Categories
Poetry

Rows of Betelnut Trees by My Window

Written by Kazi Nazrul Islam in 1929 in Chittagong, translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam

Areca nut or betel nut trees. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Farewell, neighbours of my nightly vigil, 
Standing aloft next to my window,
Companions, the night of parting elapses.
From this day ceases our secret exchanges,
From this day ends our quiet conversations....

Putting its worn forehead on the porch of the setting sky
The moon cries, “Traveler awake, night is all but over”
Night spreads across the forest deep; overcome with sleep,
It glances back, clasping in its hand its dark disheveled hair!

Startled, I wake up, wondering: whose breath brushes my forehead?
Who fans my warm forehead, who wakes up by my bedside?
I rise seeing by my window the sentinel of my dreams,
Companions of my dark nights, the row of betel nut trees!

Hadn’t we once viewed each other through fluttering eyelids?
Friends, I recall what we said to each other all night long!
When tears flowed from weary eyes beginning to burn,
Your leaves appear to me to be like the cooling palms
Of my beloved. The rustling of your leaves reminded me
Of her plaintive voice, calling out mournfully.
I saw in your leaves the kohl-dark shape of her eyes.
Your bodies in silhouette suggested her slim shape.
The gentle breeze wafting by evoked her delicate air.
Your branches seem to be draped with her sari’s borders.
And you fanned me as tenderly as she did with her hands!

These thoughts troubled me as I entered sleep’s domain.
As I slept, I felt the frill of your dark blue dresses lying
Unfurled besides my pillow. I saw in my dream you entering,
Furtively and fervently kissing my warm forehead.

Perhaps in the dream I extended my hands to touch you
Only to touch the window. Then I clasped your hands shyly.
Companions, now that window will have to be shut.
The path beckons, fellow travelers shout, “time to depart!”

This day before I take my leave
I feel like revealing myself to you as well as knowing you.
I feel close to your feelings; yet why does my insatiable mind
Yearn to hear from you the thoughts lodged in your bosom?
I know—we will never get to know each other physically,
Our hearts will only keep playing a tune of pain mournfully! 
 Perhaps I’ve seen a vision of you that is not like you at all.
But how can that harm you, if it does enough to swell my heart?
If my tears transform you into a thing of beauty,
If I can build a monument stirred by love of someone
As the Taj Mahal was built from the pain of losing Mumtaz,
Tell me, what harm will that do to anyone?
I won’t adorn my room with you, won’t create a paradise.... 

Perhaps birds never lighted on your branches,
In your bower, amidst your foliage, cuckoos never sang. 
Looking up to the heavens in exaggerated appeal
You kept vigil in the dark, though none stayed up
To open the window. But I was always the first to arrive,
And look at you in rapt attention in the dark. Departing lovingly,
On your leaves I wrote my first letters of love.
Let that be my consolation, whether I meet her or not....

Companions, I’ll never wake up again to look at you
I won’t interrupt anyone’s trance after a tumultuous day.
Silently, all alone, I’ll burn the incense of my suffering.

I shouldn’t ask, but can’t help doing so before leaving today—
From behind your wooden screen, did you view me lovingly too?
Did you also take a look at me when I opened the window?
Was it the wind or my love that made your leaves sway?
When behind your green borders, the moon will go to sleep,
And I will have to repress all happy feelings—
In your joyous moments, will you recall this passerby’s brief visit?
Will your voice resound in this empty room in loud lamentations?
Will the moonlight become insipid in your vision then?
Will you open shutters and look at the formless world outside?
Or will you keep standing rapt in your thoughts all day long?

Tied to exhausted earth, you’ve become a row of helpless trees,
Your feet are soiled with dust, your heads enveloped in emptiness.
Your days scald in the sun’s heat, your night’s chill in the dew,
You lack the strength to cry, you seem to be in a deathlike stupor.
If your problems fail to arouse you, companions, and stir you,
What can I hope to gain by burdening you with my gift of pain?...

*                  *                  *                 *                 

If I come to your mind by mistake, try to forget me,
If by mistake my windows open again,
Please shut them again.... Don’t look out in the dark at all
Through your wooden screen—for the one no longer on earth

The poem recited by Nazrul’s son, Kazi Sabyasaachi, in Bengali

Born in united Bengal, long before the Partition, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was known as the  Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs.

.

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).

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

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

Categories
Nazrul Translations

Daridro or Poverty

Written by Kazi Nazrul Islam in 1926, translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam

Nazrul’s statue in Bangladesh: Courtesy: Creative Commons
POVERTY

Poverty, you’ve empowered me,
Endowed me with Christ’s dignity
And adorned me with a thorny crown,
Ascetic one, you’ve inspired me
To speak out and eye the world boldly 
Deliver messages as incisively as a knife;
Your curse has made my veena a sword!

Arrogant hermit, your scorching flame
Has shorn my golden visage of its glitter,
Shrinking its sap and drying the soul early, 
When I try grasping with emaciated hands
Beauty’s bounty, O Impoverished One,
You step forward and lap it up. 
A forlorn desert is all you leave
For my imagination to play with.
My eyes blaze at my own beauty!

My desires, tinged with pain-yellow buds,
Would rather bloom like the soft, white,
Fragrant shefali flower.  But Cruel One,
Like an unfeeling woodcutter, you break
All branches and destroy all blossoms,
My heart glistens like an autumnal dawn, 
Wet with dew shed by sympathetic earth.
 
You are the sun -- your heat dries up
Every dewdrop of pity. I shrink
Inside the shade that earth affords.
Dreams of Beauty and the Good shatter. 
Pouring liquid poison down the throat
You ask, “What good is nectar now?
There is no parching sensation,
No intoxication, no madness.
Weakling that you are, not for you
To seek manna from heaven
In this sorrow-laden world!
You are a serpent, in birth singed
By pain! In a thorny garden you weave
Garlands. On your forehead
I leave this mark of woe!”


I sing songs, weave garlands, and feel my throat burn,
Snakebites have left their marks all over my body!

Like unforgiving Durbasha*, you wander
From door to door with a beggar’s bowl.
Even as newlywed couples embark
On their night of Happiness, you cry out:
“Dumb ones, Listen: this world
Is no bower of bliss but full of sorrow,
Of want and the pangs of parting,
Of thorns that underlie bridal beds
And are embedded even in the Beloved’s arms,
Take your fill of them now!”
Instantly, cries of anguish overwhelm,
In that bower of bliss light fades,
And dreadful night overwhelms!

Exhausted, worn out by hunger, you peer,
Surveying earth with knotted eyebrows
When, suddenly, something strikes you,
And your eyes dart out fiercely.
Whole kingdoms are devastated then
By Plagues, Famines, and Cyclones,
Pleasure Gardens burn, palaces topple—
The only verdict you know is death!

