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A Special Tribute

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta trains the spotlight on actress Swatilekha Sengupta(22nd May 1950- 16th June 2021)

Swatilekha Sengupta in action in Shanu Roy Chowdhury. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

“Swatilekha is more talented and far better actor than I. Still, everyone keeps asking for me!” Rudraprasad Sengupta was not boasting to me – the helmsman of  the celebrated Nandikar Theatre Group was citing just one instance to show that “women in theatre still suffer bias[1].”

He wasn’t far from the truth: Swatilekha Sengupta, who passed away exactly a year ago on June 16 at 71, had graduated in English, mastered Western classical music in England, received guidance in theatre from iconic names like Tapas Sen, B V Karanth and Khaled Chowdhury. She composed music for, directed and carried on her shoulder Nandikar productions like Madhabi, Shanu Roy Chowdhury, Pata Jhore Jaay (Dry Leaves Fall), Naachni(Dancers).

Madhabi was adapted from Bhishm Sahni’s Mahabharat based play; Shanu Roy Chowdhury was adapted from Willy Russel’s Shirley Valentine; Naachni encapsulated the exploitation of the nautch girls of tribal Purulia. She wrote some, she composed the music for some, she travelled to UK and USA, Germany and Norway and Scotland… with husband Rudrapasad, with daughter Sohini, even to stage a one-woman play.  Yet, she is most recalled for playing Bimala in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World, 1985) – although, ironically, she faced fierce criticism for its critical failure!

Growing up in Allahabad Swatilekha – then Chatterjee – had repeatedly watched Charulata (1964) and Mahanagar (1963) with her school friends. She even wrote to Ray seeking an opportunity to work under him. Of course the letter went unanswered – or perhaps it went astray? For, Ray watched Swatilekha in Nandikar’s Galileo and zeroed in on her for the dream role of Bimala: the wife of a forward-thinking zamindar, Nikhiliesh, whose concern for the welfare of the peasantry under his care is critiqued and upended by an upstart revolutionary, Sandip.

Tagore had written the novel, told through the personal stories of the three protagonists, in 1916 when the Nationalist movement was peaking. The 1905 Partition of Bengal had outraged both, the Hindus and the Muslims, and the protests against the religion-based partition also saw Tagore set Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram to music and singing the song to protest the imposition of foreign rule. But after the ‘administrative division’ was rescinded, the call to boycott foreign goods in favour of Swadeshi, indigenous, appealed to the masses – and that led to tensions between the anti-British activists and the idealists. Swadeshi was critiqued as being unaffordable for the peasantry by Nikhilesh in the film and by Tagore, who contended that humanity came before nationalism. Effectively, then, the drama had pitted the conservative versus the radical, rational versus the emotional, East versus West. In short, the home versus the world.

So keen was Swatilekha’s appetite for the character that, on the first day, she’d defied a local bandh[2] and walked from her home in north Calcutta to the legend’s Bishop Lefroy address across the city. On learning that she’d not read the Tagore classic the iconic director had insisted that she should NOT read it. On noticing that she was staring at a harpsichord Ray had asked her if she could play it, and on hearing that she played the piano he’d asked her to play a Beethoven and he had himself whistled along!

Swatilekha Sengupta & Soumitra Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s 1985 film, Ghare Baire. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

All this camaraderie must have passed on to his actor: when the film released to the world, a prestigious American newspaper praised the “immense grace” of the “pretty, surprisingly wilful Bimala”. But the demanding viewers at home tore her to pieces saying “she neither lived nor looked the role”. Suddenly her ‘home’ had turned into a horrid world… “I sunk into depression and wanted to end my life!” Swatilekha had confessed to my young screen-writer friend, Zinia Sen, while preparing to return to the screen 30 years later — with the same co-star, Soumitra Chatterjee, in Bela Sheshe (In the Autumn of My Life, 2015), which is now considered a cult film.

The story of Arati and Biswanath Majumdar takes a curious turn when, on the eve of their 50th anniversary, the husband seeks to divorce his wife. Because? Arati, a typical, traditional housewife, happily spends her life cooking and cleaning, washing and nursing. For, in her vocabulary, those are just other words to say ‘I love you’ to her husband; for looking after her in-laws; for expressing her concern for her daughters and son and grandchildren… This is a far cry from her husband’s definition of a dream partner. For Biswanath, the proprietor of a fabled bookstore, has unending curiosity about the world and wants to travel beyond the map… 

The five relationships depicted in the film attempt to define the life-long companionship we brand as marriage. Do marriage vows ensure the fairy tale ending of happiness ever after? Is married life built upon promises kept and love requited? Or do unfilled expectations and unarticulated expressions also cement the friendship? Is it possible to walk into the sunset hand in hand?

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Belasheshe. Photo sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Bela Sheshe made on a budget of Rs 1.1 crore reaped Rs 2.3 crore. More importantly, while reviving faith in institutionalised partnership it also breathed new box office appeal in the screen partners, Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta. In Belashuru (A New Beginning, 2022) the latest outing of Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee, the director duo have again cast them as Arati and Biswanath. This time, though, it is a new beginning for the husband is eagerly striving for his Alzheimer afflicted wife to recognise that the ‘stranger’ who follows her everywhere, even her bed, is her now-aged groom. For, Arati now lives in the past she left in Faridpur, along with the pond she’d fish in with Atindrada and the textile shop of her comrade in crime, when she got married…

The film pivots on Arati, and Swatilekha outshines one and all in the cast. Not surprising: the actor’s total commitment to the character is borne out by Zinia. She recalls that, “when the rest of the unit sat listening to Soumitra Da’s [3]enthralling anecdotes and Kharaj Da’s [4] humour filled recitation, Swati Di[5] refused to join in. Instead, she retired within herself, just as Arati would.”

Swatilekha Sengupta as Ammi in Dharma Juddha, a film that will be released in August 2022. Photo sourced By Ratnottama Sengupta.

This is echoed by Raj Chakraborty, the director of Dharma Juddha (Religious War ) which was screened in the recent Kolkata International Film Festival. He recounts that the film was shot in Purulia that suffers extreme summer, but “since the sequence was set on a winter night, she kept her warm clothes on all through the shoot. Such was her dedication to the character and the script!”

Having followed her theatre over a long time Raj counts it amongst his blessings that he could work with her. “I’m certain there was more left to learn,” he sighs as he awaits the masses’ response to the film which once again, rests on the sturdy shoulder of Ma/ Ammi/Dadi[6]. Raj could envisage none but Swatilekha as the protagonist who shelters to two sets of men and women when Ismailpur is seized by an apocalyptic night of communal rage. The pacifier succeeds in instilling brotherhood in the four victims from rival camps – until the tragic truth about her son’s death is revealed. It drives home the realisation that the foremost religion is humanism.

Like Swatilekha, Soumitra Da too had a strong presence on the stage. And fortunately, the screen pair’s daughters – Sohini and Poulami, respectively – are also deeply into theatre.  “I had chosen theatre when I wanted to direct,” he’d said to me when Sangeet Natak Akademi had decorated him, “because, if I make films, people will always compare me with Manikda[7].”

That is why I am doubly delighted that the makers marked the release of Bela Shuru [8]– the duo’s last film – around Swatilekha’s birth anniversary[9], with a unique exhibition. it showcases Soumitra’s typewriter, the script he penned for a play, a collection of pipes acquired on travels abroad; his paintings, poems, letters to his daughter from his Jaisalmer shoot for Sonar Kella (1974)… And it showcases Swatilekha’s violin and mouth-organ; the costumes she wore in Nachni and Bela Shuru; and, a congratulatory letter to Swatilekha, from a star admirer — Amitabh Bachchan…[10]

Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta in Bela Shuru. Photo Sourced by Ratnottama Sengupta

Surely a far cry from the bias that you lamented when you celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Notee Binodini [11] in 2013, Rudra Da[12]?

*

Yes, theatre people the world over agree, that the ‘Moon of Star Theatre’ was deprived of her rightful honour when the theatre that was founded by her not named after her. Why? Because “the aristocrats would not like to enter a place named after a noti.” Thespian Noti Binodini might have been, but she was a fallen woman, wasn’t she? So what if this contemporary of Tagore was the first South Asian actress to pen her own story – Aamar Katha — a lucid memoir that portrays the 19th century society in Bengal which was at ease with European ideas but confined women to homes. So what if the sage Ramakrishna had gone into a trance as he watched her essay Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1884)? Such was her portrayal that thespian Amritlal Bose wrote, “Whenever I bow to any wooden or painted image of Sri Chaitanya, I see Binodini before my eyes.”

Binodini Dasi had gone onstage at age 12, under mentor Girish Ghosh (1844-1912), and her career had ended when she was just 23. Merely 11 years, but those were the years when the proscenium theatre modelled after European convention was spreading in Bengal. In those 11 years Binodini enacted 80 roles, playing Sita, Draupadi, Radha, Kaikeyi or Pramila, Mrinalini, Motibibi, Ayesha. Please note: She pioneered modern stage make-up by blending European and indigenous styles.

“Because of this, people who had seen her in one role could not recognise her in another,” Girish Ghosh himself wrote. Yet this same stalwart of theatre, to please whom Binodini had drained her own resources and founded Star Theatre in north Calcutta, refused to write a foreword for My Story as it contained uncomfortable truths about Binodini’s patrons!

Why did the chroniclers of Bengal Renaissance overlook the contribution of this marginalised star to the land’s cultural mileu? “Because of the class-caste divide,” Soumitra Chatterjee suggests in his foreword for the memoir. “How could the Brahmo-Brahmin dominated upper crust acknowledge the talents of a lowborn ‘prostitute’?”

More than a century later, Swatilekha took it upon herself to train the spotlight on the fact that the years had failed to change the plight of another set of dancing artistes – the Nachnis.


[1] Women in Theatre suffer bias.’ – quoted from Times of India, article by Ratnottama Sengupta.

[2] Strike where transport was halted

[3] Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020)

[4] Kharaj Mukherjee : Actor and comedian

[5] Swatilekha Sengupta (1950-2021)

[6] Grandmother

[7] Satyajit Ray

[8] Release date: 20.5.2022

[9] 22. 5. 1950

[10] Amitabh Bachhan, one of the most nationally and internationally awarded and influential actors

[11] Play based on the life Binodini Dasi

[12] Rudraprasad Sengupta, husband of Swatilekha and a theatre personality

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
Review

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes

Book Review by Indrashish Banerjee

Title: The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud

Author: Dom Moraes

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Travel books that I have read so far, broadly fall into two categories. One is investigative and the other is a spontaneous account of the author’s experience. If one is analytical, the other is immediate. It’s not necessary that the two styles can’t be combined. V.S Naipaul’s A Million Mutinies Now (1990) is a good example of that: a mix of investigation of a place’s past and present through ordinary people’s lives combined with day-to-day travel details. Bill Bryson’s Travels in Small-Town America (1989) is about Bryson’s experience of visiting the towns of America with occasional dosage of nostalgia.

The Best of Travel Writing of Dom Moraes: Under Something of a Cloud falls into the second category – a spontaneous account of events as seen by the author. However, where it’s different from travel books in general (and the ones mentioned above) is that it doesn’t stick to a singular theme. A collection of essays, some autobiographical, some reports, the book takes the reader through a kaleidoscopic journey spanning continents, lives and topics ranging from when the author takes his first steps into the world of writing as a child to the time he is a mature travelling journalist covering topics as diverse as Suharto’s rule in Indonesia to dacoits in India. 

If you are familiar with Dom Moraes ((1938-2004) as a poet, novelist and columnist, you will not be surprised by the sheer finesse of writing you encounter as you move from one essay to another, although you may have your own favourites. Regarded as one of the giants of Indian English literature, Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize when he was just 20 followed by Sahitya Academy Award and a series of other literary awards in England, America and India.

The book starts with an introduction by Sarayu Srivastava recounting the last days of Moreas with detours to his past. The introduction has a morbid element to it, as did Moraes’s life. But, surprisingly, the morbid mood the introduction sets, vaporises in the pieces that follow.

The first two travel pieces are purely autobiographical. ‘His Father’s Son’ (1945) recollects the carefree childhood days of Dom Moraes in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where is father, a reporter with Times of India, was posted. There is a strong visual element to how the natural world of these places has been described. Anecdotes about a child – Moraes – discovering this natural world slowly almost reads like the formative pages of a novel. In ‘Figures in the Landscape’ (1955) Moraes is equally carefree, if a little awkward, going through a range of experiences, some writerly, others potentially amorous, in that global capital of arts, artists and sensuality, Paris.

But there is a tragic and frightening aspect to the pieces, too, which appears and retreats only to reappear as if to remind you that life is not just about gambolling. That aspect is the gradual mental deterioration of Dom Moreas’s mother who was given to violence. Her fits of violence form a recurrent theme until she leaves Ceylon and returns to Bombay to stay with her relatives. But even after she departs, her presence constantly lurks in the background. And when she does reappear, either actually or via recollection, the atmosphere of the essay instantly changes.

She, although absent from many other pieces in the collection, casts a shadow on her son such that some of the actions of the son, particularly his introverted and melancholic personality, seem to be coloured by his mother’s tragedy. One can sense in later essays where the author has grown up, how the derangement of the mother would have affected the son. That almost becomes a subterranean subtheme.

The following opening passage of ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ is a case in point.

One recalled the oddest things: I remember a toy-shop in a Knightsbridge arcade where I used to go when very unhappy, during my first days in London, in order to buy small delicate glass toys which I later smashed, one by one, in the fireplace of my flat, with a malediction against anything beautiful.”

Moraes had a complex relationship with his mother. And in the essays that are a throwback to his childhood days, you meet a helpless child unable to make up his mind whether he loves his mother for who she is, or is indifferent to her — seeing her from a distance with a sense of fright and awe.

As the book progresses, the world of Moraes opens up further. ‘The Chinese at the Doorstep’ (1959) is about a sudden journey to Sikkim and surrounding places. There is a tension in the place that it’s abuzz with Chinese spies, and that China is engaged in incursions and military build-up in the Indian border states. The year is 1959 and developments are admittedly a precursor to the things to come in 1962. Written more than half a century ago, the essay reads disturbingly current. The essay’s narrative is much tauter, almost like a spy thriller, than the other essays.

