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The Literary Fictionist

Missing

By Sunil Sharma

Man Crying Out, Rembrandt (1606-1669) Courtesy: Creative Commons

The December morning came with a shock.

Pa was not in his room. It was crisp morning and the air brittle in your numb figure. There were raindrops glistening on the windowpane and on the treetops and the telephone poles. The cold hit you hard and your exposed skin felt like a reptile was crawling on it. It was as if your insides were being sliced with a cold dagger.

A Russian landscape, almost, that is typical of a Chekhovian story!

Bright, yet dismal!

Or Hemingway. Maybe.

The tall eucalyptus trees rose majestically in the distance. A clump of white, slender-waisted eucalyptus, half-a-mile away, near the shallow strip of river, swaying in the wind.

The silvery face of the river threw off a white haze. A few mud houses stood here and there. Vegetable fields ran down to the river edge, all green and rich, in the brilliant sun.

This side of the house, it is urban sprawl. That side, at the back, the country. This, ugly. That one, enchanting. The house he was standing in stood on a rising ground, all three-storied, of red brick, part completed, part painted, dwarfing other one-roomed houses of the small colony, recently sprung up, like the twisted innards, in an area, where basic amenities are as foreign as hunger is to the rich.

He surveyed the illogically constructed and misshapen houses where dirty and ill-clad children, nose running and feet bare, were playing, in the dust and garbage, with great gusto and abandon.

This house could not house a gentle soul! The man who spent his hard earnings in turning this dream into reality!

But where would Pa go?

The room, as usual, was very clean. The bed was made, the sheets smooth, the pillows neatly laid, the quilts neatly piled up. The English papers were kept in a corner. The bed was not slept in, at least, by the looks of it. The bookcases were lined with books — majority on philosophy and language, criticism and fiction. In English.

The soul had deserted the room!

“The aim of literature, good literature, mind it my boy, is to give courage, moral courage, to give insights into the nature of reality, the world,” a faraway look so typical of such encounters, “the courage to come to terms with life. To sort out the mess… to straighten up the whole twisted-up thing-life. What religion could not do, good literature does. It tells you about persons, the world, time…. A good artist is the seer…. Mad for conventional society but sane for the followers. Van Gogh, for example, and his sunflowers…”

During such moments, Pa looked unearthly. A halo appeared behind his head, the face dark in the erupting blinding light, the voice coming from clouds. He belonged to a different realm.

Is Pa an angel in human form?

How articulate!

So calm!

Looking at someone invisible, having a dialogue with that force, a dialogue liberating!

Pa communes with the spirits!

“Yes”, says he, “the dead speak. Through the mist of centuries. They come to me in dreams.”

He, the listener, is mesmerized. He cannot figure out the why of it.

But he looks and listens. Pa is majestic. Regal. Tall, thin. Fine face.

A straight nose. Thin full lips. A pair of piercing brown eyes. A rich husky voice. An erect posture. Commanding attention. That is the sum total.

Pa.

Cogito ergo sum. That is my philosophy.” Pa declared.

When he decides, he can be vocal. Very articulate. Precise.

Otherwise, he can be an iceberg.

Brooding. Off limits.

They had many animated discussions. Prod him on his favourite topic and he would be all animation. Gesturing. Eyes rolling. Hands moving up, down. Voice rising and falling.

“Nobody writes good literature. A soul companion in hours of solitude. Where are the Tolstoys, Romain Rollands, Hemingways, Nerudas in the 80s and 90s of the world? Human spirits speak through them. Now it is exhaustion. Personal idiosyncrasies. Language experiments”. He was dismissive. Hurt. Bitter. Literature had abdicated the messianic role. The artist celebrates a personal hell. What a climb down!

A reversal shocking. Market has ruined everybody.

Could Pa, this man of steel, desert us like this? Disappear?

He could not make any sense out of this sudden exit of Pa.

He returned to the room. It reflected the neatness of its occupant. A cold blast came from the narrow corridor adding to the silence of the room. Chilling! The wind ruffled up a stock of papers. The hissing sound unnerved him. He went out and down to the living room on the ground floor. The family was gathered up there. When he entered, they became quiet. He looked at them. They were lost in their own worlds. He thought he was intruding upon a private moment. He got up gingerly, without being obvious.

“Where are you going, Rajesh?”

It was Uttam, his eldest son.

“Just for a smoke,” he said.

“Any clue? Letter?” Uttam said without any conviction.

“No.”

“Where can Pa go?”  asked Raman, the second son.

“Only God knows.” Uttam said dully.

Their wives and children stared blankly. Two more neighbours dropped in.

“What happened?” asked one old lady. “Nothing.” Uttam said with a note of finality.

“He ate his dinner. Watched the 10 P.M. news. Read a book till 11:30 pm and then retired,” said Raman, voice devoid of emotion.

“Very strange!” The lady exclaimed.

It was a quest for Rajesh now. He went to Amol Shrivastava. The retired man was alone in the flat, sipping tea and reading morning paper. He answered the bell on the third ring. They went out into the small balcony. The news surprised the old man.

“I met him yesterday,” said the old man. “He was cheerful. We went for our regular walk of three miles. He was pretty jovial. I cannot believe it.”

They were quiet for some time.

“I also cannot believe it,” Rajesh said. A healthy man suddenly disappeared without any clues. He was not depressed. Went for a morning walk. It was very confusing!

“When did they discover his absence?” Shrivastava asked, his lined forehead a furrow of crisscrossing lines.

“At about six. The youngest daughter-in-law went to his room with tea. He was not there. She left the tea there. An hour later, she returned. The cup was still there. Untouched.”

“Hmm!” grunted the retired accountant. “She raised the alarm,” Rajesh said. They had searched the house, the neighbourhood. Pa had left no trace.

“Maybe he went for a long walk!” Amol said, the voice drained of any feeling. “It is almost eleven now,” said Rajesh. “A man cannot walk that long!”

“Umm!” grunted Amol.

“A man cannot walk out like this, on a bitter winter morning, wearing a woolen sweater, a shawl, shoes, with little money and vanish just like that! It sounds ridiculous.”

‘Right.” agreed Amol. A man cannot!

‘Why did he do it then?” Rajesh asked.

“Was there any quarrel in the family?” Amol inquired.

“Not. as far as I know.”

“I cannot guess, either.” Amol said in a tired voice.

“Did he ever say anything about his family?” queried Rajesh.

“Never.” Amol answered. “He was very happy with his two sons, their wives. With his three daughters and their husbands. His wife, you know, expired ten years ago. He never complained.”

They fell quiet.

“I cannot figure it out,” Rajesh said, “a man suffering from nothing, apparently very happy, healthy, leaves his own house. And at the age of 63, to top it all. It is absurd!”

His next stop was the college. Some of his colleagues greeted the news with bewildered looks. A.N. Jha, a lecture in English, was unable to believe the fact.

“He is not that type!” exclaimed Jha. “He can never run away this way. I met him three days go in a literary function. We chatted for an hour. There was no sign of any stress or depression. And why should he? His sons were settled. Daughters married. He led an active life. He retired as a lecture in English. He was well known in the town. A great scholar. And a fighter. I mean I cannot believe it at all!”

“Jha Saab is right,” Trivedi from the department of Psychology spoke. “He was a healthy person. Social and outgoing. Affectionate. A hard worker. He can never do such a thing!”

Others also joined in.

The Pa that emerged from this group discussion was the Pa he had admired: strong, heady, realistic, with deep convictions, widely read, honest. A great intellect who was largely ignored in media and university circles of Delhi because of his roots in a small town that was a satellite of a hot, buzzing Delhi with its palace intrigues.

Apart from two books, he never published anything in a long and beautiful academic year. Since these two books were on Marxism, very scholarly and difficult for the pseudo, the Left also was miserly in its recognition of a small-town intellectual. Most of the Left travelled in cars, lived in big houses in south Delhi, worked in the university and had their books published by major publishing houses and went to London, Paris or Moscow. The town was still painfully feudal and backward where goons and the police and the rich ruled, where casteism, in the year 1999, was deeply entrenched in the social consciousness, despite the arrival of pizza huts, MacDonalds, Hondas.

Pa worked against all this with workers and peasants — worked for a dream in a world without Berlin Wall, U.S.S.R., for a unipolar world without boundaries; a world where a young student no longer read Capital but invested his small capital in an Archie card and gave it as a valentine to a demure lower-middle-class girl in the college corridors. In this world eating spring rolls or burgers and drinking Pepsi was more ‘happening thing’ than taking part in the student protests. Where the only ideology was myself and my world. “The whole world is getting Americanised. Third world, too quickly, I am afraid. The MacDonald culture is everywhere. The Walt Disney culture. The dollar culture. American businessmen should be congratulated. They have made all of us Yankees, without any force or coercion. We are Yankee with our brown, black and yellow skins. Is it not marvellous? Ha, Ha, Ha!”

Pa had laughed loudly in a wayside eatery, over cups of sugary tea, surrounded by a group of gaping followers and former and current students. A happy, star-struck group of lower middle-class young men, idealism running like a molten lava in their veins, dreams of conquering Everest, talking Brecht and Howard Fast and Miller, in that steamy, thatched, mud-plastered, small eatery near the highway, on charpoys, under the swaying eucalyptus trees, on a pleasant March evening when early spring was in the air and flowers were blooming and the scented air and the orange disk setting in the western sky lent an ethereal touch to the whole encounter there. Some of them were M.A. students and some, recent post-graduates in English, were unemployed. Majority wrote stories or poems or acted in plays. They wanted to be either famous authors or actors. They lived in a realm of young imagination and pure ideas with an enduring appeal, universal and eternal. They wanted to be artists in a market-driven era, and, in a town where there were hundreds of hotels and restaurant and one, very small shop that sold magazines in Hindi and English and a couple of popular English novels! With no reading culture or very little theatre there, they dreamed, like Pa, dreams that looked impossible for those who were not part of the camp.

“It is like discussing Shakespeare with a whore!” exclaimed a detractor once. Pa was unfazed, unruffled.

All of us have our dreams, some black and white, some Eastman colour, that is the only difference! Pa had remarked, face deadpan.

Remember, guys, the dead never dream! Pa had fascinated him. A hypnotic effect. Whatever he uttered became new gospel for him and souls kindred. Souls that found themselves misunderstood in family, home, society. They thrived on ideas and hopes. They became members of the clan and the Pa was the grand patriarch, a Moses, who was to guide them through the Egyptian wilderness to the promised land. A small band of warriors assaulting the monumental stone walls of the town. He thought Pa was a Von Gogh, painting sunflowers in an ugly urban sprawl which did not have a single potted plant constricted uncrushed by urban squalor and poverty. Only the human spirit thought of sunflowers, open meadows, wheat fields — of freedom, equality, of liberating world of imagination with frothy seas and magic casements and aching hearts. Only a genius could do that.

And suddenly this man disappears!

“Socrates, Tolstoy and Lincoln have one thing in common: a nagging wife,” Pa said once, while taking a long evening walk amid a cascading landscape of mustard flowers and a setting sun that had set the heavens on fire in deep crimson. Bird songs were sonorously punctuated by a scented, tranquil, ethereal air. The humble cottages of a fast-vanishing hamlet, off the main highway and on the outskirts of the town, loomed like far off phantoms in the gathering dusk and the invigorating country air, now seriously endangered because of the rapid encroachment of the town.

“But”, he had paused and stood there for a minute, appearing as a solitary figure in that solitary place, out of breath, “All wives are nagging, my boy. Ha, ha, ha.” The deep laughter unsettled a stork and made it fly. He looked imposing and formidable there, framed by a dark sky, the gentle wind ruffling his hair. He was giant, touching the sky, tall and erect, powerful and mesmerising, amid those undulating fields of mustard.

He resumed walking. The trance was over. “Somewhere at same point, you feel lonely. Terribly lonely. A perfect stranger. Look at Tolstoy. Driven out of his own home. Suffering from pneumonia. Homeless. Old man. King Lear minus the kingdom. Or Marx. Broken by the death of wife and daughter. Terribly lonely and isolated figure. Or Van Gogh. Or Dostoevsky. The list is long and impressive. Masters creating beautiful worlds, blessed with noble souls, yet lonely at a basic human level, suffering pain and humiliation, rejection. Ordinary life is like that. The difference is the artist transforms all this through art and becomes immortal. The ordinary man dies with this pain unsung. He cannot even share this pain with anyone.” He stopped momentarily.

“The thing is, boy, life does not favour art. This age is not favourable to it. It destroys your nobility, soul, person at the altar of money, commerce, vulgarity. You were born with divinity and end up dying as an animal.” He resumed walking again in the gathering gloom, “This age belongs not to Rembrandt or Leonardo but to the stockbroker, to DiCaprio, to Mario Puzzo,” a long pause. Then, “Look at the greats. Joyce becoming blind. Virginia Wolf and Sylvia Plath and Hemingway, committing suicide. Their spirits shining through their monumental works. But the same spirit is caving in, after a long battering. Joyce died poor. O’ Neil and Mayakovski, again embittered. They could never belong to this inhospitable place and cracked up. The most beautiful children, sensitive, highly intelligent and gifted, superior imagination, language — all these beautiful and innocent children of life, totally wasted by a cruel mother!” His voice had cracked up and choked.

A mournful silence descended, and the darkness suddenly appeared as eerie and gloomy. Lights were twinkling in the mud houses and seen through mellow enveloping darkness, looked magical and sweetly assuring and beckoning. A fire in an open hearth danced merrily and lit up a small surrounding area with hovering shadows and the mysterious black beyond frequented by the nightly visitors — the unseen spirits of the forest. The whole thing was unreal.

Finally, they emerged from the dark curtain on to the highway. Ear shattering cacophony of motor sounds and harsh sodium vapour lights invaded these two minstrels of a lost song. They went to a nearby tea stall. Rickshaw pullers were sipping tea.

“The thing is,” Pa said in an even voice, “the fact catches up with you sooner or later. In a grim fight between the fine spirit and the fact it is the vulgar fact that triumphs.” The air was putrid, heavy with charcoal smoke and dust. The tea was served by an ill-clad urchin with a swollen eye and of indeterminate age. The boy listlessly stared at the duo and then shifted his stare at the highway. “Imagination does not offer a permanent sanctuary to the alienated spirit,” Pa said, gazing at the passing motors, the characteristic far-off look in his liquid eyes, voice resonating, “Fancy cannot cheat us long. Facticity returns to claim us back. More viciously. More grimly. We wage a war against the desertification.  A losing war but worth fighting for.”

And then, “What can you write in a bustling Las Vegas? Or what New York can offer you except its dazzling skyline?” If the name of John Barth were to be added to these stray observations, he thought, critics would have already started quoting and anthologising them! That is what marketing can do. They can create icons out of anonymity, obscurity. He looked at pa in the mild darkness lit up by a lantern. “You are wonderful. A genius!”, he exclaimed, admiration oozing. Pa smiled. Said nothing. Finally, “These are your sentiments. For the world I am a retired teacher. No more than that. Anonymous. Ordinary like millions. My name does not sell.”

“But market success is not everything!”

“Yes, it is,” Pa replied, sipping tea, “without market success, in a market economy, you are nobody, howsoever brilliant you are! It is the way you market yourself, that counts. The way you sell yourself. Otherwise, you are a zero.”

“Then why did you not sell yourself?”

“Because I hated the whole process. I can never do that.”

“But you are a great for me, for all of us here.”

Pa looked at him and smiled. “This small recognition is enough for me. And, by the way, after death, all are equal…unto dust thou shalt return.” He winked at him.

Now, looking back at this conversation, he could sense something which he had missed out at that time. Pa was deeply troubled and was trying to communicate this through this pantheon of artists, in an oblique manner, to him the loneliness, anguish, anger of an old, retired person who had made the painful discovery: that he was now redundant to his family and society. How dumb of him to miss the larger picture! A fine example of breakdown of personal communication.

But why did Pa take recourse to such a play?

Why did he not tell the plain truth to an adoring disciple?

That he was adored by a small group of artists who made him feel wanted and the feeling of being superfluous in the family, maybe, this social contradiction he could not resolve meaningfully. He had seen it happen earlier with others also. In late fifties, many had felt useless, with no defined role to play. The kids had outgrown their fathers. Most of them had turned to religion and yoga. They suffered diabetes, elevated blood pressure, angina pin, ulcers, and what not. Their eyes were sunk, skin leathery, teeth caved in, eyesight failing. They went on creating fictions. Reinventing themselves. Deep down they waited for the curtain call. A date with their maker. Religion comforted; paltry pension brought some cheer, but the gloom did not lift. The fact remained. They were no longer wanted. Had no price. Were irrelevant in a fast-changing society.

The police inspector, huge and rude, looked at him with malevolent eyes. So, what, if an old man is missing? He bawled angrily, is he a king or P.M.?

“Our Saab does not care about big shots,” the fawning sub-inspector said in a mocking tone. “He is the PM. of this station.” The huge pot-bellied inspector smiled. The graying handlebar moustache moved up and down on a fat face of a hard drinker. His blood-shot eyes were menacing, teeth pan-stained, garlic on breath. He looked intimidating. “A trigger-happy bastard,” he thought, “who shoots first and then asks.”

“See, officer, we have been made to wait here for two hours and nobody has bothered to take down out complaint,” he said in a mild tone, controlling anger and revulsion.

The inspector turned his full gaze on the speaker. The cop eyes were hard and full of hatred of a common, powerless man.

“Oh!’ He exclaimed and laughed. He pressed a button. A hungry-looking constable burst in.

‘Idiot,” the inspector roared, “where were you? Do you not see we have the governor sir here with us?”

The constable was confused. The inspector laughed uproariously. Sub-inspector also added a few decibels to the racket. “Governor, ha, ha, ha.” Inspector was rocking.

“Now listen Mr. Inspector,” he spoke in a commanding voice. The laughter died down immediately.

“Yes, Excellency!” the inspector said, taking out his revolver and playing it.

