Nazrul Translations Tribute

Hena: A Short Story by Nazrul

First published in the collection titled Baethar Daan (Offerings of Pain, 1922), Kazi Nazrul Islam’s short story, Hena, is set against the backdrop of the First World War where the writer himself had fought as a young soldier (1917-1919). It has been translated by Sohana Manzoor and brought out to commemorate Nazrul’s 124th Birth Anniversary.

A trench in Verdun, France

This must be what they call rain of fire! And the sounds! The roaring sound of the artillery! Not a speck of blue sky can be seen– as if the whole sky has been set on fire. The thick rain of fire that pours down from the exploding cannonballs and bombs is so intense that if those were real raindrops trickling out of the blue eyes of the sky, the entire world would have been flooded just in a day. And if these sounds that were louder and more intense than any thunderstorm, would continue like this, people’s eardrums would split, turning them deaf. Today, we the soldiers could only recall the song that is sung during Holi celebrations:

“We will play holi with swords today,
All the soldiers of the world are gathered here
Shields playing the trumpets, cannon balls the squirt pumps
Ammunitions are colourful, the battle is intense.”

It is very true that the ammunition has caused the sky and ground to turn completely red. The reddest are the congealed blood on the bayonetted chests of the unfortunate ones! No other colour but red! As soldiers fall one by one, each one a martyr, they lie on the ground, dressed in red like bridegrooms!

Agh! The worst of all is the smoky smell. It is enough to turn your stomach. Are not human beings the best of all creations? Then why have them killed in such ugly and terrifying ways?  When the inanimate lead bullets, hit someone’s bones, they explode with a horrid force and tear through the flesh.

If human beings used their intelligence in more productive ways, they could have claimed a place close to the angels. Oh, and this heart-rending thirst! The friend lying next to you, his rifle slipping from his hand, cannot be awakened even if a thousand cannons roar by his ear. No general can ever make him obey his orders. After fighting for seven days at a stretch in this muddy trench he has finally fallen asleep. He is finally at peace!  A rare touch of soothing contentment lingers on his cold and dry lips.

But I feel so thirsty. Let me take the water-bottle from his waist and take a sip! I haven’t had a drop since yesterday. No one cared to offer me a drink. Aah…! This one sip feels so sweet! My Lewis gun doesn’t work anymore. It grew tired after days of continuous shooting. I will take the gun of my deceased friend then. If his mother, sister or wife were present here, they would surely have taken his broken skull on their laps and cry their hearts out! Well, I guess, in a few minutes, a heavy shell will land in front of the trench and bury the two of us!  It won’t be too bad actually!

It is really funny as I think of the women crying. All of us will die one day, what is there to weep? Death is an eternal truth — why should one grieve over something that is so normal and inevitable?  

I am going through so much pain, after receiving so many wounds, but my heart is filled with a demonic joy! I cannot sketch this feeling with this wooden pencil! There is often a joy that lies asleep at the heart of extreme pain which we can’t really feel! And is this habit of writing something bad? I have been swimming in fire, with scores of dead bodies under my feet and bombs dropped from aircraft bursting over my head, artillery shells are exploding and rifle and machinegun bullets are zooming past, still, deep inside, I feel restless because I couldn’t write down my innermost thoughts in the past seven days! But today, I feel relieved that I could start writing again!

Let me rest for a while, leaning against my dead friend. Ah, it feels so good!…

An unknown young girl of this distant land across the sea gave me some pickles and two slices of bread with butter which I haven’t had time to eat… The women of this country look at us with affection and pity! . . . . Ha ha ha, look at the bread here—these are dry and seem roasted! Let’s see if the bread is tougher than my teeth. I have no other option but to eat these — I am so hungry. The pickle is still quite fresh though!

That girl who was thirteen or fourteen (in our country, she would be wedded by now, if not already a mother), put her hands around my neck and kissed me. She said, “Brother, you must drive the enemy out with full force.”  I broke into a pure, sad smile.

Ah! I can finally see the sky. A strip of blue sky can be seen behind the mass of heavy clouds. It is so beautiful– like a pair of blue eyes filled with tears! Anyway, I will write down my other thoughts later. The spirit of my dead friend must be mad at me by now. What, my friend, you want a drop of water? See, how he is staring at me! No, my friend, I tell you your beloved is waiting for you with a glass of lemonade in the other world. I would not want to disappoint her, would I?

Ah, I seem to remember so many things today. But no! There’s nothing to remember! These are all lies. Let me pick up the Lewis gun and start shooting. I see some of those who are helping me have stolen a nap!  

But there, I can hear the sound of footsteps. They are all marching– left-right-left. That sound is so melodious! Are they coming to relieve us from duty?

Ouch! A moment of distraction has allowed a bullet to bruise my arm! Let me dress it. I hate those nurses. If a woman cares for me without loving me, why should I accept it? Ah! A war shows how killing others can be addictive.

The man who has fallen beside me is far stronger and healthier than me! But I have also seen how one’s mind has more strength than one’s body.

This Lewis gun is shooting about six to seven hundred rounds per minute. If only I could know how many I have killed!   But the two Lewis guns here are keeping the enemies confined to their position. You can hear the loud groans of the enemies as they die in droves! The beauty of such youthful deaths is boundless!

A tent at the river Seine, France

I slept for all forty-eight hours of the last two days. And now I have to get dressed for battle and go out to destroy God’s creatures once again. The killing game is the right kind of activity for stone-hearted person like me.

Today that kind girl took me to visit her house… How clean and pretty are the houses here! The girl has clearly fallen in love with me. And I, too, have begun to love her… In our country, people would have said that the girl has gone bad… They would not have liked to see a young girl going out with a young man of twenty or twenty-one.

People look at love in such ugly ways these days! Are these human beings, or vultures? There is so much sin in the world! How did the people become so petty? The sky above is so vast and blue, but beneath the same sky human beings are so mean and narrow-minded!

Fire, you keep raining down!  Let the curse of God float downward like frozen chunks of ice… Oh the horn of Israfil[1]! Do blow and immobilize the world! Oh, the thunder of destruction, strike inside the human brains, like the bombs and the artillery shells. And let the entire sky fall on the heads of those people who slander love, and blight the flowers…

If I could dress up one of my countrymen the way I am dressed now, and pushed him down, I am sure he wouldn’t be able to get up, no matter how hard he tried. I am highly amused at my bulky and sluggish appearance.

A ‘wicked’ friend once commented “What pleasing looks!” What a weird adjective!  And another one is supposed have said, “The bullock looks like a katla fish!”

A thick forest near Paris, France

All on a sudden, we were sent to this dense forest yesterday. I have no clue why we had to fall back. This is the beauty of military life—an order is given and you are told “Get it done!” You can never ask “Why do I have to do this,” or ask for an explanation. It’s an order –that’s all!”

If I say, “I am going to die,” a stern voice will reply, “As long as you breathe, keep on doing what you are doing, if you fall dead on your right foot while you are marching, let your left foot keep up the pace!”

There is a strange beauty in obeying orders with blind obedience! What tenderness it is that lies at the heart of a thunder! If the entire world could come under one (and only) such military regime, then it would turn out so beautiful that even calling it a heaven on earth would not be enough.

The British nation is so great now because of the discipline they exercise on everything they do. They walk so tall that we can never see the crown of their heads no matter how hard we crane our necks — and let our headgears fall off while doing that! To speak frankly, their empire is like a huge clock that is always correct and faultless. Its two hands run in precision. The clock is oiled every day so there is no speck of rust anywhere.

We were the ones who chased the Germans to the Hindenburg Line and then we had to retreat so far! Only the maker of the clock knows which hand has to move at what pace, but the hands don’t know anything about it. But the hands have to keep ticking because these are continuously driven by a spring from the rear.

We badly need a disciplined, clockwork system like this. This reckless nation of ours really needs to be tied up and disciplined; otherwise, there is no hope of it rising anytime in future!  If everybody wants to be the leader, who will do the work?

Oh, the artillery shells raining on us even at this distance! This is really uncanny… The war is being fought so far away but cannon-balls are dropping on us in the forest!  

Well, an elephant might think that it is the biggest animal in the world. But even a mosquito can cause it enough trouble through a single bite in its head.

It’s cool in this shady darkness here. How my heart had been yearning for this solace in darkness.

Alas! Darkness seems to trigger in my mind so many fond memories! But, no, let me just climb up the tree and see if any enemy is hiding nearby.

How charming that distant ice-covered river looks from the tree! But there are also some big houses around which shells have torn through, leaving ugly gaping holes! This game of destruction reminds me of my childhood when we used to build clay doll’s houses. After we were done with our play, we used to crush them with our feet and sing:

“We made them gleefully with our hands
We broke them gleefully with our feet!”

The cannon-balls are flying through the air and dropping on distant planes, and from my vantage point, they look like falling stars.

And the sound these fighter planes are making! Oh! The way they are climbing and diving– it looks as if an expert kite flier is maneuvering his fighter-kite to hurtle through the sky in search of a rival. That plane is ours! The German zeppelins look from a distant more like big, flying caterpillars.

Anyway, let me get a bit of pickle out of my haversack. That foreign girl is so far away from me today but the pickle seems to retain her touch! Hell! What am I doing?  Why do I keep on thinking of all this gibberish? I don’t need the pain that arises from nowhere and tortures me!

Well, well! What do I see there? A friend of mine is trying to take a nap on that tree. See, he has tied himself with his belt to a branch quite tightly. If he somehow falls in the water below, it will be quite a hassle for him! But then why not? Oh God, let him fall!

Should I shoot a bullet past his ear?  Ah, no! Poor thing! Let him sleep awhile. Nobody except me has such hapless eyes that sleep never touches, or a blasted mind like mine which gets sick thinking about the goings on in the world. It’s night – quite deep into the night, I guess!  I will have to stay here in this crouching position till dawn…. Perhaps when I am old (if I live that long), the trials I am going through will turn into sweet memories.

The light of the moon, which will turn into a full moon tomorrow night, is creating patterns of light and shadow in the forest below, which make the forest look like a giant cheetah! The heavy, dark clouds over my head are slowly drifting towards some unknown destination. A few drops of cool water fall on my head. Ah, how sad these drops feel! Ah!

The moon is now hidden by a cloud, and now it shoots out and hides behind another cloud! It seems like a game of peekaboo played by beauties living in the glass palace of a king. Who is running in the sky now? The clouds or the moon? I would say the clouds but a simple child might say the moon. Who is right? Aha! How lovely is the play of light and shadow!

What’s that bird cooing in the distance? The delicate tones of the bird songs of this country seem to evoke a sweet laziness… I find them intoxicating.

In this light and shadow, I remember so many things! But the memory is so full of pain.

I recall telling her, “I love you so much, Hena.”

Hena shook her raven black silky hair and replied, “But Sohrab, I haven’t been able to love you.”  

That day, the bright saffron flowers seemed to be playing a game to welcome the new day in the garden of Balochistan. Unmindfully, I broke a branch of walnut and collected some flowers from the deodar tree and threw them at her feet.

A few drops of tears trickled down her dark eyes lined with Istanbul kohl! Her face turned redder than her henna dyed hands!

I picked up a bunch of raw plums and threw them at the nightingale sitting in bush of screw pine flowers. The birds stopped singing and few away.  

What Human beings think is the closest turns out to be the farthest from them! This is indeed a profound mystery! Hena! Oh Hena! There’s just so much regret…!

Hindenburg Line

Oh! What is this place? I cannot believe that this is an underground land of fairies and monsters!  Can a trench built during the wartimes be really as huge as a city full of houses? Who could have imagined this? What a gigantic venture so deep down underground! This is indeed another wonder of the world! One can live as luxuriously as the Nabobs of Bengal in this place!

But I did not come here for the peace it offers! I did not ask for comfort. I only wanted pain and suffering. I am not made for enjoyment and comfort!  I would have to seek out another path then. It seems like I found a house under the tamarind tree in trying to escape from tasting sour things.

No, I need to be active. I want to drown myself in work. But this life of comfort here is embarrassing!

I heard that iron turns into steel when it burns in fire. What about human beings? Only ‘baptised’?

Being freed of restraints, my mind has fled again to that room full of grapes and pomegranates!  I recall those days again!

“Hena, I’m about to jump into the fire that burns in a free country. I am burning inside, so let my body burn too! Maybe, I will never return. But what means do I have? How do I find travel expenses? How will I live in the foreign land?”

Hena’s henna-dyed fingers trembled like young shoots in my hands. She replied in a clear voice, “But that’s not how your life becomes meaningful, Sohrab!  This is only the hot-headed youthfulness!  You’re clinging to a lie! There is still time for you to get the message!…  See I’ve not been able to love you yet.”

All is empty. Nothing remains. A gusty wind blew through the thick tamarisk trees and cried, “Ah!… Ah!… Ah! When the first battalion of our Baloch Regiment 127 started off for this country from Quetta, one of my friends, a young Bengali doctor, sang while sitting under a pear tree:

“How will you make him return
The one you bade farewell in tears.
In this languid air
At night in the garden
Have you recalled him under the bakul tree?
How will you make him return!
The honeymoon of the full moon
Returns from time to time,
But the one who has gone, does not come back!
Now how will you make him return?”

How weak I am! No wonder I did not want to come to this place. What would I do in this palatial life?  Fellows of my regiment think there is no one as carefree and happy as I am. It’s because I laugh a lot. Does anybody know how much blood is hidden in the heart of the henna leaves?

I played “Home sweet home” on the piano and sang along so beautifully that the French were amazed!  It was as if we are not human beings and so we cannot do anything as well as  them!  We have to break such preconceived notions.

Hindenburg Line

What else can I do if there’s no work? I have to find something to do. So last night I crawled for about a couple of miles and cut through much of their wires. Nobody seemed to notice.

My commanding officer said, “You’ll be rewarded for this.”

So, I became a corporal today.

The other day, I met that foreign girl too. She has grown much prettier in these two years! She told me directly that if I had no objection, she would like to have me as her partner! I told her, “That’s impossible!”

I said to myself, “A blind man loses his staff only once. Again? No way. I have had enough.”

The way her blue eyes filled with tears and her bosom heaved made a stone-hearted person like me cry!

She controlled herself and said, “But you’ll allow me to love you?  Like a brother at least…?”

I am just a god forsaken wayfarer.  So, I showed a lot of interest and replied, “Of course.” Then she left bidding me adieu. She never came back!  I can only recall that line, “But the one who has gone does not come back.” Oh!

