforts to impose a theocratic or monolingual state on Bengalis, as on-campus happenings from the time of Jinnah’s 1948 declaration about making Urdu the only state language and the protest movements of the fifties and sixties that culminated in the month-long protests of March 1971 demonstrated. The six-point program proposed by the Awami League for financial and political autonomy had been drafted by DU professors.
In the nine-month liberation war that followed the Pakistani army crackdown on DU and the rest of Bangladesh, the university once again became a microcosm of the country in that almost all of its entire faculty and students fled it. Academic activities came to a standstill and it became a campus bereft of students who had deserted it along with most of their teachers since they were unwilling to kowtow to the Pakistani design to create a quiescent institution run by quislings and were not inclined to impart or acquire education in line with proto-Islamist and/or totalitarian concepts of nationalism. Many students died in the course of the next nine months fighting for liberation or suspected of doing so. When the birth of Bangladesh seemed imminent at the end of the year, the Pakistani Amy and its local collaborators carried out a systematic search of faculty members on, and outside, the campus to murder the ones still around, holding them largely responsible for the breakup of the country they had not been able to prevent from cracking up.
When independence finally came to Bangladesh on December 16, it was fitting that the Pakistani Army would surrender in the open space adjacent to the university known as Ramna Park. The many teachers and students who had been murdered since March 26 as well as the resistance put up by them were later commemorated with structures erected all over the campus, the most prominent of them being the “Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture in front of Kala Bhabhan or the Arts faculty building, the martyrs plaque put up opposite the central mall, and the sculpted figures of the freedom fighters erected in front of the Teachers-Students Centre. December 14 became from then on the day when the DU Liberation War martyrs were to be ceremonially remembered and December 16 the day when DU faculty and staff joined the rest of the country in celebrating Victory Day.