Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious Women’s College of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well- known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books on record. They comprise four novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations. Her first novel The Inheritors (published by Penguin)was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko (by Harper Collins)received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days,First Light and Primal Woman: Stories.Daughters of Jorasanko, a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews. Her latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, has been published by Pan Macmillan Ltd under the Picador imprint, last year in 2020.
Among the various awards she has received are Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar.
The witch is Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of a short story by renowned writer, Tarasankar Bandopadhyay . The original story titled, Daini, was first published in 1940 in Probashi magazine in Bengali. Click here to read.
Author: Shrilal Shukla, translated from Hindi by Niyati Bafna
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021
Fragments of Happiness is a translation of Shrilal Shukla’s novel, Seemayein Tootati Hain, originally published in 1973. Shrilal Shukla (1925 –2011) was a Hindi writer, notable for his satire. He has written more than 25 books and received the Jnanpith Award, the highest national recognition for writers (2011), the Padma Bhushan (2008) and the Sahitya Akademi (1969). Seemayein Tootati Hain has been translated to English by Niyati Bafna, who has studied translation under Arunava Sinha and is currently a student of Computational Linguistics pursuing an MSc in Prague as an Erasmus Mundus scholar.
In this novel, Shukla, widely known for his satire, weaves the story of a family struggling to come to terms with its reality in the aftermath of an unfortunate incident. Durgadas, a businessman based in Delhi, is convicted for a murder and is sentenced to life imprisonment. He has two sons and a daughter. His children believe in their father’s innocence. Over time, the brothers become convinced that the murderer is Vimal, their father’s partner and a long-time friend. The story is centred on the idea of their father’s innocence and the subsequent efforts of the brothers to find the real criminal. However, the book is not a murder mystery. It does not offer a solution to the impasse that the brothers Taranath and Rajnath seem to find themselves in. And it certainly is not a story which offers closure. Rather it is an exploration of the beliefs, opinions, and nature of its characters as well as of the dynamics of relationships shared by them. The author takes on a well-to-do family in early 1970s Delhi to track the trajectory of each character as they tackle the situation.
Taranath runs a college. Rajnath takes care of his father’s business. Their younger sister Chaand is a 23-year-old researcher in the field of Chemistry. Rajnath’s thoughts and actions are dictated by his desire to restore the reputation of his family whereas those of Taranath to see his father happy. Chaand is more of a realist, who accepts the situation and is more focused upon her career and her personal life. Vimal, on the other hand, stands by the family through the trial of Durgadas and believes him to be innocent too. However, the zenith of the plot revolves around the relationship between Chaand and Vimal.
Mrinal Pande, an eminent author and journalist, dubs Shrilal Shukla as one of India’s most unique and beguiling writers. This is evident as the author treads ahead with the narrative that is crisp and advances effortlessly to portray remarkably the interplay between societal influences and individual opinions and behaviour. Speckled with spiritual and philosophical musings and satire, the narrative skilfully captures the subconscious of its characters. The characters are life-like, with their fears and insecurities governing their responses and actions. One of the most unpredictable characters is that of Julie, Vimal’s confidante and once a sex worker. She is taken aback when she comes to know of Vimal’s deliberate silence about his presence at the scene of murder in which Durgadas was convicted and adds she wouldn’t have done so in his place, that she would have spoken the truth. Vimal’s character remains beguiling till the very end, and it may unsettle some readers.
Also, quite notable in the novel is the depiction of early 70s Delhi. Connaught Place, its cafes, espressos, cinema, localities –flavours and sounds of old Delhi, reminiscent of a distinctive era that may tickle the senses of a reader. In carving the character of Chaand, the author portrays an independent woman who has the courage to make her life choices, is determined and not affected by the expectations of her family or friends. Her individuality parallels the rising class consciousness among women in early 70s which recognised the inequalities within power structures of family, tribe and region as well. With Taranath’s character, he addresses the question of religion and with that of Rajnath and his wife Neela, the restrictions imposed within the familial structures. We know next to nothing of the character of Durgadas, around whose conviction and sentence, the story is constructed. By making this choice, the author has consciously aimed to focus on recounting the ways in which different characters try to cope with adverse circumstances in their lives.
To translate such a distinctive novel by an acclaimed author from Hindi to English, while capturing the nuances of the language, is not an easy task. Bafna has done a commendable job. Although, those who have read the novel in Hindi may wonder at some points about the choices made by the translator, the overall experience is closer to reading the original work and is, definitely, a step forward in making the work reach diverse readers.
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/ .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
We wish all our readers and writers fabulous varieties of new year celebrations across Asia! We also complete one year and waft towards a new beginning. We have had some alterations as you know over the last few months — new faces on our board and writers in residence. Now, in addition to hosting writers from across all borders and ages, we have decided to also become an online forum for translated Tagore songs and writings. This will be launched on Tagore’s Birth Anniversary — 7th May. We hope that the transcreations in this section will take the treasures of the great writer and philosopher closer to the non-Bengali speaking populations from all over the world. We will try to retain the spirit of his poetry and attempt to recreate the impact of the Bengali verses for everyone who can read in English. We have already started with transcreations of about half-a-dozen of his songs. Do take a look and tell us what you think.
To celebrate our diverse new years, we have a musing by Sohana Manzoor. Did you know that Pohela Baishakh or the Bengali New Year is a national holiday in Bangladesh and is observed on the 14th of April each year?
A new year bodes a new beginning, a new sunrise and a new day — a new bunch of experiences. That is why our theme this time was new beginnings. What did we have in the beginning? Dylan Thomas tells us —
In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters of the void;
And from the cloudy bases of the breath
The word flowed up, translating to the heart
First characters of birth and death.
On that theme of words, we have a fabulous poem by Balochi writer, Akbar Barakzai, who created a furore by turning down an award from the Pakistan Academy of Letters last year. His poem has been translated by Fazal Baloch. That is just one of the treasures. This time to celebrate this bouquet of new years across Asia, we have a bumper issue which includes, interviews with the 2020 Sahitya Akademi winner, Arundhathi Subramaniam, and academic-cum-writer Sumana Roy. Both poets have been kind enough to share a poem each with us. Arundhathi’s poem is inspiring and Sumana’s is a moving one about a tree, a tree that made history. We have powerful poetry from a number of other writers, Pushcart winner Jared Carter, Michael Burch, Sekhar Banerjee, Vatsala Radhakeesoon, Ihlwa Choi and of course our inimitable Rhys Hughes. Rhys has also started a column for us in which he will talk of poets, poetry and whatever else he chooses (within the confines of our magazine’s needs, of course). Our focus this year will shift even more towards quality of content.
In translations, other than Tagore songs and Baloch’s translations, we have Aditya Shankar’s translation of Malayalam writer, Shylan. A short story by Tagore from his famous collection Golpo Guchcho has been translated by Nishat Atya. To celebrate Tagore’s anniversary, we have essays by Meenakshi Malhotra and Sohana Manzoor too. Interestingly Sohana Manzoor’s essay has Tagore’s vision of Buddha — and Sumana Roy gave us a poem on the Bodhi tree, a tree under which the Buddha meditated his way to salvation! Looking at the sad situation in Myanmar, we definitely have a need for reviving Buddhism, a theme that has been touched on by well-known film critic, journalist and translator Ratnottama Sengupta, in her ponderings on the Silk Route. Branching off from the journey across Asia towards Europe and moving up north to Siberia is a narrative from our spunky back packing granny, Sybil Pretious. She writes of her travels all the way to Lake Baikal!
Devraj Singh Kalsi suffered personal loss and has given us a poignant in memoriam on his mother. Mike Smith takes us on a memorable nostalgic journey with postcards from the past with stories that want to make you weep. There is more on memorabilia with a photo-essay by Nishi Pulugurtha and a photo-poem by Penny Wilkes (have you ever adventured with one of these?). Sunil Sharma tried out a playlet! The other exciting and new thing is Bhaskar Parichha has started a witty column with us. We are calling it Bhaskar’s Corner! I won’t tell you what about but do take a peek!
A huge thank-you to all our contributors and readers across the world.
Borderless Journalwas launched on March 14th, 2020, exactly one year ago, with eight published pieces from four countries. Today, we celebrate our journal’s year-old existence with more than six hundred publications online from 31 countries across the world. All this would not have been possible without the commitment of some very gifted writers. So, we have made a couple of additions to our ‘About Us’ — Writers in Residence and the Children’s Section Facilitator. We did this to express our gratitude to these excellent writers and the Children’s Section Facilitator, Archana Mohan of Bookosmia, for contributing pro bono to Borderless, selflessly and generously with words that enriched our journal. We plan to continue pro bono with goodwill as our only profit, giving our readers free, unpaid, advertisement-free access to excellent works.
Values and issues taken up by writers across time have often been similar. At Borderless, we look for writing that breaks borders, not so much of techniques but of issues that affect our civilisation. We want to create a flood of positive values that will deluge the world’s negatives, help to usher in an era of development, tolerance, love and peace. We are often told that this is unrealistic. But when have ideals and utopias ever been based on realism? And yet they changed the world over a period of time. We would not have the wheel or the fire if cave dwellers had not imagined them. Borderless hopes to walk untrodden paths. Our journal also aspires to respond to the calls made by youngsters for a better Earth, to explore and store samples of human excellence for posterity, and to support attempts to improve the future of our species.
As a part of our celebrations, we are also announcing two books, constructed with selected content from Borderless. Bookosmia is bringing out a book from the children’s section, thanks to both Nidhi Mishra and Archana Mohan. For our adult contributors and readers, we are also announcing a second book stocked with some of the gems we have collected over the year. We are in conversation with a publisher. Once that is finalised, we will announce the book on social media.
We carry a translation of a well-known poet from Nepal, Krishna Bajgai. Aditya Shankar translated a Malayalam poem about violence against women by young Krispin George. It is a powerful poem and an excellent translation that sets the tone for the month hosting the International Women’s Day. That the protest is voiced by men is also significant, especially in a world where margins need to blend into a single united shout against all injustices. While the poem critiques a crime, the translated prose shows how despite violations and oppressions, humankind have progressed.
A short story by Tagore’s sister, Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932), one of the first female editors of the Tagore family journal and one of the earliest progressive women of the nineteenth century, has been translated by Chaitali Sengupta. Juxtaposed to the story by Swarnakumari Devi which was perceived as an act of defiance against the voicelessness imposed on women in a patriarchal set up, we have an unusual reflection translated by the noted filmmaker and journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta. Written in Bengali by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) the piece, while being an in-depth analysis of Arabian Nights, is an emphasis on how women progressed within the century to become independent, intellectual, thinking entities beyond the bounds set on them by outmoded norms. Thus, while the prose showcases how much women have progressed, the poetry contribution by young Krispin George and Aditya Shankar reflects how men and women are now united in their struggle for justice. We have indeed come far from the biases inherent in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘Mandalay’, which was written after Swarnakumari Devi had already started writing and working against such divisive mindsets. Historically, we have moved forward.
A literary essay by Mike Smith tries to explore a new paradigm. He ponders if a short fiction by the first émigré Nobel Laureate from Russia, Ivan Bunin, could have been a precursor to flash fiction. We have experimented with a photo essay by Penny and Michael Wilkes. Some lovely photographs of the sea can also be found in the slice of life sent to us from Australia by Meredith Stephens. In Travels with the Backpacking Granny, Sybil Pretious takes the readers to the slopes of the Kiliminjaro with her 63-year-old self. Devraj Singh Kalsi in Musings of the Copywriter gives us his perception of creativity and madness – which you might say go hand-in-hand when you think of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear and F Scott Fitzgerald who along with his wife, Zelda, suffered from depression. Kalsi gives the subject a satirical twist to explore if insanity can be substituted as medals of honour by a writer instead of ‘bits of metal’ that subscribe to more conventional concepts of fame and sanity. It is a fun read!
One of my favourite essays is by Debraj Mookerjee, who has shown how when West meets East, greatness blooms. He takes on giants like Tagore, Tolstoy, Emerson and many more. Reflecting the thoughts of one of these giants mentioned in the essay, is a book on the socio-political thoughts of Tagore where the author, Bidyut Sarkar, who is also the Vice Chancellor of Vishva-Bharati University and an erudite scholar, states: “Tagore stayed away from the hurly-burly of national politics. Despite sharing the nationalistic condemnation of the colonizer, Tagore never allowed this restrictive vision to cloud his concern for human emancipation.” Bhaskar Parichha has done an excellent review of the book.
Sutputra Radheye’s poetry collection from the Delhi Slam has been reviewed by Rakhi Dalal and Suzanne Kamata’s Indigo Girlhas been reviewed by Gracy Samjetsabam. Indigo Girl is a novel that breaks cultural borders and norms to find love through a part-Japanese-part-American’s journey, with lessons learnt from a survivor of the Tohoku Tsunami in March 2011, where more than 15,500 died, a disaster that also led to the Fukushima nuclear plant melt down. The economic losses were estimated at $235 billion and people continue to be impacted by the decade-old disaster to this date. Indigo Girl, thus, is a celebration of mankind’s survival against multiple odds. It builds bridges across differences and disasters, a story of hope and friendships, values cherished in a borderless world.
We have an interesting excerpt from a book I really enjoyed, a collection of short stories that challenge man-made constructs, A Sense of Timeand Other Stories. The author whom we interviewed, Anuradha Kumar, has 31 books with publishers like Hachette India to her credit, plus two Commonwealth awards and more. The other interview also stretches geographical bounds drawn by politicians. An American translator who lives in Thailand and translates from Japanese to English, Avery Fischer Udagawa, speaks to about her journey. Finding literature and bridging borders with translations is a recurrent theme in Borderless.
A number of stories that again look for the unusual can be found in this issue. I would like to mention an interesting one from Jessie Michael of Malaysia exploring blind beliefs, ‘Orang Minyak or The Ghost‘, while Sunil Sharma gives us a story that I will let you explore yourself. Sara’s Selections, showcasing a selection of writing from Bookosmia, adds to our oeuvre.
As usual, I have mentioned a few but not all of our content, which remains tempting.
I hope all of you will continue to enhance our writing and publishing experience by patronising our site and reading us regularly. Please do share our posts with your friends and family. We continue a family-friendly journal.
Again, a huge thanks and warm congratulations to the Borderless team and to all our fabulous contributors. We value each one of your pieces. Thank you.
To all our readers, welcome to our world and thanks for being with us and inspiring us to aspire for more. We have readership from more than 130 countries across the world.
Title: The Adventure of Goopy the Singer and Bagha the Drummer
Author: Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, translated from Bengali to English by Tilottama Shome. Illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee.
Publisher: Talking Cub, an Imprint of Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.
Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury’s name was well-known as an innovative children’s writer, painter, musician, photographer and a pioneer printer-publisher in the late nineteenth century. His grandson, Satyajit Ray, immortalized his long short story for children ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ as a reputed film that deployed a lot of music, dancing and fantasy elements.
This graphic version of the story, particularly its musical score that was penned and directed by Satyajit Ray himself, had almost obliterated the children’s tale that was a household word in Bengal earlier. Since it is a story about two naïve, rustic boys who desperately try to be a singer and a drummer respectively, Satyajit Ray worked on and elaborated the musical potential of the story by writing lyrics for songs that could be sung by Goopy, with Bagha’s drumming as accompaniment. The songs like Dekho re Nayan Mele ( Opening Your Eyes and Look), Bhuter Raja Dilo Bor (The King of Ghosts Grants a Wish) and Maharaja Tomare Selaam (Salute to you Maharaja) have been all time favourites for the last fifty years. The two sequels to the film, Hirak Rajar Deshe (Hirak King’s Kingdom) and Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Goopy Bagha Return) were written by Satyajit Ray himself, although the latter was directed by Ray’s son Sandip Ray. The innocuous Bengali story therefore surfaced on the celluloid screen, and then extended through sequels to follow the adventures of Goopy and Bagha through time.
The status of an internationally acclaimed film also enabled the story to traverse across space by getting translated in different languages, particularly English. Among recent translations are those by Swagata Deb (Penguin, 2004) and Barnali Saha (Parabaas, 2012). Perhaps in order to communicate a different tone and emphasis, in this one, Tilottama Shome took up another translation. She has stuck to each and every word of the original. Although Upendrakishore’s stories have been translated by well-known scholars, editors and translators like William Radice, Madhuchhanda Karlekar and Arunva Sinha, this translation is also very fluent. The use of casual vocabulary in English that is used on a daily basis, like ‘vocal warm-ups’, ‘country bumpkins’ and ‘spooked’, add to the readability of it. The illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee, which include a lot of the ghosts, is brilliantly evocative of the ghostly fun and frolic in Ray’s film.
The story, which is something between a folk tale, a benign ghost story and a fantasy around a realistic setting with two ingenuous protagonists, has many violent episodes. Most of Bengali children’s folk-fairy tales like those in Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli portray such unpleasant interludes, which is not different from Grimms’ or Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales depicting brutal human behavior and blood and gore. Such violence and deaths go back to the earliest children’s stories, possibly to equip children with the overpowering truth that is an important, if an unsavoury, aspect of life. The violence becomes an indispensable component of children’s stories, since children need to be aware of what they might confront in the real world.
Bruno Bettelheim, a psychologist who tried to read fairy tales in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, said that children need to be exposed to fairy tales with grim episodes in them. He demonstrated that these dark happenings, fantastic as they may be, expose and initiate the child to real life that is inclusive of the ruthless and the arbitrary and contribute to children’s holistic understanding of life. In this story, when Bagha goes home, he finds that his parents have died in the interim he was away. Goopy’s parents remain alive, perhaps to signify that deaths in real life are ubiquitous, imminent but random. But there is greater cruelty than death in children’s stories.
According to Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud’s biographer and a psychoanalyst in his own right, the savagery in children’s stories represents expressions of the unconscious mind like the jealousy and hostility inherent within family relationships. He elaborated how abstract moral concepts like anger, fear and guilt are ‘physicalized’ and ‘externalized’ in children’s tales to enable children to conquer them. Also, after acknowledging these harsher primal feelings and instincts, the child gets to make sense of what is happening all around. Goopy and Bagha’s boat loses balance and capsizes due to their cacophonous singing and drumming, causing the passengers to tremble and roll around. This drowns and kills all the passengers except the two of them who are also terrified but keep afloat by clutching on to Bagha’s drum. But Gidwitz, a twenty first century children’s writer, explains how violence is deployed as a didactic tool to reinforce the moral certainty of good triumphing over evil, which must be punished. For example, in another episode where the garden house of the king is burnt down by the guards in accordance with royal injunctions, everyone who was responsible for proactively setting fire to the house dies but Goopy and Bagha, who are inherently good, escape with the help of their magic boots.
Goopy Gyne is also a ghost story with a difference. Ghosts appear in such a story within a realistic backdrop, not by invoking them or within a supernatural setting, but out of the blue. They also do not haunt an individual human being, a particular place/ house or a specific object, and are therefore aliens who are removed as suddenly as they appear from the forest in which they are discovered, after they have performed their task. They are not characters who take part in the narrative.
Goopy and Bagha initially get panic-stricken on seeing the glowing eyes of the ghosts that are like burning coal and their radish-like teeth. However, these are not the spirits of the dead that have revived to take revenge or to try to fulfill their unfulfilled desires in life. These ghosts continue to act as external agents who empower the two friends, much like the fairy godmothers in fairytales who grant boons to the protagonists and rescue them from perilous situations.
The terror that these ghosts have the potential to invoke is one that instead becomes a pleasant experience because Goopy and Bagha learn very soon that these spirits are extremely generous. The film is also enlivened with the scene with the ghosts. The narrative describes a curious reversal in which Goopy and Bagha are themselves mistaken as ghosts, thanks to all the miraculous scenes associated with their magical powers. But their achievement of raining delicacies and sweets, their accoutrements in looking like princes or the magic episodes of the two friends fleeing from any difficult situation with the help of their enchanted boots is actually an outcome of the three wishes granted to Goopy and Bagha by the ghosts. The ghosts are responsible for bestowing melody and rhythm to Goopy and Bagha’s music that used to be tuneless, jarring and noisy before.
The music in the story is wholly their contribution, something that has been underscored by Satyajit Ray in delightful compositions in the film. It might, in fact, be a pioneering enterprise, copyright permitting, to translate the screenplay that includes the songs.
Nivedita Sen is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She works on Bangla children’s literature, and has translated authors like Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Asha Purna Devi, Leela Majumdar and others for Harvard University Press, Vishwabharati Press, Sahitya Akademi, Katha, Tulika and more.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
A woman who weaves stories from the past, from history, from what has been and makes them so real that they become a part of ones’ own existence – this has been my experience of Dr Aruna Chakravarti and her writing. A winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for her translation of Sarat Chandra’s Srikanta, Vaitalik award and Sarat Puraskar, Chakravarti was the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Jorasanko and its sequel are based on the women in the household of Rabindranath Tagore. Jorasanko is one of the best and most impactful books I have read in my life and with a flavour of realism that transports you into that era. The focus on the strength that resided in women trapped with a set of patriarchal values in colonial India is amazing and attractive. Suralakshmi Villa, her latest novel which was released at the start of 2020, is also modelled on a woman from the past as she will reveal in this exclusive interview.
You are a multiple national award- winning writer. At a point you stopped writing. Why?
I had started writing during my childhood and had continued to do so through my school days happily and unselfconsciously. I wrote poems, short stories and even tried my hand at a novel. But when I joined the English Honours course in college and was introduced to the academics of literature; when I learned the principles of criticism and picked up the ability to distinguish good writing from mediocre, a change came over me. I suffered from a loss of self-worth. I felt I was not and could never be a good writer. Self-criticism is good but unfortunately it worked adversely for me. I convinced myself that my work was imitative and lacking in merit. From that time onwards I stopped writing.
When did you take up writing again? Did your translations come first?
It happened nearly twenty- five years later. Yes, my translations came first. The cycle of negative feelings about my writing, to which I had strapped myself, broke in a miraculous way. The year was 1982. At a chamber concert of Rabindra sangeet, in which I was taking part, a Gujarati gentleman from the audience made a request. He asked if one of the participants could translate the songs that were being sung so that non-Bengalis, many of whom were present, could understand the words. Since I was teaching English in a Delhi University college at the time, all eyes turned to me. I was horrified. To be called upon to translate a literary giant like Rabindranath Tagore, that too his lyrics, without any preparation whatsoever, would have daunted anyone leave alone me with my record of diffidence and self-doubt. But to my own shock and bewilderment, I agreed. The rest is history. There was a publisher in the audience who offered to bring out a collection of Tagore songs in translation. That was my first publication. Tagore: Songs rendered into English came out in 1984. Though the publisher was practically unknown, the book created waves in literary circles. Other translations followed. Srikanta by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay and later Those days and First Light by Sunil Gangopadhyaywere published by Penguin India. I also picked up a number of awards.
It was Sunil Gangopadhyay who advised me to try my hand at creative writing. After some hesitation I did so. My first novel The Inheritors was accepted by Penguin India and published in 2004. After it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, I found the courage to write more.
You were the Principal of a Delhi University college. Did your work impact your writing?
No strangely enough it didn’t. My creative inspiration never drew from my experience as a Principal. I was dealing with women from a younger generation. I was privy to their concerns, their joys and sorrows, their fears and aspirations. I understood their psychology. Yet I never wanted to write about them except in a tangential way. As part of a larger context. For me the present failed to provide the spark that kindled my creative imagination. That came invariably from some past memory. In a strange way the past seems more meaningful to me than the present.
But my role as an administrator helped me in another way. Office work is dry and prosaic. But it is worthwhile work. And, much as I felt good doing it, I looked forward intensely to the end of the day when I could doff my Principal’s hat and don my writer’s one. And, having indulged myself by writing till late into the night, I was ready to take up my work schedule the next morning. The two interests sustained each other and created a balance.
Why did you translate the writers? What did you learn by translating them? Did it impact your own story telling or knowledge base?
My first translation, as I’ve just explained, was commissioned. But I would not have taken up the offer if I didn’t consider the original work a significant contribution to Bengali literature. My other books were self-chosen. For me the most important consideration when taking up a translation project has been the literary value of the piece. I had to enjoy the process of translation and could only do so if I thought the subject worthwhile. And, yes, I learned a lot. I learned how lyricism could be infused into prose from Rabindranath. I learned how to write with brevity and precision from Saratchandra and the art of simple, direct, almost colloquial communication with the reader from Sunil Gangopadhyay. The process also intensified my interest in Bengal and the evolution of its society, literature and culture. I was enthused to read and learn more.
Some awards nowadays ask for applications from authors. Did you apply for your awards? Did you work towards getting an award?
No. This is the first time I’m hearing that authors can apply for awards. I thought that was the publisher’s job. As for working towards getting an award — no, I’ve never even thought of it. Networking is a totally alien term for me. I admire people who can do it perhaps because I, myself, have very little skill at it. Whatever recognition has come my way has come as a surprise. I feel some of the books that have brought me awards didn’t deserve them. On the other hand, the ones that I think should have attracted them, didn’t do so. However, I suppose writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. Assessment of quality should be left to critics.
How long does it take you to churn out a book?
In the case of novels, it depends on the amount of research that has to go into it. For example, Jorasanko took nearly three years. But Daughters of Jorasanko was completed in a year and a half. That’s because most of the research had been done already. Translations take less time depending on the length. Srikanta, Those Days and First Light, took about two years each. The shorter ones The Way Home, Primal Woman and On the Wings of Music were done in less than a year.
Were your novels Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko impacted by your translation of Tagore? Did having done the translations help?
I suppose it did… at some level. Some of the lyricism and emotionally charged quality of Rabindranath’s language must have seeped into my consciousness while doing the translation. But its manifestation is present not only in the Jorasanko series. It is there in all my writing. The Inheritors is suffused with a Tagorean kind of heightened sensibility. So is Suralakshmi Villa.
In your latest novel Suralakshmi Villa you have drawn a very independent woman in the last century — so independent that it would be difficult to find people similar to her in today’s world. Is she modelled on a real person?
I had heard of such a woman from a colleague of mine. The lady, a relation of my friend’s, belonged to a conservative South Indian Brahmin family of Chennai. A few years after her marriage she abandoned her husband and infant son, for no apparent reason, left Chennai and started teaching in an obscure village school. This was way back in the twenties when such an action was unheard of. She never came back. But that was all I knew. I had never met her or heard anything more about her. My imagination provided the rest. So, the answer to your question is both Yes and No. Suralakshmi has been modelled on someone I have heard of. That too only in partial context.
The Inheritors was based on your own family’s past if I’m not mistaken. What kind of research went into it? How long did it take you to write the book?
You are right. The Inheritors is a semi-fictional reconstruction of life as lived by previous generations of my paternal ancestors. Though names have been changed, many of the characters are drawn from real people. Most of the events, too, are located in family history. Not all though. Some are purely fictional. Since everything I wished to describe happened before I was born, it has all been seen through the light of the imagination.
To answer your query about research–there was a lot of primary reading involved. But I had been doing that for years before I took up the project. The ambience was provided by my reading of the classics. Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra, Bibhutibhushan, Tarashanker and many other writers provided sketches of rural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all of which were invaluable to my understanding of how life was lived in a Bengal village at the time.
I had very little real material to rely on barring faint memories. Anecdotes heard from my parents, uncles and aunts. Family legends passed down the generations. But I did visit my ancestral village a couple of times. I was shown the house in which my forefathers lived, the location of the Adi Ganga — now extinct, and the temple, Vaidyanath Mandir, which bore the name of the village in an inscription on a terracotta tablet above the door. I also managed to get hold of a family tree, dating from our earliest known ancestor Srikrishna Tarkapanchanan, and an ancient map of the area.
It took me about a year and a half to do the actual writing.