You never stoop to modest displays,
But revel in revealing yourself naked.
You know no hesitation or shame
But raise the heads of those bent low.
At your wish, people condemned to die
Tie nooses around their neck gladly.
Despite burning in the fire of penury daily
They embrace death with devilish glee.

From goddess Lakshmi’s head you snatch 
Her crown and throw it to the dust.
O Champion, what tune do you strum 
So deftly on your veena? All I hear is lamentation!

Yesterday morning I heard the shehnai wail
A melancholy note, as if a dear one
Hadn’t returned home yet. The shehnai
Seemed to cry out to him to come back.
Some bride’s heart wafted away with the tune
As if searching for her beloved.
Her friends wondered why she should cry,
And let her kohl dissolve with her tears....

Even this morning I woke up to hear
The shehnai call plaintively: “come, come”
Sad-faced, shefalika flowers drop off—
Like a widow whose smile keeps fading—
Their delicate fragrances overwhelm
Butterflies fluttering on restless wings,
Intoxicated with the scent of flowers
They kissed! Bees yellow their wings 
With pollen and wet their bodies with honey.

My soul overflows in all directions!
Unconsciously I sing out welcoming songs
Happily! My eyes fill with tears unaccountably
Someone seems to tie the knot,
Uniting me with earth. With hands full of flowers,
Earth appears to step forward with its bounty.
It is as if she is my youngest daughter!
I wake up suddenly in wonder! Alas, my child
Has been up all night and is crying in my home,
Famished and hands full of soot.  O Cruel One,
You’ve brought perpetual tears to my home!
I haven’t been able to give my dear child,
My loved one, a drop of milk! 

Familial duty is no delight! Poverty is intolerable,
As it cries endlessly as one’s son or wife
Clasping one’s door! Who will play the flute?
Where will one get radiant smiles of bliss?
Where will one taste a rich bouquet of wine? 
Rather swallow a glass of the poisonous dhutura
To make the tears flow....

Till this day I hear the shehnai’s overture wailing
Seemingly saying: nothing, nothing has survived!

*Durbasha: A legendary rishi who was revered but was rather hot tempered

Born in united Bengal, long before the Partition, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was known as the  Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs.

.

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).

.

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

Categories
Stories

Half-Sisters

By Sohana Manzoor

Nara

She was as beautiful as a fairy-child. Her face was angelic as was her nature. She did not know jealousy and during the days of my childhood in that large palatial house of my stepfather, she was my only friend. She shared all that she had with me. Or, rather, she tried to share. Her mother, actually I should say our mother, tried to keep her away from me. After all, I was only her half-sister. I was a creature of wildernesses. My skin was darker, and I climbed the trees like a monkey. In return for her niceties, I shared with her all the fruits of the trees I had rampaged. We were both very young then. She was five and I, ten. Our mother often caught us in the garden rolling in the mud, stained with the color of blackberries or devouring green mangoes. Of course, I was the one who always got punished. She was the darling of her father’s eyes. Who would dare to touch her?

I often wonder if I loved Priya back then. I do not know. Do children love one another? Looking back on those years, I believe I treated her as a doll that was denied to me. I wanted to please her so that she would come to me behind our mother’s back. I knew as early as then that mother didn’t love me. My own father was twenty years older than her, and I was born to her when she was barely eighteen. But he had died in an accident before I was born, and she caught the eye of an extremely rich man, and they were wedded in no time. I was born six months after my mother’s marriage to her second husband. And mother made it very clear that the man she had married was not mine to claim even if he was my father in papers.

I can still recall that particular day I was leaning out of the living room door to watch the family tableau of father-mother-daughter and wishing I was part of it too. Suddenly, mother turned back and saw me. She hissed, “Get inside. What are you doing here?”

Then Priya and her father turned too. Priya waved and laughed, “Come, Apu[1]. Can’t she come too, Abbu[2]?” Her upturned face was radiant with expectation as she looked at her father who also smiled back. “Yes, of course. Come along, Nara.”

Mother glowered, but at Priya’s insistence she agreed to let me join them all on the terrace. Of course, I did not sit with them at the tea-table, but I did hang around them. I watched them contentedly as I had received more than I ever expected.

That was, however, only the beginning.

Up till this moment I only wished that he was my father too. But ma always made sure that I remembered my place. I was always the other sister, the other daughter, the other girl in the family. From this moment onward, I walked behind Priya as her shadow, taking care of her needs, and she depended on me as if I was a second mother. I believe, she loved me too because she knew that nobody else loved her as I did.

I remember the wedding ceremony of Atushi. Atushi was Priya’s cousin, the only daughter of Farzand Fuppi[3]. Priya was of course, as lovely as a rose. She wore a pink coloured lehenga[4] embroidered with seed pearls. It was outrageously expensive as her parents made sure that she had the best of things. But she was still a young girl of thirteen and it was I, the eighteen-year-old Nara, who caused a stir that evening. I was dressed in a peacock blue lehenga that my stepfather almost bullied my mom into getting for me.

“I won’t have one daughter wearing the most expensive thing and another dressed like a pauper,” he had bellowed.

Mother protested, “Nara’s not your daughter.”

He roared, “She’s mine as much as Priya. Don’t you ever say she’s not my daughter.”

Mother cringed and went as pale as a waif. She tried to say something but could not form a single syllable.

Some young male cousins of Priya wowed at our entrance and a female relative sneered, “Goodness gracious! Look at Nara! She just sailed in! Fayaz Uncle will have a Draupadi in his hands in no time.” At some innermost corner of my heart, I reveled. As I turned to look at my mother and Priya, I saw contrasting emotions. Priya was beaming with pure blithe, my darling sweet sister. But in mother’s eyes, I saw panic. She appeared like a terrified deer and clung to Priya. I could not understand why she was so afraid of her very own daughter. But I was naïve, and I did not know the world as she did. Nor did I know the darkest secret she held in her heart.

Priya

They called me a princess. From my childhood I was pampered like one and my mother guarded over me with utmost jealousy. I was an only child and the doctors had said that my mother could not bear another. But then I also had Nara Apu even though everybody called her my half-sister. Technically, she was my half-sister as we had different fathers. Mother always made it clear that she did not care for her at all. And she disliked her even more because I loved her to distraction. In that palace-like prison, she was the only person who cared for me truly. Love shone in her eyes like a beacon, and I cannot help wondering how Nara Apu, who got so little love herself, could love me with such abundance.

She had dark complexion, but that made her all the more beautiful. Her eyes were like pools of black water, the only feature she had inherited from our mother. My eyes are of greenish hue, the eyes that came from my father’s side of the family. When we were children, father was kind of indifferent toward Nara Apu. But Apu had such an unselfish nature that it was difficult to remain unresponsive towards her. And even though my father was a busy man, he did not miss how much she cared for me. Slowly, his attitude toward her changed.