“I am Ashok Suri, news editor, with the star TV,” he spoke, slowly, a snarl dilating nostril. “A very good friend of S.S.P. and D.M. very close to the governor. A man is missing. An old man to people like you, but a father to these sons, teacher to me, a precious person to all of us! He is not a figure. He is a man. Ex-president of teacher’ union. Active on many fronts of the communist party. Do you get me?”

The inspector underwent a dramatic change.

Suri got up, followed by the two sons. “And I am going straight to S.S.P.,” Suri said, eyes blazing. “See you there, Mr. Inspector, the doorway. Except a lot of trouble tomorrow. Dharnas (strikes) by teachers, students and communist party workers. Goodbye, Mr. Governor. I will be there to cover it for my T.V. channel!”

They exited in a hurry. The cops came out in a fast-forwarding motion. The trio was escorted back. Tea and biscuits were served. The F.I.R. was lodged promptly. Half-an-hour later, they came out of the station.

Uttam shook hands with Suri, “Ashok you were superb!”

“What if they had caught your lie?” asked Raman.

“Oh!” Suri said, “you know I am a very good actor.”

“I spoke to them in the only language they understand,” said Suri.

The night came early and silently. The lanes were deserted. Houses stood shivering in the cold. Suri looked out of the window. The fog was swirling about like a ballerina, painting everything with a white brush. Somewhere a street dog was weeping, adding to the macabre. He was feeling tired and sad, Shambu came and sat down in the opposite chair. He lit a cigarette and spoke in a musical voice. Pa had come to me last Sunday.

“Was it?” asked Suri.

“Yes.”

“Was he disturbed?”

“Nope, slightly distracted.”

“I see. Anything else?”

“Well, well…lemme think… it was Sunday afternoon, and it was pouring…”

Pa had come around three in the afternoon. The overcast grey skies were pouring rain that came battering the neighborhood in a furious manner. Pa stood in the doorway, dripping, the grey hair being whipped by the cruel blasts of wind. Shambuda lived three houses away and was a good friend. Shambu sprang to his feet and welcomed Pa with a towel.

“So, what brings Marx here?” Shambhu asked.

“To meet Beethoven,” said Pa.

That was the opening gambit. Pa was Marx to Shambhu and Shambhu, Beethoven to Pa.

“What would your majesty have? Tea? Rum?”

“No Thanks.”

“No problem.” Shambhu, known as Da, went and brought two pegs of rum. Some salted cashew nuts.

“This lousy weather…pouring…kills my mood …to the angry elements and to Majesty’s good health.”

They sipped the liquid.

“Good stuff!” Pa said. “Fires up an old guy.”

“And makes the world red and golden,” Da said.

The wind-driven rain came in a sudden gust and lashed the shuttered glass Windows. Families were huddled around T.V. sets. It was bleak place. Dark, rainy, cold, cheerless. Pa was silent. Da refilled the glasses.

“Shambhu?” Pa said.

“Yes, boss,” replied the fiftyish portly man.

“It is dismal. This bleeding rain, this winter.”

“No quarrelling with your judgment, boss!”

“Can I hear a song from you?”

Da looked at his senior friend.

“No problem. Music is my first love.”

Da called his youngest son. Harmonium and tabla were brought out. Da sang a folk song, his favourite, in a sweet voice, the voice of a music teacher and a classical singer, a voice that always drew admirers, like pins to a magnet, from all the corners of the town:

Where are you,

My beloved?

I miss you dear,

In this rain and

Scorching summer,

Come back,

Come back,

Before I die,

Pining for

Your

Beautiful

Hair.

The melody, the earthly song, the rain and the rum. When Da finished and came out of the trance, he saw Pa wiping his tears with his hanky. Music had washed the souls of the two solitary figures on that wind-swept Sunday afternoon.

“I also have a distinct memory of that Sunday,” said Ashok.

Ashok’s Narrative

The sky was overcast, dull grey — a wet early evening gloom spreading in the vast skies, a strong wind pregnant with pearl drops of rain buffeting town and country. The streets were deserted. Pa was there in the doorway, smelling of hard liquor, wet and dishevelled, umbrella dripping. But Pa was always a welcome guest.

“Let us go, Ashok,” Pa said. A simple order. I look my umbrella and we went out on wet, slippery, pebbly road. Trees were shedding rain drops as big as stones. Birds were shivering. We walked two kilometers and then came to an abandoned culvert across a deep drain.

Around us were long stretches of soggy plains and looming mills and chimneys. We sat down on the wet culvert. Pa was quiet.

“Perfect setting for a rum-soaked evening,” I said, “for paneer pakoras (cottage cheese fritters), fried green chilies and roasted grams…”

“And hard-boiled eggs,” Pa said and laughed, his lean body shaking.

“If life were such a royal banquet…”

We lit cigarettes and emitted rings. Pa took out a half-bottle, two plastic cups, disposable soda and a packet of fried black grams topped with onion rings, tomatoes sliced and chopped coriander leaves, from the shoulder bag of khadi.

“Your wish is fulfilled, master.” Pa said.

“No, you are master, my master.” I spoke.

We drank and ate the grams. Pa was silent but I was used to his mood and unpredictable ways.

“Why do you love me so much?” he asked

“Because life teaches me through you. A fine, noble, learned man…”

“Who bothers an’ le guy like me? Who bothers for learning? For a mental worker? They bother for money. Cars. Good houses…Not a writer, a teacher, no, they do not care.”

“It does not matter…to me.”

“You are different, Ashok.”

“You, too.”

“That is why…we interact. I see myself in you.”

We sipped the rum. Dark thickness thickened.

“Folks like us are unhappy. Get crucified. Marked. We cannot escape our lot.”

I clung on to each word. Epiphany, you know.

“Once, during my young days, I walked along with my pop along a country road, on a dark wintry night, for five kilometers, to reach our village home. The road never seemed to end.

Father told many stories to lessen my fright. Then he lifted me up and put me on his shoulders. He walked, carrying his nine- year-old on his heavy shoulders, telling wonderful tales, to relive monotony, to comfort me, to ease my fears. The fields were full of mischievous ghosts…the wind produced strange music.

Shadows threatened…lions roared.

We were two Red-Indians walking the forest in night, watched by the spirits. I forgot my terror and listened to his comforting voice…

He paused for long period.

“That image still haunts me…Two figures and an unending road…A dialogue in the wilderness. He was my father, so was safe. Nothing could harm me. Twelve years later I had to travel the same road, alone. I had missed my last bus. The country road was same. My fears came back…lions still roared in my ears. Ghosts whispered. Shadows danced about. I was awfully scared. Death lurked. I died every minute. The journey took ages…when I arrived home, safe, I realised I was missing my father. A father who had died many years ago…”

Pa looked pathetic. Bent. Gaunt.

Ranting. They stood up on the fringes.

Sympathetically. Boundaries collapsed.

The steel in Pa was cracking up.

“When your own family denies you, mocks you, it is time to bid goodbye. “Listen to the Bard:

“……The tempest in my mind,

Doth from my senses take all

Feeling else,

Save what beats there! Filial

Ingratitude!

No, I will weep no more…”

The rain was pouring. Gently dark veil had obscured everything. Pa was looking across centuries where another old man was holding forth his own private audience…

Sitting now, in Da’s room, I came to realise the import of that last encounter on that rainy lovely night.

.

“I must leave now,” Ashok said suddenly.

“Why?” Asked da, alarmed.

“I am tired,” Ashok said.

“O.K.!” Da said. “Do you think he would come back?”

Ashok stood up and reflected.

“No,” he said. “He won’t.”

“What do you mean?” Da was surprised.

“Well, he said his goodbye, on last Sunday,” Ashok said.

He came out and bent a last look at Pa’s house.

Goodbye, teacher!

Tears were running down the solitary man’s face.

.

Sunil Sharma is an academic and writer with 23 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. 

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

Categories
Essay

When West meets East and Greatness blooms

Debraj Mookerjee explores how syncretism permeates between the West and the East — how the two lores do meet

Cultural influences travel at the speed of human imagination. In the modern world it is easy to plot the journey of cultural influences across the planet, thanks to the seamlessness created by communication technologies. The Internet links us all. But we also know cultural influences travelled through the globe since the earliest migration of humans.  We know the Chinese invented paper some 2,000 years ago. We know potato came to India from the new world through the Portuguese and became widely popular only around the 19th century. We know Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. These are things we know. We also know because these are things. But along with things, ideas also travelled, as did poetry and song. Philosophy travelled, and ways of knowing and experiencing the world travelled. How many of us know for example that Ibn Rushid, an Andalusian of Arabic descent born in Islamic Cordoba, Spain, in 1126, translated Aristotelian philosophy into Arabic? Or the fact that these translations were further retranslated into Latin by Thomas Aquinas, a mediaeval scholar who was influenced by, though he differed strongly with, Ibn Rushid? Such is the power of ideas. Ideas are borderless. That is their power.

 In the context of the so-called East–West encounter, there are so many cross-cultural influences we are unaware of. Influences that travelled to and fro between the West and the East. India seeped into the cultural experiences of either of the two worlds. History and society can be viewed in many different ways. As E. M. Forster suggests in his essay ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, politics often invents a vocabulary that insists on differences; art on the other hand weaves patterns that merge into each other, producing beautiful new forms that emerge organically. 

Art and the philosophy surrounding it bring different cultures into play with each other. We will walk around some examples of such cross-fertilisation. And in the process, perhaps, expand the borders of our own minds and how we look at the world. I shall dwell on two such instances of cross-cultural influences. First, I shall look at Gandhi and the influences he shared with the West and the sharing of political ideas and philosophies they produced. I will explore the diverse trajectories his core ideas of non-violence and civil disobedience took in shaping up to what they eventually became, and even the influences they have had after him. I shall thereafter present Tagore and begin by looking at the shaping of his worldview as a thinker and as an artist, reading closely into his specific interactions with particular milieus in England. Finally, I shall look at Tagore iconic music (Rabindra Sangeet) and trace the influence Western (especially Welsh) music had on his works.

 “You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”

“Let us forgive each other—only then will we live in peace.”

Who would you imagine might have spoken these words?

Gandhi? Almost, but not quite. These are Tolstoy’s words. Tolstoy was a writer, a philosopher and a religious thinker. Gandhi was particularly influenced by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You and his essay ‘Christianity and Patriotism’. Tolstoy’s ideal of “simplicity of life and purity of purpose” had a deep and abiding impact on Gandhi’s core thinking. In ‘Christianity and Patriotism’, Tolstoy writes: “Patriotism may have been a virtue in the ancient world when it compelled men to serve the highest idea of those days—the fatherland. But how can patriotism be a virtue in these days when it requires of men an ideal exactly opposite to that of our religion and morality—an admission not of the equality and fraternity of all men but of the dominance of one country or nations over all others? But not only is this sentiment no virtue in our times, but it is indubitably a vice; for this sentiment of patriotism cannot now exist, because there is neither material nor moral foundation for its conception.”

Gandhi had carried Tolstoy in his heart for the longest time. But shortly before Tolstoy passed  away in 1910, as Gandhi began the active phase of his fight for human rights for Indians in South Africa, and thereafter his struggle for India’s independence, he wrote to Tolstoy, prompted by the writer’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’, in which he paves a path for freedom sans violence. The letter from Tolstoy was addressed to Tarak Nath Das, editor of Free Hindustan, who advocated the violent approach. 

Gandhi apprised Tolstoy about the Indians’ ‘passive resistance’ against racial oppression in Transvaal. He wrote (in October, 1909) that nearly half of the total Indian population of 13,000 in Transvaal had left Transvaal rather than submit to the degrading law, and “nearly 2,500 have for conscience’s sake allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times”. Tolstoy’s letter explained why non-violent resistance and a resolve by Indians to become free were the only solution. Gandhi sought Tolstoy’s confirmation for his letter to Das and his approval to print 20,000 copies for distribution and having it translated to Indian languages. He had “taken the liberty” to write the letter “in the interests of truth, and in order to have your advice on problems the solution of which you have made your life-work”. Gandhi quoted Tolstoy thus, as he introduced his letter, when indeed it was widely distributed: “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil: in the collection of taxes, and in the violent deeds of the law courts and (what is more important) the soldiers. Then, no one in the world will enslave you.”