Since the global brouhaha about climate change is not older than roughly a decade and half, we tend to locate all climate disasters to recent times, having settled into the belief that the past generations were coexisting with nature in peace and harmony. However, the subcontinent has always been home to extreme climate events going back to the 18th century.

“Geography as well as history has always been linked to East Pakistan.” When I read this sentence, the first sentence in ‘Death by Water’ (1970), I thought I was in for an account of the atrocities on the Hindu population of East Pakistan during that period but was surprised to find an extremely well-informed report on a cyclone which had hit the region in 1970. The sea level had risen to a great height creating a ‘water wall’, according to eyewitnesses, which had then crashed on the land raging inland with a monster force and then stopping and moving back into the sea. The next day when helicopters were sent to survey the damage, bodies of humans and cattle were found floating in the sea, river and crevices. 

In ‘Dispatches from Indonesia’ (1972), Moraes visits a country under the tyrannical rule of General Suharto. The dictator had come to power seven years before his visit through a military coup, and immediately after, there was a crackdown on the intelligentsia. Some were executed and some sent to prison camps. Moraes travels to one such prison camp outside the city and meets two famous prisoners, Suprapto (Soeprapto), the former Attorney General, and Pramudja (Pramudya Ananta Tur), a famous writer. Their lives are a reflection of the losses and tragedies the critics of the regime suffered.

In ‘The Company of Dacoits’ (1981), Moraes withdraws from the world of dictators and devastating floods and enters the rugged terrain of dacoits.  We meet Lajjaram, who is dead and whose body is being constantly mishandled by the police, and Lakshman Singh Rathore, alias Lachhi, an eighteen-year-old boy who was thrust into dacoity by his circumstances, first to seek help to avenge his father being deceived, and then to pay for the help received by becoming a fulltime bandit. The rest of the essay is about Lachhi trying to get himself acquitted of the crimes committed by other dacoits in his group. 

Likewise, the other pieces also deal with human conditions in varied settings.                    

The essays are undoubtedly dated, but the subjects they deal with brim with recency: human disaster, tyrannical govt, national expansionism, inaccessibility of justice. Over a period of time, these subjects, of course, have acquired a new lexicon: territorial conflict, climate change, human right excesses and so on.

The collective time span of the pieces is almost 60 years. Dom Moraes’s gaze is that of a writer, rather than of a journalist, always looking out for human tragedies, helplessness and intricacies within bigger narratives of climate disaster, military coups and national conflicts.

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Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India. 

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

Categories
Stories

Give Me a Rag, Please!

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

Courtesy: Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Precisely so.

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you spit it out, woman?”

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

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

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

“I did,” Teenkori hung his head low.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tthaash!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Pooti!”

“Yes?”

“Come here.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why should I not?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ayn?!”

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

*

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

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

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

“O Manish Babu!”  

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

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

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

They walked under the banyan.

“Tell me what you want.”

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

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

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

Manish looked at Teenkori without speaking a word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

But nothing worked out.

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

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

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

“Whom have you given?”

“Those who came first.”

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

“Sethji!” – Teenkori called out softly.

Sethji looked up, “Yes? What is it?”

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

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

“Cloth – I mean a sari.”

“There’s none.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those – those are handloom saris?”

“Yes.”

“Price?”

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

“Can’t you give for less than that?”

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

Teenkori couldn’t buy a sari.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From the bazaar,” Kalimuddin grinned.

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

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

“No dear, no –“

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

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

A pair of ordinary mill-produced dhotis.

“Did you get a permit?” Bhattacharjji enquired.

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

“How much did he charge?”

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

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

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

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

He would organise some money.

But money wasn’t for the asking!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Slowly she walked out of the room.

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

“Why?”

“There’s a reason…”

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

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

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

Teenkori started sweating in the depth of the night.

*

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

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

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

Minutes later they started the march.

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

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

“Down With…”

“Hoarders! Profiteers!”

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

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

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

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

“Profiteers must perish!”

“Stop the black market!”

“Magistrate Sahib, give us justice!”

“We want clothing! Give us cloth!”

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

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

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

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

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

“How pitiable!” Mother and daughter both agreed.

Durwan Ram Singh came in and saluted them.

“What is it Ram Singh?” Carter enquired.

“They’re asking for clothes Huzoor!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom – Mamma!”

“Yes?”

“Call the police please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teenkori returned home empty handed.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entity thus addressed did not reply.

Harimati started howling.

*

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

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

“How can I get one? Steal?”

“Do that.”

”All right, that’s what I’ll do.”

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

He actually went off?!

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

*

Teenkori did not ever come back to dinner.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Together the two went to the police station.

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

Manish implored and took Chhaganlal with him to the court.

*

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

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

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

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

Harimati sat still like a corpse.

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

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

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

What good would be such a life?

*

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

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

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

“Maybe they’re lamenting for you.”

“Possible.”

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

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

Manish was speechless.

Teenkori was swaying.

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

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

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

No, Teenkori would not cry.

Glossary

Anna — Currency. 1/16 of a rupee.

Gamchha — Coarse cotton cloth used like a towel.

Bou — Wife

Puja — Durga Puja

Boudi — Elder sister-in-law

Mandi — Market

Durwan — Security guard

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

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

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

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Ratnottama Sengupta

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 (Certified Board of Film Certification), served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

Conversations

‘He made History stand still on his Pages’

A conversation about an eminent screenwriter and author, Nabendu Ghosh. His daughter, senior journalist Ratnottama Sengupta, unfolds stories about her father. Click here to read.

Eminent film journalist, Ratnottama Senguptaconverses with legendary actress, Deepti Naval, on her literary aspirations at the Simla Literary festival, Unmesh, in June 2022. Click here to read.

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Poetry by Ratnottama Sengupta… Click here to read.

Prose

Freedom is another word for… Zohra Sehgal

Ratnottama Sengupta gives a glimpse of the life of Zohra Sehgal, based on the book Zohra: A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon, and her own personal interactions with the aging Zohra Sehgal. Click hereto read.

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta pays a tribute to famed actress, Swatilekha Sengupta (May 1950- June 2021). Click here to read.

A Special Tribute

In Jean Claude Carriere: A Writer for all DirectorsRatnottama Sengupta pays homage to Jean Claude Carriere (1931-2021), the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Click here to read.

When will we ever learn? Oh, will we ever learn? 

Ratnottama Sengupta, comments on the current situation in Ukraine while dwelling on her memorable meeting with folk legend Pete Seeger, a pacifist, who wrote ‘Where have all the Flowers gone’, based on a folk song from Ukraine. Click here to read.

Beg Your Pardon

Ratnottama Sengupta explores beggary in fact, films and fiction. Click here to read.

Dhaka Book Fair: A Mansion and a Movement

Ratnottama Sengupta writes of a time 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. Click here to read.

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 Mangeshkar. Click here to read.

For the Want of a Cloth

Ratnottama Sengupta muses on an NGO who has won a Magsaysay Award for his work with cloth distribution in India contextualising it against the issues raised in Give Me a Rag, Please by Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read.

Two Birds

Ratnottama Sengupta muses as she translates a Tagore’s song. Click here to read.

Joy Bangla: Memories of 1971

Ratnottama Sengupta recaptures a time when as a teenager she witnessed a war that was fought to retain a language and culture. Click here to read.

Dilip Kumar: Kohinoor-e-Hind

In a tribute to Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar,  Ratnottama Sengupta recollects the days the great actor sprinted about on the sets of Bombay’s studios …spiced up with fragments from the autobiography of Sengupta’s father, Nabendu Ghosh. Click here to read. 

Yesterday Once More?

Ratnottama Sengupta recalls her experiences of the Egyptian unrest while covering the 35th Cairo International Film Festival in 2012. Click here to read.

Gliding along the Silk Route

Ratnottama Sengupta recaps about the silk route. Click here to read and find out more.

When Needles Became Canons…

Ratnottama Sengupta gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle. Click here to read.

How Green was our Valley

Ratnottama Sengupta goes back to her childhood Mumbai to the mid-twentieth century. Click here to read.

The Worshipper of Mother Earth: A Nostalgic journey

Ratnottama Sengupta journeys to show how past and present are interlinked in art and pays tribute to a polyglot, Maniklal Chatterjee. Click here to read.

Wisdom of the Wild

Ratnottama Sengupta muses on the wisdom of the wild in a storm. Click here to read.

In Praise of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta discusses how translations impact the world of literature. Click here to read.

Translations

Down the stairs by Nabendu Ghosh, a gripping story exploring the greyer areas of ethical dilemmas, has been translated by Sarmishta Mukhopadhyay with editorial input from Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Give Me A Rag, Please:A short story by Nabendu Ghosh, translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, set in the 1943 Bengal Famine, which reflects on man’s basic needs. Click here to read.

Ratnottama Sengupta translates Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Bijoya Doushami. Click here to read.

Colour the World: Rangiye Diye Jao, a song by Tagore, transcreated by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Satyajit Ray, Bibhuti Bhushan & Nabendu Ghosh and a Famous Triology: To mark the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray, Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography experience of Pather PanchaliSong of the Road) — between covers and on screen. Click here to read.

Yet, Forget Me Not…: Short story by actress film-maker Aparajita Ghosh translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Across Time: Ratnottama Sengupta transcreates three poems from Bengali. Click here to read.

An August Account of ‘Quit India’ Movement: Ratnottama Sengupta translates from Bengali the excerpts recorded by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), who witnessed an upsurge in the wake of the Quit India Movement, part of India’s struggle against colonial rule. Click here to read.

The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights: Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, these are reflections by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) on the magic of storytelling in Arabian Nights. Click here to read.

The Awaited Mother’s Day: Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, a short story by Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016). Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

Making a Grecian Urn

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  
  
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
‘Beauty is Truth’ : The Potato Eaters(1885) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Courtesy: Creative Commons

What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour.  If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country (1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume (1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.

 Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.

The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.

We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.

In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”

Aruna Chakravarti’s review of Shazia Omar’s Golden Bangladesh at Fifty also stands out embracing the colours of Bengal. It traces the title back to history and their national anthem — a Tagore song called ‘Amaar Sonar Bangla – My Golden Bengal’. Gracy Samjetsabam’s review of Suzanne Kamata’s The Baseball Widow, a cross cultural novel with an unusual ending that shuttles between America and Japan, winds up our review section this time.

As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.

The tone of Rhys Hughes cogitations about the identity of two poets across borders in ‘Pessoa and Cavafy: What’s in a Name?’ reminds me of Puck  or Narada! Of course, he has given humour in verses with a funny story poem which again — I am not quite sure — has a Welsh king who resisted Roman invasion or is it someone else? Michael Burch has limericks on animals, along with his moving poem on Martin Luther King Junior. We have much poetry crossing borders, including a translation of Akbar Barakzai’s fabulous Balochi poetry by Fazal Baloch and Sahitya Akademi winning Manipuri poet, Thangjam Ibopishak, translated by Robin S Ngangom. A Nazrul song which quests for a spiritual home has been translated from Bengali by no less than Professor Fakrul Alam, a winner of both the SAARC award and Bangla Academy Literary Award.

Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.

We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.

Wish you a wonderful month full of festivities!

Mitali Chakravarty,

Borderless Journal

Categories
A Special Tribute

In Conversation with Tushar Gandhi

Santosh Bakaya interviews Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Bapu, after paying a brief tribute to the Mahatma

Gandhi (1869-1948) was assassinated on January 30th 1948. This was one of the last photos of him – sometime in 1947 when both, Gandhi and Nehru, apparently were appalled and concerned about the carnage resulting from the separation of India and Pakistan. This photo was published in Newsweek, Aug. 4, 1997. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Before I begin the interview, I would like to pay a small tribute to the great Bapu, the unarmed fighter, the environmentalist, the vibrant economic philosopher, who talked of Swadeshi and self- dependence long before the modern world is slowly waking up to its benefits, who emphasized a people -centered economy rather than a technology centred one, where we find individuals stripped off their dignity, becoming insignificant cogs in the machine. The plight of the migrant labourers during the current pandemic is branded on our collective consciousness, all because of a flawed-topsy- turvy model of development. Only if we had heeded Bapu’s call of making the villages self- sufficient and self- reliant.

Right from the time he refused to ‘cheat’ to correct the spelling of kettle in a class test during the visit of the school inspector, to the time he abruptly called off the Non-cooperation movement, due to violence at Chauri Chaura, well-aware of the repercussions that would follow, he shunned mendacity and violence. Belying his physical fragility, he managed to emerge as a strong moral icon. In a world torn asunder by war and violence, he succeeded in teaching many a world leader lessons in the powerful weapon of non- violence and truth, pitting soul force against brute force. The vulnerable Mohan, full of complexes, foibles, fears and phobias, a boy who was afraid of snakes, ghosts, multiplication tables, metamorphosed into the valiant, venerable   Mahatma, [a sobriquet he did not feel comfortable   with]. Under the seemingly frail façade, was a man who could flex his moral muscles and shake a comatose nation out of its languor. This unarmed warrior, went on to exemplify self- introspection, self -analysis, self- mastery, and a humongous moral power. Denigrated as the half-naked fakir by Winston Churchill, he was the very epitome of minimalism, but well- clothed in the raiment of love, compassion, fearlessness and forgiveness.

During the Dandi March, women from all sections of society- women who had never been part of public gatherings, women who had not stepped out of the four walls of the house, unlettered village women, poured out on the streets because he had very intelligently linked salt, a common kitchen ingredient to an uncommon call for freedom. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay valiantly stalked into the High Court premises, and while a stunned magistrate gaped, hurled a question at him whether he would like to buy “the salt of freedom”, she had prepared.  Songs of freedom rang in the streets, women metamorphosed into human shields blocking the paths of policemen, facing lathi blows and even landing in jails.  What do you call such a man – an intelligent strategist?  Quixotic? Charismatic?   A maverick?  Was this not a coup of sorts?

Bapu’s strategy paid off and the Indians realized that throwing off the foreign yoke was not difficult, if heads are held high and spines, straightened.  Gurudev Tagore told the Manchester Guardian of 17 May, 1930, “Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia.” Louis Fischer wrote in the chapter, ‘Drama at the Seashore’, in his biography of Gandhi, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, “The British beat the Indians with batons and rifle butts. The Indians neither cringed, nor complained, nor retreated. That made England powerless and   India invincible”– all because of a seemingly weak, five-foot five man, who sent quivers down the rulers’ backs by a handful of salt.

Tushar Gandhi with his book

In this interview with his great grandson, Tushar Gandhi , author of a book called Let’s Kill Gandhi (2007), chronicling the last days of his great grandfather, we hear more on Bapu and Gandhi-ism in the current world.

It is with a feeling of immense awe for the descendant of a great moral icon that I am here with my questions for you, Tusharji.  If you remember, this is not the first time I am talking to you.  It was in the year 2015 that I not just met you, but presented you my poetic biography of Bapu, Ballad of Bapu, for which you had graciously written the foreword.  I remember being awe-struck by your unassuming demeanour coupled with a self-derogatory sense of humour, which your great-grandfather was also known to have had. Please tell us something about yourself, which we don’t know already.

I am an ordinary, simple person of limited abilities who is very lucky to be born a descendant of very illustrious ancestors. Life has taught me that greatness is not an inheritable quality it must be earned. I remember when a celebrity TV presenter Richard Quest was doing a series for CNN called ‘Quest for Greatness‘, he shot the concluding episode at Sabarmati Ashram and invited me to talk to him. His precept was whether places associated with greatness were the source of that greatness. He talked about the greatness of Bapu and about how the place attracted so many leaders of the world to visit it and be inspired by the place and the legacy of the person with whom the place was associated. He asked me if the fountain of greatness was at Sabarmati Ashram and was that the reason leaders visited it to partake of that greatness. My answer was yes, absolutely, sometimes the place inspires great actions and sometimes the aura of the great person associated with the place lingers on to inspire future generations. That draws them to the place.

Tushar Gandhi with his father at Hriday Kunj Sabarmati Ashram

Yes, that is absolutely right. The lingering aura of a particular place cannot be shrugged off, and if it is a place associated with our beloved Bapu, it will always keep inspiring people. The fragrance that I inhaled on my visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, is something I can never forget. Its aura and extraordinary energy seems to cling to ordinary visitors.

Richard’s concluding question for the show was directed at me, he asked, “There is no doubt that Gandhi was great. Scientists believe that our nature and what we become is also hot-wired in one’s DNA, genes. Did Gandhi have the greatness gene? As his direct descendant have you, Tushar inherited that greatness gene?”

My answer was immediate and short, I told Richard, “Greatness cannot be inherited, it has to be earned.”

I am overweight, the result of an indulgent lifestyle. I am lazy, when you sent me these questions my first question was how long would you be willing to wait for my responses! I haven’t, as yet developed the courage to be absolutely truthful. I succumb to anger and passion. I am enslaved by the sense of taste, to delicious food. I am unable to reduce my requirements in life. I know Bapu would have disapproved of me.

So, I live within my limitations, aware of my short comings.

 No one is perfect. We all have our fads, foibles, idiosyncrasies and shortcomings. Yes, I remember, seeing some pictures, of your early teens, in one of which you are even holding on to your pet dog.  What were your dreams then?  Were you aware of your monumental legacy? Were you curious to know more and more about your great grandfather?

Yes, Zendy was more of a brother than a pet. I loved him, poor chap was a bit of a cripple, he had very limited abilities in his hind legs and so he would drag himself around or we carried him around.
As a child I was inspired by my mother’s brother. He was a pilot in the Indian Air Force. So, from very early childhood I wanted to become a pilot. As I grew older, I wanted to join the Indian Air Force and become a fighter pilot. I even sat for the NDA entrance exam, unfortunately I could not qualify and so abandoned those plans. But my desire to become a pilot was obsessive and so I never considered doing anything else and when that dream crumbled, I was left adrift, not knowing what to do. Finally at my father’s suggestion I joined the Printing Institute to do a diploma in printing, I qualified as a printer, but my heart was never in that work and so after several halfhearted attempts, I gave it up as a career.

I don’t have any recollection of a moment or age in my life when I became aware of the legacy I had inherited. I feel I was always aware of the greatness of my ancestor, as I grew older, and my understanding increased the awareness about the greatness of Ba (Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife)and Bapu and my grandparents has grown and along with it my pride in the legacy they have bequeathed to me and with it the awareness of my limitations too.

Kasturba Gandhi. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I never had to request my elders about information about Bapu, I remember as a child my bedtime stories as told by my grandmother or by her sisters and cousins were almost always about their recollections of Ba and Bapu. As a child sometimes I would get fed up and throw a tantrum demanding to be told stories of kings and princes, fairies and princesses. But all I got were stories of Ashram experiences and anecdotes with Ba and Bapu. As I grew older, and my abilities of understanding evolved, I realised and understood the profound lessons those stories taught and the reason why my elders insisted on instilling those stories into my psyche.

My study of the ideals and the methods of Bapu continues. That is a lifelong never-ending quest.

We would love to know about your early life — your idols and heroes. Was Bapu also one of them? Are you also known for your candid, straightforward, hard-hitting words like your great- granddad?

My childhood, like me was very ordinary and unremarkable. I was a very average student someone who would have been diagnosed as being dyslexic, I am still spelling-challenged in all the languages I can write. If it wasn’t for the word processor software with their built-in spell checks I would never have been accepted as a writer, let alone a published author.

Were you a mischievous boy in school?

I was known to be a mischief maker and spent a record amount of time in detention. But it turned out to be a boon. In detention we were made to sit on a bench outside our principal’s office. The door of his curtain-less office always remained open, so he kept an eagle eye on all the benched ones.

The rule was that after we told him why we were on the detention bench, we had to go to the library, get a book and read it while sitting on the bench. I was so often on the bench that I got hooked to reading to such an extent that our school librarian when asked, why he was spending more than what was budgeted for library purchase, complained to our principal about how he had to keep buying new books because I had read all the books in the library. 

This is hilarious! Your punishments turned you into a bibliophile!

The reading addiction grew so much that by my teenage years I was black listed by four libraries in our neighbourhood, because I had read through their collections of books!

In my childhood, shopkeepers used to keep paper bags made from pages of magazines and newspapers.  I remember back home after the purchases had been put away, I would open up the bags and read whatever was printed on them, even though it was incomplete. My obsession with reading continues even today, now on laptops and smart phones, but I still prefer to read stuff printed on paper.

I had many idols during my childhood many still are, my ancestors, naturally. Revolutionaries too. Heroes from the folklore and history, sports icons, armed forces legends and martyrs.  Those associates of my great grandfather I was fortunate to meet, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachary, Maniben Patel, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, once and several others. They all left an indelible impression on my mind.

Since I am well- aware of my limitations I am not as honestly outspoken or frank as Bapu, but I am not known to mince words.  Brash, is how I am more often described.  But, as we live in a world of increasing hypocrisy, I have realized the need for plain speaking, so I too am becoming more and more outspoken.

To suit myself I have reinterpreted Bapu’s favourite three Monkeys from ancient Japanese and Buddhist lore who were actually four, Mizaru, who covers his eyes and sees no evil, Kikazaru who covers his ears and hears no evil, Iwazaru who covers his mouth and speaks no evil and the obscure fourth Sezaru who covers his lower abdomen and does no evil.

In today’s times I have reinterpreted them, feeling that they more appropriately convey the message: “Don’t shut your eyes and block out evil acts or crimes. Don’t close your ears so as not to hear a cry for help or to the bitter truth. Don’t shut your mouth and remain silent while evil is done, and hate is preached around you. And don’t remain indifferent against injustice, act against it decisively.”

I strongly believe Bapu would have adopted the fourth monkey too and reinterpreted all of them.  It is no longer the time for polite and diplomatic talk, we need strong but honest words, not necessarily angry ones and most importantly, actions.   

Very rightly said. In his very first public speech, on 4 February 1916, at the inaugural ceremony of Banaras Hindu University, because of his forthright words, Annie Besant had to plead, “Sit down Gandhi”, when he had ridiculed the highly bejeweled princes who were glibly talking about poverty. “Our salvation can only come through the farmer”. Don’t you think these words of Gandhi resonate today with a renewed vigour?

Yes, Bapu did fall foul of the organisers at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University where he was invited to speak, as the hero of South Africa. When he criticised the bejeweled and pompously attired princes and the elite gathered there, Annie Besant who presided over the function, requested him to stop on several occasions. 

When he started talking about swaraj (self-rule), the dignitaries on the dais staged a walk out and Ms. Besant called the meeting to a halt, but the student body gathered, insisted on listening to Bapu and trooped out of the venue and held an impromptu meeting on the open ground where Bapu continued his very ‘hard hitting’ and what was then dismissed as, impertinent ravings.

Yes, the students had applauded his candid utterances, saying Hear Hear! much to the discomfiture of the organizers and the princes. 

The students were very fascinated by Bapu’s thoughts. It was after this that Bapu forayed into the Champaran Satyagraha, registering a decisive triumph over the colonial power, and gradually taking hold of the reins of the freedom movement.

There is a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration in our country and much that needs to be set right. To begin the process, we need a leader with Bapu’s ability of calling a spade a spade and yet not speaking in an offensive, insulting manner. India today suffers from a very dangerous epidemic of hate, it mustn’t and can’t be countered by counter hate. We must revert to Bapu’s method, honest, truthful words, yet not the language of hate and abuse.

India is witnessing an ongoing protest by farmers from northern states now almost a year old, there is discontent and despair in the entire farm sector, but it is being compromised by a general apathy towards their plight, today it is the farmers, tomorrow it will be another group of us, we must wake up and fight together, united.

Indeed, we need to yank away our comatose stupor, before it is too late. Bapu is said to have had a great sense of humour.  Do you recall having heard any incident of Bapu which had tickled your funny bone immensely, as a child?

Bapu is reported to have said that ‘If it wasn’t for his sense of humour he would have gone mad.’ and also that ‘ If he did not have a sense of humour, the ability to enjoy the funny side of everything he would have been driven to despair and committed suicide.’ This is how much Bapu appreciated and valued humour. His humor used to be laced with sarcasm. When an American journalist asked Bapu what he thought about Western Civilisation, Bapu replied “It is a good idea!”

Yes, that witticism by Bapu never fails to bring a smile to my lips.

I recall a personal anecdote told by my grandmother. This happened in Sevagram, Wardha. Bapu received a request from a group of women village sevaks (workers), who wished to greet him on his birthday and spend 2nd October at the Ashram. Bapu welcomed them but said that he was a poor man and so they would have to bring their own meals and not burden the Ashram.

On 2nd October, they came to the Ashram early morning and participated in the activities of the Ashram. At lunch time when everyone at the ashram assembled at the dining hall, Kasturba noticed that the visitors were sitting under a tree, opening the cloth bundles they were carrying. She called my father and asked him why the visitors were not eating along with all the other residents of the Ashram? My father told her of the condition Bapu had laid down to permit the visitors to spend the day at the ashram.

When Ba heard the story, she was very angry, she told my father to call the visitors to assemble in her kutir (hut), she would cook a meal and feed the guests. Unlike her husband, she refused to forget her dharma (duty) as a host. Ba hurriedly cooked Khichadi and fed them. This defiance of his order by Ba was reported to Bapu, everyone expected him to get annoyed and reprimand her. But he smiled, quipping, ‘At one time the British Queen listens to me, but my words hold no authority over Ba.’

A typical Bapu witticism! We have mutated into rodents, running the rodent derby in helter-skelter haste.  How would Bapu have reacted to this rodent derby?  Would he still have continued to walk alone – taking long strides towards self- discovery, advising\ rebuking people along the way?

Bapu would have warned us about our devolution into rodents. But he would not have just warned us about the evil, danger and unsuitability of our way of life, he would have presented humankind with an evolving alternative way of life and lived it himself. Walking alone was second nature to Bapu, he was so far ahead of his times that he had no option but walk alone, not intimidated by the unknown. Having said that, his belief in the omnipresence of God was so deeply entrenched that he never considered himself to ever be alone.
 
Please tell us something about yourself as a student, were you obedient and disciplined?  How did your peers and teachers treat you?  Did you have a rebellious streak in you?

I was a very average student. In our times we were expected to be obedient, and we too believed that we should be obedient, so I also obeyed my elders and teachers.  I was only nominally disciplined, there was a rebellious streak in me, muted most of the time, but it did manifest itself from time to time. 

Please tell us something about Bapu’s walking habits. He shunned physical classes in school, but later did a lot of physical labour, becoming a very agile walker.  “The modern generation is delicate, weak and much pampered.” He said during the Dandi March and walking less than twelve miles a day, he considered, “child’s play”. How did he become such a sturdy walker?

Bapu acquired the habit of walking far and fast in South Africa. He used to compete with his friend Herman Kallenbach to see who walked the longer distance and who was faster than the other. This became a daily lifelong habit and when at the age of 61 he lead the Dandi March, others much younger than him had to run to keep pace with him. There is a very iconic photograph of a child holding on to Bapu’s walking stick and seemingly pulling Bapu along. 

Yes, I have seen that iconic photograph. 

The child is Bapu’s grandson Kanha, who lived with him when Bapu was briefly staying at Juhu in Bombay.  Every evening Bapu would insist that Kanha accompany him on his walks on the beach. Kanha walked very slowly, so, to make him walk faster, Bapu used to push him ahead of him with his walking stick. Over the years some dexterous photo retouching artists touched up the photo to appear as if the child was pulling Bapu along. Bapu had a very long stride which also added to his speed of walking.

Bapu was a staunch supporter of women empowerment, but in the Dandi March, if I am not mistaken, among the 78 handpicked volunteers, who accompanied Bapu on the 240-mile march which lasted 24 days [12 March to 6 April 1930], only a few women joined the retinue from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, other women only joined him later. Did this issue not become a bone of contention among the women? I recall having read that powerful women like Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu and Perin Captain (the granddaughter of Dada Bhai Naoroji) were displeased that they were not part of the handpicked retinue, strongly venting their ire, saying that they would not be satisfied merely by picketing shops. But yes, I remember Sarojini Naidu becoming a part of the March during the last stretch to Dandi, and raising a fistful of salt on 6 April,1930, and saying, “Hail Deliverer”.

There was a reason why Bapu refused to allow women to accompany him on the Dandi March. His objective was to provoke the Colonial Government to deal harshly with him. Threats were also made against the Satyagrahis, news was leaked that the Government would unleash a regiment of Pathan Sepoys to beat them and disrupt the march, not even sparing Bapu. Sardar Patel was arrested a week before the March was to begin and locked up in Sabarmati Prison. This was a warning to Bapu. Bapu wanted such harsh responses. He knew that if women accompanied him the Colonial Government would claim that Gandhi had taken women along as protection.

Gandhi leading the Dandi March, 1930. Courtesy: Creative Commons

He knew that the ‘gentlemanly’ colonial government would not harm women and so he had insulated himself from reprisals by hiding behind a protective shield of women. So Bapu decided that women would not accompany the marchers, hence they were not allowed to accompany him and his handpicked companions on the March from Sabarmati to Dandi.

There was a lot of discontent among the leading women Satyagrahis of that time, and they protested against Bapu, but they obeyed him too.

After he picked up salt at Dandi and broke the law on 6th April 1930 they demanded that now they must be allowed an equal opportunity to participate in Satyagraha in the front lines of Satyagrahis. Sarojini Naidu and Mithuben Petiet welcomed Bapu at Dandi. Eventually a Women’s Conference was held at Dandi and addressing the attendees, Bapu ordered the women to participate in the Satyagraha from then on.

Bapu used symbols very powerfully. Symbols such as minimal clothes, charkha(spinning wheel), salt, khadi were very effectively used by him for mass mobilisation.   We would like to know something from you about his strategic use of symbols.

Bapu was a master communicator throughout his campaigns, first in South Africa and later in India, he utilised the power of symbolism to a great advantage. Bapu’s use of symbols and gestures was unlike the very artificial and dramatic use of symbolism, by the ‘leaders’ of today.  He used them in a much more honest, sincere and believable manner. After deciding to embrace poverty when he was one of the most prosperous Indian lawyers in South Africa, Bapu chose to live simply to identify with the poor Indians he was leading and living amongst at the Phoenix Settlement. Yet he continued to wear the western attire of a gentleman.

It was only towards the end of his struggle in South Africa after a few Satyagrahis died during the Satyagraha and as a result of the brutal incarceration they were subjected to, that Bapu discarded the western attire and appeared in public dressed as what was then contemptuously described as the dress of a ‘Coolie’. When he arrived in India in 1915, he had started dressing in an elaborate costume of a Kathiyavadi gent. The dress of his home region in India.

In Champaran and before that during his year and half long travels to discover India, Bapu came face to face with the abject poverty of its populace and it was then that he began dressing less. Finally, it was when he saw the farmers of Madurai toiling in the fields, dressed merely in a brief loin cloth, that he discarded the kurti that he wore and adopted the attire of a mere loincloth to identify with the people he wanted to lead.

Yes, that is what riled Winston Churchill and he commented adversely on his attire.

Yes, it was this that bugged Winston Churchill and when Bapu visited Buckingham Palace to have tea with the royalty dressed similarly, Churchill called him ‘the half-naked Faqeer’. When Bapu was questioned by a reporter as to whether he would be dressed as he always did if he was invited to meet the Emperor he had replied that if he dressed up in any other manner he would be dishonest and disrespectful towards the Emperor.

The charkha to him was not just a symbol but a tool for the rejuvenation of India’s traditional crafts and village industries, he used it as a symbol of his idea of the ideal ‘industrial’ revolution in India’s villages he wished to usher in.

Salt was one of his most brilliant and evocative symbolisms, which he turned into a symbol of the British oppression of the masses of India. Their suffering and their aspirations for freedom, dignity and existence. It caught the fancy of the people of India and the attention of the entire humanity.

It goes without saying that through the powerful use of symbols and symbolic language, he was able to drive many a point home. Could you throw some light on his relationship with Kasturba? Both were married at the age of thirteen, and both grew together, and all of us know that Ba’s death devastated him completely. Obviously, with his obstinate ways, he was definitely not an easy man to carry along with. Yet, she was the moral strength behind him.

Gandhi & Kasturba. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Ba was Bapu’s anchor. Throughout his evolution he has acknowledged her as his teacher of several important lessons, one of them being Passive Resistance.

Ba had the unenviable task of living with him as he transformed and surviving each of his catharsis. She not only survived but carried the family with her- immediate family initially, her growing sons and then the extended ashram family as she learnt to accept all of them and started feeling responsible for them.

Initially tumultuous, at times it was difficult to believe that their relationship would survive. But what Bapu wrote to the Viceroy and Lady Wavell replying to their message of condolences on Ba’s death, illustrates the depth of their relationship, showing how much Bapu relied on Ba.  I quote:

‘I send you and Lady Wavell my thanks for your kind condolences on the death of my wife. Though for her sake I have welcomed her death as bringing freedom from living agony, I feel the loss more than I thought I should.

Gandhi at Kasturba’s Memorial. Courtesy: Creative Commons

‘We were a couple outside the ordinary. It was in 1906 that after mutual consent and after unconscious trials we definitely adopted self-restrain as a rule of life. To my great joy this knit us together as never before. We ceased to be two different entities. Without me wishing it, she chose to lose herself in me. The result was she became truly my better half. She was a woman always of very strong will which, in our early days, I used to mistake for obstinacy. But that strong will enabled her to become quite unwittingly my teacher in the art and practice of nonviolent non-co-operation.’

One does not require to say any more.

Do you not find it a daunting task to carry forward the legacy of Bapu?

It is daunting but I have always lived within my limitations, and I don’t bother to live up to the expectations of others, this has made it easier to live with such a ‘heavy’ legacy. I have always considered the legacy I have inherited as a boon and so I have never felt it a burden.

It was Martin Luther King Jr who had said, “Gandhi was perhaps the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale”, which is indeed the truth. There is no denying the fact that it is a dystopian world that we are living in, where all are caught between the harsh tones of hatred and the insidious currents of revenge and rancor. How can non-violence again be revived as an effective social force?

Even in the past, we have lived in the age of hate, prejudice and strife; family relationships too have become fragile due to this but it’s not entirely a new phenomenon. When Bapu arrived in India, one of the first things he realised was the disunity between Hindus and Muslims due to distrust and hostility.  He concluded that to effectively fight the colonial power he had to unite the two religious groups, and he set about working diligently towards it by igniting the passion for freedom in every heart.

He achieved his objective, but the glue was tenuous, and as independence became a reality, it rapidly deteriorated and the traditional distrust and hostility resurfaced. Hate and violence took center stage in 1946. Bapu realised that he had lost his dream in his hour of triumph. In 1946-47 and the first month of 1948 , insanity prevailed in India and the newly-created Pakistan.

It was only Bapu’s murder which shocked Indians and restored sanity for the time being. That sanity lasted for the first fifty years of its existence because of compassionate leadership and the memory of the sacrifice of Bapu.  But then opportunist ‘leaders’ stepped into the forefront and unleashed a campaign of untruths and communal hate. The venom has now permeated to our cells and altered our very DNA, and we see its manifestation in every aspect of our existence. Unfortunately, now there is no Gandhi to jolt us back to sanity by sacrificing himself. Even if one was to emerge, I don’t think we collectively deserve such a deliverer.

Yes, we indeed need Bapu to remerge, and pull us back to sanity. Tell me, can walks for peace change mindsets?  What triggered the idea of the re-enactment of the Dandi March? I remember, it was the year 2005, the 75th anniversary of the March I was in my MPhil class, and the news of the reenactment of Dandi March was very much in the air, and my students were hurling questions after questions at me – most of them laced with cynicism.  Can you tell us something about your experience during these marches?  I remember seeing pics of the March where one man was dressed like Bapu. How did this image of Gandhi impact the people?

My reenactment of the Dandi March in 2005, in its 75th anniversary year, was a personal challenge and a token gesture of response to the violence of 2002 the state had endured. That is why I went out of my way to invite the participation of a group of Pakhtoon Khudai Khidmatgaar, descendants of the legacy of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. It was a privilege to walk alongside the almost 100 Red Shirts from Pukhtoon Khwa in Pakistan and watch the people of Gujarat warmly embrace them and invite them into their homes.

The personal challenge was that three of my ancestors had walked the entire route in 1930: my great grandfather, Bapu, my grandfather, Manilal and my uncle, Kantilal. It always felt challenging to me. I wanted to test if I had it in me to walk the distance. I was always the proverbial ‘Couch Potato’, so, it was an intimidating task. After putting it off several times, I decided to take the plunge. None who knew me, believed I would complete the journey. On several occasions during the March, I wanted to give up mid-stride, the agony too excruciating.  Then I visualized walking with Bapu, imagining his walking stick pushing me along and it gave me the strength to complete the walk-first that day’s walk and then the entire 241 miles.

There were several people who dressed as Bapu during the March, but one had a remarkable resemblance to Bapu, and it was very inspiring, walking the entire distance, barefeet!

That was indeed a commendable feat. Gurudev Tagore, who was deeply revered by Bapu, happened to be in the vicinity of Sabarmati Ashram on 18 January, 1930, and paid him a visit. When asked what plans he had for his country in 1930, Bapu remarked, “I am furiously thinking night and day, and I do not see any light coming out of the surrounding darkness.” But then the Inner Voice spoke to him, and light came in the form of the iniquities of the Salt Tax, and he decided to embark on the path of Civil Disobedience. What exactly was the nature of this Inner voice, for him?

For Bapu his inner voice was his conscience keeper. He acquired the ability to hear it after much effort. Once he began hearing the ‘still faint voice’ it became his search light, it guided him, showed him the direction and illuminated his objective.

Bapu was not against technology as such, but he was staunchly convinced that our education system bred mediocrity. What would he say about the education system of today?

Bapu had rejected the western education system outright as unsuitable for Indian needs. He believed it till his end, begging with his sons in South Africa and then in his Ashrams in South Africa and India he developed a new system of basic education that he believed would cater to the varied needs of India. It was based on the principle of Enlightening the mind, Awakening the heart and Empowering the hands. He named his model of Basic Education Buniyadi Talim and then Naee Talim.

True to his brutally honest utterances, he would have termed the education system in India today as a curse on India and Indians and would have crusaded to destroy it completely, at the same time, offering a more suitable sustainable alternative.

We are witnessing that our basic education model has completely failed and only churns out substandard students, worth next to nothing. Same is the case with the higher University education system. Upon graduation, students realise that their ‘qualifications’ are worthless, they are not able to get jobs which their parents were able to secure upon graduation. Even with professional degrees, it is the same. Engineers acquire a degree in Management even after specialising in a field of engineering, even after a masters. Doctors study for super specialisation after specializing to enhance their earning ability. Education from being a medium of enlightenment has been reduced to merely being a means of earning. That is the resounding failure of education system the world over, but starkly so in India.

Yes, it is indeed pathetic. If you happen to meet him again, what would your first question to him be?  Any niggling doubt that you would want to clarify?

If I were to have an opportunity to meet Bapu now, my question to him, even though I know what his answer would be is, “Bapu, how may I seek revenge for your murder?” My biggest regret is that I did not get to learn from him and so the rest of the time I would sit patiently and absorb whatever he thought I needed to learn. I would not waste my time in asking questions.

In this era of Instant gratification, truth and honesty have become outdated. How would Bapu react to the WhatsApp forwards, short cuts, cutting corners, passing the buck and the inhumane behaviour of the human beings that have become so much a part of the present socio- political- psychological ethos?

Bapu would have rejected it all and made a bonfire of all of it.

Do you think Bapu was a disillusioned man in the last days of his life?  On 14\ 15 August 1947 midnight, when the thrilling words of Nehru’s epochal “Tryst with Destiny” speech rang through a free India, sheathed in a celebratory fervor, a frail but morally strong man, lay on a frayed mat in Beliaghata in Calcutta praying, fasting and relentlessly spinning, considering the partition ‘a spiritual tragedy’, ruing the vacuity of such a freedom, but still not losing faith in humanity.  Mulling over many things– if he had erred somewhere, maybe he could set it right, somehow? What do you think were the issues that were going on in his mind that day?

The last years of his life were tragic for Bapu, as he had faced betrayal, he felt abandoned, cast away by those he had trusted. He saw the true nature of his people, his countrymen and women, whom he had assumed he had transformed. But his personal grief would have been enhanced because for all the things he saw going wrong with his people and in the nation, he had helped liberate, he would have blamed some weakness of his own character some flaw in his actions and he would have been harsh on himself. That was the greatest agony he had to endure.

On the first Independence Day, he pondered over his anxieties but continued to work to set things right and guide his people back on the right path and to do penance for everything wrong, that he blamed himself for.

After India won freedom, in a message to the cabinet of ministers of West Bengal, he wrote, “From today, you have to wear the crown of thorns.  Strive ceaselessly to cultivate truth and non-violence. Be humble. Be forbearing…   Do not let yourself be entrapped by its pomp and pageantry. Remember, you are in office to serve poor in India’s villages.”  Humility is needed like never before.  Is the India that we see today the India of his dreams? Are the poor in India’s villages being served?

India became Independent on August 15, 1947. But it never achieved ‘Purna Swaraj’ that Bapu had aspired for, 75 years later it still hasn’t.

I quote Bapu to show what he believed ‘Purna Swaraj’ was. In 1925, in the issue of Young India of 29th January he wrote. ‘Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition –of authority by the few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.’

Then again writing in the April 16, 1931 issue of Young India, Bapu said, ‘ Let there be no mistake what Purna Swaraj means. It is full economic freedom for all the toiling millions it means no unholy alliance with any interest for their exploitation. Any alliance must mean their deliverance.’

One does not need to illustrate how far India has diverged from Bapu’s concept of Purna Swaraj for his people. Today those he commanded to become servants of the people have become their Overlords.

Martin Luther King Jr. had pointed out, “He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.” Ever thought of recreating a New India based on Bapu’s principles, with you heading it?