And there was that one time when she practically saved my life. I jumped into the lake after being goaded by some of my cousins even though I did not know how to swim. I realised how stupid the move was as I gulped water and I saw my two dumb cousins standing by the shore gaping at me in horror. I heard a piercing cry, and I sensed it was my mother and then there were several splashes. Then someone got me by the hand, “Don’t grab me,” it said. “Just hold on to my hands.” I flailed and splashed and cried. Then two stronger hands got hold of me.

As I was lying in bed later with mother crying beside me, I learnt that I had two saviours—Nara Apu and Shahnewaz Uncle. It was Nara Apu who had reached me first, and Shahnewaz Uncle reached a few seconds later and grabbed us both and brought me ashore. From that day, everybody knew that Nara and Priya belong together.

By the time she was fifteen, Abbu made sure that mother was not mistreating her daughter from her first marriage. I heard him once telling her, “Salma, do you consider me such a petty creature that I would be jealous of that slip of a girl? You don’t have to treat her so bad, you know, to prove that you love Priya more.”

Mother wept and I could see she was disturbed. But she never really loved her. It is one mystery I never understood until years later.

I also formed a close bonding with Shahnewaz Uncle. Of course, he lived in the same house, but he was always busy with painting. He was Abbu’s younger brother, but they did not have a very close relationship. But he did take notice of me and sometimes patted me on the head. After this particular incident, he started taking interest in both me and Nara. He brought for us licorice of different shapes and tastes and other delicacies. My favourite was orange, while Apu liked peppermint. He laughed at her, “What an old woman you are!” Nara Apu made faces at him and grinned impishly.

During these times, I also started to note that Mother was actually afraid of Nara Apu. It did not make sense to me at all. But whenever Apu was around either Abbu or Shahnewaz Uncle, she would fidget uncomfortably and say nasty things. Once I heard her grumbling to herself that Nara Apu was out to grab men. Poor Apu was only sixteen years old at that time. Then on her nineteenth birthday Mother suggested that she could be married off to Rabbi, a poor relation who worked in our country estate. When Abbu realised that she was serious, he suddenly went very still. Then he said in a very low voice, “If you ever utter such nonsense, or if I ever hear that you’ve initiated something like that, I will have you drowned. Daughters of my family don’t marry servants…. And, from today, she is mine. Forget that you ever gave birth to her, you wretched woman.”

I don’t know what come over her, but mother just fainted away.

Nara

Mother was always a troublemaker. In those days, I could never understand why she hated me so. Our father (I had started calling him Baba[5] at some point; I did not call him Abbu though) was away on a business-trip. And that is when I discovered a terrible secret. I never knew the whole story, but I can still recall the strange conversation that night when Priya was raving in fever and Baba was away. I had fallen asleep in the sofa in Priya’s room and the words streamed into my consciousness:

“All these years, I’ve waited. I’ve waited for him to die. Is there nothing you can do? Priya will always be known as someone else’s daughter.” I heard the sound of muffled weeping of a woman. She whimpered as she said, “And I have to remember all the time that the child that is legitimate is actually the result of rape. I… I … can never love Nara… I was young and I didn’t want her… I hated that man… why couldn’t she die at birth…Why didn’t you let her die?”

Even in my sleep I went numb with pain. Until that moment I had resented that my mother never loved me. There in that nightmarish darkness, in a half-conscious state I learnt the nature of the relationship that existed between my mother and father. I knew, of course, that he was way older than she was. But I never knew that she was married off to him because he had raped her.

Then I heard the voice of a man. The voice was sad but steady, “He’s the rightful son of my father, Salma. I cannot do anything. Even if he dies, I won’t inherit the family property. My mother was only my father’s mistress, you know. Fayaz bhaiya[6] has been generous enough to let me live here. If his mother was alive, he would never be able to do so. You already know that. And Priya has to be recognised as his daughter, otherwise she will get nothing either.”

I was so shocked that a sound escaped my mouth, and my mother was at my side within a moment. In that semi-darkened room, I saw her dark eyes glazed with sheer terror. And I knew that a woman in her predicament would not allow anything or anyone to get between herself and her object of desire. I pretended that I had had a bad dream about Priya. Then we both ran toward Priya’s bed.

A week later, before Priya had completely recovered, mother fell from the stairs and was killed. But a lot of things started to fall in place. Since she could not have any more children, she was protective about Priya and so possessive too. She had no choice but to pass her off as the daughter of her husband. She also wanted to remain the wife of the man who was as rich as a king. She had nowhere to go either. The man she loved, she could not have. And the other daughter, that is me, was a child she never wanted. My father, she never loved. Poor woman! What a life!

It was a strange house after that—two brothers grieving for the woman they both loved. Shahnewaz Uncle suddenly seemed to have grown old. He reminded me of Tithonus bereft of his Dawn. And our stepfather seemed distant and gloomy like a thunderstorm. Yes, that’s how I started thinking. He was Priya’s father only as much as mine. Somehow, the running of the household fell into my hands and Priya became my shadow. She grew to be afraid of the dark. She saw mother’s shadow in the darkness, and I started sleeping in her room. We grew closer than ever. That’s the time when I learnt to love her truly, like my very own sister, without the slightest trace of jealousy.

Priya

I saw the woman in shroud for the first time about two weeks after Mother died. She was sitting in the veranda in the evening. I called out without thinking and when she looked back, I shuddered because she had no face. Yet I knew she was a woman. I heard a piercing scream and when two arms gathered around me, I realised that it was Nara Apu and that I had screamed. I think I fainted and when I woke up, I was in my bed and Apu was sitting by my bed, her eyes clouded with worry.

“I saw her, Apu,” I whispered. “I think I saw Ma.”

Apu’s face paled, but she shushed, “You saw nothing, darling. It was just a shadow. And don’t worry, I’m here. I’ll take care of everything.”

But I saw the woman again a few days later. She was watering the plants on the rooftop at the wake of dawn. I saw her from my window, and I knew it was her. Why was she haunting me? And why did nobody else see her?

Nara Apu made sure after that I was always surrounded by people, esp. in the evening. At night, she slept in my room. Initially, she slept in a cot, but later at my insistence, she slept in the same bed with me. During those days, Nara Apu was strong. She walked with grim determination; she protected me like a warrior-princess. I felt safe when she was around. During daytime, things were normal, but as soon as the darkness crept in, a fearful feeling rose in my heart. I was afraid of shadows. I realised I had to bring Nara Apu in. But how to tell her? I could not give away my secrets; hence I told her only what I could.

That night when we were getting ready for bed, I caught her hand and whispered, “Apu, I have to tell you something. Have you seen Shahnewaz Uncle’s mother?”

Nara Apu gaped at me in incomprehension.

“I saw her picture in his closet. He said it was the picture of his mother.”

Very slowly Apu got up and sat again. And then she said even more slowly, “She… was… drowned… in a… pond, they say. I wonder…”

I stuttered, “Nara Apu, she… looks … exactly… like me.”

Nara Apu did not say anything, but just looked at me. And I realised with a jolt that she knew. When did she come to know that? And she still protected me like anything? When did she learn about it?