Anyway, the day was well-spent with the Gurkhas. These Gurkhas were really like big babies. I would not have believed that grown men could be so naive and innocent. These Gurkhas and their brothers-in-law, the Garwhals– both turn into killing machines in the battle field!  Each of them turns into a tiger, a “Sher-e-Babbar.” Even the Germans throw away their rifles and run off at the sight of their kukri knives. If these two fighter groups did not exist, we would never be able to achieve this much. Only a handful of them are still alive. Entire regiments of them have perished. Yet, the few of them that are still alive are so full of life, as if nothing has happened!

Nobody can make them understand what great feat they have achieved. And those tall and sturdy Sikhs—what betrayers they have turned out to be! Some shot themselves in the arm and ended up at the hospital.

Look there! There is a battalion ‘march’ going on in the trench. We are marching at the beat of a French band!  Left- right-left. A thousand people are all marching at the same pace– all at once. How amazing!


My cottage in Quetta

In the grapevine garden

What happened? I am trying to find out an answer to the question, sitting in this walnut and pear garden. All our Indian soldiers have returned home, and so have I. But how happily did those two years pass by!

I am looking at the blue sky washed by rain, which reminds me of the wide blue eyes of the young French woman. Looking at the mountain-yaks I remember her silky curly hair. And those ripe grapes– aren’t they exactly like the sparkling tears of her eyes?

After becoming an ‘officer’ I also received the title “Sardar Bahadur.” My boss would not let go of me. How could I make him understand that I was not there to form a permanent bond? I did not cross the seas with any high ideals. I only went to purify myself in fire — to hide myself too.

And I never thought I would return here of all places. But I had to– it seems I am tied to this land!

I have no one, I have nothing. And yet I feel, everything is here. Who am I trying to comfort?

I have not hurt anybody; nobody hurt me. Then why was I reluctant to come here? But that’s a matter of unspeakable agony. I can’t articulate it well enough. Hena! Oh! There’s nobody around, still the wind carries the broken echo “na…na”. “No” it is then!  

The brook still flows through the hill; only the girl Hena, whose footprints are still etched  on the stone-steps, is no longer there. There are so many things lying around that remind me of her soft touch.

Hena! Hena! Hena! Again that echo! Na –Na- Na!


I have found her! She is — here. Hena! My Hena! I saw you here today, here in Peshawar! Why do you keep hiding the truth behind those lies? She watched me from a distance and cried. She did not utter a word; she only looked at me and shed tears.

In such meetings, tears are the most articulate language of the heart. She told me again that she could not bring herself to love me. The moment she uttered the word “no” she cried so dejectedly that even the morning air became mournful!

The biggest puzzle in this world is the mind of a woman!


Dakka camp

When I heard that the great man Ameer Habibullah Khan had been martyred, I felt that the top of the Hindukush had collapsed! And Suleiman Mountain must have been torn out of its base!

And I wondered what I should do. For ten days, I kept on thinking. It was no easy task!

I decided that I would fight for Ameer. Why? Well, there’s no answer to that question. But let me say candidly that I do not consider the British as my enemy. I have always thought of them as my best friends. But even if I say the reason for my joining the war this time was to protect the weak, even if it meant sacrificing my life, it won’t be quite the right answer.  Even I do not understand my own whims!

That morning, someone seemed to have set fire to the pomegranates. They looked bright red! That was perhaps the blood from the hearts of many like me!

The vast sky had just paused after crying incessantly. Its eyes are still misty, so it would start crying again.  A broken-hearted cuckoo had also been weeping somewhere, turning its eyes red and its voice rang through the damp winds of the autumnal morning. Someone on the other side of the dried river was playing the Asawari raga[2]on the shehnai. Its notes echoed the doleful cries of a lonely heart. I felt the sadness more than anyone else. The strong smell of henna flowers intoxicated me.

I said, “Hena, I am going to war again, to fight for the Ameer. I won’t come back. Even if I live, I won’t come back.”

Hena buried herself in my chest and cried, “Sohrab, my love! Yes, go wherever you will. Now is the time to tell you how much I love you. I won’t hide the truth anymore. I won’t cause my love further pain….”

I understood. She was a warrior-woman, a daughter of the Afghans. Even though being an Afghan myself I have spent my entire life fighting, she had wanted me to sacrifice my life at the feet of our country. She wanted me to sacrifice my life for our land.

O, the heart of a woman! How could you hide yourself like this? What perseverance! How could such a soft-hearted woman be so tough at the same time?


My body has taken five bullets. But until the moment I lost consciousness, I had defended my soldiers with all my strength!

O my God!  If protecting my country with my blood makes me a martyr, then I am a martyr.  

I came back. Hena followed me like a shadow. How could she hold back so much love that flowed like a rapid tumbling uncontrollably down the mountain with her fragile ribcage!

The Ameer has given me a place in his court. I am one of the commanders of his army.

And Hena? There is Hena, sleeping by my side, clinging to my chest…. Her heart is still fluttering with some unknown fear. Her sighs are still pervading the winds with some dissatisfaction.

The poor girl has also been badly wounded like me! Let her sleep. No, we’ll sleep together. O God — don’t give us any more pain by waking us up from this pleasurable sleep! Hena! Hena! –na—na—Ah!


[1] The angel who blows the trumpet on the day of judgement in Islam.

[2] A morning raga or melodic composition in the Hindustani classical tradition.


Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) was born in united Bengal, long before the Partition. Known as the  Bidrohi Kobi, or “rebel poet”. Nazrul is now regarded as the national poet of Bangladesh though he continues a revered name in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to his prose and poetry, Nazrul wrote about 4000 songs.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB, a short story writer, a translator, an essayist and an artist.


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Written by and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi

Korean landscape. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Like a breeze, I tread softly.
Sitting in the spring sun, gazing at the green mountain valley,
Life is truly a lonely thing.
Even with yesterday's memories and tomorrow's hopes,
Even with friends coming and going, amidst the daily bustles,
Living is truly a lonely thing.

All day today, I've been thinking of you.
Is my life lonely because I miss you?
Is this spring day lonely because you're there?
Like a breeze, I walk aimlessly.
Sitting in the grassy field, gazing at the lake's waves,
Even this blossoming season is lonely like this.

Ihlwha Choi is a South Korean poet. He has published multiple poetry collections, such as Until the Time When Our Love will Flourish, The Color of Time, His Song and The Last Rehearsal.



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Farewell Song: Revisiting Tagore’s Vision of Modern Love

By Meenakshi Malhotra

Romance and reality inevitably clash. While Tagore is not unconvinced about the existence of conjugal love in some of his stories, conjugality and romance make uneasy bedfellows in Farewell Song. Marriage is rooted in the humdrum, quotidian, everyday but romantic love dwells on another astral plane. It is the realisation of the gap between the two that informs the novel/la, a realisation that never the twain shall truly  meet,  manifesting itself in the pages of this complex narrative that folds into itself a romantic love story, social satire and literary criticism. The  multiple strands  are brilliantly woven into the plot of this novel, which could be classified as a prose-poem. Its very title, “Shesher Kobita”, literally meaning last poem and  translated by Professor Radha Chakravarty as Farewell Song, is evocative of its lyricality.

Shesher Kobita is primarily a love story between two young people, Amit Raye and Labanyalata, both of whom express their love in the most lyrical vein imaginable. Labanya, like many of Amit’s compatriots in Calcutta, is an avid reader and staunch admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s writing, and her familiarity with Tagore’s work is evident in much of her conversation and in many of her perceptions. Amit, on the other hand, persists in citing the words of a ‘modern’ poet, Nibaran Chakrabarti, who is a persona created by Amit himself, to express his views about poetry. Readers see through this ruse quickly enough, and the third person narrative , often allows space for narrative commentary. As the translator, Radha Chakravarty points out, “Two schools of Bengali poetry, pro and anti-Tagore, are pitted against each other through the dialectic of the Amit-Labanya encounter.” Tagore cleverly plays out and into the literary /poetic debates of his later decades (1920s onwards) in order to prove his contemporary relevance and above all, the modernity of his work.

Amit, the protagonist, is from an elite and rich family, privileged enough to have gone to Oxford and wealthy enough to be under no compulsion to earn immediately. He’s a dilettante who is interested in the vagaries of style, which is seen as being a notch higher than fashion. Brilliant but restless, mercurial as quicksilver, he cannot commit himself to any one thing or relationship. Yet, getting away from the highly artificial social life of Kolkata, to the relatively pristine and pastoral world of Shillong, he falls deeply, unequivocally in love, with the quiet, studious but unassuming young girl, Labanyalata and establishes a soul-connection, as it were, with her. Yet this deep commitment pales and collapses in the face of the demands of the everyday social world. It is this space–“habitus”– which is occupied by Amit’s sister’s friend, Ketaki (Katy) Mitra. To quote from Radha Chakravarty’s introduction to her translation of the book, “Two forms of love are presented through Amit’s involvements with Katy Mitter and Labanya-one rooted in the material and the social, the other, embedded deep within the soul”

The expression of this soulful love dips into and is expressed through not only Bangla literature and poetry but is steeped in the idioms of English poetry, from Shakespeare to the metaphysical poets. Seeing a book of John Donne’s poems on Labanya’s table, Amit quotes, “for God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love.” And yet, his intense love seems doomed as an idealistic ephemeral bliss, to be swept away by the ‘real’. Not a keen observer of nature, Amit seems to indulge frequently in “pathetic fallacy”, appropriating aspects of the landscape in order to express his moods and feelings. The landscape is often symbolic with Amit and Labanya meeting for their trysts at the site of a waterfall, always a significant feature of  Tagore’s  landscapes. Mita (meaning friend) and Banya (of the forest) –the lovers’ names for each other– create a world of their own, full of poetry and lyricality. And yet, inevitably, inexorably, the social, material, everyday world presses upon them and the lovers part. And yet, as the novel draws to a close, we do not experience this parting/ estrangement as a tragedy but almost as much of a  resolution and closure that the novel could offer.

For Amit Ray/e is an embodiment of the modern split subject, the divided self. He has made up a world of words, and it is in this world that his heart and mind dwell. It is this inner space-the still centre of the turning world (to quote from another modern poet) that Labanya inhabits. And this is what Labanya, intelligent and perceptive, realises. Labanya, in her own way, is the new woman- independent and emotionally self-reliant, reminding one of Kalyani in ‘Aparichita, translated by Aruna Chakravarti as ‘The Stranger‘. They are women who dream of  a life beyond domesticity and conjugal felicity. For them marriage would be a slippery slope, not a nesting ground. In these versions of ‘modern’ love, each person, especially the women, are complete and self-assured in themselves. This is particularly true of Kalyani, where we get a sense that she towers over the suitors in her life.

Labanya is able to connect to connect with Amit as a friend. to Amit, the friendship acts as  an anchor, a stay against the vacuousness of his urban existence. Such a soulful connection belongs to the realm of dreams and these connects are what dreams are made of. However, dreams often shatter, or worse, fester. When Amit is asked whether in marriage, partnership and companionship cannot combine, his reply is illuminating. Marriage is the finite to the infinity of love and romance. He compares his relationship to the westernised Ketaki/Katy, his girlfriend in England who later becomes his wife, after the interlude with Labanya. “My initial relationship with Katy was indeed based on love but it was like water in a pitcher, to be collected daily, and used up everyday.” In contrast, his love for Labanya “remains a lake, its waters not be carried home but meant for” his “consciousness   to swim in”. This realisation creates no inner conflict because he also glimpses that Labanya is someone who lives in his dreams, “in the twilight of gleams and of glimpses” (Tagore’s lines from Gitanjali, a basket of song-offerings). In a serendipitious resolution, Labanya also finds her companion in domesticity, her father’s brilliant student Shobhanlal, who has yearned for her for years, only to be spurned. Thus the story becomes not a tragedy of betrayal, but an extended musing and discussion on love, romance and marriage of the modern subject, in a world where the ground beneath the feet of the characters is constantly shifting.

It is this sense of a world in flux and its nuances that Radha Chakravarty’s translation deftly captures. Translating a novel of discussion requires a constant awareness of key concepts and multiple contexts — literary, social, cultural and philosophical. As a skilled translator and litterateur with an extensive repertoire and many years of experience, the editor-translator has brought her many accomplishments to the task of translation. Translating poetry and its nuances is challenging; here, the translation conveys immense wealth of meaning and richness of detail. The novel, in a sense, is a plea for romantic yearning and aspiration, for reaching out to those “unheard melodies” that are far sweeter than those which are available for the asking.

Unlike Bankim, who had depicted  the new woman in an unflattering light a few decades earlier, Rabindranath was essentially sympathetic to women. Women were often among his closest associates and companions, and his friendship with women like the Argentinian Victoria Ocampo not  only spurred him into song , but made him rethink the contours of modern cosmopolitan womanhood. Well-read and accomplished, women like Labanya not only challenge traditional ideas of womanhood, but is reflexive and aware enough not to judge Katy Mitra. Torn between the pull of intellectual independence and the desire for surrender, Labanya also represents the emergence of the female subject in modern Bangla literature.   


Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       



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Tagore Translations

Aparichita by Tagore


Written in 1916 by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Aparichita’ is a short story featured in his ‘Golpo Guchho’ (A Collection of Stories). It has been translated from Bengali by Aruna Chakravarti as The Stranger.

Goplo Guchho, a collection of 95 short stories was originally published in five parts by Indian Publishing House from 1908-1909

The Stranger

I am twenty-seven years old today. My life has been unremarkable, so far, both in terms of length and quality. Yet it is not without value. It can be compared to that of a flower on whose breast a honeybee had nestled once, leaving behind a faint glimmer that germinated and swelled into a tiny ball of fruit.

Something similar happened to me. The encounter was brief; almost ephemeral. In chronicling the events I shall be brief too. But make no mistake. Though short, my story should not be passed over unread. Those who take the trouble to go through it will find meaning in it.

I am well educated. I have passed all my college examinations with ease. I am good looking too. When I was a child my school masters would mock my pretty face. Simul phul they would call me. Makal phal. Simul is a flower and makal, a fruit. Both have gorgeous exteriors but are of no use to anyone. The first is totally lacking in fragrance and the second in flavour. I would shrink with shame and resent the unfairness of these remarks. But as I grew older, I told myself that if another birth was granted to me, I would like it to be a replica of this one. My face should be as handsome and those of my schoolmasters as twisted with derision as when I was a lad.

My father had been poor once. In later life he made a lot of money. However, his profession as a lawyer demanded so much time and effort that he never got a chance to enjoy any of it.  He must have heaved a sigh of relief when he died. For the first time he had been granted a rest.

