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

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.

Categories
Stories

The Awaited Mother’s Day

By Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016)

Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta

Surabhilata was beside herself with joy as she strode up the stairs of her elder daughter Anuradha’s residence on Park Street. Anuradha’s husband Soumendra was an eminent lawyer, good looking and well-respected. He lived in his ancestral house striking a happy balance with his parents. Anuradha cared for her in-laws, looks after their needs, and had taught her own children to love and respect their Dadu and Thamma.

Surabhilata entered the house to find a stellar congregation in the drawing room. Her younger daughter Bishakha was there with her just-returned-from-US husband Dibyendu. Surabhilata’s husband’s nephew, Aloke, is the bosom friend of Dibyendu – not so surprising that he had joined them with his chubby and cheerful wife Radhika, who happens to be the daughter of Surabhilata’s younger sister. What fun!

“You here all by yourself?!” Anu and Bishakha chimed in unison the moment their mother stepped in. “Didn’t bring Baba along?” Her sons-in-law were well aware that Surabhilata had a keen sense of self-respect and dignity. They cut in, “And why not? It’s so good that she’s come over today – when we are all here together!”

Bishakha and Radhika have both been raised by Surabhi like siblings. The two of them came over and sat down flanking her on either side. Short and plump Surabhi was used to covering most of her sojourns on foot. That day, as usual, she had alighted at the corner of Park Street and walked down this distance. But, that day, she was perspiring.

“Why didn’t you call up once?” the daughters complained. “We would have picked you up. So much trouble! Aren’t your son and daughter-in-law at home? Why didn’t they drop you?”

Surabhi replied that she did not inform Anup that she was going to visit her daughter. “And why fetter my freedom of movement!”

Surabhilata’s husband Shantimoy Sen was a highly placed Government Servant who was soon to retire from his job. Anuradha had been married for almost 15 years. Bishakha for about five years. Their only son Anup, second of the siblings, had been married for less than two years. Both Surabhi and Shantimoy adored on the daughter-in-law. The reason? Both her daughters were extremely good looking – they had taken after their father. Anup was a copy of his mother – perhaps that was why they had a tough time getting a pretty, educated, stunning- bride for him despite his academic qualifications and a well-paid job.

Surabhi and Shantimoy were on the verge of depression. Almost by a divine intervention a proposal came out of somewhere – and she was a dream come true. There was no question of dilly-dallying any more. Another six months and the younger son-in-law Dibyendu would have come back from the States but no, they did not wait for even that. In the midst of summer, they ceremonised Anup’s wedding with great fanfare. And the Trinity of father, mother and son seemed to find salvation in the newly wed Bride. Pray why not? Chandana was not only fair complexioned, she had light eyes that seemed to smile at you all the while. The slim and sunny girl won over everyone soon as she arrived. She was Shantimoy’s ‘Mamoni’ and for Surabhi she was ‘Gopal’.

“Whoever’s heard of addressing the daughter-in-law as Gopal? It’s a term of endearment for grandchildren,” said her sister Madhabilata to Surabhi. “Don’t go over the top even in showering affection,” she cautioned. “Excess of anything is bad even for the health of a relationship.”

Bishakha and Anuradha could not agree more. Both of them are married to only sons but their mothers-in-law still ruled over both their households, their wish continued to be the command for the sisters. “All the rules are only for us!” they whispered to each other. “How we feared Maa! Now, the bride has changed Maa’s personality…”

“What to do!” Surabhi would smile. “The minute I set my eyes on her, I noticed the mischievous smile in her eyes – and was reminded of the baby Krishna. That’s why I address her as ‘Gopal’. But dears, she takes no offence on that count. She is also a convent-educated, modern girl.  With her parents she has travelled through America, not once — but twice. If she has no problem with my calling her Gopal, why are you so bothered? She is so happy if you visit us and the children are so full of Mami, Aunty!”

In fact, Surabhi’s house was always filled with visitors, relatives and friends of every age and gender. Surabhi was soon to retire from her job, and so was increasingly busy with Women’s Welfare and Literary Circle. Every now and then she was occupied with penning her thoughts – if not a speech. Shantimoy was not too pleased with these ‘Social Welfare’ activities at the cost of familial welfare. “But what to do?” Surabhi had an infallible logic: “My children are all grown up, well raised and doing well on their own. I have fulfilled all my responsibilities. I don’t take any money from you nor do I waste money on any luxury. So why should anyone grudge my spending time in these activities?”