I burst into tears, and she held me close like she always did. “Shush, shush, my pretty. You’re safe with me. None can harm you when I’m here. Shush…” What if she knew the truth? Could she bear it? Could I bear if she did not?

Nara

I had to be strong and brave for the sake of Priya. I could not tell her what Baba had told me. Sometimes I wonder how was it that my own mother never loved me, but I got so much love from a complete stranger. No, I am not talking about Priya, I mean Baba. That rainy afternoon when he called me to his study, haunts me still.

He was standing by the window watching the rain. When I entered, he bade me sit. He did not turn to look at me but spoke:

“Sit, Nara. I have some things to tell you.”

I waited patiently.

“We’re in a strange situation here, are we not? Your mother has died, and you are stuck within the walls of a strange house with people whose ties to each other are stranger.” I shuffled uneasily. What was he saying? What was he referring to?

“This is a big house. Do you know that walls have ears?” he ploughed on. “There are many secrets this house holds and even I do not know them all.” Here he turned to look at me. He had smoky eyes, eyes he inherited from his mother. He was a very handsome man even though he was in his mid- fifties. He sighed and said, “I know who Priya is.”

I bolted from my chair, and I knew my face had lost its colour.

He shook his head. “I have known it for quite some time now. Priya looks a lot like Shahnewaz’s mother. I had not realised when she was younger, but as she is growing up, I’ve been detecting the resemblances.”

I sat trembling. Was he planning to punish us? Why was he telling me all these?

“Sit, Nara. I am not going to hurt you or Priya for something your mother did.”

A terrible suspicion started to creep in my mind. And I had thought… “Did… you… you did not kill her, right?” the words tumbled out of my mouth.

He looked at me sadly. “I did not kill her.” He paused and searched my face. “But why do you say that, Nara? Your mother died in an accident, did she not?”

I remained silent.

“Nara, I want you to know that I have drawn documents with my lawyers and have divided my property equally between you and Priya. Both of you are my daughters, mind you. I do not care who the natural fathers are, I recognise you as my children. And I want you to take care of Priya, no matter what.” He paused again and asked, “Do you understand?”

I nodded mutely. Then I asked, “But why? I mean, are you going somewhere?”

He seemed lost in thought. But then he raised himself out of his reverie and smiled, “I guess, you can say that.” He paused and then added, “You can trust Shahnewaz. Like me, he loves both of you. I believe that he loves you even more because you are not his child. He has no hold over you and yet he owes you for saving his daughter’s life.” At that moment I realised how much he loved us both. I felt a wrenching pain for this man who was more than a father to us, and yet he was not our father.

As I was walking out of the room he called me back, “You’re strong, Nara. Far stronger than any of us. You’ll survive.”

Nara and Priya

There was total chaos in the family after Fayaz Chowdhury’s disappearance. The bulk of the property was left to Nara and Priya with Shahnewaz Chowdhury as the legal guardian. Neither Nara, nor Priya could claim their share until their 25th birthday. If either of them died before that, their share would pass on to Shahnewaz. Fayaz Chowdhury’s sisters could not make head or tail of their brother’s wishes. Why did he leave half of his property to Nara? Even though adopted, she virtually was no blood relation to him. Naturally, not any of them could accept that she had suddenly been elevated to the status of a princess.

Priya’s problem at this point was she still saw the shadow of a woman periodically. But by now they both had accepted that Priya would keep on seeing her. She became more and more dependent on Nara.

On that particular afternoon, Nara was making tea on the veranda. Priya was sitting on the small sofa when she just could not take it any more. “Apu, do you know that you are the most beautiful girl that ever lived?” she asked with an unnatural fervency.

Nara raised her dark eyes and laughed. “What got into you, sweetie? If I’m the most beautiful one, what are you?”

Priya smiled in spite of herself. “Apu, will you go away when you get married?”

“I’ll never get married,” Nara suddenly went somber.

“Why not?”

“I don’t trust men,” came the simple reply. She paused and then proceeded to say, “Our poor mother! I just feel so sorry for her.”

“Why do you feel sorry for her? She was a selfish bitch!” There, it was out in the open, thought Priya. It still bothered her that the wretched woman never learnt to love her elder daughter.

Nara shook her head. “No, Priya, she was just a miserable woman. She could not have the man she loved and had to deal with two other men.”

Priya’s eyes stung as the words tumbled out, “You loved her?”

“She was my mother,” said Nara matter-of-factly. “What she did was done out of her own miserable state of mind. I cannot help loving her.”

Priya’s face went as white as chalk. “Apu, I killed her.” The whispering confession was as soft as the first snow. Nara went still. When she turned to look at her sister, she said with a sadness that only tremendous love for a child can produce, “I know. Baba knew too, I believe.”

Priya cried with an abundance that knew no limit. “She hated you. That wretched woman! She wanted to kill you when you were born. Did you know that? Shahnewaz Uncle did not let her. Those two men—they have had so much love in them for that wicked woman. And you love her too? How can you love her? … Sh she was… a witch… an evil witch… I can never… forgive her… never…. Do you know she planned on killing you again? She… she had come to … sus… suspect that you knew the secret of… my birth. I p-pushed her d-down the stairs. I would n-never let anyone harm you… never…” by this point Priya had become hysterical.

Priya was still screaming when they took her away. Her mind had gone completely berserk. She certainly was not a criminal. No wonder the pressure she had retained through the two years after her mother’s death overwhelmed her completely. Nara pulled through the time, and she dragged her Shahnewaz uncle through it too. When Fayaz Chowdhury finally returned home, it was once again a strange household—two fathers held together by a daughter who belonged to neither. And yet, she was the daughter of the woman they both had loved. It is strange that Nara’s mother never loved the child begotten through rape and abuse, and yet Nara had so much to give. That made all the difference.


[1] Elder sister

[2] Father

[3] Father’s sister

[4] Long full skirt

[5] Father

[6] Elder brother

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at ULAB. Her short stories and translations have been published in many journals and anthologies in South and South-East Asia. Currently, she is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. This story was first published in Six Seasons’ Review.

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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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Tagore Translations

Autumnal Songs Translated by Fakrul Alam

These are songs of Tagore centred around autumn, a season that is split into two parts in Bengal. Early autumn is called Sarat and late autumn Hemonto. The first two songs are descriptive of Sarat and the last one of Hemonto.

Autumn: Art by Sohana Manzoor
SAY WHAT YOU WILL (Tomra Ja Bolo tai bolo, written in 1921)

Say what you all will, I don’t mind
My time flies, and hours pass, aimlessly
The wild wind stirs me to a song
And spreads its tune across this deep-blue sky.
That song has stuck in my mind.
What nectar do I seek in the humming of bees?
Whose sky-pervading gaze seeks me out
And settles on my sight thus this day?
Shiuli flower that bloom in autumns in Bengal. Courtesy: Creative Commons
THE HEART WAS AWAKE (Hridoye Chheele Jege, written in 1921)

You were wide awake in my heart 
But I see you in autumnal clouds this day!
How was it you stole so quietly away at dawn,
Letting only your dress’s borders caress the dew?
            What song is it that I should sing?
            I simply can’t find words for it now!
They lie scattered with shiuli flowers under forest canopies
They’ve flown away with the gusting winds in sudden showers.
                        ***
Shiuli-Jasmine
Flowering Kash grass. Courtesy: Creative Commons
AUTUMNAL NIGHTS (Himer Raate, 1927)

On such cool autumnal nights
Hemonto hides heaven’s lamps with its cloak.
To every house it gives this call,
“Light festive lamps, make bright the night,
Shine your own lights, illuminate the world.”
Gardens are flowerless now; cuckoos sing no more;
Kash reed flowers keep falling by riverbanks,
But let go of darkness, despair and misery; light festive lamps-- 
Shine your own lights and proclaim the triumph of light
The gods look on — sons and daughters of earth, arise,
Illuminating the night,
Darkness may descend and day end but light festive lamps,
Shine your own light and triumph over this dark night
                         ***
Hemonto-Late autumn
Kash-Long grass

Below is a Youtube upload of Autumnal night or Himer Raate sung by the legendary singer Debabrata Biswas (1911-1980)

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).

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Review

Orienting : An Indian in Japan

Book Review by Aditi Yadav

Title: Orienting : An Indian in Japan

Author: Pallavi Aiyar

Publisher: Harper Collins

The mention of “Japan” evokes dreamy Instagrammable scenery of Sakura with Fuji-san, serene shrines, grand castles, modern skyscrapers, cute dolls, geishas, bullet trains, cool robots, so on and so forth — a long list of all things ‘kirei[1] and ‘kawaii[2]’. Of late, the world has been swept by the tsunami of Japanese life philosophies of Ikigai, Wabi-sabi, Kintsugi, and Zen. To an outsider, the perception of Japan is mostly curated through social media stories, anime, J-pop and J-drama. However, the first-hand experience as a tourist or resident will have a spectrum of shades to offer.

Orienting : An Indian in Japan by Pallavi Aiyar vibrantly captures this spectrum. Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent and author of several books including travel memoirs on China and Indonesia. In “Orienting”, she shares her insights on Japanese society, history and customs against the background of her globe-trotting experiences and Indian heritage. The book originally published in English in 2021 has recently been translated into Japanese, a rare feat for an Indian author.

Historically speaking, the “Oriental” depiction of the East has been a West orchestrated exercise.  As a result, the world vision and perception of countries like Japan have been dominantly seen through the lens of Western authors, historians and travelers. Aiyar’s book is a fresh breeze in travel literature — a global Asian writing about another Asian country– especially given the shared culture of Buddhist heritage.  From the get-go, the title stands out for its intelligent word play.

The author has a difficult time orienting herself. A country that’s world famous for its punctuality, hits her as “anachronistic” when she discovers how cumbersome it is to buy a mobile connection, open a bank account or use a taxi app. In neighboring China even beggars are open to e-payments while Japan still struggles with credit card usage in stores and restaurants. Yet, to the average Japanese, “Chinese were lacking in good manners”. The book is delightfully sprinkled with cross-cultural comparisons, insights and of course haikus.

It is common to spot young kids traveling on their own to school on buses and subways, as Japanese society watches out for them with solidarity, ensuring their safety. Talking of awe-inspiring features of Japan, the list is long one– literally convenient kobinis, super-smooth public infrastructure, clean public toilets, vending machines, and most strikingly, the land of ‘what is lost-is-always found’. Aiyar narrates how she and her family members lost their iPhones, wallets, laptops, umbrellas, jackets, tiffin boxes and hats during their four-year long stay in Japan. And, every single item was retrieved undamaged. Yet, despite all the community spirit, safety and solidarity, Japan is home to almost one million hikokimoris, people who have withdrawn from society and avoid social interaction. Patriarchy, high rates of suicide, overtime at workplace and death by overwork (karoshi) are hard facts of life in Japan that take some sheen off its ‘first world-ness’. Just like any other place on earth, the bright and dark sides exist together with multiple shades of gray.

The apparently ‘homogeneous’ society has shied away from discussing issues like ‘racism’ or ‘discrimination’. While historically, indigenous race of Ainus, Korean descendant Zainichies and socio-economically backward Burakumin were dealt second grade treatment, in these globalised times, unlike many rich countries, Japan had resisted multiculturism.  The ‘gaijin’ syndrome (prejudice against foreigners) conspicuously stands out given that Japanese invented a whole new script ‘katakana’ to address anything ‘non-Japanese’. The kikokushijo, the children who return to school in Japan after being partly educated abroad, face bullying and harassment for their foreign association. The half- Japanese peculiarly termed as ‘hafus’, are also subjected to prejudices of various kinds.  However, a mild streak of silver lining is evident in cases of Priyanka Yoshikawa – half-Indian, half-Japanese winner of Miss Japan title in 2016 and Yogendra Puranik, an Indian who won the elections for City Councilor (Edogawa ward) in 2019. Such cases, though few and far between, are indicative of some changes in the Japanese air of insularity.  Comparing discrimination in Japan to its Indian counterpart, Aiyar observes that it almost felt churlish to point it out at all. “Indians were the perpetrators of the ugliest kinds racial and religious discrimination”. While Japan’s racism was “more respectable, less violent. It simmered rather than boiled over, and got mixed in with a general shyness and culture of suppression”.

On gastronomic spectrum, India and Japan are almost diagonally opposite. It is relatable how as an Indian, Japanese food strikes the author as “too cold and polite with too many bonito flakes” — too spiceless and raw for Indian tastes.  On a trip to Tottori, she discovers how some restaurants even discourage Indian groups because they carry their own pickles and sauces, a habit which offends most Japanese. The land of mouth-watering sushi, sashimi and mochi quite amusingly is also fond of fugu, the puffer fish, which is 1200 times more poisonous than cyanide! Curry is by far the most loved Indian food. But its Japanised version would hit Indian taste buds differently. The author details how Rash Behari Bose, the Indian nationalist settled in Japan and introduced authentic Indian curry in Nakamuraya café in Tokyo.

Historically, Japan and India share the common thread of Buddhism. The oldest documented Indian resident in Japan was Bodhisen, a monk from Madurai, who held a very exalted status as a Buddhist scholar in his days. He arrived in Osaka in AD 736, and moved to Nara. He taught Sanskrit and helped establish the Kegon school of Buddhism. Japanese Buddhist pantheon even absorbed several Hindu gods in its fold. Aiyar gives an interesting account of the shared culture of yore and also “not always salubrious” relationship during the colonial era. The latter period saw Indian luminaries like Subhash Chandra Bose, Vivekananda, P.C Mozzomdar and Rabindranath Tagore visit Japan, which deepened the connections between the two countries. But when it comes to doing business together, the practical jugaad-proud Indians and perfectionist shokunin-spirit driven Japanese find it difficult to cope up with this dichotomy. The book analyses it all with facts and engaging experiences.  Anyone who has ever been to Japan will find the book extremely relatable and sincere.

