Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Book: The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories
Author: Shakti Ghosal
Publisher: Half Baked Beans, 2020
The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories by Shakti Ghosal is a collection of four compelling stories that hover around people in different times and places around the majestic Hooghly in Kolkata. As the river flows, the narratives flow with the current as long as there are storytellers and listeners.
Shakti Ghosal, an MBA from IIM, Bangalore, is a seasoned corporate personnel with more than four decades of experience both in India and abroad. The globetrotting Ghosal and his passion to explore new places and cultures are vividly imbued in his writing. The Chronicler of the Hooghly and Other Stories, is a well-researched debut book entrenched in history.
His stories help us make sense of our realities. Ghosal admits that intense and traumatic events in life have contributed to the creation of these stories. Part-memoir, part-historical, Ghosal paints the stories with strokes of personal experiences and from chapters of India’s long history, selecting those that converse about Kolkata. This tapestry makes the readers more aware of the nuances of history and vividly recreates these scenes in the imagined reality. Ghosal impressively weaves history and imagination to blend fiction and reality, thereby providing a voice of the unrecorded, the myths and legends around what happened on the other side of known history during the colonial period in pre-independent India or at present.
‘Ashtami’, the first story starts with a nightmare, a dream Lord Curzon had since his childhood days setting the tone of the story. The story opens in 1912 with Sujit, a Junior Clerk in the British administration and his wife Bina as they are all set to relocate to Delhi. Weaving the story in close quarters with the time of Ashtami during the Durga Puja festival of Bengal, Ghosal raises the idea of birth and death, beginning and ending in the personal lives of the characters along with the history of the nation, thus proposing life coming in full circle with fragments of joys and sorrows. Change is the only constant that is destined in the uncertain future.
From 1912 to 1947 and after, Sujit and Bina witness progress in life through their journey from Kolkata to Delhi with their children, the double irony of the life of the youngest child Shanti is a touching twist. A human error of a delivery gone wrong, makes Shanti a differently-abled child. As a result, he is mistreated, ignored, and judged by siblings and society but at heart, he is a sensitive soul. Shanti’s home schooling, errands, plea for help as his brother is murdered in an unjustifiable situation during the communal violence of the Great Kolkata Killings, an aging mother’s concern for a differently-abled child and the death of his mother leaving him helplessly alone, makes him and, subsequently, the reader, wiser on life and life’s little ironies. The lighter notes on the Howrah, Lal Qila, horse drawn tonga rides at Civil Lines, interstate train journeys, Burra Bazaar to Chandi Chowk, typical dust storms in Delhi, Durga Puja, food and communication through postcards make the story flavourful.
‘Pandemic’ moves through different time zones within a century, dealing with similar situations in history. Dipen in 1919 is caught in the mahamari at Khidderpore docks where he is a labour supervisor. Indranil from Gurgaon in 2020 is caught in the pandemic situation in the middle of a safari trip with his wife in the Dooars forest region of West Bengal. Although a hundred year apart, the stories highlight similarities and differences in the human condition. Amidst the pandemic, Dipen is caught in all that happens between his home and the dockyard. Ghosal touches upon health issues both physical and mental, quarantine, human emotions, personal secrets, sacrifice, and life choices. Ghosal also beautifully brings out the gender readings as he sheds light on life as a widow or a widower, childlessness and society, and of perceptions on ill-luck and how ironically, the characters deemed as unlucky or how just what is deemed as bad luck convert to beacons of hope and goodwill. Through Indranil, Ghosal discusses lockdown and cytokines, the science and signs of the disease along with the issues of present-day work and marriage and brings to light different aspects of youth, the working class, newer trends that govern passions, aspirations, families and priorities.
In ‘Fault Lines’, a deadly gas explosion changes Anjan’s life forever. The accident broke the artificial shell that Anjan and Jaya made their home in and the realities that lay hidden in his subconscious haunts him in disguise of Savio, Anjan’s friend. Set in the idyllic Middle-East, and shuttling back and forth in time and between places, Anjan finds enlightenment through lessons on karma. Jaya closes the story with the understanding that nothing good can be built on the foundations of deceit and hurt.
The titular story, the last one in the book, ‘The Chronicler of the Hooghly’, has the protagonist, Samir, reacting to his dying mother who utters a panic-stricken whisper, “mukto malar abhishap” or the curse of the pearl necklace. Here Ghosal intricately and imaginatively spins history and myth to take us into a string of narratives strewn in their pathway by the fabled curse of the necklace. The ‘Chronicler’, or narrator, mystically and mysteriously asks, “What could be behind you taking this trip today and me telling you this tale?” He narrates the stories to Samir in the breath-taking boat ride on the Hooghly with a feeling both of nostalgia and curiosity, swaying between past and present to highlight the bigger picture. He touches upon England and Calcutta (1842-1846), Murshidabad palace of Siraj ud Daula in June 1756, Chandernagore (1757), Plassey (1757), and Calcutta (1846-55), along with the present day beautifully guiding the reader to the climax of the story.
What is most fascinating is the telling of the stories in an alternative voice making the readers experience history with a fictitious veneer that magically brings into sight the hitherto unknown facets. Despite being set in a different time frames and in different situational events of history, the timeless elements in Ghosal’s stories are priceless.
The elements in the stories such as the anxieties of moving to a new place, the concerns of leaving behind old parents, the generational gap on how one looks at traditions, reflections on crisis and resilience on issues ranging from the Partition to communal violence to casteism to the pandemic and more, changing belief systems over time and experience, old age, diseases, mental health, loss and grief of a child or a partner, a parent’s concerns for their children, on the importance of empathy and decision-making, on acknowledging uncertainties, on karma and enlightenment, finding home or solitude, or coming to terms with oneself – Ghosal sprinkles confetti of his coaching in life skills into the storytelling to create a set of modern-day tales that are easily relatable and palatable. The style and the settings are like fresh air that enlightens as it entertains. The stories are vibrant and close to current realities, making them a worthy read.
These are stories of changing times and a reminder that life is short, and that time will not wait for us. But we need to be positive, hopeful and be aware of the best we can do for ourselves and for others.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature.
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