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Interview Review

The Oldest Love Story – In Conversation with Editor Rinki Roy

The Oldest Love Story, edited and curated by Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao published by Om Books International, 2022, carries multiple voices across cultures on a most ancient bond and nurtures pertinent questions and observation, which hope to redefine the role.

‘Antara 1’

Antara rising from primordial waters
As the first sun, forever new, forever old,
You made me the universe.
History and prehistory filed through me hand in hand 
In gradual evolution.
Antara, because of you
I have earned the right to enter
The tenfold halls of my foremothers.
Clutching your baby hands in my fist,
I have made the future a debtor to me
Antara, in an instant you have filled all time
By your grace I am coeval with the Earth today.

-- Nabanita Dev Sen, The Oldest Love Story(2022)

The Oldest Love Story, curated by two eminent authors and journalists, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao, is an anthology that not only describes a human’s first love, their mother, and their lives, but also explores the social and psychological outcomes and ramifications of motherhood with powerful narratives from multiple writers. They range from eminent names like the late Nabanita Dev Sen, Shashi Deshpande, Kamala Das to Bollywood personalities like Shabana Azmi and Saeed Mirza and contemporary names like Amit Chaudhuri or Maithili Rao herself.

The anthology has narratives clubbed into three sections: ‘Being a Mother: Rewards and Regrets’, ‘Outliers’, ‘Our Mothers: Love, Empathy and Ambivalence’. The headings are descriptive of the content of each section. These real-life narratives, some of which include translations by editors Roy and Rao among others, make for interesting and fresh perspectives of the age-old story that is as natural as water or air. More than two dozen diverse voices as well as Roy’s powerful “Preface” and Rao’s exhaustive “Introduction” paint motherhood in new colours, giving it an iridescence that glitters with varied shades. Stories of what mothers faced — bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome, a child who drove his roommate to suicide and yet another daughter who marries a man old enough to be her father — bring us close to issues we face in today’s world.

One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of this book is at the end of each essay is a takeaway from the narrative where the writers write about themselves. This is not a biography but a description of the writers’ perception about their mother or what they learnt from their experience of motherhood. The most interesting takeaway is given by Shabana Azmi, who wrote of her dynamic mother Shaukat Kaifi (1926-2019).

“I am cut from the same cloth as her. But who am I?

“I would say I’m a woman, an Indian, a wife, an actress, a Muslim, an activist, etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity but today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, at the absence of all other aspects. This is not the truth about India. India’s greatest truth is her composite culture.

“The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other because of their ‘Kashmiriyat’ than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu in spite of them sharing a common religion. To me, my cultural identity is much stronger than my religious identity.”

And she concludes: “My mother taught me that identity must not be a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. It should be a beautiful mosaic in which each part contributes to a larger whole.”

Major social issues are taken up in multiple narratives. Mirza used the epistolary technique to describe how his mother discarded her burqa forever in Pre-Partition India.

“You were emerging from the hall of the Eros theatre and were about to wear your burqa in the foyer when Baba popped the question to you.

“‘Begum, do you really want to wear it?’

“You told me you paused for a moment, and then you shook your head. And that was that. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I am trying to imagine that moment. The year was 1938 and you had been wearing a burqa ever since you were thirteen years old.”

Mannu Bhandari’s spine-chilling narrative of her mother, a child bride around the time when Mirza’s mother shed her burqa, shows a young girl punished and abused for accidentally tearing her sari. It showcases a conservative, abusive culture where women turn on women. An extreme contrast to the bold maternal outlook described by Mirza or Azmi, the narrative highlights the reason why women need to protest against accepting familial abuse bordering on criminality. That these three mothers lived around the same time period in different cultures and regions of India only goes to enhance the large diaspora of beliefs, customs and cultures within one country.

Dalit writer, Urmila Pawar’s reasserts her mother’s belief, “A woman is a wife for only a while/ She is a mother all her life.” “Screams Buried in the Walls” by Sudha Arora dwells on the abuse borne by women to pander to societal norms. Narratives of abuse of women who could not stand up to social malpractices seem to have turned into lessons on what not to do for daughters who condemn patriarchal norms for the suffering their mothers faced.

On the other hand, Shashi Deshpande tells us: “Motherhood becomes a monster that devours both her and her young; or, when the children go away, there is an emptiness which is filled with frustration and despair. I have been saved from this because of my work. My children no longer need me, but my life does not seem empty.” While Shashi Deshpande found her catharsis by writing her stories, Deepa Gahlot, justifies her stance of remaining unmarried and childless by espousing a voice against motherhood.  She contends that the only reason to perceive motherhood as a viable alternative would be propagation of the species. But concludes with an interesting PS: “Does it even make sense to bring a child into such an ugly, nasty, brutal world?” As one hears of senseless violence, wars and mass shootings in the news, Gahlot’s words strike a chord. She has actually researched into the subject to draw her conclusions. But one would wonder how would humankind propagate then — out of test tubes in a bleak scenario like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? Would humans really want such an inhuman existence?

I would rather go with Dev Sen’s outlook. While she emoted on motherhood in her poems on her daughter Antara, she has given a powerful prose narrative elucidating her own perspective. Antara, the daughter to who these poems are addressed, has given a beautiful takeaway on her mother at the end of Dev Sen’s narrative. Despite being abandoned by her husband, Amartya Sen, who later became a Nobel laureate, Dev Sen not only fulfilled herself as a woman and a mother but threw out an inspiring statement that well sums up motherhood for some: “[C]ould I do anything to make this planet worthy for my kids?”

Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, one of the editors of this sparkling collection and author of a number of books, especially on the legendary film maker, her father, Bimal Roy (1909-1966), had published an earlier collection on a similar theme called, Janani (Mother, 2006). She agreed to tell us more about the making of this meaty and gripping anthology, The Oldest Love Story.

Editor Rinki Roy Bhattacharya at the book launch in Mumbai. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

Motherhood as a concept that is ancient, natural, and yet, not fully understood nor explored. What made you think of coming up with this collection that highlights not only stories of mothers and how it influenced women but also discusses the process of being a mother?

The present collection, titled “The Oldest love Story” goes back several decades. This is mentioned in my preface. It began when I woke up to the fact that I was redundant as a mother. By the time the children had grown up one-by-one and left home. I began to explore the situation with other women to understand, why we give so much importance to motherhood? Foolishly, I felt. Motherhood as a concept is indeed natural but taken for granted. I have a problem with that. My maid, Laxmi, is a classic example of a mother who is exploited to the hilt by her children. She is blind to their exploitation and refuses any change that will help her live with comfort or dignity. As if women are just mothers and nothing else?

Was it a personal need or one that you felt had to be explored given the current trend towards the issue where women are protesting the fact that looking after children saps them of individuality? Can you please explain?