But there is a bigger symmetry at work here than just the transfer of wisdom from Tolstoy to Gandhi. Thiruvalluvar was a legendary Tamil poet who lived sometime between the fourth and first century BCE. His work Thirukkural is an unparalleled treatise on ethics, communicated in verse. The first translation of the Thirukkural in a European language was done in Latin by Constanzo Beschi, a Jesuit Missionary, in 1730. Beschi himself was a Tamil scholar and poet, known as Viramamunivar. Tolstoy is said to have read a German translation of the work. And his ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ was apparently inspired by what he’d read in the Tamil saint-poet’s work.

 Around the time, Gandhi wrote an article, ‘Tolstoy’s Satyagraha’, showing how thousands, acting on his views “advising people not to obey the laws of the Russian Government, not to serve in the army, and so on”, were going to jail. Tolstoy’s writings, though proscribed, were being published, leading to the imprisonment of his agent. Tolstoy thought that “my views are true, and that it is my duty to propagate them”. Gandhi concluded: “True freedom is to be found—only in such a life. That is the kind of freedom we want to achieve in the Transvaal. If India were to achieve such freedom, that indeed would be swarajya.”

Gandhi had told Rev. J.J. Doke, his first biographer (1909): “It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as ‘Resist not him that is evil’, I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed when I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You gave it a permanent form.”

When we imagine Gandhi, along with perhaps Asoka and the Prophet Muhammad, as among those historical figures who imagined society and politics through the prism of morality, we ought to know the influence of Tolstoy’s thoughts. Tolstoy thought of morality as a category that steps beyond politics. Gandhi could not afford that luxury. India needed freedom. So, he introduced morality into politics. 

Gandhi harvested patriotism through the principles of ahimsa and satyagraha —non-violence and truth force. The latter was the goal and the former the means. In these he drew influences from ancient Indian philosophy, and from thinkers like Tolstoy and the transcendentalists of America—more on the latter in a bit. So, we find a saint-like figure, a Russian aristocrat and also among the more celebrated writers of his time, conversing across time and space with one whom Churchill infamously labelled as the ‘Naked Fakir’, but who went on to become the Father of a Nation.

Beyond the influence of Tolstoy  — and we need to frame this in the context of the Cold War that was to commence soon after the assassination of Gandhi—the other major influence on Gandhi came from the United States of America. The transcendentalists were radical thinkers of the early 19th century who rejected organised traditional religious belief systems. They believed in the ‘oneself’ of the self and the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson, thinker, poet, writer, philosopher, and the most famous of the transcendentalists, once wrote: “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

Emerson took interest in Hindu texts thanks to his aunt Mary Moody. His idea of the over-soul, the universal oneness can be read as a derivative of the idea of Brahman —the singular force signified by the chant ‘Aum’. In this poem by Emerson entitled ‘Bhrama’, the oneness mentioned above is emphasised, as an idea subsumed in the concept of ‘Brahman’, which goes beyond this or that or even the specific injunctions of scripture:

 If the red slayer think he slays,
 Or if the slain think he is slain,
 They know not well the subtle ways
 I keep, and pass, and turn again.
  
 Far or forgot to me is near;
 Shadow and sunlight are the same;
 The vanished gods to me appear;
 And one to me are shame and fame.
  
 They reckon ill who leave me out;
 When me they fly, I am the wings;
 I am the doubter and the doubt,
 I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
  
 The strong gods pine for my abode,
 And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
 But thou, meek lover of the good!
 Find me, and turn thy back on heaven. 

A contemporary of Emerson and one deeply influenced by him was Henry David Thoreau, who advocated both self-reliance and civil disobedience, elaborately discussed in his book, Walden Pond, which is an account of his experiments with asceticism. His practices were motivated by his encounter with yoga. Thoreau seldom was ecstatic. And yet he wrote: “What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum, free from particulars, simple, universal.” 

He was fond of quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, as was Gandhi. Gandhi was significantly influenced by Thoreau’s experiments and ideas. Gandhi, to correct the misperceptions (thanks to the British media) in the American mind about the Indian freedom struggle, wrote a letter (on October 3rd, 1942, while travelling to Bombay from Wardha, where the Congress had just held a session in which it had urged the British to withdraw from India in the interest of the Allied cause) that was to be sent via the India league, ‘To American Friends’. He wrote, very cleverly invoking Thoreau to buttress India’s cause (having already written separately to Roosevelt on the issue): “You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa”. 

At the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, the American reporter Webb Miller, a long-time admirer of Thoreau, asked Gandhi, “Did you ever read an American named Henry D. Thoreau?” Gandhi replied: “Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about eighty years ago.” 

Miller noticed that Gandhi, a ‘Hindu mystic’, adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British Empire. “It would seem,” Miller concluded, “that Gandhi received back from America what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallised in the mind of Thoreau.”  

The back and forth does not end here. We all know how Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by Gandhi. He once wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

So ancient Indian philosophy influenced the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists influenced Gandhi. And Gandhi went on to influence Martin Luther King Jr Kipling might have written that “East is east, and the West is West. And ne’er the twain shall meet”, at the cost of sounding frivolous, perhaps he had not read Walt Whitman’s famous poem, ‘A passage to India’.

Gandhi and Tagore were in conversation in the deepest sense of the term, both captured by the tight frame of history, yet never ever contained by it. It is apposite, therefore, to try and capture within the rubric of the larger argument, the influences and intellectual trajectories of both Gandhi and Tagore. Tagore, India’s iconic poet, the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize, who travelled to England in 1912 clutching a collection of 103 self-translated English poems, became a world phenomenon in a little more than a year. Though Tagore is revered among Bengalis and indeed all Indians as ‘Kobi guru’ (Poet Guru, as it were), his development as an artist was syncretic. 

As a young boy, he spent a month in Amritsar with his father and was greatly impressed by the devotional songs sung inside the Golden Temple, with his father often joining in. While a landlord in East Bengal during the 1890s he became familiar with the great baul tradition of Lalon Shah. He absorbed Western influences, especially in his poetry, but also influences as diverse as the paintings of specific communities in islands as far-flung as New Ireland in Papua New Guinea! Tagore took to painting later in age and was never quite sure of his own work, but they have a magical haunting quality that is all too difficult to pin onto a singular culture.  

One of the first persons whom Tagore wanted to meet and know about in London was Stopford A Brooke[4]. Tagore, being a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj, which was closely allied to Unitarianism, had heard so much of him, and had perceived an alignment of convictions. Sir William Rothenstein,in his account of Tagore’s days in London, says, “Stopford Brooke asked me to bring Tagore to Manchester Square; ‘but tell him’, he said, ‘that I am not a spiritual man’.” 

Soon Tagore would become quite the toast of young poets, who would seek him out, Ezra Pound being prominent among them. Among others whom Tagore met were Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Andrew Bradley, Sturge Moore and Robert Bridges. In a 1915 letter to Robert Bridges, Tagore wrote, “I know what this war is to you… Please let Mrs. Bridges accept my heartfelt sympathy and reverence [for one] whose son is fighting for the cause of liberty in one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind.” Bridges included Tagore’s poems in his anthology The Spirit of Man in 1915. On his part, Tagore was struck by the breadth of view and the rapidity of thought that he found among his new friends. Rothenstein recounts that while addressing his English audience, Tagore said, “Those who know the English only in India, do not know Englishmen … All you people live, think and talk while a strong, critical light is constantly focussed on you. This creates a high social civilisation. We in India, on the contrary, live secluded among a crowd of relations. Things are done and said within the family circle which would not be tolerated outside; and this keeps our social standards low.” 

Tagore famous novel, Ghare Baire (The Way of the World, 1916; trans. 1919) presents his disquiet with insular nationalist sentiments, to the exclusion (of what he believed) larger humanist imperatives. His protagonist, Nikhil articulates liberal universal values and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure peace in his domain (he is a landlord). His fiery friend, the nation- (as mother) worshipping ultra-nationalist radical Sandeep, stokes the violence that ultimately consumes Nikhil, but from which he himself stealthily slinks away.

Tagore absorbed more than just ideas from the West. His music, especially the scores of many of his songs, was influenced by his interactions with the West. On his 2012 visit, he’d heard the music hall songs and folk tunes that he later incorporated into his distinctive musical genre, Rabindra Sangeet. As a child, he’d heard his siblings play myriad instruments. His older brother Jyotirindranath, significantly, played the piano and violin. From him, Tagore developed an early ear for Western musical lilts. Lively English, Irish and Scottish folk tunes impressed Tagore, whose own tradition of Brahmo hymnody was subdued. Tagore confesses: “At seventeen, when I first came to Europe, I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.”

Of particular note is Robert Burns, whose poetry and music were quite widely known in metropolitan Bengal. His work was particularly popular with Bengali students in the early days of Hindu College (now Presidency University), Calcutta (Kolkata now). The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Hindu College) discussion group reciting Burns’s poetry and singing his democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. Two of Burns’s sons served for many years in the Company army, and one of them, James Glencairn Burns, was later appointed judge and collector of Cachar (in Assam), and became an expert in Hindi, instructing company cadets in the language on his return to England in 1839. Burns’s songs pervaded 19th century British India and were well known to many Indians: Rabindranath Tagore adapted at least three of them and set musical scores to the Bengali versions of the original melodies.

Tagore created one of his most popular songs, ‘Purano shei deener katha,’ on the model of the old Scottish folk song collected by Robert Burns: ‘Auld lang syne’ (1788). Whereas the Scottish is in dialect, its Bengali counterpart in the standard tongue. There can be no literal translation in songs transcreated, as it were in a different language, since the nature of the two languages is different. And yet, there are great similarities between the songs. The original communicates the eternal sentiment of nostalgia for old friends, memories of good times and longing to revive the same. Tagore communicates the same basic sentiment. One should remember that even though Tagore adapts the tune of the Western songs, he very often varies the tempo and the rhythm to suit his own creative needs. The mention of ‘dola’ (swing), ‘banshi’ (flute) and ‘bokuler tolay’ (beneath the bokul tree) introduces interesting indigenous cultural symbols. These words introduce the concept of the god Krishna and his worldly amour divesting them of both divine and erotic connotation. The Bengali song stands as an eternal paean to reunion of friends of all categories.

Tagore’s ‘Phule phule dhole dhole’ is a transcreation of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon’ (1792), the tune of which is based on ‘The Caledonian Hunt’s delight’. The first four lines of Tagore’s song evoke faint sweet breezes, rippling gurgling stream, cuckoo song and an undefined longing. It is close to the mood of the ‘Ye banks and braes’, though more mystic and abstract. In Burns’ original version, the nostalgia and longing are rooted in unfulfilled love. In the Bengali translation, there is no hint of narrative though the narrative is obviated when sung in its proper context. Sung independently, it appears as a universal romantic desire for an unattainable ‘something’, intensified by the beauty of nature. 

But Burns was not the only one to influence Tagore’s music.  In 1885, much before his heydays, Tagore composed ‘Kotobar bhebechhilnu’, using the tune of Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’. The tune of the original English song is adapted to his original Bengali lyrics. Tagore’s song raises interesting cultural issues. The words are radically different, though the mood of love is dominant in both, the English song is much more sensuous, redolent of physical and Petrarchan appeal. Tagore’s Indianisation is romantic, idealistic and self-effacing, but with a witty twist in the last two lines: “Now that you yourself have come to ask me/ How can I explain how much I love you?” Another Irish folk song that inspired Tagore was ‘Go where glory waits thee’ (1807), which was anothologised by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) and based on ‘Maid of the Valley’. Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ are based on these two originals. 

There is a general consensus that Western and Indian songs are essentially different in that in the former the rhythm may change many times within the same song, while it remains the same in most Indian songs. Tagore nevertheless finds the change of rhythms ideally suited to express different facets of feeling (see Tagore’s essay ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). One cannot be entirely sure as to the exact source of his musical preference, whether it came from Western music, or even from his ear for kirtan (popular Bengal devotional music associated with the Vaishnavite tradition). But what is certain is that his music comes from a syncretic imagination, which was able to discern beauty and form beyond the restrictions of nation and culture.  