Aiyar writes with enthusiasm of a traveler who has pitched her tent in foreign land to capture the richness of landscape in daily travels, with a keen eye, humour and honest penmanship.  The read is indeed a rewarding journey towards “Orienting”!


[1] Clean, beautiful

[2] Cute

Aditi Yadav is a public servant from India. As and when time permits, she dabbles in translation works.   She is an alumnus of Yokohama National University, Japan and  a  devout Japanophile.

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Essay

The Kaleidoscopic World of Satyajit Ray

By Anasuya Bhar

Satyajit Ray in New York. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The last year and a half has seen exhaustive commemoration of the works Satyajit Ray (1921 – 92) as it marked his birth centenary. To us in India and to the world in general, Satyajit is now revered as a filmmaker, primarily. He has become a myth and a legend in the art of filmmaking, so much so that Akira Kurosawa has pleaded that the ignorance of the former’s art is comparable to not having seen the sun or the moon. Nevertheless, it would be highly unjust to his artistic persona if we study him merely as a film maker. He was a polymath intellectual who was versatile in several arts, where literature, visual art and music were only among a few of his talents apart from cinema. Satyajit had re-invented himself severally, in various times of his life and career.

The Beginnings

Born to the illustrious and talented family of the Rays of Gorpar in north Kolkata, Satyajit was grandson to Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury (1863 – 1915) and the only son of Sukumar Ray (1887 – 1923), whom unfortunately Satyajit lost, when he was merely two and a half years old. The vein of versatility ran high in the family. Upendrakishore distinguished himself as a pioneer in the art of photography and later also in printing technology. In fact, to him we owe the science of half-tone printing and photography. His research papers were published in the prestigious Penrose journals of England. Upendrakishore also distinguished himself as a writer of children’s literature and published not only in Bengali journals like Mukul, Sakha and Sathi (in the nineteenth century), but also founded his own magazine for children in 1913, by the name Sandesh – a name indicative, not only, for a Bengali sweet meat, but also for information and news. Sukumar Ray was primarily a student of science, with a double B.A in Chemistry and Physics honours from Presidency College Kolkata. He, however, went to England to study Printing Technology with the long term goal that he would assist his father in their own press, U. Ray and Sons. Sukumar too, got his research papers published in prestigious scientific journals. He was in England at a time when Rabindranath Tagore, too, had made his visit in 1912 and was a witness to some of the poet’s reading of his poems from Gitanjali (1912) in the company of many influential people in that country. Sukumar returned to Kolkata and was compelled to take up the editorship of Sandesh from 1915, after the death of his father. Sukumar had already started the ‘Nonsense Club’ and his hand written journal Share Batrish Bhaja (Thirty-two and a half Fried Savories) even before he went to England. The vein of the ‘nonsense’ tradition only perfected itself after his return; his own poetry and prose began to see the light of day from the time he began to edit Sandesh. However, and rather unfortunately, his life and career too, came to an abrupt end in 1923. It was only a few years after this that the magazine Sandesh closed down.

Satyajit Ray was largely brought up in his maternal uncle’s home in Ballygunge, from where he completed his schooling at Ballygunge Government School and attained his B.A in Economics (Honours) from Presidency College Kolkata. His mother Suprabha Devi, preferred that Satyajit follow up his education under the guidance of ‘gurudev’ Tagore and hence cajoled him to join Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan in the year 1940. The reluctant Satyajit actually wanted to study ‘commercial art’, but was denied that opportunity in Santiniketan. Nevertheless, he was struck with the brilliance of Nandalal Bose and Binodebehari Mukhopadhyay, whom he got as his mentors in Kala Bhavana. Satyajit was steeped in the nuances of western art, music, films and books; ever since his childhood he was an avid listener of western classical music and a keen viewer of foreign films as they appeared in erstwhile Calcutta.

Santiniketan, for the first time, afforded a glimpse of the beauty of rural Bengal, a gift that he would utilise later when he would make films. While here, Satyajit still felt restless and left after completing only over two years of the course. He returned to Kolkata and joined the advertising firm of D. J Keymar in 1942 as Junior Visualizer, where D.K. Gupta was then Assistant Manager. Among his colleagues were the talented artist Annada Munshi and the younger O.C. Ganguli and Makhan Dutta Gupta. It may be mentioned here that Satyajit, at that point, was rather keen on getting a job and procuring an independent residence for himself and his mother. The scourge of having to labour without a father was quite evident. In 1943, the Signet Press was founded by D. K. Gupta and Satyajit was assigned several books to design. Thus began a career in book designing, which marks an interesting chapter in his artistic career.

The Composite Artist

Satyajit Ray has designed as many as over 300 book covers. The repertoire of Ray book covers is extensive and varied; he continued to remain a composite and wholistic artist throughout the span of his career when he evolved as a writer, mainly for children, even while continuing to make films. He designed books for a host of writers beginning with Sukumar Ray to Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, to Premendra Mitra, Jibanananda Das, to Lila Majumdar, while he worked for Signet, and later even for other publishers. Each of these covers were aesthetic statements linking themselves to the themes and the content within. The frontispiece as well as the illustrations inside, ranged from the linocut / woodcut designs to fine lines and geometric solid shapes. Each one of these designs proved beyond doubt his versatility, talent and uniqueness of vision. Some of Ray’s book covers found pride of place in internationally reputed journals like the Graphis (in 1950).

Book cover by Satyajit Ray from personal collection

Ray’s artistry found new space in the covers of Ekshan, a Bengali bi-monthly periodical edited by Nirmalya Acharya and actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay between 1961 and 1995. The periodical died an untimely death after the demise of Nirmalya Acharya. Satyajit designed several of its covers and each one of them is a masterpiece of visual jugglery. There are three letters in the title and Ray seems to act as a visual conjuror of these three letters using various planes, letterings, geometry and even characteristics of various art forms.

Ekshan journal, Photograph from Frontline Ray Commemorative Issue, November 2021

The 1950s saw Ray totally emerged in films and his own maiden attempt at a directorial venture took shape in 1955, with Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) Ray also designed his film posters, title cards and even fliers, apart from writing the screenplay himself. Later, he also graduated to composing his own music and writing his own stories; seldom do we see such a versatile artist.

It may be pointed out here that while we keenly study the various facets of Satyajit Ray, he was not alone in diversifying the art of design and illustration in books. One may mention here the works of Purnendu Patri, Pranabesh Maity and several others whose works are significantly remarkable in the history of book making. As mentioned earlier, Satyajit has constantly re-invented and adapted himself to the changing face of time. This has allowed him to survive several cultural and historical changes.