I answered this issue as have others in this book. The deep resentment that follows after raising kids who then go away to find greener pastures, is an extremely common, and collective experience for most parents. Particularly in the Indian context. Parents cannot let go. The main reason, I think is, the parent’s fear. The fear of who will light the funeral pyre if not the son? In the event of not having a son,  a close male relative takes over. Do you see the gender bias, the patriarchal assumption? Daughters are not considered legitimate enough to light the pyre?! Yet it is daughters who care for elderly parents in most cases.

This is not the case in Europe, nor the West, where children are expected to become independent very early. In fact, European teenagers seize their independence at the earliest opportunity. It is the expected thing, and no one resents that inevitable shift.

You had an earlier collection called Janani (Mother). Did that have an impact on this book?

I am glad you referred to Janani, published by Sage books in 2006. That collection is the cornerstone of our new book. In this collection, we have included eight extraordinary essays from Janani. We have retained, for example, Kamala Das and Shashi Deshpande to name two. And guess what we discovered out of the blue? In the oldest love story, we have several Sahitya Akademi winners amongst our writers, including these stalwarts. This raises our book to a huge literary stature.

How was it to work jointly on a book with Maithili Rao? Did you both have the same vision for the book?

Working with Maithili was fantastic, and it was great fun. She is the most generous of people and shares without fuss. Ours was a good partnership. I could not have produced this book without Maithili. She has been and continues to be a rock.

You have done many translations for the book. Why is it we did not find an essay from you as we did from Maithili Rao?

Yes, I did. I helped fine-tune Mannu Bhandari’s story It ranks as one of my personal favourites. Her narrative is beautifully visual. I find it cinematic. I also translated Sudha Arora’s poignant essay. Sudha is a noted Hindi writer. It was, however, difficult for me to write my personal story. But the hope is, our next reprint will carry a story I wrote on my son Aditya’s birthday in 2021. In this I have given graphic details of how childbirth robs women of their dignity in the so-called natural process of birthing children. My essay is entertaining and somewhat satirical in style.

You have written a beautiful preface to the book, reflecting your own experience with your children. Were you, like the other writers, impacted by your mother?

I take that as a compliment. Yes, I wrote a heartfelt preface. My relationship with my mother, admittedly, was a strained one. Our age difference was just eighteen years…whatever the reason, I have not been able to fathom or pinpoint it. So, I thought it was best to refrain from the troubled territory.

Would you say that Bollywood had some bearing on the book as a number of writers are from within the industry? Also, your father, the eminent Bimal Roy, made a movie called Maa in 1952. If so how. Please explain.

I do not see any bearing from Bollywood. The fact we have eminent personalities from the world of cinema, for example, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, and Lalita Lazmi do not make it a Bollywood-driven work. My father, Bimal Roy’s Bombay debut was with a film called Maa. Apparently, Maa was inspired by a Hollywood film titled Over the Hills. The main protagonist was an elderly mother of two sons. Maa bared a socially relevant issue, elder abuse, that has been globally recognised and is prevalent. My father’s empathy for the elderly is well documented in this fictional account. In day-to-day life, my father supported the elderly. His widowed aunt in Benaras was maintained by him. His brothers were educated and helped by his generosity. Compassion was his second nature. From him, I learned that a silent, discreet way to support others is the best way to reach out.

There are so many women in the anthology who reiterated the huge impact their mothers had on them, and they were quite critical of their ‘patriarchal’ fathers. Do you think this is true for all women? At a personal level, did your father or mother have a similar impact on you?

I am glad to hear that these woman are critical of their patriarchal fathers…while most women tend to overlook the patriarchal aspect. In general, women tend to ignore or even neglect, their mothers. In my case, it was distinct. My cultural upbringing was instilled by my father’s secular and inclusive vision and social values. These played a decisive part. Much more than my mother, who was a gifted photographer. My parents, by the way, were a made for each other couple. Rarest of rare in the movie industry. My father is my mentor. If you contemplate his well-loved films, let us take Sujata [1959], for one. I have yet to see another film that speaks so eloquently of social boycott. It is not just the caste issue of Sujata, which doubtless is the main thrust. It is the combined forces of class, caste, and gender that play havoc with human relationships as portrayed compassionately in this work.

Yes, Sujata is indeed a beautiful film and your book has taken up many of the issues shown in the movie through the voice of mothers, whether it is caste or religion. Was this intentional or was it something that just happened?

The voices of our contributors in the book are of individuals who write with exemplary honesty and spontaneously. Nothing is contrived in their writings. We did not brief our writers to take up any specific issue. They wrote from the heart.

One of the trends that emerged from my reading of the book was that educated and affluent mothers through the ages had it easier than child brides and less educated mothers, whose children also reacted with more vehemence, looking for a better world for themselves. Do you feel my observation has some credence? Please comment on it.

I do not agree entirely. Bearing children, and raising them in our complex, the confusing socio-economic culture is a challenging matter for all mothers. For all parents in fact. Child brides are subjected to it more intensely than others. There are no shortcuts, nor ready-made answers.

There is an essay against motherhood in this anthology. Do you agree with the author that it is a redundant institution and can be replaced by test-tube babies? Do you not think that could lead to a re-enactment of what Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World

I think, you mean Deepa Gahlot’s essay. This was from the earlier collection. Deepa is entitled to her views. As are others. I think many younger women would agree with Deepa. Balancing motherhood with one’s professional life is a knotty business. I know women who have opted for one or the other to do full justice to it.

Yes, it was Deepa Gahlot’s essay. As you have rightly pointed out in your preface, motherhood can be interpreted variously. What do you see as the future of motherhood in India, and in the world?

Motherhood, remains subjective. Interpreted differently in each case. Every childbirth is a different experience. It may be life-threatening. A case to note is my dear friend Smita Patil’s. She died giving birth. But, I doubt women will stop being mothers, or abandon stereotypical mothering options that live up to that Deewar [Wall, 1975] dialogue: “Mere paas maa hain [I do not have a mother]”. There is a change, a shift, nonetheless, it is slow. Women are afraid to rock this entrenched image of motherhood. At least in India. I know successful women filled with guilt that they failed to be good mothers.

Well, that is certainly a perspective that needs thought.What books and music impact your work?

I read both Bangla and English. After leaving Calcutta where I read the children’s Ramayana, Raj Kahini, or stories by Tagore and Sukumar Ray. But there was an interruption when I got into an English medium school. Culturally I moved out of Bengal. During that phase, my mother introduced me to Agatha Christie. I was 12 years perhaps…I devoured her works. And I still do. Christie fascinates me.

I fell in love with the piano and began to learn it. As a result, Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt were my musical inspirations. I also learned Rabindra sangeet and Manipuri dance in Calcutta…. there was no dearth of cultural grooming. We are especially fortunate that our parents enjoyed the best in performing arts. Pandit Sivakumar Sharma, the great santoor maestro who just passed away, played at home. Sitara Devi danced for private programs. We were wrapped in a rich tapestry of culture.