Both in Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa, you have strong heroines. Can you tell us if you are doing so with an intent?
Well, I do believe that women of the past had a lot of inherent strength. Most of them kept it hidden because that is how patriarchal society liked its women. Silence and obedience were highly rated qualities and most women abided by family and societal expectations. Some, of course, were exceptionally ahead of their times and displayed courage and independence even at the risk of upsetting the applecart. But even those who were apparently meek and subservient were seen to display enormous inner reserves of strength at a time of crisis. I have shown both kinds in my novels.
What are your future plans? When can we expect a new novel?
I am working on something but it is still in the initial stages. The pandemic has made travelling impossible so field work has had to be postponed. It is too early to share details and impossible to tell when the work will see the light of day.
This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The witch isAruna Chakravarti’s translation of a short story by renowned writer, Tarasankar Bandopadhyay. The original storytitled, Daini, was first published in 1940 in Probashi magazine in Bengali.
No one knows who gave the tract of land its name. Or when it was given. Those facts have been lost and buried in the annals of history. But the name has survived to this day as a vibrant reminder of its past glory. Chhati Phataar Maath — the field of the bursting chest.
There is no water here. Nor a speck of shade. No trees. Only a few thorny bushes of seyakul and khairi. The land stretches to the horizon in a shimmering sheet at the end of which the clumps of trees that signify the existence of villages appear as a dark blur. Looking on it the heart grows heavy; the mind listless. Travellers walking from one end to another are apt to lose their lives, their chests bursting from thirst, by the side of some ancient water body dead and dry for centuries.
The number of deaths increase in the summer months. In this season it seems as though Chhati Phataar Maath springs into a new unholy life. Its tongue slavers for the taste of blood and it exercises all its powers to attain the dimensions of a mighty pestilence. Dust, dense as smoke, rises in swirls from the ground, higher and higher, till it meets the sky. Burning heat and the stench of death hit the unwary traveller’s senses. But he sees nothing for the thick pall hanging in the air renders Chhaati Phaatar Maath invisible to the human eye.
Tiny hamlets dot the four sides of this field. They have simple homesteads in which unlettered peasants live. They tell a story, heard over generations, of a gigantic snake that once lived in Chhaati Phaatar Maath. The poisonous fumes from its nostrils gradually destroyed all animate and inanimate life. Trees and animals perished. Even the birds and insects flying in the air felt their wings singe and crumble to ash and dropped to the ground like dead leaves straight into the jaws of the mighty reptile.
That snake is no more but some of its power still clings to the atmosphere. Chhaati Phaatar Maath is cursed territory. To its east is a marshy tract which the locals call Daldalir Jalaa. Daldalir Jalaa had been a shallow bog of slime and rotting vegetation, the size of a lake, till the Sahas of Ramnagar bought theland, drained it and planted mango saplings. In time these grew into fine trees. But alas! Forty years ago, an old witch with fearful powers of destruction took possession of the orchard and made her home there.
People are still afraid of going near her for her ruthlessness is well known. Children see her at a distance and run for safety. Yet everyone can describe her. Her matted hair, crooked limbs and, best of all, her eyes. Those eyes, they say, have not blinked in forty years.
Beneath one of the mango trees is an earthen hovel. It has only one room with a dawa, a veranda thatched with straw, jutting out of it. The witch sits here all day long her body still as a statue. Her unwavering gaze is fixed on Chhati Phataar Maath.
She gets up once a day to sweep the mud floors and smear them with cow dung. That done she goes to the village to beg. She doesn’t need to stand outside many doors. Two or three are sufficient for the housewives are afraid of her and pour more rice into her tattered anchal* than they need to in the belief that their generosity would keep the evil eye away from their husbands and children. Once she is able to collect a seer of rice her begging is over for the day. On the way back she stops at the grocer’s and exchanges half her stock for some salt, mustard oil, chillies and kerosene. She goes out once more in search of kindling. She picks up whatever she can find. Fallen leaves and twigs, dried cowpats and bits of broken bamboo. Once she has cooked and eaten her meal there is nothing left for her to do except sit on her perch and stare unblinkingly on Chhati Phataar Maath.
The old woman does not belong to these parts. No one knows where she was born. But of one thing everyone is certain. She had lived in three or four villages in the vicinity and destroyed them all. Then, forty years ago, she had darted across the skies on a flying tree and looked down on Chhati Phataar Maath. Charmed by its desolate splendour, she had come down and made her home there. Beings like her prefer to live in isolation. Human society frightens them. For the moment they see a human being, a deep-rooted instinct to hurt and destroy flares into life. This malignant force hisses like the tongue of a snake and spews venom into the air. Fanning out like the hood of a cobra, the unholy urge dances in glee. Powerless to control it she submits to its strength. After all she, too, is human.
The knowledge of her own power makes her shiver. She has a mirror, dim and dusty with age, in which she examines her face from time to time. Two eyes look back at her, tiny eyes with bronze irises, the lights from them sharp and glittering as knives. Her hair is the colour of shredded jute; her mouth a gaping hole. Looking at her reflection she feels a stab of fear. Her lips tremble and turn blue. She puts the mirror down and looks out again on Chhati Phattar Maath.
The wooden frame of the mirror has blackened with age. It had been a lovely rose brown once, gleaming with polish. The glass, now spotted with mildew, once had the shining clarity of a sun warmed lake. The face that had looked out of it had been another face. A small forehead surrounded by waves of hair. Not black; dark brown with reddish glints. Below the arched eyebrows a delicate nose rose in an aquiline curve. The eyes were small, even then, but they shone like pieces of topaz. People were afraid of her eyes, but she loved them. Crinkling them even smaller she felt as though she could see the full expanse of sky from one end to another.
Those razor-slit eyes had a strange power. Whoever they looked upon with love came to harm. She had no idea of how it happens. But it did.
She remembers the first day…
She was standing on a cracked slab of the ancient bank of Durga Sagar lake facing the shrine of Burho Shibtala. She could see herself in the water; undulating, changing contours. Her body was swaying, growing longer and longer. All at once the ripples ceased and she saw herself whole and clear. A pretty ten-year-old girl looking at her with a shy smile.
Suddenly she felt a tug at her head. Haru Sarkar, of the Brahmin palli*, was behind her. Seizing the hair at her nape he twisted it viciously. “Haramjadi*!” he roared throwing her down on the broken flags, “How dare you cast your evil eye on my son? I’ll kill you for that.”
She remembers the hate and revulsion on Haru Sarkar’s face to this day…
“O go babu*!” she had cried out in terror. “I don’t know what I have done! I beg you…”
“I’ll tell you what you have done. The boy has been tossing and turning, screaming with belly cramps, ever since you left the house. If your tongue had watered with greed when you saw him eating muri and mango why didn’t you ask for some, you bitch?”
It was true. The saliva had gushed into her mouth at the sight. But why that should give the boy belly ache—she hadn’t a clue. She wonders about it to this day. She remembers going to Haru babu’s house and crying at his wife’s feet. Crying and praying… “Make him well Thakur*! Please make him well. I’m taking back the evil glance I cast on him. Here… I take it back.”
Then the strangest thing had happened. The boy vomited a couple of times and rose from the bed completely cured. A relieved Haru Sarkar turned to his wife. “Give her some muri* and a mango,” he said. Sarkar ginni* picked up a broom and waved it in the girl’s face. “Mango and muri indeed!” she hissed. “I’ll stuff her greedy mouth with ashes instead. Ma go*! I’ve taken pity on her and given her food whenever she came to the house. A poor orphan girl…I’ve thought. And the ungrateful witch returns my goodness by casting her evil eye on my son! Look, look at those eyes. I’ve had my suspicions for a long time. I’ve taken care never to feed the children in her presence. She snuck in today when I was away at the ghat and did this vile thing.”
Trembling with shame and fear the girl had run away. The story had spread in the village and people had started shunning her. Not allowed in any house he had slept that night on the portico of the shrine of Burho Shibtala. No… she hadn’t slept. She had kept awake all night weeping bitterly, praying, “O go Thakur! Purge my eyes of the unholy power. If not, strike me blind.”
…The old woman stirs. A deep sigh escapes her. The thin lips quiver; tears glitter in the tiny eyes. She knows, now, why God was unable to answer her prayer. The malignant power she bore was her punishment for the sins of a past life. She had to live with it. What could poor God do? It was wrong to blame him…
That night she had decided never to cross a householder’s threshold again. She would stand outside the door and beg the way other beggars did. It had been difficult the first time. Her throat was choked, and her tongue refused to articulate the words. But she forced herself and suddenly they came out in a high unnatural voice. “Ma go! Can I be given some alms Ma? Hari bol! Hari bol*!”
“Ke re*? Who is that? Oh, it’s you. Stand where you are. Don’t dare come into the house.”
“No Ma. I won’t come in.”
But the very next moment a strange feeling had come over her. A greedy craving rose from her belly like a darting flame and made the saliva squirt into her mouth. What a lovely smell was coming from the kitchen! They were frying fish. Big fat chunks of fresh fish. She sucked in her cheeks. A ha ha! She breathed deeply.
“Ei Ei Haramjadi! Look…look at her peeping into the kitchen with her snake eyes!”
Chhi! Chhi! Chhi*! The memory makes her bite her tongue in shame. She had peeped into the kitchen and her eyes had searched it from one end to another. It was not the first time that such a despicable urge had risen in her. Nor the last. It does to this day…
The motionless form, once moulded out of rich earth, is dilapidated now; colourless as dust. Slowly the chipped joints of the ancient limbs flex and loosen. Breaking out of their shackles they shudder into life. The twisted nails dig into the earth of the dawa. The white head bobs up and down in agitation. Why do these things happen? She has asked herself the question over and over again, all her life, but never found the answer. What should she do about it? What could she do? If only somebody would tell her. Aanh! Aanh! Aanh! She squeals in the voice of a beaten beast. Clamping her toothless gums in helpless rage she raises her hands to her dreadlocks and pulls them cruelly by the roots. Her eyes, sharp as a kite’s, scans the endless sweep of empty earth.
It is the month of Chaitra. The last month of the year and the first of the hot season. The cool of the morning has given way to a blazing afternoon. A haze of heat and dust shimmers over Chhati Phataar Maath rendering it almost invisible. But the razor slit eyes can see better than most. What was that trail of light flickering across the field? She could, if she wished, have blown the dust away with a puff from her lips and seen what it was. Ah… it was gone now but she could see something else. Something solid, substantial, in the smoky haze. Arre*! It was moving. What was it? A living being? Human? Yes, yes, she could see it now. It was a woman. Suddenly the old hateful urge rose from within her. Should she blow a breath on the creature and make it disappear? Her toothless mouth opened in a cackle of cruel laughter. She rocked herself to and fro like a mad woman.
And then she pulled herself together. Balling her fists till the sharp nails dug into her flesh she fought the blood thirsty urge. No…no… she would turn her eyes away. She wouldn’t look towards Chhati Phataar Maath. If she did, the poor woman would die of asphyxiation. She would sweep the floor of her hut instead. Or she could stack the dry leaves and twigs she had gathered that morning into neat piles…
Unlocking her inert limbs, she picks up the broom and starts sweeping the floor. But the dust and leaves she gathers together take on a life of their own. Wriggling away from the end of her broom they coil around her form like snakes, hissing and spitting at the withered skin. Dust stings her eyes and nostrils. She doesn’t know how to withstand the assault. She bares her empty gums like a mangy old cat. “Out!” she shrieks waving her broom helplessly in the air. “Out I say! Leave me alone.”
But the snakes do not heed her. They wind about her form tighter and tighter till she can scarcely breathe. “Out! Out!” she howls in despair flailing herself with the broom. Suddenly, with cackles of rasping laughter, the snakes release her from their coils. Loosening their hold, they fly, as though on wings, in the direction of Chaati Phataar Maath. Dust and dead khairi rise in swirls to greet them and together they form a giant tower that spirals its way to the sky. More such columns spring up in the air. Spinning in a joyous dance. There are a thousand now. Big and small. Chhati Phataar Maath grows dark and terrifying.
Looking on the scene, the old crone is filled with glee. Waves of rapture lap around her. She chortles with laughter. Raising her bent body, she spreads her out her arms, broom in one hand. She twirls her limbs, slowly at first, then fast…faster. Round and round she goes, round and round, till overcome by fatigue, she sinks to the ground. She tries to stand up and resume her dance, but her legs will not support her. Her head spins and the world grows dim. Her chest crackles with thirst. Dropping on her hands and feet she crawls, like a baby, to the clay pot of water in the corner of her room…
“Is anyone at home? O go! Is anyone at home? Can I come in?”
“Ke? Who is that?”
A young woman, coated with dust from head to foot, poked a long pale face through the door. She was clutching something to her breast, hiding it under her tattered anchal. It was dark within and all she could see was a knot of crooked limbs huddled together like a bunch of rotten twigs. She felt a stab of fear and moved back a few steps. “Water,” she murmured faintly, “A few drops of water.”
The old woman sat up slowly. “A ha ha! My poor child,” she clicked her tongue in sympathy. “Come in. Sit down and rest yourself.” The girl’s frightened eyes darted this way and that. Then, slowly, reluctantly, she seated herself at the farthest edge of the dawa. “Give me a drink of water Ma,” she said faintly, “I die of thirst.” The old woman’s heart melted. She poured out a large tumbler of water then, digging a bony hand into another pot she groped for a piece of gur* murmuring all the while, “Poor child! Poor child! What made you think of crossing that field of death in this terrible heat? You could have died.”
“I’m on my way to see my sick mother. Her village lies at the eastern boundary. But I lost my way and found myself in the middle of Chhati Phaatar Maath.”
Coming out on the dawa with the water and gur, the old woman got a shock. A male infant, a few months old, was lying on the floor. The poor mite was drenched in sweat and his tiny limbs sagged like boiled spinach. “Come, come,” she prompted pushing the tumbler towards the girl. “Sprinkle some on the child’s face. Quick.” The girl obeyed. Wetting her anchal with water she wiped the tiny face and limbs and poured some into his mouth.