The Writer

Satyajit began writing consistently from his fortieth year, somewhat out of necessity. Before that he wrote sporadically. That year, 1961, saw the revival of the children’s magazine Sandesh under the entrepreneurship of Ray and his poet-friend Subhas Mukhopadhyay. The magazine, inactive since the thirties, saw a new lease of life when Ray and Mukhopadhyay decided to revive it in 1961. They were also the editors of the new Sandesh. Ray designed most of its covers and like the various letterings of Ekshan, he juggled with the masthead of Sandesh as well.

The magazine continues to be among the leading children’s magazines till date and is currently being edited by Sandip Ray, Satyajit’s son. In the first issue of the new Sandesh, published in May 1961, Satyajit decided to translate some of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies into Bengali, simply as a gesture of participation. The second issue of the magazine carried his first short story in Bengali along with his own illustration. That marked the beginning of a series intriguing literature primarily published in the pages of Sandesh in a Bengali that is modern, contemporary, smart, and attractive to the young and inquiring minds of children. Some of his works were also published in Anandamela, another children’s magazine in Bengali and Target, a children’s magazine in English, which was quite popular in the 1980s. The latter mostly published Ray in English translation, mostly made by himself. Some of his English translations were anthologised in Stories, published by Secker and Warburg in 1987. There are many more translations of Satyajit now available in English; those of the adventures of Feluda and Professor Shonku, and Fotikchand and many others are also published by Penguin.    

Satyajit Ray’s books were a staple to the children of the eighties in the last century. Most of us then, welcomed our teenage with the scientific adventures of Professor Shonku and those of the private investigator Prodosh Mitter alias Feluda. These books were the repository of a variety of knowledge – one emerged cleverer and better enriched after regaling oneself with the exhilarating laboratory experiments of Shonku, while on the other hand, one cajoled one’s brains with the cerebral magic of Feluda. For children like us, Ray’s identity as a filmmaker came second to his writing, as we understood less of that art in that age. In fact, his stories were a rage among our contemporaries then, and we marvelled at his plots, along with his accurate illustrations and cover designs, all of which made him a supreme artist-figure in our childhood. There were also occasions when we connected his films on children with respect to his books. Hence, the adventure tales around the ‘golden castle’ (Sonar Kella, 1974) or those around in Benaras (Joy Baba Felunath, 1978), were only a derivative of what we perused in the books of the same names.

The Ray Generation

It would, perhaps, not be wrong to say that Ray’s writing created a brand in the genre of children’s literature. As contemporary and the immediate consumers of his books, some of us identify a part of our childhood with the Ray literature. He was a master in the handling of the bizarre and the fantastic, the investigative crime thrillers and also the evolution of the science fiction. Again, Ray may not be said to be a pioneer in any of these genres, but he made them highly palatable and attractive to the young minds. One would be guilty of falsification if one does not mention Sukumar Ray himself, or Hemendrakumar Ray and Premendra Mitra, who made, perhaps, the earliest forages into the art of the bizarre, the supernatural or the sci-fi in their own times and generations.

Satyajit Ray’s repertoire as a writer for children is extensive. He is credited to have composed thirty-eight adventures of Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku. In him, Ray creates a familiar Bengali with extraordinary scholarliness who was once a teacher in Scottish Church College Kolkata, but now resides in Giridi. Although his only companions are now his valet Prahlad and pet cat Newton, he has an elaborate family history which the author creates as a back drop for his readers. Professor Shonku’s various travel destinations offer extensive scope for young minds to travel within the safety of their homes. In creating the several marvels of science Satyajit must have surely drawn extensively from the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells as well as The Chariot of the Gods (1968) by Erich von Dӓniken – works with which he must have been familiar ever since his childhood. Scholars also propound similarities between Professor Challenger of Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World) and Professor Shonku. However, there is also reason to believe that Professor Shonku has a distant antecedent in the character of Professor Hushiyar (Heshoram Hushiyerer Diary) created by Sukumar Ray. With time, of course, Shonku evolves as a more serious and responsible, internationally acclaimed scientist. Ray had also wanted to make a film on aliens, with a sound background on science fiction, but this dream remained unexecuted. The first ever film on Professor Shonku was made by his son in 2019.

The Private Investigator Mr. Prodosh C Mitter first made his appearance in the arena of Bengali detective fiction in the year 1965. The Bengali readership was already accustomed to private detectives created by Niharranjan Ray (Kiriti Ray) and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (Byomkesh Bakshi) before Ray launched the career of Feluda, who emerged as a highly identifiable neighbourhood man with his nephew and assistant Topshe and their elderly writer-friend Jatayu. One may again mark the presence of other detectives in contemporary literature like Kakababu (Sunil Gangopadhyay), Gogol (Samaresh Basu) and the boy group of Pandava Goyenda (created by Sasthipada Chattopadhyay), which were also available to the young readers along with the adventures of Feluda. All of them were simultaneously popular among contemporary children, although Ray scored higher because of his razor sharp intelligence and complete artistic and aesthetic package that his books offered. Some, made into films, made him the most popular among children and adults alike. Apart from his series characters like Shonku or Feluda, Ray has created a host of other characters in numerous short stories and novellas, over a period of thirty years or more. There is, quite interestingly, very little adult fiction written by Satyajit, with the exceptions of Nayak (The Hero, 1966), Kanchenjunga (1962) and Pikoo’s Diary (1980), all of which have been made into films.

Ray as Translator and maker of Children’s Films

Ray distinguished himself as a translator as well. The first major translation done by Satyajit Ray was, perhaps, those of a selection of Sukumar Ray’s Aabol Taabol (‘Nonsense Verse’, 1923). About ten such poems were translated / trans-created in the pages of a radical weekly called Now, edited by Samar Sen during 1967-69. These poems were then noticed by P. Lal of Writers Workshop, a pioneering publishing enterprise which patronised (and still does), Indian writing in English, since 1958. They were brought forth as an independent collection by this house in much admiration for Satyajit’s skill in rhyme and meter, in 1970. The edition has remained a popular one and has recently suffered alterations in the fourth corrected and expanded edition in 2019. The text is also prescribed for study in a course on Popular Literature in the undergraduate syllabus of the University of Calcutta, since 2018.

Satyajit also translated some works of Upendrakishore along with other works of Sukumar into English in various times of his career. These are now available with the translations of his own works, in a compendious edition titled 3 Rays (Penguin Books, 2021) and edited by Sandip Ray.According to Sandip Ray, these were mostly done with a view to popularise the works outside Bengal and to a larger audience, mostly as recreational activities, which Satyajit undertook between the shooting of his films.