My upbringing was left to my mother. Having come from a poor family she never lost sight of the fact that she was a wealthy woman. Nor did she allow me to do so. As an infant I remember being carried long after I had learned to walk. As a result, I never really grew up. I still look amazingly young for my age. I could easily pass for the elephant headed god’s younger brother nestling in his mother Annapurna’s lap.

After my father’s death, my maternal uncle took charge of our affairs and became my guardian. Mama[1] was only six years older than me. But, like the parched sands of a subterranean river, he  steadily sucked away everything we had… assets, liabilities, hopes, cares, dreams and aspirations. The draining had been so thorough that we were unable to access anything on our own. We had to dig into him for every drop. In consequence, I lived a life totally shorn of responsibility.

 Fathers of marriageable daughters could not but consider me a good catch. I had no bad habits. I’d never even touched tobacco. I was simple and good tempered. That’s because being simple and good tempered made life easy for me. I obeyed my mother because I lacked the guts to disobey her. I was prepared to allow this quality full play in future. Girls permitted to choose their own husbands would do well to keep this in mind, when making their choice.

As soon as the time was ripe, marriage proposals from the best families started to pour in. But my uncle, who was the Chief Agent of the Dispenser of my Destiny, had very definite ideas of what constituted a good match. The girl had to come from an impoverished family for only then would she keep her head bowed and be humble and obedient. On the other hand, what was the value of a daughter-in-law who didn’t bring a substantial dowry? My uncle’s requirements were simple. The father had to be poor yet ready to give him all the money he wanted. He must be the kind of man Mama could milk with ease yet wasn’t obliged to treat with respect. One who wouldn’t complain if he was offered tobacco in the coconut shell hookah meant for subordinates instead of the lordly silver albola he smoked himself.

My friend, Harish, works in Kanpur. On one of his visits to Kolkata, he said to me, “O hey! Speaking of brides, I know an excellent girl.”

I was in a state of limbo at the time. I had passed my M.A. some months earlier. Now there was nothing for me to do. I didn’t have to study or look for a job. Nor was I required to poke my nose into any of my financial affairs. No work, no worries, no opinions were expected of me. A desert of indolence and inactivity stretched before my eyes. I was consumed with thirst for something; someone… I had no idea who or what I was searching for.

 In this frame of mind Harish’s words struck a chord in me. My mind and body trembled with an unknown emotion — the way newly budding leaves on the boughs of a bakul[2] tree shiver and quiver with the first warm winds of spring, throwing dancing patterns of light and shadow on the ground. Harish had a romantic side to him, and he spoke with tenderness and passion. He described the girl in words that fell like a sweet shower on my shrivelled soul. I looked at him with star struck eyes, “Why don’t you speak to Mama, Harish?” I begged.

Harish was ready to oblige. He was a great entertainer, and everyone enjoyed his company including my uncle who, once they sat down to a chat, was loath to let him go. Mama, of course was more interested in the girl’s father than in her. From Harish’s description he came to know that, though wealthy once, the gentleman was now in straitened circumstances. However, there were still some good scrapings left in the pot of gold bequeathed to his family, years ago, by the goddess Lakshmi. Unable to keep up the lofty standards set by his forefathers, he had decided to leave his ancestral village and settle in a small town in the west where no one knew him and he could live a simple life, without worrying about lost prestige. He had just this one daughter, no one else, so he wouldn’t hesitate to pour the contents of the pot into the hands of one who ensured her happiness. What could be better? My uncle was thoroughly convinced that this was the man he was looking for.

So far so good. But there was one worrying factor. The girl was fifteen. Why had she been kept unwed for so long? Was there some flaw in the family? “Arre na na[3]” — Harish hastened to explain. The father was very picky. He hadn’t found anyone he considered worthy of her, so far. He didn’t mind waiting till the right boy came along. But the girl’s age did. Refusing to stop at her father’s command it had marched on at its accustomed pace. Harish’s ability to charm his listeners and lull their fears, worked. Mama was persuaded to look into the proposal.

 Mama considered any place outside Kolkata to be as alien and exotic as the islands of the Andaman. The furthest he had travelled in his life was to Konnagar. If he had been Manu[4], he would have forbidden the crossing of Howrah Bridge, in his Samhita[5], for who knew what dangerous territory lay beyond it? There was no question of his leaving Kolkata, so my cousin Binu was sent to Kanpur to conduct the negotiations and, if all went well, seal the new relationship by a ritualistic blessing of the bride. Mama had full faith in Binu da[6]’s good sense, good taste and sagacity. I would have liked to go with him and see the girl but couldn’t summon up the courage to ask for permission. I didn’t even dare ask to be shown a photograph.

Binu da returned satisfied. “She’ll do…,” he muttered, “pure gold.”

 He tended to speak in monosyllables and was extremely reticent in his praise. Where another would have exclaimed “Wonderful!” or “Excellent!” he mumbled, “Not bad”. His “She’ll do” was ample affirmation. It was clear to all of us that Fate had smiled on me. Prajapati, the God of marriage, had given the nod.

As was to be expected, Mama decided that the wedding would be held in Kolkata. The resultant effect was the bride’s father was forced to make all the arrangements in a city of which he knew nothing. Shombhunath Babu was a handsome man of about forty. There were traces of silver in his whiskers though not in his hair which was black and plentiful. He had the kind of good looks that compels attention even in a crowd. The immense trust that he reposed in Harish was evident from the fact that he agreed to the marriage without seeing me. He set eyes on the one who was to be his son-in-law only three days before the ceremony.

I fervently hoped that he liked what he saw. It was difficult to tell. He spoke little in a very soft voice and listened quietly when Mama’s tongue wagged vigorously with exaggerated accounts of our wealth and status and our reputation as one of the first families of Kolkata. I squirmed with embarrassment under that gentle, probing gaze. But Mama’s enthusiasm would not be dampened. He went on and on. He probably assumed, from Shombhunath Babu’s subdued voice and manner, that the man was spineless and easily intimidated. The thought must have filled him with glee for, in fathers of brides, this quality was deemed a virtue. He remained seated when his guest rose to take his leave. He didn’t think it necessary to escort him to his carriage.

The cash component of the dowry had been agreed upon already. Mama, who prided himself on his extraordinary skill in negotiation; his well-honed ability to extract the best deal for himself in any given situation, now turned his attention on the quality and quantity of jewels that would adorn the bride’s person. Polite but pointed questions elicited the response he desired. Enough would be given to satisfy the most determined of blood suckers. I had no idea of what was going on between the two guardians. To tell the truth I wasn’t interested. Financial affairs were not my business. Besides I was confident that, in any battle of wits, Mama would emerge the winner. It mattered little that we didn’t need the money or that Shombhunath Babu was being squeezed dry. I was proud of Mama as were we all.

The turmeric ceremony was conducted with a lot of fanfare. So many trays of gifts were sent to the bride’s house with so many maids and servants carrying them, that doling out the necessary tips must have been a financial drain on her father. Exchanging gleeful remarks about the poor man’s distress and helplessness, Ma and Mama had a good laugh.

The wedding day arrived. The bridegroom’s procession was led by a mighty concert of drums, trumpets, flutes and fiddles. This set up such a pandemonium of discordant sounds that the noise could be compared to a stampede into Saraswati’s lotus garden, by a herd of mad elephants, violent enough to force the goddess of music to flee to safer havens. Covered with brocade and precious gems, I looked exactly like a jeweller’s shop in the middle of an auction. I had to prove to the bride’s father, had I not, the worth of the son-in-law he had had the good fortune to acquire? It was a battle of prestige and I rushed headlong to win it.

Mama was not impressed by the wedding venue. The assembly hall, to which the bridegroom’s party was ushered, was small and the seating somewhat constricted for the number of guests we had brought. The arrangements were on an ordinary scale, hardly befitting our family’s wealth and position. He was also a bit miffed by Shombhunath Babu’s behaviour. He found it strange. Rather cold and distant. If it weren’t for another man’s servile bowing and scraping, oily smiles and folding of hands, Mama might have felt incensed enough to walk out of the house with the bridegroom in tow. This was a lawyer friend of the bride’s father—a hulk of a man with a huge bald head and a very dark complexion. That he was in charge of the logistics was obvious from the greasy sheet he had wrapped around his middle and the cracked voice that was clearly the result of having shouted orders all day. The good thing was that, unlike the bride’s father, he was aware of the niceties of social behavior and what was owing to the groom’s party. He smiled and swayed his heavy head at everybody and addressed strings of flattering words to each, from the cymbal player in the band to the most distinguished of the wedding guests.

Shortly after our arrival Mama took our host aside and whispered something in his ear. The two walked out of the room. I don’t know what transpired between them but, within a few minutes, Shombhunath Babu returned. “Babaji!” he said, “Your presence is needed. Please come with me.”

The problem was a simple one. Some persons, not all, are ruled by a single compulsion. Mama was one of them. He had a goal before his eyes of which he was determined never to lose sight. This goal, he would never forgive himself if he failed to reach it even in the tiniest degree, was that he would never allow anyone to get the better of him. He had a horror of being cheated. The bride’s father had promised a good amount of jewellery. But could he be trusted to keep his word? The man seemed somewhat tight-fisted judging from the tips and return gifts the servants, carrying the turmeric, had brought back with them. Who knew if the bridal ornaments were of the weight and purity of gold promised? The sensible thing to do was to have their worth assessed before the rituals commenced. To wait till after the ceremony would be an exercise in futility. Thus, with due caution and good sense, he had included our family goldsmith in the wedding party.

My future father-in-law led me to a small room. It was empty, except for Mama who was seated on a chowki[7], and the goldsmith who sat on the floor with his scales, weights and touchstones spread out before him.

 “Your uncle wishes to have the girl’s jewels tested before the ceremony,” Shombhunath babu looked at me with a strange expression in his eyes. “What do you say?”

I hung my head in silence.

“Why should he say anything?” Mama answered for me. “It’s what I want that counts.”

“Is that so? Do you endorse your uncle’s statement?” The gentle, thoughtful gaze unnerved me. Not knowing how to respond I tilted my head expressing assent. Financial affairs were handled by guardians. What right did I have to interfere?

“Very well.” Shombhunath Babu murmured. “The trouble is…it will take some time to remove the jewels. The bridal toilette is complete, and my daughter is wearing them already. Had I known….no matter… please stay here till I return.”

“Why?” Mama cried out surprised. “Why should he stay here? Go back to the hall, Anupam, and join the others.”

“No.” Shombhunath Babu’s voice was soft but firm. “He will stay here.”

He left the room and returned after half-an-hour with a bundle wrapped in a gamchha[8]. Spreading out its contents on the chowki, he invited the goldsmith to begin his examination. The goldsmith’s practiced eye told him the worth of what he saw in an instant. “There’s no need to examine anything,” he said, “The gold is hundred percent pure. Not a trace of alloy. Look.” Picking up a bangle he pressed it gently. A tiny dent appeared. “These are obviously from a bye gone era. Nothing like this is fashioned anymore. The girl’s grandmother’s perhaps?” He threw a questioning glance at our host.

The moment he heard this Mama whipped a notebook out of his pocket and started listing the ornaments one by one. He had to make sure that everything he had been shown would find its way into the family vault. A pleased smile appeared on his face. They were far more in number and of greater weight than he had expected.

Now, Shombhunath Babu picked up a pair of earrings from the pile. “Kindly examine these and let me know their value,” he said. The goldsmith turned them over in his hands. “Bought from an English shop,” he curled his lips disdainfully, “They have hardly any gold to speak of.” Shombhunath Babu took them from him and handed them to Mama. “Keep these with you,” he said. Mama’s face flushed a deep red with embarrassment. They were the earrings he had sent with Binu da for the bridal blessing.

“Go Anupam.” He tried to recover his composure. “Go sit with the others in the assembly—”

“No. No.” Shombhunath Babu interrupted smoothly. “There’s no need to go to the assembly hall just now. Dinner, for the bridegroom’s party, has been served and your guests have proceeded to the dining area. Let me take you there.”

“What!” Mama exclaimed, “Eat now? Before the ceremony begins…?”

“The auspicious hour is far off. Why wait till then? Please come with me.” There was something in his voice, a strength that came from a long habit of command, that compelled obedience. Mama rose meekly and followed him out of the room.

The meal, though not ostentatious, was well-cooked, neatly served and plentiful in quantity. The guests ate to satiety and were well content. Shombhunath Babu invited me to join them, but Mama was aghast at the suggestion. “What nonsense!” he cried forcefully, “How can the bridegroom sit down to a meal before the rites have begun?”

Shombhunath Babu ignored the outburst. “What do you say?” His eyes looked into mine thoughtfully. As though he expected a reaction. Any reaction. But I remained silent. What could I say? How could I go against the express wishes of my uncle and guardian?

“Very well then.”  Shombhunath Babu turned his attention back to my uncle. “You have taken a lot of pains and come a long way,” he said pleasantly. “My hospitality, I’m afraid, has not met the standards your illustrious family is used to. I’m a poor man. Please forgive me. I do not wish to trouble you any further.”

“It’s alright. It’s alright.” Mama waved his hands in the lordly manner he used to reassure his inferiors and demonstrate his generosity. “Let the ceremony begin. I’m ready…”

“It will take a few moments for your carriages to arrive. Kindly wait till then.”

“What!” Mama’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Is this a joke?”

“You are the one who has turned a serious affair into a joke.” Shombhunath babu answered calmly. “How could you even think that I would steal my own daughter’s jewels? What sort of people are you? I am sorry but I cannot give my daughter in marriage to a family like yours.” He looked straight into Mama’s eyes ignoring me completely. He didn’t glance at me even once or try to gauge my reaction. He seemed to have made up his mind that I was nothing.

What happened after that? As was to be expected the groom’s party shouted and cursed, broke the furniture, smashed the chandeliers and having completed the carnage to their satisfaction made their way home. The band that had pronounced its entry into the wedding venue with such a cacophony of sounds now slinked along the streets in funereal silence. The lamps had burned out and the only light that guided the mournful procession came from the stars.

The rest of the family was wild with fury. Had anyone even dreamed, let alone seen or heard, anything like this? Such arrogance in a bride’s father! What did the man think of himself? “Let’s see how he secures another match for his precious daughter,” the women cried out to one another, “The world doesn’t run according to his whims and fancies. Wait and watch. He’ll be taught the lesson of his life.”