The old crone sat and watched them from a distance. The woman was young and healthy and the infant, perhaps her first, had a plump tender body, moist and supple as a tendril on a bottle gourd vine. Saliva squirted into her toothless mouth. She sucked in her cheeks and swallowed.
A ha re! The child’s chest was going up and down like a pair of bellows. Perspiration was pouring out of him. More and more and more. A patch of damp was forming on the mud floor on which he lay. The eyes were misting; turning crimson. Was it…was it? But what could she do? What could she do? Why did they come into her presence? Why? The strangest sensations were pricking in her blood. A frantic urge to pick up the bundle of human flesh and hold it to her breast. To squeeze and mash it, like a pat of dough, against her ribbed, hollowed chest. To press the cool, watery limbs against her fevered skin.
Baap re! How the child was sweating! All the water was being drained out of his body. She knew it from the sap that was filling her own mouth… warm and sweet. Oozing from the corners. Dribbling down her chin. “O re kheye phellam re*!” An anguished cry tore its way from her throat. “I’m…I’m swallowing the child. Run. Run for your life. Pick up your baby and run.”
The young woman who was drinking water in large thirsty gulps looked up with a gasp. The tumbler clattered to the ground. “You!” she muttered, her face as white as a sheet. “Is this Ramnagar? Are you… the one?” Without waiting for an answer, she snatched up the child and flew out of the house, the little one hanging from her arms like a fledgling folded in a mother bird’s wings. The old woman watched her flight. The tiny eyes dimmed with self-pity. She was helpless. If it were possible, she would have pierced her sharp twirling nails into her withered breast and torn the shameless urge out of it. She would have cut off her tongue. But all this, she knew, was useless. The malaise lay deeper. Far deeper.
Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! How would she set foot on the village path tomorrow? How would she show her face? The child would be dead by then and everyone would know the reason. They wouldn’t taunt her with it. They wouldn’t dare. But the disgust and hate in their eyes would shame her more than words. Even now children ran away at the sight of her. They could burst out weeping. Some could even faint and fall to the ground. Chhi! Chhi! Chhi!
A similar self-aversion had led her to flee the village of her birth, in the dark of night, years ago. She was a little older then — approaching womanhood. A friend of hers, a girl from her own community, had delivered a male child the night before and she had gone to see him. Savitri was sitting in the yard sunning her limbs, her new-born lying beside her on a kantha*. What a lovely baby! Plump and healthy with a shining black skin. She felt her heart swell with love. She wanted to fondle the tiny bundle and squeeze it tight against her breast. To kiss the drooling mouth with hungry lips. She was unaware, then, of the evil power in her. She thought her feelings were those of maternal love.
All of a sudden, Savitri’s mother-in-law came rushing in. “Haramjadi!” she screamed at her daughter-in-law. “Have you lost your mind? Chattering and giggling with the accursed creature! If anything happens to my grandson, I’ll flay you alive.” Then, turning to the visitor, she pointed to the door and said grimly, “Get out you slit eyed witch. Don’t dare come here again.”
Savitri’s limbs, still weak from childbirth, had trembled in fear. Picking up the baby she had run indoors and slammed the door. And she? She had walked out of the house head hung in humiliation. Tears had gathered in her eyes. Everyone said she was a witch. They could be right. She did not know. But even if she was a witch would she, ever, ever harm Savitri’s baby? “Dear God,” she prayed, “Be the judge and prove them all wrong. Give the boy one hundred years. Let everyone know how much I love Savitri’s child.”
As afternoon came on the mother-in-law’s fears began manifesting themselves as the indelible truth. News rippled through the village and reached her ears. The baby was very sick. The tiny limbs were flailing and threshing, and the small trunk was twisting into an arch. Turning blue. Exactly as though some malignant creature was sucking the lifeblood out of him.
She had run away in shame. Avoiding the village paths, she had pushed her way through the jungle and taken refuge in the burning ghat. She had hidden herself behind a bamboo thicket and thought of what she had done. But…but if she had drunk blood, as everyone was saying, it would be in her mouth would it not? Crouching on her haunches she spat on the ground. Thoo! Thoo! Several times. But where was the blood? Her spit was as innocently white as foaming milk. She dug her fingers into her throat and threw up. Yes, now she could see some dark flecks in her vomit. She dug deeper and a gush of fresh blood filled her mouth, warm and salty.
There was no doubt in her mind now. What people said was right. She possessed a demoniac power which surfaced whenever she looked on any human being with love in her heart. Love turned sour in her; took the form of hate and destruction…
It was well past midnight. Was it the fourteenth day of the waxing moon? Yes, of course it was. The old woman could hear the beating of the drums from the temple of Tara Devi. Tomorrow was purnima, the night of the full moon. The shrine would be full of people. They would sacrifice goats and ask for boons. Tara Ma was a powerful deity and no one who approached her for favours went away disappointed. Only she had been denied Tara Ma’s blessing. She had offered prayers year after year and begged, “Take pity on me Ma. Change me from a witch to an ordinary woman. I’ll slit my breast and offer you my blood.” But the goddess hadn’t heeded her prayers.
A deep sigh rose from the shrivelled chest. Sorrow and despair were her constant companions now. She didn’t even resent them anymore. Thoughts drifted through her head like kites on broken strings. Floating this way and that on the whims of the wind. Dipping to the ground. A lost look came into the aged yellow eyes. She sat motionless looking on Chhati Phataar Maath. There was nothing to see. Only a dun coloured pall of dust. Still and unwavering. Not a whiff of breeze to stir it…
The child died a few hours later while the woman was still on her way to her mother’s house. Nothing she did would stop the perspiration that kept pouring out of him. Perspiration? Or was it something else? Someone was drawing the life blood out of him; sucking him dry. And who could it be but the diabolic creature in whose hut she had taken shelter? Whose water she had poured down the baby’s throat? “O go! What have I done?” She beat her breast and howled, “What possessed me to go there? To let the wicked creature set her eyes on my little darling? O go! Ma go!”
The villagers gathered around the weeping woman and her dead child. Some commiserated with her. Some cursed and threatened the witch. A band of ruffians made their way to her hut vowing revenge. She saw them from afar and started muttering in self defence, “It wasn’t my fault. Why did she come to my house? Why did she hold out the beautiful baby before my eyes?” Suddenly she felt a current of mixed emotions sweep through her. A shiver ran down her spine and the hair on her head stood up and spread around her face like a cobra’s hood. She screamed abuses at the approaching men in a voice that was no longer human. It was a predator bird’s screech — shrill and penetrating.
Her would be assaulters turned pale with fear and backed away. But the old woman’s fury hadn’t abated. Curses, bitter and corrosive, continued to fall from her lips, spiked with the poison she had held in her breast for so many years. Her breath came out, hot and hissing, like a wounded snake’s. Her arms, the skin on them thin and papery as a bat’s wing, flailed the earth. And then she started laughing. A ear splitting metallic laugh burst from her, ringing through the length and breadth of Chhati Phataar Maath. She pulled her hair by the roots weeping and laughing by turns. “Tck! Tck! Tck!” she cackled like a brooding hen. “What fun! No need to light the kitchen fire. No need to set rice on the boil. I’ve devoured a whole human child. Sucked it dry. I’ve had my fill for the day.”
Night came on. It was the nineth night of Shukla Paksha and Chhati Phataar Maath lay shrouded in silver moonlight. Jhir…jhir…jhir… a gentle breeze rippled the leaves of the mango trees. Crickets chirped and an unknown bird’s song, sweet and fluty, came wafting on the air. The old woman pricked up her ears. She could hear voices from behind her hut. Had the goons of the morning returned to harm her? She rose and turned the corner on cautious feet. There was a couple standing under the gopal bhog tree at the edge of the stream. She knew them. The Bauri* girl whose husband had abandoned her and the boy she loved. She crouched on the ground, a few yards away, listening.
“I’m going home,” the girl whispered, “Someone may see us.”
“Heh! Heh!” Her companion laughed away her fears. “No one comes here even during the day. As if they’ll come at night.”
“Even so,” the girl persisted. “I’m not staying here with you. Your father isn’t allowing us to marry. Then what’s the point…?”
Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! The old woman bit her tongue. If the two were in love and wanted a quiet place to meet why didn’t they come into her hut? Why stand outside where someone might see them? Were they embarrassed to take her help? But why? She was an old woman…their grandmother’s age. She understood their predicament.
And now the boy was saying something that made the withered lips curl with amusement. “If we are not allowed to marry,” he whispered, “we’ll run away and settle in another village as far from here as possible. I cannot live without you.”
Aah maran*! The old woman snorted in contempt. Can’t live without her indeed! A girl as black and round bellied as a clay pot! Suddenly another scene came before her eyes. Another time. Another place. She had seen someone in the long mirror that hung over a wall of the paan shop in Bolpur. A tall slim girl, fourteen or fifteen years old, with a head of rough reddish hair, a small forehead, a delicate nose and thin lips. The eyes were small, it was true, but attractive… bright brown with golden flecks. Charmed with her own beauty she had kept smiling at her own image. She had never seen herself in a mirror before.
“Arre! Who in the world are you?” A man’s voice came to her ears. A young man, tall and strapping. “Where do you come from?” This had happened on the day after the incident in Savitri’s house. She had run away from the village that same night and come to Bolpur. She had liked the look of the man but taken umbrage at his tone. “Where I come from is my business,” she had glared at him, “Not yours.”
“Your business! Not mine! Do you know who you are talking to? One blow and you’ll fall to the ground like a dead leaf. Have you seen the size of my fist?”
She had stared at the stranger. At the sculptured black marble torso, the strong thighs rippling with muscles, and had willed herself to suck the blood out of him. She had gritted her teeth and mouthed a stream of silent curses. Her tongue had watered like a fountain. But nothing happened. Throwing a bitter glance at him she left the place.
She encountered him again the same day. She was sitting on a bank of the big pond at the far end of Bolpur town, beyond the railway line, eating muri from a mound in her anchal. The sun had just set, and a saffron moon was rising like an enormous platter from the east. The light hadn’t turned silver yet. The sky was covered in a dim yellow haze. Suddenly she heard footsteps approach and looked up in alarm. It was the man of the morning. “Why did you run away?” he asked laughing, “I only asked you a question.”
She remembers the laugh to this day and the two dimples that pitted his cheeks…
“I don’t want to answer your question. Please go away. I’ll scream if you don’t.”
“You’ll scream, will you? I’ll wring your little neck before a squeak comes out and bury you in the weeds and slime.” He pointed to the pond. “No one will find you again. Ever.”
She had looked at him with terror-stricken eyes and remained silent. All of a sudden, he stamped his foot and shouted “Dhat!” Jumping up in fright at his menacing tone she burst into tears. The muri fell out of her lap and rolled all over the bank. The man was embarrassed. “You little ninny,” he said in a softened voice. “Stop snivelling.” He smiled as he spoke and there was tenderness in his voice. But that hadn’t taken away her fear. “You’re not going to beat me, are you?” she had asked between sobs.
“Arre na. Why should I beat you? All I did was ask you where you’ve come from and you snapped my head off. That’s why…” He started laughing once more, the dimples deepening in his cheeks.
“I’ve come from far. V-e-r-y far. All the way from Patharghata.”
“What’s your name? What caste are you?”
“My name is Shordhoni. Everyone calls me Shora. We’re Doms*.”
“I’m a Dom too.” The man sounded pleased. “So…tell me. What made you run away from home?”
The tears brimmed into her eyes again. She remained silent not knowing what to say.
“Did you have a fight with your parents?”
“I have no parents.”
“There’s no one to look after me in the village. No one to give me food and shelter. I came to the town to work for a living.”
“Why didn’t you get married?”
Married! She had looked at the stranger with wonder in her eyes. What was he saying? Who would marry a witch like her? But… there was something in his voice that was unnerving her. She trembled and a strange shyness came over her. She felt her cheeks flush and her heartbeat with an unknown emotion. She lowered her eyes and her fingers fiddled with the broken stones of the bank…
Suddenly the needle with which she was stitching her old memories fell to the ground. The thread snapped and her mind went blank. But the shy rapture of that moment stayed with her. The old woman sat with her head bowed like a young girl in the first flush of love. Like on that evening, her hands moved involuntarily gathering leaves and pebbles into a mound.
Oof! There was a cloud of mosquitoes swarming around her. Humming like bees from a broken hive. Why! The pair under the gopal bhog tree must have left. She couldn’t hear their voices anymore. She rose softly and crept back to her perch smiling to herself. They would be back tomorrow. There was no other place in the village more suitable for a lovers’ meeting. No one dared come near her hut. But those two would come. Love knew no fear.
And now she felt a strange feeling coming on. The old urge was rising within her; the urge to hurt and annihilate. Should she suck the blood from the young man’s body? Such a strong, supple, muscular body! But the very next moment she shook her head violently. No…no… never. She mouthed the words. He was young and in love. No harm should come to him. She sat silent for a few minutes then started swaying gently, thoughts running in and out of her head. She was carrying a burden already. As heavy as a block of iron. She had drunk the blood of an innocent child. There would be no sleep for her tonight.
She wished she could cross Chhaati Phataar Maath and go far away… very far away. People said she had special powers. She could put wings on a tree and make it take her wherever she wished. How wonderful it would be if that were true! If she could sit peacefully in a cluster of leaves and be borne over the sky; drifting on cool breezes, floating between clouds. But then… then she wouldn’t see the young couple again. They would be sure to come tomorrow…
Hee! Hee! Hee! The lad was here. She could see him sitting by the stream his eyes darting this way and that. He was waiting for his love. Her eyes twinkled with amused affection. Be patient, the withered lips murmured in reassurance, she’ll come.
A scene such as this had played itself out in her own life years and years ago. Yet it came before her eyes, sharp and clear. The young man who had accosted her near the pond had returned the next day. To the same place; at the same time. He was sitting on the bank swinging his legs and gazing on the path which she would take.
“You’ve come! I’ve been waiting for ages.”
