Aruna Chakravarti is a formidable storyteller. Her collection of short stories Through a Looking Glass reflects images from different periods of time and walks of life. Recounted with a compelling realism, these are characters from daily life, primarily women, that Chakravarti might have encountered or read about. She draws out in each, the woman’s inner cry of anguish and despair.
A keen observer of life, with an ability to discern the complex nuances in human relationships, Chakravarti’sstories are riveting. They reveal the continuing vulnerability of women even as they find their inner strength and voice to overcome age old prejudice and gender stereotype.
Chakravarti began her literary career as a translator into English from Bengali, first of Tagore’s song poems and then select writings of giants of Bengali literature like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay which earned her the Sahitya Akademi award and much recognition. In the process, she absorbed the vocabulary, cultural nuances and colloquialism of Bengal’s rural life so thoroughly that in her own works of fiction such as Inheritors or Suralakshmi Villa her descriptive imagery of rural Bengal, conversation among villagers and depiction of poverty in village life acquire a rare authenticity remarkable for an author who has never lived in Bengal.
Her hugely successful translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay in First Light and Those Days introduced Chakravarti to a new genre of literature where narratives of famous personalities in a historical time frame are woven together in a rich tapestry of storytelling. Aruna ventured into historical fiction with her Jorasanko and more recently with Mendicant Prince. In all her writings, the woman’s voice remains paramount to the extent that in her Daughters of Jorasanko the key figure of Rabindranath Tagore remains conspicuously absent as with an author’s imagination she pieces together the little known details in the lives of the women of the Jorasanko household.
Through a Looking Glass is an attractive and compact production containing nine short stories. ‘Mobile Mataji’, added from Chakravarti’s previous collection, describes superstition ridden rural Bengal where barren couples turn to a spurious god woman rather than seek medical advice. Cases of sexual treachery and forcible impregnation still figure in newspaper reports and Aruna’s story chillingly conveys the grim reality of woman’s vulnerability. The contrast between the inner strength of widow ‘Satwant chachi’, who stoically raises her children and then experiences a sense of liberation once they are out of her hands is contrasted sharply with the weakness of her landlord who on his wife’s sudden death realises rather pathetically that he cannot live another moment without a woman. Incest within close families born from sexual inadequacies within marriages, which are never talked about or addressed, figures in several of these stories. However, her punchline in many of these stories is how after years of suffering in silence women can reinvent themselves and resist their destinies.
The characters in Aruna’s stories are drawn from diverse backgrounds and timelines battling their own conundrums and prejudices. In ‘Second Sight’, the Scottish missionary in Srirampur Bengal spreads the inclusive teachings of Christ and yet is ironically unable to accept his brown skinned native convert socially in marriage. The hapless plight of the Anglo Indians searching for an identity of their own is showcased powerfully. ‘Crooked House’, “a tall narrow house with two chimneys standing high on a hill beside the sea”, is the tale of a family in Goa at the turn of the century narrated by a girl who worked there. It is a tale of lovely women, ballad evenings with sailormen, sex, romance, marriage and family jealousy ending in violence, displacement and poverty. The story ‘From an Upstairs Window’ reads like a play where a woman’s plunge to her fall, is seen from different points of view – of the suffering wife, the jealous husband, the lover, and the helpless mother-in-law. In the end the wife recovers from her fall which leaves her an invalid for life, the lover moves on to another life, the mother-in-law is remorseful but the possessive husband is smug in the realisation that his wife can now be his alone.
Many of Chakravarti’s stories are in the form of flashbacks from imagined encounters after decades with protagonists known early in life sparking off an exploration into the past. The storyteller is inevitably a distanced observer whose life has taken a different path although curiosity to unravel family mysteries trapped in the innocence of childhood draws the author’s pen to write vignettes with empathy.
The author has an easy, flowing prose style with graphic description of the settings in which she places her stories. Her pictorial portrayal of characters helps to paint their image firmly in the minds of her readers. Take for instance her description of Mandeep in her story ‘Satwant Chachi’ (p 41):
“Words fail me when I try to describe Mandy. I’ve tried and tried but nothing I say can capture it all. She was a tall girl, very thin, with a long face as keen and eager as a greyhound’s. An amazingly attractive face! What was most striking about it was its mobility. It was as though her features hadn’t been set in a mould but left to ripple and flow at will. Her mouth looked full and smooth one moment and like crushed velvet the next. Her eyebrows danced as she laughed and talked; her nostrils quivered – the tiny diamond in one winking wickedly. Her long shining plait, with the pink and green pompom at its end, flailed up and down her tall, narrow back with every toss of her head, and the earrings that came down, almost to her shoulders, rang like wind chimes. Even her bindi flashed and sparkled on her shining brown forehead as though it had a life and will of its own.”
Reba Som is an author and academic. She was the recipient of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 2000–02 and the founder director of the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, ICCR, Kolkata, from 2008 to 2013. Her publications include Gandhi, Bose, Nehru and the Making of the Modern Indian Mind (Penguin 2004), Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (Penguin, 2009) and Margot: Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda (Penguin Random House, 2017). She is also a trained singer of Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti.
Ratnottama Senguptagives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four ActsbyRitu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click here to read.
At the stroke of midnight, on 14th-15th August, 1947, the colonials handed the Indian subcontinent back to the indigenous population — but they did not leave it as they had found it. They made changes: some reforms and alterations, like the introduction of railways helped the subcontinent move towards a better future once the plundering of raw materials and the transport of British mill cloth halted. However, the major change which continues to create conflicts in the sub-continent to date was the Partition on the basis of religions. This was initiated by the colonial policy of divide and rule, which came into play post the revolt of 1857 and is often perpetrated still by the local inheritors of the colonies. Was it justified and does the packaging by the colonials have to be given credence so that the progeny of the ruled keep othering and thinking of differences?
To help you find answers, we bring to you writings about the days of the Raj like Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, where the colonials try to deprive a state of its rightful ruler to fill their own coffers, and Premchand’s Pus ki Raat (A Frigid Winter Night) that reflects the sorry state of peasantry under the Raj. Prince or pauper — both suffered. Voices that pleaded for secularism, like that of Nazrul, Tagore or Gandhi remained unheard by those who drew the lines of division. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review: “On his way to Noakhali and in the face of the large-scale massacre, to the question ‘Will Partition Change Us Forever?’ Mahatma Gandhi replied: ‘I have seen more of history than anyone of you, and I tell you that I have known Hindu boys who called Muslims ‘uncle’. Hindus and Muslims used to participate in each other’s festivals and other auspicious occasions.’”
And perhaps this is borne out from the life of Zohra Sehgal, a legendary dancer as reflected by the essay written by Ratnottama Sengupta, based on Ritu Menon’sZohra: A Biography in Four Actsand her own interactions with the aging performer. Along with these, we have the voices from the present like that of G Venkatesh who finds that the borders may not be what the indigenous population had wanted and Aysha Baqir’s narrative reflecting on the darker aspects of life in the sub-continent.
Aruna Chakravarti unfolds through the life of a prince in pre-independence era in her latest novel,The Mendicant Prince, based on the prince of Bhawal controversy in the first part of the last century. Click here to read.
Aruna Chakravarti reveals how she wove a historic novel, The Mendicant Prince(Published by Picador India, 2022), from a controversial court case that took place in the early twentieth century and created ripples through not just Bengal but the whole country and even England.
Perhaps we can call her the queen of historical fiction or an author inspired by history, but Aruna Chakravarti, an eminent award-winning Anglophone writer, evokes the past of a united Bengal – long before the Partition along religious lines in 1947 — repeatedly giving us a glimpse of an age where culture superseded beliefs. She recreates a period where we can see the seeds of the present sowed. In her last novel, Suralakshmi Villa (2020), she gave a purely fictitious account of a woman who pioneered changes in a timeframe that dates back to more than a century. Before that in the Jorasanko novels (2013, 2016), she brought to life the Tagore family history. By then, she had written her own family history set in the same period called The Inheritors (2004), which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Award. Perhaps, her grounding comes from having translated Sunil Gangopadhyay’sFirst Light and Those Days, both novels set around the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She also won the Sahitya Akademi Award for translating Sarat Chandra’sSrikanta, a novel again set in a similar timeframe. She started her journey as a writer translating Tagore songs for which she won the Vaitalik award. Perhaps, this grounding has made her what she is today – a powerful re-creator of history where the characters come to life. You emote and react to their statements and on their actions. Her narrative carries you with it.
