Categories
Poetry

Poetry by Ratnottama Sengupta

SUN DAY

I gifted myself a
Sunday morning
Today.
When I opened my eyes
The sun was racing
To get a hold
Of the sky.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
I hold up that sky
For my world.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday,
I outrun the sun.
I outshine the lamp,
I stay up
Half the night,
There's a story to send.
I wake up and jump
To my feet,
There's tiffin to be made,
A wedding -- or a funeral
To attend;
Dents on the car 
Clogged drains
Flickering lights
CESC, KMC, TataSky*,
Landline, WiFi
Bills to be paid,
Fines to be avoided...
Today I will give a miss
To all that.
Today I will not answer calls,
Today I will not be
At any seminar.
Today I will stay in bed
And look out of the window
Today I will gift the sun
The whole run
Of the sky.

*CESC: Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation
KMC: Kolkata Municipal Council
TataSky:  An Indian direct broadcast satellite service provider

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

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

Categories
The Observant Immigrant

A Bouquet of Retorts

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Language. Children learn it before they understand its importance. Adults can struggle to learn additional languages because the brain is less elastic as it ages. The formulation of language is a key component of what makes humans, human. Our language (though not our communication) is speculated to be among the most complicated and rule-bound of living creatures. Whether disproved in the future when we are able to translate other animals’ languages, we can all agree, the impact of language on us is invaluable.

Why then are our language skills diminishing? With every person who has benefited from being able to look up information online and thus, know a little bit about a lot of subjects, we have simultaneously reduced our language breadth. We are increasingly tempted to take short cuts linguistically both in writing (texts and emails) and how we speak to each other. It may be tempting to blame this on social media but it’s not that simple. This is not new: Throughout time, there has been enormous value put on ‘banter’, ‘ridicule’, ‘sarcasm’ and pithy retorts.

Perhaps people who can summon lightning fast rapporté are considered witty, nimble minded, fashionable. Contemplate those who have been considered ‘cool’ socially. Those who had the quick response, the short soundbite that cut to the chase or was easily repeatable, was often admired. Just recently Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in response to President Biden’s offer of a flight to get him and his family out of harm’s way, replied: “I don’t need a ride, I need bullets.”

People applauded his response because in many ways it describes the crux of what Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his country are going through and portrays him as a brave leader. Just as Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry series said the much-emulated words: “Make my day punk” and Arnold Schwarzenegger coined “hasta la vista” in the Terminator series alongside other iconic statements made by film stars, celebrities, politicians and authors. It’s the admiration of cutting to the chase, emulated by millions, as a means of extracting the essence of what we’re trying to say or merely being glib. We utilise quotes now more than ever, through the social media medium which makes it easy. The only question is; when we scroll through quotes and need ever increasing variety to our lives, are we really absorbing the meaning behind the soundbite or merely parroting it?

There is a history behind the proverb, quote and parable. It was a means of remembering wisdoms easily for those who might have been illiterate or before books were widely available. Along with songs, this was a method of retaining what was not written. Religion has employed this through easy to remember choruses and proverbs, it has long been human nature to reflect on life through such proverbs and sayings. In the 14th century the popular proverb “He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon” and other sayings were a means of social control or wisdom, depending. In quotes from Aesop, (the famous fables) “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.” We can admire the truism of this, just as we admire the bravado of a TV hero saying “make my day punk.” Perhaps Confucius said it best: “They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.” And quotes are a ready means of growth that don’t require the commitment of reading say, The Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism.

But when do quotes stop being educational and more, inadequate shortcuts to knowledge? Where I live, people don’t read whole books very often anymore. They excuse this by saying they are ‘too busy’ to read. I work a 60-hour week and I read. I can understand emergency room doctor’s and new parents not having time to read, but regular folk? You can tell how much someone reads by asking them what their favourite books are. If they quote more than one high school book, chances are, they haven’t read much since high school. Reading is an evolutionary experience and we grow as we read. Many people have forsaken televisions (which isn’t a bad thing) but also the genre of fiction, believing it has no worth. Are we ‘better’ for reading less fiction, and for reading fewer complete books and more online news channels and texts and memes? Do we lose something? And if so, what do we lose when we absorb language in this different, shortened way?

When was the last time you sat down and had a really in-depth conversation that wasn’t about your parents’ dementia or a breast cancer diagnosis or something that serious? But simply analyzing a book you read, a play you went to see, a film, or a discussion on politics or history or psychology? Granted some of us may never have sought to do this and that’s okay, but of those who did used to analyze, it seems analysis is less mainstream and now very specific to your job field. Fewer people sit on Sunday afternoons and read the paper from front to back. More scroll quickly, gleaning the basic amuse-bouche but nothing of substance. If you are a marketing analysist you analyze market trends. If you work in the financial sector, you may analyse financial impact. If you are an economist, you may consider economic development. Because most of us work such long hours, do we really have time, energy (or desire) to analyse things we don’t have to analyse?

It could be a sign of the times, of modernity, cultural shifts, progress even, that we don’t need to delve as deeply. No longer subject to pouring through piles of textbooks to hand write a paper. And some of that progress facilitates other knowledge, such as an ability to navigate the www… and beyond — to understand HTML and design websites and publish books all by ourselves, things that formerly would have seemed impossible. The scope of things we can do with technology for example, has expanded our choices recreationally and professionally. Kids are creating entire music albums in their bedrooms with affordable equipment, people are making whole films on their iPhone, others earn a living filming themselves for social media platforms, models are made by Instagram photos, we have all become graphic designers and editors of our own stories.

On the flip side of that, jobs that once promised a living wage such as graphic design, photography, editing, translation, music production, are being replaced by cheaper options. Platforms like FIVERR can design your tattoo for you, create a corporate logo, a book cover, anything you should desire, for a fraction of the price a professional would charge, because they are borderless, not beholden to the rules of old, and could well be a 16-year-old practicing graphic design skills from their bedroom. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that. If someone in Indonesia wants to offer those services for a fraction of the price a US supplier would charge, and under-cuts them in the process, isn’t that just the consequence of a free marketplace? If that Indonesian supplier wishes to charge what for them is a relatively fair wage, but in the US market would be considered a pauper’s wage, is it exploitative to the Indonesian? Or must we accept an individual’s choice to make that decision for themselves?

Should we question what ‘choice’ means if there is effectively, less choice when someone offers services for less? What is equitable? Ethical? With technology half the times we don’t know what country, what nationality or the details of the people we work with and it becomes less important. The only reason it is important is if someone is working from Nepal for $3 an hour whilst someone is working from Australia for $25 an hour. Simultaneously if everyone is aware of that inequity but agrees-none-the-less, then who are we to complain? Cost of living varies and maybe charging commensurate to your cost of living is a more realistic model than across-the-board flat rates. How much has changed since the internet opened borders and countries to a greater freedom of the choice of commerce and services than ever before? Like with anything, there is exploitation and there is improvement, and there’s no one simple answer to ensuring everything is fair, or nobody is exploited.

How does this relate to language? Or a series of retorts? It comes down to shifting social mores and what our expectations are – with this comes a modification of language, much like that you read about in science fiction novels of the 1960’s where the homogenised aspect of the world watered down uniqueness in favour of uniformity and created a melting pot where language among other things, was diluted for simplicities sake. Interestingly science fiction also created entirely new languages, (conlang, which is an artificial language) and worlds, so one could say it added to as much as it abstracted the future. Using posteriori languages (borrowed words and grammar from existing languages) has become commonplace, from Spanglish to Yiddish in America.

In the article ‘SMS & Its Negative Effects on Language’ (www.itstillworks.com), the authors note the mass use of shortened ‘slang’ language employed by societal groups, not least teenagers. Such habits have been speculated to carry over into reduced grammatical and spelling abilities, although conversely it could be argued, if teens are writing more (even badly) it encourages those who formerly may not have written at all. If you think how much your social skills have deteriorated since the pandemic because of lock-down and less direct socialising, is it that hard to believe persistent use of abbreviations and icons would replace language fluency? In the article ‘Alienating the Audience: How Abbreviations Hamper Scientific Communication’ (http://www.Psychologicalscience.org) the authors point to loss of deeper meaning when employing constant acronyms.

In The Times of India article ‘Shortening language has negative implications’, the authors point to a misuse of technology (always being ‘on’ and responsive to technology) ironically reduces efficiency and that ‘infomania’ can cause an overload of information. Being ‘dumbed down’ by technology and linguistic abbreviation could reduce the sharpness of our knowledge. Conversely, The Atlantic says in its article ‘Teens Aren’t Ruining Language’ that while ‘fad’ words may have a different trajectory online, they don’t have the power to ‘debase’ linguistic standards. “How much a person’s vernacular changes over time may have as much to do with personality and social standing as it has to do with age. The extent to which teenagers are credited with (or blamed for) driving lasting change to language … is grossly overstated.”

Whatever language we speak, we may be aware of this shift in seeking depth. Not only reading less complete works but expecting a synopsis instead. How does this affect conversations? Social interactions? What do we value and consider ‘worth’ as well as what the shift from meaning to soundbite imply? It is good to be able to Google everything and think we understand things we may not have looked up if the internet did not exist. But simultaneously we’re aware what’s online isn’t always factual so much as a series of compiled opinion. If history is written by the victor, then doesn’t it stand to reason what we assume is ‘fact’ shifts dramatically? What people in China right now, are exposed to as ‘incontrovertible truth’ is not the same as what people in Russia are being exposed to, or America, or India. With so much variation in what represents pure truth, shouldn’t we worry about that? Or are we imagining a past where truth existed in a purer state than it ever did?

Journalists used to have to write objectively about subjects, unless they were writing opinion pieces or columns. Even with the latter, there was a responsibility to report news from both sides, and not let personal bias taint the reporting or the information being presented. When you read news articles now, if you step back and try to put your own personal political views aside – what do you think about the reporting of those subjects? Are they objective? Take any side you want, but what you’ll find is they are often blatant or subtle bias and invested in projecting their perspective as the ‘only truth.’ Even the most basic Wikipedia definition of journalistic objectivity states: “To maintain objectivity in journalism, journalists should present the facts whether or not they like or agree with those facts. Objective reporting is meant to portray issues and events in a neutral and unbiased manner, regardless of the writer’s opinion or personal beliefs.” Why then is this not demanded?

I admire journalists who could step outside of their own views and write on a subject without that natural bias. Non-journalists are biased and look to journalism as a fair reporter of facts, where we can make our own minds up. Reporting shouldn’t be an opportunity to tear one side down to promote another. In America, the backlash against Donald Trump was perhaps the greatest witnessed in this country because of the deep divide in voters and the horror felt towards Donald Trump by many. He was considered dangerous for the country and irrespective of whether it was a truth, the majority of news outlets were a 100 percent against him. When I brought this up, I was told I obviously was a racist who supported Donald Trump otherwise why would I even care? This missed the point. I cared not because I wanted to defend Trump, but because I felt objective, rational, non-biased news reporting had been completely eroded.

It’s more important to me that we retain that objectivity even in the face of things that we may personally revile. A journalist who is unable to be objective, forfeits the right to condemn another, because they are not utilising that objectivity in their analysis. Maybe we cannot expect regular every day people to be free of bias, but when the moral underpinning of your job requires it, then you owe it to your readership not to pander to their outrage and stir the pot, but present an objective overview. The same is true of social media ‘conversation’ where a subject is presented, and people sound off, often becoming offensive, outrageous and exceeding the remit expected if we were all sitting in a room together. That anonymity afforded by a screen and physical distance, seems to have opened a pandoras box of horrors.

People can be unrecognisably offensive in their attack of others, for no discernable reason. It should be possible to discuss any subject without people devolving into personal attack and ad hominin. Has our use of language also been altered via our anonymity online? The oft disputed Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis states that the language we speak, influences the way one thinks. This verges on potential fascism if it judges one language superior to another, but the point is taken. The complexity of language has been linked to higher IQ’s which may explain why Finnish and Japanese students tend to be in the top ten achieving academically, their languages being among the most complex. Likewise, people who are polyglots, and speak multiple languages, or those who are musical (often considered a language) or mathematical (likewise) tend to possess higher IQ’s. The problem with this is we will never know what other influencing factors play a part in this, including nurture and nature.