The old woman was startled. It was the boy’s voice. He was speaking to the girl who had walked in silently through the trees. But what a coincidence! The young Dom who had waited for her had spoken exactly the same words. She had pursed her lips and looked demure. She couldn’t see very well in the dark, but she could swear that the girl had the same expression on her face.
The young man had brought a leaf cone full of food that day. “Take it,” he had said holding it out, “You dropped your muri yesterday because of me.” But she hadn’t put out her hand. She couldn’t. The strangest emotions were coming over her. Desire, swift and sudden, was leaping up in her blood. Swaying and swinging like a snake to a snake charmer’s flute. Venom and fangs forgotten; it was tossing its head in an ecstatic dance.
And then? What had he done then? The memory made her blush. The youngsters of today, she thought smiling, have no idea…O Ma! O Ma! The boy was doing exactly the same thing! He was putting something, was it a sweet, in the girl’s mouth. Filled with glee, the old crone flailed her arms in the air and laughed quietly to herself.
Suddenly she stopped laughing. Stifling a sigh, she leaned against a tree trunk lost in thought. The strangest thing had happened next. The young man had looked at her with unblinking eyes and asked, “Will you marry me Shora?” She was so startled she lost her voice. She could feel her ears blazing and her hands and feet grow cold and clammy. Sweat rolled off her forehead in large drops. “I work in Marwari Babu’s factory. I earn lots of money. But no one in Bolpur is ready to give his daughter to me. That’s because I am an untouchable. But you and I are from the same caste and we’re both orphans.” He had held her light eyes with his fine dark ones. “Marry me Shora,” he had urged…
The two sitting by the stream were speaking softly but the silence around them was so deep she could hear every word. “The people of the village are against us,” the boy was saying, “your family as well as mine. They’re making life hell for us. Let’s run away. We’ll go to some distant village where nobody knows us. We’ll marry and be happy.”
O Ma! That was exactly what she and the young Dom had done. They had cut off ties with everyone in the world and built themselves a shack by the side of the factory. His work was stoking the fire under an enormous barrel like contraption called a boila or something like it. He was paid higher wages than all the other workers.
“N-o-o-o.” The girl’s voice came to her ears, sulky, demanding. “You’ll have to buy me silver bangles first. And tie a ten rupee note in my anchal. Only then I’ll go with you. I’m not ready to starve in a faraway village for want of money.”
Chhi! Chhi! Chhi! The old woman spat on the ground in disgust. She felt like thrashing the girl with her broomstick. Did she have no faith in her man? Such a strong, sturdy handsome youth who loved her so much! Would such a man let her starve? “Death to you,” she muttered indignantly, “Silver bangles indeed! Why …if you stay loyal to him, you’ll wear conch bangles encased in gold one day. Chhi!”
The girl waited for a reply but there was none. “Why don’t you speak?” she snapped at him, “Have you gone dumb? Say what you have to say quickly. I can’t wait here all night.” The boy sighed. A deep sigh that hung on the air for a long time.
“What is there to say?” he murmured, “If I had the money, I would have given it to you. And the bangles too. I wouldn’t have waited for you to ask.”
“I’m going.” The girl tossed her head and swayed her body lasciviously.
“Don’t call me anymore.”
She went away. Her white sari melted into the moonlight and disappeared. The dejected lover kept sitting by the stream, his head in his hands. Poor lad! The old crone clicked her tongue sadly. What would he do now? Would he leave the village never to return? Or would he, God forbid, take his own life? Drown in the pond or hang himself? No…no. He mustn’t do that. It would be better for him to give the girl the silver bangles. She had twenty-one rupees hidden in a clay pot in her hut. She could give him two out of it. Or even five. Five rupees would be enough. Once she got her bangles the girl wouldn’t make any more fuss. Aa ha! He was so young! Youth was the time for love. For happiness. She would give the boy the five rupees and tell him to look on her as his grandmother. She would laugh and joke with him. She would wipe the sorrow from his face.
She rose slowly, painfully, putting her weight on her hands. She tried to straighten the hump on her back but it was as stiff and heavy as stone. Hobbling towards the stream she called out with a merry laugh, “Poor little down cast lover! Do not despair. Your troubles are about to end. I’ll give you…”
The boy looked up startled. He saw a strange creature creeping towards him in the dark, closer and closer, like a giant crab. And now a face was thrust into his. A face as ridged and contorted as a dried mango. And out of the ridges two tiny eyes glowed like pinpoints of amber light. The mouth was a gaping cavern. The boy’s blood froze. His heart started hammering like a blacksmith’s anvil. Springing up, he ran screaming into the woods.
Within seconds the old woman’s face changed. The amused indulgence vanished and hate and loathing took its place. The hackles on her neck rose like an angry cat’s and her slit eyes glittered with venom. Pulling her lips back from her toothless gums she snarled at the fleeing figure. “Die!” she screeched, “Die!” And now the old urge rose snaking up from deep within her bowels. She would destroy the ungrateful creature; suck all the blood out of him. Not only the blood. Flesh, fat, sinews, bones and marrow…she felt like consuming it all.
Suddenly the boy sank to the ground with a howl of agony. Then, picking himself up, he limped his way slowly through the trees. She could see him no longer.
Next morning a rumour spread through the village, leaving everyone turned to stone. The she-devil, who lived by the stream, had shot a Bauri boy with a flying missile. He had gone there in the evening and the blood sucking fiend had smelled his presence the way a tigress smells her prey. She had crawled stealthily towards him not making a sound. Then, when the frightened boy had tried to escape, she had brought him sprawling to the ground by blowing a dart through her lips. It was sticking to his heel when he reached home, a long thin bone sharp as a needle. The boy had tried to pull it out, but it was stuck so deep, the blood had gurgled out like a fountain. High fever and convulsions had wracked him through the night and now his body was arching exactly as though some malignant spirit had seized him by the head and feet and was squeezing the blood out of him.
The news reached the old woman’s ears. She tried to feel concern but couldn’t. An inexplicable apathy came over her. Never in her life had she felt so weary, so listless. The boy was dying. But what could she do about it? He shouldn’t have tried to run away. How dare the little weakling run away from her? Even the toughest, most stout-hearted man she had known in her life, a man who had warred with fire all his waking hours, had not escaped her evil power.
More news came the next day. The boy’s father had sent for a clairvoyant who had promised to cure him. The old woman shrugged. The physician in Bolpur had said the same thing. He would cure her husband. But was a slow fever and a dry wracking cough a disease? He had left medicines, but they hadn’t helped. The symptoms had persisted. And, little by little, the flesh had fallen from the magnificent limbs and the skin that had once gleamed like polished ebony had turned to ash. What had happened to him? And why did he vomit blood in the end?
Her eyes looked out on Chhati Phataar Maath. It lay like a bleached corpse under the midday sun. Not a breath of wind anywhere. Not a leaf stirred.
A strange restlessness seized her. She rose from her perch and walked about in the yard. Round and round she went, her thoughts running ahead of her. She had loved the man more than life itself. She had given him all she had to give. Heart, soul, mind and body. Yet she couldn’t protect him from her own evil power. It had drained him of his life force. Emaciated his body and left it dry and brittle as a fish bone.
Suddenly she laughed. A harsh metallic laugh that rang through the length and breadth of Chhati Phataar Maath. Who was this clairvoyant who thought he could cure the Bauri boy? She had cast a malevolent glance on the fleeing figure, hadn’t she? There was no way he could counter that. Not all the clairvoyants in the world could save him.
Oof! How hot and still the air was. She could barely breathe. She felt a weight on her chest. Suffocating her; crushing her lungs. Was the clairvoyant using his powers on her? Mouthing his most deadly mantra? Perhaps he was. It didn’t matter. Let him do the best he can she thought scornfully. But the pain…the pain was excruciating. It was killing her. If only her heart would burst open and the grief and agony she had held in it, for decades, well out in blessed release.
One thing was certain. She couldn’t live here anymore. She would have to escape the irate villagers. They would come after her any moment now, as the people of Bolpur had done after her husband’s death. They had hounded her out of the town. And all because of an indiscreet remark she had made to the wife of a worker in Marwari Babu’s factory.
Shankari and her husband belonged to the Harhi community. Being fellow untouchables, a friendship had sprung up between the two women and they often confided in one another. Some days after her husband’s death, out of a desperate need to lighten the load of guilt she carried, Shora had opened her heart to her friend. She had told her about the evil power in her, a power that destroyed everyone she loved.
What happened next? Well…here she was living at the edge of a desolate tract of land at a safe distance from human habitation. She had fled from village to village, in the intervening years, but nowhere had she found a permanent home. It was time for her to move once more. But where would she go?
O Ki! The sound of lamentations, loud and bitter, tore the silence of the hot somnolent afternoon. The old woman’s blood froze with terror. She sat, immobile, for a few minutes. Then, tossing her head this way and that like one possessed, she crawled into her room and locked the door. A few hours later she stepped out of her hut, a small bundle at her hip, and walked into the deepening dusk.
All of a sudden, the world went dark. A deep, dense, unnatural dark. A thin trail of dust followed the feet of the fleeing witch. All else was still. Chhati Phataar Maath lay trapped and lifeless under a black velvet shroud.
After walking for a while, she sank to the ground. She couldn’t take another step. Her heart was pounding with exhaustion and her hands and feet felt numb and heavy. What do I do now… she thought fearfully.
Suddenly, after years and years of frozen silence, a wail rose from her breast. A wail of lamentation for her dead husband. “O go!” she cried out wildly, “Come back. Come back to me.” She looked up. The black cover had shifted, and she could see a part of the sky. It was the colour of her eyes.
Moments later the storm broke. The first Kalbaisakhi of the season. Great clouds of dust rose from the earth and went spiralling across the field carried by cyclonic winds. Trees were pulled out by the roots. Animals were swept away. And the old woman…
Next morning, after the storm had subsided, the villagers found her hanging from a khairi bush at the extreme edge of Chhati Phataar Maath. Her body, light and fluttering like a bird’s, was pinned to the highest branch. There were patches of blood on the ground; the dark unholy blood from a witch’s veins. The men looked at one another. What had happened was obvious. She had tried to escape on her flying tree when a powerful mantra from the clairvoyant’s lips had entered her breast and brought her tumbling down like a bird shot in the wing. She had fallen on the khairi bush and, pierced by hundreds of thorns, had died an agonising death.
Today Chhati Phataar Maath is deadlier than ever before. Mixed with the venom of a prehistoric snake is the blood of a malignant witch. Reeling under a pall of dust that clings to it from dawn till dusk, it stretches to unseen horizons…
And now some specks appear through the haze. Tiny black moving dots. They grow larger. Then sounds are heard. A mighty flapping of wings. A cloud of vultures are swooping down on Chhaati Phataar Maath.
(Published with permission from Amalasankar Bandopadhyay, grandson of Tarashankar Bandopadhyay)
Tarasankar Bandopadhyay (1898-1971) was a renowned writer from Bengal. He penned 65 novels, 53 books of stories, 12 plays, 4 essay collections, 4 autobiographies, 2 travelogues and composed several songs. He was awarded the Rabindra Puraskar(1955), the Sahitya Akademi Award(1956), the Padma Shri(1962), the Jnanapith Award(1966) and the Padma Bhushan(1969) in India.
Aruna Chakravarti (India) has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
A poignant story bySaratchandra Chattopadhyay translated by Sahitya Akademi winner, Aruna Chakravarti
Only seven days of fever and Thakurdas Mukhopadhyay’s wife passed away….
Old Mukhopadhyay moshai*, grown extremely wealthy from a flourishing business in rice and paddy, had four sons and three daughters — all with children of their own. Sons-in-law, grandchildren, neighbours and servants filled the rooms in a measure that befitted not a house of death but of jubilation. Men, women and children from the entire village crowded at the gates in the hope of catching a glimpse of the splendid funeral procession which would accompany the dead woman to her final resting place. Her weeping daughters lined her parting with sindoor and covered her feet with alta*. Her daughters-in-law dressed her in a resplendent new sari and adorned her brow with sandal paste. Then, wiping the last traces of dust from her feet with their sari ends, touched them reverently to their foreheads. Flowers, garlands and basil leaves, clouds of fragrant incense smoke and the resounding clamour and bustle turned the day of mourning into a joyous replica of the one, fifty years ago, when the mistress of the great house had first set out on her ceremonial journey to her husband’s home.
Bidding a last farewell to his companion of nearly a lifetime old Mukhopadhyay moshai dashed away the tears from his eyes with a surreptitious hand and assuming a serene expression tried to comfort the weeping women.
And now the magnificient cortege started on its way to deafening cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol*! As soon as it left the gates the assembled crowd of villagers scrambled after it. Only one woman hung back. She had stood apart from the rest all this while and now she followed fearfully keeping a discreet distance from the others. This pale shadowy creature was Kangali’s mother.
She had been on her way to the weekly haat* with a few aubergines she had picked from the bushes outside her hut when the marvellous spectacle caught her eyes, leaving her spellbound. She forgot the aubergines bundled in a corner of her sari. Forgotten, too, were her hopes of selling them and coming home with a few coins. Brushing away the tears from her streaming eyes she followed the crowd to the cremation ghat that stood on a bank of the Garud river. Standing on a mound, a little way off, she looked on with eager eyes at the huge wooden logs, stacks of sandal wood, ghee, honey, camphor and incense that lay beside the bier. She dared not go any closer. She was an untouchable, a Duley by caste, and even her shadow was shunned by the others.
She looked on stoically as the preliminary rituals were being performed but when the body was lowered on the wide platform, she could hold herself in no longer. A sob tore through her throat. A wild desire rose in her. She wanted to rush towards the alta covered feet and touch them to her head. Curbing the impulse with difficulty she gazed at the scene unfolding before her eyes. How beautiful it was! The high-born lady in her priceless sari, her parting thick with sindoor and her fair feet smothered in alta. Her eldest son took up the bunch of flaming jute stalks, purified by the chants of the priests, and touched them to his mother’s lips to the tumultuous cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol rising from hundreds of throats. Kangali’s mother was so moved that tears poured down her cheeks. “Ma*!” she called out to the dead woman, hands folded in reverence, “What great good fortune is yours! You are on your journey to Heaven leaving behind a grieving husband, sons and daughters, grandchildren, kinsmen, dependents and servants. You are a queen and I a lowly creature not fit to touch your feet. Still, waft a blessing towards me before you go. Grace me with the boon that I too, like you, may receive my last fire from Kangali’s hands.” Fire from a son’s hand! Her limbs trembled with ecstasy at the thought. Ah! the beauty of it. The glory of it! Her breast heaved with powerful feelings.
Standing on the mound Kangali’s mother strained her eyes on the newly lit pyre from which a column of smoke rose spiralling towards the sky. It stung her eyes rendering her vision blurred and hazy; playing tricks with it. She saw a tiny chariot, she could swear to it, at the tip of the bluish grey swirl just where it met the sky. Exotic images were etched in gold on the sides. The crest was entwined with flowering vines. There was someone sitting within. She could not see her face bur recognized her easily from the wide parting filled with sindoor; the feet covered with alta. She gazed at the woman in awe and adoration.
“Ma!” She felt a tug at her sari. A boy of about fourteen stood by her side looking at her with bewildered eyes. “Why are you standing here? When will you do the cooking?”
“I will, in a while, son. Look!” She pointed to the sky. “Can you see the chariot? Our chaste and holy mistress, our Bamun Ma*, is sitting in it. It is taking her to Heaven.”
“What chariot? Where?” Kangali’s eyes turned to the pointing finger. “That’s smoke,” he said dismissively. “Smoke from the pyre. You’ve gone crazy Ma.” Then, pouting like a child, he muttered, “It’s hours past noon. Don’t you know I am hungry?” Seeing his mother’s eyes fill up with tears, he added, “Why do you weep because the Brahmin lady is dead? What is it to you?”
Now Kangali’s mother came to her senses. She realised how foolish it was to stand for hours in the cremation ground shedding tears over someone else’s death when her own son went hungry. Besides, a mother’s tears brought bad luck to her children. Wiping her cheeks with a furtive hand she tried to smile, “Why should I weep son? My eyes are watering from the smoke and…”
“Watering from the smoke indeed! You were crying.”
The mother fell silent. Taking Kangali’s hand she climbed down the bank and took a few dips in the river. Making her son do the same she returned home with him. A small sigh escaped her. She would have liked to watch the beautiful ceremony to the end. But fate had ordained otherwise.
Parents are often injudicious in their choice of names for their children. The Creator smiles at their foolishness and dismisses it with the contempt it deserves. But sometimes He is angered and decides to teach the inane mortal a lesson. Then the name so carelessly given turns into a symbol of the innocent child’s fate. From birth to death she hears her name ringing in her ears; jeering, mocking, reminding her of what she can expect.
Kangali’s mother was a young woman. She hadn’t lived long in the world. But she had spent her years, few as they were, tottering under the weight of her name and its implications. Her mother had died in giving her birth. Her father, enraged at the bereavement of which she was the cause, had named her Abhagi — the ill-fated one. Hers had been a childhood with no mother and a father who spent all his time fishing in the river and hobnobbing with his friends with never a thought for the little girl left at home. Yet the tiny creature had not only survived she had grown to womanhood and, in course of time, given birth to Kangali. The man who had married her went by the name of Rasik Bagh. But Bagh, the tiger, had another tigress and one fine day he picked up his things and moved to the village in which she lived, leaving Abhagi alone with her infant son.
That son was now in his fifteenth year. He had just started learning to weave bamboo slips into mats and baskets. Abhagi yearned for the day when he would be earning enough to support them both. “Just another year or so,” she told herself frequently her heart lifting at the thought, “and my troubles will be over…”
Kangali ate his meal and went to the pond to wash his hands and rinse his mouth. Returning, he was surprised to see his mother putting away the leftovers in an earthen bowl.
“Why Ma!” he cried out, “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“The day is almost done,” Abhagi muttered, “I’m not hungry anymore.”
“Hunh!” Kangali snorted in disbelief, “Not hungry anymore! You haven’t kept anything for yourself. That’s the truth. Isn’t it?”
It was a trick Abhagi often played when there wasn’t enough food for them both. Kangali knew it. He insisted on examining the rice pot and found there was enough left for one person. And now, convinced that she really wasn’t hungry, he smiled contentedly and came and sat in her lap. It was an odd thing for a boy of fifteen to do but Kangali had been sickly for a large part of his infancy and boyhood and Abhagi had kept him physically close. Unable to romp and frolic with other boys he derived all his pleasure from his mother’s stories and the little games she played with him. Now, twining his arms around Abhagi’s neck and touching her cheek to his he got a shock. “Why Ma!” he exclaimed. “You’re burning with fever!” Then, with a tinge of anger in his voice, he added, “Why did you have to stand in the sun all those hours? And bathe in the river on top of it? What’s there to see in a burning corpse?”
“Chhi Baba*!” Abhagi scolded gently putting her hand on his lips. “You shouldn’t use those words. They are sinful. It was not a burning corpse. It was our chaste and pure mistress, our revered Bamun Ma, going to heaven in a golden chariot.”
“What nonsense Ma! As if people go to heaven in golden chariots!”
“I saw it with my own eyes Kangali. She was sitting in the chariot. Her feet were crimson with alta. Everyone saw it.”
“Everyone saw it?”
Kangali leaned against his mother’s breast, lost in thought. He believed his mother. He had been reared from infancy to have implicit faith in her. If she said she had seen this extraordinary spectacle and that others had seen it too, who was he to doubt her? “Then,” he said thoughtfully, “you will go to Heaven too. I heard Bindi’s aunt saying to Rakhal’s mother only the other day, ‘There’s not another woman in our Duley clan as chaste and pure as Kangali’s mother.’”
Abhagi was silent.
“When Baba* left you,” the boy continued slowly, hesitantly, “so many men tried to make you agree to a nikaah*. ‘No,’ you said, ‘Why should I take another husband? I have my Kangali. He’ll grow up and take care of me.’” Then, his eyes filling up with tears, he added, “What would have become of me, Ma, if you went away with another man? I would have starved to death.”
Abhagi put her arms around her son and pressed him to her bosom. “Ma go*!” she murmured thinking of those terrible days when the elders of the village were advising her, ceaselessly, to take another husband. But it wasn’t only advice that had been showered on her. She had been pressurized in so many different ways! She had been coaxed and cajoled, warned and threatened. Her ears had been filled with forebodings of her bleak future; of Kangali dying of starvation. But she hadn’t been intimidated. She had clung to her resolve. Kangali saw the tears streaming down his mother’s cheeks and felt his own eyes burn.
“Do you want to lie down Ma? Shall I make up the bed?” he asked gently. Abhagi made no reply. Kangali rolled out the mat and spread a kantha* over it. Plucking a pillow from the machan*, he smoothed it carefully and laid it down. The, taking his mother by the hand, he made her lie down.
“You needn’t go back to work today,” Abhagi said to her son. “Stay with me.”
The idea of skipping work and staying at home appealed to Kangali. But there was a hint of caution in his voice as he said, “They won’t give me the two paisa for today if I…”
“Never mind.” Abhagi smiled. “Come and lie down beside me. I’ll tell you a story.”
Kangali needed no further invitation. Dropping down on the bed he curled his body against his mother’s. “Tell the story of the rajputra and the kotalputra*. And the flying horse,” he said resting his cheek against hers.
Abhagi began her tale of the prince and the policeman’s son and their adventures with the winged horse. It was an old fairytale, heard over and over again, in her childhood. But after a few minutes the two protagonists vanished from her story. As did the horse. She started weaving a web of fantasy that was entirely her own; something she hadn’t heard from anyone at any time in her life. The higher her fever rose, the faster the hot blood pounded in her veins, the more impassioned the telling became and the more intricate her magic web of words. She spun tale after tale, without rest or respite, each more wonderful than the last. Kangali trembled with excitement and goose bumps broke out all over his slight frame. He pushed closer to his mother’s breast and twined his arms around her neck.
And now the sun started dipping in the west. The falling shadows fell faster and pervaded the earth. Dusk crept into Abhagi’s hut. But she did not rise to light the lamp or carry out the last duties of the day. Mother and son lay locked in an embrace, her voice crooning in his ears; sending shivers of thrill down his spine. It was the same story with variations, repeated over and over again. The story of the Brahmin lady’s death. Of the magnificent procession that had accompanied her to her last resting place. Of the chariot in which she had sat on her way to Heaven…her feet crimson with alta. Of her weeping husband bidding her farewell after touching the dust of his feet to her brow. The fervent cries of Bolo Hari Hari Bol as her sons lifted the bier on their manly shoulders. And then…then…the final triumph! Receiving her last fire from the hand of her eldest son…
“That fire was no ordinary fire, son.” Abhagi explained, her breath coming hotter and faster. “It was Hari Himself! And the smoke rising up to the sky was not smoke. It was the chariot of heaven. Kangalicharan! Baba amaar*!” She cried out in an excess of emotion.
“If you light my pyre with your own hands, I’ll go to Heaven too like Bamun Ma.”
Her words made Kangali uncomfortable. “Jah*!” he said, “You shouldn’t say such things.” But, Abhagi went on as though she hadn’t heard him. “No one will look down upon me then. No one will shun me for my low birth. Oof!” Her face was flushed with excitement and her fevered breath came in gasps. “Fire from my son’s hand! Ah the glory of it! The chariot will have to come down for me. No one can stop it…for all that I am a poor untouchable…”
“Don’t talk like that Ma,” Kangali put his hand on her mouth. “It frightens me.”
“And Kangali,” Abhagi pushed it gently away and continued on her own train of thought. “Get hold of your father when my time comes and bring him here. Tell him he must give me the dust of his feet before I go. And…and my parting must be filled with sindoor and my feet lined with alta. But…but who will do all that for me? You will, won’t you Kangali? You are my son and my daughter. You are all I have.” Bursting into tears she kissed his cheek and laid her wet fevered face against his hair.
And now the drama of Abhagi’s life was nearing curtain call. Only the final scene was left. There hadn’t been much to the play. Her thirty years on the earth hadn’t been remarkable in any way. And neither was her end.
Kaviraj Moshai, the only ayurvedic practitioner in these parts, lived in another village. Kangali ran all the way, fell at his feet and begged him to come and see his mother. Met with a stony silence he went back home, pawned the bell metal pitcher out of which they drank water and paid him his fee of one rupee. Still the great man did not deign to come. He handed Kangali a few pellets of medicine instead.
Instructing him to grind them in a physician’s pestle and mortar, mix the powder with ginger extract, honey and the juice of basil leaves, he told him to feed the potion to his mother in small doses.
Abhagi was amazed at what her son had done. “Why did you pawn the pitcher without asking me Baba?” she rebuked him gently. Then, taking the pellets from his hand she touched them to her forehead and threw them into the kitchen fire. “If I’m fated to live I’ll do so anyway,” she said, “Has anyone in our Bagdi Duley community ever taken a physician’s medicine?”
Two or three days passed. Abhagi’s neighbours heard of her illness and came to see her. They left without any offers of help. But each one knew of a remedy guaranteed to cure the ailing woman. “Water in which a deer’s horn has been soaked just can’t fail,” one of them told Kangali. Another proposed burning cowrie shells and mixing the ash with honey. But the shells could not be ordinary ones. They had to be knuckled cowries. The mixture, fed to the patient, would bring instant relief.
Poor Kangali ran helter skelter in search of these articles till Abhagi caught him by the hand and forced him to stop. “If what the physician gave me was of no use, how can deer’s horn and cowrie shells cure me? Give over running here and there and come and sit by me.”
“But you didn’t take the pellets Kaviraj Moshai gave!” Kangali’s face crumpled like that of a child. “You threw them in the fire. How can you get well if you refuse everything?”
“I’ll get well. Don’t worry. Now wipe your eyes and listen to me. Put the pot on the hearth and boil some rice. Then sit by me and eat it. That will give me more comfort than any remedy in the world.”
Kangali rubbed his eyes with the edge of his dhuti and rose to obey his mother. For the first time in his life he was cooking his own meal. But he could do nothing right. His fire wouldn’t burn properly, his rice boiled down to a mush because he didn’t know how to drain the starch and he spilt half of it when trying to transfer it to his kanshi. Abhagi watched him with an ache in her heart. Once she even tried to rise from her bed, but her head swam and fell back on the pillow.
After the boy had gulped down some of the rice he had cooked, she called him to her side and tried to teach him how it had to be done. But her voice choked in her throat and she couldn’t speak.
Next morning Ishwar, the village barber, came to check Abhagi’s pulse. He was good at this and the villagers sent for him whenever anyone was seriously ill. Taking Abhagi’s limp wrist between his fingers he frowned in thought. Then, sighing and shaking his head, he left the house. Abhagi understood what that meant. But the knowledge brought no fear. When everyone had gone, she whispered in Kangali’s ear, “Go to him now and bring him here. Tell him…”
“Your… you know who. He…who has moved to the other village.”
Abhagi was silent. Kangali gazed on her face for a few moments and asked sadly, “Why would he come here Ma?”
“Tell him…tell him… that all I want is the dust of his feet. Nothing else.”
Kangali rose to go. Abhagi clutched his hand and said, “Weep and plead a little, son. Tell him Ma is going…” Then, pausing for a few moments, she added, “And on your way back, stop at the barber’s house and ask his wife for a little alta. She is a kind woman and loves me. She will give it to you.”
Abhagi was only partially conscious when Rasik Bagh arrived the next morning. The shadow of death lay dark on her face. Her eyes seemed to have seen whatever there was to see in this world and was opening out to another… a strange, uncharted, faraway world. Kangali wiped his cheeks and cleared his throat. “Wake up Ma,” he shook her gently by the arm, “Baba is here. You wanted the dust of his feet…”
Perhaps the mother heard. Perhaps she didn’t. But the intense desire, hidden deep within her soul, shook her out of her somnolence. The dying woman moved her feeble arm to the edge of the bed and opened her palm. Rasik gazed at her with bewildered eyes. He hadn’t, in his wildest imaginings, thought that the dust of his feet had any value; that anyone could desire it above all else in the world. He stood immobile with shock till Bindi’s aunt, who stood by his side, prompted gently. “Come Baba. Give the poor girl a little dust from your feet.”
Rasik moved forward. His head teemed with thoughts and his chest felt tight with guilt. He had taken this woman as his wedded wife but had given her nothing. Not love, not protection, nor any means of sustenance. He had deprived her of everything that was her due without a thought. Yet she, even on her death bed, wanted nothing from him but the dust of his feet. Rasik Duley burst into tears.
“Such chastity and steadfastness are not to be seen even among Brahmin and Kayastha women,” Rakhal’s mother exclaimed. “Why she had to be born amongst us is beyond me! But a task lies before you Baba,” she turned her eyes on Rasik, “You must arrange a cremation for her. Fire from Kangali’s hand! She has yearned for it throughout her illness. It’s almost as if death is nothing to her if only…”
The Creator who had chalked out the destiny of Abhagi, the ill-fated one, may or may not have heard the words. But they pierced young Kangali’s heart with the sharpness of an arrow.
The day passed and part of the night. Who knows if the chariot of heaven comes down to claim the souls of untouchables! Perhaps they are expected to hobble to their destinations, footsore and weary, in the darkness of night. Whatever be the truth, Abhagi did not wait for the dawn. She left the world before the sky had paled.
There was a wood apple tree growing outside Abhagi’s hut. Borrowing an axe from one of the neighbours, Rasik Duley proceeded to cut some branches from it. But before he could strike a single blow the zamindar’s guard came rushing to the scene. Landing a thundering slap on Rasik’s cheek he yanked the axe from his hand. “Saala!” he shouted, “How dare you touch this tree? Is it your father’s property?” Rasik rubbed his cheek ruefully without saying a word. But Kangali could not keep silent. “My mother planted this tree with her own hands darwanji*,” he protested, “why do you hit Baba?” Mouthing a string of abuses the zamindar’s retainer advanced aggressively. He raised a hand to strike Kangali but dropped it. He had remembered just in time that the boy’s mother had died, and he had, in all probability, touched the corpse.
His curses and threats had, in the meantime, brought some of the neighbours running to the scene. All of them admitted that it was wrong of Rasik to have cut the tree without taking the zamindar’s permission. But they entreated darwanji to use his kind offices and obtain the consent. It had been the dead woman’s earnest desire, they told him, that her body be cremated. She had expressed this wish, over and over again, to everyone who had visited her during her illness. But all these pleas fell on deaf ears. “Don’t try these tricks with me,” the Bihari stalwart waved them away like flies. “I know what I must do.”
The zamindar was not a local man and did not live in the village. But he kept a cutcherry here from which the business of the estate was conducted, and justice dispensed to the tenants. But being an absentee landlord, all magisterial power and responsibility had been vested in the person of the steward Adhar Rai. Now, while the neighbours were still begging and pleading with the durwan Kangali ran, not stopping for breath, all the way to the cutcherry. He had heard that the lesser minions of the estate were corrupt and expected bribes for everything they did. But if the story of this gross injustice reached the zamindar’s ears redress would surely follow. Thus he reasoned. But alas! Young and inexperienced Kangali hadn’t a clue to the true nature of the Bengali zamindar and his appointed officials. Trembling with grief and anxiety the newly bereaved, motherless boy dashed up the steps and stood before the lord and master of the cutcherry.
Adhar Rai had just concluded his morning prayers and eaten a light breakfast in preparation for the day. Coming out on the veranda he was shocked and angered to see the apparition before him. “Ke re?” he thundered, “Who are you?”
“I’m Kangali. Durwanji has beaten my father.”
“Rightly served. He must have defaulted on the rent.”
“No, Babu moshai*. My mother died last night, and my father was cutting the tree in front of our house when…” Unable to go on Kangali burst into tears. At this Adhar Rai lost his temper. “What are you doing here if your mother’s dead?” he snapped. “Get off those steps and stand in the yard.” Inwardly he shivered with alarm. The boy must have touched the corpse before coming to the cutcherry. Who knew if he had touched anything here? “Ore!” he called out to a servant. “Bring a pot of cowdung water and sprinkle it on the steps and veranda. The whole place is polluted.” Then, turning to Kangali, he asked. “What caste are you?”
Thoroughly frightened by now Kangali ran down the steps and answered meekly, “We are Duley Babu moshai.”
“A Duley’s corpse.” Adhar Rai muttered thoughtfully. “Where’s the need for wood then?”
“My mother wanted a cremation. ‘You must light my pyre with your own hands,’ she said to me over and over again. All the neighbours know. Why don’t you ask them Babu moshai? Everyone heard her…”
“If you want to cremate your mother you must leave five rupees in the cutcherry. That’s the price of the tree. Can you do it?”
Kangali knew he couldn’t. He had pawned the last vessel in the house, the brass kanshi from which he ate his rice, for one rupee to buy his mourning scarf. He shook his head. “No,” he said softly. Adhar Rai bared his teeth in a grimace. “Then go bury the corpse on the bank of the river as befits your caste. How dare your father raise an axe to the zamindar’s tree? Is it his father’s property? Good for nothing wretch! Rogue! Scoundrel!”
“But the tree grows in our yard Babu moshai. My mother planted it with her own hands.”
“Hunh! Planted it with her own hands… Pandey!” Adhar Rai called out to the guard. “Take the boy by the scruff of his neck and throw him out of the cutcherry.”
Pandey, in the manner of all faithful retainers, acted even before the words had left his master’s lips. Giving the boy a hard shove, he threw him to the ground mouthing a stream of curses for good measure. Kangali stood up, shook the dust from his dhuti and walked slowly away. His eyes were blank. What had he done to deserve such treatment? He hadn’t a clue.
Adhar Rai saw the expression on the boy’s face but it didn’t make a dent in his conscience. He was made of sterner stuff. Dusting his hands as at a job well done, he called out to the clerk. “Paresh! Find out if the father has defaulted on the rent. If so, go to his house and confiscate his household goods. Brass vessels, fishing nets…whatever you find. The bastard might try to escape.”
There were just two days left for the sraddha*. Old Mukhopadhyay moshai was busy supervising the arrangements. His wife’s last rites were to be conducted with all the pomp and fanfare owing to her as a rich man’s wife and the mother of many sons. There was a lot of work to be done.
“Thakur moshai*!” Kangali came and stood before him. “My mother’s dead.”
“Who are you?” The old man’s brow furrowed, “What do you want?”
“I’m Kangali. My mother asked me to cremate her.”
“Then go ahead and do it.”
Kangali stood silent not knowing what to say. The story of his treatment at the cutcherry had made the rounds, in the meantime, and many of the villagers were aware of it. “I think he wants a tree,” one of the men standing by ventured to explain, following it up with details of the boy’s encounter with Adhar Rai.
“What audacity!” Mukhopadhyay moshai cried out in shock, “Wants a tree indeed! That too at a time when I need all the wood I can find for my own event! Just two days are left for the sradhha. I’m neck deep in my own troubles and the brat sails in demanding a tree. Jah! Jah! You’ll get nothing here. Try your luck elsewhere.” The old man walked away with a furious clacking of wooden clogs.
Bhattacharya moshai, the family priest, was sitting a little distance away making lists of the articles he would need for the last rites. Looking up at the boy he said, “Cremation has not been prescribed for members of your caste. All you need to do is set alight a twist of dry grass, touch the flame to the mouth of the corpse then bury it on a bank of the river.”
In the middle of this scene Mukhopadhyay moshai’s eldest son walked in. He had been allotted several tasks by his father and he was rushing about seeing to them. He heard the priest’s ruling and observed caustically, “Do you see Bhattacharya moshai? How low born buggers want to ape the upper castes these days? Such are the times we live in.” He hastened out of the room without waiting for an answer.
Kangali stood silent for a while. The last two and a half hours had turned him from an eager, trusting child to an adult. A wise, wary, discerning adult. Head bowed, he walked away, came home and sat by his dead mother.
Now the men and women of the community took over. A pit was dug on the left bank of the Garud river and Abhagi’s body lowered into it. Rakhal’s mother took a knot of burning straw and put it in Kangali’s hand. Then, taking it in hers, she guided the flame towards the mouth of the corpse. That done the straw was thrown away and earth piled on her till every trace of Abhagi was obliterated.
The men sweated and toiled shoveling earth into his mother’s grave but Kangali had no eyes for them. He stood at a little distance his gaze fixed on the thrown away knot of straw. The flame had died down, but a tiny wisp of smoke still rose from it. Up and up it went… a faint thin wisp of bluish smoke. Kangali stared at it with eyes of stone.
*moshai — an honourific title
*Sindoor…alta — sindoor is a red powder used in the parting by a married woman . Alta is a dye used to colour the feet red
*Bolo Hari hari bol — a chant taken up by funerals asking people to take Krishna’s name. Literally, chant Krishna… Krishna chant
*Ma — mother
*Haat — market
*ghat — riverside
*Bamun Ma — Brahmin mother
*Chhi Baba — Shame son (baba is used for father and sometimes used for son as a term of endearment as here)
*Nikaah — wedding
*Ma go — an expletive expressive of emotional agitation.
*kantha — rug made of old rags
*machan — a shelf
*rajputra…kotalputra — prince…the policeman’s son
*Baba amar — son of mine
*Jah — expletive than means don’t or no
*dhuti or dhoti — a cloth worn as a garment instead of a trouser.
*Kanshi — a brass plate
*Baba — father
*Saala — swine
*durawanji — a respectful way of addressing a durwan, security guard
*Babu moshai — sir
*Sraddha — last rites
*Thakur moshai — Lordship
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyayor Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (15 September 1876 – 16 January 1938), was a Bengali novelist and short story writer of the early 20th century. Most of his works deal with the contemporary social practices that prevailed in Bengal. He often addressed social ills with his writing and in that sense was a reformer in his heart.
Aruna Chakravarti (India) has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels, The Inheritors,Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
Suralakshmi Villa (2020) is a novel based on a short story in a previous collection of short stories by Aruna Chakravarti. In the afterword to the novel, the author explains how the novel came about: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, on whose fiction Chakravarti had done her Ph.D thesis many years ago, commented how the short story had possibilities of being extended into a novel. In doing so, the author’s redoubtable skills have come to the fore yet again.
In Suralakshmi Villa, Aruna Chakravarti has woven a rich tapestry of narratives of human interest, focusing particularly on women(which is the author’s strong suit) intertwined with narratives of Bengal’s Hindu and Muslim culture, history , religion art, architecture, myths and folklore in a fusion which can be described as syncretic. All these elements are woven into the narrative in a seamless way, which is in no small measure a testament to the author’s immense storytelling skills.
The novel is essentially plot driven with a diverse and complex cast of characters; it intersperses the main plot of Suralakshmi’s seemingly inexplicable decision to leave her flourishing career as a gynaecologist, her marriage and life in Delhi with the subplots of a fairly large set of characters, spanning about 6-7 decades across most of the twentieth century. The story narrates the varying fortunes of the family of ICS officer Indra Nath Chaudhuri who chooses to settle in South Delhi, in a milieu which is relatively free of the stranglehold of traditional family norms and customs, along with his wife and five daughters, Mahalakshmi, Kanaklakshmi, Suralakshmi,Dhanalakshmi and Rajlakshmi. For all his professional stature, Indra Nath is putty in the hands of his larger-than-life wife, Lakshmi, who rules the roost . Prostrated by depression after the premature widowhood of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Mahalakshmi, she decides to educate her daughters rather than prioritise or focus on their marriages and have them choose their husbands, if at all, in their own time. This decision has varying repercussions. Suralakshmi decides to marry a married man seventeen years older than her, that too at the age of 31.
Suralakshmi’s story however is not the only plotline in the novel; in the tangled skein of the novel is also the disparate-but-intertwined story of Eidun and her family, which links this story of domestic abuse with a rescue and redemption narrative of sorts. It also maps the story of Indra Nath’s nephew, Pratul, his coming of age and marriage with Nayantara and that of their children– Kinshuk and Joymita.
For a story with such a large cast of characters, the parallel plots are juggled with amazing skill and dexterity. What also redounds to the author’s credit is her handling of the complex timelines as well, as the novel loops back and forth chronologically, covering the better part of the twentieth century from the 1930s to 1998. The plot works in a cyclical and circular way, as it spirals and hurtles towards its final conclusion, which seems random until its causality is made evident. There is a conscious and carefully calibrated structure and architectonics involved in the apparent seamlessness of the novel.
The predominance of the plot and the large cast of characters however come at a cost, albeit a minor one, in the light of what the novel achieves. Chakravarti does not explore the interior psychology of most of her characters barring a few crucial briefly sketched in character traits. Characterisation is often done through a mirroring effect where the response of other characters convey character traits; also, analogues, contrasts and conversations are used to convey the varied workings of people’s minds. Thus , Suralakshmi’s decision to marry a philandering bigamist Moinak Sen is conveyed through the outrage of her sisters and her stubbornness and intransigence comes up in the course of Pratul’s conversation with his docile wife, Tara or Nayantara. Her impulsiveness is conveyed but not the inner-workings of her mind and both her ‘love’ and the conjugal bliss that follow are not entirely convincing.
In a different register, while Eidun and her sisters-Ojju, Meeru and Jeeni’s stories are convincing in their depiction of the oppression and travails of women in impoverished Muslim families, the tale of domestic abuse raises some questions. There is of course the generational aspect of it with the saga of dispossession portrayed in the stories of their mother, Ruksana and the grandmother, Zaitoon-Bibi` as well, but the depiction of the Muslim male as depraved and amoral does leave one with an edge of discomfort. It seems too stereotypical, too pat and cliched, too two-dimensional. While misogynistic patriarchies and toxic masculinity is not restricted to one religious group, in the novel it is one religious group that bears a disproportionate burden of it. The uneducated lower class Muslim men hardly bear comparison with the educated upper class Bengali men (mostly Hindu) in the novel, and while this disjunction may have been created by the exigencies of the plot, it does leave one with a niggling sense of discomfort.