Her novel based on the real story of the Bhawal Prince which was launched last month, gives a clear glimpse of the event with historical accuracy. The Bhawal prince turned mendicant after losing his memory in 1909 in Darjeeling. He was recovering from a bout of syphilis. He fell prey to intrigue and might have been poisoned. The prince was abandoned as a corpse during his cremation and yet he survived …and then, twelve years later, he returned — having travelled through much of the country with a band of Naga sadhus — to claim his rightful place. Swapan Dasgupta, a journalist turned politician, wrote when he thought of the Bhawal case, the “Dreyfus affair in late 19th century France, the John F. Kennedy assassination in the US and the James Hanratty case in Britain are ones that come readily to mind.” He was reviewing an earlier historical narrative written by Partha Chatterjee(2002) called A Princely Imposter?, which Chakravarti tells us she has used as a resource.
Set against the independence movement and colonial era, she has painted a man, who though flawed, gains the sympathy and wins the heart of the reader. The writing is fluid and evocative. Given that the trial lasted for more than sixteen years, and his first wife and her family refused to acknowledge the prodigal prince, the story has been made into films multiple times, once Sanyasi Raja(Bengali, Mendicant Prince, 1975), the second time, a remake in Telugu Raja Ramesh (1977) and more recently somewhat anachronistic, a movie called, Ek je Chhilo Raja (There was a King, 2018). The Mendicant Princedeparts from the films in being a stickler for the period, the historicity and brings to fore events and nuances the author researched by interviewing surviving Bhawal family relatives. What is amazing is the way in which Chakravarti has fleshed out each character to make the persona real, to the point where, as in her earlier Jorasanko novels, the reader can visualise them. Aruna Chakravarti’s strength is definitely her mastery over the language and her ability to breathe life into the past.
In this interview, Aruna Chakravarti tells us how she has woven the novel into the timeframe and created a novel based on history – an excellent lesson for aspiring writers of historical fiction from the empress of the genre herself.
What moved you to write a novel on the Prince of Bhawal?
I first heard of the Bhawal case in 1950 when I was about ten years old. The time was the aftermath of Indian Independence and Partition when many Hindus from Pakistan were relocating in India. A family from East Bengal came to live in the government quarter next to ours and became very friendly with us. One of its members, we called him Uncle, was an excellent story teller and regaled us with many tales.
One was about a legal case concerning a prince turned sannyasi [mendicant] then prince again. It had taken place in Bhawal, a principality in present day Bangladesh. The case was still fresh in his memory. The Privy Council verdict had been announced as recently as July 1946 and it was natural for him, still nostalgic for the land he had left behind, to wish to talk about it. I was so mesmerised by the tale that it stayed with me for decades afterwards.
I never thought of writing about it till recently, when some friends distantly related to the royal family urged me to. ‘You havealready done two novels on the Tagores so why not the Bhawals?’ I didn’t take to the idea easily. It seemed too big and complex a project. Then, during the Covid years, in the state of incarceration we all found ourselves, I started thinking seriously about it. But I was constantly beset with anxiety. ‘Would I be able to pull off sucha delicate operation?’ A meticulous adherence to the facts together with dates was called for since these were already out in the public domain. There was no way I could take liberties with them. A reconstruction of the life and times of the concerned people, within these limits, called for tremendous imaginative power and an equal amount of discipline and concentration. Covid worked in my favour. In the complete silence and absence of activity; in the total encapsulation of self by the mind; I found myself getting slowly entrenched in the world I was creating. A world of queens and mistresses, liaisons and stratagems, faith and betrayal and a desperate British imperialism slowly eroding under the pressure of an awakening nationalism.
It seems amazing to me now. But it worked.