What is your next project? Are you writing/ curating something new?

I am a compulsive writer, always itching to write.  I believe that writers do not age…they mature and get better. Currently, I am compiling non-fiction episodes about some of the most celebrated artists from Indian cinema who I was privileged to meet…the collection may be titled, Brief Encounters. Writing keeps me creatively busy. Before I sign off, we have to thank our editor Shantanuray Chaudhuri for his unconditional support to make this book a reality. He has been marvellous.

Thank you for taking our work seriously.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering the questions

From Left to Right: Rinki Roy, Maithili Rao and Shabana Azmi at the Mumbai book Launch in June 2022. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Stories

Give Me a Rag, Please!

Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta from Bengali, Nabendu Ghosh’s short story brings out the absolute deprivation of basic needs of the common people during the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Old man Ekkori was closing in on sixty. For two years his sight has been halved by cataract – in fact he’s as good as sightless. By doing this the Preserver of People’s Dignity had protected Harimati from the indignity of standing in the nude before her father-in-law – even her husband Teenkori admitted this.

Nude? Yes, what else but nude? The two saris that Harimati had been alternating on a daily basis had become so threadbare that, forget outings, it would be tough to maintain decorum even indoors if her father-in-law still had his power of vision. And this, even though they’re not gentlefolks, they’re mere peasants.

Harimati didn’t step out of the house until sundown. Fetching water, doing the dishes, washing the clothes – everything had to wait until darkness sets in. Yes, they’re from the lower strata but her sense of decorum and shame was not a mite less than that of a refined woman belonging to genteel society. It could actually be a bit more since Harimati had always been proud of one thing: Her father had studied till the Minor (primary) school examination – something beyond her husband Teenkori and his father Ekkori.

Still, she was managing. She was determined not to be bothered by embarrassment or chagrin. But things came to a head when an uninvited guest showed up with the claim of an uncalled for kinship. There was a time when a guest was worshipped as God but those times were long past. Time had taken that culture too with it. Now if things came to pass, a father disowned his son, a husband abandoned his wife, a mother sold her offspring. Even that could be excused – they may not have had any other option.

In a peasant’s family, even dire poverty did not deprive them of a coarse variety of rice and some greens that grew in their own courtyard. The bottle gourd climbing up their fence was about to blossom, the other end of the narrow stretch fenced off had a drumstick tree that caught attention with its healthy growth.

A distant cousin from Nandangachhi had showed up unannounced. Teenkori’s maternal aunt’s paternal cousin’s son Nandalal. Some work had drawn him to their town – he would go back the same evening. He was accompanied by a helping hand – belonging to the Tili community, a notch lower than them in social standing.

That wouldn’t be a problem. They’re guests for half a day – they could and would be taken care of. They would even be served a bowl of milk – borrowed from Tarini Mondal’s family who lived next door. But trouble arose when it came to serving them lunch.

It had been decided that Teenkori’s eleven-year-old sister Protima – the motherless Pooti – would serve the meal. But when it was time to seat the guest on the floor mats, she left on the pretext of fetching water from the nearby pond. Fact was, she too felt shy. A tense Harimati had called out to her two or three times but the girl didn’t look back. Consequently Harimati couldn’t avoid the task she was planning to all this while: she had to take upon herself the onus of serving food to the guests.

Teenkori started fidgeting halfway through the meal. A glance at his wife, and the food stuck in his throat. An old old sari soiled with time, torn in places and patch-worked at spots – she was trying to cover her body with the rag. Teenkori hasn’t forgotten the pedigree of the sari. Before the War broke out, before his stillborn son came into the world, when Harimati was given a shower in the seventh month, he had purchased a pair for two rupees and one anna. One of the duo had gone months ago, this one was worn occasionally and so had lasted a while longer. Since the last year, she was reduced to wearing it every single day, and now it was threadbare. Harimati had carefully draped it over her body, yet you could clearly make out the contours of her body. Her arms, her shoulder, fleshy bulge near her chest — they refused to be subdued by the rag. Had she the cover of a chemise, she would not feel so discomfited. But in a family where procuring a coarse sari barely five yards long was itself a feat, a chemise was a luxury they did not waste time thinking about.

Teenkori’s fidgeting could be traced to one more reason. All the men seated to lunch were focused on the meal, but the eyes of the boy accompanying Nandalal were restless, untamed. Even as he was gulping the mouthfuls, his oblique stare was devouring every part of Harimati’s body. She may not have been an eyeful, nor was she repulsive. Her youthful healthy body had an innate appeal. Earlier, she was even more healthy, even more sprightly. But the efforts to evade the decimation of the horrendous famine had taken a toll. She has withered, shrunk.

There was another reason. The famine that spared not a grain of rice, no food, not even greens that could sustain them, took with it the cynosure of her eyes, her two-year-old Khokon. But if Death is an inevitable truth, so is Life. Hence Harimati lived on. And at twenty-two she is not old enough to think of Death. So, youthful vigour was still overflowing her body. Naturally Nandalal’s helping hand would eye her every now and then. The effort to hide her nudity seemed to add to her appeal for the boy.

Harimati also realised that. That is why when she came in with the repeats, she took care to drape her father-in-law’s worn out gamchha over her chest. Teenkori looked at her, it seemed to him that tears had welled up in her eyes.

*

Precisely so.

Harimati did not touch her food. She was waiting for Teenkori. The minute Nandalal left with his help, and old man Ekkori surrendered to his siesta, Teenkori went indoors. Harimati came out of the kitchen and stood before him. The tears that she had so far kept within the guard of her eyelids now flowed over.

Teenkori took Harimati’s hand in his own. Trying to stem the hot spring of unhappiness with the palm of his right hand he asked, “What’s the matter bou?”

Harimati bit her lip so as not to break the silence.

Teenkori suddenly felt irritated. It was the monsoon month of Sravan halfway through the English month of July. There was so much left to do in the fields. It was just that there were guests at home, else he would have spent the whole day in tending to the fields. They held the key, the hope and happiness for the rest of the year. Rest, the unhappiness of the womenfolk, the need to love and be loved – now was not the time for all this. His debt was mounting at he moneylender’s who could now claim every hair on his head. With barely two rupees left to pull along till Diwali in November, he would have to borrow some more. Was this the time to cry?

“Why don’t you spit it out, woman?”

“Don’t you know what’s the matter? Can’t you see with your eyes?” – Harimati hissed at him like an angry serpent. She found it difficult to keep a hold on herself since their son died. At such times, the usually quiet woman terrified Teenkori.

“What? What’s the matter? How will I know if you don’t tell me, am I omniscient?”

“Your cousin’s help was gobbling me with his indecent eyes – didn’t you see that?”

“I did,” Teenkori hung his head low.

“Then do something about it. It’s better to go around nude than to be covered in revealing clothes!”

“What can I do about it?” Teenkori didn’t want to understand. And what could he actually do even if he did understand?

Sari! Sari!!” Harimati impatiently stretched out her arms to her husband, “give me a piece of cloth, a sari… It’s so long since I asked you for one, don’t you remember? It is more than a year since you gave me one, for the pujas – can it last an entire lifetime? So many times I brought up the subject, you kept postponing it, ‘Not tomorrow, day after surely!’ ‘It’s very costly, prices have gone up, once the prices come down I’ll get you on…’ Words, words, words to fill in for inaction. You’ve caused me to go around semi-naked. Now? Now it’s impossible to go around. You get me a sari at any cost.”

The force of her words made Teenkori lose track of his thoughts. An indescribable impatience made him angry. So he spurned logic and picked on a phrase of Harimati, to vent his bitterness. With reddened eyes he glared at Harimati, “I’ve caused you to go around semi-naked?” he roared.

“You, you, you have. You’re the man of the house, can’t you get me a sari?”

“Where will I bring it from if there’s none in the market?” he demanded..

“I don’t care where you’ll get it from – just get it. I MUST HAVE IT. Issh! What an able husband, mine! Don’t they say…”

Tthaash!

Before she could say another word, Teenkori slapped Harimati hard on her cheek – he simply couldn’t take it any more.

“Hit me..! You hit me?!” Harimati’s fury fizzled out like water poured over a stove. Only tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Yes I hit you.” Teenkori grit his teeth and sat down to rummage through their trunk.

Old man Ekkori’s voice floated in, “What’s on with you guys, hunh?!”

“Nothing – go to sleep.” Teenkori shouted back at him.

“If you say so, son!” The old man’s voice echoed the dejection of the Blind King Dhritarashtra of the Mahabharat.

Teenkori extracted a few coins wrapped in a piece of rag kept safely in one corner of the trunk. They added up to some seven rupees, he counted before stashing them away in his waist. Then without a word he stepped out of the house.

*

But soon as he stepped out, he caused another uproar.

Pooti had just returned with a pitcherful of water poised on her hip. She was draped in an old gamchha around her waist, covering only the lower half of her body. That was all.

The sight of her stoked his asperity. Where was the need for the lass to go fetch water? Always evading work, always looking for fun.

“Pooti!”

“Yes?”

“Come here.”

Pooti put down the pitcher on the kitchen veranda and walked up to him. She could not fathom the reason for the summon in a grave voice.

The minute she stood by him, Teenkori traced the outline of all his five fingers on her cheek. “Where did you disappear, you brat? Didn’t your boudi tell you not to go, hunh? Went to fetch water!! Why did you go, hunh? WHY??”

The unexpected slap stunned Pooti. Pain and hurt choked her voice. She could not say a word in reply, only tears welled up in the large eyes like a dumb animal.

The reply came from Harimati. She was trembling with rage.

“So what if she had gone, why are you bossing?”

“Why should I not?”

“No, you cannot. You don’t have the right to. If you can, cast a glance on her chest.”

Teenkori cast a glance. It made Pooti swiftly retire into the kitchen. But that momentary glance was enough for Teenkori to ralise something that made him shut up.

He’d forgotten that Pooti has completed eleven. He’d forgotten that, in Bengali homes, this age spelt a lot of metamorphosis in a female anatomy. He only remembered that Pooti was his younger sister, much younger to him, even now.

But Teenkori does not know that there are glances other than a brother’s – glances that pierce through layers of clothings, so what to say of bare bodies. These glances do not make any concession for the innocence of a pre-teen girl.

Harimati chewed out every vowel, “She’s no longer a lass, she’s on her way to becoming a maiden. At this green age she’s more shy than I. Don’t you realise that?”

“Ayn?!”

Teenkori scurried out at the speed of an arrow released from the bow.

*

Teenkori walked some way at a very fast pace. Why, which way, he’d not stopped to think. He was still fuming in his mind. If his head were made of clay, then it might have let out steam into the air. Fortunately for all, his head was not made like an earthen pot.

Nibaran Dutta’s son Manish was walking down the mudpath. A young man of about twenty-six or –seven, he’d been incarcerated for five years for his involvement in the Nationalist movement. On his release three years ago he’d returned to the village. He still engaged in Nationalist activities. Dressed in a pleated Khadi dhoti, a half-shirt and a leather sandal on his feet, he had a cross-chested bag dangling by his side. It always held an assortment of books and papers. Every now and then he summons them, discusses various things about their well being, about the country’s well being. During the recent Famine and the epidemic he worked so hard – amazing! This was something to remember him by forever.

They – Manish and his partymen – were also agitating about the rationing of cloth, Teenkori was aware. At that moment he was like light at the end of a tunnel for Teenkori.

“O Manish Babu!”  

“What’s new, brother?” – Manish smiled at him.

“I need something,” Teenkori’s vice bubbled with agitation.

“Tell me. But before that, come under the shade of that tree. I’ve been walking a long way you know, all the way from … Nimdanga.”

They walked under the banyan.

“Tell me what you want.”

“It’s become impossible to do without a sari.”

“That, I do know,” he smiled feebly. “That is exactly why I am going in every direction. Tomorrow we will take out a procession. All the boys and girls from poverty stricken families in the neighbouring villages will walk to the city to file an application. You must also join us without fail.”

Teenkori could not wait to communicate his own woes, he broke in, “Yes yes, I will but I must have one right away Manish Babu.”

Manish looked at Teenkori without speaking a word.

“You’re doing so much for the nation, and you can’t do this much?” – Teenkori’s voice lost its bite and sounded pathetic.

“Nation?” Manish smiled. “Yes, I am striving for the nation but Teenkori, it is still not swadesh, my country.”

“It might be so but you have to do this favour to me Manish Babu. You simply HAVE TO. If you don’t believe me, just go and take a peep at Pooti and her boudi.”

“No need,” Manish protested. “I don’t wish to add to your woes and humiliation. But what is the matter – haven’t you been to Fakir Miya’s yet?’

Fakir Miya was the president of the Union Board and secretary of the Food Committee. He’s the one who gives out the permit for clothes.

“Yes I’ve been to him. Several times. My shoes have worn out, so many visits I’ve made. But I haven’t got the permit.”

“Really? Come with me, let me see what can be done.”

*

At every step Teenkori thought to himself, “Something will surely materialise now.” Because, like everyone else in the village, Fakir Miya also had a lot of respect for Manish.

But nothing worked out.

Fakir Miya shook his head and said, “There’s no way to give a permit, because there is NO CLOTH.”

“Nothing at all can be done?” Manish asked with gentle smile.

Fakir Miya took a deep puff of his hookah and said, “How can it be? You’ll understand once you hear me out. There are 813 families in the village and the total of dhotis and saris we have received is 65. Now you tell me, who do I give and who do I deprive?”

“Whom have you given?”

“Those who came first.”

“And those who have references, and influences, isn’t it so?” Manish softly added with a grin.