This paradox between cancel culture, that looks to demote those who say things deemed offensive, and the increasing offensive backlash and gaslighting of others, seems to point at the hypocrisy of ‘free speech.’ It’s only free if the right person is saying the right thing, otherwise you’re liable to be canceled, but watch out, because that’s subject to social fashions that vary wildly. Beyond that hypocrisy, what of the actual quality of communication? Have we devolved to the point of only being able to say what we really think anonymously? Why do people write reams online but say little in a real-life group? Are we hiding behind rules and etiquette that only creates sub-groups that have no tolerance for other groups? Does group think ever produce something other than subjective thinking?

If aliens came to Earth, they might notice humans seem to admire ridicule and socially sanctioned sarcasm and call it witty without needing to have a deeper conversation. Twitter represents this phenomenon most acutely because the actual length of your post is restricted and thus, you have to encapsulate what you want to convey, by honing it to that word-count. That’s great if you’re delivering a highly edited statement, but how naturalistic is it as a form of legitimate communication? Does it replace your grandmother sitting at the kitchen table with you for an hour? Maybe it doesn’t have to, but do we still sit at the kitchen table and have those conversations? And if we don’t, will that affect what human communication is evolving (or devolving) into?

Sometimes flim-flam is appealing, in its starry simplicity. We embrace Digi-Fiction written and read from computers, changing how we process fiction. We can be attracted to the code-switch of language that takes the guess work out of communication. For those neurodiverse populations and people increasingly using actual code as a form of language such as HTML, it may seem like a logical next step. An improvement on the guesswork of complex modes of communication that were challenging for so many. At the same time, when we lose the ability to read a book from beginning to end, we lose the patience and journey of that process, which if not replaced, may be a genuine loss we cannot even fathom. Then again, in the spirit of all possibilities it could be we leave behind that which is not necessary and embrace a Haiku perspective of saying more in less.

I confess, when I read a ‘classic’ novel I am aware of how much superfluous information exists and doesn’t strictly need to. It is interesting to consider how much language we used to say one thing, compared to now. The medium of social media means we’re busier than ever and take our ‘fix’ of what attracts us (quickly) before signing off. Therefore, long poems have less attraction than shorter memes. We fixate on the easily presented, the humorous and immediate. Nuance, subtlety, slow burns, those are almost luxuries we may leave for rare nights in the bath. Novels are changing to adjust to this phenomenon. Graphic novels are gaining further traction, even songs. Our entire social fabric has altered, and, in some ways, this was inevitable if you recall we always admired that witty fast retort, going back to Marie Antoinette, Gloria Swanson and beyond.

Does this mean all language must conform to this new rigor? Or will epochs of devotees to other forms of communication, endure? When I browse through bookstores, I notice there are many styles of writing, including the long-winded, and the easy read. My fear is not that we read ‘easier’ books but that we stop reading altogether, believing scrolling on our phone compensates for the discipline of reading a book. One may argue, do we need discipline? But learning is invariably discipline and part of honing rigorous learning habits is being challenged. We can do crosswords, play chess, sudoku, and go to the gym to maintain a healthy body and mind, but the ‘imaginarium’ of fiction and the need for creative expression is for many of us, equally necessary.

Fiction isn’t a waste of time simply because it’s not a literalism. Fiction as a speculative field, has inspired science, politics, social advancement and a sense of possibility. Fiction can thrill, entice, or simply entertain. Not all forms of entertainment are equal. Whilst I confess, I do watch television, I recognise the lasting value of a book compared to a serial, because it requires more of us mentally. For those highly disciplined souls, there may be no need to ‘indulge’ in fiction, or television. Maybe reading Scientific American or pouring over The Financial Times or Anglers Digest will be their choice. But language has a trickle-down effect, and you can guarantee, it will eventually permeate all sectors of our lives.

Do we want to completely dilute the value of further explanation, detail and depth in favour of the glamorous soundbite? Or is it possible to harness the value of succinct communication and retain the continued relevance of detail? When I read what passes for scientific news in popular media, it concerns me that we are picking and choosing for ‘click bait’ purposes and this leads to the proliferation of inaccuracy. Case in point, the startling headline: ‘The Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) causes MS’! Then in the meat of the article, we find 95 percent of humans have ‘EBV whilst only (35.9 [95% CI: 35.87, 35.95] per 100,000 people) have MS’ – we are leaving out the most important connections in favour of scaremongering journalism which only serves to increase (inaccurate) neuroticism when it should seek to educate and elucidate.

It’s not that too much information is bad for us, it’s that too much incomplete information can distract us from truth, and we may learn to gloss over what matters in favour of what shines brightest. Sometimes it is necessary to finish the chapter.

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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

Categories
Tribute

Down the Stairs by Nabendu Ghosh

Translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay, edited by Nabendu Ghosh’s daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta, to mark his birth anniversary, Siri Beye Nichey (Down the Stairs) was first published in the Bengali weekly, Sharadiya Bartaman (1998) and subsequently in the anthology, Paresh Mandaler Laash ( Paresh Mandal’s Corpse, Publisher: Mitra & Ghosh).

“This does not feel like Bangur Hospital, Jibu,” Judhistir said to his son.

Jiban was leading the way. Sunayani was following with her husband, holding his hand to lend him support.

Jiban replied in a very low voice, “This is Bangur…”

“Can you again see with your eyes?” Sunayani snubbed her husband. On hearing this Judhistir fell silent. 

But he was right: it was not Bangur, it was Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital.

Jiban and Sunayani did not utter ‘Cancer’ lest the word put a scare in Judhistir and he refused to go for the required tests. Of late Judhistir would cough continuously and groan, feeling pain on the right side of his back. So initially he was taken to Bangur Hospital. After the preliminary tests they referred him to this hospital for the final detection. That’s how they were all here this morning.

Judhistir was not blind by birth. He lost his eyesight when he was sixty — a fallout of Glaucoma. But he has implanted in his mind whatever he has seen over the last sixty years, so he can still make out where he is and which way he is going.

It took about four hours to finish all the tests. The results would be known to them in another three days. They all came out of the hospital.

At around two in the afternoon, they returned to their single bricked home in a Jadavpur shanty. A rented space where they’ve been living for the last thirty years, paying Rs 50 a month. 

Their poverty set in when Judhistir went blind some fifteen years ago. That’s when they rented out two of their rooms and a small corner of the veranda to Shibnath for Rs 30 a month, to supplement their income.

Jiban’s four-year-old son, Nantu, was playing in the courtyard with Shanti’s eight-year-old daughter, Ritu. As soon as he saw his grandparents he ran up to them, hugged his grandma and asked, “What have you brought for me Thamma?”

With a smile Sunayani brought out a small parcel of sweets from her bag and gave Nantu and Ritu a piece each. She had bought these on her way back. It made both the kids very happy.

Judhistir coughed a couple of times and flopped on the bench in the veranda.

Shibnath’s widowed sister Shanti came out. Casting a glance at Judhistir she asked Sunayani, “What did the doctors say, Mashima?”

“They carried out the tests,” Jiban answered. “Nothing serious or to be scared of.” As he spoke, he looked at his mother, then at Shanti. Eye to eye they had a silent communication. Then Shanti said, “Well then Mashima, finish your bath and have your lunch. It’s already very late.”

“Yes Ma, I’m going in,” Sunayani said stepping towards her room. “Let me arrange for your Mesho Mashai’s bath first.”

When Jiban and Sunayani were by themselves she whispered to her son, “I’m scared for your father Jibu…”

“If you fear from now Maa, how will you survive?” Jiban smiled. “We will worry about fear after three days.”

*

After lunch when Sunayani brought the medicines to her husband, Judhistir said slowly, “Because of me both Jibu and you had to skip work today.”

Sunayani placed a hand on his shoulder as she said, “One of us stayed away for his father, another for her husband, so don’t you worry.”

Judhistir smiled. And repeated the words he always uttered, whenever he was happy or sorrowful: “Hari Hari Hari!”

*

Judhistir had been blind for the last 15 years but before that he had seen and enjoyed life. So even now, when the light was switched off he could feel the darkness deepen and when the sun rose he can feel that too, and his dull eyes shimmered with life. Slowly he rose from his bed and called out, “Jiban’s Maa, d’you hear me?”

“Coming dear,” her trembling voice answered.

The sweet smell of something frying in the pan entered his nostrils — it signalled that a new day had started.

Sunayani came and stood by him. The heat of the stove imparted a blush of pink to her fair skin. Her forehead gleamed with beads of sweat. Her face, though lined with wrinkles, showed that she was once a beautiful lady.

“Awake? Are you feeling well?”

“Yes dear, I am fine.”

Combing his unruly hair with her fingers, Sunayani said, ” Wait, I’ll get you your tea.”

“Is Jiban up?”

“Still lying in. I will wake him up with his morning cup.”

“Where’s Nantu?”

“Sleeping in Shanti’s room, next to Ritu.”

“Hari Hari Hari!”

*

The clock hands were racing. Judhistir realised that Jiban was up. Shanti’s brother Shibnath, his wife Jaba, Nantu and Ritu were all awake. 

Shibnath worked as a salesman in a stationary shop at Gariahat. He was ready to leave. Jaba served as a maidservant in three houses in Jadavpur itself. She too would leave to be back by five in the evening. Sunayani would finish her cooking and go to one Sanjay Chatterjee’s house where she supervised the kitchen. Jiban, a peon in an advertising firm, was also preparing to leave. Sunayani and Jiban respectively brought home Rs 500 and Rs 800. This 1300/- was their total source of livelihood.

Sunayani helped her husband to wash up and take a bath. Then she fed him some roti and tea. She finished all her chores and kept lunch ready for him. Shanti had become like their daughter. All through the day she took care of not only Judhistir but also of Nantu. In her spare time she made paper bags. Every Saturday a man stopped by to collect them. The  profit wasn’t much but even Rs 100 was not to be sneezed at.

By this time Jiban and Sunayani were ready to leave. “I’m off Baba,” he said to his father. “All right son — Hari Hari Hari!” “I’m off too — you take care.” 

“Hyan, you too. Hari Hari Hari…”

*

Mother and son headed out of the house together. Once on the main road, they took a bus to Lord’s Crossing. Within five minutes they arrived at the junction. From there they reached the Lake Gardens Super Market where Sunayani sat down under a leafy tree near the eastern gate.

“Okay Maa, I’ll carry on now,” Jiban said to her.

“Hyan,” Sunayani nodded to him, “but be very careful while on work.”

“Yes Maa,” Jiban went his way.

Sunayani had come in a worn out, soiled sari. She pulled the pallu over her head and sat down. The bindi on her forehead was bright crimson. She leaned against the wall with the palm of her right arm stretched out. The passers-by, in a rush to get to the market, didn’t even cast a glance at her. But those coming out with their hands laden with purchases all noticed her saddened, poverty stricken beautiful face. Some of them stopped to drop ten paisa, 20 paisa or a quarter too in her outstretched hand. At times some of them moved on and then came back to give her something. 

This was a daily occurrence. Sometimes two or three shoppers dropped even a rupee each while five-six others happily parted with 50 p coins. “May God bless you!” Sunayani gratefully muttered. Or she varied the blessing: “May you be victorious!”

In other words, Sunayani neither cooked nor supervised the kitchen in any house. She had taken to begging because she did not get a suitable job. But she did not tell this to Judhistir whose self-respect was intense although Shibnath, Jaba and Shanti were aware of this. This job easily earned her 300 to 400 rupees every month.

*

By now it was around 8 am. Jiban could be spotted in Lake Gardens. He had come out of the house wearing a dhoti and kurta. Now he had put the kurta away in a plastic bag and in its place, covered himself with a thin white cotton drape. His hair was ruffled. He’d not shaven since the previous day. In his underarm he was holding a rolled straw mat. He had grief writ over his face.

He entered a three-storeyed building and climbed up the stairs. 

There were three flats on each floor. He pressed the first bell. 

A lady opened the door. “What d’you want?”

“I’ve lost my mother Madam! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of mourning.”

With sharp eyes the lady looked at Jiban. The sadness on his lean and tender face touched the mother in her. “Wait,” she told him and went indoors. A minute later she emerged with an almost-torn two rupee note.

Jiban bowed low as he took the money and slowly walked towards the staircase. As soon as the lady shut her door he turned around and pressed the bell on the second door.

“Who’s there?” A heavy voice floated out moments before the door opened. A thickset Punjabi gentleman in his mid-fifties came out.

“What do you want?” The gentleman asked with a frown, then repeated the question in Bengali, “Ki chai?”

A charming teenaged girl came and stood behind him. Jiban repeated what he’d just phrased: “I’ve lost my mother Sir! Please help me, I’m too poor to observe the rituals of Matridaay.”

“Matridaay?!” The Punjabi gentleman could not comprehend the term. 

“Papa, his mother is dead,” the girl helpfully interpreted. “He needs money for her shraddha. He seeks some help.”

“Rubbish!” The man uttered and went in. 

The girl stepped forward and asked in unaccented Bengali, “When did your mother die?”

“Day before yesterday sister.”

“What happened?”

“She had cancer.”

“Oh!” she said, and shouted, “Papa, his mother died of cancer.”

“Okay okay…” Once again the man stood framed by the doorway. He handed his daughter a two-rupee coin and said, “Go give it to him.”

The girl gave him the two rupees and said, “Our sympathy is with you.”

“Thank you sister, thank you.”

The girl closed the door. 

*

Now the third flat. The door was opened by a bespectacled Bengali gentleman in pajama kurta. He would be in his forties. 

The moment he saw Jiban he harshly demanded, “What d’you want? Help? Money?”

“Yes sir, for my mother’s last rites I need some help.”

“Help? No hope of that here.”

“Have pity on me sir!”

“No, I never pity anybody. Asking for pity is your business but not showing pity is my belief. Go, get lost.”

Jiban looked at the man as if crestfallen. He shut the door with a bang.

Defeated, Jiban slowly started to walk away. Just then the same gentleman opened the door again. 

“Hey, come here.”

Giving him a rupee coin he ordered, “Scoot!”

Again the door closed with a bang.

*

Jiban climbed one floor down.

The door to the first flat was opened by a Bengali youth. He smiled as he asked, “Mother’s dead, isn’t that so?”

“Yes sir, my mother…”

“Oh what a truthful Yudhisthir!” he mocked. “Get lost!”

The door closed on Jiban’s face.

The next flat was opened by an elderly lady. She was saddened by Jiban’s mourning uniform and grief stricken appearance. “Wait,” she said before disappearing inside. She returned with a five rupee note.

The lady in the third flat also gave him a rupee.

Finally Jiban came to the ground floor. An elderly Marwari opened the first door. Patiently he listened to what Jiban parroted, then with a stern face and a quiet voice he said, “You cheat! Bolt – or I’ll call the police.” The door banged shut.

The next flat yielded Re 1, and a paan-chewing Marathi in the last flat also parted with a rupee.

Coming out of the building he counted his earning — Rs 13. 

From one building to another, Jiban roamed about in the Lake Gardens area till 12.30 pm. Then he halted – “All the ranting will start now,” he thought to himself. So he counted his net collection of the morning – Rs 30.50. Not bad at all. Satisfied, he returned to the supermarket where his mother was waiting.

*

“Had your lunch?” Sunayani asked.

“No. What about you?”

“No. Come let’s eat together.” Both of them took out their tiffin boxes filled with three rotis each, some dry vegetables, and molasses. They ate, then had their fill of water. Aah! Deep satisfaction. 

“How much did you earn this morning?”

“Good intake Maa, about Rs 30. And you?”

“Rs 11.”

A moment’s hesitation, then Sunayani said, “Sometimes I fear for you… This profession…”

“Maa, people are still kind,” Jiban reassured her, “if they hear something has happened to your parents they take pity on you.”

Sunayani fell silent. Then both of them rested under the same tree. It was 4 pm but the market was still dozing, the shops had their shutters down. Sunayani would stretch out her arms again at 5 but Jiban carried on. He tried his luck in ten-twelve other houses and stopped after sunset. This round fetched him another Rs 15. It would take another week to complete Lake Gardens. This was a classy area, and people still respect the word ‘Maa’. So his earning was bound to be good despite all the abuses.

*

It was late evening when Jiban returned home. Shanti was at the door, she gave him a sweet smile. At about twenty eight Shanti was lean, carelessly dressed, had no time for grooming and still was nice looking. They stared at each other for a few seconds, conveying their feelings to each other through their eyes. Then Jiban went in.

Judhistir heard Jiban’s footsteps and asked, “Jibu, hasn’t your mother come home yet?”

“No Baba but she will any minute now.”

“I was just a little worried. It’s a bit late today, isn’t it? Past 7…”

“No! It’s just 6.30…”

Judhistir kept quiet.

Jiban washed, bathed, put on a rather old but cheerful lungi and a fresh shirt. Cautiously he went out of the house, came to the main road and sat in Anil’s Tea Stall. “Come friend!” Anil invited him in. Jiban sat in a corner, picked up the day’s newspaper and started going through the headlines.

Half an hour later he asked his friend for a cup of tea. Like every other day Anil put two cups of tea next to him at one go. Jiban sat there till 9 pm. In between he lit up a cigarette, his one luxury. He sat there listening to all the conversations between the other customers. He set out for home when Anil closed shop for the day. This has become his daily routine.

Back home he played with Nantu and Ritu, he chit-chatted with Shibnath and Jaba, had small talk with the others. Then came dinner. After washing up, it was time to go to bed.

But for some reason Jiban couldn’t sleep. As on other days he woke up in the middle of the night. The fears that were buried deep within now started to haunt him. Images of his past life surfaced on the screen of his mind like scenes from a movie.

Jiban had studied up to class nine when he landed his first job — in a decent steel factory. In four years he mastered the job but just as he was to be made permanent in employment the Employees Union declared a strike. Jiban had played an active role in the strike. The labourers won after a month of striking work but six months down Jiban was laid off for a small mistake. The Union sympathized with him but did not come to his help as he was a “casual worker.” He was twenty six then.

After this he got a job as a peon in an office at Dharamtala. Around this time he married Shipra from his neighbourhood. His mother did not consent to the marriage but he was adamant. A year later Nantu was born and two years later Shipra eloped with the local hooligan, Paresh. What shame! No one knew their whereabouts now.

From then on his life changed. Unsuccessfully he tried his hand at different jobs and several businesses — all in vain. At last when he found no other way he took to earning by deceiving others. But now what?

His blind father’s condition was deteriorating by the day, his mother’s health was failing yet she had taken to begging on the streets under the open sky. And Nantu was growing up. What does the future hold for him? 

The thought made him restless. Edgy. He got out of his bed and lit a cigarette — the second luxury of the day.

*

Old people don’t easily fall asleep, either.

From his bed Jiban could hear his parents talk.

Judhistir was whispering to his wife, “I feel nervous when you are gone from home for so long. I get depressed. I can’t see you even when you are at home but I feel…”

“Don’t I know that!” Sunayani placed a hand on his mouth. “And am I happy staying away from home for hours on end? But now please be quiet. Sleep…”

*

The next morning Jiban went to the Cancer Hospital to collect his father’s test report.

A long queue.

After about half an hour the doctor summoned him.

“Who are you to Judhistir Das? Any blood relation?”

“Yes, I’m his son.”

The doctor was sympathetic. “I’m sorry to inform you,” he shook his head, “your father has cancer in his right lungs and it has reached the terminal stage. You should have started the treatment long ago. Now he has a very limited his time span.”

Jiban gulped twice before speaking, “Even so, how many more years doctor?”

With a sombre face the doctor replied, “Six to seven months, at the most a year.”

It took Jiban some time to find his voice, “Any possible treatment?”

“Your father is beyond any treatment,” the doctor said, “but if, for your peace of mind, you wish to go for an operation, it would cost approximately Rs 20-25,000 here in Kolkata and about Rs 60-70,000 in Mumbai. It is for you to decide. Anyway, here are the reports and a prescription of the medicines he will need right away.”

As he took the reports Jiban felt as helpless as his blind father. When he staggered out of the hospital it was 11 am. It was late, still he went about his business as usual. He did the rounds of 10-12 houses in Lake Gardens repeating the same story of his mother’s death and managed to earn Rs 16.

Sunayani was anxiously waiting for her son. The moment she sighted him she eagerly asked, “Got the report?”

“Yes Ma,” he flopped next to his mother.

“What is ailing him?” 

Jiban could not utter the ‘Cancer’ word.

“Why aren’t you answering? What’s wrong?”

Jiban recounted everything he’d heard from the doctor. Sunayani stared vacantly at him, then lay down on the ground.

“Maa!”

Sunayani did not respond.

“Maa it won’t do to break down. Oh Maa!”

“Let me get my breath back son…”

“Don’t breathe a word of this to him,” Jiban said, “not even by mistake.”

“But we must try to save him.”

“Yes Maa, we must. But if we break down who will try?”

Sunayani nodded, “Right.”

*

As soon as Sunayani entered the house in the evening Shanti rushed out and told her, “Mashima some relative of yours had come today — he saw you begging in the Lake Gardens Super Market and gave the news to Mesho Mashai. Since then he is livid and ranting like a madman.”

Sunayani thought it would be better not to face Judhistir then. She wanted to talk to Jiban first and decide how to deal with the situation. 

Judhistir’s voice could be heard calling out, “Shanti! Ma Shanti!”

Shanti walked up to his room, “What d’you want Mesho Mashai?”

“Isn’t your Mashima home yet?”

“Shanti looked at Sunayani who shook her head to say “No.”

Shanti replied, “No Mesho Mashai.”

“And Jiban? He isn’t back too?”

“No Mesho Mashai, Jiban Da isn’t back either.”

“Hari Hari Hari! Oh god, please take me to you!”

Hearing his anguished cry Sunayani was reminded of the report from the hospital and tears welled up in her eyes. Somehow she controlled herself.

Nantu and Ritu were still playing in the courtyard. Shibnath returned from work followed by Jaba. In a low voice Shanti told them not to ask Sunayani anything.

After a while Judhistir again called out, “Shanti! O Ma Shanti!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai?”

“Your Mashima…”

“Still not back — nor is Jiban Da -“

“Why is Jiban’s mother so late today?”

At that very moment Jiban entered the house. Sunayani gestured to him to be quiet, drew him aside and told him all the developments. “What will happen now Jiban?” she asked him in despair.

Jiban thought for a while, then said, “We’ve lied to Baba all these years but now it’s time to tell him the truth.”

Again Judhistir called out, “Shanti! O my Shanti Ma!”

“Yes Mesho Mashai, tell me…” She came out of her room and spotted Jiban.

“Aren’t they home yet? Jiban? His mother?”

“Yes we’re home!” Sunayani spoke up. “What’s the matter? Why are you so agitated?”

“Both of you come to me right away,” the blind man’s voice resounded with sternness.

“Yes we’re here,” Sunayani came and stood near her husband.

Judhistir couldn’t see her but his sense of smell recognized her presence. Rudely he asked her, “Have I ever sinned against anyone? Have I committed any crime? Did I ever steal or pick any pocket?”

Sunayani stiffened, “Why? What happened?”

“Answer me first!”

“No you’ve not. True to your name you are truthful, pious.”

Jiban came and stood behind his mother, behind him stood Shanti. “Indeed!” Judhistir’s stern voice rose a pitch higher, “now you’re spewing sarcasm! Tell me, did I ever beg before anybody on the streets?”

“Never.”

“Then why do you?”

“Who gave you this news?”

“Sudhir, my first cousin. He saw you with outstretched arms. Tell me, is that true?”

“Yes, I was begging. But not just today, I’ve been doing that for the last two years, stretching out my hands to arouse pity in passers-by. Every human has God inside him, I spread my arms to that God. Because I want to live. I didn’t get any other job and I don’t have the strength to roam about in search of a new job. I have done no crime. If begging was a crime, people would not give me any money.”

Judhistir was dumbfounded. He remained speechless for some time, then said, “You… Are you preaching to me?”

“No, only you men can preach — tell us what to do and what not to do. You taught me all these years, and I lived the way you wanted me to. Now I will do as my conscience dictates. Yes I will beg — and you don’t say one more word on this.”

Judhistir suddenly screamed out, “Jiban!”

He stepped forward, “Yes Baba?”

“Do you know about your mother’s job?”

“Yes I do,” Jiban replied. “I also beg but in a different way, to earn our upkeep,” he went on. “We didn’t tell you because it would not be to your liking.”

Speechless, Judhistir stared vacantly into air.

Jiban continued to speak, “Baba don’t carry on like this, don’t be angry. This is where Fate has taken us. Now even if you want us to stop, we’ll carry on doing the same work.”

“What are you saying?!! You…y-o-u…”

“Yes, we’ll continue to do whatever we’re doing. I haven’t done what so many others are doing out of sheer necessity — hooliganism, thievery, hijacking, murder…”

Judhistir saw red. “Go away, get lost!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “You too go away, go away. I will not say a word more, not a word..”

Jiban moved out of the room, Shanti too returned to her room.

Sunayani stared at her husband for a few seconds, then she too slowly walked out.

*

Jiban didn’t care. Like every other day he put on his cheerful old lungi and a fresh kurta; went to Anil’s Tea Stall, stayed there till 9 pm and returned home. 

Judhistir now started on a new track — hunger strike.

Sunayani came asking him to have his dinner and he declined. The more she asked him to have his meal the more vigorously he refused it, “No – no – no.”

Then Shanti came to plead with him, “Mesho Mashai don’t be angry, not with food!”

Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “No!”

Shibnath and Jaba came with the same request, and got the same reply, “No.”

“Oh Mesho Mashai…”

Before they could say anything else Judhistir folded his hands and shook his head, “My dears, please don’t ask me to eat. Why worry? I am not committing hara kiri — but I simply can’t swallow a morsel today.”

*

Only Jiban didn’t utter a single word.

Like every other day he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. The chronology of his failures danced before his eyes like a movie and then evaporated in thin air with his cigarette smoke.

Today he tried to listen in but couldn’t hear his parents talk. Instead he could hear his father cough. He was coughing incessantly. He must collect money for his father’s treatment. By hook or crook. He has made some friends in Anil’s Tea Stall — three of them were daredevils. They’re crazed by want — poverty — and greed. What if he planned with them to rob a bank in the suburbs of Kolkata? 

But what if he could not do that? His father’s death would draw closer. It would be sooner, faster. “But what can be done?” Jiban thought philosophically. Humans came into this world and, like any creature big or small, like mosquitoes, house flies, cockroaches or ants, they die…

Irrelevant, but he also thought, “Will it be appropriate to marry Shanti before robbing the bank?”

*

In the morning Sunayani brought a cup of tea and sat next to her husband. Judhistir turned his face away from her. “What happened? You won’t have tea? Still angry?! Okay,” she said, “if you don’t, I’ll stop eating and drinking too. But do remember that I will not stop doing the work I do, because I’m doing it for our grandson.”

Sunayani stood up to go. Suddenly Judhistir reached out and caught hold of her hand. “Give me the tea,” he said.

Though Judhistir started to eat he didn’t speak with anybody. He simply couldn’t accept the fact that his wife was begging on the streets for a livelihood.

*

For ten days Jiban begged with everyone to help him in his ‘mother’s death’. After ten days he shaved off his beard. Now started another chapter of his life: he was collecting money for ‘Sri Gourango Ashram of Basirhat.’ 

This time around he was to be spotted in the Paikpara and Lake Town areas of North Kolkata. He was donning a white dhoti and a handwoven khadi kurta. He had a namavali – a folded stole printed with the name of gods – over one shoulder and on the other a white cotton sling bag. Inside the bag he had two receipt books and a pen. He sported a sandalwood tilak on his forehead and was singing the Vaishnav chant in praise of ‘Nitai Gaur Radhe Shyam’.

In this avatar Jiban collected donations from more or less everyone — even aetheists give him a rupee! When he plays this role Jiban went by the name of ‘Gobinda Das.’  He was very professional about the job: he signed a receipt for whoever donated some money, big or small. Then he folds his hands and humbly salutes like a born Vaishnav, “Jai Nitai Gaur!” 

He spent ten days in this manner and then stopped. Next Jiban thought of another way to earn money. With his father’s cancer report and the prescriptions for medicines he went from door to door in the aristocratic area of Alipore. And he collected quite a bit of money. On the last day he did not shave. The next day he went back to the original strategy of seeking money on the pretext of “Matridaay”. “Mother’s funeral… Please help!” This time he chose to operate in the upper crust area of Ballygunge.

*

Jiban pressed the bell on the first door. It was opened by a handsome man in a dressing gown. “What d’you want?” he asked in Bengali. Jiban lowered his head, “My mother passed away the day before yesterday. I’m in mourning…”

“Silent!” The man roared like a blood hound. “Not a word more — just go out!”

The next door was opened by an aged lady. She heard Jiban out and handed him Rs 2. 

A sober Punjabi gentleman emerged from the third door. On hearing what Jiban said he sighed. “Mother! Oh! Hold on son.” He went indoors and came out with a fiver. Handing it over he said, “May your mother find peace.”

The fourth door was opened by a Bengali youth in his twenties. Soon as Jiban uttered the word ‘Maatriday’ he lost his cool. “You cheat! Aren’t you tired of lying?” he shouted.

“What’s the matter Apurbo?” Another young man of his age came out.

This guy who lived in the Lake Gardens area recognized Jiban — he’d seen Jiban in his house in the same attire. “Yaar this man had come to our house a month back. What’s he saying now? His mother’s dead and he needs money for her funeral?”

“Correct. He’s saying he needs help for her shraddha.”

“No Apurbo, we must do a funeral for this cheat,” the boy angrily spewed out. “His mother’s been dying through an entire month!”

“No sir, you’re mistaken,” Jiban said with an innocent face.

“Cheat! You’ve the gumption to say I’m mistaken!” The Lake Gardens boy came out aggressively.

Sensing trouble, Jiban retreated and broke into a run. Now the Ballygunge boy came out.

“Grab him! Don’t let the cheat get away…” The Lake Gardens boy chased Jiban saying, “He deceives people by saying his mother’s dead and swindles them out of money!” 

As the cousins ran after Jiban some boys on the street also joined the chase. Before they could lay their hands on him Jiban felt a stab of pain in his chest. He stopped running, tumbled, fell on the road and lost consciousness.

*

Jiban did not return home that night. When he remained missing the next morning Shibnath set out to lodge a ‘Missing’ diary at the Police Station. Just then a young man came with the news that Jiban was admitted in Dr K Basu’s private clinic. He’d suffered a heart attack but at present he was stable.

This worried Sunayani. She joined Shibnath and they followed the youth to Dr Basu’s clinic at Gariahat.

On seeing his mother Jiban gave her a wan smile.

Sunayani and Shibnath met Dr Basu. Before they could reveal their identities Dr Basu explained, “Yesterday I witnessed some commotion on the road and then saw this man lying on the footpath. I went to him and realised he’d had a heart attack. He would have died on the spot if he’d not been taken to a hospital. Since the government facilities were at quite a distance I brought him here to my clinic. Now his condition is under control. You can take him home after two days.”

The doctor continued to speak, “From his attire I can see his mother’s dead. I can also make out from his condition that he’s not well off. So you don’t need to pay me anything. But make sure he gets complete rest for at least two months. And he must be given proper food and medicine. He must undergo some tests as well.”

After two days Jiban came home in a taxi. He entered to see Nantu and Ritu playing in the courtyard. He kissed them both, went to his room holding Shanti’s hand and lay down in his bed.

Judhistir rushed out of his room to meet his son and collided against the wall. Sunayani led him by his hand and made him sit on Jiban’s bed. Judhistir scrambled around and placed his hand on his son’s head.

Two days passed.

Sunayani returned to her normal routine. She gave Judhistir and Jiban their morning tea, and their medicine; she finished cooking, fed her husband, gave some instructions to Shanti, then stood at the door of Judhistir’s room. “We’re in need of money,” she told him. “So I’m going to work, okay?”

Judhistir did not reply. Sunayani turned around to leave. But before she could cross the threshold Judhistir suddenly called out, “Listen Jiban’s Maa…”

*

Two boys in late teens were entering the Lake Gardens Super Market. Suddenly one of them started searching his pocket for his shopping list. 

” Did you misplace it somewhere?” the other boy asked.

“No, here it is. Got it.”

Hearing their voices a beggar spoke from the corner, “Have mercy on me sons!”

The boys turned around to see the beggar.

“New face?”

“Blind.”

“Is he really blind or just acting?”

“Yes sons, I’m really blind,” the beggar said.

“Really?!” Suddenly the first boy swished out a knife and made to strike him on his nose. But the beggar did not react. He didn’t draw back or turn away his face. No expression.

“Oh, he’s really blind,” the second boy said.

” Then we must give him some alms.” The boy fished out a coin, “Here grandpa, stretch out your hand.” 

They placed the coin in his palm.

Judhistir felt a deep satisfaction as he held the 50 p in his hand. It was his earning after long years, he sighed. And he thought to himself: “All these years my wife and my son have begged for my sake. Now on I will beg for my son and grandson.”

Glossary:

Thamma — Grandma

Mashima — aunty

Mesho moshai — uncle

Hyan — Yes

Pallu — the loose part of a sari, can be worn over the head or just left hanging over the shoulder like a scarf

Maatriday, Shraddha — Death rituals

Judhishtir or Yudhishtra, the eldest of the Pandavas in Mahabharta, was known for his legendary honesty.

Nabendu Ghosh & his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta.
Photo shared by Ratnottama Sengupta

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

Sarmishtha Mukhopadhyay is a retired teacher who has taken to translations and to writing travel blogs.

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

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

Categories
Slices from Life

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time when a language freed itself and a palace called Bardhaman House became the centre of a unique tryst against cultural hegemony. The Language Movement of 1952 that started in Dhaka led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO recognised February 21 as the Mother Language Day.

The window at Bardhaman House. Courtesy: Kamrul Mithon

All through the day Kamrul Mithon was standing in front of this window, waiting. He was waiting to be allotted a stall in Ekushey Book Fair 2022. This year the annual book fair in Dhaka is being hosted by the Bangla Academy from February 15 to 28. 

This window is a part of the Bardhaman House. The first boimela or book fair had started under the banyan tree facing this very window. Kamrul Mithon, who earns his bread and butter by the click of his camera, is a book publisher by passion. The freelancer for National Crafts Council of Bangladesh is the Associate Visual Editor at Nymphea Publication who have just published titles like Cannes Diary and When the Mango Tree Blossomed, in the ongoing book fair. The day he spent facing the window was the day the lottery was held – so the best way to while his time was by clicking away, capturing all that captivated his fancy. 

Later it occurred to him that he could post the pictures on Facebook to announce the forthcoming boimela. And when he did so, he captured my attention. “Is this a painting? A poster? A book cover?” My curiosity was piqued. “Neither,” Kamrul replied. He went on to give me a brief history of ‘Burdwan House’ – the architecture from the British Raj when Dhaka, the second biggest city of Bengal Presidency, housed estates of many erstwhile royalties including the Raja of Burdwan.

Maharajadhiraj Bahadur Sir Bijay Chand Mahtab (1881-1941) was the first in the Burdwan family to obtain formal education qualification, tour England and Europe, write his memoirs. Adopted at the age of six, he was bestowed the title of Rajadhiraj at the coronation in the Delhi Durbar. Though only eighteen then, he had the savvy to build a Gothic style gate to welcome Lord Curzon when the Governor General visited Bardhaman. That gate continues to be a historical landmark in the Indian state of West Bengal. 

In 1908, when Bijoy Chand Mahtab risked his life to save that of Sir Andrew Fraser from a Nationalist bullet, Lord Minto elevated him to the title of Maharajadhiraj. He represented the Bengal zamindars in the Bengal Legislative Council and in the Imperial legislative Council for years. President of the British Indian Association, this philanthropist in education and health welfare was part of the committee that recommended replacement of Zamindari by the Ryotdari or tenancy system. After all this, though, he extended hospitality to Gandhi in 1925 and to Subhash Chandra Bose in 1928. Did he sense that the sun was soon to set on the British Empire?

The mansion in Dhaka was one of the many palaces of His Highness of Burdwan: the one in Darjeeling was his Summer Palace. Through the year he resided in the Burdwan House in Kolkata’s Alipore area. That stately home is now rented out for weddings and other occasions. So, I was especially happy to learn that Dhaka has transformed the classical architecture into a centre for research and preservation of Bangla. “Indeed this was where the Bangla Bhasha Andolan spread out from,” Mithon cues me in, “since this was where the instruction went out on the evening of February 21, to fire on the students of Dhaka University.”

Mithon further leads me through the various chapters of the Movement. “In 1952, being the residence of Nurul Amin, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Bardhaman House witnessed the escalation in our demand that Bengali be accorded equal status with Urdu as State Language of Pakistan.”

I remember hearing the backstory of the movement from my father, writer Nabendu Ghosh: he was forced to leave Kolkata, the home ground of Bengali literature, theatre, cinema, art – indeed, of Bengali culture – and live in Bombay after the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Because? The readership of Bangla literature had been halved as had the viewership of Bengali films. Keen to build upon its Islamic genes, the government of the newly formed Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the state language. And to impose that decision even in East Pakistan, its eastern wing separated by 2000 miles of land and rivers, language and culture, it decreed that even Bengali, its lingua franca, must be written in the Arabic script!

Mithon encapsulates the story of rebellion against the firman – the decree — that took the masses unaware. 

“1947, December 5. The working Committee of the Muslim League was meeting in Bardhaman House. The students and teachers of Dhaka University were stunned by the unfair decision that would impact the lives of the 44 million Bangla-speaking citizens who formed roughly 2/3rd of the 69 million population. They took out a procession to demand that Bengali be made the language of education and administration in the state — and at the Centre, it should be accorded the same dignity as Urdu, adopted by the Western wing of the divided India that encompassed large part of Punjab and Sindh, where the lingua franca was Pubjabi and Sindhi.

“1948, January 8. Evening at Bardhaman House. Leaders of the Language Movement met Prime Minister Najimuddin. The purpose? To protest the arrest and torture of the Bhasha Andolan (language revolution) activists — under section 144 — for demanding that they be allowed to freely read write and speak Bangla.

“1948, March 15. On the eve of signing the State Language Agreement, the then Governor Khwaja Najimuddin met the students involved in the Andolan. The next day a procession set out for Bardhaman House to demand the cancelation of the draft agreement. The police were let loose on them, for disobeying the orders under section 144, and the students and teachers were severely wounded. 

“February 21, 1952, was Phalgun 8, 1358 on the Bengali calendar. Governor General Nurul Amin sent out the order that took the lives of Rafiq, Salam, Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, teenaged Aliullah, 17 other students, teachers, progressive intelligentsia and non-communal individuals, rickshawallahs and labourers… The tower that came up overnight in the University campus was not the only direct fallout of the inhuman firing: The symbol of Power, Bardhaman House became the target of people’s anger. 

“After the heinous bloodbath, the demand to turn it into a Centre for Language Studies gathered momentum. And four years later, in 1954 it gained formal sanction prior to the elections. The 21-point Charter of Demands put forth by the Jukta (United) Front spelled out that the Prime Minister move into a less luxurious residence, leaving the mansion to be used as a Student’s Hostel and, subsequently, to be turned into a Research Centre for the language.

“Eventually the Pakistan government had to bow to the unrest: On May 7, 1954, Bengali was adopted as one of the state languages in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. And on December 3, 1954, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Abu Hosain, inaugurated the Bangla Academy in the Burdwan House.” 

Quite naturally, along with research and nurturing of the language, Bangla Academy has taken care to perpetuate the memory of the Amar Ekush (eternal 21st) martyrs. The first floor of the Bardhaman House is home to the Bhasha Andolan Museum. Inaugurated on February 1, 2010, it preserves historical photographs, newspapers, memorial documents, cartoon, letters, publicity leaflets, manuscripts, book covers and memorabilia of the language martyrs. And in the ongoing Boimela, Nymphea has brought to the reading public volumes like Ekush: A Photographic History of the Language Movement (1947-1956) and Kaaler Kheya (The Boat of Time) about passing on Bangla from generation to generation. 

The events of February 21, 1952, shed a long shadow that culminated in the emergence of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh which sings, Moder garab moder asha – Aa mori Bangla bhasha (Our pride, our inspiration, O sonorous Bangla!)… The love for its language has seen the nation adopt Tagore’s creation as its national anthem, Aamar Sonar Bangla. And even before that, Renaissance personality Satyajit Ray saluted the language by penning Moder nijer bhasha bhinna aar bhasha jaana nai … O maharaja, we speak no language other than our own, and we celebrate through that very language, Mora sei bhashatei kori gaan

Indeed, the world salutes the struggle and sacrifices of the people of Bangladesh to be able to sing their songs. In November 1999, UNESCO paid tribute to Amar Ekush, the movement for safeguarding Bangla – with all its proverbs and poetry, myths and songs — by declaring February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

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

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

Categories
Tribute

Requiem for the Melody Queen

Ratnottama Sengupta sings her own paean in which a chorus of voices across the world join her to pay a tribute to a legend called Lata

She was a “pint-sized bundel of musical genius,” wrote the TIME Magazine. The melody queen of India was, they said, “a singer with moonlight in her throat.”

Dr Javed Iqbal was the former Principal and HOD (Surgery) in Qaid-e-Azam Medical College, Bahawalpur, the 11th biggest city of Pakistan. Until a week ago I knew its name only because of Bahawalpur House, the mansion of the former monarch in Delhi, which is now the National School of Drama in the Capital’s Mandi House area. But on February 6, 2022, I gained acquaintance with this surgeon courtesy Whatsap. I heard in wonder as he paid a personal tribute to the just demised Nightingale of India. And I bowed my head twice in deference to the legendary singer and then, to the doctor who, by his own admission, was no scholar of music, yet provided a unique significance of Lata Mangeshkar.

Let me translate what I heard him say in Urdu. “As you know, I’m a surgeon. And when I came to Bahawalpur, I introduced a number of new procedures which contributed to my popularity as Principal and professor. So, students came to interview me for the college magazine. They asked me, ‘Sir where did you learn such good surgery?’ I don’t know why but instantly I answered, ‘From Lata Mangeshkar.’

“The students were surprised, ‘How can that be? She’s not a surgeon! How can you master surgery from her?’ ‘Have you heard her sing?’ I asked them. ‘The way she clears the dues of each harf, every letter of the alphabet; the way she conveys the nuances of every word without erring on even a fraction of the note or messing with a beat – this is the artistry that should permeate the work of every artist. Just the way a single stroke of a painter’s brush can make the painting a masterpiece or can mar it, in the same way a single movement of the finger holding the surgeon’s scalpel, a single cut, a single stitch, a single dissection through a cautery can transform the entire operation into an exemplary art or spoil it for life.’

“Many years ago, it struck me that the way Lata Mangeshkar does justice to every inflection of her songs, should be the yardstick to measure any art. Every breath should transform your performance into the best of your ability. If you listen to any song by Lata Mangeshkar, you will realise that, if the word is written with a chhoti-ii (pronounced: ‘e’) then you will hear a short vowel; and if it is a badi-ii (pronounced: ee) you will hear a long vowel. If you hear ain you can tell that it is written with ain/ euyin and if it is the Arabic letter qaaf then you will hear the guttural sound. But at the same time not a single demand of the melody will be ignored. I’m not an expert nor a scholar of music – and in the past few years I have not been hearing her often – but I can say that this is one quality that makes her mumtaz – the Best.

“Today when she has passed away, I feel like sharing this: The reason why humans are distinct from other living creatures is that physicality is the dominant need of other animals whereas humans are driven by the combined needs of physicality, intellect, emotion and spirituality. The creature whose life revolves around physicality alone will end when Death comes. But the more a person’s intellect, emotion and spirituality contributes to his/her actions, the greater will be his/her claim on immortality. Death is inevitable, Death is mighty, but Death is only so powerful as to make the 5-feet-something Lata Mangeshkar disappear from the face of the earth. Death is not so powerful as to end her art and erase her voice and make her songs disappear. Because the Lata Mangeshkar who was a khatun, a 5-feet-something lady has passed away. But the Lata Mangeshkar who made her ‘The Lata Mangeshkar’ will never die…”

*

Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), the late Classical vocalist whose signature style refused to be bound by gharana traditions, once said that “Often people ask about Lata Mangeshkar’s place in the pantheon of Classical music. In my opinion, this question is redundant, because there can be no comparison between classical music and film songs. While serious development of notes is the constant concern of one, fast beat and fickleness or agility is the main trait of the other.”

At the other end is Nitish Bharadwaj who is still revered for his much-loved evocation of Lord Krishna in the phenomenal serial Mahabharat. The actor has been like a brother to me since he debuted on the Hindi screen with Trishagni directed by my father Nabendu Ghosh. In his homage to the legend, he said, “Since her childhood Lata Didi has lived her life in pursuit of her art, as upasana, contemplation. Her career has not been to amass wealth, it has been as upasak, a worshipper or sadhak, devotee. Which is why she has succeeded in leaving behind thousands of songs for us…”

It is a fact that Lata Mangeshkar has more recordings to her name than any singer in the world. But it is not merely the number, it is the impact of the songs that astounds the world. I will quote an unidentified fan with whom my generation can easily identify. For she writes, “As a child you woke me up with Jago Mohan pyare (Rise my child, Krishna) and lulled me to sleep with Aa ja re aa nindiya tu aaa (Come, Sleep to rest in my baby’s eyes). You made me feel good as you sang Bacche man ke sacche (Children are born pure, with heart of gold). When you sing Humko man ki shakti dena, (Give us the strength to win over our mind) you take me back to my classroom. Solah baras ki bali umar (Sixteen going on seventeen), I experienced in your voice the blossoming of my first crush. Ajeeb dastaan hai ye (What a strange story, this!) stirred the deepest chord of my heart. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai you gave voice to the abandonment of a spirit freed from bonding. And the countless times I heard Aye mere watan ke logon (Cry, O people of my land) tears flowed down my cheeks…”

Three days after Lata Mangeshkar bid adieu to sunlight, Rabindra Sarobar – close to my house in Lake Gardens – offered a unique proof of her abiding life. Let me share it in the words of Mudar Patherya, my secularist friend who initiated a revival of the lake by hosting morning concerts and inculcated pride in one’s neighbourhood by painting icons on otherwise defaced walls.

“DEAR LATA AUNTY,” he wrote on his FB wall, “this morning, for a change, we sang for you. Beginning with Allah tero naam, Ishwar  (God are your names too) – we feel you are that too. Then, we went on to Naa jeyo naa (Do not go away), Lag jaa gale (Come, hold me in your arms), Rahein na rahein hum (If I’m there or I’m gone), Piya tose (My eyes have met yours, beloved) and others. We ended with Ai mere watan ke logo

“We were a few. We took kalam, printouts of the lyrics. We read the words. Emphasised the huroof, letters of the alphabet. Sang from deep within.  

“‘Singing for you,’ we said.  

“Nobody said Wah wah, Well done. Nor kya gaaya, encore.  

“But…  

“One Sarobar walker stopped and joined us.  

“Another doing his press-ups did not rise, easing into restfulness after the fourth. 

“Rowers – members of the Rowing Club next door – came close to where we were sitting, lifted their oars and glided lazily for seconds. 

“The lady walking purposefully said ‘Wait a sec’ to her husband and stayed till the end.  

“A yogi, engaged in the specific type of controlled breathing called anulom-vilom,, dropped his fingers halfway and meditated.  

“A lady, who was a part of our audience, closed her eyes and rocked gently. 

“The surgeon who played the harmonium for us shook his head in a gentle parabola as if he’d just comprehended something new. 

“The lady with a DSLR to shoot birds capped her lens and sat down.  

“The stranger who chanced by perched himself on the durrie and asked ‘Gaaitay paari? Can I join in?’  

“Schedules were interrupted, agendas disturbed, focus distracted. 