What kind of research went into it? Did you travel to Jaidevpur?
No. That was one of the hurdles Covid put in my way. For all my other novels I have made it a point to do an extensive amount of field work. This time, travel being rendered impossible, I had to depend entirely on secondary sources. My chief source was Dr Partha Chatterjee’s book A Princely Imposter? It contained a treasure trove of information. Articles in Bangladeshi journals of which there was quite a significant number and other books, both English and Bengali, fiction and non-fiction, helped me to understand and visualise the context in which the drama had unfolded. The two films Sanyasi Raja and Ek je Chhilo Raja also offered a few glimmerings. These, however, were negligible. What came in truly useful was the first-hand research I had done for my earlier work such as my translations and other novels. As also the conversations I had with some distant relatives and family friends of the Bhawals.
How much of your story is fact and how much is fiction?
This question, invariably put to me in the context of my creative writing, is difficult to answer since it is impossible to put a quantum to either. All I can say is that the events the reader is taken through in The Mendicant Prince are historically accurate and documented. But the book is not history. It is a novel; an imaginative reconstruction of a prominent legal case fought in the dwindling twilight of British India. The fictional element travels beyond the case to the lives of the people it affected, particularly the women of the family. Nothing much is known about these women so I have had to give them backgrounds and contexts; personalities and distinguishing characteristics that are wholly imagined.
It is true that you have woven history and fiction meticulously and seamlessly in the book. In creating the ambience of the period, you have touched on prevalent myths such as the education of a woman results in her widowhood. You have also mentioned bedes and kheersapati mangoes. Were these actually part of what you found in the Bhawal story? Or is it something you introduced? If so, what was the intention?
No. They had nothing to do with the Bhawal case. These details were provided to intensify the ambience; to make the world of early twentieth century Bengal come dynamically alive. Reformers like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore had advocated education for women. But the idea was fiercely resisted by the conservative section of Bengali society. Many clung to an age-old belief that educated women were liable to become widows. It was natural for Rani Bilasmoni [the prince’s mother], with her disdain for education even for her sons, to hold such a belief. In terms of the novel, this is a distinguishing trait of her character and brings into focus Bibhavati’s difficulties with her mother-in-law and her alienation in her husband’s home.
Pannalal Basu’s preference for kheersapati mangoes, along with other fictional details about his nature and tastes, takes him out of the realm of history and gives him a personality and voice. The presence of bedes at the river bank, just before the monsoon sets in, is a regular feature of the riverine culture of East Bengal, now Bangladesh. The addition of this detail enhances authenticity. In this case it provides a bit of dramatic irony as well. The band is travelling to Bhawal. Bhawal which has been the central focus of Pannalal Basu’s life for over six years…
You discussed the story with a relative of the royal family. What kind of interview did you have with him? Please share with us.
Actually I spoke to several members of the family. None of them are directly connected to the royal line. The person with whom I interacted most closely is the grand-nephew of the bara rani [the eldest queen], Sarajubala Debi. It was not a structured interview. Some family gossip and reminiscences, were shared, from time to time. That, too, mainly in connection with the bara rani. Among the bits of information I gathered, was the bricked over Bhawal vaults, filled with gold vessels, which ran across one entire wall of a room in the palace. Another was the conversation in which Bibhavati tells Sarajubala about the aridity of her sex life. I also came to know that the mejo kumar’s [second prince’s] second marriage was arranged by Sarajubala and that she had initial doubts about its suitability since Dhara Debi was small and slight and the mejo kumar very tall and hefty.
Your characters, each one are very well drawn, and the narrative makes readers travel back in time. How do you manage this? How do you gauge the reactions of the characters?
It is difficult to answer this. It has, I suppose, to do with instinct and the ability to internalise. In a historical novel, characters are conceived within a factual framework to begin with, then internalised and allowed to evolve through the course of the novel. The process is not planned. There is no strategy involved. It flows naturally and spontaneously. Not only the characters… the world that the author is recreating expands and grows in depth and richness as one goes along. Gradually it pervades one’s whole consciousness. So much so that sometimes one is not even aware of where fact ended and the imagination took over. I find myself in this state of confusion quite often. Did I read or hear about this somewhere, I’m often caught wondering, or did I imagine it?