Having said that, Suralakshmi Villa is a tale well told, on almost every count. The unsentimental treatment of motherhood is worth commenting on and when Suralakshmi decides to leave Kinshuk in Delhi with his father, we are made to realise her alienation and her affiliations. She comes across as a dignified and idealistic figure, in her steadfast commitment to protect Eidun, a responsibility she has taken on herself. Even if Suralakshmi’s — and others’ — lives are embedded in a web of materiality, her decision, dignified and noble, transcends her immediate material conditions.
Suralakshmi’s decision to go away and start a charitable hospital in Malda, is depicted in the novel as an act of conscious choice, although it is a choice which elicits surprise from others since she leaves her house to Moinak, her errant husband and his offspring.
Suralakshmi goes away with Eidun, leaving her son Kinshuk in the care of his father, with no evident sign of regret or a backward glance. Her decisiveness here comes as no surprise since it chimes in with what we know of her already. Even if there is no formal separation, we (and the characters in the novel) are left in no doubt about her intentions. I would go so far as to describe her choice — and her power to choose and live by her choices as feminist, since, there is definitely an element of agency in the way she decides on a significant moment of transition and then goes ahead with its execution.
Suralakshmi Villa is definitely a welcome addition to the canon of women’s writing in India, multi-textured and multi-layered. Its complexity does not take away from its readability but adds to its depth and power to attract and hold the attention of the reader.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’ in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review
Nalini Priyadarshni in conversation with Anu Mahadev
An abuse victim in the past, Anu Mahadev is a poet based in New Jersey. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of the Drew University’s MFA program in Madison, NJ. With two poetry collections to her credit, Myriad (2013) and Neem Leaves (2015) Anu is a curious reader and lifelong learner. She is passionate and outspoken about issues such as domestic violence, girls’ education and independence, and depression/bipolar disorder. She loves music, languages, animals and long walks. She writes and edits at The Woman Inc., and Jaggery Lit, a literary magazine for Indian diaspora. In this exclusive, she responds to questions from feminist poet Nalini Priyadarshni.
Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu, for taking time to talk to Borderless Journal. I have enjoyed reading your poetry for its vivid imagery and the subtle imprints it leaves on one’s mind. If you have not been asked umpteenth time already, let me ask, why do you write poetry? What is your goal?
Anu: Thank you Nalini for this interview, and for reading and appreciating my work! To me, poetry has always been my favourite form of expression. I write simply because I have to. I am an introvert by nature, and writing is not just my outlet, but my raison d’être. It is not a “hobby”, but what I do, and I do it because I don’t know any other way to be. I do not have a far-reaching goal in mind but I do think it is important to keep the arts alive. If I can change the way people look at the world, through a different lens, by the power of the written word, I would be happy.
Nalini: When is a poem done for you?
Anu: I don’t think I have a fixed rule for that. I try not to wrap my poems with a pretty little bow at the end. I do believe in revising and editing though. The first draft is seldom my final piece. That’s something I had to change about my writing – my impatience. The teachers at my MFA program insisted on it, and drilled it into my habits. Sometimes I even revisit a poem 6 months later with a fresh pair of eyes, and I may have an epiphany! When I feel like I have conveyed what I want to, with just the right words, with economy, I consider it done. Less is more when it comes to my writing.
Nalini:How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, an image or a form? Let’s just say, what triggers a poem?
Anu: My poems are usually an emotional response to something that is happening around me. Either something I’ve heard or seen or felt – sensory triggers basically. Or a memory from a long time ago, that has morphed into something different in the present. I don’t go seeking a poem. It comes to me when it has to. I do not force anything. I’ve been told to set aside time to write every day, which I probably should do, but I don’t believe my best work comes that way. I find that taking a break keeps my writing muscles fresh, and then I can be more open and receptive to what the world has to offer me, in terms of images and ideas. I am not a big fan of forms, and don’t write them unless I am forced!
Word of Mouth
Alive in the ice and fire, was a package
of minutes with no expiry date.
We unwrapped layer by layer,
unraveled the novelty, the raw scent
of unopened nerves, neatly tied up
You said people don’t have a shelf life,
and I laughed.
Then we tasted the hate that comes only
from familiarity, it’s boring faults,
its ripened haste like a cashew flower’s
You said it’s a car with no brake pedal,
no insurance and no collateral damage.
I believed you then, when there was
nothing left in the airwaves but static,
doubt and guilty breathing.
Alive in the ice and fire, is a story,
its tiresome minutiae, and I still
gape at its impossibility with impatience.
Nalini:Plath said, “Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it and the imagination to improvise.” What is your opinion?
Anu: I believe the next line is “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. I agree fully with her quote. There is no reason to limit yourself to just a few aspects of life, because you are experiencing those at the moment. The world is your oyster, as they say. Everyone always has something interesting to say, whether they know it or not. Everybody has a story to tell. The fear of whether you will get published, or what if people don’t like it, should not come in the way of your writing. Easier said than done, I know, and it does seem daunting. But write the story, the whole story, and worry about revising later. Everything will come together at some point. Be brave enough to explore your soul.
her pencil writes —
of styli, quills
scratched sound waves
between the lines
scattered word fragments
soft chipped graphite
empty notebooks wait
in silence, ruffled pages
reams of white
soon to be covered in print
broken only by these faint
noises, muffled roar
traffic, teapot, dryer
her tapping toe rings
against the chair
the pencil writes —
of such things
when her thoughts
cannot sing her song
Nalini: Some of your poems come with a tinge of nostalgia such as– photograph in b/w,saudade while some of your poems like Laws of Poetry and Needlepoint Theory advocate breaking down old order. What can you tell us about this tension between belonging and charting new paths?
Anu: I don’t believe there is a tension or a tug between the two. Yes, I tend to write a lot about the past, the memories of growing up, family ties and so on, but also about what affects me in the present and what the future holds. Some poems are keen and curious observations about what a character might be feeling at a certain point of time. Some are extrapolations of my experiences, where my imagination takes over. I am equally part of all of these. Maybe I tend to write about loss more than anything else, and the pain associated with it, but these are personal experiences, and it is cathartic to write about them.
Photograph in b/w
sepia toned acacia tree, two
little girls standing—
one, bigger, smiling, two
dolls in her hand
one, smaller, wailing, one
doll, clay-baked mud
matching dresses, hairbands,
shoes, one happy
— she’s not an only child
anymore, she won’t
share though, the other
screams for mom
separated soon after birth,
reunited as sisters
strangers in the womb
hands, trying to understand
how a family behaves
the definition of love, where
it comes from
Nalini:Do you recall a moment in your upbringing or childhood that, when you revisit, seems to presage for you a life in poetry and writing?
Anu: I think that being a shy and quiet child led me to books and writing, long before I realized that it was to be my passion. As an introvert, I grew up to be very observant about others and the world around me, and felt that I could see what others simply took for granted. As a sensitive child, I was generally ignored at school. Left to my own devices, I gave myself the freedom to explore. Without cellphones or Google, and with plenty of time to be bored, my imagination soared. I guess around the age of 10 till about 17 is when I wrote plenty. Life took me in other directions after that – engineering and computer science and so on. I got my second wind after my son was born and I was home for several years. It felt like poetry had never left me. I started writing again and enrolled in an MFA program for poetry at Drew University. After that, there was no looking back.
Nalini: How did you overcome the trauma of abuse to lead a normal life?
Anu: I suffered mental and physical abuse for four years in the mid 90s. Coming out of it was a Herculean task because first of all I did not know that I HAD to come out of it. As a victim I had learned to accept things as the status quo, believing that I had no other choice and that it was fate which brought me to that situation. Whatever little self-esteem I had had been eroded to such a bad degree that I could not think for myself any more. But the two things that were untouched were my faith, and my love of books/writing. Those too would have gone had I stayed longer, but I soon understood that this was a toxic relationship. And that it was better to be alone, no matter how terrifying that sounded.
Nalini: What role did writing, in general and poetry in particular, played during this difficult phase of your life? And how has it changed your perspective since then?
Anu: Overcoming the trauma was no small feat. What I did not know at the time was that I was also suffering from chronic depression. At first, building myself bit by bit felt like an ordeal, but soon, having removed the bad influences from my life, it was actually peaceful. Nobody to boss me around or show me the consequences if I did not do something right. Or waste my time after a long day at work. I returned to books and kept a small journal to chronicle my thoughts and my progress. Over the years, I have written more about living in abuse, and seeing my life on a sheet of paper has been surreal, but it helped a lot to write openly about that phase and get it out of my head. From believing that nobody would love me, or that I was not fit to have a normal life, I now believe that everyone is deserving and capable of love.
My desire is to help women in a similar situation understand that the power of the written word can work wonders. They light the fire that results in changing a thought. I know it seems crazy but Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” would help me. It was for a country, but at that time, I felt like it was written for me to wake up and take action.
I remember a different time when Orion brought us
good luck. When the Big Dipper would point to Sirius,
and we thought the spirit of every dog lived there
When I would stare at your freckled back and look for a map of cities
where we would go, where we would separate
The hunt is important, you would say, so is the capture
who cares what happens after that?
They say it’s easy to get anything, maintaining is the hard part –
clothes, toys, luxury items,
you with your blasé look — I, still hungry, look for a side of a cold bed
that’s no longer slept on
Your mind, partitioned into different countries,
a concubine in each harem, an echo in each chamber
I’m singing the same song, in a different intonation,
the way you did when your tongue first caressed my nape, my mouth,
Crumbs of red velvet are still crumbs, in a vagabond’s palms.
Nalini:We live in an age of Twitter and Instagram. There is a deluge of poets writing micro poems and riding on instant fame. It might seem that poetry has become more popular in recent years but is it really so? What do you think of instant/micro/4-line poetry written around popular notions?
Anu: I have nothing against micro-poetry, as long as it is well done. 4 lines can sometimes convey more than 40 lines. And as for the popularity, one can say they are easily relatable to the masses, therefore they become famous. However, the trend I observe is that there is nothing fresh about the poems themselves – they are trite and clumsy. I am not saying that someone has to come up with some out of the world topic – come to think of it, many poets write about the same things, but they do so in different, refreshing ways. That is what I find lacking these days. And in general, the opinion is that it is very easy to become a poet, as opposed to a fiction or a screenplay writer, and therefore everyone feels like taking it up. I have a problem with that J Poets go through rigorous technique training too, just like the others, and so, writing 4 lines one day doesn’t make you a poet. They are born, and then made just like in any other profession. I am not trying to sound like a snob. Certainly, everyone has the freedom to write, and everyone’s aims are different. If you want instant fame, sure social media will do it for you. But if you want to write everlasting poetry, something that will be quoted for generations to come, then that isn’t the way to go about it. I am getting to know several poets who write beautifully but don’t have a book out. So that definitely is no measure of success!
Nalini:Talking of social media, Facebook poetry groups are ubiquitous. I keep removing myself but still I must be in a million groups. Though I must admit they are great places to read, share one’s poetry and interact with other creative minds. Poetry group, The Woman Inc. that you run is one of my favorite for the powerful poetry it shares. How do you think internet and social media contribute towards well-being of the poetry?
Anu: I think it is great that these groups exist. I was a hesitant poet once, very unsure of my writing, and these groups gave me the confidence that I too could write. What I like is that the feedback is honest and sincere. I don’t like groups where everyone simply praises each other for a great poem, whether it is true or not. And if I am added to such a group, I remove myself. I myself started a small Facebook group for New Jersey based South Asian poets, where we post our poems and solicit blunt critique. That is the only way to grow. It is great for the future of poetry because budding poets come alive and develop their writing skills, and go on to write far better than when they started out with. Not to mention the community it creates. Such communities are important for the arts to thrive.
Nalini:And now a question that all those who write poetry ask themselves at some point of time — what does it mean to be a poet?
Anu: According to me, being a poet means being connected to a deeper part of yourself, and feeling each moment, each ripple. The response that you create when you see something that moves you – a painful event, an injustice, a happy moment, the beauty of nature – these are just examples that make you want to bring about a change, even a small one, in the world. I think being a humble student for life is a poet’s personality. There are days when I struggle with the impostor syndrome, thinking I don’t belong here, or my writing is awful. But to persevere, and have faith in that part of yourself that is able to capture a different view of the world, is what makes you a poet. To be able to distinguish between seeing something and looking at something, to be part of that self-discovery that expresses who you are as a person, defines who you are as a poet.
Nalini: Any words for budding poets?
Anu: Read! Read your favorite poets, poets you’ve never heard of, the classic poets, the Pinterest poets, anything you can – this will expand your horizons and you will also learn to distinguish between different varieties of poetry, different styles of writing before gravitating towards some and developing your own style. And write regularly. Continue writing – I cannot advise that you do it every day because that is not what I do – but often enough, and find a mentor, a sounding board whom you can approach from time to time.
Also, start slow, and then find journals to submit to. You will get a lot of rejections before you get an acceptance, and that can be frustrating. But if getting a poem published is that important to you, then keep at it. You are creating something out of nothing, and that is a powerful skill. Be engrossed and be committed to your art. Feel each word. Get your ego out of your head and be open to receiving feedback. And in the midst of all this, don’t forget to have fun in the process.
Nalini: Thank you so much, Anu. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Anu: Likewise, Nalini! Thank you.
(This interview was conducted via email.)
Nalini Priyadarshni is a feminist poet, writer, translator, and educationist though not necessarily in that order who has authored Doppelganger in My House and co-authored Lines Across Oceans with late D. Russel Micnhimer. Her poetry, prose and photographs have appeared in numerous literary journals, podcasts and international anthologies including The Lie of the Land published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. A nominee for the Best of The Net 2017 she lives in Punjab, India and moonlights as a linguistic consultant.