Ratnottama Sengupta shows the impact of Gandhi and his call for non-violence on her father, Nabendu Ghosh as she continues to emote over his message of Ahimsa and call for peace amidst rioting
The ferocity and senselessness of riots — Nabendu Ghosh had personal experience of both. In his autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri (Dey’s Publication, 2008, Journey of a Lonesome Boat), he writes at length about grappling with the riots that had rocked Calcutta, Bengal — nay, the entire Subcontinent on 16th August 1946.
The Direct Action Day call was given out by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to press the demand for a separate Muslim State, Pakistan. The epicentre was Calcutta, a flourishing centre of business and education, that had Suhrawardy of Muslim League as its chief minister. On that black Friday, they unleashed unprecedented bloodletting along communal lines. At least 4000 deaths were reported on the very first day of the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ that continued for more than four days. Many women were raped, many were kidnapped, many killed and hung naked in public areas… Dismemberment, forced conversion, bustees set on fire… Violence spread to Khulna in East Bengal, and Bihar. Within a year the hatred ignited on religious grounds culminated in the Partition of India.
The savagery of the mindless bloodbath had left such a deep dent on the yet-to-be-thirty writer, that he wrote a number of stories and novels on the theme: Phears Lane, Dweep, Trankarta, Ulukhar, ‘Chaaka’(Full Circle), and ‘Gandhiji’.
Gandhiji builds majorly on the author’s own memories of a darshanof Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi while he was passing through Patna, sometime in early 1931. This is how he records his ‘encounter’ with the Saint of Sabarmati who worked magic on the masses with the mantra of Ahimsa, non-violence.
“By 1930 all of India and its British rulers too were uttering one name with awe: Gandhi. One evening it came to my ears that the Mahatma would reach Patna at 7 am the next morning, spend the day in the city and leave by the Punjab Mail at night.
“I did not sleep well that night. I was up at the crack of dawn and left home at 5 am on the pretext of getting a book from a friend. But I could not get anywhere near the Patna railway station, which was teeming with people who had arrived before sunrise. It was no different along the path he would be driven down. I hung around at one end of the platform, eyes glued to the exit gate.
“Policemen on horseback trotted past me. A police van was parked close by. Those patrolling the platform carried bayonets and batons. Because of my green years and my small built, I was allowed to inch ahead. From time to time the sky was rent with the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Long live the Mahatma!’
“All of a sudden, perhaps to steel myself, I started to whisper: ‘Vande Mataram! I salute you, my Motherland!’ As if on a cue, the man next to me cried out aloud: ‘Vande Mataram!’ The crowd roared in an echo: ‘Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!!’
“Suddenly a train rolled in with a long whistle. And people all around me broke into the cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’ ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’ ‘Vande Mataram!’ I found myself matching their voice…
“Soon people started saying, ‘There he goes…’ Some cars came forward with Gandhi-topi clad volunteers. And then, there was the face so familiar from the newspapers, peering out of a hood-open Ford. Mahatma Gandhi, clad in a knee-length khadi dhoti, a chadar draped over his bare torso, a volunteer on either side, was greeting everyone with folded hands. What an inspiring image!
“I also broke into the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’‘ The crowd had started running behind the moving car. I joined them, without a pause in the slogan. A few paces later, I bumped into someone and fell down by the wayside. As an elderly gentleman lifted me up and soothingly dusted me off. I felt a resolve surface in my thoughts: ‘Freedom must be won!'”
Nabendu Ghosh may or may not have had another prototype for the protagonist Ratan in Gandhiji. But it is said there actually lived close to College Street — where Nabendu lived at the time — a person named Gopal Mukherjee who owned a meat shop. He was a devotee of Subhash Chandra Bose and a critique of Gandhi. Reportedly this ‘paatha‘ — butcher — was funded by some Marwari businessmen and he led his team to retaliate from the fourth day of riots. After Independence, when he was urged to surrender his guns, knives and sword to Gandhiji, he apparently refused, saying, “I would willingly lay down my arms for Netaji, but not for Gandhiji. Why didn’t he stop the killings in Noakhali?”