“At the end, someone suggested something radical.  

“‘Can we have this for the whole day?’ “

*

Don’t worry dear, I would say in reply. We will — for the rest of our lives.

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Glossary

Khatun: A woman of rank

Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai: I want to live again today.

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

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

Categories
Excerpt

Satyajit Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan & Nabendu Ghosh and a Famous Triology

Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay was a classic immortalised further by Satyajit Ray’s films, also known know as the Apu Triology. Here is a translation from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography which introduces how the film came to be. This portion has been excerpted from Eka Naukar Jatri (Journey of a Lonesome Boat) and translated by Ratnottama Sengupta as a celebration of the Satyajit Ray Centenary.

Pather Panchali : Unprecedented

The year, in all probability, was 1938. (This was the year of the Prabasi Bengali Sahitya Sammelan in Guwahati. Nabendu met Bibhuti Bhushan later, probably in 1942 or 1943, when the Bengal Famine was on.) Nabendu Ghosh talks of his meeting with Bibhuti Bhushan, reading whose novel, he was transported to Nischindipur, where the narrative was set. When he met Bibhuti Bhushan, he felt he had met Apu. When he saw Song of the Road, he could only chant, ‘Apurbo!’

The Prabasi Banga Sahitya Sammelan ( Bengla festival of expatriate writers) was being held in Guwahati. Delegates from all over the country were to meet and discuss Bengali authors, novelists and poets, enjoy cultural evenings, and to tour the city in between the sessions. From Patna we – five of us – set out with printed copies of the annual number of our magazine, Prabhati. The chairman that year was Anurupa Devi (1882-1958), one of the most reputed women novelist in the British colonial era. This eminent writer was the younger sister of Surupa Devi who also wrote under the pseudonym of Indira Devi. Anurupa Devi’s Poshya Putra (Adopted Son), when staged as a play, had become a super hit. I had read two of her major novels, Mahanisha (1919) and Mantra Shakti (1915), which were made into films in 1954 with a star-studded cast. Finally I was face to face with the formidable personality. To me, to this day Anurupa Devi tops the list of women writers.

The other name that made a deep impression was Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. Everyone was talking about his Pather Panchali – apparently it was “mesmerizing.” At the end of the session, as soon as I reached Patna, I visited the city’s biggest bookseller, Burman Company. The owner Bidyut Burman hailed from Madhya Pradesh but spoke flawless Bengali. The minute I mentioned Pather Panchali, he brought out two copies. I bought one for myself.

I finished reading it in three days. Every night I was supposed to switch off at 11 pm but, on the pretext of writing an important tutorial for my college, I stayed up all night to finish it. Three days later I shook my head and shouted at the top of my voice, “Apurbo!” (That is the name of the protagonist, and it means ‘unprecedented.’)

Maa heard me shout and came running, “What is the matter? Why did you scream?”

“For the heck of it, Maa,” I assured her, “in sheer delight.”

“Delighted? By what?” – Maa asked me.

“This book Maa,” I pointed to the copy of Pather Panchali.

“Put it on my table,” Maa said. “Let me read it.” 

Morning till evening Maa had so much work, it took her two weeks to read the book. When she finished reading she returned it to me with these words, “What a lovely reading re! Soaked in sadness, yet it enriches you from within. In fact, it loyally reflects reality – life is such! Reading this book purifies the soul.”

The way Maa put it, my admiration for the greatness of the work went up manifold. Truly, Pather Panchali is a vivid chronicle of the journey of life. Simple in its language, unadorned but poetic in its descriptions. I learnt to look at Nature anew. I got acquainted with many a tree that I had only heard about. I discovered many that I was not even aware of. The names of many creepers brought me the story of a world so far unseen. Now I was in communion with Benibabur bagan, the widespread garden that surrounded the rented house we lived in.

Bankim Chandra was my first guru in literature but honestly speaking, I could not identify with many of his characters. Sarat Chandra evoked a world much closer to the one we inhabit. I could understand the motivations of his characters who were of my age. But Pather Panchali revealed one hundred percent the inner world of my childhood. Particularly in my case. I was raised in the happy environs of our house and yet, even in my young life I had witnessed extreme unhappiness too. In every station of life innocent children with their sinless minds are drawn to happiness. The way they raid the natural world to seek out the bare minimum quota of joy from nature, what they dream of — all this is stuff this novel is made of. When I finished reading it, I felt I AM Apu — Apurbo Kishore, the protagonist of Pather Panchali: timid, faultless,  ever keen to drink of the honey of life – much like a butterfly. Apu who is not ‘smart’ or clever, Apu whose constant hunger is for flowers and fruits and dreams…

After reading Pather Panchali my attachment with Benibabur bagan grew manifold. I felt that it was the abode of Nischindipur (where the novel unfolds). In the hazy light of morning, in the stillness of sun scorched noon, in the lazy twilight of sundown and the stifled darkness when night has swallowed day, I would be transported to Nischindipur.

Many many days have passed since then. I was a youth who was knocking on the doors of manhood, thereon I have advanced towards super annuation — but that little boy Apu still resides within me. The Apu of Pather Panchali who grew up into the teenaged Aparajito, Unvanquished, and then the young man who marries and sets up Apur Sansar — Apu’s household — and travels into fatherhood, stands frozen in time there. But he sets out on a new journey into childhood through his son Kaajal. This child breathes life anew into Nischindipur.

To me, Nischindipur equates the land of No-Worry. I am reminded of W B Yates’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ :

And I shall have some peace there, for

Peace comes dropping slow 

Dropping from the veils of the morning

To where the cricket sings…

***

Without prior notice I got an opportunity to go to Calcutta. The occasion was the wedding of my paternal aunt’s son Radha Gobinda Ghosh, who had just completed his Master in Arts studies with distinction and secured a government job.

Let me confess here that the wedding was but a pretext to go to Calcutta.  My real intention was to meet the author of Pather Panchali — Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay.

Mani Bhushan Da, the editor of our magazine, Prabhati, had provided me with his address on Mirzapur Street. He lived in Paradise Lodge, next door to the famous sweetmeat shop Putiram. It was a seven minute walk from Sagar Dutta Lane where my cousin Radha Gobinda Da lived.

The day after I reached Calcutta I told my aunt that I was going for a stroll up to College Square. “Don’t stray too far,” she cautioned me. “No, I won’t,” I assured her and set out.

I walked down Kalutola Street and across College Street, the hub of books and publishing industry in Bengal. There, on my right was Putiram, beckoning me with its array of sweets. I ignored them all and turned into the three-storeyed structure next door. The dominating signboard at the gate read ‘Paradise Lodge’.

I entered and asked for Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. An elderly person directed me, “Climb non-stop upto the terrace and walk into the room there.”

It was like a chilekotha – a garret. It had the touch of middle class living all over it: a table with chair, a cot, the floor covered with a sheetalpati woven out of mat, an almirah full of books.

Clad in a cotton banyan a gentleman seated on the chair was reading a book. The minute I showed up at the door he looked up with a question in his eyes, “Yes?”

“I would like to meet Bibhuti Bhushan, Sir.”

“I am that very person. Where are you from?”

“Sir I am from Patna. I am carrying a letter from Manindra Chandra Samaddar of Prabhati Sangha.” I touched his feet before handing him the letter.

“May you prosper,” he blessed me with a raised palm. Then, before opening the letter he said, “Come, sit — you have come all the way from Patna!”

He smiled after reading the letter. “So you are in Mani’s team. Well well, I know Mani — a splendid person with matchless character and breathing idealism. I have gone through the last annual number of Prabhati. Very good effort. Mani mentions that you also write.”

He called out a name.

“Yes sir, here I c-o-m-e –” the name replied. He was one of the attendants at Paradise Lodge. “Get some sweets, and tea for my guest — he has come from Patna,” Bibhuti Bhushan looked at me. Then he started asking me for details about me and my writing. It was his way of getting acquainted with Nabendu.

When he paused, I ventured to speak, “I am charmed by your Pather Panchali.”

He smiled at me. “I am happy to hear that.”

Out of the blue I popped my query, “Tell me, are you Apu?”

He smiled as he nodded, ” Sure I am there in Apu. Actually every writer blends himself in with what he has seen and heard to create his characters. They see the people around them, their joys and sorrows, they laugh and cry with them, they get involved with the problems and crises in their lives and then they adapt them to their novels and stories. You are also penning stories — be a bit more aware, observe more carefully, objectively, and you will find that you are also doing the same.”

Until that moment I was not aware that such a process was at work behind what I wrote. After I heard Bibhuti Bhushan I realised the truth of his words.

The tea and sweets didn’t take too long to appear in the chilekotha room. I decided that they must be from Putiram.

As I made to take leave, he said, “Read a lot. Read the established writers. As you keep writing you will yourself realise where to start and where to stop, how much to tell and how much to leave out.”

When I left I was convinced that I was leaving Apu of Nischindipur. By this time he had become an elderly relative of mine — a well-wisher.

***

Years later. Could be 1952. 

Puffing on his Chesterfield in between the sips from his teacup, Bimalda said, “Now that Maa is complete, What next? We need new work. Bombay Talkies is in a precarious state now – in case Maa is not a hit, we will be like bad penny to them. So, before Maa is released in the theatres, we must get a new contract. And for that to happen we need a stock of stories. Hiten Chaudhuri is talking to two possible producers, two others have got in touch with me. But without a story none of these will work out.”

So we needed stories. But what kind of stories? The kind that wins over viewers when it is reflected on the silver screen in a darkened theatre. One that compels them to repeat, “And then? What now? What will happen?” But what will happen to whom? To the problems and crises in the lives of the characters. If the problems are pregnant with drama, that will blend with the skill of unfolding the narrative and keep pumping the adrenaline of the viewer and raise his blood pressure higher and higher and they will wonder, “And then? What now? What will happen?” In unison with the persona, seeking a resolution of their conflicts, they will wordlessly demand, “And then? What now? What will happen to them?” 

In our country most people gravitate to stories that revolve around the crisis called ‘love’, perhaps because desire to love is universal and to be loved is eternal. So love is a safe bet, especially in cinema. We have just completed Maa for Bombay Talkies, but that does not revolve around love between a man and a woman — it is structured around a mother’s love, for her husband and her sons. It is a family drama. We will know the power of this love only when the film releases.

So what kind of stories shall we narrate to the producers? Which stories will assure them that their investment will be secure and prompt them to say, “Yes sir! We will film this very story!” Because, no matter which story you decide on, to make it into a film means investing lakhs of lakhs — and every producer prays that he should recover his investment if not make a profit.

Over the next five-six days, we discussed and narrowed down the list to a few ideas. We listed some stories and novels from Bengali literature.  Bas – done — we were equipped for one more round of chess with success. 

The problem with cinema as a mode of livelihood lies in this: the success or failure of each film decides the film you will get to do or not do next. The director’s team is engaged to constantly come up with ideas, concepts, narration that will appeal, first, to a producer and then to a financier.

That is the first stage. And, in the final stage, the viewer will give his verdict, “Waah!” “Lovely!” Only then will the moneybags be willing to hear your next story. There is only one problem: What if the aesthetics of the moneybag is not evolved? Or, sometimes, for the sake of livelihood you bow to his ego and settle for a story idea he supplies, then all your effort might go waste like a falling kite. In short, the art form we have embraced as our mode of eking a living is a dicey form — we are constantly walking the razor’s edge.

***

Suddenly I remembered the novel that had mesmerized me. I went up to Bimalda and said, “I want to remind you of this classic novel which you must have read…”

“Which novel?” Bimalda was curious.

“It can translate into a spellbinding movie. I am talking about Bibhuti Bhushan’s Pather Panchali.”

For a few seconds Bimalda gazed fixedly at me. Then, slowly, pondering over every word he said, “Yes, it is an amazing novel. But in this Hindi film industry nobody will be able to appreciate its innate rasa. No Nabendu Babu, there will be no taker for it in this market.”

End of story. But I could not forget Pather Panchali. That very evening I met Phani Da (Majumdar) in his office and, in the course of our conversation, I mentioned it to him. I did not stop there: for almost an hour I narrated the highlights of the novel to him.

Phani Da also responded, “It will be extremely difficult to sell this in Bombay. But,” he went on, “there is no doubt that it has the possibility to become a movie of an entirely different flavour. Let’s do this: Let’s buy the rights to the story. You please write the letter.”

Write to whom? In 1950, at the age of 56, Bibhuti Bhushan had left for his heavenly abode. I did not know where his son lived. So, the next day I wrote to the publisher, the noted writer Gajendra Kumar Mitra. His company, Mitra & Ghosh had published Pather Panchali and I was lucky to claim his affection. So he would certainly guide me in the matter.

A week or so later I heard from Gajen Da. The movie rights of the novel have been purchased by the art director of the established advertising firm, D J Keemer, Mr Satyajit Ray. Initially the name was not significant to me but then, within brackets Gajen Da had written “He is the son of Sukumar Ray, the author of HaJaBaRaLa (Habber Jabber Lawand Pagla Dashu (Mad Dashu).” The name acquired a certain significance then. 

At the same time I felt a sense of loss. For three years after that the sense of loss would surface like a bubble, at unguarded moments.

One day all of a sudden I learnt that Pather Panchali will be screened for a private gathering. Along with Bimalda we made a beeline for the show. By then Bimalda had become an international celebrity thanks to Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land).

During the interval, lighting up his Chesterfield, Bimalda said, “You can do justice to a classic of Bengali literature only in Bengali. West Bengal government has sponsored the making of this film — that is a rare happening in the history of cinema worldwide. Director Satyajit Ray deserves congratulations.”

***

Indeed everything about Pather Panchali was unprecedented. The casting of characters, the creation of environment, the re-creation of Nischindipur where the actions unfold, the cinematography, and — finally — the background score: I repeat, every single aspect of the film was unprecedented. Apurbo!

Since that evening the sense of loss has never surfaced to torment me. After watching the film I was convinced that the Good Lord had created Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay to write Pather Panchali, and that very Lord had created Satyajit Ray to transcreate the novel on screen.

Nabendu Ghosh and his daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. As part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

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

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

Categories
Bhaskar's Corner

Manoj Das – The Master Storyteller

Bhaskar Parichha pays a tribute to one of the greatest storytellers from the state of Odisha, India, Manoj Das( 1934-2021), who lived to be 87 and passed on from normal causes this April

“I have now read the stories of Manoj Das, with very great pleasure. He will certainly take a place on my shelves beside the stories of Narayan (R K Narayan). I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.”

Graham Greene.

“Whenever people praise Paulo Coelho and the like, I always think of Manoj Das. What a great prolific writer we have. He could have easily reached the heights and beyond of the one Coelho reached. But he preferred the silence, simplicity and serenity to fame and glory. In this, he has lived the very values he gave us through his stories.”

— Aravindan Neelakandan, Indian Journalist

With the passing away of Manoj Das, Indian literature has lost a master storyteller who wrote bilingually — in English and his mother tongue Odia — with equal affluence. Novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, columnist and a sadhaka, Manoj Das will be remembered by generations of Odias for his literary outpouring for over half a century. Odisha-born (in a village called Sankhari in Balasore district bordering West Bengal), his fame went far beyond terrestrial limits.

Manoj Das began   writing quite early. His first work — a book of poetry in Odia — Satavdira Artanada (Cries of a Time) was published in 1949 when he was barely in high school. In 1950, he launched a literary magazine, Diganta (Horizon). His first collection of short stories Samudrara Kshudha (Hungry Sea) was published the following year. Manoj Das often cited Vyasa, and Valmiki and Fakir Mohan Senapati, as his early influences.  

He took active interest in student politics while studying for his bachelor’s degree in Cuttack’s prestigious Ravenshaw College. A youth leader with radical views, he even spent a year in jail for his revolutionary undertakings. After graduating from Puri’s SCS (Samanta Chandra Sekhara)

College, he received a postgraduate degree in English literature from Ravenshaw College. He was also a delegate to the Afro-Asian students’ conference at Bandung, Indonesia in 1959.

After a short stint as a lecturer in Cuttack’s Christ College, Manoj Das came away to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1963, where he had been professor of English Literature at the Ashram’s International Center of Education. Pondicherry (modern Puducherry) became his ‘Karma Bhoomi’ and his abode of sadhana. His quest for devoutness motivated him to become an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram of which he was an integral part till his end.

Manoj Das wrote expansively and in various genres. Poetry, novel, short story   travelogue and books on India’s history and culture dominated his works. Shesha Basantara Chithi (Spring’s Last Epistle ),Tuma Gam o Anyanya Kabita (Your Village and Other Poems) Dhumabha Diganta ( Dusky Horizon), Manojpancabimsati (Twenty-five short stories) and the most recent one, Shesha Tantrikara Sandhanare (In Quest of  the Last Tantric), are among the Odia works he is best known for. His writings in Odia have mesmerized readers for decades. 

Manoj Das has often been known as the Vishnu Sharma of modern Odia literature —   for his magnificent style and effective use of words. His   oeuvre displayed many dimensions of human nature. He was a truth-seeker, a thinker-writer whose works are defined ‘as a quest for finding the eternal truth in everyday circumstances’.

He began his English writing in 1967 with the publication of the short story collection A Song for Sunday and Other Stories. It was followed by Short Stories of Manoj Das. Both attracted commendation from literary doyens like Mulk Raj Anand, K P S Menon and K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Some of his other notable works in English are ‘ The Escapist’, ‘A Tiger at Twilight’, ‘The submerged Valley and Other Stories’, ‘The Bridge in the moonlit Night’, ‘Cyclones’, ‘Mystery of the Missing Cap’, ‘Myths’, ‘Legends’, ‘Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India’. He wrote his memoir ‘Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian Village (2004.) 

After the publication of ‘The Submerged Valley’, Graham Greene, whose appreciation of contemporary Indian fiction was limited to R K Narayan, wrote to Dick Batstone, publisher of the book, expressing happiness at his discovery of Das. “I imagine Odisha is far from Malgudi, but there is the same quality in his stories with perhaps an added mystery.” 

Manoj Das is best known for his dramatic expression as well as satire. His writings dealt with various social and psychological issues: displacement, natural calamities such as floods, people’s belief in ghosts and spirits, duplicitous politicians, et cetera. While his writings were social commentaries on post-Independence times, the short stories, novels, essays and poems blended physical experiences with fantasy and left an indelible impression on Indian literature.

An exponent of the philosophy of ‘Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’, Manoj Das wrote weekly columns in almost all national dailies: The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman. A whole generation of readers grew up reading his columns, which were contemporaneous and dealt with emergent issues. His newspaper writings — revealing the subterranean truth — are treasured by many.

He wrote for academic journals and periodicals too; and his international appeal grew most in the 1970s and 1980s when The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Imprint published his numerous stories. He also edited a cultural magazine, The Heritage, published by Chennai’s Chandamama group.

Awards came to Manoj Das effortlessly:  the topmost being the Saraswati Samman, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan for his lasting contribution in the field of Literature and Education. Kendriya Sahitya Akademi conferred its highest award on Manoj Das. He was Member, General Council of Sahitya Akademi, and the Author-consultant, Ministry of Education, Government of Singapore in the early eighties besides leading an Indian delegation of writers to China.

In 1971, his research in the archives of London and Edinburgh brought to light some of the little-known facts of India’s freedom struggle in the first decade of the twentieth century led by Sri Aurobindo for which he received the first Sri Aurobindo Puraskar (Kolkata).

Being a bilingual writer, when someone asked about the language he envisaged before writing a piece, he answer back:  “In the language of silence — if I do not sound presumptuous, the creative process ought to be allowed some mystery. Inspiration surely precedes articulation through any language. This is absolutely true in regard to good poetry and substantially true in regard to good fiction. Without this element of inspiration, which is beyond language to begin with, literature can hardly have a throbbing soul.”

From a disenchanted Marxist to an ardent humanist, Manoj Das was an ingenious author. His creative works – running into a thousand and more — dealt with the Indian psyche and were so spontaneous that it impressed both the Indian and the Western reader — for the authenticity and the diversity.

Manoj Das had an uncanny capacity for presenting the serious and the serene in a way that was amusing, often arousing a lasting humor. Elements of fantasy as metaphor have a domineering presence in his fictions.

 P Raja, author of Many Worlds of Manoj Das, has a deeper insight into his works: ‘Mystery in a wide and subtle sense, mystery of life, indeed, is the core of Manoj Das’s appeal. Born before Independence, he has thoroughly used in his fiction. His experiences, gathered at an impressionable age, of the epoch-making transitions through which the country was passing. Thus we meet in his works lively characters caught up in the vortex of India’s passage from the colonial era to freedom, the impact of the end of the princely states and the feudal system, and the mutation of several patches of rural India into clumsy bazaars.’

For thousands of men, women, and children of the past three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of courtesy and bliss. His words have inspired countless readers and have instilled a faith in the purpose of life.

Glossary

Sadhaka – Someone who pursues a certain discipline with devotion.

Sadhana — Meditation

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Categories
Musings

Gliding down the Silk Road

By Ratnottama Sengupta

These contemplations have come out of Ruhaniyat-e-Aam, an online festival of migrating music. Hosted by Indus Band, its focal theme was ‘Reconstructing the Silk Route’.  A webinar was the finale of the concept that was put into practice long before ‘COVID’ entered the Oxford dictionary – in 2018 when Somali Panda, founding head of the Kolkata-based Band came up with the novel concept of connecting online with performers in Greece. They played their music, we joined them with my reading, Tamal Goswami’s painting, and Somali’s songs.

Subsequently, during the pandemic, “when the world was compelled to stay indoors, the importance of connecting with the rest of humanity forcefully struck us,” says Somali. She then went on to host this series of interactions with musicians, artists, filmmakers and academicians from Greece, Czech Republic, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan and India — all participating in a celebration of the Human Migration that established bonding amongst nations, cultures, civilizations, and created a global community long before the term had come into existence.

The prime purpose of reconstructing the Silk Route — philosophically, ideologically, conceptually – was to forge a measure of friendship. Friends they became – Labros Kantos, singer from Greece; Saimir Bajo from the Czech Republic; Mesbah Kamal, academician from Dhaka; Sharofat Ara Bova, filmmaker from Tajikistan; Arqavaneh Folklore Ensemble from Isfahan, Iran; Mohamed Abu Zid from Cairo, Egypt; Sarower Reza Jimi, playwright from Lisbon, Portugal… Because music connects people most readily since it overrides the barrier of language, “and it gives inner peace and solace,” Somali adds.

 By the time it ended, Ruhaniyat-e-Aam had traced the cultural exchange from the time of Alexander and helped to understand how Hellenic Culture became Hellenistic through synthesis. Most of us know that after Alexander conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria (339 BC). A little more detail: this was in the Fergana Valley of Neb – around modern-day Tajikistan. Leaving the wounded warriors behind Alexander moved on, and in time the Macedonians intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco Bactrian culture that flourished in the Seleucid Empire after his death.

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This festival of Migrant Music set me on a virtual journey down the Silk Road, the 6,400 km caravan tract that was actually an ancient network of trade routes. Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, it linked in commerce the regions from China to Mesopotamia – should I say modern day Iran? – through India, Asia Minor, Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome and Britain too — between 130 BC and 1453 AD. Originating in Xian – now famed for its Terracotta Army – it followed the Great Wall of China to its northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs, crossed Afghanistan, went on to the Levant region from where merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.

What many of us don’t realize is that the Silk Route was not one single road. There were some that were longer and safer; some were shorter and more difficult. Some had been journeyed on much longer and thereby had witnessed more exchange than some of the shorter, more precarious roads and pockets like, say, Bhutan. And few travelled the entire length of the road: goods were handled in a staggered progression by middlemen.

The greatest value of the road lies in the exchange of culture it effected. Art, religion, technology, language, science, architecture — indeed, every other element of civilization was exchanged on these roads, along with the commercial goods that merchants traded from country to country

Marco Polo: Creative Copmmons

With the loss of Roman superiority and rise of Arabian power, the Silk Road became more and more unsafe. However, during the rule of the Mongols/ Mughals, Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) travelled right up to China along the road that is now supposed to have been the main artery along which travelled the bubonic plague bacteria responsible for the pandemic of Black Death that decimated the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

The network was used regularly till about 1453 when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. By this time Europeans had become used to goods from the east, and so merchants set out to find new trade routes – over the oceans. That, as we know, led to the discovery of the New World and of new civilizations and forging of new cultures. In sum, we may say that laid the groundwork for the modern world.

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What many of us don’t know: Part of the Silk Road still exists as a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur, an autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. It had given UN the impetus to plan a trans-Asian highway, and a railway counterpart of the road too had been proposed. The road had inspired cellist Yo-Yo Ma to found the Silk Road Project in 1999 in order to explore cultural traditions along its route and beyond, as a means for connecting arts worldwide, across cultures.

But why look back on the Road that has little to do with how it existed 2000 years ago? Forget the zeros – it is probably not like it was even two and half years ago! So what is its importance?

To my mind, the importance lies in the layers of history lining it. Glancing backward we realize that we stand on the shoulder of giants. Every visit into the past unearths stories of human civilization. And whenever I have done that – as I did in Kazakhstan as part of an ICCR effort in 2009 – I have got answers to questions like:

 A) Where was the Road going and why?

B) Why was it such a life transforming journey?

C) The road traversed through remote parts of the world, especially a huge part was ice covered desert. Then, why did the horse become such an important part of the journey on this road?

D) Horse was only one of the animals that were traded on the route. So, who named it Silk Road and why?

Arabian Nights

 It was so named by Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 CE because silk was a treasured part of the trade – indeed it was the primary attraction that started off the trade but few travellers walked the entire length of the road. They came to different posts on the route, exchanged goods, food, plants, and ideas along with spices and tea. Stories of The Arabian Nights give us an idea about the exchanges that were taking place in city like Baghdad. And we realise that the flying carpet was not a mere figment of imagination, it became a metaphor for journeying from one world to another.

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Enough of history? Well then, let’s take note of the cultural exchanges closer to our life and times. Since Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was about Migrating Music, what we naturally traced was the commonality of instruments like sarod, santoor and violin… How come the last named string instrument most associated with Western Classical music gained such acceptance and became inseparable part of music in Iran and in South India’s Carnatic music? Was rabab, the folk accompaniment most widely associated with Afghanistan, the precursor of India’s sarod, internationalized by Ustads such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan? Indeed, it was from them that I learnt there have been several versions of the rustic musical instrument that was honed, refined, perfected and sophisticated until it became the sonorous voice of Indian classical music.

Again, our santoor has a close affinity with instruments in China, Persia, Greece, and so many other places. I remember my visit to China for the Festival of India under the aegis of the Ministry of Human Resources, then headed by Arjun Singh. As part of that government-to-government initiative, I visited some music schools and was amazed to see how much our santoor — once called shatatantri or hundred stringed veena — had in common with the Chinese hammered dulcimer, yangqin. There have been many versions of it – in Iran, Iraq, Greece, Armenia. I noticed that the music played on the Chinese instruments were a bit more staccato; in India I learnt from maestros closely identified with santoor — primarily Shiv Kumar Sharma and Bhajan Sopori – that strings have been added to get the murchhana or greater resonance so that the notes linger on…

If we go on to visual arts, the first name that comes to my mind is of Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). The Russian lawyer-painter-archaeologist-philosopher born in St Petersberg had developed an abiding interest in Eastern religions, in Theosophy and Buddhism as much as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Tagore, Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. His spiritual leanings took him across the Himalayas and make his home in the Himachal town of Naggar where he breathed his last.

Of greater consequence to Ruhaniyat-e-Aam was the fact that in mid-1920s the Roerichs together with their son and six friends went on a five-year-long Asian Expedition that started – in Roerich’s words – “from Sikkim and went through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladah, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qarashar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, Oyrot regions of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam and Tibet…” A decade later he was to return to Mongolia and Manchuria to collect seeds of plants that prevent soil erosion.

In plainer words, because of these travels Roerich intimately knew not only the Himalayan range but a lot more of the Silk Road. This armed him with a scintillating palette of colours that painted mesmerizing mountains that are bold yet lyrical, rather mystical, even spiritual. I was absorbed by the tranquility that imbues the hypnotic series of 36 immersive images of the Himalayas preserved in the Roerich Gallery at the Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore.

Roerich’s journeys along the Road had also prompted him to talk of preventing the destruction of art and architecture and work toward preserving the cultural wealth of the world. This had led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.

Deb Mukharji, a retired member of India’s Foreign Services, has also travelled through its hardy folds – and extensively photographed the Abode of Snow. The keen photographer who has authored Kailash and Mansarovar and exhibited Tall Tales of the Himalayas — among many others — is concerned about the ecosystem of the rugged and culturally rich Himalayas. “It is threatened by the highways that are being built through the mountains, either to promote religious tourism or for other purposes, he says after treks that took him from Garhwal to Nepal and Kailash to Manas.”

Cinematographer-director Goutam Ghose has journeyed through the Silk Route to make the ten-part documentary, Beyond the Himalayas. His project had started in 1994 and initially he had travelled with only 5-6 members who drove in a jeep and through the countries. “Our purpose was to look back from here and now in order to connect all the yesterdays that have transformed life and made us what we are today,” the celebrated filmmaker had said to me then.

So many stories of the exchanges enrich our literature too. Saradindu Bandopadhyay, author of many Bengali classics, had penned a story titled Maru O Sangha – The Monastery in the Desert. This was turned into a film, Trishagni/ Sandstorm (1989) by Nabendu Ghosh, another celebrated Bengali writer who became a legend as screenwriter of Hindi films. His film revolved around a monastery in Central Asia, somewhere on the Silk Route.  It showed traders who came to the monastery with a ration of food, clothes and other essentials. Those were days when people could not fly in in a helicopter and drop supplies… it took months for these traders travelling in groups to reach from one stupa to another. There was a focus on the lifestyle of the times. Buddhism was the first organized religion, and monastery being the centre of Buddhism was thus the centre of such exchanges 2000 and more years ago. These monasteries subsequently became the prototype for Islamic Madrasas and before that, of Christian universities: they were built along the lines of the monasteries which dotted Central Asia. And it is believed that the Stupa also gave the concept of the gumbad, the round top of so many masjids and forts too.

Another important exchange that was happening came to light when Trishagni was screened in many international film festivals outside India – in Tehran, Cairo, Thailand… One of the questions that cropped up was this: “You are talking about Buddhism but why are the men (and women) dressed like they dress in Islamic countries? Islam wasn’t there then!” It had to be pointed out that philosophy – and religion is a part of that – and ideas travel but Geography moulds what we wear. Because of the weather, when there was no air conditioner or even fans around, people in some parts of Africa wore no garments and in some parts of the Asian desert men wore long robes to cover the body from head to toe from the hot flying sand particles. They started covering their heads and ears and part of the face, and that wisdom became a convention and then a tradition.

Thus, geographical reality moulded why people in certain parts of the world dress in certain ways. And with the journey of religion, these dress codes also journeyed. The Romans did not wear silk because they admired the style in which the Chinese wore it but because of the inherent quality of silk. Cotton was also much in demand on this route since it was hot in the desert. So was indigo – native to India, primarily, and sought in Mediterranean countries as pigment for dyeing, medicinal and cosmetic use.

These exchanges which are now history happened largely because of geography. Why? I got the answer in the course of a seminar where artistes and academics had come from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. I started realizing that people were travelling from China down to Northern tip of Africa or the Mediterranean country, certain lifestyle changes were taking place. These landlocked pockets that had no access to the sea, had little green and only animals to live off. Naturally, many turned their attention to what was going on the Silk Road. Two very interesting things happened:

1) Many became bandits who would rob these caravans.

2) Many did the opposite: they offered themselves as guards to protect the goods in the caravans from bandits.

So, the same problem generated two different approaches to life, two different lifestyles. Those who became guards would travel with the caravans and they became warriors. They became warriors because they were living in very tough terrains, and they became skilled warriors because they were fighting off bandits to protect the caravans. Before long these men turned aggressive. Wars between tribes became endemic – and many of the lands strived to find stability and prosperity for their people by going into the lands of other people. (Once again, geography and history came together to define lifestyle and culture.)

We find versions of this later when people set out from Europe and landed up in America, and a new culture and civilizational evolved. Another such change took place when people were forced to travel from the Queen’s England to Australia. All these migrations and journeys have influenced the arts, ideas, religion, food habit… Why is it that in India’s Northwest – Afghanistan, to be specific — people cook meat and roti in tandoor ovens while in Bengal well-being is synonymous with ‘maachh-bhaat’ – fish curry and rice? Once again the answer lies in the history of geography – that is, geography moulding tradition and shaping history.

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In 1892 Rabindranath Tagore wrote Kabuliwala, a story that touches the heart of humans everywhere in the world even today. It pivots on a peddler from Kabul who comes to Calcutta each year to sell dry fruits, and befriends a child, Mini. Circumstances force him to go to prison on charges of stabbing a debtor. On his release he goes to meet Mini and finds she is getting married. Rahman realizes that his daughter, now grown up, will also not have any recollection of her father – and he starts on his return journey, towards home.

This story has been filmed in India in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (1957), in Hindi by Hemen Gupta (1961), by Kazi Hayat of Bangladesh (2006), by Anurag Basu for a television channel (2015), by Deb Medhekar in 2018. It has been reimagined in totally different contexts.  Bioscopewala, set in 1990s, had Minnie going to Afghanistan where her father has died in a plane crash. In another script French Afghan writer Atiq Rahimi sets the story after the destruction of the Balmiyan Buddhas. This man from Kabul spells another exchange of ideas: he comes because this part of the world believes in reincarnation — and he is seeking his little girl who died during the destruction of the Buddhas!

Taking her cue from this same story, Sharofat Imam Arabova of Tajikistan made a lilting film where an Indian vendor selling things in that land strikes a friendship with a little girl. Desirous of paying a tribute to the author, the FTII-trained director approached Somali Panda to incorporate Tagore’s music in the script. “And when we did that using a santoor, it was so strikingly in sync!” says the music-maker from Kolkata who extensively used Raag Bhairavi. “That is the power of music – and also the bonding of migrant music,” she adds. And even as she spoke, I was reminded of Mrinal Sen’s Neel Akasher Neechey/ Under the Blue Sky (1959) wherein a Chinese hawker, Wang Lu, sold silk on the streets of Calcutta of 1930s, when India was under British rule. His life changed forever when he met Basanti, a housewife who gets arrested for her involvement in politics.

So what’s common between these stories? What connects the diverse players? Human situation where a man has travelled for work and struck friendship, an equation with a child – the most basic, most innocent form of humanity.

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This is the importance of revisiting the Silk Route and renewing acquaintance with migrant music: that human beings everywhere in the world have been migrating. Individually too we have migrated. My grandfather migrated from East Bengal – Dhaka – to Patna, then a part of Bengal Presidency. Now Dhaka is a different country, and Patna is part of Bihar, a different state from West Bengal. My father ‘migrated’ from Patna to Calcutta to Bombay Presidency which became two states – Maharashtra and Gujarat. I was born in Bombay, which has become Mumbai, lived in Delhi which was earlier a Union Territory and now has become a state. At present, I live in West Bengal. My brother who was born in Patna studied in Pune, graduated in Medicine from Calcutta, lived in UK and worked in Germany, Brunei, Cyprus, Bosnia… So many migrations!

Today technology has opened new highways, new vistas of connecting with the world. And even as we speak (or read, as in this case) we are crossing boundaries almost every minute of our day. Within families to, a child goes out to study in London or New York, makes Singapore or Sidney his workplace, his family perhaps lives in Delhi, and he travels to Johannesburg to  Rio, Texas to Tokyo, Moscow to Hong Kong, Sweden to Israel. So many outposts of civilization – just as people on the Silk Road once did, for their trade.

The crux of it? Stories that tell us about human lives and human emotions highlight one simple thing: Humans are the same everywhere. They are all born of their soil – geography. And geography moulds our history. Because we are creatures of these two forces, periodically we need to look back and trace our commonalities in order to transcend the schisms in society.

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

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