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.
Exploring the writings of Nabendu Ghosh, his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta shares his life and times and her own journey as a senior journalist, writer and, more recently, a filmmaker.
Mistress of Melodies is a new book, a translation of Nabendu Ghosh’s stories. Ghosh was an eminent Bengali writer and also a major screenwriter from Bollywood, the award-winning director of the iconic Trishagni (The Sandstorm, 1988). This collection edited by his daughter, a senior journalist, translator and writer, Ratnottama Sengupta, brings out the plight of women ranging from the glamorous Gauhar Jaan to the hapless prostitutes and widows — like Fatima who almost gets pushed into the flesh trade for feeding her hungry child. The story on Gauhar Jaan was written originally in English by Nabendu himself. The man did an excellent job in English too though he wrote in Bengali and Hindi mostly. His writing has cinematic clarity.
In 2018, another collection of his short stories That Bird called Happiness was brought out by Sengupta, who with multiple books under her belt, retired as the arts editor of The Times of India and now she is helping the world uncover the richness of the literary lore of Nabendu Ghosh. In this exclusive, she tells us more.
You are the daughter of a very loved writer, screen writer and filmmaker from Bengal, Nabendu Ghosh, along with being an award-winning journalist and film maker. How much did your father influence your choice of career? What impact did his work have on your childhood?
My father did not at all influence my choice of career as a journalist. As a matter of fact, he believed that journalism was literature in hurry. He was happy that his daughter’s name – byline — was appearing every week, often more than once a week, and across India with enviable regularity. But he would often remind me that, in pursuit of this “short-lived glory”, I was neglecting my potentials as a ‘literary writer’ which, he felt, I had in me…
But let me tell you: I would not be what I am today – an editor, translator, curator and director in addition to being a journalist – if I were not born with Nabendu and Kanaklata as my father and mother. Here’s the Why of this statement.
I must have been five or less when I developed the habit of looking attentively at visual images even before I could discern the alphabets. For, even as a baby I would leaf through the books that were everywhere in our house – in the bookshelves, on the tables, on the beds and even under them. Indeed, every night we would remove the books to make our beds and every morning we would put them back there!
Having always been with books, reading stories and images came most naturally to me. And then, there was the dinner table at 2 Pushpa Colony, my home in Mumbai, which was the camp address for not only my cousins and unrelated uncles from Patna and Malda (the two places my parents came from) who were making a career in films, but also that for writers from Bengal and Bihar: Nirendranath Chakraborty, Santosh Ghosh, Samaresh Bose, Phaniswar Nath Renu, Debabrata Mukherjee…
The result? I grew up listening to discussions on literature and cinema – every aspect of it, from cinematography and editing to music and dance. Through them all, I came to appreciate not only the aesthetic aspects of these art forms but also their technical, economic and other social aspects. Through it all, unknown to me, I had become a film and art critic.
Your father moved from Bengal to Patna at the start of his life. Why? Did it impact his choice of career?
My grandfather Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh, a well-known Kirtan singer, was a much-respected advocate who moved from Dhaka to Patna, then a part of the Bengal Presidency, in 1920. Nabendu was then all of four. But every Durga Puja would find them back in Kalatiya village where he started by playing ‘sakhi’ (a woman’s role) and experiencing the rasa of devotion. In his school days itself Nabendu took to writing and soon was part of the editorial team bringing out a handwritten magazine which was popular in the Bengali society of Patna. From his early years he used to save from his tiffin money to watch movies. He was keen about dance and drama and in his college days he regularly performed – even in towns and cities outside Patna. All in all, he was trained in the Arts from his childhood.
And by 1942 he was already a published author. But what determined his ‘career’ as a writer was the Quit India call given by Gandhiji. It led to an incident that changed his life. A large crowd to assemble at the Government offices including that of the IG Police where Nabendu was then a junior. After witnessing the bloodshed unleashed by the British Police, he started writing a novel that labeled him into being identified as a ‘subversive’ writer. Realising that he would not get a respectable job under the imperialist government, he resigned from that job and again, from Military Accounts – and took to writing as a full time occupation and moved to Calcutta.
Why did Nabendu go to Bombay when he was such a successful and loved writer in Bengal?
We are all social creatures, and we do not realise how much our lives are tossed and turned by political events. Take the Partition of India: It bifurcated the state of Bengal, dividing the reader of books and the viewership of films. By 1947, Bengal was the most established film producing centre in India, and as a young, popular and respected writer endowed with a cinematic vision, Nabendu Ghosh was already writing screenplays for a Hollywood-returned director, among others. But both, the publishing sector and Bengali film industry suffered a humongous setback after Partition – especially as the newly formed Pakistan government decided to enforce Urdu as its lingua franca.