A reddish tint played on Fakir Miya’s visage for an instant. He gave a gentle twist to his mehdi-tinted goatee, then said, “See Manish, I really hold you in deep regard, that is why I am not taking any offence at what you just said. But you have indeed spoken the truth. That is why I have decided that I will distribute the next lot only among the destitute and the needy. I will care for the poor first. This time I can’t help you – you really have no idea how helpless I feel.”

Manish smiled again. “I do understand, everything. I hope you will actually carry out what you are planning to do next time. Never mind: for the time being, do give me a permit, whether you have the stock or not. I have promised it to Teenkori, let me at least keep my word to him. Besides, his family is really finding it difficult to continue in society.”

Fakir Miya glanced at Manish, then at Teenkori who was waiting pale-faced and in all humility. Fakir Miya said, “I’ll honour your word Manish. I’ll write a permit.”

Manish went homeward. And, with the permit in his hand, Teenkori raced towards Chhaganlal’s shop, his heart beating fast, now with hope and now out of fear.

*

Chhaganlal Marwari has come to this village all the way from the deserts of Rajputana. From that distant corner of the land too he had learnt about the shortage of clothes in this unmapped village of Bengal – and in answer to that he had come via Kolkata with one lota and a bundle of clothings. In the weekly fairs that dot this and so many outlying villages, he personally carried such bundles of saris and dhotis for four full years. Then gradually, with the blessings of the Elephant-Faced God with a Big Belly he earned the benevolence of Goddess Lakshmi and prospered enough to own a double-storey building at the very front of the market – just like the Englishmen who came to trade with one ship full of goods and eventually built Fort William at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.

This very Chhaganlal was reclining on a bolster post-lunch. Having loosened the knot of his dhoti around his tummy, he was glancing through the previous day’s accounts.

“Sethji!” – Teenkori called out softly.

Sethji looked up, “Yes? What is it?”

Teenkori brought up the permit, with the deference of a devotee offering flowers at the feet of a deity.

“What d’you want?” Sethji demanded again.

“Cloth – I mean a sari.”

“There’s none.”

“Here’s the permit. Fakir Miya himself gave it.”

Extremely irritated, Chhaganlal stood up. “So what if Miya has given a permit? If there is no sari in the stock where can I materialise it from? Leave now – come back next month.”

“I can’t go without one Sethji, please give me one.”

“Have you gone out of you mind, ayn? None – there is not a single sari, don’t you see all the almirahs are absolutely empty?”

“Yes I see that. Still, do give me one – it will be a big favour.”

“D’you want me to take off what I’m clad in and go naked?”

Teenkori could say nothing. He could think of nothing to say, he only looked around him vacantly.

His eyes fell on the colourful saris displayed from the hook at the shop window.

“Those – those are handloom saris?”

“Yes.”

“Price?”

“The lowest priced one costs twelve rupees and four annas.”

“Can’t you give for less than that?”

Chhaganlal lost his cool. “Go, leave now, go home right now… This isn’t a vegetable mandi, just go.”

Teenkori couldn’t buy a sari.

*

He walked some way, then sat down under a semul tree. The sun was strong. His temper was mounting too. Sitting there, under the semul tree, he tore up the permit into tiny pieces. In the depth of sorrow he felt like laughing. It wouldn’t be wrong on his part to laugh aloud – all the others who were passing that way were probably laughing at him! The difference was that Teenkori’s laughter was a distorted version of crying.

The village priest Mahesh Bhattacharjji was coming his way. He proudly displayed the twisted, unwashed sacred thread around his neck, his pigtail too was bobbing happily to declare his unadulterated Brahminhood. But he was clad in a lungi. Quite an example of how dearth helps people break tradition and adapt to new ways!

“Bhatt’charjji Sir, regards – pranam!” Teenkori strode up to him.

“May you prosper son! What news Teenu, all well?”

“How can things be well Sir?? But what’s this – Bhatt’charjji Mashai in a lungi!”

Bhattacharjji shook his head and smiled, a wan smile born of pain. His voice shook with emotion. He wanted to drape his wife’s sari but she warned him, “This is dearer than gold and gems now, it’s not for you to even touch.” Naturally he had to resort to this way of preserving his dignity – “can’t go out without a stitch on you, can you? And is this inexpensive? I had to kowtow to Manik Miya, go on pleading ‘Big Brother – you’re like my father!’ Only then I got it for four and half rupees. But I am not ashamed Teenu – the God who makes a lame climb mountains and a mute speak reams, is the same almighty who’s making a Brahmin dress like a Mullah!”

“Why, don’t you get offerings of sari and dhoti when you conduct pujas?”

“Ashes! Bananas!” Mahesh Bhattacharjji waved his right thumb in the air. “How many people organise pujas at that scale where you offer saris and dhotis? And even if they do, they just pay eight annas or a rupee saying, ‘Please buy yourself a cloth Sir!’”

Teenkori, though in deep anguish, couldn’t help but laugh.

They kept walking side by side. One of the village elders, Kalimuddin Sarkar was coming their way with something wrapped in a gamchha held under his armpit.

“How d’you do Morol {headman}? Where are you coming from?” Bhattacharjji hailed him.

“From the bazaar,” Kalimuddin grinned.

“You are laughing because I am in a lungi, aren’t you? Well, go on, laugh. But what’s that in your armpit, eh? So carefully you are clutching it – what’s it?” Bhattacharjji narrowed his sharp eyes.

Kalimuddin hesitated a bit before replying, “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“No dear, no –“

“Just bought a pair of dhoti from the Marwari.”

“Let’s see – let’s see –“ Bhattacharjji and Teenkori both said at once.

A pair of ordinary mill-produced dhotis.

“Did you get a permit?” Bhattacharjji enquired.

Hunh!” – Kalimuddin pulled a face. “The permit is still in my pocket. This I bought in the black market. That too because he is known to me. These days you don’t get these even if you have the money.”

“How much did he charge?”

“Fifteen for the pair. He’d asked for twenty rupees.”

“Bastard! Thief!!” Bhattacharjji’s face went pale.

“And d’you know the price of saris? The mill-made ones are for 25, 30… the handloom ones are no less…”

Teenkori let out a sigh. If one had the money to pay for it, one could buy everything even when the situation was to the contrary. One who did not save money had to go without food and clothing – this is what Lord Almighty had ordained. At least in today’s world!

He would organise some money.

But money wasn’t for the asking!

The moneylender Ramkanta shook his head. “Ten rupees you want – but what else do you have to mortgage? Have you kept track of the balance still due to me? When will you clear that?”

“I remember – five rupees six annas. Apart from the interest.”

Teenkori went to many other people. Everyone shook his head just like Ramkanta. “No.”

Experiences and realisations build up the philosophy of our lives. Hence Teenkori had no hope, only hopelessness; no happiness, only unhappiness. Hence his life view was tragic, wrapped in a cover of ink-smeared darkness.

Manish turned grave on hearing the full account. He kept silent for quite a while, then said, “This is why we will take out the procession tomorrow. Be patient for some more days brother – there has to be some resolution.”

Teenkori spent the rest of the day going hither and thither. The whole day was wasted. There was work to be done in the fields – all had been undone. The next day also he would not be able to attend to the work, he had to join the procession. The nationalists were right: neither Teenkori by himself nor others like him – alone they could gain nothing. The strength of the poor and the deprived lies in their union, their coming together.

The procession would not draw immediate result; joining a party or raising slogans would not get Teenkori a sari for his wife. Still, would it all be wasted effort? Everyone would hear, everyone would know that nudity was forcing them to shed tears day and night.

*

Teenkori felt small going home. After darkness, he returned like a thief, stealthily. He felt relieved. Nandalal and his page had left in the evening.

Harimati entered the room after a while. Teenkori did not have the will to lift his head. Harimati fixed him with her gaze, then laughed a satirical smile and said, “Didn’t get it, did you? If you simply can’t, then this rag will have to be carefully donned – for a year, what d’you say?”

Slowly she walked out of the room.

Teenkori’s humiliation and remorse went up manifold at night. Harimati shut the door to their room, turned down the lamp and said, “Turn your face the other way.”

“Why?”

“There’s a reason…”

In the darkness she peeled off the torn yardage clinging to her body. With great care she folded it up and carefully she hung it on the clothes rack. She covered herself with the discarded gamchha of her father-in-law and came to bed.

The moment his hand touched Harimati he exclaimed, “What’s this?”

In a grave voice Harimati replied, “Can’t you imagine what will happen to the rag if I sleep in it?

Teenkori started sweating in the depth of the night.

*

At daybreak Teenkori showed up in the school playground. That’s where everyone was to assemble.

Manish was already there, and another 150 villagers. A few elderly women and a handful of girls too were in the crowd. People from the lowly communities of Bagdi, Jele (fisherfolk), Tili, poor peasants from both Hindu and Muslim communities were present. The dearth of clothes and of food did not differentiate on religious grounds.

Before setting out Manish and another young man gave them placards – slogans mounted on bamboo sticks. In English and Bengali, they said more or less the same thing: ‘We want clothes’ ‘Down with hoarders!’ ‘End the Shame of Nudity’ ‘Down with Black Market’ ‘Perish, Profiteers!’

Minutes later they started the march.

Intermittently they bellowed – “We want Saris! We want Dhotis!”

One voice shouted out: “Hoarders!” All others refrained: “Perish! Perish!”

“Down With…”

“Hoarders! Profiteers!”

While crossing the market Teenkori looked at Chhaganlal’s shop. It had yet to open, but along with others who sought to be entertained, Chhaganlal too was crowding the balcony. A sly smile of disdain hung from the corner of his lips. The bright beams of the baby sun shone brightly on the gold chain around his neck, casting an aura around him.

As they kept progressing, four or five other groups from two-three surrounding villages joined them. Their numbers now totalled at five hundred. It took about an hour to reach the city. It was almost eight by then.

Manish with all his men arrived at the bungalow of the District Magistrate. A policeman had joined forces with the watchman at the gate.

“Raise your voices brothers!” Manish urged. Before anyone else could respond Teenkori screamed, “We want cloth!” Everyone else joined in, “We want Cloth! We want Cloth!”

“Profiteers must perish!”

“Stop the black market!”

“Magistrate Sahib, give us justice!”

“We want clothing! Give us cloth!”

The policeman and the durwan barked something in unison. But, just as a river’s song would drown in the roar of the ocean, so too was their command drowned by the “We want clothing!” demand of the crowd.

At that moment District Magistrate Carter was discussing international politics with his wife and daughter. The slogans reached him like the sound of waves breaking on a distant shore.

“What’s that dear? Let me check,” Mrs Carter said.

“The same old story of naked men – they want clothing,” Carter replied.

Mrs Carter parted the green raw silk curtains and peeped outside. Their daughter Joanna came and stood behind her. Beyond the green lawn fenced by rose bushes, beyond the iron gate, a crowd of uncouth, underclad men were clamouring loudly. What were they crying out for? Mrs Carter and her daughter could not comprehend. But the numbers and the loud expression of their want filled them with panic.

“How pitiable!” Mother and daughter both agreed.

Durwan Ram Singh came in and saluted them.

“What is it Ram Singh?” Carter enquired.

“They’re asking for clothes Huzoor!”

“Why here?” Mrs Carter flared up. “Is this a shop for clothes?”

“Father is not a Marwari cloth merchant!” Joanna commented. “Ask them to go to the shop.”

Carter stood up. “Let’s go,” he said, lighting up his pipe.

Mrs Carter stopped him. Her blue blue eyes gleamed from fright. The August of 1942 was still fresh in her mind. “Carry your pistol darling,” she pleaded.

“Yes daddy,” Joanna echoed her, “do take that.”

“Nonsense!” Carter laughed. “People who don’t lift  a finger even when they die of hunger, surely will not kill me for clothings!” He went off laughing.

Mrs Carter wasn’t pleased. These days you can’t trust Indians any more – the’ll go to any limit. What ought she to do? The sound of slogans was gradually rising outside.

“Mom – Mamma!”

“Yes?”

“Call the police please!”

“Right dear. I was also thinking of doing that.”

The sound of the phone being picked up filled the room.

Mr Carter stoutly stood at the gate. His pipe was ceaselessly blowing out the strong smell of tobacco while his other hand was twisting a white kerchief. On either side, stood a policeman and his personal guard, Ram Singh.

The assembly burst out like thunder, “Give us clothings!”

Chup raho, silence!” Mr Carter roared at them. “Tell me peacefully what you want.”

“Clothings – that’s all we want,” they bellowed again. “Just organise that…”

“What?” Carter scanned the faces. “Aye you – come here, HERE…”

Teenkori was at the forefront, he was shouting his lungs out. Carter summoned him. With a high jump Teenkori tried to lose himself among the crowd at the back. Gora Sahib! Englishman!! Magistrate!!! Oh God!

Manish strode forward in his place. Carter scanned him from head to toe and asked, “Are you the leader?”

“I am not a leader, but I will tell you what they are here to tell you.”

“Then say – tell me.” Carter put the pipe back in his mouth.

No good came out of the effort. Meaningless assurance was all Carter could give them – they had to go back with the vague assurance that something would be done. But when? What? No word on that.

Teenkori wasn’t pleased. Walking the distance, shouting at the top of his voice – what result did that yield? They ambled through the city’s thoroughfares for another hour and then dispersed. It was almost 10 by this time.

Teenkori thought to himself, “I should try the city shops, may be I’ll get something within my means.”

But that wasn’t to be either. The black market crafted by profiteers and cheats had created a stock that was not available to anyone who did not have a certificate stating “My Candidate”. And what was available to those privileged was beyond his pocket.

Teenkori returned home empty handed.

*

Pooti was down with fever in the evening. Malaria. She was lying in a delirium, wrapped in a torn quilt.

After lunch, Teenkori went off to the fields with his bullocks. The sight of them brought tears to his eyes – both shrivelled, their ribs showing through their hide, they were unlikely to survive too long. What will be their fate then? Perhaps the Master of their Destiny too has no idea.

Harimati was in a jam. The dishes needed to be washed, there was no water at home, and Pooti was in the clutches of fever. No option but for her to go out.

But draping a piece of cloth doesn’t cover everything. The bulge of the breasts stands out, and the abdomen? That too remains visible.

Of course the pond wasn’t too far. Harimati didn’t go to the one frequented by most of her neighbours. Shame! She chose the one less frequented so that she could be away from human gaze. It had rained plenty in October, the ponds were still overflowing. She only had to reach out.

She’d almost finished washing when someone wolf-whistled right behind her. Startled, Harimati turned around. The good-for-nothing village loafer Avinash was oggling the exposed parts of her body with wolfish eyes.

Harimati tugged at one end of her sari to cover herself but the old wornout fabric gave way.

Ahaha!” Avinash cackled, “you just tore your sari out of shame!”

“I’ll beat you lame, you monkey! Let Pooti’s brother come home from the fields…” Harimati retaliated.

Avinash cackled some more. “Damn all he can do. Why? What wrong have I done? I’ve not embraced you, not said anything indecent to you. I’m only gazing. God has given me eyes, and you have given things to gape at – so I’m looking. What’s wrong?”

Harimati swiftly gathered the vessels, filled up the bucket and took to her way.

Avinash called after her, “You need a sari, and I can get you one. Will you take it? Hear me!”

Harimati broke into a run, “God! Oh God!” she kept repeating.

The entity thus addressed did not reply.

Harimati started howling.

*

Teenkori’s veins were about to burst. “Quiet!” he said, not a word more! Just be quiet.”

Harimati’s wailing gave way to yelling. “Quiet?! What d’you mean, ‘Quiet’? I won’t shut up until you get me a sari.”

“How can I get one? Steal?”

“Do that.”

”All right, that’s what I’ll do.”

Teenkori stomped out of his house. It wasn’t too late at night, in fact they had not had their dinner yet. Only old man Ekkori had finished his dinner and gone to bed after dusk.

He actually went off?!

Harimati wiped off her tears, then went and stood outside. “Where are you?” she called out. “Where have you gone? I beg of you, come back and have your dinner.”

*

Teenkori did not ever come back to dinner.

In the middle of the night he was caught trying to steal a sari in Chhaganlal’s house.

Chhaganlal raised a huge hue and cry and gathered a large crowd. What a lynching Teenkori got! Slaps and kicks and boxing – it left him almost lifeless. The villagers who had gathered felt ashamed and sheepishly went back to their homes. In their heart they could not support Chhaganlal but openly they couldn’t let off Teenkori. All said and done, he had turned into a thief!

At daybreak Chhaganlal’s men took Teenkori all tied up to the police station. In that state he was left in their custody. His misery and despair had dried up his tears. His dejection and gloom made him only want to tear his hair.

*

The news reached Manish around 9 in the morning. “The docile, peaceable Teenkori could not keep a hold of himself!”

A few of the villagers pleaded with him to do something in the matter. Manish felt sorry for Teenkori. He felt it was his duty to do something, he hurried out.

When a man keeps asking for something basic and does not get it, what else can he do? Millions and zillion years of civilisation has taught him otherwise — today, how can he forget all that and accept nudity as normal? And, in terms of law too, how has Teenkori ‘erred’? How can age-old norms hold sway over changed circumstances and dire needs?

Manish went directly to Chhaganlal. He heard him out but refused to acquiesce. “That is not to be Manish Babu. He’s a thief, he ought to be jailed.”

Manish stood up, his eyes raining fire. “Don’t try to give a lesson in right and wrong. For the last time I’m pleading, with folded hands Chhaganlalji. Poor man, the lynching he has suffered has been punishment enough, please don’t send him to jail. If you destroy a family it will not bide well for you. Besides, I can prove that you are responsible for all this.”

Chhaganlal heard Manish speak and pondered over it. He has also been following the political trend, perhaps from afar, out of sheer curiosity, but yes, he has been following the trend. All of a sudden he felt that if the circle of time brings changes in history, when the present rule is over, perhaps he would find himself standing before these very people with folded hands. On that future date, it would not help to have these men as his opponents.

Chhaganlal also stood up. “Okay Manish Babu, I will do as you say, and let go of him. Come.”

Together the two went to the police station.

Not there. Half an hour before they got there, Teenkori had been transferred to the court.

Manish implored and took Chhaganlal with him to the court.

*

On hearing the news old man Ekkori had beseeched his neighbour Tarini and gone to the thana. The infirm, near-blind man had leaned on his walking stick and walked behind Tarini all the way to the police station and faced the policeman. He even met Teenkori. The son did not utter a word, only shed silent tears.

The station officer said, “How can I let him go, tell me? There’s a case filed against him. You better go to Chhaganlal.”

Oldman walked to Chhaganlal’s shop. Chhaganlal had just gone out.

Old man went back home, flopped on the floor and wailed, “I couldn’t, dear girl, I couldn’t bring him home!”

Harimati sat still like a corpse.

Ailing Pooti called out to her from inside, “Boudi I am starving. Give me a handful of puffed rice.”

Harimati made no reply. She went to the kitchen and tried to light a fire. She couldn’t, she just gave up. No fumes rising from the clay oven but her eyes were hurting, flooding with tears.

Harimati could almost see with her eyes that Teenkori had been sentenced to a long imprisonment. In the family that was already in dire straits, there was no one to bring home anything by way of livelihood. An emaciated father-in-law, a baby sister-in-law,  she herself with no capability. She had no mother or father, no brother, no one to fall back on. She had only her husband, now he was gone. Even if she mortgaged all she could, it would not sustain them for long. The nudity would have to come into the open. The hyena eyes would feast on her, the indecent proposals would go up manifold. One man’s adversity emboldens the beast in other men: this is an eternal truth as the history of mankind shows. Many will offer her a bellyful of meal and a cloth to wrap her body in but in lieu she’ll have to lose her all — dignity, home, fidelity.

What good would be such a life?

*

Manish returned at sundown with Teenkori. Yes, he had succeeded in freeing him.

As soon as they drew near Teenkori’s house, they could hear wailing and commotion.

“What’s happening?” Manish wondered. Teenkori couldn’t guess anything, “I know nothing.”

“Maybe they’re lamenting for you.”

“Possible.”

The minute they stepped into the courtyard, they could see Harimati’s semi clad body lying on the floor. Her dead eyes were wide open. She was surrounded by two-three elderly women, some men and a few children. Pooti and Ekkori were on the veranda.