I am not capable of the task. I have admitted my short comings right in the beginning and once again let me remind you ‘Greatness cannot be inherited it has to be earned’.

It was an absolute honour interacting with you and getting to know a lot more about you and Bapu. Immensely grateful for this enriching and enlightening discussion.
Thanks for your precious time.

The pleasure and privilege are mine. Thank you.

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Dr. Santosh Bakaya is an academician, poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, Ted Speaker and creative writing mentor. She has been critically acclaimed for her poetic biography of Mahatma Gandhi [Ballad of Bapu]. She has more than ten books to her credit , her latest books are a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (Only in Darkness can you see the Stars) and Songs of Belligerence (poetry). She runs a very popular column Morning meanderings in Learning And Creativity.com.

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Interview

The Evolution of a Scribe from a Cyrano de Bergerac

In Conversation with Arindam Roy, Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths

Arindam Roy and Different Truths have become synonymous with publishing anything that does not fit into genres of various literary journals. The site carries opinions, humour, semi-news stories, academic papers, poetry, stories, and you name it. Roy, who completes forty years as a journalist this month, has wide experience in his profession, including in newspapers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. He has mapped the history of media and journalism in India with his candid responses to questions about his latest and much appreciated venture, Different Truths, which this year has been given a registered trademark. In this exclusive, he tells us about his life experiences, including starting as a writer of love letters for his friends who were less proficient in English, much in the tradition of the French character, Cyrano de Bergerac, and ending as the bureau chief of the Allahbad branch of the Times of India, the managing editor of the Citizen Journalist portal, and a founder of an unusual online webzine.

We all know you as the founding editor of Different Truths, a platform for social journalism. Can you tell us what you mean by social journalism?

When we conceived Different Truths, in September 2015, we created its vision too. We had defined Social Journalism in our page, ‘About Us’. I quote from there, Different Truths is a Social Journalism (a form of collaborative journalism) platform. Based on the tenets of Participatory Journalism, Social Journalism creates a synergy between Citizen Journalists (any lay person, who is not trained as a journalist to voice their opinions) and Professional Journalists. I feel Citizen Journalism/Journalist is a misnomer. Journalism is as much a profession as doctor, engineer, advocate, architect, or a CA, to name a few. If we cannot have Citizen Doctor/Engineer, et al., how can we have a Citizen Journalist?

Social Journalism is a media model consisting of a hybrid of professional journalism, contributor, and reader content. It is similar to open publishing platforms, like Twitter and WordPress.com, except that some or most content is also created and/or screened by professional journalists. Examples include Forbes.com, Medium, BuzzFeed, and Gawker. The model, which in some instances has generated monthly audiences in the tens of millions, has been discussed as one way for professional journalism to thrive despite a marked decline in the audience for traditional journalism.

“Social Journalism helps to strengthen and deepen Democratic Values. It upholds the best traditions of secular, non-violent, non-racist and casteless society. Different Truths upholds non-discriminatory traditions, where Special Needs people have equal opportunities. It aims at unifying the peoples from various parts of the globe to create the world without boundaries – a Global Village where Peace and Prosperity rules.

“The visionary John Lennon’s Imagine (UNICEF: World Version) is our Guiding Light, our shared Anthem at Different Truths” (we shared the video link too). 

We are happy to inform you that we have had a good mix of trained journalists and non-journalists (erudite scholars, poets, teachers from universities, colleges and schools, research scholars, doctors, psychiatrists, people from the bank and insurance sectors, traders, quite a few social activists, artists, musicians, students…the list is exceedingly long. Almost anyone who wishes to write).    

How old is Different Truths? What made you come up with it? 

We are still young, in our sixth year. Different Truths was conceptualised in September 2015. From December 2015-January 2016, we started picking up. Initially, there were a handful of people who shared our vision. Then there was no looking back. We always have had amazing writers and poets. This trend continues. 

Interestingly, our Social Journalists (SJs) were, and are, from various countries. Editorially, we are an Indo-US venture. My Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, is based at Columbus, Ohio, the USA. 

There were several factors that led to the start of Different Truths. Firstly, my wife passed away in April 2014, after a prolonged illness. Her kidneys had failed. I was her caregiver. Suddenly, I had nothing to do. No one to look after. My two children had left the nest. When I lost my wife, I found one of my Facebook friends, my kin, Anumita, stepped forward and talked to me, even if it was for a few minutes, every day. I would not be able to do so with such regularity – rain or shine.

Life sent a very dependable, trustworthy friend. She would admonish and chide me too. Reason was that I had lost my sleep and remained awake all night. I needed something to keep me busy. Turn another of my failures, sleeplessness, into success. 

I knew that she and I together could launch a digital publication. Though Anumita was a little uncertain, she took a leap of faith for herself and all of us. Different Truths was born.     

Secondly, as journalists, writers, and poets, most of us dream of launching a newspaper, magazine, or a TV channel. Like actors dreaming of taking on the role of directors. Before I reveal the deep personal reasons, let me tell you that after my father’s demise, I had to relocate to Allahabad. I had just married. My little sister was still in school, and my mother was shattered. My wife and I decided to return home. It was an emotional decision – perhaps this generation would not do so – and it meant that my career, which had just about taken off, would nosedive. As I look back, I realise that I was more than compensated in a different way. The Allahabad chapter of my career saw me launch several publications and supplements in newspapers. As a launcher, I had a complete overview of the publication, much like a project head. 

I saw promising, quality publications gasp for survival and shut down, while not-so-good publications (including a salacious one) become a runaway success. It’s quite similar to a meritorious good child not succeeding in later life, while the street smart, neta-type (political leader-type) succeeds and shines. Interestingly, all newspapers, magazines, books, digital platforms, and films, have no magic formula of success. Each is born with its own fortune.

My experience and understanding as a launcher of publications were invaluable. Like my editor, Krishna Raj, in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Mumbai, used to say, “We should know what not to select before we know what to choose.” This became a lifelong mantra for me. With limited funds, digital media was the obvious choice. 

Thus, we decided that Different Truths would be an online magazine (Webzine).  Now, we have two registered trademarks, Different Truths (DT) and Kavya Kumbh (KK). These trademark registrations were received last year, amidst the gloom and doom of the pandemic. Our extended DT family – we call them DTians – and we were thrilled.  Our brands, DT and KK, have global recognition because of these trademarks.     

What is it you look for from your contributors?

Like all editors, a clean copy. But that’s quite difficult considering the divergent backgrounds, cultural, educational, etc. Also, these writers have not been through the grind. 

I remember you and I chatting the other day, between our works, on WhatsApp. After a thorough training, we found that we as cub journalists (writers and editors, much later) were green. A true journalist is forged in fire. Newsrooms are humbling experiences. Those – we have seen a few – who are full of themselves, have had a huge fall too. In frustration, quite a few indulged in substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc). Many of them were very promising. We lost so many talents. It saddens me.

All contributors need to trust us. We are hard-nosed professionals. They must give up their egos – though painful, we had to do it too. All writers, me included, should not be airheaded. 

Young and not-so-young poets and writers judge themselves by Facebook likes and comments. Instant gratification is like drug abuse. It gives us an instant high. Virtual reality isn’t real. It certainly alters our perception of reality pushing us toward multiple personality disorder, if not schizophrenia. 

It’s worth remembering that writing is a vulnerable process. All writers face emotional and intellectual erosion over time.  Also, it’s not fair to say that grammar does not matter in a poem. It does. Free verse is exceedingly difficult. We need long practise to be able to perfect it. It’s not just a jumble of words, heaped on each other for then it becomes a glorious heap of garbage. Such poems (and prose) are instantly rejected. I recall what one of my schoolteachers used to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”  

Humility and eagerness to learn is most important for all contributors, no matter where they are writing. 

I recall a well-known quote of APJ Abdul Kalam, “If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like a sun.” 

You have a fairly popular programme called Kavya Kumbh. When did you start and why? What have been the responses to it?

It all began last year. We had decided to organise a mega poetry meet on the World Poetry Day, March 21, 2020. We had confirmed participation of around 185 poets (some with spouses and children, 223 guests) from the length and breadth of the country, from Gujarat to Sikkim, and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. Other than that, we had poets from five other countries. If you recall, the nationwide lockdown had begun around that time. I thanked my stars that I postponed the dates by six months around March 15 or 16. 

The event was named Kavya Kumbh (KK). We decided to get a Trademark registration for KK. Thereafter, from September beginning to mid-December we had an online poetry meet in various languages. We also discussed cinema and art during the KK meet. This event strengthened our brand DT too. 

All our future events, online or in person, will be held under the KK brand. 

What were you doing before Different Truths

Immediately before I started DT, I had been invited by the Banerjees, who own AH Wheeler Co. that has bookstalls in nearly 250 railway stations. AHW has been into selling books from 1877. An iconic brand, this company was started by a Frenchman, Émile Moreau. There’s an interesting story. Moreau was a bibliophile. He had books all over the house. His wife warned him that either the books or she would stay at home. He took it lightly at first. Her admonitions grew. One day, he took a table, a bedsheet, and his books to the Allahabad railway station, which had been set up in 1859, two years after the Sepoy Mutiny or India’s First War of Independence. He kept the books for travellers to pick up free. They paid instead. A business model was born. The rest is history. Later, Moreau inducted Tinkouri (TK) Banerjee and made him a co-founder of the company. After independence, he handed over AHW to Tinkouri Babu. Now, his fourth generation is running the company. 

I knew all about publication launches. I had no idea about the nitty-gritties of publications’ distribution and marketing. I joined as the Head, Business Strategy and Corporate Communications of AHW, on March 1, 2014. Two years later, in 2016, I left AHW. During this time, its swanky bookshop was under my wings. I got to read all the books months before these hit the stands. It was a lovely experience. Meanwhile, DT was growing by then. It needed my attention. My stint at AHW gave me first-hand experience in distribution and marketing of publications. 

Before that I was engaged in journalism, working with various publishing houses. I was asked to lead an online magazine at Gurgaon as its Managing Editor (2007 to 2009). Under my wings, it grew phenomenally. I was heading the entire editorial functions of the fifth largest Citizen Journalist portal and was responsible for bureau operations in various cities of the country with return on investment accountability. I boosted content volume by 967%, over the previous year with significant improvement in quality of that portal. I led and inspired a team of reporters and editorial desk. Enriched, I returned home, once again, now to look after my ailing wife. 

Around this time, I took a sabbatical and co-authored a novel, Rivers Run Back, with my American co-writer, Joyce Yarrow (more of it later).  

Meanwhile, from 2001 onwards, I was involved with several Coffee Table Books (CTBs). The first was for an Italian publisher, Jaca Books, based at Milan. Other than journalism, it opened a new channel of co-authoring and planning CTBs. 

Oft and on, I was called as a guest faculty at several Mass Comm colleges, some of these were Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communications, Pune, GB Pant Institute of Social Sciences, Allahabad, Photojournalism department of Allahabad University, Jaipuria Institute of Mass Communication, Lucknow, Amity, Lucknow, Bhavan’s Journalism Department, Allahabad, etc. (though not in this order). 

I was penning poems in between too. This was more for me. I have not been careful with my poems and have lost most that were written during school days till now. I remember that after my intermediate boards, I began participating in Yuvavani, reading poems, and earning my pocket money. 

My father was against poetry writing and reading. He saw it as a waste of time. But I saw a glint of joy in his eyes and that of my Jetha (father’s elder brother), when they heard me recite on the radio. He melted when I bought fish for home with my first earning of Rs 140/- (Rs 35/- per week). I also gave my mother Rs 40/- in the year 1977. My father was happy that poetry could help me buy fish. It gained acceptance at home. He was also against my becoming a journalist. But after I joined EPW, things changed. During one of his visits to Mumbai, he hugged me and said, “Forgive me, I was wrong. Remember, it’s not just a job. It’s a mission.” I touched his feet. Our eyes had pools of tears. 

I am happy that I followed his advice, even if it meant suffering for my wife and children. Thankfully, they understood and stood with me, through thick and thin.  

You have been a journalist for a number of years. How many? Where all have you worked?

This month, on June 4, 1981, I began my career. Today, I completed 40 years as a scribe. It’s an incredibly special day for me, Mitali. It has been a long journey. Full of highs and lows. As I look back, I find that two small magazines, immensely respected, laid the foundation stone of my career. These were Himmat (Courage in English, headed by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari) and Economic and Political Weekly or EPW (headed by the illustrious editor, Krishna Raj). At both these places, I did everything from proofreading to subediting to writing. It taught me that no work was small. I lived value journalism here. It went amiss later in life, with many other publishing houses, big and small. I also had a stint with Associated Press before I was asked to join The Times of India at Allahabad once again. I led the East UP edition, as the bureau chief. 

How is mainstream journalism different from running a webzine?

It’s as different as chalk and cheese. Mainstream journalism needs a huge setup. It’s capital intensive. Also, it depends on advertisement revenue. When the advertisers pay the salaries of all journalists, they call the shots. Before I talk about webzine, I must add that I was at the transition of journalistic values. There was a time when the owners/managers thought twice before talking to an editor. They sought appointments from his personal assistant and would ask if he/she was in a good mood to talk. The chairman of a big media house, I was told, would ask the editor of that newspaper if he could join him for a cup of coffee. And if he weren’t free, he could check later. 

In the mid-80s, four or five years after I began my career, there was a tug-o-war. The advertisement director/manager (depending on the size of the media house) was the kamau putra or the successful son, who earned the most. The circulation department made some money that perhaps paid for the newsprint and ink. He was to emerge as the mejda (the second eldest brother), but the editors and their teams were the ones that created costs by spending money. Though they might have given the house/brand a strong image, they were marginalised.  A major media house said that they were there to fill the news-holes in the dummy – the space left in the page after the advertisement department sent the page-dummy showing advertisement placements. By the 1990s, editorial departments around the country had lost much ground. It was grabbed by the two earning sons of the family. Since they earned most, they got the creamy layer of the milk. 

Sadly, most editors compromised. Those who did not toe the line had to leave, nursing their wounds. This meant that more and more editors agreed to play the second or the third fiddle. 

In editorial meetings, one could hear that we are a newspaper, not an advertisement paper. Soon, free yellow pages emerged. These had just advertisements and perhaps a couple of rehashed stories that were written by the content writers. Somewhere in the 1990s, Advertorials began appearing. If the advertiser was ready to pay, an editorial write-up with high sales pitch was allowed. This shattered the editors and the editorial department of media houses. They had to sit and lick their wounds. The advertisement department(s) grabbed the last mile – writing – from them too. 

Meanwhile, the corporate egos of media houses were to take a huge beating in the next decade, at the turn of the millennium. New media or the webzines were emerging. The advertisers were no longer sure how much of their money resulted in actual footfalls. Now, the new mantra in the various webzines were pay per click (PPC). The circulation department was soon to be replaced by the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) teams. Now, they too had to work in tandem with the editorial department. The webzine editors soon learnt what were keywords, which news was trending. The medium and big webzines metamorphosed soon.  Meanwhile, the webzine editor had learnt a few invaluable lessons. He was more like a commando. He was emerging as the news guerrilla. He was the product manager, and once again the blue-eyed boy of the team. He was responsible for the company’s return on investment. It was more like the return of the Prodigal Son for the webzine editors.  

Several media houses were in the doldrums. Medium and small media houses who were blind to the new media or the webzines were pushed into penury or extinction. Big media houses were forced to incorporate the new media and integrate. They not only survived, but they also thrived. 

An emerging trend that needs study is what will happen after the pandemic. Ad revenues have totally dried up. There’s no business. No buying-spending. Big media houses are seeking donations or subscriptions, something that webzines like Guardians and few others were doing, earlier.

Once again, content is the king.  

Other than the TV channel, new media is the fastest, with their huge armies of citizen and social journalists. Webzines are here to stay. It’s now a 21st century reality. There is space for big, medium, and small players (like us) in the world wide web. Newer social media tools are being integrated too.  

It’s exciting and exhilarating to witness so many changes, from hot metal (lino or mono typesetting) to offset printing and then to become paperless in the new media. Our lives had epic ramifications – at least for some of us, who began our careers in the 1980s or 90s. 

Do you write? Tell us about your writing — especially the experience you had with bringing out books with the Times group. 

Writing is my oxygen. I have been writing since my college days. First, it was nesha (addiction), then it became pesha (career). It helped me earn my pocket money. My father didn’t have to provide me with a monthly dole. 

There were weird demands. Two of my friends, in the railway colony, where I spent my formative years, decided to woo two girls. Now, they were Hindi medium students, while these two girls were ‘convent educated’. Love letters had to be written in English. I became their letter writer. When these girls agreed to date these guys, they found to their dismay they couldn’t even speak proper English. One of them had seen me with her friend. She made him confess the truth. Later, all of us had a huge laugh. 

There were others who wanted me to word the invitation cards for their sister, bhabi’s (sister-in-law’s) sister and so forth. There were demands for shraddha (funeral peace prayers) and sacred thread ceremony functions too. These grew. Then I decided to stop writing invitation card content. Kins and friends in business wanted me to word letters for them too. The list is endless.

I helped launch several small publishing houses. I became their free ghost writers too. This too had to stop. 

Meanwhile, in 1987, I decided to do copywriting for an upcoming advertisement agency. They paid well. I attended client meetings and led sales pitches too. I still do it. But I ensure that I am paid in advance.  

As I said earlier, I was contacted by an Italian publishing house in 2001. The Internet was new then. I was an early bird. I got a good deal. This book was read by my bosses and friends. When TOI was doing a Coffee Table Book (CTB project for the Information Directorate, on Kumbh) my bosses and friends remembered my Italian book and felt that I could do it. That’s how I got involved in the projects. My stories were interview-based, involved legwork, and contacting people. My friends in the Information Directorate insisted that I write the sarkari (government) version too.  Of the 10 articles in the CTB for Kumbh, I wrote five stories (later two were merged into one) and I had four stories in it. Again, when the TOI was bringing out a CTB on Uttar Pradesh, I was given the lion’s share. Out of the nine chapters, I wrote three (one-third of the book). These were: Art & Craft: Art makes us human; Folk Traditions and Festivals: Songs and dances as life discourse, and Classical Music and Gharanas: Melodious tunes from the land of harmony. 

There were many other projects, where CTBs and other books needed my inputs. I wrote and wrote. 

You co- authored a novel. Tell us about that. What was your experience in co- authoring because writing is an individual experience? How do you coordinate? 

I became a novelist rather accidentally. I have many writers and poets on my Facebook. Often, we writers talk and share what’s the work in progress. Joyce Yarrow, an American mystery writer, is a good friend. She was telling me on Skype chat (WhatsApp, Telegram, etc were not there then) that she had planned her next book’s location in Cuba. I mildly suggested that after this book, why don’t you come to India. She could weave rich materials and history into her book. Suddenly, she was all ears. Over the next month, I kept on telling her about India. I spoke of Tagore, Nazrul, Vivekananda, Premchand and many others. 

One evening, Joyce suggested that I co-author a novel with her. I developed cold feet. I had written on facts mostly, except for a few short stories. But a novel, no way!  Somewhere along the line, I agreed, though unsure. Over the next three years, we talked on Skype, phone, video chats on weekends, from about 8pm to 10pm, my time. Both of us were amazed that the entire story plot was bottled in me. I did the scaffolding of the novel, while she created its brick-and-mortar structure. We shared notes. Since there was a huge gap in our writing styles, she wrote the texts mostly, with agreements, disagreements, fights, and laughter. 

It was a great learning experience. Our novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, in January 2015. My Delhi-based school buddies had come to cheer me, other than my classmate Dr Sunjoy Joshi, who is heading the Observer Research Foundation. My son and nephew had attended the launch programme, other than my cousin and his wife. One person who would have been incredibly happy was my wife, Ruma. She left us nine months before the event. 

Between editing and writing, which is a more preferred task? 

Writing is far more fulfilling than editing. I often laugh and say that editors are like safai karmacharis (cleaning crews). We are here to dust, mop and shine works that are not upto the mark. It’s a thankless job. However, on a more serious note, editors create writers – like directors create actors – and that is a huge joy. My editors made me. It’s payback time for me, I think. 

What is the future of Different Truths? What do you see as your own future? 

As a Founder, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths, with my Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, we can shape the present of the webzine. We can look back in glee at the past too. But it’s impossible to say what the future holds. This uncertainty helps us put in our best. It makes us challenge ourselves too.

As I am writing today (June 4), we have 5,418 posts in Different Truths. It has taken us almost six years to achieve this. We published 17 online anthologies so far. We have published several thematic issues and are still counting. 

We are the only webzine that creates its own visuals. Anumita does a wonderful job. I remember you and most writers, columnists and poets appreciate her creative work. 

We two at the core form the nucleus, while the rest of the Editorial Team may be likened to the electrons of the smallest unit, the atom of the webzine. 

In March 2019, we were awarded the prestigious Double Cross Gold Medal. In fact, Different Truths was chosen by an illustrious person, Knt. Sir Silvano Bortolazzi, whose name was proposed eight times for the Nobel Prize, “proposed in six occasions as candidate to the Nobel Prize in Literature and proposed in two occasions as candidate to the Nobel Peace Prize.” 

Prominent writers wish to publish with us. This is a good sign for the future. As long we are honest and committed and we continue to allow all kinds of political opinions, leftist, rightist, or centrist to find space in our webzine, we shall continue to be non-partisan and democratic. We do not allow bigotry and jingoism.

No subject is taboo in Different Truths. To quote from ‘About Us’ again, we had stated, “At Different Truths (differenttruths.com), we intend to speak about issues that are kept in wraps. We wish to unravel the truth, no matter how unsavoury or bitter. We wish to challenge the taboos. We wish to be heard over the din and noise of the traditional media, most of which, we all know, has collapsed under ugly money-power. When journalists are fair, the houses are not. All media houses have their ‘Holy Cows’, areas that cannot be ever touched.”

As I look back on my 40th work anniversary today (I walked into Himmat’s office at Arun Chambers, Tardeo, Mumbai, on June 4, 1981), I am happy that we have been able to keep the promise we made to ourselves and the world, in September 2015.

Last but not the least, we two as captains are as good as our team (writers and poets). At the end of the day, they make or mar us. If we learn from our past and focus on our present, the future shall take care of itself.

I enjoyed responding to your perceptive questions. Thanks a lot.

Thanks Arindam.

The Core team of Different Truths: Arindam Roy & Anumita Chatterjee Roy

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

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

Categories
Interview

‘He made History stand still in his pages’

Exploring the writings of Nabendu Ghosh, his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta shares his life and times and her own journey as a senior journalist, writer and, more recently, a filmmaker.

Nabendu Ghosh on the right at the award ceremony for his Bankim Puraskar, awarded by West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya(left), who can be seen conversing with him. Photo source: Ratnottama Sengupta.

Mistress of Melodies is a new book, a translation of Nabendu Ghosh’s stories. Ghosh was an eminent Bengali writer and also a major screenwriter from Bollywood, the award-winning director of the iconic Trishagni (The Sandstorm, 1988). This collection edited by his daughter, a senior journalist, translator and writer, Ratnottama Sengupta, brings out the plight of women ranging from the glamorous Gauhar Jaan to the hapless prostitutes and widows — like Fatima who almost gets pushed into the flesh trade for feeding her hungry child. The story on Gauhar Jaan was written originally in English by Nabendu himself. The man did an excellent job in English too though he wrote in Bengali and Hindi mostly. His writing has cinematic clarity.

In 2018, another collection of his short stories That Bird called Happiness was brought out by Sengupta, who with multiple books under her belt, retired as the arts editor of The Times of India and now she is helping the world uncover the richness of the literary lore of Nabendu Ghosh. In this exclusive, she tells us more.

You are the daughter of a very loved writer, screen writer and filmmaker from Bengal, Nabendu Ghosh, along with being an award-winning journalist and film maker. How much did your father influence your choice of career? What impact did his work have on your childhood?

My father did not at all influence my choice of career as a journalist. As a matter of fact, he believed that journalism was literature in hurry. He was happy that his daughter’s name – byline — was appearing every week, often more than once a week, and across India with enviable regularity. But he would often remind me that, in pursuit of this “short-lived glory”, I was neglecting my potentials as a ‘literary writer’ which, he felt, I had in me…

But let me tell you: I would not be what I am today – an editor, translator, curator and director in addition to being a journalist – if I were not born with Nabendu and Kanaklata as my father and mother. Here’s the Why of this statement.

I must have been five or less when I developed the habit of looking attentively at visual images even before I could discern the alphabets. For, even as a baby I would leaf through the books that were everywhere in our house – in the bookshelves, on the tables, on the beds and even under them. Indeed, every night we would remove the books to make our beds and every morning we would put them back there!

Having always been with books, reading stories and images came most naturally to me. And then, there was the dinner table at 2 Pushpa Colony, my home in Mumbai, which was the camp address for not only my cousins and unrelated uncles from Patna and Malda (the two places my parents came from) who were making a career in films, but also that for writers from Bengal and Bihar: Nirendranath Chakraborty, Santosh Ghosh, Samaresh Bose, Phaniswar Nath Renu, Debabrata Mukherjee…

The result? I grew up listening to discussions on literature and cinema – every aspect of it, from cinematography and editing to music and dance. Through them all, I came to appreciate not only the aesthetic aspects of these art forms but also their technical, economic and other social aspects. Through it all, unknown to me, I had become a film and art critic.

Your father moved from Bengal to Patna at the start of his life. Why? Did it impact his choice of career? 

My grandfather Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh, a well-known Kirtan singer, was a much-respected advocate who moved from Dhaka to Patna, then a part of the Bengal Presidency, in 1920. Nabendu was then all of four. But every Durga Puja would find them back in Kalatiya village where he started by playing ‘sakhi’ (a woman’s role) and experiencing the rasa of devotion. In his school days itself Nabendu took to writing and soon was part of the editorial team bringing out a handwritten magazine which was popular in the Bengali society of Patna. From his early years he used to save from his tiffin money to watch movies. He was keen about dance and drama and in his college days he regularly performed – even in towns and cities outside Patna. All in all, he was trained in the Arts from his childhood.

And by 1942 he was already a published author. But what determined his ‘career’ as a writer was the Quit India call given by Gandhiji. It led to an incident that changed his life. A large crowd to assemble at the Government offices including that of the IG Police where Nabendu was then a junior. After witnessing the bloodshed unleashed by the British Police, he started writing a novel that labeled him into being identified as a ‘subversive’ writer. Realising that he would not get a respectable job under the imperialist government, he resigned from that job and again, from Military Accounts – and took to writing as a full time occupation and moved to Calcutta.

Why did Nabendu go to Bombay when he was such a successful and loved writer in Bengal?

We are all social creatures, and we do not realise how much our lives are tossed and turned by political events. Take the Partition of India: It bifurcated the state of Bengal, dividing the reader of books and the viewership of films. By 1947, Bengal was the most established film producing centre in India, and as a young, popular and respected writer endowed with a cinematic vision, Nabendu Ghosh was already writing screenplays for a Hollywood-returned director, among others. But both, the publishing sector and Bengali film industry suffered a humongous setback after Partition – especially as the newly formed Pakistan government decided to enforce Urdu as its lingua franca.

So, when faced with tremendous financial hardship, many successful directors moved to Bombay. Legendary director Bimal Roy too was invited by actor Ashok Kumar to make a film for Bombay Talkies, and he invited Nabendu to join the team as a screenwriter. The rest is a historic change of geography: the Bengali writer moved to the shores of the Arabian Sea but did not cease to serve the ‘Bay of Bengal’, as Sunil Gangopadhyay said in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri ( Journey of a Lonesome Boat, Nabendu’s autobiography).

Eka Noukar Jatri or Journey of a Lonesome Boat

Here, allow me to quote what poet Nirendranath Chakraborty said at the launch of the autobiography: “It was not with any joy that Nabendu Da left for Bombay at the close of 1940s. The times were such that it was difficult for most of us to eke a decent living. He had a family to look after, the family was growing, opportunities were not. If anything, they were getting curbed. Nabendu Da fulfilled all his responsibilities, including to his family, his friends, and to his first love – literature.”

Recently his telling of Gauhar Jaan has been published in Mistress of Melodies, with some of his translated stories. But Gauhar Jaan was written by him in English — and very well written I must say. Why did he write it in English? 

Nabendu was always a keen writer, and politically aware. He wanted to major in History but was advised to take up English. So, he did his MA in English – under British teachers. Naturally he had a firm grounding in the language.

In Bombay of 1950s, directors, actors, producers from different corners had converged. And so, although the discussions in Bimal Roy Productions were held in Bengali and Hindi, he wrote the scripts in English and the basic dialogue, though in Hindi, too was penned in Roman alphabet. So English was always his second language.

Besides, Nabendu had written Swar ki Rani or ‘Mistress of Melodies’ as the first draft for a fuller screenplay that he always planned to write – in all probability, for my brother Subhankar Ghosh who is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), directed the successful serial Yugantar (Over the ages) for Doordarshan and Woh Chhokri (That Girl) that won several National Awards.

Why did he not make a film out of Gauhar Jaan? It is an excellent story. Any plans to film it now? 

Life is a hard task master. Subhankar too has had to go through several twists and turns. He was in Fiji for some years to teach filmmaking at the Fiji National University. That did not give him the scope to direct the film when Baba penned the first draft. If any opportunity comes along, I am sure that ‘Mistress of Melodies’ will be seen on the silver screen – or streamed on an OTT platform.

Nabendu was into script writing in a big way, especially for Bimal Roy. Can you tell us how they started working together? 

After Nabendu moved base to Kolkata, Jahar Roy – the celebrated comedian of the Bengali screen who was like a younger brother to Nabendu since their Patna days – introduced him to Bimal Roy who had shot into national limelight with his very first film, Udayer Pathey (In the Path of Sunrise, 1943). The director, an avid reader, had read most of Nabendu’s writings and had observed that his writing had the “visual quality of a screenplay.” In particular he was highly impressed with the allegorical novel Ajab Nagarer Kahini (Tales of a Curious Land). But at that point B N Sircar of New Theatres was travelling abroad, so the project did not take off.

Meanwhile Mrinal Sen, then only a young associate of my father from Indian People’s Theatre Association, was eager to film it. He came up with a producer who unfortunately ran out of money within a few months and abandoned the project. Nabendu went back to Bimal Roy but he had firmed up his plans to shift to Bombay. All of a sudden, over a cup of tea, he asked Nabendu to join his creative team – and the writer was only too happy to get a new opening in the dismal post-Partition world.

Trishagni was an award-winning film by your father. Tell us how it came about and what made him pick the story? 

In 1966 after Bimal Roy passed away, my father had started teaching the Direction students at Film and Television Institute of India as a regular Guest Lecturer. Soon the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) was reborn as National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) – and he became one of the revered members of its Script Committee. To create a bank of screenplays NFDC held a script competition and Nabendu won an award. It was not a cash award: NFDC supported the making of the film by way of equipment, editing, lab cost etc. That script became the award-winning Trishagni, based on a story by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, the Bengali litterateur best known as the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi.

Why this particular story? Being a writer himself, Nabendu would always go to literature for the subject of a film. He maintained that a writer puts in a lot of thought in rooting the character, into creating drama, in layering it with social concern. This gives a sturdiness to the visuals and adds to the fabric of the film which, in tinsel town, otherwise tend to become wishy-washy, and short-lived in their stimulation value. So even for Bimal Roy films he would suggest stories by writers like Subodh Ghosh, Narendranath Mitra, Samaresh Bose. These writers he not only read and respected, he would regularly meet them and often discuss the characters while scripting their stories.

Besides, being from Patna, he was fascinated by Gautama the Buddha whose statues in the museums generated “an inner feeling of content and peace”, he once told me. A prince who renounced every comfort, every pleasure in life in search of a truth, a ‘Bodh’ that would help mankind attain peace in his lifetime: this unique vision drew him to the teachings of Buddha. Then, in Maru O Sangha (The Desert and the Convent) he came across the Agni Upadesh, the sermon that outlined that the world is burning with desire, and our mission in life should be to free ourselves from desires that consume life. Only then we can attain a life of tranquility, endless bliss.

His reverence had inspired Baba to write a novel, Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love, 2007) to mark Buddha’s 2550th year. It derived from the Buddhist text ‘Theri Gatha’ to juxtapose the worldly desires and longings with the exemplary discipline and distilled love of Pippali and Kapilani, two newly-weds who were drawn towards the Sakya Muni and took refuge in him. Eventually Pippali turned into Mahakashyap, a ‘lieutenant’ of the Buddha, and Kapilani headed the ranks of nuns – probably the first convent in the world! This turned out to be Baba’s last published novel (while he lived).

While on his Buddha Trail, let me add that Nabendu had earlier been part of Gotama the Buddha (1956), the Bimal Roy Productions documentary that had won director Rajbans Khanna an Honorable Mention at Cannes.

What was the last film he made? And what was the last book he wrote? 

The last film he was to make – on NFDC funding – was Motilal Padre, based on a novel by Kamal Kumar Majumdar. Unfortunately, this remained an unfulfilled dream. So, effectively, he directed three films: Trishagni (1989), Netraheen Sakshi (Blind Witness, 1992) for the Children’s Film Society of India, about a visually challenged boy who could identify a killer by his voice, and Ladkiyaan (Daughters, 1997) for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

This again was part of a scheme that saw the Ministry finance films pertaining to a Girl Child’s education (Kairee by Amol Palekar), childbearing and women’s health in a Muslim family (Hari Bhari by Shyam Benegal), and so on. Ladkiyaan was based on a real-life incident that saw three sisters in Kanpur jointly commit suicide when one night, they heard the father threatening their mother, who had conceived again: “No more girls! I want only a boy.”

Kadam Kadam or The Long March

His last completed novel is Kadam Kadam (The Long March), which chronicles the story of a young Indian who joins the British Army, is sent to Singapore, taken POW by the Japanese, joins INA and is transformed. He had just completed it when he had to be hospitalized. I published it at the onset of his birth centenary.

He wrote a book for his grandchildren too. Would you like to tell us about it? 

Yes, he wrote Aami ar Aami, translated to Me and I, for his two grandsons, Devottam Sengupta and Devraj Nicholas Ghosh. The racy story about a parallel universe fuses human curiosity about outer space, the stars and galaxies, with a futuristic vision emanating from his faith in humans and a ‘Hindu’ vision of the cosmos…

The germ of the story came from Sudheesh Ghatak, the second brother of celebrated director Ritwik Ghatak, whom I remember from my childhood as a fascinating storyteller and a storehouse of knowledge on the developments in science as well as on the ‘Unbelievable’. One day he had talked about the hypothesis of a group of scientists about twin planets in the cosmos. A few weeks later Nabendu, on a visit to Kolkata, was leafing through old books sold on the pavements of College Street, and came across one that referred to twin planets. That spurred his curiosity, and imagination…

My son, Devottam, started translating the book as part of my effort to improve his Bengali. He believes that somewhere the idea grew in my father from watching his two grandsons. When they were kids Dev and Nick — who now lives in UK — were mistaken for twins. At one time my brother was posted in Germany, and his friends would remark how the cousins resembled each other yet were “somewhat different”. This could have fanned his thoughts about the protagonist and his interstellar twin who were ‘identical yet opposite’. In Me and I, Mukul (which, incidentally, was my father’s pet name) and Lukum “mirror, in a modified way, our experiences of growing up as two brothers separated by what in 1980s was several thousand miles of culture – experiences, of what we were exposed to and how we were brought up in our thinking,” Devottam wrote in his translator’s note.

What do you feel when you translate Nabendu’s work? 

You have taken the words out of my mouth. Actually, translating Nabendu Ghosh has been a BIG lesson in creative writing. His stories are rooted in the soil, yet not homilies on traditional lives. They are about the lives impacted by social and political twists that tossed people not only across the Radcliffe Line but from Bengal to Bombay, Madras (now Chennai) to the Himalayas, from villages to the industrialising cities, the lost world of Lucknow’s nawabs to the Bengal heightened by World War II, to the dreamland of Bollywood and the upper crust families homed in Park Street.

Layering a character with socio-political reality makes them both universal and timeless, I learnt as I tried to translate these stories. There’s always a tomorrow to live for, I learnt from them. The more direct your sentence is, the more crisply is the emotion conveyed, I learnt from his sentences. The shorter the sentence is, the more it compels you to walk ahead with the characters into their lives. And, of course, from his use of language I learnt that every word we utter is a reflection of my time, my mood, my upbringing. As Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay said, Nabendu Ghosh is a writer who should be read by every aspiring writer for his grasp over the art of storytelling.

Tell us what was the perception about his writing and its impact on his peers and writers who came after him?

When Nabendu entered the frame, the towering personality of Rabindranath Tagore was no longer on the scene. There were the three Bandopadhyays – Tarashankar, Manik and Bibhuti Bhushan. The three ‘N’s – Narayan Gangopadhyay, Narendranath Mitra and Nabendu Ghosh joined them at this juncture, each with a definite voice and constituency. 

On his 90th birthday, litterateur-journalist Dibyendu Palit wrote: “Nabendu Ghosh is among those frontrunners of the post-Kallol era Bengali literature who amazed with the power of their pen. His subjects were rooted in realism, his language was seeking new expressions in aesthetics. His Ajab Nagarer Kahini, Phears Lane, Daak Diye Jaai are memorable creations in the language…”

Sunil Gangopadhyay summed for the Indian PEN Society, what he wrote in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri: “Your devotion to Bengali literature and your creativity in the language is a matter of great joy for us.”

Last year Shirshendu Mukherjee, speaking at a celebration of Nabendu’s birth anniversary at Starmark said, “Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ among those writing in1940-1950s. He lived a long life — he passed away when he was nearing 91 — and almost until he went away, he was writing. My attraction for his work was formed when I was a teenager reading world literature. There were two names I admired very much Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952); and Austrian Stefen Zweig (1881-1942), the most popular novelist of his time. Anyone who read him can’t forget his style of writing. In my view, Nabendu Ghosh shared his trait of riveting storytelling with Zweig. The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition. This I can say without exhausting the considerable list of his writings — 28 novels, 18 anthologies of short stories.”

Nabendu Ghosh

Shirshendu also talked about Nabendu’s remarkable use of language. “One of his stories starts with a word, “Bhabchhi — (I’m) Thinking.” It is a single word that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a paragraph in itself. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Even some doyens of Bengali literature did not accept to set out on this adventure. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This has to be done – this tinkering with structure, altering of syntax, or adding to the vocabulary. Words from so many languages — Arabic and Persian and English – have filtered in and become a part of the Mother Language as we speak it today.

“Nabendu was always pushing the boundaries of the language – but he had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter: he never overdid it. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of Buddha — uses language that is closer to Prakrit, in that it is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam. He always put a lot of thought into how the characters would speak. This added to the readability of his stories and quickened the pace of the narrative. They were all so racy!

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

Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh

Speaking at the launch of Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (Chosen Stories of Nabendu Ghosh, stories translated to Hindi) the recently demised thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, a Master in Bengali Literature, had said: “Even before I took to studying Bengali literature, even when I was in school, Daak Diye Jai (The Call) was a sensation. His writing was not confined to urban settings and city life, he wrote of the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans too.”

And when his last birthday was being publicly celebrated at the Palladian Lounge in Kolkata, an MA student of Rabindra Bharati University, Saswati Saha had said, “This bright star of contemporary Bengali literature has riveted me with the quiet aesthetics and deep realizations that are germane to his novels. I am a young reader of his art but both Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha and Jibaner Swad (The Taste of Life), both published in 2007, have increased my appetite for his writings. With the alluring simplicity of his language and unhurried descriptions he unfolds harsh realities. Had I not read Nabendu Ghosh, I would have remained ignorant of a large tract of life experience.”

You yourself have made a directorial debut on the life and works of your father. Did that help you understand him better? How did the film do?

And They Made Classics… was made to celebrate his Birth Centenary in 2007 but the interview it came out of was recorded by Joy Bimal Roy and Aparajita Sinha – son and daughter of Bimal Roy when they set out to make Remembering Bimal Roy in his 100th year. ATMC… spoke primarily about the classics of Nabendu scripted for the legendary director. It is a lesson in film appreciation and also in a certain way, about the art of making films in a given social circumstance – in the face of all odds. It seasoned me as a film analyst, really.

Of course, what has given me a greater insight into his life and times is Eka Naukar Jatri, the autobiography that was first serialized by Dibyendu Palit as the editor of Sangbad Pratidin (News Everyday) then fleshed out by the writer for Dey’s Publication. Now, while translating it for Speaking Tiger, it lifts the curtain on how he became a litterateur, virtually chronicling 1940s, the founding decade of our nation. This was a decade that was ushering the future in tumultuous colours and fiery alphabets. Just think of the march of the dead this decade saw: people dying on the streets of Calcutta while the British government was sending away rice to the theatre of war in the North East; people dying in poisonous chemical vapour unleashed through Europe; lives lost in Japan when a new atomic toy was dropped from the air – and later, repeatedly in the Pacific Islands, when millions suddenly were tossed into an identity crisis and an ensuing bloodbath by the Radcliffe Line…

I now understand that he was constantly bothered by questions such as “Is this the new era, the age of Deliverance to be ushered by the mythical avatar, Kalki? Or will this flow of blood and the wails of mothers be lost in the dust? Will the world be green again?” I now understand why the Lifetime Achievement Award citation of Bengal’s literary council, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad reads: “Time and again the strange ironies and mysteries of history have lit up your questioning mind. At the centre of history is Man. History is the conveyor belt that leads Man from past to present, sometimes with affection, mostly through rough and tumble. History never stands still through conflicting turns of events it makes way ahead. You made history stand still in your pages…”

You have written a number of books and translated extensively. What is the difference between your father’s writing and yours? Of course, you are an eminent journalist, and he was a creative writer. He wrote in Bengali and Hindi mainly. And you write in English. But, other than that do you find any similarity in the way you tell a story? Has he impacted your style? 

Now you must bear with me as I talk about myself!

Ratnottama Sengupta

I am what I am as a writer because I was born in the household of Nabendu Ghosh – and here I am not talking of DNA or of dynastic inheritance. As I have said before, our house was full of books and I grew up leafing through them even when I didn’t know whether they were in English, Bengali or Hindi. I had a lovely childhood reading Bengali ‘kishore sahitya’ – literature for young readers – as much as Enid Blyton, Mark Twain, Phantom and Amar Chitra Katha comics. At BES School in Dadar, we annually celebrated Saraswati Puja by ‘publishing’ a handwritten magazine of stories and essays by the students – and that was my haatey khari — initiation as a writer. Here too, I would discuss a story idea and my father would tell me how the characters would think or act, never how to write, what language to use or how to structure the story.

Perhaps that is why, although I scored the highest in our school when I matriculated in 1971, securing in 96 and 97 in Science and Math, I joined Elphinstone College, then celebrated for its Arts stream and Mastered in English and American literature, with the added advantage of fluidly moving from English to Bengali and Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. In other words, through Indian literary traditions as much as the wealth of world literature. That helped me to decide that I will make life either as a journalist or in academics, careers that would see me read and write every day.

It so happened that in 1978, when I returned from England after eight long months of holiday with my brother Dipankar, I applied for two jobs: a trainee sub-editor at Indian Express, and lecturer at the National College in Bandra – both at the instance of my friend Imran Merchant, erstwhile Editor of TV World. As life would have it, I got appointment letters from both, first from the daily, and a month later, from the college. I didn’t know which way to go, so I went to Ms Homai Shroff, then the head of the department for English in Elphinstone. When I told her my dilemma, she retorted: “What! You are already in journalism, and you want to move to academics? Don’t be stupid!” That decided it…

But let me add that eventually I did get to teach as well. Although for a short term, I was guest lecturer at Delhi University’s Kalindi College; I taught young entrants at the Times School of Journalism; I have been Mentor to Mass Com students at Lady Shriram College…

Journalism carried my name to virtually every corner of India. It gave me an opportunity to travel across the globe. It brought me into contact with the biggest names in the world of Arts – painting, music, dance, theatre, literature and of course cinema. All this made Baba happy and quietly proud. But he nursed one objection: “Journalism is short lived and mostly goes into highlighting other people’s achievement. In doing all this, you are expending your time and literary energy. Turn your attention to your own creative writing,” he would urge.

Similarity of style? I don’t think so since we were doing very different kind of writing. But impact, yes, and I have already said how.

What are your future plans? With translations? Films? Your own writing? 

 All of them. I plan to keep translating, and not just my father’s work. God willing, I will certainly make a few more films. I am halfway through Menaka to Mallika, a documentary study of dance in Hindi films. I hope to make a short feature on trafficking and a full length one on a father-daughter story. As for my own writing, there are talks of publishing them. Ambitious? Perhaps. But like my father I would like to read and write till the last day life grants me.

Nabendu Ghosh with his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta

This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.

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Categories
Slices from Life

How green was our valley!

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Panoramic view of Fatima Devi High School, around 1960

Dwiref Bhai was Shubhu Da’s friend; Alka was mine. So whenever Alka and I quarrelled — which we still do — I would tell Shubhu to tell Dwiref to give her a sound scolding.

“Hmm!” he’d reply.

What did that mean? I had no doubt that it meant “Sure.”

And sure enough they did no such thing. So next we met, Alka and I were friends again — which we have been for six decades and more, through high water and low, with the entire families of the Mehtas, Ghoshs and then Senguptas too.

Fatima Devi English High School existed in Malad East even before Kanaklata and Nabendu Ghosh* moved in to 2 Pushpa Colony. I was born in 1955 with that address. Rashmikant Mehta and Family moved in to ‘Kshitij Kunj’ some years later. The neighborhood was a cluster of Goan style bungalows that were home to Sequieras and Marchons, to Jenny Aunty and Hubert, to Paul Mahendra, Tarun Bose and Madhup Sharma – actors, all three – to the Chopras, Kashmiris, Khemanis, Bhatias, Mohan, Anthony, George… Together we have consigned to flames so many Auld Lang Syne on New Year Eves. Among so many abiding memories that bind this assortment of Indian lives, the strongest one is of our Holis. The toli or band would start somewhere with the Sharmas and the Chopras carrying gulal*, the Mahendras and Marchons would join in as the group stopped at the Mehtas, wound their way down the tiny colony and finished at 2 Pushpa Colony — gorging on sweets at every pause to smear colours and share joi de vivre. Years down, when we grew up, we would bunch into cars, drive down to Marve or Aksa Beach and dip into the Arabian Sea to add tan to the pink and green gulals on our faces. Jaane kahan gaye woh din… where have those days disappeared!

‘The road to a friend’s house is never too long’ — read the legend on a porcelain vase I had got for Alka from my first visit to UK. That legend captured the essence of our bonding. Both our families flanked Fatima Devi. But, while Dwiref, Kshitij, Alka and Spandana went to that very school — part of which was housed in the Mehta mansion — Subhankar and I went to school in Dadar. This arrangement was to ensure that we would grow up with some knowledge of Bengali, a language that had been enriched with the literary outpouring of Nabendu Ghosh.

So, every day it was almost 6 pm by the time I was back from school — and nearing 7 — when I showed up in the Mehta household. That happened to be their dinner time: the four siblings would sit around the kitchen table for the hot rotis and mouth-watering sabzis, vegetables cooked savoury with spices which  Prafulben Mehta — Aunty — would whisk off the tawa. Quietly she would put another plate on the table and hungrily I would polish off whatever was dished out. And, with a serious face, Dwiref Bhai would adjust his glasses, look meaningfully at the plate and ask, “Uttama, how do you manage to time the clock so perfectly?”

Looking back at that table in my mind’s eye, I now sigh. I wish I could manage to turn the clock back in time too. How I long for those dhoklas and vadas, khandvis and chhoondas, spiced up with the comments baked in camaraderie!

Dwiref and Shubhu did not study in the same school but playmates they were all along. So, rather than exchange homework and classwork, they were always indulging in the give-n-take of comics. That is how I got my first lessons in the intricate history of World War II. That is how I got acquainted with the Phantom, ‘Mr Walker’. That is how Archie and Betty and Veronica also became our ‘friends’.

Dwiref and Kshitij, brothers two, were divergent in their looks and in their style too. If the demeanor of the elder brother took after the Bollywood dancing hero Shammi Kapoor, Kshitij tailored his ways after the dashing heartthrob of 1960s, Shashi Kapoor. This dawned on me when I took to writing on films in 1970s. Shubhu had by then graduated from the Film & Television Institute of India — so Cinema was the constant topic of conversation at 2 Pushpa Colony. I came to realize that Rashmikant Uncle and Anil Kaka also had style models in two earlier matinee idols — Rahman and Guru Dutt!!

While Kshitij took over the mantle of a highly revered Criminal Lawyer from the Senior Mehta brothers, Dwiref Bhai became a doctor — like my own elder sibling Dipankar. I couldn’t, however, benefit from his knowledge of medicine: he travelled to the East Coast of America; I, to the Eastern metropolis of Calcutta. Seldom did we chance to meet even on our holidays in Bombay. But on my first visit to New York, Dwiref’s name was there in my ‘must visit’ list, right next to the Statue of Liberty, Time Square, Lincoln Center, MOMA, WTC, Smithsonian, and Krishna Reddy. Unfortunately, while I could personally catch up with the other names, I had to rest content with a telephonic chat with Dwiref Bhai: the doctor had turned patient and was not fit to travel out of his apartment.

Even then, I did not gauge the severity of his ill health. But, then, did I gauge that for my Dadabhai* either? This calendar year, circa 2020 has snatched away both our elder brothers. Is that fair, Alka? But today we are not quarrelling. Today, in grief, we are enjoined — the Mehtas and the Ghoshs.

*Nabendu Ghosh was a well-known writer and Bollywood script writer and director. Ratnottama Sengupta is his daughter.

*Gulal – dry colours which are smeared on friends during the festival of colours in India, Holi.

*Dadabhai – Elder brother

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

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

Categories
Essay

Wisdom of the Wild

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Protima could not believe her eyes when she got back home from the shelter after the super cyclone had spent itself. Her milch cow was standing on the pukka road that led to the river Mani — one of the many arms of the Hooghly before it flows into the Bay of Bengal. Right next to the cow stood Lalu and Bhulu, the two pariah dogs who had made her courtyard their home. All three wagged their tails as she approached them. But she stopped short as she looked towards the pile of hay stacked next to her kuccha* hut: On top of the pile, were the hen and the ducks!

Protima was amazed. They had stood there all through the stormy night of rain and gale, as Amphan churned the water of the Bay and flooded the land on both sides of the river that flows 50 meters from her house. They did not run amok when the hurricane winds blew away the thatch roof off her mud walls…The television channels had been blurting the news for days and days that the government had alerted the state about the cyclone that was to land at a speed of 160 kmph. How fast is that? Who knows! Even cars, if they come to this remote corner of West Bengal, don’t run at more than 40 kmph.

The panchayat had organized for the villagers to seek shelter in the local school which was a double storeyed structure. That’s where Protima had followed her husband just before the wind started its tandava* in the afternoon; he with his nonagenarian father on his back, she holding the hands of her younger twins and her elder daughter clutching the free end of her sari. Only, even as they were fastening the doors before rushing out of the hut, she had unlocked the coop to let out the hens and untied the rope around the neck of the cow. That proved a saving stroke: the cow moved away from the house far enough to be safe from the flying roof, yet close enough for Protima to find her when she came back home.What is more, the two dogs followed the cow and not only kept her company — they even held on to her tail and sought the support of her hind legs to keep their noses in the air when the salt water of the ocean came riding the fresh waters in high tide.

Although it came up to her belly and chest, the cow stood stock still and did not kick the canine members of the assorted family. The ducks too did not ditch the hens. They could have paddled away in the flooding water. They didn’t. They inchoately knew that the hens do not swim. They had all come out of the coop and assembled on top of the haystack — quacking and clucking, clucking and quacking even when the birds on the swirling trees had stymied their cheeping.

Miles away from Raidighi, Protima’s mother Chhabi was reminded of the earlier severe cyclone Aila that had struck precisely eleven years ago. That day the second named cyclone of the North Indian Ocean had come at a speed of 110 kmph leaving a million souls homeless. That time too, all the members of her neighbour, Haran Sardar’s family had scurried off to seek the safety of the only concrete structure — the middle school — in the village on the vicinity of Gangasagar in the Sunderban region.

In the haste stemming from their anxiety, they didn’t notice that their father, an old man in his seventies, had lagged behind to secure their meagre belongings and beddings. However, as the strong winds coincided with the high tide, the water rose faster than he expected, and cut him off from the safe house. But Haran Khuro* was a wood cutter whose feats are still narrated to the younger lot. He looked around him and swiftly climbed up on the nearest tall tree and, at the fork of two sturdy branches, secured himself with his coarse cotton gamchha*.

A while later, as the swift waters rose further, he noticed a black keute — Bengal krait — emerge out of the whirling white and slither up the bark of the same Hetal tree. The old man at once untied his gamchha, clambered up a few notches and found himself a perch in the highest of boughs.

As the water kept rising higher still, he noticed a tiger emerge out of the cluster of Sundari trees. Swiftly, though, noiselessly the feline came and seated itself at the foot of the very same tree that had already given shelter to a venomous snake and and an infirm biped. “Oh God!” Haran Khuro thought to himself. “I climbed up the tree to be safe from the flood — but where can I go to save my life now?” Sheer helplessness got the better of him and he fainted then and there, fastened to the tree by the gamchha around his waist.

That may have saved his life. Or was it the innate instinct of animals — wild, venomous, or social — not to be hostile and fight with another being faced with the same wrath of Nature, but to live peaceably? For, two hours later, when the waters receded, the tiger ambled back into the forest, the keute slid down the tree trunk and returned to its hole in the ground; and Khuro‘s sons rowed down in a fishing boat with a search party looking for the father.

He? He was still tied to the tree with his worn-out gamchha…Young Sujata had yet another story about the coevality and harmonious sharing of the living space by the humans and wildcats of the region that is the breeding ground of crocodiles. Kaal Baisakhis are a routine feature here. These Nor’westers frequent the southern tip of Bengal in the summer months of April and May, often with violent hurricane-speed winds, causing tornadoes. Just before sunset or immediately after it thick dark clouds appear in the southern sky foretelling gale-speed winds and torrential rains.

After one such evening Sujata and her younger siblings had gone off to sleep on the floor of the hut while their parents had retired to the sole cot in the room after making their Grandpa comfortable in the apology for a veranda that had no side walls but still had a roof overhead. Next morning the mother was woken up by the old man’s voice. “Ei byata, where has this dog come in from? Jaa! Go make yourself comfortable elsewhere. Hey! Why lean on me? You’ll crush my frail bones by your weight! Go away…”Alarmed by the monologue, she hurriedly opened the door. And froze. Nudged by the sleepy old man, the cub Panthera Tigris had got to its feet and was stretching itself out of its slumber.

It turned its head at the sound of the door opening, looked into the eyes of the lady of the house that had sheltered him from thunderous sleet, and sauntered away towards the jungle…..As I listened to these ladies from Bon Bibi‘s* domain, a single line from the Hollywood movie Black Panther kept playing in my mind: ‘In times of crisis the wise build bridges while fools build barriers…’

How very true! In the face of tidal waves and hurricane winds, tigers and snakes, cows and dogs, hens and ducks exist in harmony. But our political netas?! They sharpen their knives and reach for arms. The BJPs and INCs, TMCs and CPMs, SJDs and DMKs, the Republicans and Democrats, the Tories and Labours of the world can’t stop bickering, they all try to score over their opponents. Why do they only think of fishing in troubled waters?

*Kuccha — impermanent, mud hut

*Tandava — Shiva’s dance of rage

*Khuro — Uncle

*Gamchcha — A light strong absorbent piece of cotton, often used like a towel

*Bon Bibi — Forest queen

*Netas — Politicians

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

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