Some women in your Jorasanko and Suralakshmi Villa are path breakers. But in The Mendicant Prince, they are more within the stream of history. Was this a conscious call or was it the circumstances? Please elaborate.
Suralakshmi Villa was pure fiction and I wanted to project a certain kind of woman as the central character. A woman who is far ahead of the times in which she lives; who breaks stereotypes and lives on her own terms; who dismisses societal expectations without giving it a second thought. A complex, enigmatic character whom people find difficult to understand, even a century later.
In Jorasanko, some of the characters were indeed path breakers. Digambari forbade her husband entry into his own home because, in her opinion he had strayed from the moral path. Jogmaya refused to obey her brother-in-law’s diktat that his entire family embrace the Brahmo faith, resulting in the rift that divided the Tagores into the Hindu branch and the Brahmo branch. Tripurasundari refused to give up her husband’s property. Jnanadanandini introduced many changes in the way the women of the household lived. These were real people and their actions are documented facts. There were no such progressive women in the Bhawal family. So how could I present them as path breakers?
The Bhawal case had been a mystery for a long time and no one knew why the prince’s first wife, Bibhavati, refused to recognise him. Have you figured that one out? Do you have an opinion on it?
No one knows the truth. Bibhavati’s insistence that the sanyasi was not her husband has left people baffled to this day. The case was fought many years after the alleged death and cremation of the prince and the verdicts given were based mostly on circumstantial evidence. I have tried to rationalise her stance and find a cause for it. This is where the fictional element comes in. It lies in the kind of person Bibhavati is and her relationship with her brother. In terms of the novel, I mean. Nothing has been made very explicit. But there are hints. I’m hoping readers will be able to figure it out for themselves.
You have written historical novels before this one. You have dealt with the Tagore family ancestry and your own. How different was working on this novel?
The difference was that this one dealt with a court case the details of which were already out in the public domain. There was very little known about the Tagore women and my own family of course. For the latter, I had to depend on what I had heard from family members, which was very little. For the Tagore women project I gleaned titbits of information from their own writing, biographies of Rabindranath, and Rabindranath’s autobiographical writing. The facts being few and far between the imagination was allowed full play.
Writing The Mendicant Prince was a different proposition altogether. The facts were well known. What could I add to them to justify a new work? And then an idea came to me. How would it be if I were to bring to the fore the women of the family who were strongly affected by what was happening but about whom nothing is known? They were only names in the drama that was unfolding around them. I could flesh out these women, give them thoughts, emotions, aspirations and distinguishing characteristics. This component would be pure fiction. As a result, the book came to be structured on two levels. It is an authentic record of the Bhawal case supported by documents like letters, diary entries, newspaper cuttings, legal papers and case histories. But the account is interspersed with the personal revelations of the women of the family. Gradually the musings of a few other characters were added. The District Judge and some of the subjects were also given a voice.
Do you have another book on the cards? What should we look forward from you next?
A collection of stories titled Through a looking glass: Stories is scheduled for publication by Om International. It should be in the market in a few months. There are nine stories showcasing women from across the spectrum of Indian society. Though coming from diverse religions and provincial cultures, they are all trapped in the tradition of silence which is the woman’s lot. Each has a secret space within her with a hidden story.
This narrative is written by a youngster from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. Lockdown had been written in Hindustani by Jishan and translated to English by Grace M Sukanya. Click here to read.
And as the world came to be, there was war — war that seems to rage in some part of the world or other. The British Museum has an exhibit which states the first battle was staged 13,000 years ago… in what is now Sudan, long before the advent of written history. This was even before the advent of people who built the ancient Stonehenge which was constructed around 3000-2000 BCE. And battles still continue to rage. The Jebel Sahaba casualties in Sudan 13000 years ago were less than 100. But the current conflicts claim in terms of tens of thousands which prolonged could stretch to millions. The last world war (1939-1945) which lasted for six years had a total of 75-80 million persons who perished. Ukraine-Russia conflict has within five months had a casualty count of more than 14000. And yet weapons and nuclear arms continue to proliferate decimating humanity, nature and towns, destroying homes, erasing ruthlessly and creating more refugees. The only need for such battles seem to be to satiate the hunger of the warlords secure in their impenetrable fortresses while tens of thousands are annihilated and natural or nurtured landscapes lie emaciated, mutilated and polluted.
What would be a good way of ending such wars?
Tagore sought the development of better instincts in humankind as an antidote. He wrote in the last century: “Any teaching concerning man must have human nature for its chief element. How far it will harmonise with human nature is a matter of time.”
With wars getting deadlier and more horrific, we can only try to awaken, as Tagore suggests, the better nature in man to move towards a peaceful world. What would be a more effective way of doing it than writing with the hope of a kinder and accepting future?
For that let us start with translations of the maestro Tagore himself. We have a song about the season — monsoon, ‘Monomor Megher Songi (My Friends, the Clouds)’, translated by Professor Fakrul Alam, a painting by Sohana Manzoor interpreting the lyrics and a transcreation of ‘Nababarsha or New Rains’ was shrunken into a popular Rabindra Sangeet and reduced to twenty lines in English by Tagore himself. The connect with nature is an important aspect that enables humans to transcend petty concerns leading to dissensions of different kinds as evidenced in the maestro’s humorous feline skit, translated by Somdatta Mandal. A translation of Dalip Kaur Tiwana’s ‘The Bus Conductor’ from Punjabi by C. Christine Fair adds zest to this section. Fazal Baloch has translated a folktale from Balochistan involving the supernatural and Ihlwha Choi has taken on the cry for peace on behalf of Ukraine while translating his own poem in Korean. The Nithari column has a story by Jishan in Hindustani, translated to English by Grace M Sukanya, showcasing the struggle of a youngster during the pandemic – rather a sad narrative, which though fictitious has its roots in reality.
Our short story section has echoes of humour around felines by Manzoor, somewhat in tune with the mind frame seen in Tagore’s skit on this issue. Humour rings tinged with an apparition in Erwin Coombs’s narrative – should one call it dark humour or is it just his style? Paul Mirabile goes for gothic darkness in his meanderings around Italy.
Strangely, we seem to have a focus on short stories this time. Keith Lyons has interviewed Steve Carr, a journalist, a publisher and writer of 500 short stories who is questing to create a ‘perfect short story’. Reading out excerpts from her short story at a literary festival in Simla, Bollywood celebrity, Deepti Naval, was in conversation with eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Sengupta. She spoke of her literary aspirations while unveiling her autobiography in verse, A Country Called Childhood. This conversation has been shared by Sengupta with Borderless. It is interesting to see how Naval’s reactions to social malaise contrasts with that of the film director, cinematographer and actor, Goutam Ghose, who was present during the unveiling of her book. He had responded to communal violence by making a film on Lalan Fakir extolling virtues of love and kindness, called Moner Manush (2010) and then made a book on the film called, The Quest (2013) which has beautiful translations of Lalan Fakir’s lyrics by Sankar Sen.
Our non-fiction sections seem to be hosting multiple travel stories across UK by Mike Smith, along the Australian coastline by Meredith Stephens, on the Himalayas with Ravi Shankar and an unusual visit by Hema Ravi to a farm in US where animals that had been used in Disney films in the past are homed. Our environmental columnist, Kenny Peavy, actually wrote about his cycling trip from Thailand to Indonesia on a bamboo cycle made by a Singaporean! And from Japan, Suzanne Kamata explored a museum in the neighbouring town of Mure. The museum on a hill hosts the art of American Japanese Artists, Isamu Noguchi.
We do have non-fiction that moves away from travel: noir humour by Devraj Singh Kalsi and an essay by Candice Louisa Daquin on a very interesting subject – ‘Is it Okay to be Ordinary?’ Is it? Dan Meloche has written a literary essay on Canadian novelist Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel, Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue(2015). While Meloche spoke of how the novel departed from Orwell’s Animal Farm, his narrative brought to my mind a novel closer to our times set in England by Jasper Fforde called Constant Rabbit (2020) – this a science fiction while Alexis’s was an apologue or an animal fable. Fforde did use the rabbits rather well to highlight the current times.
We have book excerpts of two recent books that I would call really outstanding. One of them is Aruna Chakravarti’s The Mendicant Prince, which is being released this week, and is based on the evergreen contentious case of the prince of Bhawal that has even been explored even in cinema. The other, Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumarby Nabendu Ghosh, has been published posthumously and is not a translation from Bengali but written in English originally by this trilingual writer.
Called ‘Dadamoni’ affectionately, iconic actor Ashok Kumar is regarded as “the one personality who symbolises Indian cinema’s journey from Bombay Talkies to Bollywood”. This book has been reviewed by Indrashish Banerjee, who calls it ‘a reflection on the Hindi film industry’ as well as a biography. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Booker winner Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of her Hindi novel by Nita Kumar, reiterating the dialogue that had been kindled on motherhood last month by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao’s The Oldest Love Story (2022). Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Prosanta Chakrabarty’s Explaining Life Through Evolutionplotting how life evolved on earth. Parichha tells us: “Meaningful, wide-ranging and argumentative, this is a must-read book. It will propel us to imagine and reimagine life around us.” Another book that sounds like a must-read has been reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road, translated by Mandal. She tells us: “ ‘Gleanings’ represents the quintessential Tagore…Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.”
There is more to tempt. Please stop by on our contents page and take a look.
We would like to hugely thank all our contributors and readers for being with us and helping us grow. I would like to thank my team, who despite hurdles they face, always lend a helping hand and wonderful words from their pens or computers to get Borderless on its feet. I apologise for the delay and thank you all for your patience. Special thanks to Sohana Manzoor for her fabulous artwork.
I wish you all a wonderful July and peace in a war-torn world. We are all affected by the ongoing conflicts. Let us hope for peaceful and just resolutions.
It was a raw, blustery morning in late January. A small knot of people could be seen standing near the Buckland Bund, an embankment on the Buriganga river. The river, which swirled and foamed along the edges of the city of Dhaka, was especially turbulent this winter.
All eyes were fixed on a man, a stranger to these parts. He had been sitting cross-legged on the Bund, gazing into the distance day and night, for the past three months, impervious to the cold gusts of wind and spray that rose from the agitated waters below. There was something odd about his appearance. He could be a Bengali, the locals surmised, judging by the shape of his face with its somewhat square jawline, wide nose and high cheekbones. His body was covered with ash but the patches that were visible were as fair as a European’s and his eyes, hooded by dark, heavy lids, a greenish brown. Masses of tawny hair fell in dreadlocks down his sturdy back and shoulders and a matted beard almost touched his navel. A tattoo—a word in some strange language—could be seen on his right arm. He was naked except for the strip of coarse orange cloth that covered his genitals. The men standing around stared at him with unabashed curiosity and exchanged glances. Once in a while someone would fling a question at him. They had been doing so from the first day they saw him sitting on the Bund.
‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ A middle-aged man in a silk lungi and woollen vest asked in a stern voice.
‘Main Bangla nahin jaanta.’ The stranger’s lower lip twisted to the right as he answered in Hindi.
A barrage of questions followed in a Hindi thickly accented with Bengali.
‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Nothing. Just sitting.’
‘That we can see. But why here?’
‘No reason. I just … just came here …’
‘Are you a sannyasi?’
‘Yes. I’m a roaming sadhu.’
‘You look quite young. Must be in your mid-thirties. Am I right?’ The stranger shrugged his heavy shoulders and turned his eyes northwards on a massive structure looming in the distance. It was the zamindar’s mansion locally known as the Rajbari. The zamindars of Bhawal were rich and powerful beyond ordinary landowners and had been dignified by the title of Raja. Their sons were addressed as Kumar, each according to his position in the hierarchy.
The man in the lungi moved aside. Another, an elderly gentleman in a dhuti and shawl, took his place.
‘You are too young to abandon the world. When did you become a sannyasi?’ The old man leaned forward and examined the stranger’s face and head closely. There was a puzzled look in his eyes.
‘I ran away from home in my youth and joined a group of holy men.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Where did they take you?’
‘To the mountains. I spent many years there.’
The old man nodded. But the answer didn’t seem to satisfy him.
The crowd ebbed, melted and swelled once more. Others took up the interrogation.
‘Do you have parents?’
‘Are you married?’
The man, calm and unruffled all this while, stiffened at this question. As though alerted to some hidden hostility. He had a prominent Adam’s apple which jumped up and down his throat.
‘Um …’ he hesitated, ‘yes … n-no. Yes. I had a wife … once.’
‘You left her too?
‘Why do you keep looking at the Rajbari?’
‘No reason.’ The answer came pat as though he had prepared for the question. ‘There’s nothing else to see …’
The men walked away and stood a little apart. They exchanged meaningful looks and nudged and whispered. Snatches of their conversation came floating through the air.
‘Exactly like the mejo kumar. The same height and build. The same small hands and feet. Even the tiny wart on the lower lid of the right eye. What do you think, Taufique?’ The elderly gentleman turned to the man in the lungi.
‘Yes, indeed, Kashi kaka. I never did believe the story.’
‘You think anyone does?’
‘I don’t know about the family. The subjects certainly don’t. Not one.’
‘The man seems to be about thirty-five or thirty-six. Exactly the age the mejo kumar would have been today. Have you noticed the way he sits? Hunched forward like a bull.’
‘And his complexion! What man other than a royal could be that fair? His body is covered with ashes but I noticed his hands and feet. Particularly the feet. Rough and scaly but shell pink. Like new milk with a drop of vermilion mixed in it.’
‘The colour of his eyes? And the tiny angles sticking out from the tops of his ears? The resemblance is uncanny. The mejo kumar too had …’
‘There are marks on his back and legs. And tiny patches on the scalp in between the dreadlocks. I looked at them closely …’
‘Yes, I noticed them too. The mejo kumar’s body was ridden with syphilis when he was sent to Darjeeling. These must be the scars.’
‘He seemed a bit rattled when I asked if he was married.’
‘He did indeed. He couldn’t decide what to say.’
‘He is the mejo kumar,’ a chorus of voices joined in. ‘The story we have been told is bunkum.’
‘Mark my words, brothers,’ an old man wearing a skull cap observed darkly, ‘this man is pretending to be a sadhu, when he is in fact the mejo kumar – the second prince of the royal family. Now that both his brothers are dead, he is the sole heir of the estate. The real ruler. If I’m proved wrong, I’ll never venture another opinion as long as I live.’ He moved his head solemnly from side to side.
About the Book:
In the winter of 1909, Ramendranarayan Roy, the ailing second prince of the Bhawal zamindari, proceeds to Darjeeling with his wife Bibhavati, brother-in- law Satyendranath and a retinue of officials and servants, after being advised a change of air by his physicians. Three weeks later, a telegram from Satyendranath arrives at the Bhawal estate, carrying news of the prince’s demise and subsequent cremation.
Soon peculiar rumours start circulating around Bhawal and the surrounding town. Some say that the prince was poisoned, while others suspect that his body was taken to the burning ghat but not actually cremated. There are also whispers about an incestuous relationship between Bibhavati and her brother. The story takes a bewildering turn when, twelve years later, a mendicant comes to Bhawal, claiming to be the long-lost prince and the heir to the estate.
With no resolution in sight, matters reach the court, where the so-called prince and some family members face off against Bibhavati and her brother, aided by the British Court of Wards who are keen on maintaining ownership of the zamindari. The breathless legal drama that ensues will culminate in an incredible series of events, permanently altering the course of the estate’s history.
Inspired by the legendary Bhawal sannyasi case and evocative in its recreation of pre-Partition Bengal, The Mendicant Prince is an intriguing tale of dual identity and the inexplicable quirks of fate.
About the Author:
Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books to her name. Her novels, The Inheritors, Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko and Suralakhsmi Villa, have sold widely and received rave reviews. She is the recipient of the Vaitalik Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sarat Puraskar.