In 1969, Satyajit Ray directed Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a novella originally written by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury about two rustic simpletons Goopy and Bagha and their careers in music. The occasion was the birth centenary of Upendrakishore and was a result of requests from his teenaged son Sandip, to create something for children. The film was an improvement on the literary text, and continues to be a marvel in the study of the fantastic, given the limited means with which it was produced. Satyajit introduced in the film a dance – the sequence of the ghosts’ dancing – which remains a marvel of cinematography and an example of ingenuous thinking, intelligent editing and deft execution within a limited budget. As always, Satyajit creates a family pattern for Goopy and Bagha, too. They re-appear after a hiatus of ten years in Hirok Rajar Deshe (1980). By this time, the duo has earned fame as extraordinary performers, with magical powers to transfix their listeners and with uncanny powers to unravel the mysteries of state politics. On the domestic front, they are also married to princesses as well as proud fathers.  Hirok Rajar Deshe or ‘The Land of the Diamond King’ is a study on an ugly regime of totalitarianism, where almost all are being brainwashed to worship a power hungry king. The film may be identified as a political satire under the garb of entertainment for children, where good eventually overcomes evil. Satyajit makes extensive use of fantasy and magic as well as creates a world where science is being used to destroy the good sense of people. It is the musical duo of Goopy and Bagha who re-affirm good sense and sanity in an anarchic and dystopian state. The duo returns in Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Return of Goopy Bagha, 1991) and the setting now is influenced more by a sense of science fiction and fantasy. The last film of the trilogy was directed by Sandip Ray, who re-affirms his presence in a cyclical and metaphorical ‘coming of age’ marking himself as a filmmaker.

The cover page of the Commemorative Calendar celebrating 50 years of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne

The enormity of the Satyajit Ray papers, letters, manuscripts, posters, notebooks, sketches, as well as his film prints are now being collectively maintained and conserved by the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives. The Society also organises regular lectures and exhibitions and looks to the publication of books on the maestro. It is significant that Penguin India has decided to dedicate a whole collection of books on Ray as ‘The Penguin Ray Library’. One must not fail to acknowledge the scholarship and hard work of his son Sandip Ray and Satyajit-scholars like Debashis Mukhopadhyay and Pinaki De, who mesmerise with their encyclopaedic knowledge on the master. The past year and half have seen innumerable lectures and scholarly interactions on Ray where the two have shone independently. The present author stands in awe of their scholarship.

( Note: All the photographs used in this article are taken by the author, except the one licensed under creative commons.)

References

  1. Frontline – ‘The World of Ray: A Commemorative Issue’, November 5, 2021
  2. Ray, Sandip (ed.). 3 Rays: Stories from Satyajit Ray. New Delhi: The Penguin Ray Library, 2021.
  3. Ray, Sandip (ed.). Sandesh. Festival Numbers 2020 and 2021. Commemorative issues on Satyajit Ray entitled ‘Satyajit 100’. Kolkata.
  4. Ray, Satyajit (trans.). Nonsense Rhymes – Sukumar Ray. Kolkata: Writers Worshop, 2019.
  5. Ray, Satyajit. Shera Satyajit. Kolkata: Ananda Publisher’s Private Limited, 1991.
  6. Robinson, Andrew. Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye – The Biography of a Master Film-Maker. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1989.

Dr. Anasuya Bhar teaches English at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata.

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Categories
Tagore Translations

A Hymn By Rabindranth

‘On This Auspicious Day’ is a trans-creation of a Brahmo hymn, Aaji Shubhodine Pitaar Bhabone, by Rabindranath Tagore. Written in 1883, this song was first published in TatwaBodhini Patrika, a magazine brought out by the splinter group from Brahmo Sabha led by Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore.

A Bengali Rendition of the song by Debabrata Biswas
ON THIS AUSPICIOUS DAY

On this auspicious day, let us go to our 
Father’s heavenly abode. 
Let us go. Let us go, you and I. 

The level of contentment in His blissful
Home is unfathomable to us. 

The three worlds are in ecstasy with
Festivities that spill over with joy.

Let us join the celestials singing in praise of him
Let us go there. Let us go, you and I.

Tagore like his father and grandfather was a Brahmo. The Brahmo festival, Maghotsav, is celebrated at the end of January, by the Bengali calendar on the 11th of Magh. Brahmo Samaj grew out of Brahmo Sabha. These were attempts at a reform movement on Hinduism initiated in the early part of the nineteenth century Calcutta by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarakanath Tagore, the poet’s grandfather.

(Trans-created for Borderless Journal  by Mitali Chakravarty with editorial support from Sohana Manzoor and Anasuya Bhar.)

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Categories
Review

A Discourse on ‘Freedom as Mobility’

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

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

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories
Travel

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;—
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie...

-- Travel, RL Stevenson (1850-1894)

December is often a time when we look forward to a vacation and travel. Through the pandemic ravaged years, moving out of the house itself had become a challenge. Now as the world opens up slowly (hopefully the Omicron variant of the virus will be more benign), travel stretches its limbs to awaken to a new day with new trends and rules. Borderless invites you to savour of writing that takes you around the world with backpackers, travellers, hikers, sailors and pirates — fantastical, imaginary or real planned ones in a post-pandemic world. Enjoy!

Poetry

In the Honduran Dusk

Lorraine Caputo takes us on a visit to a small Garífuna village on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. Click here to read.

The Voyages of Caracatus Gibbon

Rhys Hughes time travels back to the first century voyaging vicariously with his imagination and a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion. Click here to read.

Pirate Blacktarn gets Lost

Have you ever got lost while traveling like Pirate Blacktarn? Who can help the pirate find his way… Narrated by Jay Nicholls, click here to read.

Classics

Travel & Holidays: Humour from Rabindranath

Do you enjoy babysitting nieces, nephews on trips and have you ever traveled with ‘hundreds of pieces of luggage, a few coolies, five women and only one man’? Tagore did. Somdatta Mandal translates hilarious writings from young Tagore on travel. Click here to read.

The Witch

Travel through Bengal with Shorodhoni, a woman dubbed a ‘Daini’ or witch, in her quest to find a home in Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of Tarasankar Bandhopadhyay’s poignant story. Click here to read.

Gliding down the Silk Road

“Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere.” That is what Ratnottama Sengupta concludes as she vicariously travels through the famed route from the past. Click here to read.

Around the World

Antarctica

Click here to read Keith Lyon’s travels in Antarctica and savour the photographs he clicked.

Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Sybil Pretious takes you on her adventures that start at sixty years of age with photographs and narration.

St Petersburg, Russia

Click here to read.

Mount Kiliminjaro

Click here to read.

Lake Baikal in Siberia

Click here to read.

Baoying, Rural China

Click here to read.

Volcanic Lake Toba. Photo Courtesy: Sybil Pretious

Philippines, Volcanoes & More

Click here to read.

Indonesia

Click here to read

Myanmar

Click here to read John Herlihy’s exhilaration with Myanmar in a pre-pandemic world in four-parts.

Australia

Click here to read Meredith Stephens’ sailing experiences between Adelaide and Kangaroo island.

Pandemic Diaries

Click here to read how Sunil Sharma moved continents, pausing in Maldives to find a new home in Canada.