The sons-in-law fully supported her endeavours. Her daughters were also in her favour: “We have earned our various degrees but writing still doesn’t come easy to us. To top it, Bengali seems to be a particularly tough language to express ourselves in. So, if Maa is good in this, why object? Chandana is so keen about cooking, she’ll be able to handle the kitchen…”

Surabhi wasn’t exactly prepared for what this entailed. Chandana was keen to experiment in the kitchen but it all had to be organised by Surabhi, personally. “This is missing”, “how can it taste authentic without that” — each ‘lacking’ prompted Shantimoy to rush to the market. Every evening Anup and Chandana went out. “This is the age to enjoy, let them do so…” Surabhi and Shantimoy were in agreement on this. Dinner? Surely Surabhi could take care of that; she was not going out, was she?

But when Surabhi had to attend a Sahitya Chakra or some other literary meet? Or, perhaps a Ladies’ Circle gathering? Most of these were scheduled in evenings after the office hours and finished late. So invariably Surabhi would be back only at 10 pm, to find Anup-Chandana were yet to return. Or if they had, she was too tired to step into the kitchen. So Shantimoy has set the table for four and waited with a long face. On some days a kith or kin would drop in. If she asked her ‘Gopal’ to serve tea or sherbet, she would not pull a face as much as Shantimoy or Anup would. Surabhi would recite the lines from Tagore to herself: “The courtiers complain a hundred times more than the king himself…”

Chandana’s mother happened to be a very prim and proper lady. Ever so often she came to visit her daughter – accompanied by her Americanised nephew, Ratul. He had gone to the United States on some deputation or the other but the four months he spent there were enough to turn him into a Mr Know-It-All! Anything that does or can happen within the Americas – he knew all about it. Surabhi had yet to fathom how he managed to mutate himself in mere four months and replace every custom and behaviour learnt over 28 years with new ways, new likings, new lifestyle.

Still, Surabhi was pleased when they visit because her ‘Gopal’ was delighted, even if Anup was visibly discomfited. Just a day before Chandana’s mom and Ratul had terminated their week-long stay and gone back to Ghaziabad. Surabhi was too preoccupied with her chores to call up or chat with her daughters. She had overheard some whispering about going to some destination of her choice in order to celebrate her impending 60th birthday. Dilapidated remains and undated temples had always been of much interest to Surabhi. Panchalingeshwar in Balasore district of Orissa had a forceful rivulet running down a mountain slope. Under the waterfall in the midst of verdant green, you could reach out to touch the five Shiv Lingas that were supposed to be the icons of sage Parasuram in the distant past! Ever since she heard this, Surabhi has been lamenting that there had been no occasion for her to visit the site. And so Soumendra and Dibyendu had been planning to give their mother-in-law a surprise Birthday present — a trip to Panchalingeshwar. To plan that in secret, the fivesome had gathered that day. Surabhi’s sudden appearance led them to change the topic of discussion within the flutter of an eyelid.

Radha smiled as she enquired of Surabhi, “What have we learnt anew about the US of A, Mamoni?”

“Yesterday at the dining table Ratul spoke at length about Mother’s Day Celebration in America. Gopal let out, ‘What a coincidence? The 12th of May happens to be Mamoni’s birthday! So we will celebrate Mother’s Day on a grand scale. Don’t entertain any other programme that day Mamoni – I’ll be really upset if you do!’”

This was what had brought Surabhi rushing to Anuradha’s house. She would be the protagonist of that day’s celebration.

“It will be a day of all play. No work,” her Gopal had declared.  

Bishakha raised her arched brows on hearing this. “What are you saying Maa? A full day’s holiday? Your Gopal has not, out of sheer love for you, requested you to prepare a signature dish for her? I hope it won’t transpire that you refuse to join us on a special outing that day and ‘Mr America’ Ratul ensures that you get left out of Chandana’s ‘Mother’s Day’ do!”

Surabhi could not take kindly to Bishakha’s snide remarks.

“Why are you so full of negativity?” she asked.  “Only last night Chandana’s mother and Ratul returned to Ghaziabad. Is it likely that they will come back in five days flat?”

“What did your son say on hearing his wife’s plan?” Anuradha asked Surabhi.

She replied, “Gopal is quite naughty – she did not elaborate exactly what she plans to do, or where… ‘All in good time’- she kept repeating with a Monalisa smile. ‘Wait till 12 noon of 12th May – you’ll know it all.’ None of you ever celebrated a Mother’s Day – are you jealous because Gopal is planning one?”

“Why would we Moni? We’re happy so long as you are happy. Whether your Gopal has planned it or us is immaterial.”

“You know what,” Surabhi now shared what had been on her mind. “I am myself keen to see how Gopal celebrates the day centred round me. She has never had to take full responsibility of anything. She spoke with such enthusiasm in front of her mother and brother! How would she have felt if I had not accepted her proposal? So great was her excitement that Ratul burst out, ‘Oh Chandana, you are such a spoonfed silly babe! The Mother’s Day is for your mother.’ Gopal was furious, ‘So what?’ she’d asked.”

May 11 arrived. In the evening, on their way to Panchalingeshwar, Soumendra and company stopped at her house with a sari, a gold-covered nowa, the auspicious bangle for married women, and two kilos worth of Manohara Sweets. They pressed on the calling bell and got no response. They peeped in to see no lights were on, either on the ground floor or the one above; only a single lamp in the courtyard was keeping the darkness at bay. All of a sudden an unknown fear gripped Anuradha and Bishakha – they tugged at the iron grill and shrieked, “Maa! Maa!!”

Surabhi’s voice brought them back to normalcy.  She rushed out of the kitchen trying to hold up her pallu with pea-paste smeared hands and stopped short on seeing them. “What’s the matter?” they called out in unison.

 “No one at home? Where’s Raghua? Hasn’t Baba come home from office? Where’s Anup- Chandana? What are you doing in this darkness?”

Surabhi smiled to cover her embarrassment. “Won’t you come in? Or do you want to finish your interrogation at the gate? Raghua has been in bed with high temperature for the last three days. So I have sent him off with his brother to see the doctor. Gopal has gone out with your Baba to streamline her top secret arrangements for tomorrow. Anup had to leave for Pune this morning to attend an important conference. That is why you see no one at home. This past hour I have spent in grinding peas to make kachori – that’s why I could not switch on the lights. See how you’ve worked yourself up for no reason!”

“But why bother to make kachoris when Raghua is indisposed?” the daughters demanded of Surabhi. “What could I do?” she lowered her voice to explain. “Gopal was so keen, she said, ‘Mamoni your kachoris are to die for! Why not prepare about 100 kachoris and 50 banana-flower chops? Incomparable! Everything else I’ll manage!’ I couldn’t refuse her, you know! Everything’s ready, first thing tomorrow morning I’ll fry the chops and kachoris and store them away in a hot case. Dum Aloo is already done – why don’t you kids try some?”

Bishakha, being the youngest, still spoke to her mom. “Listen to me, I say; there’s still time for you to pack and come with us. This Panchalingeshwar trip was planned because you are so keen about the destination – and you want to spend your birthday in the kitchen frying kachori and Mochar chop! Make sure that you are not left at home while the others make a feast of these!”

“Don’t you dare to think evil,” Surabhi scolded her daughter. “Go on and enjoy yourselves without a single care. When you’re back I will tell you how I enjoyed Mother’s Day!”

They waited for another 15 minutes, but since Shantimoy and Chandana were not back, they set out just the way they had come, creating hullabaloo. Surabhi put the latch on the door and paused. She felt that she had unwillingly created a grudge in her daughters and sons-in-laws.

“What!” Shantimoy burst out when he heard about the Panchalingeswar trip. “You let go of such a golden opportunity?! hope you don’t have to regret this decision…”

But he just wouldn’t divulge what has been planned for the next day. He simply said, “I am honour bound not to utter a word about it. Have patience: it bears you the sweetest of fruits.”

On 12th of May Surabhi was up really early.

She had a bath, finished her prayers and entered the kitchen. She fried the kachoris and chops, and packed them neatly. The dum aloo and chutney had been already put away the previous night. Now she placed the box of sweets next to them.

Chanadana came down the stairs neatly dressed and holding a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She touched Surabhi’s feet, gave her the bouquet and said, “Mamoni I haven’t brought any sari or jewellery for you because I wish to give you what you will truly enjoy. Please don the sari that Didi has got you and be ready by about 1 pm. Baba will come directly from his office. I am going in your son’s car – someone will pick you up sharp at 1. I’m taking the food with me – they’ll all lick their fingers to the bones! I’m feeling awful that I could not help you one bit – I had to run around so much to arrange everything on a grand scale! You will see for yourself when you get there Mamoni.”

Chandana spoke at one go, picked up the car keys and left. Just as Chandana started the car the phone rang. Shantimoy called out – “Your phone, ducky!”

Surabhi noticed that Chandana stood at one corner of Shantimoy’s room and spoke into the phone, intermittently pausing to listen. Almost five minutes later she put down the phone and drove off. From the kitchen itself Surabhi could sense that something had gone awry with Chandana’s plans for the day…

“Who was that on the line?”  she called out to Shantimoy. “What were they talking about?”

“No idea.”

While leaving for his office Shantimoy told Surabhi, “It’s a red-letter day for you! Wish you the best of luck and many, many happy returns of the day. See you in the evening.”