Both Gandhi and Tagore were closely allied to the cause of India’s independence from colonial rule, and they were, therefore required to shape their thoughts and philosophy to serve certain political ends. Notwithstanding this monumental obligation that history chose to rest on their ever-exploring minds, they strove for an imaginative space “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments / By narrow domestic walls.” Both were deeply devoted to the idea of the Indian nation, but not by having to pay the price of a severed humanity. Most significantly they filtered ideas from great minds from around the world, allowing themselves to be suffused by the thoughts of distant thinkers, while also imbuing those thoughts with the inflection of their own greatness. Reading Einstein’s conversations with Tagore, you realise two things. Small things can separate small minds. When it comes to truly big minds, there is little that can separate them.

Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.

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Categories
Essay

In Praise Of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent journalist and daughter of Bengali writer Nabendu Ghosh, has been a force behind translating Bengali literature and bringing it to the doorstep of those who do not know the language. In this exclusive, she discusses how translations impact the world of literature.

I have often been asked, “Nabendu Ghosh was a literary figure and a screenwriter. How much importance did he place on translation?” Truthfully, because he was a literary person, my father placed a lot of importance on translations which, as he once pointed out, has given us access to almost all the first books in a bevy of Indian languages.

Let me elaborate. Adi Kavi Valmiki, the harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature, composed the original – ‘mool’ – Ramayan long before the first century BC. But Krittibas Ojha’s 15th century rendition in Bengali ‘Panchali’ style is not merely a rewording of the original epic, it gives a description of Bengal’s society and culture in the Middle Ages. It also explores the concept of Bhakti which later contributed to the emergence of Vaishnavism in the Gangetic belt.

This is said to have had a profound impact on the literature of the surrounding region. In Bihar of 16th century Goswami Tulsidas heightened the Bhakti quotient as he retold Ramayan in Hindi, as Ramcharit Manas. The same happened in Orissa. Earlier it had been adapted, with plot twists and thematic adaptations, in the 12th century Tamil Ramavataram; 14th century Telugu Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam; several Kannada versions, starting in 12th century; Ramacharitam in Malayalam; into Marathi also around this time.

My father had inculcated in us this love for multiple languages when I was about ten. As we all sat around after dinner, he would read from these texts – Valmiki’s Ramayan, Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas, The Old Testament from the Bible, Buddhist Jataka Tales, and Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita wherein Mahendra Nath Gupta recounts, word for Bengali word, the conversations and activities of the 19th century Indian mystic. Published in five volumes between 1902 and 1910, this work summing up the life philosophy of Ramkrishna Paramahans through simple anecdotes and parables, has been translated into English and Hindi.

Before that, at the young age of nine, I was also initiated into the crème de la crème of world literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare too – through translations into Bengali. Abridged versions of Crime and Punishment, Mother, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Blue Bird, and Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were published by Deb Sahitya Kutir — among other Bengali publishers — for young readers. Later in life, as a student of English Literature, I realized that our understanding of the ways and woes of our world would be so much poorer if Iliad and Odyssey had remained confined to Greek readers; if Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had not crossed the frontiers of Norway; if Don Quixote were to be read only in the Spanish that Miguel Cervantes wrote in; if The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant only for those raised in French, or if Faust were to be played only to German viewers.

And, talking of viewers: how would the world have known about the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the French Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Polish Andrzej Wajda, the Czech Jiri Menzel, the Argentinian Fernando Solanas, the Turkish Yilmaz Guney, the Chinese Zhang Yimou, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, or our very own Satyajit Ray? Unthinkable, the world of cinema without subtitles in this day and age when Hollywood films come with subtitles in not just English and Hindi – the two official languages of India – but also in its umpteen regional languages to reach viewers in pockets that speak only Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali…

The importance of translation is best exemplified by the Song Offerings. If Rabindranath Tagore had not translated the poems of Gitanjali, Asia would have had to wait longer for its first Nobel Prize. Incidentally the central theme of this work too is devotion – and it is part of UNESCO’s collection of Representative Works. And it is my belief that no other Nobel for literature has come to India because we have not come up with any worthy translation – say, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? At least, not until recent years, nor in a big way.

Also, it is my own experience that only after Me and I — translated from the Bengali original, Aami O Aami by Devottam Sengupta — was published by Hachette India that a major international publishing house got interested in translating Nabendu Ghosh into French.

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That brings me to the frequently asked question: “Why are you translating Nabendu Ghosh rather than publishing his Bengali originals?” The answer takes me back to 1940s when Baba’s Phears Lane was translated into Urdu and published in Lahore. Clearly Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ in Bengali literature then. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee, the thespian who we lost so recently and was a Master in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call) was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans.”

But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Thus, when Bimal Roy – a celluloid star after his meteoric debut with Udayer Pathey ( In the Path of Sunrise, 1943) — left for Bombay in 1950 to make a film for Bombay talkies, Nabendu Ghosh joined his unit. However, in Bombay he found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So, he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.

This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, “There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.” But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screen writing, and even in Bengal people thought of him only as the screen writer of successful films. Small wonder, since he wrote more than eighty scripts, for directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Shakti Samanta, Sushil Mazumdar, among others. Most of them are considered classics of the Indian screen: Sujata, Bandini, Devdas, Parineeta, Aar Paar, Majhli Didi, Teesri Kasam, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khan Dost, Baadbaan, Insaan Jaag Utha, Lal Patthar …

But Baba was saddened that even his colleagues in the filmdom did not know his literary pouring as only a handful were translated into Hindi and none into English. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017), and That Bird Called Happiness (2017). Mistress of Melodies (2020) you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after That Bird Called Happiness. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi/ Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.

But above all, the reason for putting my energy in this art is to take a part of my heritage to the world. Because, as the celebrated Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee said about Nabendu Ghosh, he is a writer who deserves to be read. Allow me to finish with a quote from him as he talked about his senior’s continuing relevance, to readers of Bengali literature and outside.

“Nabendu Da’s use of language was remarkable. He starts one of his stories with the word ‘Bhabchhi / (I’m) Thinking.’ It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself. 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 the Buddha — uses a vocabulary that is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam.

“He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. 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 added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! So fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… Exceptional is the only word to describe it.

“And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. His ‘throw’ was such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell.

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.

“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 Bengal but worldwide.”

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

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