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Mistress of Melodies

Rakhi Dalal reviews translated short stories of Nabendu Ghosh, which not only bring to life history as cited in his Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Lifetime Achievement award but also highlights his ‘love for humanity

Title: Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women is acollection of six stories by Nabendu Ghosh in translation. It includes three translations by the editor Ratnottama Sengupta (Market Price, Dregs and Song of a Sarangi) and one each by Padmaja Punde (It Happened One Night) and Mitali Chakravarty (Anchor). The titular story was originally written in English by the author for a screenplay.

In the editorial note, Ratnottama Sengupta reflects upon the origin of the word prostitute from Latin word “prostitus” and asserts that its interpretation as “to expose publicly” or as “thing that is standing” does not have the abusive association usually identified with it. She refers to Rudyard Kipling’s short story, ‘On the City Wall’, for the denigrating connotation that the phrase “oldest profession”, a euphemism for the word prostitute, acquired later.   

Treated as courtesans, as connoisseurs of arts, the women engaged in this oldest profession enjoyed high social standing in Mughal and Pre-Mughal era. Immensely trained in the fields of classical singing and dancing, their mannerism set a hallmark of etiquettes in society. It was only with the arrival of British that their institution gradually collapsed. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 rang the death knell for courtesans’ art. With their wealth seized and places plundered, they were punished for their involvement in the rebellion. The coming of British crown further brought Victorian ideas of morality and women chastity, thereby pushing the courtesans to the lowest rungs of society.   

‘Song of a Sarangi’, set in nineteenth century Calcutta some years subsequent to Sepoy Mutiny, effectively brings forth the world of ‘baijis’ (courtesans) who had set up their kothas (business cum residence) in some neighbourhoods and enjoyed patronage of rich seths and babus of the city. Theirs was a world brought to life every evening with thumris sung and dances performed on the thaap of tabla tuned to harmonium and sarangi. Though their art was appreciated during the times, their sustenance in society hanged by the delicate threads tugged in the hands of their patrons. Nabendu Ghosh, through the character of Hasina Bai of Chitpore, places to the forefront the struggle and subsequent misery of a mother after she auctions her adolescent daughter to the highest bidder and plunges straight into a nightmare which upturns her life.

The story ‘Market Price’ illustrates the misery of a young widow Chhaya, who is allured into a fake marriage and betrayed after she willingly gives away her fortune to the man she trusts. Her story against the backdrop of city of Kashi also symbolically represents the ordeal of being a widow in the society. In the story ‘It Happened One Night’, we witness Tagar, a woman forced into the profession, trying to make as much money as she can till she isn’t worn out. For, she cannot end up like ailing Radha who pushes herself to the edge of death to earn little that she could to feed herself. Through this story, the author also focuses on the issue of sleep deprivation and illness, which is a price the women engaged in prostitution pay for their living.

‘Dregs’, written in first person narrative, while chronicling the life of Basana who enters the profession due to hardships that she faced, also very convincingly portrays the detestation which women engaged in prostitution are subjected to in a social system. Set in the 1940s in Calcutta, the story navigates the life cycle of brave Basana who succumbs to the destitution she confronts when her paramour abandons her after she becomes a mother. On the other hand, it also takes the reader through the mind of narrator, revealing his revulsion for Basana which is not only due to her profession but also a result of his own sense of deprivation, originating from his poor circumstances. He desires her but cannot have her so he is repulsed by her presence. It is only towards the end when she appears wretched, that he feels pity for her. This conflict, as experienced by the narrator, is rendered with such subtlety that it allows for an effortless transition of the distinct emotions, leaving the reader spellbound by the sheer brilliance of author’s skill.

In the story ‘Anchor’, Fatima resorts to the profession in order to provide for her son but cannot bring herself to give in to a stranger. Her defiance springs from her strong sense of self respect which she guides with all her might after her husband’s death. Rustam, who comes to Fatima in desperation, lets her go when he notices her helplessness. Here in sketching his character, the author also brings to reader’s attention the sufferings endured by countless people in the aftermath of Bengal famine.

‘Mistress of Melodies’ is written on the life of famous Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta. The author wrote this in English as the first draft of a fuller screenplay. He was captivated by the larger than life persona of first Indian diva of Armenian origin, who was immortalised in the annals of history by being the first ever person to sing for a gramophone record in the country. A highly accomplished woman in the field of classical singing and dancing, Gauhar Jaan enjoyed a privileged life. The author writes about her celebrated life and about the love which left her aching, after the death of her beloved Nimai Sen, till the very end of her life. 

These stories of courtesans, of those engaged in prostitution as well as of those pushed to the verge in a society, are not merely the stories of their struggles, sufferings or helplessness but are also accounts of their faith in love and in the inherent goodness of people. It is love which compels Hasina Bai to start life anew with Uday Moinuddin and make Tagar dream of a new life with Shashi, his pimp. It lets Rustam, a wanderer, to finally attempt new beginnings with Fatima, their common grief the anchor which brings them closer.

Remembering Nabendu Ghosh, on his birthday i.e. on 27 March in 2019, renowned writer of Bengali Literature, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay said:

“I wish I had more Nabendu Ghosh novels back then, in 1940s, for he has written on almost every upheaval of that period: the Bengal Famine, the tram strike, the rationing of clothes, the Direct Action riots, rehabilitation of Partition victims… This was perhaps because he considered Literature to be a way of tackling all that is destructive in society, in life. He was writing out of love for humanity.”

And indeed the stories in this collection, emphatically proffer a testimony of his love for humanity.  A love which compelled him to write about the women engaged in the ‘oldest profession’. He wrote to address the many woes that afflicted not only forlorn prostituted women but also well-off Courtesans.  With his stories, he portrays the predicament of women dragged into the clutches of prostitution and also paints a world throbbing to the surs of ragas and taals of Kathak whose custodians were also the upholders of culture and its mores in the times bygone. Through these stories perhaps, their legacies and their contribution to culture will be remembered for times to come.  

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta (Speaking Tiger, 2018). As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and write books. Daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, she has written Krishna’s Cosmos, a biography of the pioneering printmaker Krishna Reddy, and also entries on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. In 2017, she directed And They Made Classics, a documentary about Nabendu Ghosh. She has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.

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

Categories
Essay

A Fresh Perspective: The Bull that Thought

By Mike Smith

I have an instinctive abhorrence for blood-sports. I can remember when many years ago Woman’s Hour on BBC’s Radio 4 misjudged its audience and promoted a female bullfighter in a spirit of misguided equality and was roundly condemned.

So, you might find it surprising that one of my favourite Kipling stories is about a bull-fight. ‘The Bull That Thought’, from the 1926 collection, Debits and Credits – home of several favourites, including the clever ‘The Eye of Allah’, and the poignant ‘The Gardener’ — is one of those Kipling stories that stands out, not merely from his own work but from just about anything else one might have read.

A framed story, like many Kipling stories, it is one of those told to its first person narrator, in this case in the presence of the reader, by one of those “men on steamers and trains” who Kipling reminds us in that much earlier tale Preface, which seems both tale and preface, is where stories come from The tale is told over a magnum (or probably larger) of fine old champagne, “between fawn and topaz, neither too sweet nor too dry”, by a Monsieur Voiron.

The eponymous bull is called Apis, and in Voiron’s youth was itself a calf. Voiron has been brought up on a cattle farm among herdsmen, and bulls, in The Crau and the Camargue regions of France. Retired after a life in the Colonial Service, and returned to his family farm, Voiron recounts the tale of Apis, who far from being a mindless beast has brought intelligence to the games of bull-fighting that were played in the yards and fields of his homeland.

In fact, Apis has shown himself to be an exceptional tactician, and a “natural murderer”  “almost indecent but infallibly significant”. The ownership of the bull passes into the hands of Christophe, a peasant herdsman on the estate, and he sells the bull to Spaniards, who fight their bulls, not with padded horns, but to death of either bull or matador. Voiron tells how he and Christophe travel across the border to see what must be Apis’ first and final fight.

Slightly more than half of this fourteen-page story is devoted to the description of that fight. All the tricks and turns that the bull has learned in his youth – leading to the death of horses and other bulls – is put to the test as Apis faces Villamarti, a local matador out to show his prowess. The bull destroys the forces sent against him, tricking them into errors, killing both horses and men, yet managing too, to convince the crowd, at least to begin with, that he is making merely clumsy mistakes, rather than clever ambushes. Finally, having destroyed Villamarti’s reputation, he is left in a bullring which, traditionally he cannot be allowed to leave alive. Already the Guardia Civile are handling their carbines.

Salvation comes in the shape of Christo, who like Christophe is a peasant herdsman at heart. He is also the oldest, wisest, and dullest of the matadors against whom the bulls have been pitted. He alone recognises the cleverness, and value of Apis, and the bull recognises him too. The two of them put on a marvellous display, edging nearer to the gate from which no bull has exited the arena under its own steam. Finally, Christo’s cloak thrown over the bull’s back, the old matador demands the gate be opened for him and his friend. Amazingly it is. The bull has spared him, and he has saved it. Both know the game they have played and won.

Finishing his tale, Voiron confesses that he and Christophe did not see the next bull – “an unthinking black Andalusian” — killed, for they were weeping like children. He ends the story by proposing a toast ‘to her’, and Kipling phrases it with just a hint of ambiguity as to just who that ‘her’ might be.

It’s not simply the story of the underdog winning that I like. Apis is hardly the underdog, even when outnumbered in the bullring! It’s what the story reminds me of about Kipling. Because of his enthusiasm for Empire, and the association of that Empire, despite its Britishness, with England, we can be fooled into thinking of Kipling as an English writer. But in reality, he was much broader than that.

His British soldiers, of the ‘Soldiers Three’ stories, are stereotypes of working-class voices from several regions of Britain, but none of them have Kipling’s voice. They seem as foreign to him as the Muslim and Hindu ayahs, servants and soldiers of his India, perhaps even more so.  And in the story ‘An Habitation Enforced’, it’s tempting to see the American and his wife who become nouveau Lords of the Manor in the English village to which they have moved as proxies for Kipling and his Sussex house, Batemans. In ‘The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat’, and They, Kipling’s narrators slip easily into the identity of the British Establishment, but the English are always seen from the outside by this writer.

The writer, any writer, is likely to be to some extent an outsider, an observer, even when his or her readers perceive them to be insiders, and Kipling seems to be at a similar distance, or proximity to most of his characters, even those whom he calls “mine own people”.

In The Bull That Thought, Kipling’s narrator is a car-owning, continental travelling ‘Englishman’, which puts him in a very tiny minority of the British population. But the story allows us to see another aspect of Kipling’s identity, for he was a lover of France, and can present his French raconteur with absolute credibility, perhaps even authenticity.

The tale within a tale is a common technique and was used by many storytellers. Coppard used it, and he is about as far as you can get from Kipling where English identities are concerned, and so did and so do many others. Sometimes, the primary narrator simply introduces the tale and lets the secondary narrator carry on. Sometimes the frame is completed with the outer narrator appearing at the end to tie things up. Here, Kipling keeps a conversation between the two going, his primary narrator intervening to remind us who is talking to whom, and that both of them are setting into that enormous champagne bottle! “Monsieur Voiron replenished our glasses…”

Occasionally, as if to drive the narrative on, he asks questions: “Why did you want to send him to Arles?”And once he even has to bring Voiron back to the subject in hand as the old man veers off onto another train of thought:

‘…Now, as compared with our recent war, Soult’s campaign and retreat across the Bidassoa–’

“‘But did you allow Christophe just to annex the bull?’ I demanded”

            The opening frame takes up more than a page of the story, as the narrator recalls his trip to “westward from a town by the Mouth of the Rhone’”and his plan to road test the speed of his motor car on “thirty kilometres as near as might be” of a road “mathematically straight”. Voiron, a guest at the same Hotel takes an interest, and after the event suggests the celebratory meal during which he will tell his story. Though we get a fairly full account of Voiron’s history, we also get a subtle nudge about the narrator’s, for he has with him a Mr Leggat “who had slipped out to make sure” and “reported that the road surface was unblemished”. Leggat is our traveller’s chauffeur/mechanic. The purpose of such a frame is to let us know what sort of person we are listening to, and by extension, how to judge those to whom he is talking, and who he will suffer to talk to us.   

And at the end, it is Voiron to whom he gives the closing words. That leaves us with Kipling’s narrator when the telling ends. There is no comment either from Kipling’s narrator or himself. We make of it what we make of it, and it’s more, I think, that what we might expect our narrator, or his storyteller, or the author himself to believe about the practice of bullfighting.

The nature of the fight that Apis wages against his tormentors, both as a young calf and as a full grown bull, and Voiron’s attitude to it, and to him, and to the outcome of that final battle, can be seen as an examination of attitudes to war and violent conflict in the wider sense. Voiron has “supervised Chinese woodcutters who, with axe and dynamite, deforested the centre of France for trench-props”, and he drifts into talking about Soult’s Napoleonic War campaign in Spain. In short stories, and especially in ones by masters of the genre as Kipling was, there are no drifts into irrelevancy, only the illusion of them. Voiron draws a specific parallel just after he has described Apis as a “natural murderer”: “One knows the type among beasts as well as among men.”

 The date of publication, of 1926, falls well within the deep and long shadow thrown by the first ‘Great’ war of the twentieth century, and Kipling knew well the cost of it. In the stories ‘Mary Postgate’ and ‘The Gardener’ which bracket, by publication this one, he confronts directly both the private and the public grief, but here, might there be an oblique critique as well?  Yet not of the cleverness of the tactics as shown by Apis, so much as the attitude of those who live to tell the tale and of the outcome they long for. That “type among beasts” and men, Voiron asserts, “possesses a curious truculent mirth”.

Does the calculated brutality of the bull, and its sense of honour and of humour echo qualities that Kipling observed in those who fought in the trenches for which Voiron’s Chinese workers “deforested France”?      

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com