Saturday Mornings at the Language Class

First published in Saaranga

The generosity of a weekend morning
and a teacher’s unlocked house. Her
trust in us, somewhat excessive. To
leave the property to a bunch of inquisitive
adolescents; there, less for language
learning and more for the telephone to
make prank calls with, just a few, before
the elderly tutor arrived. To then settle
down on the sofa like monastic disciples
awaiting ordination. With the trail of lessons
moving through villages, bullock carts and
heaving rivers, to let the eye settle on a
glass cabinet housing pretty dolls in
traditional finery — Japanese, Bengali,
Rajasthani. The teacher’s off-school
diversion. After the class — a walkabout of
everything from the classics and satire to
home-brewed verses on bygone Saturday
mornings — pottering over to the dining table
to uncover surprises waiting in neat porcelain
saucers. Tea cakes, cookies, seasonal savouries.
Bribes the teacher cooked to entice some
not-so innocent teenagers to bite into the
mother tongue just a bit deeper.

Photo by Designecologist on Pexels.com

Letter Writing by Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

You gave me a gold-plated fountain pen
And a cornucopia of writing equipment.
A small walnut-wood desk.
Letterheads in different designs.
Silver paper with an enamel finish.
Scissors, knife, sealing wax, ribbon.
A glass paperweight.
Red, blue, green pencils.
A letter must be written every
Other day,
You ordained for me.

I finished bathing in the morning
So I could sit down to write a letter.

But I can’t decide on what to write.
There’s only one news —
That you have left.
This, you already know.
Yet, it seems like
You aren’t really aware of this.
So I think of letting you know —
You have left.
Every time I begin to write
Something tells me this isn’t easy news to share.
I’m no poet —
One who can give voice to a language;
Or vision to words.
The more letters I write, the more I shred them.

It’s ten o’ clock already.
Your nephew, Boku, is ready for school,
I need to feed him first.
This is my last attempt —
Let me write to inform you
That you have left.
The rest is only a jungle of
Doodles crowding the blotted ink.

GITANJALI - The original manuscript By Rabindranath Tagore Published by  Sahitya Samsad This is the original versio… | Handwriting analysis, Rare  books, Book layout
পত্রলেখা

দিলে তুমি সোনা-মোড়া ফাউণ্টেন পেন,
           কতমতো লেখার আসবাব।
               ছোটো ডেস্‌কোখানি।
                   আখরোট কাঠ দিয়ে গড়া।
        ছাপ-মারা চিঠির কাগজ
           নানা বহরের।
রুপোর কাগজ-কাটা এনামেল-করা।
        কাঁচি ছুরি গালা লাল-ফিতে।
           কাঁচের কাগজ-চাপা,
        লাল নীল সবুজ পেন্সিল।
    বলে গিয়েছিলে তুমি চিঠি লেখা চাই
           একদিন পরে পরে।

         লিখতে বসেছি চিঠি,
           সকালেই স্নান হয়ে গেছে।
লিখি যে কী কথা নিয়ে কিছুতেই ভেবে পাই নে তো।
           একটি খবর আছে শুধু--
               তুমি চলে গেছ।
        সে খবর তোমারো তো জানা।
               তবু মনে হয়,
        ভালো করে তুমি সে জান না।
               তাই ভাবি এ কথাটি জানাই তোমাকে--
                   তুমি চলে গেছ।
               যতবার লেখা শুরু করি
        ততবার ধরা পড়ে এ খবর সহজ তো নয়।
               আমি নই কবি--
ভাষার ভিতরে আমি কণ্ঠস্বর পারি নে তো দিতে;
        না থাকে চোখের চাওয়া।
           যত লিখি তত ছিঁড়ে ফেলি।

দশটা তো বেজে গেল।
    তোমার ভাইপো বকু যাবে ইস্‌কুলে,
           যাই তারে খাইয়ে আসিগে।
               শেষবার এই লিখে যাই--
                   তুমি চলে গেছ।
               বাকি আর যতকিছু
           হিজিবিজি আঁকাজোকা ব্লটিঙের 'পরে।

Of Endings, Happy and Sad

First published in Saaranga

In ‘Bateshwar’s Contribution’, a short film by Sandip Ray I recently watched, Bateshwar Sikdar, a veteran writer, suddenly finds himself in the company of visitors and advice – both unsolicited. Over the course of three days, as many individuals, supposedly Sikdar’s fans come to him with the same strange request. They all want him to make the ending of a novel he’s writing, a happy one. Based on a story by Rajshekhar Basu, often hailed as the greatest humourist of the last century, the film, or rather that peculiar request, struck a personal chord with me in what has been my nascent journey into published authorship so far. I am coming to that in a bit.

In Sikdar’s case, when the first reader, a young man, approaches him on one of his morning walks, there isn’t much to suspect – he’s seen gushing with praise for the senior writer and shows great interest in his current serialized work ‘Ke Thaakey, Ke Jaaye?’ (Who Stays, Who Goes?). In fact, he seems so involved with the story that he’s eager to find out the fate of a female character. He asks Sikdar about the same, referring to the character as the novel’s heroine. Sikdar reminds him that there are two heroines in the novel, and when the young reader specifies he’s referring to Aloka who is fighting a serious illness, Sikdar tells him that she’s going to die. Our young reader seems heartbroken and pleads with the author to let her live. Exasperated, Sikdar tells him off and continues on his walk. The next morning, the entreaty turns into a mild threat when another man, a renowned surgeon, drops by at Bateshwar’s house with the same proposition – to let Aloka live. As with the first petitioner, Sikdar turns down the physician’s request and remains firm on his stand to eliminate Aloka to have Sharbari, the novel’s other heroine, take her place. He would have a third and final requester – a woman who introduces herself as a film actor – who comes to him with the offer of buying the film rights for ‘Who Stays, Who Goes?’. She’s eager to play Aloka in the film she informs Sikdar, but he has to ensure she’s cured of her illness and continues to live. Sikdar, though excited at the offer, still remains reluctant to change his story’s ending. It’s only when the lady threatens to jump ship and make a similar offer to a rival author that he reverses his long-held decision to let Aloka die.

Read the rest in Saaranga

Thirty-eight years with Shakti

Samir Sengupta

Translated from the Bangla by
Bhaswati Ghosh

First published in Parabaas

From Shakti Chattopadhyay’s handwritten
facsimili edition of
Kuri Bochhorer Kuriti
(‘Twenty Years, Twenty Poems’)

I first met Shakti in 1957, at the College Street Coffee House. I still carried on me the smell of Ramakrishna Mission’s Vidyamandir from where I had just graduated. The modernity of Coffee House startled me almost every day. I would find myself a corner to sit at the Krittibas table, with the poets barely tolerating me. Scores of foreign names—of poets, novelists, films, filmmakers—rained down my head. Every single day, I would hear new names—how in the world could I get to read so many books, watch so many films? I hadn’t even seen the magazine Kabita (*Poetry, কবিতা ) yet. I have faint memories of Shakti wearing a red tie and commuting to his workplace, Hind Motors as a daily passenger.

Somehow, with time we became friends. I didn’t write any poetry, only dealt with prose, that too very little. I had enrolled into Jadavpur University’s master’s program in Comparative Literature, which brought me an entry into the haloed and unique adda of ‘Kabita Bhavan’ (*lit. house of poetry, residence of Buddhadeva Bose, founder-editor of Kabita). Shakti’s name was still on the student roll, but one hardly saw him on the campus. He would (suddenly) show up once every six or nine months and that would be it. He was part of the batch following ours, a classmate of Rumi’s (Damayanti Basu Singh, Buddhadeva Bose’s youngest daughter) in the BA course. Buddhadeva had forced him to enroll with hopes of making him return to the mainstream. By then, however, a witch had already seized Shakti’s heart.

Read the rest in Parabaas

‘Jago Hua Savera’: Recalling a Cinematic Manifesto for the Dawn of Hope

First published in The Wire

Night falls on a river. The village around it thickens with darkness. Not the river. On its breast, distant lights flicker like inextinguishable fireflies. The glow comes from the boats of the fishermen sailing on its waves. A majhi (boatman) sings a drawn-out tune and the river’s water folds into its haunting essence with every splash of the oar.

This is how the 1959 Pakistani film, Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) unfolds as does Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of Padma), the novel it’s adapted from. An enthralling flute amplifies the aural impact of Jago Hua Savera’s opening scene even more, holding the viewer in a delicate trance. A synthesis of the work of stalwarts like Faiz Ahmed Faiz who wrote the songs, dialogues and story; music director, Timir Baran and Academy Award winning cinematographer, Walter Lassally – this first scene establishes the tenor of the film’s sensitive and neo-realist aesthetic.

That the night isn’t pitch-black isn’t insignificant. Like the Padma itself, it is mysterious and pregnant with possibility. Of light. Of dawn. It has to be that way. For the Padma is as unforgiving to the fisherfolk edging its banks as it is giving.

When Manik Bandopadhyay wrote Padma Nadir Majhi, his sparkling novel chronicling the lives of East Bengal’s fishermen, India was under British rule and the Second World War was still three years away. When director A.J. Kardar adapted it for the screen, Partition had split India, and Faiz’s reworked story reflected the region’s altered geopolitics. Filmed on location at Saitnol on the banks of the Meghna River in what was then East Pakistan, the film’s story marks a significant, and arguably necessary, departure from the novel.

The biggest change is also the most awkward one – the fisherman’s tongue. Instead of the regional Bangla dialect of the book, the characters in Jago speak in colloquial Hindustani. It’s not an A for B transposition, though. For me, a Bengali married to a Sikh, the ingenious workaround Faiz and Kardar employed to get around the language hurdle struck a personal resonance. Despite speaking fairly respectable Hindi all my unmarried life in Delhi, my hometown, with my husband, I started speaking in a deliberately incorrect tongue, upturning verb conjugations – a pattern absent in Bengali.

The fishing villagers of Jago speak a similar broken Hindustani, their vocabulary sparse and uncluttered. When the viewer is least expecting it, fragments of Bengali float into her ears – a kid begging his father to spare “duto poisa,” another telling his uncle, “Miyan boddi anchhe,” (the miyan has brought a traditional doctor), and then a full exchange in Bangla between two sisters, Tripti Mitra playing the younger of them.

An idiom for celluloid

One would be mistaken, however, in attempting to locate the film’s vocabulary in a particular vernacular. From the first scene to the concluding one, the elements that dominate both the stylistic and utilitarian purposes of Jago are wordless – the music, the ambient sounds, the silence. In the opening scenes, the viewer gets a sense of a sound peculiar to Padma’s boatmen as Bandopadhyay describes it:

“From the heart of the river afar, a call is heard, a faint sound of human voice…This is a language known only to the boatmen of East Bengal. There are no words in this language, only undulating vocalization. Across unbounded horizons spreading over the river, this sound travels long distances, becoming fainter in volume, but unchanged in its ripples.” [From Padma Nadir Majhi, translated by the author.]

The depth and breadth of Timir Baran’s prowess as a composer are on full showcase here, not just in the three songs that a boatman sings, all carrying the resilient poise of Faiz’s poetry, but also in the music director’s unusual choice of the classical veena – to overlay everyday village scenes with a sedate composure.

Then there are atmospheric sounds – the Padma’s waves, of course, but also the chatter of kids playing on its banks, the cawing of crows, the buzz of a bustling fish market and, later in the film, the big city’s honking automobiles, hawking porters and tinkling bicycles – that lend the narrative a compelling immediacy.

Lassally’s mature camerawork makes it even easier for the director to stick to verbal minimalism in the film. From the first frame, the camera moves with eloquence to capture both nature and man. While the Padma’s expanse and excitability are made almost palpable for the viewer, the close-ups of the characters’ faces strike one as archives of an ancient sadness.

In Jago, the majority of the villagers are Muslims as opposed to the Hindus in the novel. The characters and the plot are a lot less complex, too, making this nearly an original story, written for a new audience.

Most noticeable among the revised characters is that of Bandopadhyay’s Hossain Miya, an enigmatic man of wealth who could be caring or ruthless, depending on the situation. In Jago, he becomes the unidimensional Lal Miyan, a moneylender like any other, stripped of complexities.

The other big character swap is that of the protagonist’s sister-in-law’s. The novel’s Kapila is Mala in the film, played with sensual charm by Tripti Mitra. As in the book, she retains her flirtatious ways, but instead of enticing Miya, her brother-in-law, is seen to attract the attention of Kasim, Miya’s brotherly friend. Bangladeshi acting legend, Khan Ataur Rahman not only plays the role of Kasim with self-assurance, but also sings the film’s songs with tender facility. Particularly enduring is his rendition of “Beet chali hai raat/ab chhoro gham ki baat,” (The night is about to end, my friend/Let go of your songs of sorrow), a spirited nazm by Faiz that Baran has set – to an electrifying effect – to a traditional bhatiyali tune.

Of deprivation and the dawn of hope

There is less gossip and innuendo in the film, too, the extent of it being Lal Miya pointing fingers at Kasim and Mala’s open show of affection for each other. Yet, despite all these deviations, the film remains faithful to Bandopadhyay’s work in a fundamental way – in its politics.

At the core of Padma Nadir Majhi is the social discrimination, ostracism and extreme poverty the fishermen suffer. Their destitution is naked, for they have little to cover it with. But it’s still not without dignity. Miya pulls a fragile cover over his newborn son and helps his invalid wife lie down beside him with the gentlest touch. When his daughter’s leg is fractured, Kasim lifts her in his arms and takes her for treatment to the city hospital – a long and arduous journey he undertakes without a blink. Ganju, obsessed with buying a new boat off Lal Miyan, saves every penny for it despite seeing tuberculosis sniffing the life out of him.

Despite its affirmative title, Jago Hua Savera is rooted in reality. Ganju will acquire his boat but not live long enough to enjoy it. Miya will not be able to buy it, not even after collecting all his life’s savings, including the money his wife has been saving for their daughter’s wedding, the pennies in his son’s piggy bank and Kasim’s offered savings. Wistfully, and in his torn vest, he’ll keep his gaze on the treasured boat as it floats on Padma’s bosom.

And still the fisherfolk will wrest their dawn from the night – the Padma will hold them in her sway again, Miya will approve of Kasim’s relationship with Mala, and Kasim and Miya will return to the fishing boat. And the glow of its lantern.

This is a dawn that’s as unremarkable as the fishermen’s’ lives. It is still a savera, nonetheless.

Jago Hua Savera is a landmark film, not only because of its international cast and crew or the way it draws inspiration from the best of world cinema. But because it reinvents a classic in its own, cinematic, idiom.

[The Day Shall Dawn (1959) was selected as the Pakistani entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 32nd Academy Awards, but was not accepted as a nominee. It was also entered into the first Moscow International Film Festival where it won a Golden Medal. Days before the film was to premier, the new government of Pakistan (under Ayub Khan) asked the film’s producer, Nauman Taseer not to release the film. The writer, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, was later imprisoned by the government for his communist beliefs. Anjum Taseer, son of the producer, had the film fully restored in 2010.]

The Art of Solitude: In Rabindranath Tagore’s letters, the gifts of a life in solitude

First published in Scroll

After a week of rain, hail and non-seasonal arctic chills, a balmy sunshine and a breeze carrying whispers of spring indulge us in the Southern Ontario suburb where I live with my husband. With a book in my hand, I step out into the backyard and find it to be the venue of an unrehearsed celebration of this climatic turnaround. All our immediate neighbours are out – the daughters of our next-door neighbours yell hellos to their school friends in the backyard across theirs; our other next-door gardener neighbour is busy tending to her perennials; my husband readies the soil for his impending vegetable garden.

Human hums and giggles enter me along with the constant chirp of the backyard birds. As I open my book Chhinnapatrabali – Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of letters, written for the most part to his niece, Indira Devi Chaudhurani, I don’t miss the rare synchronicity this moment brings, especially in our current physically distanced world. The cover of my reading material is beginning to tear up, evidence of the book’s confidant-like association with me through the decade of my life outside India.

Tagore wrote a lot of these letters from his family estate in East Bengal, which he’d been tasked to manage in his youth. While opening a window to his literary talent and creative process, the letters also serve as a manifesto of living in and celebrating solitude and its many gifts. A shift away from the human-centric way of life is one of these gifts. In letter after letter, Tagore speaks of how, whenever he lands in the rural environment of his estate from the industrially-rushed Calcutta, he senses centrifugalism of the humankind. “There’s less of man and more of earth here,” he notes in a letter and adds, “when in the village, I cease to see man as an independent entity,” likening mankind’s journey to that of rivers coursing their way through forests and cities.

Chhinnapatrabali also endears itself to me because of the way it reveals the everyday Rabindranath, shorn of his career accolades and their accompanying weight. With gentle humour and uncensored vulnerability, the letter writer brings out his deepest loves and anxieties, his humanism shining through them like the sun gleaming in our rain-sodden backyard.

In reading the letters nestled in this volume, I learn, recurrently, the need to take a pause from the staged antics of a mechanized life. For, as Tagore shows, true viewing – whether of blackbirds and squirrels in my backyard, or the rivers and trees, boatmen’s songs and women’s banter, cows chasing flies away with their tails, a silent full moon night in a Bengal village – calls for rest and repose. Not only of the outer eye that sees. But of the inner eye that makes, out of one, a seer.

Letter photo source: The Daily Star

Notes of Eternity: Rabindranath Tagore

                                                                                                                          Calcutta |May 2, 1895

A nahabat recital can be heard playing somewhere today. A morning nahabat makes the heart quiver strangely. I haven’t been able to discern the significance of the unspeakable state that envelopes one’s mind when listening to music. And yet, every time the mind attempts to dissect that state. I have noticed that whenever beautiful music plays, the moment its intoxication hits the soul, this world of life and death, this land of arrivals and departures, this world of work, of light and darkness recedes into a distance — as if across a vast Padma River — from where everything appears as if it were only a picture.

road nature trees branches

To us, our everyday world doesn’t always appear to be the most well balanced. A tiny fraction of our life might seem disproportionately huge, our hunger and thirst, daily squabbles, rest and labour, petty annoyances besmirch the present moment. Music, with its beautiful intrinsic equilibrium, can, within moments make the world stand in a perspective where the small, transient imbalances disappear. With music, a whole, vast and eternal balance transforms the entire world into a mere image, and man’s life and death, laughter and tears, past and future land in the present to play in one’s ears as the meditative rhythm of poetry. With that, the intensity of our personal tendencies decrease, we become puny and immerse ourselves without strain into the immensity of music.

Small and artificial social ties are useful to function in the society, yet music and other evolved art forms instantly show us their insignificance, making every art somewhat antisocial. This is why listening to a good poem or song quickens our hearts, tearing asunder social formalities and igniting in the mind a struggle that seeks the freedom of eternal beauty. Anything beautiful stirs in us a conflict between the fleeting and the permanent, causing us a certain inexplicable pain.

Poona | May 6, 1895

Nahabat: A temple music tower. Musicians sit on the upper story and play during festivals and sometimes at the time of daily worship. (Source)

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Afternoons in Bengal Countryside ~ Rabindranath Tagore

                                    Shazadpur,
                                    September 5, 1894

After spending a long time on the boat, it feels wonderful to have suddenly arrived at the Shazadpur house. Light and air streams in unrestrained through the large windows and doors — wherever I look, I see green branches of trees and hear bird call. The moment I step out to the southern verandah, all the veins of my brain fill with the fragrance of Kamini flowers. All of a sudden I realize a hunger lurked within me for an expansive sky — being here has fulfilled it completely.

I am the sole master of four large rooms — I sit with all the doors open. The inspiration and motivation that I receive here to write is unlike that in any other place. A living essence of the outside world enters me unhindered through the open doors — the light and the sky and the air and the sounds and the smells and the waves of green mingle with the passions of my mind and create innumerable stories. The afternoons here, in particular, have a deep spell. The sun’s heat, the silence, the quiet, calls of birds, especially the crow’s and an extended period of leisure make me pensive and eager.

Shantiniketan 036

I don’t know why I have a feeling that Arabian stories are made of afternoons like these brimming with golden sunshine. Those Persian and Arabian lands of Damascus, Samarkand, Bukhara…those grape clusters, rose gardens, the nightingale’s songs, Shiraz wines, desert paths, rows of camels, horse-riding wayfarers, a clear source of water amidst a thick curtain of date trees…cities with narrow royal lanes festooned with awnings, a shopkeeper wearing a turban and comfortable, loose-fitting clothes — selling melons and mewa at the end of the street…a massive royal palace by the roadside with incense smell wafting out of it, a huge mattress covered with kimkhwāb placed by the window…Amina, Zubeidi and Sufi in zari footwear, wide pajamas and colourful corsets as they inhale smoke rising off a curled hubble-bubble near their feet, at the door, a habshi dressed in flashy clothes stands guard…and in this mysterious, unfamiliar faraway land, in a wealth-filled, spectacular yet eerie royal palace, thousands of stories — possible and impossible — are being created out of the laughter and tears, hopes and anxieties of humans.

These afternoons I spend in Shazadpur are fabled afternoons. I remember writing the story “Postmaster” sitting at the table fully engrossed right at this hour. As I wrote, the light around me, the breeze and the shivering tree branches all added their language to it. There are few joys that come close to creating something close to one’s heart by being immersed in one’s surroundings. This morning I became inclined to write something on limericks and could become thoroughly involved in it, which brought me immense delight. Like the world of clouds, limericks make for a free country unbounded by rules and laws. Unfortunately, the land that rules and laws dominate is never far behind to follow one. As I wrote, a sudden insurrection of officials stormed in, blowing to dust my land of clouds.

When that ended, it was time to eat. There’s nothing more sloth-inducing than eating a full meal in the afternoon. It overwhelms one’s imagination and the spirit’s higher callings. Bengalis are unable to enjoy the deep intrinsic beauty of an afternoon because of their predilection to eat sumptuous meals at that time and follow that by closing the door to smoke on tobacco and slide into a satiating slumber. This is what makes them hale and hearty. But nowhere do quiet, desolate afternoons spread over in the sweeping, silent manner in which they do over Bengal’s uniformly limitless, plain crop fields.

Afternoons like these have haunted me since childhood. Back then, no one used to be in the outer third-storey quarters; I alone sat in the angular couch with the door wide open and a warm breeze blowing in. My entire day went by in the company of vivid imagination and unspeakable desires.

Satara
September 10, 1894

Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

Letter to Niece ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Shilaidaha, June 16, 1892

The more you spend time on your own on a river or in an open space in a village, the more it becomes clear that nothing could be grander or more beautiful than to simply do your daily work with ease. From the grass in the field to the star in the sky, all things are doing only that. Because nothing is making a desperate attempt to cross its limits, there is such immense peace and beauty in nature; and yet, whatever each thing does isn’t all that valueless — the grass has to use all its energy to remain grass; it must engage the very end of its root to the ground to soak in the nectar. The earth is so resplendently lush only because the grass doesn’t try to overstep its boundary or ignore its routine work so it can become a banyan tree. In reality, it is through fulfilling daily small tasks and duties, not through grandiose initiatives or overstatements that the human society maintains its grace and harmony. Whether it is art or valour — nothing is complete in itself. On the other hand, even a small act of duty contains contentment and wholeness. To sit and continuously gripe, contemplate, consider every situation to be unworthy of oneself — all the while letting time and small and big obligations slip one by — nothing could be worse than that.

© Bhaswati Ghosh

When one resolves to and believes in one’s ability to do all tasks up to one’s capacity with truth, strength and a full heart amid all pleasure and pain, one’s entire life is filled with happiness and all petty sorrows disappear.

Calcutta
June 17, 1892.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh