The Naked Man’s Homeland by Birendra Chattopadhyay

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

We stand on a
Strange soil;
Rather, we’re trying
Our best to remain on our feet.

We still don’t know
What lies in the womb of this earth
Although, if you listened closely,
You’d hear the warnings of an imminent doom
Even more sinister than the hiss of a million snakes.

But we don’t move an inch; as if
Standing still is our only safety,
And a possible one. Looking agape at
Church spires and the giant
Pillars of the stock exchange, we
Marvel at the magnificence of god
And feel relieved that ours is a
Free country whose borders
Are patrolled by gun-wielding guards.

Even though the earth beneath our feet is a simmering volcano;
Even though there’s no sky above us.

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উলঙ্গের স্বদেশ
বীরেন্দ্র চট্টোপাধ্যায়

এক অদ্ভুত মাটির উপর
আমরা দাঁড়িয়ে আছি ;
অর্থাৎ দাঁড়িয়ে থাকার জন্য
প্রাণপণ চেষ্টা করছি

এ মাটির গর্ভে কী আছে
আজও আমাদের জানা নেই
যদিও কান পাতলে শুনতে পাওয়া যায়
এক লক্ষ সাপের গর্জনের চেয়েও
কোন ভয়ঙ্কর পরিণাম, যা ক্রমেই আসন্ন হচ্ছে |

কিন্তু আমরা এক পা-ও এদিক ওদিক
নড়ছি না ; যেন স্থির দাঁড়িয়ে থাকাই
আমাদের নিরাপত্তা, এবং তা সম্ভব | আমরা গির্জার গম্বুজগুলির
এবং স্টক এক্সচেঞ্জের চার দিকের বিরাট স্তম্ভগুলির দিকে
বিস্ফারিত চোখে তাকিয়ে থেকে
এক সময় ঈশ্বরের মহিমাকে জানতে পারছি
আর এই কথা ভেবে নিশ্চিন্ত হচ্ছি—
আমাদের স্বদেশ স্বাধীন এবং তার সীমান্তে
বন্দুকধারী প্রহরীরা প্রত্যহ টহল দিচ্ছে |

যদিও পায়ের নিচে মাটি এখন অগ্নিগর্ভ ;
যদিও আমাদের মাথার উপর আকাশ বলতে কিছুই নেই |

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A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

First published in The Wire

Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017

In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.

An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.

Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.

The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.

Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.

The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.

Read the rest in The Wire.

Cutting Through Mountains to Build a Statue

An excerpt from Somendranath Bandyopadhyay’s My Days with Ramkinkar Baij where the sculptor and painter shares with the author his experience of sculpting the Yaksha-Yakshi statues that stand outside the central bank in New Delhi.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Kinkarda’s innocence amuses me. He is oblivious to the gigantic cost of cutting through a mountain. I know that once he had to pay the price for this inexperience. Recalling the incident I say, ‘You did do a major work by cutting stones later, though. In front of New Delhi’s Reserve Bank.’

‘Yes. The Reserve Bank governor had provided me with a lot of conveniences. Their only request was “Do something”.

‘I made Yaksha-Yakshi. Many people call it ‘Kuber’. Arre, why should it be Kuber? It’s not Kuber. It is Yaksha. They aren’t even husband and wife, but brother and sister. Yakshi. Had it been the wife, she would have been called Yakshini.

‘In Bharatpur and Sanchi, I had seen ancient Yaksha-Yakshi statues. Their limbs were broken. I also studied a few of those at the Patna Museum.

Yakshi holds the territory of land and agriculture. And Yaksha reigns over wealth. Kuber is above them. You must have read Coomaraswamy’s book; that contains everything.

‘You might have noticed that I’ve placed a discus in my sculpture’s hand. That was my idea. Addition. It’s a modern-day machine and is symbolic of industry. I got the idea for the flower and paddy cluster in Yakshi’s hand from the old statues. You know what Yaksha held in the ancient statues? A mallet. And a bag in the left hand. I have placed that too. Money bag. My Yaksha is completely modern – with a machine and a money bag. And is it possible to have the money bag and not have a fat belly? Yakshas do have protruding bellies, my dear. You must have seen ancient Yaksha statues. My Yaksha has it too.’

Read the rest in The Wire.

 

Who is Abani, at whose house, and why is he even there?

[In the words of Brajendranath Mandal]
Samir Sengupta
Translated from the Bangla by
Bhaswati Ghosh
Originally published in Parabaas

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

[‘Abani, are you home’ by Shakti Chattopadhyay]

I never got to know Shakti Chattopadhyay in person. Until the other day, I didn’t even know who he was. I’m a villager and make my living by growing potatoes and gourds. This year I planted tomatoes and chili peppers — the tomatoes did really well, I got about two and a half quintals per katha (720 square feet). Honestly, I didn’t expect such a good yield. Although it didn’t get me a good price in the end, I still recovered the cost and even made a bit of profit.

Kolkata is far from our village. You have to first walk nearly four kilometers through the fields. Despite many efforts, no roads have come to the village. Newly-wed brides have to enter the village on foot; the sick have to be carried to the hospital on cots like the dead to a crematorium. Even though our village is in the Hooghly district, it’s on its northern edge, bordering Bardhaman. As I was saying—see, this losing track of what I was talking about is a sign of my getting old—after walking the four kilometers, you’d better sit down at a teashop to catch your breath.

Next, you need to get onto a bus that’s usually so packed that even the roof is crammed with people and luggage. If you can somehow stay inside the bus by hanging onto an overhead rod for an hour and a half, you’ll reach Gudup station, and from there to Kolkata in another two hours.

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But tell me, where do I find the time to visit Kolkata? A farmer’s life is a busy one. My day starts early. People like you who only eat chilies probably have no idea what it takes to cultivate them. Imagine harvesting all the peppers from the plants. This is a young man’s job. But if you hire someone like that, you need to pay him well. The price one gets for the chilies doesn’t cover the cost of labour. So we have to get young boys for the job. These days one hears a lot of hullabaloo against child labour; apparently, it amounts to exploiting children. But if I didn’t hire them, the boys would starve that day. On top of the wage, I also give them a basket of muri and lunch. Is that worse than them going a day without work and food? Can one get education on an empty stomach? I don’t know. The politicians in our village say a lot of big words like “literacy” and such.

I didn’t study much — didn’t get the opportunity. You see, I had to accompany my father to the fields since I was five years old. I know my soil well. By placing a mere fleck of soil on my tongue I can tell you what would grow on it. I’m familiar with hundreds of weeds and can tell at least 70 types of insects. Back in the day, when it would start raining at the end of Magh, I would go to the field in the middle of the night to get drenched. I can’t do that any longer — the womenfolk don’t allow me to. But I’m a farmer’s son. My father used to say that if the farmer doesn’t bathe in the season’s first rain, the field doesn’t absorb enough moisture to hold the plow. One doesn’t use the plow that much these days; power tillers rented by the hour do the job. Still it makes me sad to miss bathing in the season’s first showers.

My father didn’t know how to read or write. I was his eldest son and he enrolled me in a school. There was no school in the village at the time; I had to make my way to a school in Bishnubati eight kilometers away and couldn’t study beyond Class Four. I have only one son and three daughters. Against all odds, I made sure my son passed the matriculation examination. He didn’t leave me and go to the city to work, though. He lives with me and looks after the farm. I’m 78 and can’t work as hard anymore. I named him Sudeb. He too has made sure his eldest son got an education. My grandson studies in the college.

Our village doesn’t have any graduates yet; the neighbouring village of Sarelkhola has three. My grandson’s name is Ranajit Mandal; we call him Runu. I love him a lot. We won’t drag him into farming, I’ve decided. Let him go to the city and dab a new scent on his skin; let a new breeze blow in our house. School teachers earn well these days, maybe he can get a job like that? He’s into politics too, a smart youngster. I think he’ll do well.

Runu studies Bengali honours. Doesn’t just study, he also writes. Recently he gave me a magazine to read that he and his friends bring out. I’m not into reading that much, but I can manage to read a bit by joining the letters. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, either. Runu sometimes brings home friends from his group. Since he started college, I got a room built for him to the north of mine. That’s where the boys get together — I can hear them from my room.

The buzz of their discussions and heated debates delight me. We didn’t get to experience any of this, you see. They even held a meeting in our house once. One of their professors came with them, and after lunch, they all gathered in the area around our banyan tree, which I had got cemented. A lot of people from our village came to listen to them. Folks attending a literature meet in a farmer’s house — now isn’t that special? More power to my grandson, I say. I had gotten the area around the tree cemented after Sudeb’s birth. At the time, I also secretly gave his mother a pair of silver bangles; a good yield of pawtol (pointed gourd) helped that year.

At the end of their club’s meeting, Runu’s teacher — a young man, new to his job — gestured a namaskar to me and said my grandson writes well. Maybe he does, how can I tell?

Winter is taking its time to show up this year. Usually at this time of the year we need to wrap the blanket tighter in the mornings and cover our necks and heads with comforters. Labourers from the west light fires to keep warm. This year, there’s no sign of any of that and no frost so far. I didn’t sow a late autumnal crop of paddy but wonder what it must be like for those who did. It’ll be a low yield for sure and the grain won’t be of good quality.

Every morning, I sit by the pond until the sun comes up. There aren’t any houses on the other side of the pond, only vast stretches of green fields; it’s a lovely sight. Runu comes to the pond around this time to take a dip. After his bath, as he wipes his body, he often recites poems. The other day I heard him say out loud for the first time, “অবনী বাড়ি আছো? / Abani, are you home?” I felt intoxicated; when he was finished, I asked him to repeat it. Runu smiled and recited it again. And again. Then he left.

He left, but not before getting me hooked onto something. As the sun broke out that morning, I saw farmers making their way to the fields from my seat by the pond. The poem clasped me. I kept hearing in my ear the knock on the door, the rain that falls here all year long, the clouds that graze the skies like cows, the grass that hugs the door — there, by our kitchen, overgrown young grass has indeed closed up on the doors — nobody even noticed. A pain pierces my heart; the day my bawro boudi (elder brother’s wife) died — she loved me so much…

Someone, something calls me — I wake up in the dead of the night and sit on the bed — someone calls me and says, “Are you home, Abani?” “Brajen, are you home?” “Keep awake, Mandal, the night is forbidding; be ready, you’ll have to come with me, Brajen…”

Following is the poem, translated by Bhaswati Ghosh:
অবনী বাড়ি আছো
দুয়ার এঁটে ঘুমিয়ে আছে পাড়া
কেবল শুনি রাতের কড়ানাড়া
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

বৃষ্টি পড়ে এখানে বারোমাস
এখানে মেঘ গাভীর মতো চরে
পরান্মুখ সবুজ নালিঘাস
দুয়ার চেপে ধরে—
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

আধেকলীন—হৃদয়ে দূরগামী
ব্যথার মাঝে ঘুমিয়ে পড়ি আমি
সহসা শুনি রাতের কড়ানাড়া
‘অবনী, বাড়ি আছো?’

Are you home, Abani
The neighbourhood is asleep behind closed doors,
I hear the night’s knock on my door
“Abani, are you home?”

It rains all year round here
Clouds graze the skies like cows
Young green grass, keen,
Clasps the door —
“Abani, are you home?”

Half-dissolved, I slide into sleep
Amid the heart’s distant pain.
Suddenly, the night rattles my door,
“Abani, are you home?”

The original article titled “Ke Abani, kaar baaRi, kenoi baa achhe” (কে অবনী, কার বাড়ি, কেনই বা আছে) was first published in the magazine Poetry Review, Shakti Chattopadhyay Special Issue, November 25 2000. It has been later collected in Amar Bondhu Shakti (আমার বন্ধু শক্তি) by Samir Sengupta; published by Parampara, Kolkata in 2011.

Komal Gandhar by Rabindranath Tagore

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I call her Komal Gandhar

in my mind.

She would sit stunned if she learned about it,

“What does it mean?” she’d ask smilingly

That it is unfathomable is its most certain meaning.

The world is about work and vocation,

about different shades of good and bad—

Things that connect her to others.

I watch, sitting by her side

how she infuses her surroundings with a peculiar melody.

She knows not her own self.

At the spot where her Beloved’s altar is placed

an agony-incense burns by His feet.

From there, a shadow of smoke engulfs the eyes,

like clouds enveloping the moon—

masking the smile a little.

Her voice carries a fading strain of melancholy.

She is unaware that it’s the same strain that

binds the strings of her life’s tanpura.

The notes of Bhairavi permeate all her

words and actions.

I cannot conclude why.

That’s the reason I call her Komal Gandhar

It is hard to comprehend why

teardrops glide into the heart

when she lifts her eyes.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

On Birthday by Rabindranath Tagore

River-nurtured is this life of mine.
The bestowals of various mountain peaks
run through its veins,
its terrain, carved by many different alluviums,
life’s enigmatic nectar
transfused, from several directions
grain by grain.
Web-streams of music from the East and the West
envelop its dream and arousal.
The river that’s the world’s envoy
bringing the distant closer,
and the unknown’s invitation at the doorstep
Created my birthday —
All along my boundless, flowing abode
has floated in its current
from shore to shore.
I am an outcast, a wanderer
my birthday platter brims over
again and again, without fail
with grains of unrestrained kindness.

(Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh)

River View by Gaganendranath Tagore

জন্মদিনে

২৮

নদীর পালিত এই জীবন আমার ।

নানা গিরিশিখরের দান

নাড়ীতে নাড়ীতে তার বহে ,

নানা পলিমাটি দিয়ে ক্ষেত্র তার হয়েছে রচিত ,

প্রাণের রহস্যরস নানা দিক হতে

শস্যে শস্যে লভিল সঞ্চার ।

পূর্বপশ্চিমের নানা গীতস্রোতজালে

ঘেরা তার স্বপ্ন জাগরণ ।

যে নদী বিশ্বের দূতী

দূরকে নিকটে আনে ,

অজানার অভ্যর্থনা নিয়ে আসে ঘরের দুয়ারে ।

সে আমার রচেছিল জন্মদিন —

চিরদিন তার স্রোতে

বাঁধন-বাহিরে মোর চলমান বাসা

ভেসে চলে তীর হতে তীরে ।

আমি ব্রাত্য , আমি পথচারী ,

অবারিত আতিথ্যের অন্নে পূর্ণ হয়ে ওঠে

বারে বারে নির্বিচারে মোর জন্মদিবসের থালি ।

Death’s Grief by Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Note: Recently, I lost a loved one to cancer. Though not born into our family, the person had become family for us, and the death only showed me how attached I had been to him without ever realizing that when the person was around. As I grappled with this loss, almost unable to accept the reality of it, I turned to Tagore for some solace. The piece below, part of Tagore’s autobiography, reflects how he himself felt the depth of grief following his sister-in-law’s death, and how his heart finally found acceptance and even peace. Worked as a balm for me in these difficult moments.

That there could be any gap anywhere in life wasn’t known to me at that time; everything seemed tightly knit within the ambit of laughter and tears. As nothing could be seen beyond that, I had received it as the ultimate truth. Suddenly, when death emerged out of nowhere, and, within a moment, created a hollow in the middle of this very manifest life, my mind was totally puzzled. All around me, trees, land, water, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets firmly continued to be as they were, yet that, which amid them was just as true as themselves—in fact, which, the body, this life, the heart had, through a thousand touches known to be even truer than all these supernal entities—when that loved one dissolved like a dream in an instant, it seemed to me an utter collapse of the self! How could I reconcile what remained with what was no more!

A darkness emerging from this pit attracted me all the while. I kept circling around and returning to the same spot, looked at that same darkness and searched for something in place of what had been lost. Humans can never entirely believe in nothingness. Whatever isn’t there must be untrue, and whatever is untrue cannot be there. That is why the effort to see within what can’t be seen and the search for acquiring that which can’t be had never stops. Just like a sapling, when bound inside a dark fence keeps growing upright on its toes in a desperate attempt to get past the darkness and raise its head in light, all my heart and soul, when suddenly fenced by death’s ‘not there’, desperately kept trying to emerge into the light of ‘is there.’ There’s no greater misery than to realize that the path to cross that darkness isn’t visible within that darkness.

However, in the middle of this despairing grief, a breeze of happiness would flow in my heart every now and then, taking me by surprise. The sad fact that life is not absolutely and inertly definite lifted a load off my chest. I felt joyous thinking that we aren’t imprisoned within the stone walls of unmoving truth. That which I had held on to had to be let go of. When seen from the perspective of loss, this evoked pain, but when I saw it from the angle of freedom, I felt spacious peace. That day, I, for the first time, realized like a strange truth that this world’s enormous weight balances itself with the give-and-take of life and death and flows in every direction thus; that weight won’t crush anyone with suppression—no one would have to bear the tyranny of a sole master called life.

This apathy made nature’s beauty even more intensely exquisite for me. For some days, my blind attachment to life nearly disappeared—trees swaying against bright skies would rain a burst of delight down my tear-washed eyes. Death had brought about the distance necessary for viewing the world with completeness and beauty. Standing detached, I watched the world’s image against the vast backdrop of death and knew it to be beautiful.

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For a while at that time, a carefree attitude took over my heart, which was also reflected in my outward actions. I found it laughable to conform to the society’s courtesies by accepting them as truths. All that didn’t touch me at all. For a few days, I was completely oblivious to who thought what of me. I would just drape a thick shawl over my dhoti and wear a pair of chappals to go to Thacker’s shop for buying books. My meals were also characterized by haphazardness. For some time, my bed, even during rains and winters, remained on the balcony of the second story; there, I could see the stars eye to eye and meet the light of the dawn without any delay.

On the terrace of our house, alone at night, I would run my fingers like a blind man all over the night, in hopes of seeing a flag atop any peak in the domain of death or a letter or even some symbol etched on its black stone gates. Then, the next morning when light filled my bedding on the balcony, I would open my eyes and find the covering of my heart clearing away; I would find that the expansive view of life appeared as dew-fresh new and marvelous to my eyes as the way in which the world’s rivers, mountains and forests dazzle with the lifting of a fog.

Not that any of these was an austerity for practicing detachment. This was more like a holiday for me. When I found the cane-wielding teacher of this world to be a deception, I ventured to taste freedom by trespassing even small controls. If one fine morning one woke up and found out that the earth’s gravitational pull had lightened by half, why would one want to carefully tread the official path? One would, most definitely, wish to jump across the four-five storied houses on Harrison Road, and if, while enjoying the breeze in Maidan, one came across a monument, one wouldn’t even want to walk past it, but rather  lep over it. My condition was similar—the moment the pull of life loosened under my feet, I was eager to completely leave the beaten path.

Photo source: http://blog.bikeridr.com