So, when faced with tremendous financial hardship, many successful directors moved to Bombay. Legendary director Bimal Roy too was invited by actor Ashok Kumar to make a film for Bombay Talkies, and he invited Nabendu to join the team as a screenwriter. The rest is a historic change of geography: the Bengali writer moved to the shores of the Arabian Sea but did not cease to serve the ‘Bay of Bengal’, as Sunil Gangopadhyay said in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri ( Journey of a Lonesome Boat, Nabendu’s autobiography).
Here, allow me to quote what poet Nirendranath Chakraborty said at the launch of the autobiography: “It was not with any joy that Nabendu Da left for Bombay at the close of 1940s. The times were such that it was difficult for most of us to eke a decent living. He had a family to look after, the family was growing, opportunities were not. If anything, they were getting curbed. Nabendu Da fulfilled all his responsibilities, including to his family, his friends, and to his first love – literature.”
Recently his telling of Gauhar Jaan has been published in Mistress of Melodies, with some of his translated stories. But Gauhar Jaan was written by him in English — and very well written I must say. Why did he write it in English?
Nabendu was always a keen writer, and politically aware. He wanted to major in History but was advised to take up English. So, he did his MA in English – under British teachers. Naturally he had a firm grounding in the language.
In Bombay of 1950s, directors, actors, producers from different corners had converged. And so, although the discussions in Bimal Roy Productions were held in Bengali and Hindi, he wrote the scripts in English and the basic dialogue, though in Hindi, too was penned in Roman alphabet. So English was always his second language.
Besides, Nabendu had written Swar ki Rani or ‘Mistress of Melodies’ as the first draft for a fuller screenplay that he always planned to write – in all probability, for my brother Subhankar Ghosh who is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), directed the successful serial Yugantar (Over the ages) for Doordarshan and Woh Chhokri (That Girl) that won several National Awards.
Why did he not make a film out of Gauhar Jaan? It is an excellent story. Any plans to film it now?
Life is a hard task master. Subhankar too has had to go through several twists and turns. He was in Fiji for some years to teach filmmaking at the Fiji National University. That did not give him the scope to direct the film when Baba penned the first draft. If any opportunity comes along, I am sure that ‘Mistress of Melodies’ will be seen on the silver screen – or streamed on an OTT platform.
Nabendu was into script writing in a big way, especially for Bimal Roy. Can you tell us how they started working together?
After Nabendu moved base to Kolkata, Jahar Roy – the celebrated comedian of the Bengali screen who was like a younger brother to Nabendu since their Patna days – introduced him to Bimal Roy who had shot into national limelight with his very first film, Udayer Pathey (In the Path of Sunrise, 1943). The director, an avid reader, had read most of Nabendu’s writings and had observed that his writing had the “visual quality of a screenplay.” In particular he was highly impressed with the allegorical novel Ajab Nagarer Kahini (Tales of a Curious Land). But at that point B N Sircar of New Theatres was travelling abroad, so the project did not take off.
Meanwhile Mrinal Sen, then only a young associate of my father from Indian People’s Theatre Association, was eager to film it. He came up with a producer who unfortunately ran out of money within a few months and abandoned the project. Nabendu went back to Bimal Roy but he had firmed up his plans to shift to Bombay. All of a sudden, over a cup of tea, he asked Nabendu to join his creative team – and the writer was only too happy to get a new opening in the dismal post-Partition world.
Trishagni was an award-winning film by your father. Tell us how it came about and what made him pick the story?
In 1966 after Bimal Roy passed away, my father had started teaching the Direction students at Film and Television Institute of India as a regular Guest Lecturer. Soon the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) was reborn as National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) – and he became one of the revered members of its Script Committee. To create a bank of screenplays NFDC held a script competition and Nabendu won an award. It was not a cash award: NFDC supported the making of the film by way of equipment, editing, lab cost etc. That script became the award-winning Trishagni, based on a story by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, the Bengali litterateur best known as the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi.
Why this particular story? Being a writer himself, Nabendu would always go to literature for the subject of a film. He maintained that a writer puts in a lot of thought in rooting the character, into creating drama, in layering it with social concern. This gives a sturdiness to the visuals and adds to the fabric of the film which, in tinsel town, otherwise tend to become wishy-washy, and short-lived in their stimulation value. So even for Bimal Roy films he would suggest stories by writers like Subodh Ghosh, Narendranath Mitra, Samaresh Bose. These writers he not only read and respected, he would regularly meet them and often discuss the characters while scripting their stories.
Besides, being from Patna, he was fascinated by Gautama the Buddha whose statues in the museums generated “an inner feeling of content and peace”, he once told me. A prince who renounced every comfort, every pleasure in life in search of a truth, a ‘Bodh’ that would help mankind attain peace in his lifetime: this unique vision drew him to the teachings of Buddha. Then, in Maru O Sangha (The Desert and the Convent) he came across the Agni Upadesh, the sermon that outlined that the world is burning with desire, and our mission in life should be to free ourselves from desires that consume life. Only then we can attain a life of tranquility, endless bliss.
His reverence had inspired Baba to write a novel, Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love, 2007) to mark Buddha’s 2550th year. It derived from the Buddhist text ‘Theri Gatha’ to juxtapose the worldly desires and longings with the exemplary discipline and distilled love of Pippali and Kapilani, two newly-weds who were drawn towards the Sakya Muni and took refuge in him. Eventually Pippali turned into Mahakashyap, a ‘lieutenant’ of the Buddha, and Kapilani headed the ranks of nuns – probably the first convent in the world! This turned out to be Baba’s last published novel (while he lived).
While on his Buddha Trail, let me add that Nabendu had earlier been part of Gotama the Buddha (1956), the Bimal Roy Productions documentary that had won director Rajbans Khanna an Honorable Mention at Cannes.
What was the last film he made? And what was the last book he wrote?
The last film he was to make – on NFDC funding – was Motilal Padre, based on a novel by Kamal Kumar Majumdar. Unfortunately, this remained an unfulfilled dream. So, effectively, he directed three films: Trishagni (1989), Netraheen Sakshi (Blind Witness, 1992) for the Children’s Film Society of India, about a visually challenged boy who could identify a killer by his voice, and Ladkiyaan (Daughters, 1997) for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
This again was part of a scheme that saw the Ministry finance films pertaining to a Girl Child’s education (Kairee by Amol Palekar), childbearing and women’s health in a Muslim family (Hari Bhari by Shyam Benegal), and so on. Ladkiyaan was based on a real-life incident that saw three sisters in Kanpur jointly commit suicide when one night, they heard the father threatening their mother, who had conceived again: “No more girls! I want only a boy.”
His last completed novel is Kadam Kadam (The Long March), which chronicles the story of a young Indian who joins the British Army, is sent to Singapore, taken POW by the Japanese, joins INA and is transformed. He had just completed it when he had to be hospitalized. I published it at the onset of his birth centenary.
He wrote a book for his grandchildren too. Would you like to tell us about it?
Yes, he wrote Aami ar Aami, translated to Me and I, for his two grandsons, Devottam Sengupta and Devraj Nicholas Ghosh. The racy story about a parallel universe fuses human curiosity about outer space, the stars and galaxies, with a futuristic vision emanating from his faith in humans and a ‘Hindu’ vision of the cosmos…
The germ of the story came from Sudheesh Ghatak, the second brother of celebrated director Ritwik Ghatak, whom I remember from my childhood as a fascinating storyteller and a storehouse of knowledge on the developments in science as well as on the ‘Unbelievable’. One day he had talked about the hypothesis of a group of scientists about twin planets in the cosmos. A few weeks later Nabendu, on a visit to Kolkata, was leafing through old books sold on the pavements of College Street, and came across one that referred to twin planets. That spurred his curiosity, and imagination…
My son, Devottam, started translating the book as part of my effort to improve his Bengali. He believes that somewhere the idea grew in my father from watching his two grandsons. When they were kids Dev and Nick — who now lives in UK — were mistaken for twins. At one time my brother was posted in Germany, and his friends would remark how the cousins resembled each other yet were “somewhat different”. This could have fanned his thoughts about the protagonist and his interstellar twin who were ‘identical yet opposite’. In Me and I, Mukul (which, incidentally, was my father’s pet name) and Lukum “mirror, in a modified way, our experiences of growing up as two brothers separated by what in 1980s was several thousand miles of culture – experiences, of what we were exposed to and how we were brought up in our thinking,” Devottam wrote in his translator’s note.
What do you feel when you translate Nabendu’s work?
You have taken the words out of my mouth. Actually, translating Nabendu Ghosh has been a BIG lesson in creative writing. His stories are rooted in the soil, yet not homilies on traditional lives. They are about the lives impacted by social and political twists that tossed people not only across the Radcliffe Line but from Bengal to Bombay, Madras (now Chennai) to the Himalayas, from villages to the industrialising cities, the lost world of Lucknow’s nawabs to the Bengal heightened by World War II, to the dreamland of Bollywood and the upper crust families homed in Park Street.
Layering a character with socio-political reality makes them both universal and timeless, I learnt as I tried to translate these stories. There’s always a tomorrow to live for, I learnt from them. The more direct your sentence is, the more crisply is the emotion conveyed, I learnt from his sentences. The shorter the sentence is, the more it compels you to walk ahead with the characters into their lives. And, of course, from his use of language I learnt that every word we utter is a reflection of my time, my mood, my upbringing. As Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay said, Nabendu Ghosh is a writer who should be read by every aspiring writer for his grasp over the art of storytelling.
Tell us what was the perception about his writing and its impact on his peers and writers who came after him?
When Nabendu entered the frame, the towering personality of Rabindranath Tagore was no longer on the scene. There were the three Bandopadhyays – Tarashankar, Manik and Bibhuti Bhushan. The three ‘N’s – Narayan Gangopadhyay, Narendranath Mitra and Nabendu Ghosh joined them at this juncture, each with a definite voice and constituency.
On his 90th birthday, litterateur-journalist Dibyendu Palit wrote: “Nabendu Ghosh is among those frontrunners of the post-Kallol era Bengali literature who amazed with the power of their pen. His subjects were rooted in realism, his language was seeking new expressions in aesthetics. His Ajab Nagarer Kahini, Phears Lane, Daak Diye Jaai are memorable creations in the language…”
Sunil Gangopadhyay summed for the Indian PEN Society, what he wrote in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri: “Your devotion to Bengali literature and your creativity in the language is a matter of great joy for us.”
Last year Shirshendu Mukherjee, speaking at a celebration of Nabendu’s birth anniversary at Starmark said, “Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ among those writing in1940-1950s. He lived a long life — he passed away when he was nearing 91 — and almost until he went away, he was writing. My attraction for his work was formed when I was a teenager reading world literature. There were two names I admired very much Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952); and Austrian Stefen Zweig (1881-1942), the most popular novelist of his time. Anyone who read him can’t forget his style of writing. In my view, Nabendu Ghosh shared his trait of riveting storytelling with Zweig. 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. This I can say without exhausting the considerable list of his writings — 28 novels, 18 anthologies of short stories.”
Shirshendu also talked about Nabendu’s remarkable use of language. “One of his stories starts with a word, “Bhabchhi — (I’m) Thinking.” It is a single word that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a paragraph in itself. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Even some doyens of Bengali literature did not accept to set out on this adventure. 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 has to be done – this tinkering with structure, altering of syntax, or adding to the vocabulary. Words from so many languages — Arabic and Persian and English – have filtered in and become a part of the Mother Language as we speak it today.
“Nabendu was always pushing the boundaries of the language – but he had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter: he never overdid it. 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 Buddha — uses language that is closer to Prakrit, in that it is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam. He always put a lot of thought into how the characters would speak. This added to the readability of his stories and quickened the pace of the narrative. They were all so racy!
“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 Bengali but worldwide.”
Speaking at the launch of Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (Chosen Stories of Nabendu Ghosh, stories translated to Hindi) the recently demised thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, a Master in Bengali Literature, had said: “Even before I took to studying Bengali literature, even when I was in school, Daak Diye Jai (The Call) was a sensation. His writing was not confined to urban settings and city life, he wrote of the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans too.”
And when his last birthday was being publicly celebrated at the Palladian Lounge in Kolkata, an MA student of Rabindra Bharati University, Saswati Saha had said, “This bright star of contemporary Bengali literature has riveted me with the quiet aesthetics and deep realizations that are germane to his novels. I am a young reader of his art but both Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha and Jibaner Swad (The Taste of Life), both published in 2007, have increased my appetite for his writings. With the alluring simplicity of his language and unhurried descriptions he unfolds harsh realities. Had I not read Nabendu Ghosh, I would have remained ignorant of a large tract of life experience.”
You yourself have made a directorial debut on the life and works of your father. Did that help you understand him better? How did the film do?
And They Made Classics… was made to celebrate his Birth Centenary in 2007 but the interview it came out of was recorded by Joy Bimal Roy and Aparajita Sinha – son and daughter of Bimal Roy when they set out to make Remembering Bimal Roy in his 100th year. ATMC… spoke primarily about the classics of Nabendu scripted for the legendary director. It is a lesson in film appreciation and also in a certain way, about the art of making films in a given social circumstance – in the face of all odds. It seasoned me as a film analyst, really.
Of course, what has given me a greater insight into his life and times is Eka Naukar Jatri, the autobiography that was first serialized by Dibyendu Palit as the editor of Sangbad Pratidin (News Everyday) then fleshed out by the writer for Dey’s Publication. Now, while translating it for Speaking Tiger, it lifts the curtain on how he became a litterateur, virtually chronicling 1940s, the founding decade of our nation. This was a decade that was ushering the future in tumultuous colours and fiery alphabets. Just think of the march of the dead this decade saw: people dying on the streets of Calcutta while the British government was sending away rice to the theatre of war in the North East; people dying in poisonous chemical vapour unleashed through Europe; lives lost in Japan when a new atomic toy was dropped from the air – and later, repeatedly in the Pacific Islands, when millions suddenly were tossed into an identity crisis and an ensuing bloodbath by the Radcliffe Line…
I now understand that he was constantly bothered by questions such as “Is this the new era, the age of Deliverance to be ushered by the mythical avatar, Kalki? Or will this flow of blood and the wails of mothers be lost in the dust? Will the world be green again?” I now understand why the Lifetime Achievement Award citation of Bengal’s literary council, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad reads: “Time and again the strange ironies and mysteries of history have lit up your questioning mind. At the centre of history is Man. History is the conveyor belt that leads Man from past to present, sometimes with affection, mostly through rough and tumble. History never stands still through conflicting turns of events it makes way ahead. You made history stand still in your pages…”
You have written a number of books and translated extensively. What is the difference between your father’s writing and yours? Of course, you are an eminent journalist, and he was a creative writer. He wrote in Bengali and Hindi mainly. And you write in English. But, other than that do you find any similarity in the way you tell a story? Has he impacted your style?
Now you must bear with me as I talk about myself!
I am what I am as a writer because I was born in the household of Nabendu Ghosh – and here I am not talking of DNA or of dynastic inheritance. As I have said before, our house was full of books and I grew up leafing through them even when I didn’t know whether they were in English, Bengali or Hindi. I had a lovely childhood reading Bengali ‘kishore sahitya’ – literature for young readers – as much as Enid Blyton, Mark Twain, Phantom and Amar Chitra Katha comics. At BES School in Dadar, we annually celebrated Saraswati Puja by ‘publishing’ a handwritten magazine of stories and essays by the students – and that was my haatey khari — initiation as a writer. Here too, I would discuss a story idea and my father would tell me how the characters would think or act, never how to write, what language to use or how to structure the story.
Perhaps that is why, although I scored the highest in our school when I matriculated in 1971, securing in 96 and 97 in Science and Math, I joined Elphinstone College, then celebrated for its Arts stream and Mastered in English and American literature, with the added advantage of fluidly moving from English to Bengali and Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. In other words, through Indian literary traditions as much as the wealth of world literature. That helped me to decide that I will make life either as a journalist or in academics, careers that would see me read and write every day.
It so happened that in 1978, when I returned from England after eight long months of holiday with my brother Dipankar, I applied for two jobs: a trainee sub-editor at Indian Express, and lecturer at the National College in Bandra – both at the instance of my friend Imran Merchant, erstwhile Editor of TV World. As life would have it, I got appointment letters from both, first from the daily, and a month later, from the college. I didn’t know which way to go, so I went to Ms Homai Shroff, then the head of the department for English in Elphinstone. When I told her my dilemma, she retorted: “What! You are already in journalism, and you want to move to academics? Don’t be stupid!” That decided it…
But let me add that eventually I did get to teach as well. Although for a short term, I was guest lecturer at Delhi University’s Kalindi College; I taught young entrants at the Times School of Journalism; I have been Mentor to Mass Com students at Lady Shriram College…
Journalism carried my name to virtually every corner of India. It gave me an opportunity to travel across the globe. It brought me into contact with the biggest names in the world of Arts – painting, music, dance, theatre, literature and of course cinema. All this made Baba happy and quietly proud. But he nursed one objection: “Journalism is short lived and mostly goes into highlighting other people’s achievement. In doing all this, you are expending your time and literary energy. Turn your attention to your own creative writing,” he would urge.
Similarity of style? I don’t think so since we were doing very different kind of writing. But impact, yes, and I have already said how.
What are your future plans? With translations? Films? Your own writing?
All of them. I plan to keep translating, and not just my father’s work. God willing, I will certainly make a few more films. I am halfway through Menaka to Mallika, a documentary study of dance in Hindi films. I hope to make a short feature on trafficking and a full length one on a father-daughter story. As for my own writing, there are talks of publishing them. Ambitious? Perhaps. But like my father I would like to read and write till the last day life grants me.
This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.
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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.