Which was all very well. But what was the point of cursing a man with the eternal spinsterhood of his daughter if he was prepared to keep her unwed all her life?

In the whole of Bengal, I was the only bridegroom with the distinction of being turned away from the wedding venue. I, who was so eligible! Such an excellent catch! And to think that the stigma stamped on my brow had followed such a jingoistic display of wealth and status from our side! Everyone was laughing at us. Mama’s breast burned with rage and humiliation. The thought that stung him most cruelly was that the wily father of the bride had outwitted him. How cleverly he had managed to feed him and his party, keeping them in his debt forever, before sending them packing! The insult was not to be borne. “I’ll sue the scoundrel for defamation and breach of promise,” Mama shouted as he stomped about the house. “I’ll make sure he spends the rest of his days turning the grinding stone in jail.”

 At this point some of his well-wishers stepped in. If he tried anything of the sort, they warned, he would lose the few shreds of dignity he had left. The farce would be complete. 

Needless to say, I was fuming too. “If only some disaster were to strike the man,” I thought over and over again,” he would regret his folly and come rushing to my feet begging for forgiveness…” I wished fervently for something terrible to happen. I lined up all kinds of possibilities tugging at my whiskers in nervous anticipation.

Yet, running parallel to this dark stream of hate and malice, was another. Irradiated with light. My thoughts had been submerged in its waters all these months and would not be dismissed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t pluck out the image of the unseen maiden which had taken root in my heart. Her face had possessed me entirely and continued to do so. I saw a brow adorned with sandal paste. Cheeks flushed a deep rose in shy expectancy. A form draped in red silk, glittering with jewels. In the fantasy world I inhabited she was a golden creeper, ready and waiting to shower her wealth of spring blossoms at my feet. One moment, another step, and I could have claimed her. But the moment had stretched to eternity. A mighty wall had appeared between us, and I had lost sight of her…

Ever since Binu da’s return from Kanpur I had made it a point to visit him, every evening, and pester him with questions. Being extremely economical in language and expression he had said little. Owing to that very fact, perhaps, the few words he uttered sent sparks flying into my soul and set it aflame. I was overwhelmed with a sense of the girl’s beauty. It was not of this world. It was ethereal.

I had waited patiently for the moment when the imagined would transform to reality. When I would see, with the eyes of the flesh, what I had only dreamed about. But alas! Fate had beguiled me with false hopes then dashed them to the ground. A thick veil of mist had risen between us. She had disappeared beyond it, and I was left on the other side, lurking like a ghost.

The girl had been shown my photograph… so I’ve heard from Harish. I’m sure she approved of what she saw. Why wouldn’t she? My heart told me that she has kept it hidden in a secret drawer. And on lonely afternoons, secure in her room with doors and windows locked against prying eyes, she would take it out and look longingly at it. I saw her bending forward to examine it more closely, her beautiful hair falling on both sides of her face in long shining strands. And the moment she heard footsteps, she would hide it quickly in the scented folds of her sari.

The days passed, one by one. No one mentioned marriage. Mama was still nursing his grievance and Ma thought it preferable to wait till people have forgotten my humiliation.

Harish told me that good matches were found for the Kanpur girl, but she had taken a vow to remain unwed. The news filled me with elation. My inner eyes could see her… pale and worn with longing for me. She ate little and that, too, when she was forced. Dusk[9] would set in but she would forget to braid her hair. Her father looks at her and wondered. “What has happened to my girl? Why is she so changed?”  Sometimes, he would walk into her room and find her sitting by the window, her eyes streaming with tears.

“What is the matter Ma?” he would ask tenderly. “Tell me the truth. Is something troubling you?”

“Why, no Baba.” She wiped her eyes quickly and rose to her feet. “Nothing is wrong.”

The father’s heart would sadden. She was his only child. His pride and joy. How could he bear to see her thus? How could he stand by and watch a delicate bud, just about to open its petals, wilt and wither in the hot dry winds of a rainless summer? He decided to swallow his pride. He would rush to our door and beg pardon with abject humility…

 After that…what? 

The stream of hate that lay coiled within me unwound and stretched to its full length. “Tell the girl’s father to make fresh arrangements,” it wouldhiss like a poisonous snake. “Let lights blaze and guests arrive from far and near. Then, just when the rituals are about to commence, gather the bridegroom’s party together and walk out of the wedding venue with a smile.”

 But the other stream, pure as a lover’s tears, appeared before me in the form of a milk white swan. “Set me free,” it pleads. “As I flew to Damayanti’s[10] garden, aeons ago, so let me wing my way to the beloved one and whisper the joyful tidings in her ears.”

 The dark night ended, new rain fell, the drooping flower raised its face. The wall crumbled and made way for me. Only me. The others were left behind. And then…?

My story ended here.

But no. It wasn’t the end. I’ll come to the point at which it was left hanging and conclude my narrative.

I was accompanying my mother on a pilgrimage to some holy cities of the north. I had been entrusted with the task since Mama, as I’ve said before, was so averse to travelling that he hesitated to even cross the Howrah Bridge. Tossed this way and that by the swaying of the train, I slept fitfully, dreams dancing in shards in and out of my head. Suddenly, it came to a halt, and I awoke. My eyes beheld an expanse of light and shadow the like of which I had never seen before. I was still in the throes of my dream, I think, because everything looked remote; unreal.  I felt I was in another world. Only the few lamps burning on the station platform seemed vaguely familiar.

I turned to Ma who lay sleeping on her berth, the green curtain shielding her eyes from the light. Boxes and bundles, dislodged from their places by the movement of the coach, lay scattered. I hadn’t come out of my dream fully, perhaps, because even this common place scene appeared surreal in my eyes. The scattered objects, the dim green light…I felt I was floating in a space between existence and non-existence.

Suddenly the silence of the night was broken. “Come,” someone cried out, “Come quickly. There’s space here.” My heart leaped upon hearing the Bengali language spoken in a feminine voice. Was what I had just heard a string of words? Or was it a song? I wondered at myself. Did I react the way I did because the voice belonged to a member of the opposite sex? No, I’m quite sure that wasn’t the reason. Perhaps I had been yearning to hear my mother tongue through all these months of staying away from my roots. Have I heard anything like this before? I asked myself, feeling awed and humbled. Opening the window, I looked out. There was no one there. The guard waved his lantern and the train started to move.

All my life I have found myself being moved by a beautiful voice. Beauty of face and form has its own attraction but the human voice, I’ve always felt, expresses that which lies deep within the soul. Though I could see nothing with the outer eye a form started taking shape within me. Like a star-studded sky which wraps one in its folds but does not brush the skin, it slid deep into my soul making music as it went. You who are so perfect; so complete! I called out to that divine melody. You bloom like a flower on the bruised heart of a capricious age and let its winds pass over you. Yet not a petal is blown away. Not a speck appears on your pristine purity.

The train picked up momentum. The rattle was as metallic as before, falling like strokes on an iron drum. But, strange to say, it made music in my ears. There’s space here… I heard with every beat… there’s space here. But was there a space? In this self-absorbed world did anyone concede space to another? Did anyone know the truth about another? Yet, this not knowing, I was convinced, was a web of mist; an illusion. Once torn apart all would stand revealed. Recognition would be complete.

“ I know you,” my heart murmured to the one who was once a stranger, “I’ve known you from the beginning of time. You called out to me, ‘Come quickly,’ you said. I’ve come to you. I haven’t wasted a moment.”

I couldn’t sleep the whole night. At every station I opened the window and looked out, fearing that the unseen one would depart unseen…

We got down, the next morning, at a junction station where we had to change trains. Since I had reserved seats in a first-class compartment, I was not worried about being caught in a crowd. But the sight that met my eyes filled me with dismay. The platform was choc a bloc with sahebs and their orderlies.  Some army general, out on a pleasure trip with his cronies, was waiting for the train which arrived, a few minutes later, crammed with passengers. I realised that travelling first class was out of the question and felt a stab of anxiety. Where, on this crowded train, would I find place? I ran up and down the platform peering into every window when a girl, standing at the door of a second- class compartment, called out to my mother. “Why don’t you come to our coach? There’s space here.”

I looked up startled. The same voice. The same words. There were only a few moments left for the train to leave. I helped my mother up then, climbing in, I called out to the coolies to stow the luggage. Just then the train started moving. Overcome with panic I stood helplessly, not knowing what to do. Who was worse equipped than me to deal with a situation like this? But the girl, with extraordinary dexterity, snatched the boxes and beddings from the hands of the running men and flung them on the floor. In the commotion of the moment, an expensive camera of mine was left behind. I made no effort to retrieve it.

What happened next? A perfect bliss pervaded my being of a kind impossible to put in words. How shall I even begin to describe it? Stringing a bunch of words together seems meaningless. They would express nothing.

The music I had only heard so far had assumed a shape and appeared before our eyes. I glanced at Ma. She was staring at the girl with such rapt attention that not an eyelash flickered.

She was about sixteen or seventeen. But the shy diffidence of approaching womanhood, so common in girls of her age, sat lightly on her. Her gaze was clear and unflinching, her gestures free, and there was a purity in her face and form the like of which I had never seen before. Not a trace of timidity or unease marred the natural grace of her movements.

What I felt at the time went beyond what I saw. To tell the truth, I can’t even recall the colour of the sari she wore. All I remember is that she was dressed very simply and that I was filled with a sense that externals held no meaning for her. She rose, slender and upright as a tuberose stalk, above the plant that had given her birth. Above the earth in which it was embedded. Her fragrance was hers alone and came from within.

I sat in one corner, my eyes glued to the pages of a book. But my ears were keenly attuned to the excited voices of the little girls who were travelling with her. I marvelled at the way she became one with them. Though considerably older she was totally at ease, and they laughed and joked merrily together. The little ones had an illustrated storybook out of which they were pestering her to read a story. I gathered, from their chatter, that they had heard it several times yet wanted to hear it again. I understood why. It wasn’t the story. It was her voice they wanted to hear; the golden voice that reinvented as it went along and made everything sound new. That, springing from the heart like a fountain, filled their ears with music. I found myself responding in much the same way. Her presence made my sun shine brighter. My sky was more intimate in its embrace. My heart was washed by the pristine waters that emanated from the one who was still a stranger…

At the next station she beckoned to a vendor and bought an enormous cone of spiced gram which the whole party proceeded to eat with gusto. My nature was so hedged in by restrictions that, though tempted, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for some. “Stupid me!”  I thought, “this was my chance of speaking with her. Of letting her know I wanted something from her…”

The moment passed.

From the expression on Ma’s face, I realised that she was puzzled. She couldn’t decide what to make of our travelling companion. The way she was wolfing down large handfuls of the crunchy mixture, that too in the presence of a male, was surely reprehensible in a girl of her age! Yet, and this too I saw in Ma’s eyes, one couldn’t really think of her as shameless and greedy. There was an innocence about her, a lack of self-consciousness that proclaimed the fact that, though adult in years she was a child at heart. Perhaps she didn’t have a mother and hadn’t been taught the niceties of feminine deportment. Ma is not a garrulous woman. She cannot converse easily with strangers. I could see that she wanted to find out more about the girl, but her natural reticence stood in the way.

The train stopped at a large station and a group of sahebs, clearly belonging to the general’s entourage, came in. Striding purposefully up and down the compartment they scanned the seats with eagle eyes. There wasn’t an inch of extra space and they left.

A few minutes later a railway employee, a native, entered with two name cards which he proceeded to hang on the seats we were occupying. “These are reserved seats,” he told me, “You’ll have to move to another compartment.” Ma’s face turned pale and even I felt a pang of apprehension. But before I could say or do anything someone spoke in Hindi. “No,” the familiar voice was cool and confident, “We won’t give up our seats.”

“You’ll have to,” the man answered roughly, “There’s no other way.”

The girl left the train and returned with the station master, an Englishman who was clearly embarrassed by what he was being forced to do. “I’m sorry,” he looked at me with a rueful smile, “But these seats are—”

 I rose to my feet and started walking towards the exit calling “Coolie! Coolie!” as I went. Suddenly I had to stop in my tracks. The girl was standing before me. “No,” she said firmly, “You’re not going anywhere. Please return to your seat.” Turning to the station master she said in flawless English, “That’s a lie. These seats are not reserved.” Plucking the name cards off the seats she flung them out of the window.

 The man who had been allotted the seats was standing at the door instructing his orderly to stow his luggage. He stared in shock at the cards flying out of the window and, unable to meet the fire raining eyes, turned away. Plucking at the station master’s sleeve he whispered something in his ear. I have no idea of what transpired between them. All I know was that the departure was delayed for a while and a new coach fitted to the train.

Kanpur station arrived. Our travelling companions rose and started gathering their belongings. My mother, who had sat in silence all this while, could hold herself in no longer. “What is your name Ma?” she asked.

“My name is Kalyani.”

Ma and I threw startled glances at one another.

“Your father?” Ma’s voice was a whisper.

“He’s a doctor. His name is Shombhunath Sen.”


Setting my mother’s wishes firmly aside, disobeying Mama’s express command, I went to Kanpur. I met Kalyani and her father and apologised on my own and my family’s behalf with folded hands. The latter’s heart seemed to melted but the former remained firm in her resolve. She would not marry.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I follow my mother’s command.”

But she didn’t have a mother. I was wild with desperation. Was there another maternal uncle, then, lurking somewhere? Was history repeating itself?

 It didn’t take me long to arrive at the truth. Her mother was Bharat Mata. After the fiasco of the wedding, she had taken a vow to dedicate herself to her country. And how better to do that than spend her life educating girls of the land?

 But I did not give up hope. A stream of music, the like of which I’d never heard before, had crept into my ears from out of the dark and seeped into my soul. That exquisite melody played in my heart, all day long, like the strains of a flute from another world. It became the lodestar of my being; the refrain of my life-song.

I was twenty- three then… I’m twenty- seven now. I have shed my uncle. He is no longer part of my life. And my mother, perhaps because I’m her only son, has preferred to remain with me.

If you are under the impression that I nurture hopes of marriage–you are wrong. All I live for is hearing that voice speak the same words There is space. Of course, there is space. There has to be. If there wasn’t, where would I find the ground to stand on?

Years have gone by. I’ve stayed on here. I see her from time to time. I hear her voice. She entrusts me with small tasks, and I carry them out. This is the space I’ve needed and dreamed about. “O stranger!” my heart calls out to her, “you will forever remain a stranger for there is no end to knowing you. Yet I’m grateful. My destiny has been kind to me. It has granted me the space I’ve yearned for all my life.”