“Where are we to meet?”

Shantimoy put a finger on his lips as he replied with a sly smile, “Top secret!”

In a flash Surabhi could almost see Shantimoy of forty two years ago – when they had just got married. She shut the main door and sat down on the cane chair in the veranda. She could see the years in her mind’s eye… So true! She would complete six decades! It seemed just the other day when she left her degree course incomplete to step into this household as a bride. Time, the Ultimate Helmsman, had rowed her life upstream, through every conflict and inclement tide…

Presiding on a pile of unleashed memories Surabhi had perhaps released herself into the past. She was forced to return into Time Present by her parakeet parroting, “Oma, where’s my food?”

Chandana, in her hurry, had probably left her pup locked in her room – that too was barking its head off. Surabhi was back on her feet with soaked gram for the parakeet. Soon as she let out the pup it started jumping around her feet, indulging in his favourite game of tugging at the end of her sari. She fed him with biscuits and milk, then entered her room to dress up for the day.

A glance at the watch startled her. It was 12 noon already! The car would be here at 1 pm to pick her up. Her heart was aflutter with anticipation and the uncertainty of it all. Still, she got dressed as fast as she could. At the stroke of 1 she locked all the rooms and came down to the ground floor hall with her vanity bag. Waiting for the car to arrive she took a deep breath. Waiting is one act that doesn’t let you rest in peace. Time does not wait for anyone, the watch tells us. Surabhi could not focus on anything and started worrying. Where was she supposed to go? Chandana had not told her anything, nor had Shantimoy. The surge of excitement she had been riding on these past few days was losing its sheen. A sense of disappointment was raising its head. To quieten it, she started leafing through 100 Images of Maa Sarada. Every time she read this spiritual biography she felt at peace with herself and the rest of the world…

Surabhi did not realise at which point she had fallen asleep. The relentless ring of the telephone woke her up. She sat up with a start, fearing the worst.

“Where were you all this while?” Shantimoy at the other end sounded extremely worried. “Listen, an unexpected situation has developed – and it’s rather disgraceful. Knowing that you would love to watch the solo ballet of Mamata Shankar, Chandana had booked four front row seats days in advance. I entered the hall at the start of the show and found Chandana’s mother and Ratul in the seats meant for you and Anup. They arrived in the afternoon, and that is why the car could not go to pick you up. I have no interest in watching this show but Chandana is feeling miserable. Tell me, what should I do? We are the elders – we must excuse them even their lapses, right?”

Surabhi wasn’t prepared for this. She could only think of a line from Mother Sarada’s biography: “If you desire peace in life, don’t find faults with others. Instead, look for the faults within you…”

Calmly she spoke to Shantimoy, “No, why will you come away without watching the ballet? But listen, you have the front door keys, please don’t wake me up as you come in.”

No matter how much she tried, Surabhi could not look for the faults within herself. The rush of ceaseless tears just would not let her do so. Her Gopal had already got an inkling of this on that sudden phone call, so why did she keep up the pretence? Was it because she is only her mother-by-marriage?

Sandhya Sinha resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from the women’s college, Nari Shiksha Niketan.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader, spiritual aspirant. Through these years, in her free hours she would put her thoughts, ideas, convictions and experiences into short stories and essays. Now she turned her spare time habit into a full-time vocation of love and remembrance which she would gift to her children and grandchildren.

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screen writer 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).

Categories
Musings

Creativity and Corona: Responses of Artistes

By Ratnottama Sengupta

Dil dhundta hai phir wohi fursat ke raat din

Baithey rahe tasavvur-e-jaana liye huye…

Garmiyon ki raat jo purvaiyaan chaley

Thandi safed chadaron pe jaagey der tak 

Taaron ko dekhtey rahe chhat par parey huey…

My words for Gulzar’s lyrics taking off from a Ghalib couplet?

Once more, my heart seeks 

Those days and nights of leisure, 

To simply lose them

In thoughts of the beloved!

Or, the balmy summer night 

When the Easterly breezes in,

To stay up till it’s dawn 

Only gazing at the stars…

Lying on cool white sheets 

Spread out on the roof…

Gulzar Sa’ab, how many more stanzas would you add to these lines, now that we have endless fursat ke raat din (days and nights of leisure)? 

A lot of people are seeking — no, not days and nights of leisure but ways to harness the close-door hours that are stretching on and on, yet leading to heated debates the world over whether to end or to extend the lockdown for some more days/weeks/months…

Meanwhile, the students and teachers of FTII — Film and Television Institute of India — have been making short films exhorting us to stay at home. Bollywood stars led by Amitabh Bachchan and including all others, have made a comedic short wherein they’re all searching for Big B’s misplaced chashma or glasses — from the confines of their individual homes.

Celebrated actor-director Aparna Sen has used the distancing hours to translate and audio recite evergreen poems of Tagore and Jibanananda. Members of the Contemporary Dance group Sapphire have been recording their creations conceived and executed in artistic isolation. Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad of Windows have come up with a series beginning with Hing or Asafoetida, a short about how being locked at home is providing new insights into the role of homemakers. Director Debesh Chatterjee has used Nabarun Bhattacharya’s concept of Fyataru – flying humans – to cinematically comment on the plight of people stockpiling food. 

With Tobu Maney Rekho (But Remember),  actor-anchor Aparajita Ghosh has initiated Galpo Toru, an audio series recording stories by contemporary authors from Bengal and Bangladesh. My dancer-actor niece Priyamvada Kant, living in Mumbai away from her Delhi-based parents, has made a short that asserts social distancing does not mean Dil Se Door (Far from the Heart). Documentarist Arindam Saha Sardar has crafted Ghaire Baire (Home and Outdoor), and Manush O Maanchitra (Contours of Human Subsistence), both involving his seven-year-daughter, Rupkatha. But what I’ve been most taken up with is You Can Fly by Kumaar Chowdhury wherein a little boy climbs up to the  roof or chhat and lets loose his imagination… 

Because? It comes closest to my experience of rediscovering the chhat — the key word of Gulzar’s lyric from the feature film, Mausam. Every flagstone of the open terrace on my house in Kolkata is shining like marble. Not one dry leaf in sight, and not just crows but doves and sparrows, bulbuls and mynahs are flocking to drink  from the earthen gamlas (basinets) I fill up for them. Ever since Biplab and Biru — the brothers who water my obsession with plants — bowed down to the lockdown, I have been going up to the terrace sharp at 6 pm, armed with a khurpi (hand trowel) and pruning shears. The hundred-and-more plants have never been so happy. The buds are blossoming into lilies and roses, adenium and petunia, genda and mogra, jaba and sthal padma, birds of paradise and orchids too!

This has prompted my husband to spend an hour in the morning and three every evening on the rooftop. The morning walk up the stairs mitigates his lack of exercise, and he paces the terrace too — a necessary part of the recovery process prescribed by doctors for his recent illness. And in the evenings he lies on a cot looking up at the stars and listening to music and jokes and stories on his handset. 

But bear with me: this piece is not about us. I have been amazed to see how many people have brought their so-far neglected rooftops back to life. Biswanath, CA by profession, finishes his brisk 30-minute walk on the house to our left. And on my right Bubai, my son’s childhood mate — in forced separation from his wife and baby girl stranded in Pune — is watering the plants for his mother. Across the street, Kailash has been putting to good use the cycle his ailing Mama is unable to exercise. As the boys are back from their campuses, the Bagadias next door have added clotheslines to sun-dry the joint family’s washing. One house away, I spot Aalo’s Dada assiduously keeping his mask in place when he alternates with his wife on the rooftop walks! From the adjacent terrace Ramola Di waves back a “Howdy?” in reply to my “Kemon achho (How are you) ?”

Diagonally across, on the rooftop of a multi-storied structure, I see three heads — one salt-n-pepper, one bald, one raven black — bobbing up and down.

“Are they playing badminton?” I wonder to myself. For, the terrace of the stand-alone next to theirs has been converted into a maidan by a lone child who’s scoring run after run with his football!

This brat, away from school, is not wanted downstairs where his mother is juggling with the mopping-chopping-cooking-serving-washing-cleaning as her kaajer mashi (home help) cannot relieve her from the drudgery of chores, while his father gravely sits before his laptop to comply with the ‘work from home’ ruling of his bosses. This child is not allowed to play with the neighbourhood kids, nor is he permitted to fiddle with his parents’ mobile phones. Lonely? He is. Forlorn? He is not. For he has his football, his terrace, and the liberty to let his imagination fly!

It is this liberty to fly, riding on imagination, that has fuelled the aforementioned Creativity in the countdown times of Corona. For, as Vilayat Khan once said to me, “If I don’t play my sitar for 2-3 days, saaz bhi kitne nakhre kartey hain ( even the chords will play up)! I have to put so much effort to appease them before I can tune them.”

A true artist can, then, never sit idle.

Remember Bengali litterateur Manik Bandopadhyay’s Madan Tanti? When the weaver of classy Balucharis grew tired of idling the days of bandh (strike), he sat on his loom all night, weaving the warp and weft — without a single strand of thread!

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screen writer 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).