Categories
Editorial

Will Monalisa Smile Again?

The first month of 2023 has been one of the most exciting! Our first book, Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World, is now in multiple bookstores in India (including Midlands and Om Bookstores). It has also had multiple launches in Delhi and been part of a festival.

We, Meenakshi Malhotra and I, were privileged to be together at the physical book events. We met the editor in chief of Om Books International, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, the editor of our anthology, Jyotsna Mehta, along with two translators and writers I most admire, Aruna Chakravarti and Radha Chakravarty, who also graced a panel discussion on the anthology during our physical book launch. The earlier e-book launch had been in November 2022. My heartfelt thanks to the two eminent translators and Chaudhuri for being part of the discussions at both these launches. Chaudhuri was also in the panel along with Debraj Mookerjee at a launch organised by Malhotra and the English Literary Society steered by Nabaneeta Choudhury at Hans Raj College, Delhi University. An energising, interactive session with students and faculty where we discussed traditional and online publishing, we are immensely grateful to Malhotra for actively organising the event and to the Pandies’ founder, Sanjay Kumar, for joining us for the discussion. It was wonderful to interact with young minds. On the same day, an online discussion on the poetry in Monalisa No Longer Smiles was released by the Pragati Vichar Literary Festival (PVLF) in Delhi.

At the PVLF session, I met an interesting contemporary diplomat cum poet, Abhay K. He has translated Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and the Ritusamhara from Sanskrit and then written a long poem based on these, called Monsoon. We are hosting a conversation with him and are carrying book excerpts from Monsoon, a poem that is part of the curriculum in Harvard. The other book excerpt is from Sanjay Kumar’s Performing, Teaching and Writing Theatre: Exploring Play, a book that has just been published by the Cambridge University Press.

Perhaps because it is nearing the Republic Day of India, we seem to have a flurry of book reviews that reflect the Sub-continental struggle for Independence from the colonials. Somdatta Mandal has reviewed Priya Hajela’s Ladies Tailor: A novel, a book that takes us back to the trauma of the Partition that killed nearly 200,000 to 2 million people – the counts are uncertain. Bhaskar Parichha has discussed MA Sreenivasan’s Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me, a biography of a long serving official in the Raj era — two different perspectives of the same period. Rakhi Dalal has shared her views on Shrinivas Vaidya’s A Handful of Sesame, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor, a book that dwells on an immigrant to the Southern part of India in the same time period. The legendary film writer K.A. Abbas’s Sone Chandi Ke Buth: Writings on Cinema, translated and edited by Syeda Hameed and Sukhpreet Kahlon, has been praised by Gracy Samjetsabam.

We have a piece on mental health in cinema by Chaudhuri, an excellent essay written after interviewing specialists in the field. Ratnottama Sengupta has given us a vibrant piece on Suhas Roy, an artist who overrides the bounds of East and West to create art that touches the heart. Candice Louisa Daquin has written on border controls and migrants in America. High profile immigrants have also been the subject of Farouk Gulsara’s ‘What do Freddy Mercury, Rishi Sunak & Mississipi Masala have in Common?’ Sengupta also writes of her immigrant family, including her father, eminent writer, Nabendu Ghosh, who moved from Bengal during the Partition. There are a number of travel pieces across the world by Ravi Shankar, Meredith Stephens and Mike Smith — each written in distinctively different styles and exploring different areas on our beautiful Earth. Sarpreet Kaur has revisited the devastation of the 2004 tsunami and wonders if it is a backlash from nature. Could it be really that?

Suzanne Kamata gives us a glimpse of the education system in Japan in her column with a humorous overtone. Devraj Singh Kalsi dwells on the need for nostalgia with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Rhys Hughes makes us rollick with laughter when he talks of his trip to Kerala and yet there is no derision, perhaps, even a sense of admiration in the tone. Hughes poetry also revels in humour. We have wonderful poetry from Jared Carter, Ranu Uniyal, Asad Latif, Anaya Sarkar, Michael R Burch, Scott Thomas Outlar, Priyanka Panwar, George Freek and many more.

The flavours of cultures is enhanced by the translation of Nazrul’s inspirational poetry by Professor Fakrul Alam, Korean poetry written and translated by Ihlwha Choi and a transcreation of Tagore’s poem Banshi (or flute) which explores the theme of inspiration and the muse. We have a story by S Ramakrishnan translated from Tamil by R Sathish. The short stories featured at the start of this year startle with their content. Salini Vineeth writes a story set in the future and Paul Mirabile tells the gripping poignant tale of a strange child.

With these and more, we welcome you to savour the January 2023 edition of Borderless, which has been delayed a bit as we were busy with the book events for our first anthology. I am truly grateful to all those who arranged the discussions and hosted us, especially Ruchika Khanna, Om Books International, the English Literary Society of Hans Raj College and to the attendees of the event. My heartfelt thanks to the indefatigable team and our wonderful writers, artists and readers, without who this journey would have remained incomplete. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her artwork. Many thanks to the readers of Borderless Journal and Monalisa No Longer Smiles. I hope you will find the book to your liking. We have made a special page for all comments and reviews.

I wish you a wonderful 2023. Let us make a New Year’s wish —

May all wars and conflicts end so that our iconic Monalisa can start smiling again!

Mitali Chakravarty,

borderlessjournal.com

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Photographs of events around Monalisa No Longer Smiles: An Anthology of Writings from across the World. Click here to access the Book.

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Insta Link to an excerpt of the launch at Om Bookstore. Click here to view.

E-Launch of the first anthology of Borderless Journal, November 14th 2022. Click here to view.

Categories
Essay

A Solitary Pursuit: The Art of Suhas Roy

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys with the signature art of Suhas Roy as it transformed in theme, style, and medium

Suhas Roy = Radha.

Correct.

Suhas Roy = Crows.

Right. 

Suhas Roy = Jesus.

So true.

Suhas Roy = Sensuality.

Yes. Witness the Mistress of the Moon.

For each of these Suhas Roy (1936-2016) was chased by galleries and collectors. His works have been widely exhibited and are well documented. Many of them on view at Mumbai’s prestigious Jehangir Art Galley (January 17 to 23, 2023) are not on sale. The intention is to train viewers on the diversity and skilfulness of the much loved artist from Bengal. In short, to hold up the totality of the artist who enriched Contemporary Indian Art with sketches in Western Academic style, graphics, landscapes; with his series on Crow, Jesus, Radha, The Seductress of Khajuraho; with aluminium paint on glass, acrylic on paper, egg tempera on canvas…

So where do we start? Where did he? There’s a story at every turn in the journey, so let’s start at the very beginning.

A little boy in Tejgaon, now in Bangladesh, had lost his father when he was not even two. One Kaji Saheb, who taught geography in the village school and doubled as the art teacher, took the child under his wings. If the boy learnt to outline India on the blackboard, he could also draw papayas and brinjals. And everything he drew scored 10 on 10. His teacher would say, “It seems you’ll grow up to be an artist!”

The boy loved to spend all his hours drawing and fishing. “How will these pleasures serve you in life?” the family elders would admonish him. The youth would smile in reply and go on, eventually to join the Indian Art College, study new methods of printmaking under Somenath Hore and S W Hayter, visit Paris and Florence to study Michelangelo’s David and Pieta…

Suhas Roy

However, Paris post WWII was an eye-opener for artists like Suhas Roy and, a decade before him, for Krishna Reddy, who had graduated from Santiniketan. Both India and Europe had come out of prolonged periods of turmoil. But, poised on the threshold of an independent existence as a sovereign nation, India was looking back to its roots for defining its identity, whereas England and France and Germany – which were eager to get over the bitterness left by their recent history – were looking for a complete break with the past. For Suhas Roy, returning home meant returning to his cultural roots. And Venus emerging from the Water became kin of the image of goddess Lakshmi emerging from the lotus-laden pond closer home.

*

This Indian-ness was reinforced when he joined Santiniketan as a painting teacher. The lush green environs, the ponds and rivulets, the chirping birds and rustic villagers took him back to the childhood haven snatched away by the politics of religion that had culminated in the Partition of the Subcontinent. Suhas Roy, raised in the British Academic mood, with undying admiration for the values of the Italian Renaissance and the visions of the French Classicists, riding the high tide of Modernism, debating whether to go Abstract or Semi-Abstract, started painting landscapes!

Yes, landscapes. Regardless of what the critics said – just as they did for the Bengal Masters – Suhas Roy was not being ‘regressive’. For, he did not paint any particular spot with fidelity to topography – as John Constable did. Instead, his landscapes were an expression of his yearning for a paradise lost: his place of birth. When he moved from Kolkata to Santiniketan, in a reflection of spatial reality the neighbourhood palm trees started putting their heads up in his paintings. His sensitive foliage, the birds and animals and ponds were all in answer to his quest for the luxuriant green he had left behind, across the Radcliffe Line.

“Santiniketan gave me back the opportunity to go fishing as I used to in East Bengal, and I rediscovered the beauty and calming effect of Nature,” he had said to me when I curated the Living Santiniketan exhibition in Delhi of late 1990s. “It came as a relief to me, burdened as I was with the constant thought of ‘What to paint?’ For, Nature constantly changes.” Additionally, he realised that appreciation of beauty is not confined to a class or profession. “Doctors and poets alike love flowers. So, I decided to go back to landscape, taking no note of whether it was in fashion or out of it.”

*

The crow, very much a part of the Bengal landscape, then became his signature in the 1970s. The scavenger was an attraction because of its black feathers. Japanese water-colourist Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) — notable for his role in creating the painting technique of Nihonga — had come to Bengal in early 20th century with scholar Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913) and helped Abanindranath Tagore master the medium. He had done a series of Mount Fuji in black-n-white. Chancing upon that in the Santiniketan library, Suhas was so impressed as to reach for the austere palette. The crow readily lent itself to the scheme. Spraying the canvas with acrylic paint before construing the image in watercolour, Suhas would use a Japanese colour stick to create tones and dimensions. The Far Eastern concept of an object in a wide open space came to be highly appreciated and widely collected – including by philanthropist politician, Karan Singh.

In Indian philosophy and literature, Nature is the Eternal Feminine. That could be why, after ten years of doing landscape, Suhas Roy’s imagination sought out the allied image of tribal girls. It was a natural progression, for women – especially tribal women – have a symbolic if not symbiotic link with trees. Often, he would counterpoise a tree with a woman. Taru[1], he titled one done in an art workshop.

From a woman in a landscape to Radha was just one step away. For an exhibition on Krishna organised by Gallery 88 of Kolkata, Suhas Roy played with the concept of the Blue God being the Ultimate Being. Melding Purush and Prakriti – the Male and the Female forces of the Universe – his canvas sported a nude woman against a dark blue background. The painting, titled ‘Radha’, not only sold for an enviable sum, but it also set in motion an astonishing demand for the image that shows no sign of abating.

Truly he basked in the adulation of resolved collectors, one of whom said, “When I am tossed and tired of problems, I look at your paintings. They act like balms.” Yet, for painting these very ‘balms’ the artist had to hear the criticism that he was feeding the appetite for calendar art. His Radha was a concept no better than the ‘mass produced’ icons ubiquitous in Indian spaces.  But the master was far from apologetic. “It is the very definition of icons,” he had pointed out to me one afternoon. “Images of personalities deified by popular imagination, be they mythical, historical or social, are repeated again and again, generation after generation, in different styles and contexts.” If one age worshipped them as bronze figurines and gold paintings, another flaunted them in oleographs and calendars. It has been so with Radha-Krishna, Ram-Sita, Buddha-Jesus, and even with Gandhi-Tagore-Teresa, I realised.

*

Jesus, though, had entered Suhas Roy’s world long before Radha. Sometime in 1969 he had visited Florence to see David. He found the sculpture epitomising masculine beauty “too proportionate”, and wandered into the church next door preserving Dante’s Divine Comedy in parchment. There, in one corner, he saw the last work of Michelangelo – an unfinished Pieta. Such infinite pathos! The artist could not brush it off his memory even after he returned to Calcutta and one day its picture postcard inspired him to paint a Jesus. When he stopped, the canvas was sporting a contemporary pieta – Jesus without the head, his body descending from the heavens.

As a persona, Suhas Roy had deep regards for Jesus. He was, to the Bengali artist, a symbol of forbearance. Perhaps he also saw the serene visage of the Prophet sporting a Crown of Thorns as a reflection of his own self – or was it of his country, that had been crowned with an Independence bloodied by Partition? Somewhere Suhas, a father who in his own lifetime lost both his children to Eternal Sleep, saw Jesus as a redeemer who showed mankind how to bear every suffering and pain that was a mortal’s lot. That is why such palpable love, even when tinged with sorrow, pain or sadness, flows out of His veins. This must have prompted even Vatican to acquire his Jesus in 2006.

Suhas Roy arrived at ‘Khajuraho’ in the mature years of his well lived life. He was intrigued by the carvings on the walls of the temples in central India that have embarrassed some and outraged some. Considered the descendants of the celestial Moon, the Chandela rulers had celebrated love in every expressed formation. Love, the invincible bonding between man and woman, man and man, indeed between man and all living beings, is made explicit here. Surely Suhas Roy was not equating love with lust. Was there a spiritual pursuit layering the physicality of the actions immortalised in stone?

No doubt there was. For Moon has always been equated with romance, love, passion. The artist was exploring the mysticism that wraps the ascetic deity inside the temple. Much like the sculptors of yore, his ‘Seductress’ is a quest for the sublime. If the ancients believed that you must leave all your worldly longings outside the temple door if you seek moksha, deliverance, the contemporary artist continually sought nirvana, redemption from conflict, in the beauty of peace.

*

Rigidity was unknown to Suhas Roy. The changes in his art came spontaneously, and every good result goaded him to go on. He dwelt on a theme only until another creative urge besieged him, be it Khajuraho, the series he titled Mistress of the Moon, or Cappadocia in Turkey. Never shy of experimenting, his foremost concern – always – was meticulous quality. His temperas would have egg yolk with oil and Japanese porcelain, gelatin with resin and tamarind seed. If it held the promise of a finer texture for details, he would use a watercolour brush for oil paintings. For, he would repeat, “Good art will never lose its demand just as diamond will never lose its market.”

For Suhas Roy, the aesthetic and the spiritual were one and the same. And even the hurly-burly of political turmoil had to adhere to his norms of aesthetics. Did Suhas Roy, then, live in an ivory tower away from social realities? No, he insisted, he “never ran away…” Once, on a fishing trip outside Santiniketan, he witnessed dead bodies being fished out of water following a flash flood in Ilam Bazar. Haunted by that image he had painted the Disaster series, depicting landscapes with shrouded bodies. Indeed, when the Naxalite period gave rise to despondency, he was tossed by the political reality of his land. But he prophesized that “every turmoil, be it social or political – including the ongoing one at Singur – would be short-lived.” So, if contemporary art became mere documentation, then that too would be short-lived!

“Only when it transcends the here-and-now can art have lasting value,” maintained the artist even when disturbed by the dark side of humanity. So, though distressed by cruelty, he chose to decry war by showing not blood-spill but the meditative power of peace and sublimity of love. “I focused on what has lasting appeal. Flowers blossom in the same fields that are crushed by battling soldiers. I speak of the war through the Buddha who transcended war.”

This sublime pursuit of Suhas Roy explains the unending appeal of his Seductress, his Radha, his Jesus.

Bonophul

[1] Translates to tree

*All the photographs have been sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

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.

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Review

Ladies Tailor

Book Review by Somdatta Mandal

Title: Ladies Tailor: A Novel

Author: Priya Hajela

 Publisher: HarperCollins

Seventy-five years after the Partition of India took place, the cataclysmic event on both sides of the country — in Bengal in the East and in Punjab in the West — has fuelled research on the trauma of migration, loss, and resettlement, and the interest in the theme is still proliferating today. It is interesting to note that apart from documentation through innumerable non-fiction and memoirs, stories of grim reality of the Partition as documented in stories by earlier writers like Sadat Hasan Manto or Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, the interest on the theme remains unabated even today. The only difference now is that with the passage of time, writers are often relying on memory of the Partition as narrated by their ancestors firsthand, or through books, films and documentaries in a new sort of writing that blends fact and fiction and try to use the background events of migration and displacement into stories of resilience, grit, and people rebuilding their lives anew after crossing borders as refugees with even more stamina.

Priya Hajela’s debut novel Ladies’ Tailor is an attempt to recreate the story of the actual Sikh migration of her paternal grandparents Bakshi Pritam Singh (Papaji) and Beant Kaur (Biji) who left their home in Harial Gujarkhan (Pakistan) and made a new life in Ludhiana, Punjab. Dedicating the book to them, she mentions in the foreword how the places she has written about in the novel – Delhi, (Nizamuddin, Patel Nagar, Khan Market, Shahdara, Kingsway Camp), Lahore, Amritsar and Sukho are all real, but many elements are fictional. All these places provide the setting needed to tell the story, many details imagined and manipulated based on the needs of her characters. Ladies’ Tailor is a story that captures a setting and a group of characters that represent the immigrant and the refugee spirit, the optimistic spirit of never giving up on what you want and a spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship that to this day is the driving force in Delhi and Punjab.

The novel begins primarily with the protagonist Gurdev, a Sikh farmer who had deliberately moved from his parent’s house in Lahore to settle and work in a remote village called Sukho for ten years where all the religious communities lived in harmony and led peaceful lives. It took a lot of time for people to realize the Muslim-Sikh violence in the village that began around 1946 and that resulted in fear, hatred, insecurities as real and when large-scale massacres, butcheries, annihilation of entire clans, that was beyond Gurdev’s imagination happened, and he participated like everyone else. He made a brief visit to Delhi where he judiciously deposited cash with different people so that he could use it later. When he finally decided to migrate to India along with his wife Simrat and their two children, he could not convince his parents in Lahore to join them as they were determined never to leave Pakistan, the birthplace of their gurus.

After braving the horrific massacres and ordeals along the way, Gurdev landed up at Kingsway Camp in Delhi only to reach safety and find new problems ahead of him. Not only is he determined to make a fresh start for himself, his wife and sons, but he proves to be quite a meticulous, strategic planner and motivator for fellow refugees in the camp. Simran, the all-enduring and never complaining type of wife, turns sick and is admitted to the hospital and by the end of the ninth chapter, she silently disappears after that when Gurdev hands her some ornaments that his mother had given her. We don’t hear from her again as well as the two sons who accompany their mother.

Though taken aback, the indomitable Gurdev takes it all in his stride and tries to concentrate on his business and survival instincts. He befriends two sardars, Nirmal Singh, a Ladies’ Tailor, and Sangat Singh, and convinces them to start a business venture for readymade and customised garments of Khadi, an affordable hand-woven fabric preferred by women in the refugee camp and for those who wouldn’t like to wear British fabrics and wanted only ‘Made in India’ clothing. He sets up shop in the upcoming Khan Market, provided by the government in lieu of his land in Pakistan, forms a partnership with a trader in Shahadra to supply superior quality Khadi exclusively to them, and together the four of them start attracting a steady clientele, with Noor, a Muslim war widow from nearby Nizamuddin, as their brand ambassador. Hajela focuses on interfaith camaraderie with intricate details about how survival strategies result in Hindu-Muslim marriages and how names are changed to remain safe in the community.

The next move in the plot comes when Nirmal, the tailor, is somehow dissatisfied with the output because his clothes lack ornate embroidery work, a very important embellishment that used to make his outfits stand out across the border in Lahore. He wants a special sort of embroidery on their garments that was the kind crafted by two orphaned boys in Lahore, who he had nurtured like his own sons. Gurdev, the mastermind, plans a daring trip to Pakistan with Noor as his partner, to bring the two boys to Delhi for Nirmal and for their business to succeed. A complicated procedure begins with Gurdev cutting off his hair and shaving his beard to take on a new Muslim identity, and procuring a false passport, plans to visit Lahore along with Noor posing as his wife. This is where Hajela finds ample opportunity to implant a sort of interfaith romance and love relationship between the two of them. Once they arrive in Lahore, they take shelter in a Hindu man’s house and both of them feel trapped because Shakeela Begum, the mistress, seemed suspicious of their visit and itch to see them in jail. More complications arise with the driver Akbar and actual agents who keep on shadowing them.  

Hajela’s narrative is full of intricate details, be it in the furniture, clothing, food, social mores, and other material objects that prevailed in the Indian subcontinent in the 1940’s and 1950s. She fills the novel with little details like how the cut of the ladies’ salwar could determine which side of the border you belonged to, differences between the taste of the same food in Delhi and Lahore, and how people on both sides believed that one day, when things settled down, they could go back to their homes. Noor’s shopping for glass bangles, jootis, and dupattas with Phulkari[1]work in the tiny stalls of Liberty Market and Anarkali acts as a camouflage for their real mission to trace the two young boys who excel in embroidery. The novelist describes things here in great details, especially with new problems arising each day. But with his survival instincts, Gurdev takes each stride adapting to the situation and his determination to overcome all odds and thrive with new beginnings remains praiseworthy.

Despite crowding the plot towards the end with too many ramifications, like suspicion, counter espionage, breach of trust, car chases, bribing people with American dollars, the protagonists are constantly shadowed by unknown people. Strange twists to the story occur where Gurdev manages to locate his aged parents forcibly living in the outhouse of their grand home in Lahore when they were assumed to have been burnt alive during the riots. The way Gurdev plans to cross over to India once again through a remote and lesser-known spot along the border by bribing people left and right with dollars sounds a bit contrived no doubt and it seems that Hajela wanted to put in too many imagined situations to make her book a page-turner till the end with ample amount of suspense like a mystery thriller. It celebrates the unvanquished spirit of the Punjabi refugees, who, using their skills and energy, made a success of their business. Fairly linear in narration, a lot is left to the imagination at the end and therefore the novel is a feel-good read that celebrates the human spirit’s victory in the face of terrible odds. Apart from narrating the lingering afterlife of the Partition, Hajela’s statement clarifies the mission of her writing quite clear — “It’s not what sets us apart but what brings us together that’s important. How we resist the forces that are intent on separating us is what defines us. How we recover from past transgressions is what carries us forward. Ladies’ Tailor takes a resolute look at stumbling and making amends, at holding close and letting go and at turning back in order to move on.”

[1] A type of folk embroidery of Punjab

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

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Nostalgia

Ghosh & Company

 

Ratnottama Sengupta travels down the path of nostalgia with her ancestors, her parents, eminent writer,  Nabendu Ghosh and his wife, Kanaklata

Nabendu with his children. From right to left: Ratnottama Sengupta, Nabendu Ghosh & Shubhankar Ghosh. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh of Dhaka was an advocate who had mastered in both, Sanskrit and History. And he was a kirtan[1] singer par excellence. Both these traits have familial roots: His father was a court clerk, his cousin a doctor of those times. And all the males in the Vaishnav family — devotees of Prabhu Jagadbandhu Sundar of Faridpur — were good singers, a talent that was to continue with his sons and grandsons. 

It was for his kirtans in particular that P R Das, brother of freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das (1870-1925), asked Nabadwip Chandra to join him as his junior in Patna High Court. The year was 1920. Bihar which was a part of the Bengal Presidency, was steeped in casteism. The Ahirs — Yadavs who tended cattle and sold milk — were exploited by the Bhoomihars, who were Brahmins, and if they retaliated, they were arrested and put in jails. By 1920s, the freedom movement too had gained steam but the  political prisoners were also clubbed with the ‘hooligan’ Yadavs. Nabadwip Chandra fought courtroom battles to win this deprived section their political right, and came to be highly respected – a father figure for a large section of people in Bihar. 

In fighting those battles Nabadwip realised one thing: the acute need for education among the so called Backward Classes. “Unless a person has education, he or she is not respected and remains vulnerable to exploitation, economic or otherwise,” he maintained. And education is best spread through mothers. Consequently he sought marriage alliances for his sons with daughters of teachers, sisters of lawyers and doctors, and — later — with undergraduates and graduates. 

His elder son was married to Kalyani, the daughter of a school teacher. His third son’s wife, IA passed Sundara, was the daughter of a BA-BL – a lawyer in Bhagalpur. His fourth son’s wife, Namita was again the daughter of a teacher from Ranchi — and she was a graduate who was already teaching before she married, and did her MA after her wedding. So had Nabadwip Chandra’s daughter Rani who, after her tying the knot with Mahesh Chandra of Jorhat, completed her schooling and mastered in Economics. Further she taught in JB College, Jorhat and went on to become the vice principal whose students included Tarun Gogoi who rose to hold the high office of the Chief Minister of Assam.

In fact, Nabadwip Chandra’s own wife, Suniti Bala, was the daughter of a minister in the minor royalty of Jessore — a man who won a gold medal as one of the first matriculates of British India. His entire family was keen on education — and Suniti was not only literate, she received formal education at home before she was married at the age of 15 — which was pretty advanced for the first decade of 1900s. All her life, after child bearing, rearing kids, attending to household chores in the kitchen, she would spend her ration of leisure hours reading books and in her  later years, telling stories to her grandchildren.

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Nabadwip and Suniti’s second son Nabendu inherited his parents’ love for letters. And he took it to a much higher level as a writer who carved a place for himself in the history of Bengali literature and of Hindi Cinema. He started writing early, when still in middle school, as he wrote for and co-edited a handwritten magazine. Even as a teenager he would attend Sahitya Sammelans and while in College he got published in sought-after literary magazines. 

But Nabendu did not stop with words alone. Along with singing kirtans, a talent he inherited from his father, he trained himself to dance in the mould of Uday Shankar. He would regularly dance and act on stage, in Patna and elsewhere in the state, and subsequently played memorable cameos in Bombay films too. Before he passed away at the full age of 91, he had penned 16 novels, 28 collections of stories, and nearly a hundred screenplays for Bollywood classics.

On January 31, 1944 he married Kanaklata. Sister of advocate Bhupendranath Ghosh from Malda. She turned out to be an architect of human lives. Kanak was born to Chandrakanta Ghosh, a landed gentry who was forward looking enough to will large tracts of agricultural land to his daughters at a time when all they were entitled to was Streedhan — jewellery given at the time of marriage. Still, his wife Dakshayani, who was ‘Karta’ — head of the Hindu joint family — after his death, decided to live a part of her sunset years in Vrindavan, the holy land of Vaishnavs.

Kanaklata had not completed her school years when she was married to Nabendu. But being a doughty soul, the 16-year-old not only read Nayak O Lekhak — Nabendu’s first published novel; she got it critiqued by an academic cousin (who later became a professor) before she consented to the marriage with a man older to her by ten years.

Kanaklata’s own education had to be shelved as she became a mother twice over; lost her first born; faced an uncertain future as Nabendu lost two successive government jobs because of his ‘seditious’ – anti-imperialist — writings; and then Partition uprooted the family that had to leave Bengal and seek livelihood in Bombay’s tinsel town. But, despite her young years, it was she who instilled in her husband the spirit to soldier on with his pen and not succumb to any compromise in his literary efforts. 

Kanaklata: Photo Courtesy: Monobina Roy

She herself did not surrender her appetite for formal education to circumstances. Years after her sons and daughter had graduated from universities and she had become a grandmother thrice over, she enrolled in Open Classrooms and got her Master’s certificate in Bengali language. 

In the intervening years? Her home provided a platform to umpteen writers, country cousins, sisters, nephews, nieces, even to nobodies. She was there at 2 Pushpa Colony when they wanted to pursue higher education in Bombay, or make a career in the country’s financial capital,  or shine in the tinsel town. She helped to negotiate marriage proposals, and she supported in every way she could, those who sought medical intervention by specialists. Simultaneously she secured the financial future of her nuclear family by judiciously building houses and investing in government bonds. 

Most of all, Kanaklata was the architect of the lives of her three offspring. Her eldest son Dipankar who, as a child, was legendary in family gatherings for his mischiefs and pranks, was groomed in Shivaji Military Preparatory School. Thereafter she ensured that he trained in Medicine at the Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College in Kolkata. Once he became a doctor he served with Oxfam during the Bangladesh Liberation War. 

This education stood him in good stead when he went to UK and joined the Royal Army Medical Corp that swung into action during skirmishes in Belize, the Carribian country in Central American land, in 1986, and again in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War of 1991. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, he was serving in Belsen, where the Nazis had set up a concentration camp sometime in 1943. He went to the minefields of Bosnia, which Princess Diana visited in 1997. In mid-1990s he was stationed in Brunei, where the British Military protects the Sultan; at the turn of the millennium, he was in Cyprus, which the British forces use as base for both military and humanitarian operations in the region that often saw dissonance. What a rich life of experiences in helping the injured and ailing! 

At her insistence, Kanaklata’s second son Subhankar was trained in direction at the Film and Television Institute of India. He came out to be Associate Director of Damul (1984). He rose to  partner his father in the making of the classic, Trishagni (1989), to direct the National award winning Woh Chhokri (1993). With teleserials like YugantarNishkriti and Dances of India showing on Doordarshan he was a name to reckon with on the National network in its heyday. Then he went on to teach filmmaking in Mumbai’s Whistling Woods and to set up the wing of Filmmaking Studies in the National University of distant Fiji. 

*

And Kanaklata raised the youngest of her brood, their only daughter Ratnottama, to cultivate the inheritance from her father, in literature, cinema and the arts. Even before the word global environment gained currency, by demonstrating how not to chuck everything in the bin, she drove home to her daughter the concepts of ‘re-use and re-cycle’. Blessed with green fingers, she shared with neighbours and friends the fruits of her ‘farming’ in the patch of green surrounding their Goan-style bungalow in the Mumbai suburb of Malad – and inculcated in her children the importance of green environs. Cooking, she taught me, was as significant in our everyday life as banking or management of money. And she drilled into me when I was still in school, that “you must earn, even if it’s only a hundred rupees every month. Else, even your own children will not respect you.”

I am always delighted to give this one example of her practical thinking. Soon as her daughter joined college, the home-maker booked a Life Insurance policy for her and directed her to pay the annual premiums. And how could she do it without compromising on her studies? “Simple. Clean the house, sell the waste to the raddiwala; put the ‘income’ in the bank.” At the end of the year, she had the money for the insurance premium and also the experience of banking. This, at a time, when majority of account holders in the bank were men.

Through all this, long before the world started celebrating International Women’s Day, Kanaklata had taught her daughter to be “no less than a son.” For, she ingrained in her, “there is nothing you cannot do if it spells well-being for people in your care…”

Nabendu and his wife, Kanaklata. Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

[1] Religious songs

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Poetry

Poems by Sukrita Paul Kumar

Sukrita Paul Kumar
TEDDY BEAR ON THE WAR FRONT
(News Report from Irpin, Ukraine, 2022) 
					
The teddy bear sits benumbed
presiding over the rubble
Of civilisation
Of compassion
Of humanity
A debris of fun and play

Teddy sits smirking over the  
Skeleton of the cat, her
Bones, a curled cadaver 
Her couch and cushions 
in smithereens

The house shredded by the missile 
Walls cracking and crumbling with the  
Child’s screams as shards
From the tiny throat

Teddy bear, the dumb survivor,
No arms to melt his frozen heart
Watching the carnage with
Big round buttons 
gyrated into unseeing eyes

Wrapped in grief
The gentle wool on Teddy spikes
The bristles stand stiff and sharp
Rivers of tears flow 
Into the turbulent ocean 

And a tsunami of teddy bears 
Marches into the war zone
Looking for children to comfort



TELLING VIGNETTES 
			
It’s dementia…

For grandmother
It’s a staccato war

Ends each day and
Starts the next morning again

            it is a re-wind
                     to World War II 

        the wake of bombing
        kills people seventy years later

*

Pregnant with deadly nightmares 
Moskva the missile cruiser sank

The Black Sea swallowed all her bombs 
Stuffed with a thousand deaths


*

Bullet marks on the walls
        remnants of war
people in homes behind
	unhealed  

*

Ghosts born of bombs
are stripped of death
        Sans the mortal attire 

        They live on to haunt

*




The web of nerves on
      the inert dog’s neck
             pulsates
                     with lifelessness
It’s wartime


*

More live than the forlorn dog
are the shadows of bullets on 
the walls of Irpin

Deep craters on the earth
hold silence
born of the boom

*

They are not moon craters 

       These on the earth mark 
       technology of warfare

       Massive progress
       in hunting and
       getting the big kill

Sukrita Paul Kumar, former Fellow of Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, held the prestigious Aruna Asaf Ali Chair at Delhi University. An honorary faculty at Corfu, Greece, she was an invited resident poet at the prestigious International Writing Programme at Iowa, USA. Her most recent collections of poems, are Vanishing Words, Country Drive and Dream Catcher. Her critical books include Narrating Partition, The New Story and Conversations on Modernism. She has co-edited many books, including Speaking for Herself: Asian Women’s Writings (Penguin). An Honorary Fellow at HK Baptist University, Hong Kong, she has published many translations and has held exhibitions of her paintings. Currently she is series co-editor of “Writer in Context” volumes being published by Routledge UK and South Asia.

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Categories
Review

Satyajit Ray Miscellany

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More

Author: Satyajit Ray

Publisher: Penguin Randomhouse

There could be any number of books on Satyajit Ray. Even after thirty years after his death, he continues to be written about. The present book Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More, as the title suggests, is everything that the veteran filmmaker India had put in black and white.

As part of the Penguin Ray Library, the book has more than seventy rarest essays on filmmaking, screenplay writing, autobiographical pieces, and rare photographs and manuscripts.

“Ray is a singular symbol of what is best and most revered in Indian cinema” as the film director and scriptwriter, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has put it and the actor, Ben Kingsley, complimented him: “Satyajit Ray, I salute you. The greatest of our poets of the cinema.”

One of the doyens of world cinema, Ray gave a “unique aesthetic expression to Indian cinema, music, art, and literature. His writings, especially, autobiographical works, thoughts on filmmaking, screenplay writing, and eminent personalities from art, literature, and music, among others, are considered treasure troves, which largely remained unseen and therefore less known till date.” Ray was a writer of repute – his short stories, novellas, poems, and articles, written in Bengali and translated into English, have been immensely popular. Author of the famous Feluda stories, Ray’s Bengali books have long been bestsellers. 

Ray was awarded the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992 – the year he was also awarded India’s highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna, and also when he breathed his last.  

Writes Sandip Ray in the ‘Foreword’ to the book: “Since his schooldays, my father was a cinema addict in the true sense of the term – lapping up Hollywood movies of Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and others as well as the timeless comedies of Chaplin and Keaton. The hobby gradually turned into a serious interest. The formation of the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with a few like-minded friends opened to him the diverse range of European cinema, and in a sense, acting as a catalyst to his writings on cinema. In his first two articles, he heavily criticized the make-believe stereotypes of erstwhile Bengali cinema and called for soul-searching among the filmmakers. The result as he himself remarked later amusingly – ‘Nothing of that sort happened. The piece was simply shrugged off by the people of the trade as yet another piece of tomfoolery by some arrogant upstart who saw only foreign films and knew nothing of local needs and local conditions.’”

The book has been enchantingly divided into: ‘Satyajit Ray – A Self-Portrait’, ‘A Director’s Perspective’, ‘Personal Notes’, ‘Reminiscences’, ‘Festival greetings LP Sleeve Notes’, and ‘Miscellaneous Writings’. There is also a chapter on the ‘Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives’. Together, these writings bring to the fore fascinating anecdotes of Ray’s eventful life.    

About the art of Rabindranath Tagore, Ray wrote: “Tagore took to painting at a later stage in his life. Some manuscripts dating back to his youth show doodles in the margin which suggest a natural flair for drawing. After that, there is nothing to show that he had any interest in visual expression until, when he was well over sixty; fantastic forms began to appear in his manuscripts. Where one would normally cross out a word or a sentence, Rabindranath turned them into grotesque creatures. These emendations were stung together until the whole page took on the appearance of a tapestry of words and images. In time, paintings and calligraphic drawings began to appear as independent efforts, unrelated to manuscripts. Blue-black ink gave way to transparent colors, and the subjects became more and more varied. The output clearly suggests that Rabindranath was absorbed in his new pursuit and enjoying the experience. The lack of formal training was compensated by an instinctive feel for rhythm, texture, and spacing. There was also the calligraphic virtuosity when he used the pen. (His unique and beautiful Bengali handwriting– which came to be known as the “Rabindrik” script has been widely imitated.) But the brush, too, was frequently used. Some of the efforts were purely abstract while others dealt with subjects which covered a wide field.’

Ray considered scriptwriting to be an integral part of direction. Initially, he refused to make a film in any language other than Bengali. In his two non-Bengali feature films, he wrote the script in English; translators adapted it into Hindustani under Ray’s supervision. Such was the purist in Ray!

In the section ‘The Outlook for Bengali Films’ Ray was fairly real-world: “It is generally conceded that the film industry in Bengali is facing a big crisis. Some have gone so far as to predict a total annihilation of the Bengali film as such, and the sprouting up in its place of a product not dissimilar to the well-known type created by Bombay. This may be the height of pessimism, but there is no denying some alarming symptoms. Firstly, the area of exploitation of the Bengali film has been considerably reduced by the Partition; secondly, for reasons we shall presently examine, the exhibitors in Bengal have grown increasingly distrustful of the home product preferring the unpretentious, brassy, and frankly escapist products of Bombay and more recently, Madras.”

Nemai Ghosh was Satyajit Ray’s only cinematographer who did almost all his films. Ray wrote: “We founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with the help of a few friends and associates. Nemai Ghosh was one of them. Like me, he was also enamoured by the cinema; so we got along very well. I was a mere cineaste then but he was already a practitioner as a cameraman. However, he harboured the desire to direct films himself at the back of his mind. The chance came his way during the late forties when he made Chhinnamul (The Uprooted, 1952) on the theme of Partition. It was the first instance of realism in Bengali cinema. But thereafter he was compelled to head for Madras for want of work in Calcutta and had to spend the rest of his life there. Being a leftist to the core, he did a lot for the cinema workers in Madras. We exchanged correspondence only occasionally. But whenever we met, the old warmth of friendship was revived. Today I am feeling his absence intensely and I am sure the cine workers of Madras are also feeling likewise.”

Satyajit Ray Miscellany, the second book in the Penguin Ray Library series, brings to light some of the rarest essays and illustrations by Ray that opens a window to the myriad thought-process of this creative genius. With more than seventy gripping write-ups and rare photographs and manuscripts, this 275-page book is undoubtedly a collector’s item. 

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo 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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Independence Day

Of Midnight’s Children and their Compatriots… 

At the stroke of midnight, on 14th-15th August, 1947, the colonials handed the Indian subcontinent back to the indigenous population — but they did not leave it as they had found it. They made changes: some reforms and alterations, like the introduction of railways  helped the subcontinent move towards a better future once the  plundering of raw materials and the transport of British mill cloth halted. However,  the major change which continues to create conflicts in the sub-continent to date was the Partition on the basis of religions. This was initiated by the colonial  policy of divide and rule, which came into play post the revolt of 1857 and is often perpetrated still by the local inheritors of the colonies. Was it justified and does the packaging by the colonials have to be given credence so that the progeny of the ruled keep othering and thinking of differences? 

To help you find answers, we bring to you writings about the days of the Raj like Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, where the colonials try to deprive a state of its rightful ruler to fill their own coffers, and Premchand’s Pus ki Raat (A Frigid Winter Night) that reflects the sorry state of peasantry under the Raj. Prince or pauper — both suffered.  Voices that pleaded for secularism, like that of Nazrul, Tagore or Gandhi remained unheard by those who drew the lines of division. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review: “On his way to Noakhali and in the face of the large-scale massacre, to the question ‘Will Partition Change Us Forever?’ Mahatma Gandhi replied: ‘I have seen more of history than anyone of you, and I tell you that I have known Hindu boys who called Muslims ‘uncle’. Hindus and Muslims used to participate in each other’s festivals and other auspicious occasions.’”

And perhaps this is borne out from the life of Zohra Sehgal, a legendary dancer as reflected by the essay written by Ratnottama Sengupta, based on Ritu Menon’s Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts and her own interactions with the aging performer. Along with these, we have the voices from the present like that of G Venkatesh who finds that the borders may not be what the indigenous population had wanted and Aysha Baqir’s narrative reflecting on the darker aspects of life in the sub-continent.

Poetry

Arise, Arise O Patriot! and Helmsman Attention! by Kazi Nazrul Islam have been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

Tagore’s Song of Hope or ‘Hobe Joye‘ has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Prose

Pus Ki Raat or A Frigid Winter Night by Munshi Premchand has been translated from Hindi by C Christine Fair. Click here to read.

Aruna Chakravarti unfolds through the life of a prince in pre-independence era in her latest novel, The Mendicant Prince, based on the prince of Bhawal controversy in the first part of the last century. Click here to read.

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click here to read.

In Istanbul, G Venkatesh stops over at the airport to make a friend from the other side of the divide. Click here to read.

In I am Not the End, Aysha Baqir takes on the persona of a computer to unleash a poignant and chilling story based on the darker side of modern living. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Rakesh Batabyal’s Building a Free India, dynamic speeches by freedom fighters of the last century. Click here to read.

Categories
Review

Why They Killed Gandhi

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Why They Killed Gandhi; Unmasking the Ideology and the Conspiracy

Author: Ashok Kumar Pandey

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

One of the most controversial political assassinations in contemporary Indian history is that of Mahatma Gandhi. Several books have been written on this earth-shattering killing with varied interpretations, and every so often with overt ideological moorings.

Why They Killed Gandhi; Unmasking the Ideology and the Conspiracy by Ashok Kumar Pandey is a fresh and bold account of the assassination of the ‘Father of the Nation’. Translated from the original Hindi version of the book by the same author, the narrative lays bare the facts of the murder, and offers a zealous defence of the Mahatma and his politics. It delivers a trenchant polemic against the ideology of intolerance and perpetual ferocity that killed Gandhi. Delhi-based Pandey is an author and historian whose work focuses primarily on modern India. To that extent, this book has a different explanation.

Reads the blurb: “Three bullets were shot into the chest of Mahatma Gandhi by a certain Nathuram Godse on the evening of 30 January 1948. His true motivations, however, are today actively obscured, and his admirers sit in the Indian parliament as members of the ruling establishment.”

Writes Pandey in the Preface: “Gandhi’s life has never been a mystery. He bared open every aspect of his life, as seen in the ninety-two volumes of the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi and various other books/booklets written by him or people like Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal, who accompanied him as friends and personal assistants, and kept track of every activity of his.

“The details of his death, however, are for most people somewhat obscure. We do, of course, know that a certain Nathuram Godse fired three shots to take his life, but the conspiracy behind it largely remains hidden from greater public scrutiny.”

Divided into three sections and comprehensible chapters on the whole sequence of events leading to Gandhi’s death, Pandey has taken the help of court documents, the Kapur Commission Report, and other relevant papers to substantiate his thesis. He has also tried to show the ideological conflict between the various political forces during India’s struggle for freedom.

Argues the book: “The men who stood trial for the murder of Gandhi claimed that they were acting for a stronger, more united, India. Their 78-year-old peace-loving target, they felt, was the single biggest impediment to achieving that goal. They accused him of dishonesty and treachery; he was blamed for the Partition of India, for appeasing’ Muslims; and condemned for ‘fail[ing] in his duty’ to the people of this nation. To them, Gandhi had to die because ‘there was no legal machinery by which such an offender could be brought to book. Do any of the accusations have any claim to truth whatsoever? If not, what, then, was the actual intention that these arguments made by Godse were attempting to hide?” It further questions: “Was V.D. Savarkar, among others, involved in the conspiracy?

“The last days of Gandhi were ones of disquietude and loneliness. He repeatedly tried to lead an apolitical life. Attempting to provide equal facilities to the poor at a naturopathy center in Poona, or migrating to an unknown village, he was constantly trying to adopt social work as an alternative to politics. He resigned from the primary membership of the Congress in 1934, but after being in politics all his life, politics was not ready to leave him in this period of turmoil.”

In an attempt towards addressing the deficiency of knowledge on the subject, Pandey painstakingly puts the facts in the correct perspective. According to him, “since the conspiracy was not merely a criminal one but had an ideological dimension as well-something that portends greater danger in the long run-the events need to be understood.”

What this 250-page book attempts is to remind us that Gandhi’s killing was “not a random act of a mindless killer”. It was the culmination of a cold-blooded conspiracy. Pandey in this book has tried to dissect the ideology of religious extremism. What Pandey does in this book essentially is to present a narrative based on historical facts and research in ‘the so-called post-truth age’. He intends to rip to shreds the abhorrence emitted against the likes of Gandhi, Nehru and other makers of modern India.

The finest point about this book is its storytelling. The facts, incidents, and references have been woven in such a way that it doesn’t appear as a mere chatterbox. Neither is it loaded with only factoids. Other than mere facts and references, the book also throws light on the paradigm and tries to uncover the bluff which has been existing on the assassination of Gandhi.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo 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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University.

In Dhaka University: the Convocation Speeches, a volume compiled with an introduction by Serajul Islam Choudhury in 1988, we read that the university was established by the British as a “splendid imperial compensation” for the Muslims of East Bengal (Choudhury, 26). They had wanted the current rulers of India to make up through it for the loss, they felt, they had suffered because of the reunion of Bengal in 1911. Delivering his inaugural speech as the Chancellor of Dhaka University (DU) in 1923, Lord Lytton had not only made this point but had also expressed the hope that it would soon become “the chief center of Muhammadan learning” in India and would “devote special attention to higher Islamic studies” (26). However, Lytton had ended his speech by urging graduands to conceive of the institution “as an Alma Mater in whose service the Muhammadan and the Hindu can find a common bond of unity” (Choudhury, 29). The subsequent history of the university reveals that while some of its future students would viewed it as a site for cultivating Islamic values and consolidating the Islamic heritage of the part of Bengal in which it was located, others would claimed it as a space where a democratic and secular notion of being Bengalis could be disseminated.

DU started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. It became the center of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971. The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali.

The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country. In response to this ruling DU students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action.” Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 224). When he made the same point in addressing the DU Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that soon spread across East Pakistan, ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan, a state built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been held responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards.        

In retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. DU teachers and students played a crucial part in the confrontation. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatus failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life.

It was to be expected, then, that when the Pakistani state made one last desperate attempt to suppress Bengalis clamouring for full autonomy and democracy on March 26, 1971 they would do so by targeting DU and attempting to mow down Dhaka university faculty members and students ruthlessly. When the Pakistani government decided to postpone the National Assembly meet, where the Awami League had got an absolute majority and where they were in a position to claim self-rule for East Pakistan and dominate Pakistani politics for the first time in that nation’s history, the campus broke out once again in loud protest. On the 7th of March, when the Awami League’s chief, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave his historic speech claiming full autonomy and threatening to launch an armed movement that would drive away the Pakistanis from East Pakistan forever, DU student leaders were at his side as he spoke in Ramna Park, which borders the university.

What happened on 26 March was nothing less than a calculated bid to blast DU to smithereens, murder student leaders and selected faculty members, and drive out all students from the campus for playing leading roles in the movement against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army was nothing short of murderous in attempting to neutralize dissent. Inevitably, DU bore the brunt of their initial fury. Anybody found in the university that night was mowed down and dorms, faculty residences and the DU Teacher’s Club were shot at indiscriminately. The Shaheed Minar was razed to the ground and Bangla Academy was subject to artillery fire. Even university non-teaching staff and cafeteria officials were not spared. Madhu’s canteen – the favorite haunt of student politicians throughout the sixties – was attacked and Madhu – the benign owner of the cafeteria – was murdered. The huge bot tree (banyan) which provided shade under which student leaders delivered speeches and from which they had given the declaration of independence on one of the turbulent March days – was blasted out of existence.

It was clear that the Army had decided that DU was the ultimate symbol of the unacceptable form Bangladeshi national identity formation was assuming. As Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury observes in “Ekattor O Dhaka Visva-Bidyalaya (1971 & DU),” the university ambience encouraged people to not merely dream about freedom and equality but to create an environment where the dream seemed to come close to reality. Also, the University had been consistently a site of resistance in its efforts to impose a theocratic or monolingual state on Bengalis, as on-campus happenings from the time of Jinnah’s 1948 declaration about making Urdu the only state language and the protest movements of the fifties and sixties that culminated in the month-long protests of March 1971 demonstrated. The six-point program proposed by the Awami League for financial and political autonomy had been drafted by DU professors.

In the nine-month liberation war that followed the Pakistani army crackdown on DU and the rest of Bangladesh, the university once again became a microcosm of the country in that almost all of its entire faculty and students fled it. Academic activities came to a standstill and it became a campus bereft of students who had deserted it along with most of their teachers since they were unwilling to kowtow to the Pakistani design to create a quiescent institution run by quislings and were not inclined to impart or acquire education in line with proto-Islamist and/or totalitarian concepts of nationalism. Many students died in the course of the next nine months fighting for liberation or suspected of doing so. When the birth of Bangladesh seemed imminent at the end of the year, the Pakistani Amy and its local collaborators carried out a systematic search of faculty members on, and outside, the campus to murder the ones still around, holding them largely responsible for the breakup of the country they had not been able to prevent from cracking up.

When independence finally came to Bangladesh on December 16, it was fitting that the Pakistani Army would surrender in the open space adjacent to the university known as Ramna Park. The many teachers and students who had been murdered since March 26 as well as the resistance put up by them were later commemorated with structures erected all over the campus, the most prominent of them being the “Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture in front of Kala Bhabhan or the Arts faculty building, the martyrs plaque put up opposite the central mall, and the sculpted figures of the freedom fighters erected in front of the Teachers-Students Centre. December 14 became from then on the day when the DU Liberation War martyrs were to be ceremonially remembered and December 16 the day when DU faculty and staff joined the rest of the country in celebrating Victory Day.

Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture. Courtesy: Creative Commons

(First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

Categories
Nostalgia Slices from Life

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a culture

“Joy Bangla!”

I was startled by the greeting.  I was sixteen-going-on-seventeen and — en route to Darjeeling — I was visiting Malda, my ‘Mamabari’ where my mother lived until she was married at sixteen-just-turned-seventeen. I had just finished my school finals in ‘Bombai’ and was enjoying the long summer break with my school friend Swapna, my paternal didi, Tandra, and my maternal didi, Nanda. My Mama’s son, Shyamal, and his friend, Subhash, had graciously taken upon them the onus of taking us around Gaur, Pandua and Adina. All these are relics of the historical capitals that hark back to a glorious Bengal long past and — for most Indians – lost in oblivion. And here, in the 12-gate mosque of Baroduari, they were singing paeans to the Shahs and Sens and Pals of a medieval Bengal!

I was soon to face history-in-the-making. For, the rectangular brick and stone structure with three aisles, eleven arched openings, and so-many-times-that domes, built sometime in the 16th century and now in the care of Archeological Survey of India, was teeming with barely-clad men women and kids who were fleeing on a daily(or hourly?)-basis the gola-barood of the Razakars – the paramilitary force General Tikka Khan had unleashed in the eastern wing of Pakistan. This was May of 1971 and, even in the apolitical clime of the tinsel town in Bombay, we knew that the Pakistani President Yahya Khan was hounding supporters of the Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

I was therefore thrilled to hear the boom-boom-boom periodically rupturing the hazy horizon in the distant. Was it the spiteful army goons or was it the guerrillas fighting back? “How wonderful it would be to meet some of them!” the romantic in me spoke aloud to the red-eyed men and women who had greeted me with ‘Joy Bangla!’

“Don’t!” Shyamal Da and Subhash drew me aside. “Don’t get close to them – don’t you see they have all got ‘joy bangla’?”

“So what?!” I retaliated, “They are all infected with the love for their country – that’s why they are saying ‘Joy Bangla’! Isn’t that good!”

“No, they are all infected with conjunctivitis – it is highly infectious and spreading rapidly in the camps. So now, not only in Malda but all through West Bengal, ‘joy bangla’ is the name for conjunctivitis.”

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Mangoes. Raw, green, going yellow-orange-red. Stretch out your hand, pluck them off the tree, hit hard on them with your fist and bite into the sour-sweet flesh… But we girls failed to emulate what Shyamal and Subhash could do with such ease on our way to Singhabad, the last stop for our trains this side of the border in that part of Bengal. Nevertheless, the fragrances of Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli remain fresh in my memory years after Shyamal, Nandadi, Swapna, Tandradi have all followed Bangobandhu to a borderless land beyond the clouds.

Singhabad is where my mother Kanaklata owned some 27 bighas of cultivable land inherited from her father: Chandrakanta Ghosh had, in 1940s, apportioned plots to his city dwelling daughters, Malati and Ranjita too, worried that they might face difficulties if their ‘job-dependent’ husbands lost their all to the Partition! He had reasons to worry. He had exchanged most of his land in Dinajpur but the daughters were married into families that had their base in Dhaka, Munshigunj and Kustia. Before you turn to your Google Guru let me tell you – all these were part of East Bengal and are now in Bangladesh.

Much later, in 2001, I would understand my grandfather’s angst when centurion Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal told me in Delhi: “This part of the subcontinent has seen three partitions – in 1905, 1947 and 1971.” The doyen of modernism in Indian painting, who had moved from Calcutta to Lahore in his youth and from Lahore to Delhi in 1947, had brought alive another chapter of history that most of us in India or Bangladesh don’t often recall. Yes, in 1905 the ‘territorial reorganisation’ of the Bengal Presidency by Lord Curzon was said to be for “better administration” since Bengal, for centuries, was spread right up to Burma in the East and well into Assam and Tripura in the North-East, into Bihar and Jharkhand in the West and in the South to Odissa. Noted: but why did it have to be along religious lines, separating the ‘Muslim-dominated’ areas from the ‘Hindu-majority’ ones? Because together the Hindus and Muslims had taken up arms against the goras in 1857, and starting from Barrackpore the mutiny had spread to Lucknow, Jhansi, Gwalior, Meerut, Delhi… After 1857, the last Mughal Badshah, 82-year-old Bahadur Shah Zafar, had to be exiled in Rangoon while in 1885 the last emperor of Burma, Thibaw Min, was forced to live in exile at Ratnagiri…

If it were not so tragic, it would have been ludicrous, this ‘exchange’ of emperors.

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Nandadi’s brother, Nirjhar, now 79, vividly recalls crossing the newly defined boundary to come away for good from Meherpur, in Dinajpur of East Bengal, to Malda with his mother — my aunt — Pramila, his three-year-old sister, Nanda, and a just-born brother, Nirmal. “We were coming in three bullock carts: the first one driven by a certain Mongra carried our eldest Mama, his wife Charulata and youngest son Subrata; and the last had our younger Mama’s wife Gayatri, son Suvendu and daughter Maitreyi. Many people were coming just like us, there was no knowledge of the word ‘Passport’ and no concept of ‘Visa’. Since our Dadu – maternal grandfather Chandra Kanta – had to stay back to wind up things after us, he took us to a dear friend of his, a Muslim named Sukardi Chowdhury, in Anarpur and asked him to accompany us since he had a gun.

“He was to reach us to Jagannathpur where Dadu had built a house on the newly exchanged land just six kilometers away from Meherpur. Sukardi Chowdhury lived two kilometers from the border but we had to cross river Punarbhaba on a boat and then we followed the road along the railway line. All of a sudden, we were startled by a piercing cry in a female voice. ‘Who is this? Who goes there?’ demanded Sukardi Chowdhury. He climbed on to the railway track and witnessed some miscreants harassing a woman. He fired his gun in the air and the rascals fled. He walked up to the woman and found that the malefactors had bitten off the nipples of the woman who was bleeding and writhing in pain.

“Sukardi Chowdhury had a gamchha tied around his head like a bandana. He took it off and wound it around the chest of the victim. He advised her companions to go along the railway track straight to Singhabad station, take a train to Malda and seek medical aid there. ‘That will save your life,’ he assured her. I will never forget.” Incidentally Nirjhar’s father, Makhan Chandra Ghosh, did not cross the border until 1980. Along with his ageing mother he had stayed back to care for his widowed sister since their land further inside Dinajpur could not be exchanged.

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This 27-acre land in Singhabad adjacent to the No-Man’s Land on the Bangladesh border was so dear to Kanaklata that she would not hear a word about selling it off although she lived far away with her husband, Nabendu, who was busy scripting films. “One should never forget one’s roots,” she told me in 1971 when she went around with a donation-book raising chanda for the Bangla refugees. She was delighted when – later – the government of India issued Refugee Relief stamps that had to be affixed to every letter, be it a postcard, an envelope, or an inland letter. Was it because deep within she identified with the uprooted people who were forced by history to cross borders?

Ma’s love for her land had, perhaps, infected us. When she passed on in 1999, we dispersed her ashes in the pond on this land. In 2007, before my son, Devottam, was to depart for higher studies abroad, he visited this innermost corner of his land. In 2017, when Ma would have turned ninety, my husband, Debasis, celebrated by planting mango trees around the pond and released fish, the sales of which now pays for a Durga Puja on the land. Yet, just last December, we severed our formal ties by selling off the ‘two-acre land.’ But no, Kanaklata is not forgotten by the men and women – many of whom studied in the school she helped set up long before government aid came their way. They are setting up a temple in her memory…

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But hang on friends, that’s not the end of my story, “picture abhi baaki hai!”

On December 13, 1971, Tandra’s elder sister Chhanda got married. She came from Patna where Nabendu’s brother lived; the groom, Animesh, came from Delhi. But Kanaklata had organised everything in Bombay, in the same house in Malad where our family has lived since 1951. This Goan-style bungalow had a garden surrounding it and this tiny ‘lawn’ was to be the wedding venue. However, ten days before the event when the invitations had gone out and the baratis had already booked their tickets, aerial strikes on Indian air stations led to an all-out war with Pakistan.

This was ominous for many reasons. Six years before this, during another war with Pakistan, my grandfather had passed away in August 1965. This time around, the mighty Seventh Fleet of the USA had entered the Bay of Bengal to support Pakistan in the war. Sirens were being sounded at regular intervals and we joked that – since both the bride and the groom were trained musicians – these sirens were ‘replacing’ shehnai by Bismillah and party. Why? Because the police showed up to warn us that no conch shells or ululations that mark traditional revelry at Bengali weddings were to be sounded — and not even a single ray of light should evade the black-cloth-wrapped pandal that had to be erected to cover the house!

Ill omens? Never mind. You can’t stop a wedding because a war was on! All the Bengali families of Bollywood united that evening to celebrate with bated breath. And on December 16, when the bride was being formally inducted into the groom’s family in Delhi over the sumptuous meal of Boubhat, news came that General Niazi of Pakistan had surrendered to General Jagjit Singh Arora of India.

So Vijay Diwas is one day that unites India and Bangladesh in celebrating its actual secession from Pakistan. “Joy Bangla!” – we all said as Chhanda and Animesh led a chorus that sang,

 Aamar Sonar Bangla, aami tomay bhalobashi!*

Oh my glittering Bengal, I love you…

Glossary

Didi – elder sister

Mama – mother’s brother

golaa-barood — ammunition

Amrapali, Moutuski, Kishanbog and Fazli – Varities of mango

bighas – acres

goras – whites

Badshah — Emperor

chanda – donations

picture abhi baaki hai – The movie is still not over

Boubhat – wedding reception, traditionally

*Song by Tagore that became the national anthem of a free Bangladesh

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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