The author may have woven in some traits of Gopal Paatha but, like a mirror image that is identical yet opposite, his protagonist Ratan is transformed by the iconic personality so that he surrenders his weapons — expressed symbol of violence — at the feet of the Mahatma.
As I watched Kamal Hasan’s Hey! Ram (2000), I was reminded of this story, ‘Gandhiji’ that was published in the collection Raater Gaadi (The Night Train) in 1964. Perhaps unknowingly the character played in the film by Om Puri reflects the protagonist Ratan.
In Hey! Ram, A rioteer who has snuffed out scores of lives walks up to the fasting Gandhi in Beliaghata, throws a roti towards him and says, “I have bloodied my hands with many lives but I will not have your death on my conscience.” He resonates Ratan, the butcher who finds his biggest high in draining out human blood but once he rests his eyes on the frail sage, something happens deep inside him. He who wondered why his taking a life should matter to ‘Gendo’, stakes his own life to protect a Muslim.
Nabendu Ghosh experienced the magic of the Mahatma at age fourteen, long years before he became my father.
I felt the magic of the man whom Rabindranath Tagore gave the name of Mahatma when I was well into my forties, and was doing a Fellowship in Oxford, on a Charles Wallace award, on John Ruskin and his Influence on Gandhi and Tagore.
Then, almost 20 years later, we were at the critical juncture in time when we were completing 70 years of Gandhi’s passing and approaching his Sesquicentennial Birth Anniversary. That is when I started wondering: “What does Mohandas Karamchand mean to those acquiring voting rights in India now? Is he only the face on every Indian currency note? Is he only ‘M G Road’ — the high street of every city in India? Is he a boring memory who forces every one of his countrymen to shun drinking on his birthday?”
Or, is there any valid reason to recall what he said — in Natal and Transvaal and Pietermaritzburg; in Kolkata and Noakhali, Chowri Chowra and Dandi, Bombay and Delhi? Is there anything in his actions that can change the lives of not only Indians but everywhere in the world where people are tired of terror strikes and gunshots and discrimination in the name of caste or creed or colour?
For, influence he certainly did, the lives of so many personalities… Not for nothing was Mohandas of Porbandar to become Gandhiji, Mahatma, Bapu, Father of the Nation.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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Delhi in the 1960’s:
Nostalgia about Lahore was high.
Partition displaced refugees spoke of
misery, mayhem, murder. Deda Ji regretted
that, at the time of leaving, a pillowcase of house jewels
was misplaced. Bhabhi Ji had similar regrets--
leaving priceless possessions behind in Lahore
But what struck us-- newcomers to the grand city
were the names of shops.
So many of them were
named after places in Western Punjab,
or those now in Pakistan. For instance,
A popular eatery called ‘Lahorian di Hatti’
‘Quetta DAV School’.
Small eateries served dishes called ‘Pindi ke Chholey Bhatoorey’.
A shop with the name ‘New Lyallpur Cloth House’.
There were ‘Lahorian Jewellers’, ‘Sindh Wood & Ply’,
Karachi Sweet Shop, Karachi Stationery Mart, Quetta Store,
Peshawar Sweet Bhandar, Lahore Watch Co., Sialkot Jewellers
and also ‘Abbott Drycleaner’s’, whose shop, it turned out,
had not been named after some monastery’s abbot
but after ‘Abbottabad’ --a town in Pakistan
(made famous by the capture of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals)
Thus, many places in erstwhile undivided India,
but no more in India now.
Lahore, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Lyallpur, Sindh,
Abbottabad, Karachi, Peshawar, Sialkot
made their presence felt in a walk in any area of Delhi.
The Partition displaced people had suffered immense tragedies and losses
And had also brought a little bit of their homeland with them.
August in Kabul:America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban is a real-life account of a journalist who returned to Kabul from Dubai to be with his “friends”, to let them know that their well-wishers had not abandoned them, even while the American forces withdrew and the Taliban took over. Most, including President Ghani, were flying out of Kabul while acclaimed photojournalist who had spent eight years there, Andrew Quilty, flew back from Dubai on 14th August, 2021.
His account traces the history of the takeover, the inception of the Taliban, the reactions of the people to their earlier regime dating from 1996 to 2001: “The Taliban were initially welcomed there, and many young, uneducated male residents, enamoured by the group’s piety, joined their ranks. But to Soviet-era communist officials, senior Hezb-i Islami figures and those with tertiary educations or financial means, the Taliban’s devoutness foretold merciless intolerance, and they left the country, travelling to the West through costly smuggling networks or to neighbouring Pakistan or Iran, joining the millions who had moved there during the Soviet war, as refugees.”
He is vocal about the Doha Agreement made by the Trump regime and executed by Biden, where the handing over left gaps which caused suffering not only among foreigners but also the local population of Afghanistan. Citizens died trying to find safety for themselves and their loved ones. Chaos prevailed and both Taliban forces and American soldiers killed innocents. With more than hundred interviews, Quilty brings the plight of these people to light. What touches the heart in this narrative is the human suffering caused by political games and beliefs. This has been captured well in the account.
That the current acknowledged rulers of Afghanistan, the Talibans, have reverted in certain senses to their past stance, especially pertaining to a major issue, the freedom of women has been acknowledged. But is this an issue that is related essentially to Taliban only or does it run deeper within the culture? Through the narrative of a young girl, Nadia, the author relates the equation for Afghani women: “Preserving the safety of women is a common sleight of hand used by Afghan men to keep those within their family under control. Neglecting such a duty and allowing a young woman the freedom to walk when they wish in the streets, to socialise with unrelated men, and to develop their understanding of the world outside the home and their ideas about their place therein, is deduced by many outside the immediate family to imply the woman is what Nadia refers to euphemistically as a ‘bad girl’. Boiled down, a ‘bad girl’ is one who cavorts and sleeps with men out of wedlock—a prostitute in Afghan terms, a great stain on a family’s honour. To avert such a possibility, rather than confront those who deliberately misinterpret the young woman’s ways and use it to undermine her family, instead, her brothers, father and male members of the extended family more often elect to restrain her behaviour.”
Women are not the only victims of a society that balks at liberal or out of the box thinking. The book is an eye-opener and reveals how the events of that August unfolded in 2021. It was an amazing coincidence that the takeover was completed on a date that coincided with the Independence Day celebrations of its neighbours, India (15th August) and Pakistan (14th August).
This account varies from an earlier account of Afghanistan written almost a century ago in its tone – that was humorous essays, a memoir by Syed Mujtaba Ali translated by Nazes Afroz from Bengali, called In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. This is a journalistic account. But one thing that runs through both the narratives is the bonding both these writers experienced with the locals, perhaps a bond born of friendship with people who have lived in oppressed communities and the need to get the world to hear their voices. The social norms still sound the same with wild gun shots marking celebrations. But what was not mentioned in the earlier were the scars left by Soviets and American weapons – because Mujtaba Ali’s account ended at the start of the civil war (1928-29), long before the superpowers intervened in a major way, even though the then-ruler Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) had abdicated and escaped to British India.
Andrew Quilty who gives a splendid coverage of the current scenario, had been in Afghanistan since 2013. He is the recipient of nine Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley, for his work on Afghanistan. He has also received the George Polk Award, the World Press Photo Award and the Overseas Press Club of America award for his investigation into massacres committed by a CIA-backed Afghan militia. In this conversation, Quilty tells us more about the writing of the book and his own responses to the change in regime and the takeover, and most of all what made him return to a conflict zone.
What made you return to Kabul, when others were fleeing from a Taliban takeover?
There were two things: as a journalist and photographer, the days ahead of when I decided to return to Afghanistan were going to be the country’s most pivotal since the US invasion in 2001. Having covered the country for eight years at that point, despite the risk, I really wanted to be present to cover the period that was to follow. But more than that, at the time I really just wanted to be with my friends, both foreign and Afghan, with whom I had experienced so much with in the country over the years leading up to August 2021. While many of my Afghan friends felt the international community was abandoning them, I didn’t want them to feel their friends had as well.
In your ‘Epilogue’, you tell us that the book turned out to be different from what you had thought it would be at the start. What was it that you had wanted to start with and how has it departed from the way you had visualised it earlier?
I had envisaged writing a book about the way international military special forces had, through their tactics of night raids and air strikes, turned much of the rural Afghan population against the central government and the US-led military coalition.
You are a well-known photo-journalist and yet your book is written only in words. Why did you opt to use words instead of photographs this time?
I am currently working on a photo book that will cover the entire time I spent in Afghanistan (2013 – 2022). But my photos of the events of 2021 alone wouldn’t have been sufficient to tell the story of what happened in the detail the way words can.
In the twentieth century, a book had been written by Syed Mujtaba Ali in Bengali and translated by a journalist who was in Afghanistan, Nazes Afroz, talks of the dislodging of Amanullah by Bacha-ye-Saqao (Habibullah Kalakani) during the civil war. Can Bachai-ye-Saquao be seen as some kind of a precursor to the making of Taliban? Please elaborate.
Not really. He was of Tajik descent and so didn’t have the support of the majority Pashtuns. Also, his rule didn’t even last a year. The Taliban that took control of Afghanistan in 1996 are a closer replica of the Taliban that took control of the country in 2021 than Kalakani.
Afghanistan seems to be a country torn by the politics induced by Cold War, which of course is said to have concluded now. How would you compare the Soviet intrusion from 1979 to 1989 with the recent American intrusion which concluded with the Taliban takeover? You have mentioned how bio warfare by Soviets ruined the countryside. Please elaborate.
There are a lot of comparisons that could be made. Both the Soviets and the US-led coalition had superior technology, equipment and training. The Mujahedin and the Taliban (whose fighters call themselves Mujahedin) had poor quality weapons, funding and training, but they had a motive to fight that invading nations could never match. The nature of the style of warfare they used also made them very hard to defeat — ie. an insurgency that lives among the population, whose fighters are very difficult to distinguish from the local non-combatants.
Reading some of the case stories that you have taken up in your non-fiction, the oppression of women seems to be an accepted social norm in Afghanistan and persisted before the current invasion of the Taliban. Can you please comment on this?
While there were improvements for women in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted in 2001 — education was once again permitted, they were allowed to work in all sectors of the workforce and allowed to own property etc. — across much of the country, especially in rural areas, many women’s lives were still highly restricted by conservative cultural norms. Despite the constitution giving women many more rights than they had previously, culture often overrode the law. That said, the Taliban have now enshrined the most conservative interpretation of cultural norms in law, and so for those families who had permitted women to live under the more permissive post-2001 laws, the choice is no longer theirs to make.
One of the major issues one gathers from various narratives as well as yours in Afghanistan is not only the lack of freedom to women but also extends to freethinkers. Is this a cultural issue, religious issue or Taliban induced?
I think this is more about stamping out dissent as well as ideas that don’t conform to the Taliban’s worldview, like communism or democracy for example. So, it’s both religious as well as a means for the Taliban to enforce those under their control to follow their very strict worldview.
The Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha. Have they changed since then to become more accepting of diverse thought?
I had hope that they might be. Most Afghans cautioned my optimism, and they seem to have been proven vindicated. While the Taliban haven’t yet destroyed any cultural heritage like the Buddhas, it took them five years in control to do that in 2001. The way they have rolled back rights in the 18 months they have been in control, it doesn’t bode well for what the next few years will bring. So far, however, they don’t seem to have been targeting ethnic minorities specifically or systematically.
The Taliban had taken control once earlier to be driven out by Americans in 2001. Can you tell us a bit about the origin of Talibans? Are they the same as Mujahedins?
The Taliban emerged from several groups that, combined, were known internationally as the Mujahedin. Once the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the seven Mujahedin factions fought for control of the country. The Taliban, whose fighters were mostly drawn from religious madrasas, and known to be better-disciplined than the other lawless factions, promised to bring order to the country. Initially they were welcomed.
You had moved to Afghanistan in 2013. Would you think of returning there now? Why?
I hadn’t planned to live in Afghanistan. Initially I went for two weeks to photograph the Afghan cricket team for an Australian magazine. I only planned to stay two weeks but quickly fell in love with the country and my work there and stayed nearly a decade. I have no plans to return as yet, but it will always be close to my heart, and I would love to return one day when it feels right.
Are you planning more books in the future? On Afghanistan?
Yes. As I mentioned, I will publish a photo book on Afghanistan later this year with Melbourne University Press. After that, let’s see.
Thank you for your time.
(This review and the online interview conducted through emails are by Mitali Chakravarty)
How do you define India to an erudite person or to a layman? This huge subcontinent with its multifarious regions, climate, culture, and history, is simply awesome to define in simplistic terms. Among the different ways in which the history of a nation state can be defined, visual anthropology and ethnographies of material studies for analysing histories of archaeology seem quite unique. This 688-pageA History of India Through 75 Objects by Sudeshna Guha provides a panoramic view of the rich histories of the subcontinent through a curatorial selection of objects from the prehistoric ages through twenty-first century India. It follows the trend of studying ‘object-driven’ history books that has been gradually gaining popularity since the last decade. Doing away with the traditional division of the terms Ancient, Medieval and Modern, they do not constitute historiographic markers of a periodisation. They have been simply used as convenient reference points, and have no bearing, whatsoever, to equivalence with a Hindu, Muslim, or British historical period for India.
It is very difficult to classify the 75 objects described in this book under neat categories. Some of them, like the Eastern Torana of Sanchi, the Ajanta paintings, the Didarganj Yakshi, The Sarnath Buddha, the 11th century Nataraja of Tamil Nadu are well known, but many objects allow us to recall histories that have been sidelined. Thus, the Akluj Hero Stone, Monkey Skull, Pabuji’s Phad painting and Sidi Sayyid’s Jaali in a mosque highlight the histories of pastoralist and tribal societies, oral traditions and slave trade, and the importance of situating them within the mainstream and popular histories of India. For instance, the Jadelite Necklace of Mohenjodaro that is displayed in the National Museum in New Delhi found during the excavations of 1925-26 conveys the erasure of histories in nation-making. The Necklace, divided and restrung into two for India and Pakistan, therefore appears in the book as a historic object affected by the Partition of 1947.
The Chintz rumaal or handkerchief tells the story of the fashioning of a transcultural object and provides a glimpse of the social histories of mercantilism that are often overlooked within the histories of the East India Companies and exhibits the transnational nature of things often used for crafting national histories. Also, the looted and rescued sculpture of the Yogini Vrishanana from the 10th century commands critical enquiries into collecting practices, as they entail removing things from situated places and complicate the issues of securing provenance.
Of the objects that have accrued value as particularly Indian, the Temple Sari, or the ‘Kanjivaram Silk’ to use a colloquial description, documents the invention of old traditions in modern times, while the Ambassador Car highlights the anomaly of heritage making that overlooks the manpower that creates the heritage objects. Non-Indian objects also appear in the book as they relate to histories of India, and one such example is the handheld Tibetan Prayer Wheel which recalls the efficacy of Indians as human instruments in the British imperialist projects of ruling the East.
Lesser-known things which feature include an 1857 bed with an image of the Relief of Lucknow, and native histories of antiquarianism, especially of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Among the ancient artefacts mentioned we have the Pallavaram Spear Head, the Prehistoric Art Gallery of Bhimbhetka, the Sarai Khola Jar at Burzahom, an Indus Scale, a Daimabad Bronze, a Copper Anthropomorph, a portrait of Kanishka I, the Pompeii Yakshi, Samudragupta’s Gold Coin, Fortuna Intaglio, Kharoshthi Tablet and the Chandraketugarh Plaque of Harvesting. One interesting entry comes in the form of a Chenchu Flute (the picture of which adorns the cover of the book too) and this flute evokes the travails and tribulations of the Chenchu tribe, a hunting-gathering and foraging community now living largely in the Nallamala Hills of Telengana who claim inalienable rights to the forest lands they inhabit.
Apart from Garuda’s and Jagannatha’s rathas (chariots), there are several entries that relate to the Mughal times. These include Jahangir’s meteorite knife, a Mughal wine cup, and more. Among books and manuscripts mention is made of the copy of the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita inscribed on palm leaves, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (where the entire history of the Kashmiri kings, from antiquity to the 12th century is inscribed). The Baburnama, Akbar’s Razmnama, Jatashur, the Millstone of Caste (being one among the sixteen cartoons that were created by Gaganendranath Tagore, one of India’s foremost modernist painters sardonically lampooning the greed, hypocrisy and malpractices of the Brahmins and priests of contemporary Bengal), Bharatuddhar: A Proscribed Print (from a series of prints that were produced in one of the first offset presses in Calcutta in 1930) add to the value of the book. A Kashmiri novel, Munnu is Malik Sajad’s debut graphic novel as a cultural artefact of the political world and is an intensely poignant tale of all the munnus, or little ones, of Kashmir who grow up in war and who hope to forget history that only rationalises the punishments they are subjected to.
Closely related is also the series of ‘Company Paintings’, namely the painting of India commissioned by Europeans from the late 18th century onwards which were done for European consumption and hence obliterated many histories, including those of the contributions of native artists who produced them. The Tanjore paintings that depicts a politically powerless monarch who created the resplendence of Tanjore, and which provides a view of the ways in which collections endowed enlightened powers to their royal collectors also deserves a significant mention.
Several interesting entries relate to popular culture as well. The game board of ‘Snakes and Ladders’, the Godrej Lock (this springless device is still continuously produced till date and in it we see the enduring legacy of the Indian design technology for building a decidedly Indian entrepreneurism), The Quit India Pamphlet (the flyers printed with phrases of Hindi and Urdu prompting reflections of the practices of collecting documentation and archive-making to exemplify the need for careful ethnographies), The Refugee Map (created in December 1941 as a rare surviving example of the shortest and safest routes over land from Burma to India that was most certainly reserved for the exclusive use of the British – their military men and civilians – and the small cadre of European elites who lived in Burma), the LIC Logo (bearing the image of two hands protecting the flame of a diya or an earthen lamp that appear ubiquitous in India and every Indian possibly knows that it symbolizes jeevan bima or life insurance), the Film Poster of Mother India (created in 1980 with the re-release of the film, speaks of an abiding classic that is memorialised to date as a national epic that conveyed the hopes, courage and struggles of the young nation), the many lives of India’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, and the ubiquitous Amul Girl Billboards first created in 1966 (the charming, impish, smart, intelligent moppet in a pigtail and dress of polka dots, she being the only brand ambassador of a product that has also come to represent the uniquely milk-marketing system based on farmer cooperatives), along with the Electronic Voting Machine (the veneration of which as objects to worship, to which one may do puja, illustrates the uniquely Indian social lives of many modern technologies) speak of different kinds of Indian representation in more contemporary times.
The brief essays in this collection detail not just objects but the histories of their reception: examining how with the passage of time people also change their attitudes in responding and interpreting the past. Photographs or illustrations, as well as a list of reference books at the end of each entry, make this volume not a mere coffee-table book focusing on a medley of objects, but a serious academic enterprise as well. Thus, A History of India through 75 Objects inspires us to interrogate our own notions of a knowable past and fixed national history. The essays focus on the continuous processes by which histories are constructed whether the objects are either of value or not. They highlight the inaccuracies of historicising essentialisms, including an essence of the Indian culture and tradition. What is the most unique selling point of the author’s theory is how simple objects often become historical sources and though discussion about each of the seventy-five entries is impossible within the purview of a review, this book definitely guides the reader to see that history is not static but is always in the making.
This volume therefore evaluates in great depth how objects, whether ‘authentic’ or reflected through reproduction or representation, fashion experiential and social effects, thereby highlighting the importance of engaging with their powerful materiality and their multiple and changing meanings in the scholarship of history. Thus, in this superbly arranged and delightfully illustrated book, Sudeshna Guha uses her scholarship and engagement to show how select objects illuminate the complex histories of India. The range of artefacts encompassed here demonstrates that objects’ significance shifts across boundaries, alters with time and place, and can never be reduced to a dominant story of nation or creed. It demonstrates the many ways in which they construct multiple and changing meanings, and thereby illustrates the historic flaw of ascribing immutability to a nation’s history by fixing such a valuation as an innate object of cultural heritage. Once again, we see how with the lithographs, posters, and graphic novels, photographs too bring us to note the inordinate power of visual histories for resisting moves of authoritarianism. A wonderful read indeed.
Somdatta Mandal, critic and reviewer, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India.
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Title:Ashoka and the Maurya Dynasty: The History and Legacy of Ancient India’s Greatest Empire
Author: Colleen Taylor Sen
Publisher:Speaking Tiger Books
In The Outline of History, H. G. Wells wrote of Ashoka: “In the history of the world, there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves their highnesses, their majesties their exalted majesties and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day.”
Ashoka and The Maurya Dynasty: The History and Legacy of Ancient India’s Greatest Empire by Colleen Taylor Sen is a refreshingly ravishing account of the Mauryan empire. Two things stand out prominently in the book: flawless and wide-ranging. Sen has done something extraordinary in dealing with the most powerful empire in India – the amount of material she has used to write the book.
Says the blurb: “At its peak in 250 BCE the Maurya Empire was the wealthiest and largest empire in the world, extending across much of modern India, except a small area in the far south, Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan up to the Iranian border. The Maurya capital, Pataliputra, was one of the largest cities of antiquity. India (although it was not yet called by that name) was a global power that traded and maintained peaceful diplomatic relations with its neighbors, as far afield as Greece and Egypt.”
Chicago-based, Dr. Colleen Taylor Sen is a culinary historian – having authored several books on food from across continents. A widely translated author, this book does full justice to the subject.
Says the book: “[O]f the seven or eight Maurya emperors, two are remembered today as among India’s greatest leaders: Chandragupta Maurya and his grandson Ashoka. Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, created his empire through both war and peaceful means. He was the first Indian leader known to have signed an international treaty (with the Greeks in the northwest). His grandson Ashoka, after conquering Kalinga in a bloody war in 261 BCE, renounced violence. He then spent the rest of his life advocating and propagating a policy of religious tolerance, kindness to all creatures, and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society—a policy he called Dhamma.”
Sen discusses Emperor Ashoka’s life, achievements, and his legacy in her book. It also explores the legacy and influence of the Mauryas in politics throughout Southeast Asia, China, and India, as well as in contemporary popular culture. That makes the book broad-based.
An anecdotal reference to the book is in order. While searching for food histories in India, Sen found herself intrigued by Ashoka and began exploring more about him. After conquering Kalinga in a bloody war in 261 BCE, Ashoka renounced violence. He spent the rest of his life propagating religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence in a multicultural society.
In a book of about two hundred sixty adrenaline-charged pages, Sen deals with the rise, the highest point it reached, and the fall of the dynasty. She focuses on the accomplishments of Ashoka. In addition to a truthful account, she discusses Buddhist legends, the legacy of the Mauryas, and colonial South Asia. A captivating add-on tells the story of the rediscovery of the long-forgotten historical Mauryas in the 19th and 20th centuries. The intricacies of Mauryan historiography do not take her away from storytelling and she tells it rather profoundly. The result is a glowing record of one of the world’s most remarkable political eras.
The appendix to the book is as fascinating as it is inquisitive. She does a thorough analysis of how several historians unearthed the Mauryas and what led to those explorations. In her view, the post-Independent Indian historians took a ‘patriotic line’ and presented Ashoka as a ruler free of foreign influences. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw in Ashoka the embodiment of a secular role. The Marxist historian, DD Kosambi, wrote that the Ashoka edicts were the first bill of rights for citizens. Then she says, despite extensive scholarship, many questions about the Mauryan empire remain unanswered. For example, what did the city of Pataliputra look like, and will it ever be excavated?
The book is a brilliant addition to the existing literature on Ashoka and the Mauryan Empire. A must-read for history professionals and general book lovers.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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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.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
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.)
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