[1] Maternal uncle

[2] Spanish Cherry tree

[3] Oh, no no!

[4] Manu was the author of Manusmriti, a Hindu text dating back to ancient times

[5] Manu Samhita is an ancient lawbook authored by Manu

[6] Elder brother

[7] A low stool

[8] Traditional thin, coarse cotton fabric often used in lieu of a towel

[9] Traditionally, women were supposed to tie their hair especially in the evening.

[10] Nala Damayanti, a story from Mahabharata, where the couple were parted before they were reunited.

Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels JorasankoDaughters of JorasankoThe InheritorsSuralakshmi Villa have sold widely and received rave reviews. The Mendicant Prince and her short story collection, Through a Looking Glass, are her most recent books. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.



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Khaira, the Blind by Nadir Ali

Translated from Punjabi by Amna Ali

Why did I resent Khaira? Rivalry among equals makes sense, but he was just a poor, blind beggar. The first thing that got under my skin was his cry. “Seeing ones! Vision is indeed a blessing! Show sympathy for a blind man’s daughters! In the name of your eyes! In the name of your daughters! O seeing ones!” My wife glances at her purse and then the cash she needs to pay the school fees of our sons, daughters and granddaughters. She always keeps ten rupees for Khaira separately. Ten rupees is a decent amount, even in these days of sky-rocketing costs. And god forbid if one of our children is unwell! Fortune smiles on beggars then.

Our daughter’s daughter was unwell, and we were both worried. “Khair Din, listen carefully!” my wife entreated him.  She handed him a five hundred rupee note with an appeal: “You have to pray for my grand-daughter Khaireya,” as if Khaira were a specialist.

“Lady! God will shower you with blessings as vast as your generous heart!” he exclaimed.

I couldn’t stay quiet. “For heaven’s sake, stop bribing god!”

My wife reacted angrily to my words. “None of that now! The poor have a right to a portion of our earnings.”

“Sweetheart, I didn’t mean it that way. How about a kind glance my way too once in a while!” I said to appease her.

Truth be told, a wall of pious rituals grows between a husband and wife as they get older. Often things end in divorce. It matters little whether the man genuinely loves her or only pretends to do so. Once he is old, the woman makes sure he gets the treatment he deserves. But we were discussing Khaira. Since he irritated the hell out of me, I managed to discover his secret.

I followed his every move as if he were my enemy.

“I have a feeling he is not blind,” I said one day.

“Have some fear of God! He’s been frequenting this neighbourhood for five years,” my wife replied.

“Well, I have a suspicion,” I continued.

“Let’s see you trek through two neighbourhoods in the punishing afternoon heat,” she retorted. “His little girl is the one who suffers in the heat. He is built like a wrestler. Two of me could hide inside him!” I said.

As they say, great discoveries are often right around the corner. I spotted Khaira hopping over a drainage ditch during the rainy season. I announced my findings once I was home. “The scoundrel has been exposed! He is not blind!”

“It must be time to get your eyes tested! You are already hard of hearing. If you could tell the difference between a blind and a sighted person, Rahma would not be our son-in-law today.”

Once again, my wife changed the direction of the conversation. But I remained on the lookout for the enemy. The next day I dragged him inside. As soon as I produced a dagger, Khaira begged for mercy. “Forgive this miserable person. It is his livelihood. I don’t know how to drive or cook for a living. I would have become a servant at a young age if I did. No one takes to begging because he wants to.”

He attempted various explanations. I threatened to turn him in to the police at first, but then decided to present him at my wife’s court. “Appear before the Chaudhrani and confess,” I ordered. I felt vindicated.

But my wife left his fate to Allah. “He will answer to Allah for his deeds. And we will answer for ours,” she declared.

The story did not end here. Khaira left our neighbourhood only to take up begging in the streets of Garden Town. I entertained the thought of stopping the car one day and saying hello. Instead, I ended up forgiving him like my wife had.


An unplanned, ramshackle neighbourhood lay along the back of ours. It boasted a tiny market. Late one night, I went to buy cigarettes and Khaira emerged from one of the doorways, all smiles. He seemed like another person. His clothes were spic and span and he held a cigarette between his lips.

“Do you know that man?” I asked Hayata, the cigarette vendor, as I gestured towards the figure walking away from us.

“That is Khaira, the gambler, Chaudhry Saheb,” he replied.

“Gambler?” That persona of his was completely new to me.

“Why else would he hang out with Chabba Butt? To say his prayers?” Hayata asked with a laugh.

My wife would consider what happened next beneath us, but the story took a strange new turn. I didn’t know Chabba Butt personally, but he was a known goon of the area. I went up to him early one morning and asked, “Do you know someone named Khair Din?”

He mistook me for a police officer given how well-dressed I was. “Why the investigation, officer?” he asked.

“Butt Saheb, I am no police officer, just an oppressed citizen. He tricked me out of a large sum of money over the years,” I replied.

“Sir, he is not a behrupiya[1],” Butt went on, “but he is a wonderful actor. He can act deaf, blind, just about anything, it is none of our business. When it comes to gambling, he often loses.”

“Butt Saheb, I too play poker,” I shared. “If I happen to pay you a visit, you won’t have me thrown out would you?”

He tried to dissuade me. “Sir, you belong with your kind at the clubs. Only kanjars and dregs visit this place.”

“Tell me, is this Khaira from the kanjar caste?” I asked.

“No sir, he is a Rajput. He does visit the brothels often though.”

“Ah, he belongs to my fraternity then . . . I didn’t ask out of any enmity . . .  it’s just that he is an interesting fellow. He is a virtuoso, as if he were a behrupiya. Looking at him now, who would guess that he roams the next neighbourhood dressed as a beggar?”

My introduction to Chabba came about thanks to my quest for Khaira. Chabba seemed to be a goon from the bygone days, not the current brand connected with the land mafia or arms smugglers. He was a gambler and gamblers need their den. I was not one of them, but who doesn’t enjoy some wagering and betting now and then. Add the lure of money and the habit can turn deadly. I avoided the club scene. Old age seemed to usher in a kind of boredom. Upscale neighbourhoods like Gulberg and Cantonment reminded me of a graveyard. What is an old man like me supposed to do if he is forbidden alcohol and a second marriage. The tiny market reminded me of the old city. Poverty bothers those who lack spirit, otherwise, the company of the poor is superior to that of the rich. It offers a refuge for those who have endured a beating, a helping hand when one is in a fix. I visited a couple of times and overcame my self-consciousness. The gamblers also shed their discomfort. “Come, respected elder! What do you make of the situation? Will Nawaz Sharif win the election?” What other news was there to mull over . . .The short rounds of poker, rummy and blackjack, with small bets would continue till evening. I would get up and head home once the gambling really gathered steam.

In that company, Khaira was no blind man. He was a loud and loquacious character. Still, he showed some diffidence around me. In any case, he had the strange habit of avoiding eye-contact. Instead of looking at one directly, he would focus on the ground or high above one’s head. His gaze left me feeling strangely uneasy.

Then came the calamity that can finish off an old man. My wife caught me red-handed with Kulsoom. Luckily, I survived. Nothing happened. My class status shielded me. I remained deeply affected. Khaira somehow sensed it. I opened up to him. “I have been exposed. I am very worried!”

“Choose a different neighbourhood!” he suggested mirthfully. “That is a man’s basic nature. He is a deceitful being. There is no choice but to be a blind behrupiya. Now ask yourself: Is Khaira the blind one or me?”


“Khaira, the Blind” is a translation of the Punjabi story Khaira Annha. It is from Nadir Ali’s short story collection titled Kahani Paraga , published by Suchet Kitab Ghar in 2004 in Lahore. Photo provided by Amna Ali.

[1] A professional pretender who earns money by entertaining people, especially at weddings. Once widespread in South Asia, this profession is now in decline.


Nadir Ali (1936-2020) was a Punjabi poet and short story writer. In 2006, he was awarded the Waris Shah Award for his collection Kahani Praga. Coming late to writing, particularly fiction, Nadir Ali is credited with spearheading a unique style, blurring the boundaries between significant and petty, artistic and ordinary, primarily due to his preference for and command over the chaste central dialect understood by the majority of Punjabi speakers. He is also noted for writing and speaking about his experiences as an army officer posted in East Pakistan at the height of the 1971 war.

Amna Ali is Nadir Ali’s daughter.  She translated a selection of Nadir Ali’s short stories into English in collaboration with Moazzam Sheikh. The translations were published by Weavers Press in USA in a book titled Hero and Other Stories in 2022. She is a librarian and lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.


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Gandhiji by Nabendu Ghosh

Translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta

The sun went down.

One after another the lamp posts in the winding lane sprung to life. Their brilliance was dimmed by the smoke from the homely clay oven, sigri. The darkening sky above got dotted by a glittering star or two. And that is when Ratan’s feet became unruly like a wild steed. Donning a mulmul kurta he got ready to go out for the evening.

Jasoda had entered the room to pick up something. She came to an abrupt halt. 

“Off?”  she asked, her voice laced with sarcasm. “Can’t stay put at home any longer, can you?”

Solemnly Ratan nodded his head. “Yes, just need to take a round.” 

Jasoda knitted her brow, “Just take a round? Chhee! Don’t do that. Pour some down your throat too, okay?”


“Why? Am I saying something wrong, haan[1]? Something not quite done?”

Ratan did not utter a word in reply. He only glared at Jasoda for a second before walking out in rapid steps.

He didn’t stop until he reached Jatin’s house. His friend Jatin who sells fish every morning and evening. He has no family save his aged mother – he had married but his wife died years ago, and he made no attempt to have another after that.

They all gather in his house – Haaru, Potla, Jaga, Radhu and a few others. Since most of them are in the business of selling fish or meat, they have cash in their pockets. They easily turn uproarious as mutton chops and prawn cutlets stream in to enhance the pleasure of downing country liquor. 

In a room foggy with fumes of cigarette, they settle down to a few games of card. They play as long as they feel like; when they don’t want to, they storm the cells of Gendi or Bunchi in the dark of the night. Or, when they are told to, they dive into the alleys of the Muslim neighbourhood and toss a few hand grenades. 

Yes, the responsibility to curb the riot – a euphemism for hunting down Muslims – has suddenly come to rest on their able shoulders. They didn’t anticipate or expect it to, but it did. All of a sudden the wealthies of their end of the city started to pamper them. They raised funds through donations, to arm Ratan and his friends with small weapons so that they could protect the prestige of the Hindus, and of the womenfolk.

The way things were going, this was bound to happen. They had outdone everyone in severing head from the torso of walking talking men. 


They were all there. Haaru, Potla, Jaga, Radhu – all of them had showed up. Ratan lent the final touch. 

“Come in saala[2], come!” Jatin affectionately welcomed him. 

Laughter and banter followed. 

There was a sudden lull in the spate of riots that had been on sporadically for a year since the Direct Action Day, and had got a spurt when the country won its freedom on 15th August. But God knows what went wrong? All of a sudden the darkness of hatred started to melt, and the two warring units that had been at each other’s throats, suddenly saw themselves in the mirror: they embraced each other in brotherhood.

Since that day their ‘work’ had gone down. Further calm has descended since Gandhiji appeared in the city. He is camping in Beliaghata. He has been saying that he will not go anywhere until there is peace. Why, he has even staked his life! He will give up his life if he has to, to stop the riots! That is why Ratan and his company are spending more hours in downing liquor and visiting the sluts in the forbidden quarters, singing in their hoarse voice and walking with unsteady steps. 

The chops and cutlets from Nitai’s shop were hot off the oven. The air thickened with the smell of blended oil. And their eyes sparkled with the spirit. 

Abey Jatin, get the bottles out…” Ratan urged. 

Haan bey,” Jatin was most willing to oblige.

A bitter-sharp smell spread through the room. The earthen cups filled to the brim were emptied in no time. The world before their eyes started dancing like a flame. Nasha… stupor.

“Bring out one more bottle, saala…” Ratan nudged Jatin.

Haan bey, I will…”

Arre call for more chops and cutlets.”

“O-K-K Sa-a-la…”

Jaga suddenly sprung to his feet. “I’m off, bye…”

“Where to?” Jatin wanted to  know.

“To Bimli’s…he-he-he…”

“Get back to your chair” – Jatin barked at him. “We will all go in a group.”

Jaga wasn’t too pleased, but he sat down again. “Okay baba, that’s what we will do. Meanwhile let me have a bite of the cutlets…”

The room was filled with the odour of country liquor and smoke. Reddened eyes and numbed  responses. Tidbits dropped on the floor, empty bottles and used cups and dishes piled up. Vegetable salad and sauces dripped to stain their clothes. None of them cared to wash their hands, silently they went on downing the liquid fire. Periodically they pulled their faces and uttered satisfaction, “Aah!” 

“Hear that?” Ratan turned to gaze at Jatin. 


“All of you here can hear this?”

Potla shook his head, “How can we hear if you don’t spit it out, saala…”

Ratan crinkled his face, “This Gendo[3] of yours has thrown a spanner in the wheel, re…” 

A gentle murmur coursed through the room. Almost as if a gentle breeze had rustled dry leaves. 

Gandhi – yes, Gandhi! Superannuated Gandhi, old rascal Gandhi. This Gendo chap is a fraud. He is in cahoots with the Muslims, enemy of the Hindus, foe of the Bengalis…

“Yes, he has thrown us off-gear,” Jatin spoke through gritted teeth. “But for how  long can he stymie us? He can’t get away with his bujruki, his hoax …”

Jaga spoke in a tired voice, “I just want to see Bimli for a while…”

“Sit, you owl!” 

“Whatever you may say,” Haru spoke in a soft voice, “Gandhiji is a good soul, hanh?”

“Good soul?” Ratan roared out a nasty abuse, “My foot! All of us can sing bhajans and paeans to Ram if we had a life of comfort like him, buddy! And this guy alone is responsible for the Muslims daring to go so far as to demand a separate land. But this can’t go on! Now we have gained Independence. This is Hindustan – we will put an end to the last Muslim standing here!”

“Right! Right you are!!” they chorused in their boozy voice. 

“Riot! We must hack every invader, every single Yavan!”



Haan…  pour me one more bhaanr[4] of the stuff…”

“Where is it? Dum aaloo[5]?”

“Listen!” Jatin ran his eyes over them, “What Ratan is saying is hundred percent correct. Gendo can’t have a run of the state. No. D’you know what that chap is up to now? He’s saying he will bring back every single Muslim and rehabilitate them in the bustee[6]at Beliaghata. Why, I ask you dear, why couldn’t you say this to our people? What did you, all told, achieve in Noakhali?”

Ratan nodded in agreement and let out a mouthful of smoke. “No, such humbug will no longer work here. Enough. The guy wants to unite Ishwar and Allah[7]! As if you can do that at will!”

“Shut up bey!” Jatin cackled.

“Tomorrow. We will rake it up tomorrow itself. The Babus had sent for me today – everything is fixed.”

“All fixed?” Ratan’s face brightened at this, “Good. I’m relieved.”

“Oh, good. Come on, baba Jatin…” Haru called out, “bring out another bottle Jatin!”

Abey shut up saala ! Here I come…”

“Hey where’s the chaat[8]? Pass it around…”

“Die, you pests!” Jaga stood up and spoke in excitement, “None of you are sober. I’m off to Bimli’s.”

Saala can’t wait to get there,” Ratan chuckled. “Arre baba, we’ll all go with you…” They all got to their unsteady feet.


Ratan couldn’t contain his glee. As he strode forward he kept thinking, “So there’ll be riots again – good!” 

The lull in the violence these past few days was most irritating. He simply couldn’t take it anymore. He had tasted blood – and that is a dangerous addiction.  For years, he had been a butcher and beheaded goats and lambs. But the thrill of killing a man, a live human being, was something else. 

The first day he stabbed a man he understood that this was the king of highs. Day after day, he had sought out Musalmaans and delighted in putting the knife into them – and now it had spread through his veins. Now he felt out of depth on the days when he did not snuff out a life. He felt rather unwell.

He had a faint recollection of one particular afternoon.

He was sipping tea in Bipin’s tea stall.

All of a sudden some boys dragged in a young Muslim fellow. They told Ratan, “Now you have to finish the job Dada[9]. We are exhausted.”

Ratan grinned, “What’s so tough, idiots?”

“You’re mistaken bhai[10]…” the young man broke into tears. “I’m a Hindu!”

“Really?” Ratan laughed uproariously. “I’ll check that out once I’ve finished with you.”

The youth was dragged to a dark end of the lane and done with. After the job was over, a curiosity gnawed Ratan. He was absolutely certain that the kid had claimed to be a Hindu out of sheer fear. Still… He bared the body and checked the genitals of the naked corpse. “Shhuh, I got fooled!! This guy was actually a Hindu…”

They were outside Bimli’s door. There was no one else in the gully but them. The entire city was holding its breath, too scared to breathe in the riot-torn air. And then, it was late in the night. The gaslight was casting eerie shadows. Silence ruled.


Jatin’s words came true. The riots broke out the very next morning. And there was severe rioting. But this time around it was the Hindus who were aggressive, not the Muslims. The bombs and sten guns resounded across the sky and the air was rife with fear. 

Ratan finished one round and returned home. Aah ! He felt somewhat relieved today. 

But Jasoda was furious and would not relent. “So! You do have to come home to Jasoda, yeah? So liquor and sluts are not your cup of tea round the clock!”


“But why are you losing your cool? I’ll get it for you – after all, you have been doing so much work! Boozing… whoring… killing…”

“Jasoda I’ll knock your head off!”

“Don’t I know that?” Jasoda’s fiery eyes bored through him, “The day you will fail to find a human to stab, you’ll twist your knife into me to satisfy your thirst for blood…” 

Jasoda walked out of the room.

After a while she sent a khullar[11] of tea through her little boy but she herself stayed away.

Ratan was displeased. He spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping. Let the others take the responsibility to keep the fire aflame; now that it has been lit again, it will spread on its own steam.

That’s exactly what happened. By nightfall the riots took a sinister turn. Tension gripped the air of the city, dread filled the dark of the eyes. There was hardly any footfall in the streets.


When they met in the evening, Jatin said, “See how easy it was to rekindle the flame! But…”


“It seems that Gendo chap is fasting since morning.”

“Fasting! Really?”

“Yes. Crazy, this man is. He will fast unto death, he won’t eat a morsel until the riots stop, he has said.”

Arre let him!” Ratan hissed. “Let the oldie die. This is how he has been pampering the Musalmaans. Forget him – he should die!”

“Right you are,” Jatin nodded in agreement, “let him die. You come with me, there’s work to be done.”

A while later the sky lit up with the blaze of a burning slum. The fire brigade rushed to the spot with sirens blaring. The city cowered, trembled with fear, as the sound of bombs rent the air every now and then.

Coming home, Ratan was again subjected to the tongue lash of Jasoda. What is this vixen, a virago? No fear in her soul! 

“So you’ll kill him? You will kill Gandhiji?”

“And what if I kill him?”

“What if you kill him! Are you a human being? You’ll kill a sage like him? You’ll rot in hell if you do that, understand? You’ll burn in hellfire…”

“Piss off! Just shut up and go. Get lost — ”

Chhee! What are you, a man?”


“What? You’ll kill me too? Go ahead, do that!”

But what good was silencing Jasoda? Ratan simply couldn’t sleep that night. 

That Gandhi has gone off food?! What stuff is the man made of? If I kill two men, you’ll fast yourself unto death? What a dissembler. But otherwise the man has done so much! That the country has gained independence – it is largely due to this man, they say.  So what? Why must he pamper the Muslims to this extent? If he’s really so bothered, why doesn’t he go fast to stop the riots in Punjab? Humbug. Let him rot.


The same story repeated itself the next day. The sacrificial fire kept devouring human flesh. 

“What a hassle,” Jatin grumbled. “This Gendo simply won’t eat a bite, I hear! He’ll kick the bucket day after if not tomorrow.”

“All this is willed by Goddess Kali, d’you realise Jattye?” Ratan added with a wave of his hand, “It’s best he shuffles off his mortal coil and drops dead.”

Stray incidents filled the day. Then it started to pour. They couldn’t do very much after that. When the rain stopped, Ratan stepped out to stretch his legs. He noticed that people were gathering here and there, reading newspapers, discussing something in a grave voice. Gandhiji, the name, kept recurring. They all looked worried, sounded concerned, crestfallen. 

All his countrymen genuinely worshipped Gandhi. He has actually done a lot – gone to great length to gain independence for the people. Not just the Lord Saheb, even the King of the British rulers held him in deference!

Suddenly Ratan hastened his pace. Why not go upto Beliaghata and take a look at Gandhi? To this day he had not set his eyes on this man, what was the harm in sizing him up? Ratan was not enamoured of Gandhi, he didn’t care two hoots whether he lived or died. Still, a peek at the man would do no harm. All said and done, he’d made a name for himself, perhaps even a place in history.

Ratan was overcome by a strange emotion. Inscrutable. Without much thinking he showed up in Beliaghata for the evening prayers. There was a large crowd waiting outside the house. He nudged and pushed to wend his way and find a footing in the front row. After a long wait he got to see Gandhiji.

A short statured, dark complexioned ageing man with the radiance of a child on his face. Bare bodied, Khadi-clad, he had a meditative calm about him. So this was the magnanimous Gandhiji!

A tremor passed through Ratan. It was as if he had suddenly come face to face with a morning sun. As if he was standing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, as deep as its boundless expanse.

In a flash something happened deep within Ratan. Everything turned topsy turvy as if shaken by an earthquake high on the Richter scale. He realised he had finally encountered a magnificent personality. One who would not bow his head to anything unjust or immoral. One who would not daunted by guns and bullets.

As he looked on, Ratan turned misty eyed. Who said Gandhi was a pygmy? To Ratan he seemed like the Himalayas piercing the sky. Ratan trembled, he panicked, he fled.

All kinds of thoughts beset Ratan and he became restless. He headed straight for Jatin’s house. He felt like settling down with bottles of the fiery stuff. As he felt the liquid sear down his throat, the daze cleared somewhat. 

“Know what Jattye?” he tried to draw his friend’s attention.


“I went for a darshan[12] of Gandhiji today.”

“Who? Gendo?”

Hanh, Gandhi.”

“What was it like?”

“I mean… the man seems to be a sadhu[13].”

“Seems a sadhu, right? Yes, the fellow has actually done a lot for the country…”

“That’s what I hear. So many times he has been incarcerated and been to the jail. So much suffering he has put up with…”

“But that one failing! He has spoilt all his good actions by pampering and mollycoddling the Muslims, over-indulging them…”

“You have hit the nail on its head!”

One by one the others joined them. In no time the place was abuzz with food from Bipin’s Stall and bottles of country liquor.  Downing the liquid in rapid succession they were quite a boisterous crowd. 

“Follow me, Ratnya?” Jatin slurred, “this…”


Gendo is fasting, let him. He won’t kick the bucket in a day or two, will he? Old bones are sturdy – he’ll last. Meanwhile, in two days we’ll clear out all the ragheads, won’t we?”

“Yes Jatye, spot on…”

“Here, some more… f-o-r youuu…”

“Yeah… g-i-v-e mee…”

Ratan could not walk straight when he reached home. 

“Why?” Jaosoda came at him like a bull at a gate, “Why are you back here? Was there no space for you in Chandravali’s love nest?”

“Shut your trap Jasoda!”

“The frigging bastard won’t let me be in peace.. Maa-go!”

Ratan flopped in his bed and murmured, “Q-u-i-e-t Jasoda! Shut up and keep quiet bhai…”

Bhai! Bro? Shame upon you, no-good burnt-face monkey! You see a brother in me?”

Jasoda kept on muttering long after Ratan had started snoring.


Next morning the rioting picked up in momentum. 

Ratan and his chums returned to action big time, complete with sten guns. From the rooftops, on the streets, wherever they were, they kept firing towards the Muslim shanties. After almost three hours there was a lull in the firing. The police and military forces had arrived and by afternoon things were quiet again.

Vans with loudspeakers were blaring that, unless the riots came to a stop, Gandhiji would cease to be. He would end his life. 

The peaceniks took out a procession. The violence started to wane. 

“That was quite a blast, wasn’t it Ratnya?” Jatin was smiling ear to ear when they met in the evening.

Ratan simply nodded.  

Jaga returned from the paan[14] shop with a fresh stock of bidis[15]. “Folks have you heard this? Gendo is about to snuff out!”

“Who said that?” Ratan was startled. 

“The newspapers have headlined, it seems, that Gendo has refused to relent in his fasting because there’s no let-up in the riots.”


Arre that’s bullshit!”  Jatin reacted. “Two more days of action at this level and all the Mullas will be shown their place.”

Hunh!” Ratan nodded unmindfully, “but Gandhi is in such a poor shape, he’ll conk out, they’re saying…”

Arre forget it! Rumour – that’s all it is. Come, let’s have a toast.”

“Well then, let’s go.”


Ratan joined Jatin to open a liquor bottle long before sunset. The tumult in the morning had left him exhausted. A few drops of hard core liquor might just be the tonic. But Gandhiji? There’s something about him… a halo. He had touched the heart of thirty crore men and women. Ardently they cried out, “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai [16]!” All-pervading emperors and powerful lords had not succeeded in intimidating him. Mahatma Gandhi!

At this point Madhu ran up to them. “Hey guys, come fast! I’ve cornered one of them…”



Suddenly the thirst for blood got the better of him. Sitting bolt upright Ratan said, “Come on Jattye.”

The three of them strode forward. Jaga, Haru and Potla were waiting round the corner, a middle-aged Muslim in their grip. They’d got the better of the man who was walking down the street lost in thought. 

“Please let go of me bhai !” the man pleaded.

“Let go of you?” Jaga laughed out loud, “Why? Are you my wife’s brother, saala? Does your sister sleep with me?”

In silence Ratan went up to the man and grabbed him by his hand. Agitation tinted the blood that was coursing through his body. Blood! Unless he spilled blood his head might burst!

“Who’ll twist the knife in – you?” Jatin asked. Ratan nodded, “Yes.”

“How many will this be in your count of heads?”

“Maybe a score and half…”

“Well then, go on. Get over with it.”

“You’ll kill me?” The man wailed out, “Please let go of me baba – I implore you! Believe me, I have a son at home who is critically ill – I came out only to buy some medicine for him…”

“Shut up!”

Just then a voice floated across from a loudspeaker being played from a van: “Gandhiji is in a critical condition…” 

Ratan pricked up his ears. Jatin looked towards the van, “Hey, what are they saying?” 

“Gandhiji’s priceless life is in your hands today…” the voice was faint but the words were clear. “If you don’t stop killing, Gandhiji will not return to life. Stop now – and bring Gandhiji back to life…”

The voice receded in the distance.

“Go on, finish the job at hand Ratnya,” Jaga spoke, “or leave it to me.”

Ratan looked at the man. 

Instantly the man smiled. “You’re determined to kill me, Baba?”

Abey why are you showing your teeth?” Potla rudely demanded. 

“Kill me,” the man said. “But don’t  forget, killing me means stabbing Gandhiji.”

“Shut up!” Jaga roared, “not a word more…”

Still the man went on, “Listen to me Baba, now I’m not speaking for myself. Don’t kill me – let Gandhiji live!”

“Enough! Don’t want to hear the devil quote scriptures – hold your tongue.”

“Kick the rascal!”

“Go for it Ratnya!”

‘What’s holding you Ratnya??’

“Go go go…”

Unexpectedly Ratan turned around. He stood in front of the Muslim guy and said in a determined voice, “No.”

“Meaning?!” Jatin was stupefied, “What’re you saying Ratnya?”

“You heard me right Jatye — I’ll let this man walk.”


“Yes, I’ll let this fella go Jatye. If you try to stop me, you’ll have to fell me first.”

All the others moved back a few steps.

“Have you gone out of your mind ?!” Jatin couldn’t make head or tail of it. “What’s the matter, I say?”

Ratan didn’t reply. Instead he addressed the man, “Come Mian[17], let me take you to the high road.”

The two of them took a few steps forward. 

Bah ! Won’t you even tell us why you’re letting him off? Hey Ratnya?”

“Ratnya! Hey bugger!”

Without a pause in his walk Ratan said, “Don’t call out to me.”

After escorting the fellow to the safety of the main street Ratan headed home.


Soon the night set in. The curfew hour started. The roads emptied out. From the lane they could make out that the military trucks and police vans were whizzing around the city. Some light escaped the windows of neighbouring houses. A handful of faces peeped out now and then. Swiftly, a dopey silence engulfed the habitat. The city seemed to be drained of vigour. The yellow gaslights on barren roads imparted a ghostlike ambience. The night deepened.

Jasoda noticed the worry lines on her husband’s visage and frequented her rounds of the room.

Out of the blue she even asked him, “What’s the matter with you, go[18]?”

“What? Nothing!” Ratan responded.

“Today you didn’t down bottles of liquor. Such good fortune!” She grinned at him, then wondered, “Why, you’re not even angry!”

Hunh !”

“Feeling unwell, are you?  So you’re missing your Chandravali Brigade! Care for a cup of tea?”

“Get it.”

Jasoda left to get the tea. Today Ratan was happy to see Jasoda.

Amazing! Something was the matter with him surely. He just could not bring himself to stab the man! One man’s life is so precious? People were correct about him. They worry for him, to protect him. To save his life, they appeal to all and sundry, even to strangers!

Yesterday he had visited that One Man. Short of height, dark of complexion, an octogenarian with a halo about him.  A man like the Ocean, like the Himalayas, like the Sun. Boundless his sacrifice; immense his patience, unending his hope. Forgiveness, compassion, truth, love, ahimsa [19]– he defined all these virtues.

Magician, he was! He had crazed thirty crore men and women who chanted in unison ‘Gandhiji Ki Jai! Victory for Gandhiji!’ He has made them fearless, and independent. Yesterday he saw his Ram with his own eyes. It was all rubbish, he was no one’s enemy. He was ajatshatru, his enemy had yet to be born. Everyone in the country was his child, his progeny. He did not punish one for the failings of another. The punishment due to everyone he placed on his own head – a crown of thorn. 

The night deepened and darkened. 

Lying in his bed Ratan started to leaf through the album of his life. Alcohol, meat, women, neglect of a wife like Jasoda, butchery, rioting and killing more than a score of lives… And that enlightened Old Man?  He had won the country, the world, in the brief bracket of a lifetime.

The night rolled on, towards sunrise. 

At daybreak Ratan rose from his bed. He searched through his house and pulled out every piece of hand grenade, bullets, knife, and tied them into a bundle. Jasoda was still not up. Ratan cast a silent look at her and stepped out of the house.

The sky had not yet lit up, but the curfew hours were over. A handful of souls had stirred out on the streets here and there. A few cars had set out for some destination.

Ratan took full strides eastward. That’s the direction from which a red sun would rise. But Ratan was not headed towards that sun. He was thinking only of the sun fasting in a dilapidated house in Beliaghata. Ratan would go to him and lay down the bundle of his sins at his feet and pray to him, “Oh sun! Please end the fasting soul within me and light up the inner soul so far deprived of light…”


[1] Yes

[2] Swear word

[3] Gandhi

[4] Clay cup

[5] Potato curry

[6] A slum colony

[7] Ishwar: Hindu name for God. Allah: Muslim name for God

[8] Savoury snack

[9] Elder brother

[10] brother

[11] Clay cup

[12] To go to view a great or holy man

[13] Sage

[14] A shop that sells cigarettes and betel leaves

[15] Small, thin, hand-rolled cigarettes made in India

[16] Hail Mahatma Gandhi

[17] Sir

[18] An affectionate way of addressing one’s spouse

[19] Non-violence

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


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

Read the translator’s musing on Nabendu’s stories impacted by Gandhi by clicking here.


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Many Splendored Love

Short poems by Masud Khan, translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Like when a piece of iron falls in love with a piece of wood 
Causing the iron to float on water,
Or like when the magic of love casts a spell 
Making stone float on liquid,
For ages, in nation after nation, 
People contrive to float stones, 
For diverse reasons and occasions,
Letting love and desire take diverse forms 
In manifold texts and discourses...

A Fragrant Tale

The world is full of misleading, minus signs and foul smells   
At times, the world feels as heavy and unbearable
As the weight of a son’s dead body on his dad’s shoulder,
Or as stressful as playing the role of a dead soldier, 
Or as formidable as a physically challenged person’s ascent up a mountain
Or as painful as caring for a precocious, traumatised child...
Nevertheless, occasionally such stress-laden memories will blur,
And suddenly, wafting on the wind’s sudden mood swing, 
A fragrant moment comes one’s way! 

‘After all words die away, the heart starts speaking.’
When all heartbeats and hullabaloo die down,
Little by little the heart starts fluttering in a distinct metronome 
When all words ends, silence begins to reign.
Where mathematics ends, music begins.

Gradually the Role of the Third Actor Becomes Clear
(Kromosho Spasto Hoye Othe Triteeyo Praneer Bhumika)
Like in magic, in a seemingly miraculous move,
Two strangers will come together 
While a third will have to disappear
To remain awol forever— in reality!

Masud Khan (b. 1959) is a Bengali poet and writer. He has, authored nine volumes of poetry and three volumes of prose and fiction. His poems and fictions (in translation) have appeared in journals including Asiatic, Contemporary Literary Horizon, Six Seasons Review, Kaurab, 3c World Fiction,, Nebo: A literary Journal, Last Bench, Urhalpul, Tower Journal, Muse Poetry, Word Machine, and anthologies including Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton & Co., NY/London); Contemporary Literary Horizon Anthology,Bucharest; Intercontinental Anthology of Poetry on Universal Peace (Global Fraternity of Poets); and Padma Meghna Jamuna: Modern Poetry from Bangladesh(Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature, New Delhi). Two volumes of his poems have been published as translations, Poems of Masud Khan(English), Antivirus Publications, UK, and Carnival Time and Other Poems (English and Spanish), Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania.  Born and brought up in Bangladesh, Masud Khan lives in Canada and teaches at a college in Toronto.

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).


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Clothes of Spirits

A Balochi Folktale translated by Fazal Baloch

Balochistan. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Once upon a time there was a certain kingdom somewhere on the earth. The moment night set in, thieves and robbers would let lose all across the kingdom. Despite all efforts from the king, the robbers were not contained. One day, the king, his emirs and viziers all put their heads together to devise an effective plan. At last, one of the viziers floated the following idea:

“Let’s us call the day the night, and the night the day. It is the only way to protect our people”.

The king liked the idea very much and immediately he issued the decree asking the people to start their day after the sunset and mark the sunrise as the beginning of the night. Initially, many people violated king’s decree and they were subsequently hanged. In due time, the unusual routine ensued in the kingdom. People slept during the day and resumed activities at night.

One day two strangers arrived in the city at midday. They went to a shop. The shopkeeper was asleep. They were looking around the shop, when the shopkeeper woke up and caught saw them. He instantly presumed they were thieves and accused them of shoplifting.

“We are no thieves. We have come to get some merchandise,” said one of the strangers.

“Why did you come so late in the night?” asked the shopkeeper.

Confounded by shopkeeper’s remarks he quipped: “Night? It is not night! Rather it is midday”.

The shopkeeper accused them of violating king’s decree and subsequently dragged them to the king’s court. The king told them that he would investigate their case in the daytime. Meanwhile, they were locked in a room. They were astounded by the strange behaviour of the king and his subjects. At night – the time they took to be the day — the king summoned the two strangers and asked them the purpose of their visit to the city.

“We are no ordinary folks. Rather we are royal tailors from the neighboring kingdom. We sew clothes for spirits”.

The king said: “How do these kinds of clothes look?”

“Only the legitimate sons of their fathers can see these clothes,” the man replied.

The king provided them with a sewing machine and asked them to sew the clothes. Later on, he asked his vizier to see if the clothes were ready. The vizier walked over to the room allotted to the strangers. They were absorbed with the sewing machine. The vizier drew nearer to the men and asked them about the progress in their work.

“The shirt is all done. We are half way through the trousers.  Isn’t it visible to you?” Surprisingly asked one of the men.

The vizier was quite confused. He couldn’t find any clothes there but he reckoned any negative answer would mean he was not his father’s legitimate son.

Hence, he said: “Of course, it is. It looks beautiful”. Then he cleverly asked them: “Where is the shirt?”

“It’s there in the box. See it for yourself.”

The vizier opened the box. It seemed empty, but he exclaimed: “What an exceedingly beautiful shirt!”

Then the vizier walked over to the king and told him that the clothes looked wonderful. Then the king strolled into the room. The vizier asked him to try the clothes on. The king opened the box. Lo, it was empty! He knew any remarks about the invisible clothes would call the legitimacy of his own birth into question. Thereupon, he peeled off his clothes and pretended to wear the clothes of spirits. He was naked but the vizier asked the people to clap and praise him new clothes. The king made a detour around the city. Everybody clapped and admired him being clad in the spiritual clothes.

The next day he issued another proclamation asking his subjects to wear the clothes of spirits. A few days later, the king invited the king of a neighbouring kingdom which was the home of the two strangers. When the king arrived there, he was astonished to see that nobody had a thread on their body and they slept during the day and worked at night. Then the two strangers whispered the entire story into his ear. The king said: “Let’s hurry off; otherwise they will force us to wear the clothes of spirits.”

This folktale has been translated from a retelling by Ghulam Jan Nawab in “Cher Andaren Neki” (The Hidden Virtue), a collection compiled by Ghulam Jan Nawab and published by Chammag Chap o Shing in 2021.

Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated many Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters and in the form of books and anthologies. Fazal Baloch has the translation rights from the publisher.


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Five Spices of Screen-writing

From Nabendu Ghosh’s autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri / Journey of a Lonesome Boat, translated by Dipankar Ghosh, post scripted by Ratnottama Sengupta

By now it had become common knowledge in the Bombay film community that Bimal Roy had brought along a “writer” with his group, and apparently he was quite a decent writer. Just as, at one time, Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Manto had come to Bombay Talkies, and Urdu writer Krishan Chander too had come on the scene. There was a feeling that there might be a chance of acquiring a decent storyline from Nabendu Ghosh. Naturally, for a while quite a few producers and film directors contacted me. Story sessions were held at Van Vihar, or at the offices of the producers concerned. but there seemed to be a lack of appreciation from these people to stories that came from the mind of an alumni of the Progressive Writers Association. They were all of the opinion, “The idea is great Ghosh Babu, but it is too idealistic. Dada we want to make movies with Dev Anand and Geeta Bali, accompanied by Johnny Walker and Yakub (comedians of the time). Please tell us stories where we can incorporate them, rather than literary stories.”

Realisation soon dawned on me that the Hindi ‘filmy kahani’ was a different genre of stories. What kind of stories? In short, stories that would be appreciated by 90 percent of viewers from different states, with different tastes, all over India. Hence even a highly educated producer like S Mukherji heard the story of Baap Beti and said: “It’s a nice story but I won’t make it – I’m a businessman”! In other words the businessman had a different slant on dramatic arts: they might well say that “Bicycle Thieves is a great film but an undoable story, I’m a businessman.”

Later, on one occasion I had asked Mr Mukherjee, “You said ‘No’ to Baap Beti, yet you wanted to film the literary story, Mrit Pradip. Why was that?” Mr Mukherjee laughed. “If there is an indication of high literary merit in a story then it might well be conducive to our business, and might turn a ‘hit’ picture into a superhit.” I asked, “Does that mean a ‘hit’ is quantifiable?” 

“Of course it is!” he replied. “Just as any tasty dish needs some specific spices to make it tasty.” 

“But what about the healthiness of the dish? Isn’t that a consideration?” 

“Nabendu Babu, I am not into the medical business.” 

“Does it follow that you will cater to the mass’s addiction for entertainment without upholding the essential ideals of life?”

“I do that Nabendu Babu but in very low doses,” said S.Mukherjee. “I follow the principles of dramatic arts as laid down in Natya Shastra but I don’t profess to be a saintly sadhu. I am a very ordinary person in pursuit of happiness.”

He guffawed loudly for a bit. Then he said, “The spices I need for my ‘cinema-dish’ are these. First, the story: usually should be about love. Second: five or six memorable ‘love scenes’ or warm situations, full of fun, lovers tiffs, misunderstanding, separation and reunion. Third: obstacles to love, by a person, family or enemy. That contributes to tension or anxiety. Fourth: four to five moments of suspense: some conspiracy, someone chasing the lovers, trying to kill them. Fifth: comic moments, not mildly humorous but uproariously funny so that people roll around in bouts of laughter. Sixth: moments of tear-jerking sadness. Seventh: Fight scenes, each being individual in itself. Eighth: five to six melodious songs, of  which two or three should be such that even persons with no music sense can sing them. Ninth: appropriate selection of actors and actresses. Tenth: a good director and a good music director. Finally: the right planetary configuration for audience’s applause.” Mr Mukherjee laughed out loud.

His words got entrenched in my mind. The successful ‘formula’ for a Hindi film! In other words it was the formula of a Hindi village Nautanki, no different from the Jatra formula of rural Bengal. Of a hundred films made by that formula, even if two managed to enlighten the mind or uplift the spirit, that would be an icing on the golden cake – “sone pe suhaga”. And if there was no icing, the gold that clinked in would be good enough gain, and two and a half hours will pass away in laughter and tears, in suspense and romance, with joyous humming of a few bars of melody as viewers return home to deep slumber, dreaming of the handsome features of a hero or heroine that will tickle their fancy and prove the worth of the newly invented form of art – cinema. In particular, the magic of Hindi movies.

Therefore, I decided to write or adapt stories and ideas to comply with the mandates of the Formula. Whatever good ideas came along, whether in five pages or five hundred, I would fit into two and a half hours, either by extending or shortening in a fast flowing format that would leave the viewer wondering what’s next at every turn. In other words, I would write screenplays of a different kind.

And since I was unable to uphold the higher ideals of literature on the silver screen, I would compensate for it by writing for literature. I would thereby absolve myself of my sense of guilt.

Photo provided by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ratnottama Sengupta’s post-script:

In 1952, when Nabendu Ghosh was narrating his story, Baap Beti, Sashadhar Mukherjee (1909-1990) was a highly successful producer who had set up Filmistan Studios in 1943 along with his brother-in-law, the legendary actor Ashok Kumar; Rai Bahadur Chunilal, father of music director Madan Mohan; and Gyan Mukherjee, director of the superhit Kismet. These personalities had broken away from Bombay Talkies after the death of its founder, Himanshu Rai. 

Later in the 1950s, S Mukherjee independently started Filmalaya, noted for films like Dil Deke Dekho (1959), Love in Simla (1960), Ek Musafir Ek Hasina (1962) and Leader (1964). He is also recognised as the patriarch of the distinguished Mukherjee clan of Bollywood that boasts actors like Joy Mukherjee, Deb Mukherjee, Tanuja, Kajol, and Rani Mukherjee.