Tarini was also present. He spoke, “She hung herself in the backyard of the Mukharjees. I found her an hour ago, on my way back with the cattle from the fields. Madhu has been dispatched to inform the police.”

Manish was speechless.

Teenkori was swaying.

Blind King Dhritarashtra had cried for a hundred sons – Ekkori was crying more than him for his only daughter-in-law. His weather-beaten face was swamped in tears.

Manish was immersed in thought. Are men and women governed by colonial rulers any better than dogs and wolves? So weak, so helpless, so pitiably helpless! Such tragedy befell them for the want of a piece of rag?! He turned his face away. The wailing, the howling, the half-naked body of Harimati – they were all taunting him, ridiculing his leadership, mocking his manhood.

A savage look had set in Teenkori’s eyes, the sort that descends in the eyes of soldiers when they confront their enemies. Many countless invisible enemies seemed to have aligned against him. His muscles swelled up. A desire to tear those enemies tingled at the tip of his fingers…

No, Teenkori would not cry.

Glossary

Anna — Currency. 1/16 of a rupee.

Gamchha — Coarse cotton cloth used like a towel.

Bou — Wife

Puja — Durga Puja

Boudi — Elder sister-in-law

Mandi — Market

Durwan — Security guard

Nabendu Ghosh’s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

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

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

Categories
Essay

In Praise Of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent journalist and daughter of Bengali writer Nabendu Ghosh, has been a force behind translating Bengali literature and bringing it to the doorstep of those who do not know the language. In this exclusive, she discusses how translations impact the world of literature.

I have often been asked, “Nabendu Ghosh was a literary figure and a screenwriter. How much importance did he place on translation?” Truthfully, because he was a literary person, my father placed a lot of importance on translations which, as he once pointed out, has given us access to almost all the first books in a bevy of Indian languages.

Let me elaborate. Adi Kavi Valmiki, the harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature, composed the original – ‘mool’ – Ramayan long before the first century BC. But Krittibas Ojha’s 15th century rendition in Bengali ‘Panchali’ style is not merely a rewording of the original epic, it gives a description of Bengal’s society and culture in the Middle Ages. It also explores the concept of Bhakti which later contributed to the emergence of Vaishnavism in the Gangetic belt.

This is said to have had a profound impact on the literature of the surrounding region. In Bihar of 16th century Goswami Tulsidas heightened the Bhakti quotient as he retold Ramayan in Hindi, as Ramcharit Manas. The same happened in Orissa. Earlier it had been adapted, with plot twists and thematic adaptations, in the 12th century Tamil Ramavataram; 14th century Telugu Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam; several Kannada versions, starting in 12th century; Ramacharitam in Malayalam; into Marathi also around this time.

My father had inculcated in us this love for multiple languages when I was about ten. As we all sat around after dinner, he would read from these texts – Valmiki’s Ramayan, Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas, The Old Testament from the Bible, Buddhist Jataka Tales, and Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita wherein Mahendra Nath Gupta recounts, word for Bengali word, the conversations and activities of the 19th century Indian mystic. Published in five volumes between 1902 and 1910, this work summing up the life philosophy of Ramkrishna Paramahans through simple anecdotes and parables, has been translated into English and Hindi.

Before that, at the young age of nine, I was also initiated into the crème de la crème of world literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare too – through translations into Bengali. Abridged versions of Crime and Punishment, Mother, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Blue Bird, and Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were published by Deb Sahitya Kutir — among other Bengali publishers — for young readers. Later in life, as a student of English Literature, I realized that our understanding of the ways and woes of our world would be so much poorer if Iliad and Odyssey had remained confined to Greek readers; if Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had not crossed the frontiers of Norway; if Don Quixote were to be read only in the Spanish that Miguel Cervantes wrote in; if The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant only for those raised in French, or if Faust were to be played only to German viewers.

And, talking of viewers: how would the world have known about the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the French Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Polish Andrzej Wajda, the Czech Jiri Menzel, the Argentinian Fernando Solanas, the Turkish Yilmaz Guney, the Chinese Zhang Yimou, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, or our very own Satyajit Ray? Unthinkable, the world of cinema without subtitles in this day and age when Hollywood films come with subtitles in not just English and Hindi – the two official languages of India – but also in its umpteen regional languages to reach viewers in pockets that speak only Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali…

The importance of translation is best exemplified by the Song Offerings. If Rabindranath Tagore had not translated the poems of Gitanjali, Asia would have had to wait longer for its first Nobel Prize. Incidentally the central theme of this work too is devotion – and it is part of UNESCO’s collection of Representative Works. And it is my belief that no other Nobel for literature has come to India because we have not come up with any worthy translation – say, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? At least, not until recent years, nor in a big way.

Also, it is my own experience that only after Me and I — translated from the Bengali original, Aami O Aami by Devottam Sengupta — was published by Hachette India that a major international publishing house got interested in translating Nabendu Ghosh into French.

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That brings me to the frequently asked question: “Why are you translating Nabendu Ghosh rather than publishing his Bengali originals?” The answer takes me back to 1940s when Baba’s Phears Lane was translated into Urdu and published in Lahore. Clearly Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ in Bengali literature then. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee, the thespian who we lost so recently and was a Master in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call) was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans.”

But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Thus, when Bimal Roy – a celluloid star after his meteoric debut with Udayer Pathey ( In the Path of Sunrise, 1943) — left for Bombay in 1950 to make a film for Bombay talkies, Nabendu Ghosh joined his unit. However, in Bombay he found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So, he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.

This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, “There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.” But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screen writing, and even in Bengal people thought of him only as the screen writer of successful films. Small wonder, since he wrote more than eighty scripts, for directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Shakti Samanta, Sushil Mazumdar, among others. Most of them are considered classics of the Indian screen: Sujata, Bandini, Devdas, Parineeta, Aar Paar, Majhli Didi, Teesri Kasam, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khan Dost, Baadbaan, Insaan Jaag Utha, Lal Patthar …

But Baba was saddened that even his colleagues in the filmdom did not know his literary pouring as only a handful were translated into Hindi and none into English. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017), and That Bird Called Happiness (2017). Mistress of Melodies (2020) you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after That Bird Called Happiness. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi/ Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.

But above all, the reason for putting my energy in this art is to take a part of my heritage to the world. Because, as the celebrated Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee said about Nabendu Ghosh, he is a writer who deserves to be read. Allow me to finish with a quote from him as he talked about his senior’s continuing relevance, to readers of Bengali literature and outside.

“Nabendu Da’s use of language was remarkable. He starts one of his stories with the word ‘Bhabchhi / (I’m) Thinking.’ It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of the Buddha — uses a vocabulary that is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam.

“He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! So fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… Exceptional is the only word to describe it.

“And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. His ‘throw’ was such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell.

The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition.

“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengal but worldwide.”

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

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