And Baap Beti? It got made into a film produced by another highly successful producer of the times, S H Munshi. Directed by celluloid master Bimal Roy, it had brought a host of child artistes who went on to become big names of the Hindi screen: Tabassum (1944-2022), who passed away in November; Asha Parekh (2 October 1942), who was bestowed with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award last year, and Naaz (1944-1995),  besides Ranjan (1918-1983), the swashbuckling actor from the South.

As he writes in his autobiography, after this conversation Nabendu Ghosh took a conscious decision to write his own realisations as literature, and to adapt stories by other writers for the screen. That is why we find that less than 10 per cent of the films he scripted are from his own stories. But some major directors did draw upon his stories – as Bimal Roy did for Baap Beti; Gyan Mukherjee for Shatranj (1956), Satyen Bose for Jyot Jale (1973), Mohan Sehgal for Raja Jani (1972) and Ajoy Kar for Kayahiner Kahini (1973). Only one classic that used his story but did not credit it to Nabendu Ghosh was Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959).

Nabendu Ghosh with his son, Dipankar Ghosh, & daughter, Ratnottama Sengupta

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

Dipankar Ghosh (1944-2020) qualified as a physician from Kolkata in 1969 and worked as a surgical specialist after he emigrated to the UK in 1971.  But perhaps being the son of Nabendu Ghosh, he had always nursed his literary side and, post retirement, he took to pursuing his interest in translation.



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Uehara by Kamaleswar Barua

A story based on the end of a world war II soldier by Kamaleswar Barua in Assamese, translated by Bikash K. Bhattacharya

Ei Ran Ei Jivan, a collection of wartime narratives penned and published in 1968 by the Assamese writer, Kamaleswar Barua who served as a military engineer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War. Photo: Bikash K. Bhattacharya


This is a translation of the narrative “Uehara” from Kamaleswar Barua’s Ei Ran Ei Jivan [1], a collection of narratives published in Assamese in 1968 based on “true events and characters” the author had encountered while serving as a military engineer in the British Indian Army in the Second World War.

Kamaleswar Barua is a relatively lesser-known figure in Assamese literature. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Calcutta in 1932, Barua joined the British Indian Army as an engineer serving in the Naga hills, Manipur and Burma. Attached to engineering field companies, he saw combat in some of the fiercest battles fought in the region in the course of the Second World War. He rose to the rank of major. After the war, Barua earned a master’s degree in City Planning from the University of California, Berkley, in 1951.

Barua was an active member of Assamese literary clubs and reading groups like the Mukul Sangha, a club formed in January 1945 in Shillong, the then capital of Assam. It was in the weekly meetings of Mukul Sangha that Barua shared his personal accounts of the war before turning them into written narratives. Uehara’s story was also first told to a small audience of Assamese litterateurs who encouraged Barua to publish it [2]. However, the project took a backseat for a long time and Barua finally published an anthology of nine narratives, “based on characters he’d encountered during the war”, in 1968. Titled Ei Ran Ei Jivan—which translates as “This War, This Life” or as “Now War, Now Life”—the anthology’s fourth narrative is “Uehara”.

What makes the anthology interesting is the novelty of the genre. The author terms it “a collection of kahini (narratives) about a few wartime characters.” The standard word for short story in Assamese is galpa, while the word kahini doesn’t refer to a specific literary genre. A kahini could be fictional, but it could also be a true historical account. The generic instability notwithstanding, Barua declares in the preface to the anthology, “The names of the characters have been fictionalised unless they’re historically well-known people. I’ve strived to remain true to the characters as best as I could as I’d known and witnessed them.” The preface makes it amply clear that the kahinis Barua tells us are a specific type of wartime memoir narratives rather than autobiographical short stories.

While Barua’s “Uehara” remains a little-known, obscure work, the most prominent literary artefact in Assamese depicting the Japanese in the Second World War in northeast India is Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s short story ‘Agyaat Japani Xainik’ (An Unknown Japanese Soldier) [3]. However, “Uehara” is probably the only work in Assamese that depicts an actual historical encounter between an Assamese native serving the Raj and an Imperial Japanese Army soldier. Barua’s narrative not only portrays an empathetic picture of the mortally wounded Japanese soldier, which is rare in the region’s Second World War literature, but also evokes Pan-Asianism [4].

The original text, by Barua, didn’t contain any notes in it. The endnotes, referenced to academic works for driving home the broader historical context, or for the purposes of clarification, have been added by the translator.



July, 1944. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Imphal, the capital of the Kingdom of Manipur, was completely encircled by the Imperial Japanese Army. The only way out of Imphal was via air [5]. The city had been maintaining contact with the outside world through Koirengei airport. The plains of Imphal were surrounded on all sides by circular formations of Japanese troops. The city of Imphal and the Allied troops and war equipment it hosted, had been under siege for three months. During this period, there had been several fights between Allied soldiers and Japanese troops just outside the city centre of Imphal. The Japanese suffered huge losses. Many Japanese soldiers were captured and kept as prisoners of war (POW) by the Allied forces. Those who died were buried in temporary graves. The wounded Japanese soldiers were treated in Allied military hospitals and despatched to POW camps in Imphal. Starvation and sleeplessness had taken a toll on their war-weary, scarred bodies. The medical treatment they received was far from satisfactory. Shortage of doctors, nurses as well as medical supplies made it difficult to meet the requirements of the wounded Allied soldiers [6].In such a dire situation, it was only natural that the Allied forces fell short when it came to providing medical care to the wounded enemy soldiers, the Japanese POWs. As a result, the tally of dead soldiers increased by the day.

I had been undergoing treatment at a hospital in the besieged city of Imphal. I was gradually recovering from an intermediate risk surgery. Wounded soldiers from the frontline were arriving at the hospital all the time. By then, I’d been well acquainted with the horrors of war. The scenes were indescribable. It appeared as if lives and limbs of men had little value. I’d become accustomed to the sight of countless wounded soldiers, without limbs or a portion of the face, being brought to the hospital on stretchers. This war was necessary in order to establish peace and freedom, especially individual freedom, they said!

The ward next to the one I was staying at was reserved for the wounded enemy soldiers. Armed sentries guarded the ward all the time. This was where I met Uehara, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who’d sustained severe combat wounds in his chest. The angel of death appeared to be calling him. Uehara expressed his desire to share his last words with a fellow Asian.

Following the order of the commanding officer of the hospital, a British interpreter with knowledge of the Japanese language accompanied me to Uehara’s bed. I sat on a chair close to his bed and the interpreter sat beside me. As Uehara started to speak in Japanese, the interpreter translated his words into English for me.

Uehara was from a small village located on the outskirts of the city of Nagasaki. He was born to a family of farmers. He studied Japanese language, mathematics, geography and Japanese history in the village school. He started assisting his father in farm work since he was sixteen. They had a small plot of land. They cultivated paddy twice a year, and on a separate plot of land, they planted soy bean and vegetables. They had a cow, a few pigs and a flock of roosters and hens. And they had a small but neat wooden house where the four members of the family—Uehara, his parents and his sister—lived. They also had a small garden consisting of a few cherry trees and chrysanthemums. The blossoming of the cherry flowers in the month of May would bring a joy-filled atmosphere to the family. Although their garden was small, they had different colours of chrysanthemums that decorated the courtyard. Uehara’s sister would take care of the garden. The Ueharas would not earn much but they had a stable and happy life sustained by whatever income they would gain from their farm.

But destiny would not tolerate the peaceful life of the Ueharas. Things would take a sharp turn, and dark clouds of misfortune hung in the heavens.

December, 1941. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, and the President of the United States of America declared war on the Empire of Japan. The young men of Japan either volunteered for, or drafted to, the Imperial Japanese forces. Uehara was one of them. Having undergone training in Tokyo, he was recruited to the Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army where he rose to the rank of officer. While serving in Tokyo, he met Yuzuki, a military nurse.

Yuzuki had a round face, a bright pair of eyes and beautiful black hair tied to the back of her head. Uehara was enamoured of her spritely and empathetic behaviour. They fell in love and got married. As the newlywed couple was nurturing dreams about their future, Uehara’s regiment was ordered to Burma [7]. With teary eyes, Uehara and Yuzuki took leave from each other at the Tokyo airport.

Uehara was hopeful. He had unwavering faith in the Mikado [8] and that Japan would emerge victorious in the war. And once the war was over, Uehara would settle down with Yuzuki somewhere in a quiet corner of Nagasaki or Tokyo in a small house with a courtyard and a garden of cherry trees that would offer a nice view of daybreak on the seashore. There they would raise a small family. This youthful determination kept Uehara and Yuzuki going even in separation.

In the jungles of Burma, Uehara’s regiment kept advancing—capturing town after town, Hakha, Falam, Tedim—on their way to Imphal in Manipur. Along with other Japanese troops, his regiment also took part in the siege of Imphal. One day, during the Battle of Imphal, artillery shells hit his chest, severely wounding him. Once he regained consciousness, Uehara found himself in the Allied military hospital. The days that followed were very painful for him. The doctors, despite their efforts, could not stop the bleeding from the wound. Although war essentially entails killing enemy troops, the rules of war also dictate that one is responsible for providing medical care to enemy soldiers wounded in combat. That said, many wounded soldiers are left in the battlefield to die.

When Uehara was narrating his story through the interpreter, I could not understand his language. But I could feel a sense of calm in his voice. I felt that he had a gentle heart that bore no hatred towards anyone. I tried to figure out what could have been the source of his power: Was it in his Japanese culture? Or, was it in his love for Yuzuki?

Uehara politely asked me to take custody of a few articles he’d with him: a blood-stained silk handkerchief in which both Uehara and Yuzuki’s names were inscribed in Japanese characters, a gift from Yuzuki, he said; an incomplete letter to Yuzuki; a flag of Japan with a blazing morning sun on it [9]; and a sword. He requested me as a fellow Asian to keep these items so that I could return them to his wife, Yuzuki if someday I got such an opportunity. He then handed me a note containing Yuzuki’s address in Japan. I took the items from Uehara and came back to my ward with a heavy heart tormented by sombre thoughts. Alas, this is human life! This is how all the dreams and desires come to an end. The next day, I was told, Uehara passed away.

After the end of the war, my peripatetic life once took me to Tokyo. Needless to mention that I took along with me the items Uehara had entrusted in my custody. With the help of the Indian embassy in Tokyo, I informed Yuzuki about my visit and one afternoon I knocked at her door. Yuzuki and her mother greeted me into their small wooden house. The house consisted of only one large room. There were two floor looms on one side of the room while the other side had a raised wooden sitting arrangement. On the wall was a scroll inscribed with Japanese characters. A framed photo of Uehara in military uniform was placed in the middle of the scroll.

The two women slept on the wooden floor. They cooked in the small kitchen in an extended corner of the room. Yuzuki and her mother received me very warmly. Following the Japanese custom, I’d taken off my shoes before entering the house. It was no exaggeration to say that at that time Japan was under the occupation of the United States of America. Items manufactured in Japan at that time were labelled with the phrase ‘made in Occupied Japan’. The Japanese people had learned to speak English. Yuzuki too could speak English. So I didn’t face any difficulty in communicating with her. The two women were happy to receive me. I gave Yuzuki the items Uehara had left with me. She held each of the items close to her bosom and then placed carefully on a cloth spread on a wooden table. Her face radiated with satisfaction. I saw on her face a sense of determination and self-conviction rather than signs of past trauma. The two women then brought tea and bowls of rice and boiled fish. We had dinner together. I felt like an emissary bringing greetings and news from Uehara. I spent several hours in their company. I took leave from them at about nine in the evening. On the way, I noticed the bright and tender moon in the sky. The cherry flowers were shining under the pale moonlight and I could see ripples on the waters of a nearby lake. The ripening apples on the apple trees that I passed by looked astonishingly fresh. The earth is so beautiful! The people are so good!

Translator’s Notes

[1] Kamaleswar Barua, Ei Ran Ei Jivan (Guwahati: Kamaleswar Barua, 1968), p. 23.

[2] Preface to Ei Ran Ei Jivan.

[3] The short story first appeared in the seventh volume of the Assamese literary magazine Jayanti in 1943-44.

[4] Pan-Asianism is an idea, movement, and ideology based on an assumed cultural and ethnic commonality of Asians. It assumes the existence of common political and economic interests and of a shared destiny which necessitate a union of Asian peoples or countries to realize common aims. For more on Pan-Asianism see Sven Saaler and Christopher W. A. Szpilman (Eds.), Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, 1850-1920, Volume 1 (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011).

[5] Although the author here states that Imphal remained cut off by the Imperial Japanese Army till July, 1944, the British Indian forces succeeded in opening the Imphal-Kohima road on 22 June, 1944, thus ending the three-month long siege of Imphal. See Raghu Karnad, The Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War (New Delhi: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, 2015), p.209.

[6] General Sir George J. Giffard’s despatch submitted to the British Secretary of State for War on operations in Burma and Northeast India, 16 November 1943 to 22 June, 1944, mentioned the “decided shortage of medical officers, and a serious shortage of nurses and nursing personnel, though there has been no general shortage of hospital accommodation.” See John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle for Burma 1943-1954: From Kohima & Imphal through to Victory, (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2015), p.115.

[7] Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army didn’t take part in the siege of Imphal and they primarily fought in Malaya, Singapore and China. However, it was not impossible that certain officers from Imperial Guards Division were deployed to the Japanese Fifteenth Army that laid siege in Imphal. In fact, during the invasion of Burma, the Fifteenth Army was commanded by General Shojiro Iida, who had previously commanded the Imperial Guards Division in the China Theatre of the war. See Peter S. Crosthwaite A Bowl of Rice Too Far: The Burma Campaign of the Japanese Fifteenth Army (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College monograph, 2016), p. 27.

[8] Mikado (御門) is a term commonly used in English and other foreign language writings to refer to the Emperor of Japan. However, the term originally meant not only the Sovereign, but also his palace, the court and even the State, and therefore is misleading when applied only for the Emperor. The native Japanese instead use the term Tennō (天皇) for their emperor. See Kanʼichi Asakawa, The Early Institutional Life of Japan: A Study in the Reform of 645 A.D. (Tokyo: Shueisha, 1903).

[9] Perhaps it was a yosegaki hinomaru, a “good luck” flag gifted to Japanese servicemen deployed into battle. For more on yosegaki hinomaru see Michael A. Bortner, Imperial Japanese Good Luck Flags and One-Thousand Stitch Belts (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2008).


Bikash K. Bhattacharya is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin from fall 2023. He is a bilingual author writing in English and Assamese. His works have appeared in Journal of Global Indigeneity, The Indian Express and Border Criminologies among others.


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles