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 bring 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 noise 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 graduate 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.

On Birthday by Rabindranath Tagore

River-nurtured is this life of mine.
The bestowals of 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.

oak_sapling_warming_itself_in_the_morning_sun1

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

 

Pagol or Madman by Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

A small town in the west. At an end of the big street, five or six palm trees rise above the thatched roofs like a mute man’s signs to the sky. Next to the derelict house, an ancient tamarind tree puffs up its dense, glistening foliage like clumps of green cloud. Young goats move about on the ground of this roof-less house. Behind them, the lushness of the forest range spreads across the horizon of the afternoon sky.

Today, rain has completely withdrawn its dark cloak off this town’s head.

I have a lot of important things to write—those remain unwritten. I know this would be a cause of regret in the future; let that be; I would have to accept that. One can never know or stay prepared for the moment when or the form in which wholeness emerges, but when it does, one can’t welcome it empty-handed. At that moment, the one who discusses loss and gain must be a smart calculator and would do well in the world; but dear vacation of light in the midst of glum ashadh (1), in front of your momentary bright, cloud-less glimpse, I put to dust all my important activities—today, I won’t make calculations about the future—I am sold off to the present.

One day follows another, none of them demands anything of me; the calculations don’t go wrong then, all work happens smoothly. In such times, life progresses by linking one day to the next, one task to another; everything is uniform. Suddenly, when a special day appears without informing, like a prince from across the seas; a day unlike any other, all the trail of the days past is lost in an instant—that day, it becomes difficult for routine work to proceed.

This day, though, is our big day—this day of irregularity, this day of ruining work. The day that comes and defeats our everyday is our day of joy. The other days are for the intelligent, the careful, and this one day is for giving ourselves completely up to madness.

Mad isn’t a hateful word to us. We worship Nimai (2) because of his craziness; Maheshwar (3) too is our lunatic god. The West is debating as to whether talent is only a form of developed craziness—but here, we don’t feel ashamed to accept this as true. Inspiration is, of course, craziness, it is an exception to the rule, it comes only to upset order—it emerges all of a sudden—like today’s haphazard day—and destroys all the work of working people—some curse it, some others go crazy, dancing and delighting with it.

Bholanath (4), who remains as the joyful one in our scriptures, is one such oddity among all deities. I see that mad lord amidst the flood of sunshine shining through this day’s washed blue sky. His tabour plays steadily within the heart of this thick afternoon. Today, death’s naked pure face stands still in the middle of this work-filled world—with beauty and peace.

Bholanath, I know you are strange. In every moment of life, you have appeared with your begging bag. And completely wrecked all calculations and measurements. I am familiar with your Nandi (5) and Bhringi (6). I can’t say that they haven’t given me a drop of your intoxicating beverage; these drops have inebriated me, everything has been upset—today nothing is in order for me.

I know that happiness is an everyday item, but bliss is beyond every day. Happiness remains constricted, fearing it may get dirty; bliss rolls over dust and shatters its separation with the universe; that is why to happiness, dust is inferior, but for bliss, dust is an ornament. Happiness is afraid of losing something; bliss is delighted to relinquish everything; for this reason, to happiness, emptiness is poverty, but to bliss, poverty is abundance. Happiness carefully protects its grace within the confines of order; bliss openly expresses its beauty in the freedom of destruction; this is why happiness is bound to outward rules, but bliss breaks those bounds to create its own rules. Happiness waits for nectar to arrive; bliss drinks the poison of sorrow with ease. For this reason, happiness is partial to only good, but for bliss, good and bad are no different.

There’s a madman in all of this creation who brings in everything that is inconceivable for no reason at all. He is the centrifugal force who is forever pulling the universe outside rules. The god of rule is always trying to put all the world’s paths into a neat orbit, and this madman overturns all this and twists it into a coil. At his whim, this madman creates bird in the clan of snakes and man in the family of apes. There’s a desperate attempt in the world to permanently protect all that has happened and all that is; he plunders all of that to carve paths for what is not yet there. His hands don’t hold a flute, harmony isn’t his tune; his pinak (7) rumbles, all orderly yagna (8) is ruined, and out of nowhere, something wonderful appears on the scene. Craziness and talent, both are his creations. The one whose string breaks at his pull goes mad, and the one whose string plays in an unheard melody becomes gifted. Mad people are outside the range of the ordinary, and so it is with talented people. The mad, however, remains on the fringe only, while the gifted take ordinary people into a new realm, thereby increasing their rights…


It is not as if this mad lord of ours appears only at certain moments; in creation, his madness is always at work; we only get a glimpse of it in certain moments. Death is forever making life new, bad is brightening good, and the inconceivable is giving value to the trifle. At the moment we get such a glimpse, the freedom within the form becomes evident to us.

Today, amid this cloudless light, I see that amazing face. That road across, that thatched-roof provisions store, that broken house, that narrow by-lane, those trees and vegetation—I used to see all these with the pettiness of everyday familiarity. That’s why these had confined me—had kept me in house arrest within these daily images. Today, all of a sudden, all the pettiness is gone. On this day I see that for so long I had been viewing the unknown as familiar; my seeing wasn’t clear at all. Today, I can’t finish looking at all these. Today, all of these things surround me, yet they don’t imprison me, they all make way for me. My madman was here only—that spectacular, unknown wonder, who did not ignore this thatched-roof provisions store—only, I didn’t have the light before my eyes with which to view him. What is amazing about today is that these nearby images have acquired for me the glory of a far-off place. The impenetrability of the snow-capped Himalayas and the impassability of the wave-ridden ocean express their fraternity with the madman.

In this way, one day we suddenly realise that the one with whom we had established a familial relationship remains outside our family. The one whom we had taken to be readily available in every moment is actually rare and hard to get. Those, around whom we had drawn a boundary thinking we knew them well, appear to have acquired a marvellous mystery by crossing all boundaries. The same one who, when viewed from the side of rules and balance, appeared rather small, quite regular, very familiar, when viewed from the side of breach, from the angle of that graveyard-roaming madman, turns me speechless—amazing! Who is that! The one whom I have always known is now this, who! The one who is part of the home on one side belongs to the heart on the other. The one who is important to work on the one hand is completely outside all necessities on the other. The same one whom I touch on the one hand is, on the other, beyond all grasp. The one who has managed to fit well with everyone is, at the same time, a total misfit, absorbed in self.

Today I saw the one whom I don’t see every day. In so doing, I gained freedom from every day. I thought I was bound by the everyday rules within the fence of familiarity surrounding me. Today I see, I have been forever playing on the lap of grand wonder. I thought that I had been making my daily calculations under the sharp gaze of a big officer in the office. Today, at the roaring laughter of the miscalculating madman—who is bigger than the big officer—reverberating through water, land, sky, air and the entire universe, I heave a sigh of relief. My workbook remains untouched. I lay down the pile of my important work at the feet of that capricious madman—let the blow of his Tandava (9) smash it into pieces and blow it off as dust.

1. Ashadh: A month of the Hindu calendar

2. Nimai: A prominent saint of medieval Bengal and the founder of Bengal Vaishnavism. Also known as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

3. Maheshwar: Another name for Shiva, a major Hindu deity. The god of destruction.

4. Bholanath: Alternative name for Shiva.

5. Nandi: Shiva’s vehicle, a bull.

6. Bhringi: Originally a demon who was transformed by Shiva into a humble devotee and admitted into his force as a commander of his armies.

7. Pinak: Shiva’s bow.

8. Yagna: A Hindu ritual, dating back to Vedic times, carried out to please gods. Oblations are poured into sacrificial fire, as everything that is offered into the fire is believed to reach the gods.

9. Tandava: In Hindu mythology, Shiva’s Tandava is a vigorous dance that is the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution.

On a Cloudy Day by Rabindranath Tagore

All our days are filled with work and people. At the end of each day, one feels the day’s work and exchanges have said all that needed to be said. One doesn’t find the time to grasp that which remains unsaid within.
This morning, cluster upon cluster of cloud has covered the sky’s chest. There’s work to be done today as well, and there are people all around. But there’s a feeling that all that lies inside cannot be exhausted on the outside. Man has crossed seas, scaled mountains, dug holes under the ground to steal gems and riches, but the act of transmitting one person’s innermost thoughts and feelings to another—this, man could never accomplish. PartlyCloudy On this cloudy morning, that caged thought of mine is desperately flapping its wings inside me. The person within says, “Where is that forever friend who will rob me of all my rain by exhausting my heart’s clouds?”
On this cloud-covered morning I hear the inside voice rattling the closed door’s fetters again and again. I wonder, what should I do? Who is the one at whose call my words will cross work’s barrier to journey through the world with the lamp of song in my hands? Where is the person whose one look would string together all my strewn pain into a garland of joy and make them glow in one light? I can only give this pain to the one who begs it of me with the perfect note. At the bend of which road stands that ruinous beggar of mine? My inner ache wears a saffron robe today. It wants to emerge into a path, which, like the innocent single string of an ektara, chimes within the steps of the ‘heart’s person.’
Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

The End of Cold War (Short Story) — Part II

Read Part I

The college hasn’t closed; nor have the train times changed. The five-past-ten still arrives and leaves every day. Mr. Ticket Checker checks passengers’ tickets near the gate in the same fashion. A month has passed; yet the colored sari’s border isn’t seen waving along the gate.

Nevertheless, Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad still face each other with the same ferocity, standing in opposite rows. Nitai inhales his tobacco slowly; Ramcharan chews on his roasted grams without a blink. Neither passes even a slight smile at the other. There is still no exchange of words between the two.

Passengers come in so many types. Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad, too, ferry tons of travelers. From station to market, market to town. However, this labor is nothing more than mere labor. Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad’s horns boom out of sheer habit. The blare doesn’t rouse with the joy of a victory song.

As usual, the five-past-ten train arrives at the station. It’s late by ten minutes. The swarming crowd of passengers rushes in through the gate. And…Nitai’s eyes light up. Ramcharan’s face quavers. Both rickshaws—Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad suddenly shiver. A colored figure is seen to excitedly bypass Mr. Checker and heading this way.

The tinted face can be identified even through the gaps in the thick crowd. That girl. Nitai gets a firm grip on his cycle’s handle. Ramcharan strikes his seat to shake off the dust and lifts a restless foot on the paddle. The horns of Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad blow desperately.

Within moments, a puzzling blow starts to dampen this rush of resentment between the two rickshaws . Bhagyalakshmi’s horn sobs; Ashirbad’s quivers like a cracked throat.

The girl’s appearance has changed. A vermillion strip colors her hair’s parting; there is a veil on her head. She isn’t wearing those small earrings any longer. A huge pair of kanpashas adorns her ears. The girl isn’t alone. There’s someone with her. A young man. He is donning a silk shirt and a Farasganga dhoti. New shoes on his feet. Three rings on the fingers.

The man holds the girl’s hand. He smiles and so does she. Both come this way. Suddenly, they stop. It is as if they cannot see the two rows of rickshaws on the stand. They don’t even cast a glance on them—not the girl, not her male escort.

They pause in front of a taxi. Before even a minute passes, Sanatan’s shiny new taxi races away on the road, cutting between the two rows of rickshaws, scattering a cloud of smoke all over the place. The girl has left, along with her male companion.

The smoke and burnt petrol smell coming off Sanatan’s new taxi don’t hang heavy in the air for too long either. A gust of wind comes and sways the curtains of Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad.

All rickshaws leave with passengers. Pakshiraj, Mon re Aamar, Urboshi, Koto Moja, Joy Ma Kali, Pranaram, Shukh-Shanti, and Chol re Chol. Only Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad stand quietly, facing each other.

Fatigue and lethargy seem to suddenly grip both the rickshaws. No resentment, none of that colliding resolve. None of them fidgets.

Ramcharan says, “Hey, Nitai, mind giving me a bidi?”

“Here,” Nitai says.

THE END

The End of Cold War (Short Story) — Part I

By Subodh Ghosh

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

A mention of the station’s name would make it clear to just about anyone which place is being referred to and how far it is from Calcutta.

Rayer Haat station. One needs to travel about a mile from here to reach the city crowds. There’s a market. A look at the market reveals there must be a mid-sized town nearby, a town that has everything. Court, hospital, theater, college. If one stands close to the market, the names of the roads become visible along with their appearances. College Road, Hospital Road and so on. Even from this distance, the advertisement jingle blaring out of the theater loudspeaker can be heard.

Only when a passenger train arrives, does the station come to life with an uproar; it’s always quiet otherwise. Forever silent. At most times of the day and night, the station’s life droops with a lazy drowsiness. Two big Nagkeshar trees stand on the platform. A peanut seller sleeps under them. When the sharp whistle of a train’s arrival blows, he wakes up with a start.

On crossing the station gate where tickets are checked, one comes across a staircase, which leads to a pebble-strewn area—packed with a few taxis and around ten cycle rickshaws. The clamor reaches its peak when the passengers jostle their way across the narrow gate to land at this open space. The horns of all taxis and rickshaws start blowing together, accompanied with shouts and calls. “Come here, sir…here, Ma…this way, Babu. Three annas for market, four annas for town.”

Taxis call, “Come, come. One rupee to go to the town.”

All the taxis and rickshaws get passengers. There are always a few travelers who prefer to ride the taxi and don’t hesitate to pay a rupee for a mile.

The rickshaws stand in two rows facing each other. This row includes Bhagyalakshmi, Koto Moja, Joy Ma Kali, Pakshiraj, and Mon re Aamar. That row has Chol re Chol, Shukh Shanti, Urboshi, Ashirbad, and Pranaram. Besides, this row’s Bhagyalakshmi and that row’s Ashirbad are always face to face, as if seething with wrath against each other. Bhagyalakshmi’s Nitai slowly smokes his bidi in, his eyes glaring at Ashirbad’s Ramcharan. And Ramcharan chews on roasted grams while glancing at Nitai from the corner of his eye. The other eight rickshaws display no such tussle. Karali, Bhanu, Siddiq, Girdhari and others wonder why such malice exists between Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad. No one understands why Nitai throws such nasty glares at Ramcharan. And why does Ramcharan answer back with his lip-biting mean stare either? It’s a mystery.

In terms of income, neither of them lags behind the other. If one of them earns less in a particular week, he makes up for it in the next. On days when passengers come for a dip in the Ganga, Nitai makes a little more money. But the very next week, Ramcharan’s rickshaw draws countless passengers to the fair.

Nitai and Ramcharan are both stout men. It’s difficult to say who would win if both actually engaged in a duel. Nitai wears a short shirt and a dhoti. Ramcharan dons a vest and a half pant. They appear to be of the same age as well. Between twenty and twenty-one.

For as long as these two rickshaws stay in their respective rows at the stand, facing each other, both suffer a silent anxiety. Nitai constantly looks towards the station gate. Ramcharan does, too. Passengers swarm in from the gates and scatter near the stand. They approach the rickshaws. But neither Nitai’s nor Ramcharan’s eyes betray any eagerness to grab passengers. Both of them look with great hope at the gate, expecting the arrival of someone special. Perhaps the person would come; yesterday’s arrival was by the five past ten train. Will it be a no show today?

When the ticket checker’s figure moves away and the last passenger is seen crossing the gate, both Nitai and Ramcharan sigh with relief. The person hasn’t come. The anxiety contest lulls a bit, and both of them focus on other passengers.


Bhanu, Siddiq, and Girdhari try to figure it out. Nitai and Ramcharan are no strangers to each other. In fact, there used to a time when they were thick pals, until only six months ago. Neither even wants to exchange a simple word with the other. Six months ago Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad would stand together in the same row. There have been occasions when on seeing Urboshi standing beside Bhagyalakshmi, Ramcharan created a ruckus, pushing Ashirbad next to Bhagyalakshmi. Bhanu would remark, “Ah, these tw are just like Ram and Lakshman. Can’t stay without one another.”

Not every day, but at least thrice a week, a girl alights at this station from one of the passenger trains. One look at her reveals her background, the reason she comes to the Rayer Haat station on those three days, and the place she intends to reach.

She goes to the town. Carries books. All the rickshaw-wallahs know she studies in the town college.

But where does she come from? Many know that as well. Bhanu says “She comes from Jaigarh. There’s a new township at Jaigarh, near Tribeni.”

The girl comes and goes back alone. In the evening, she would board any rickshaw in the town to catch the five-fifty train. Urboshi, Pakshiraj, or Mon re Aamar would bring her from the town.

The responsibility to take her from the station to the town, however, rests only on two rickshaws—Bhagyalakshmi and Ashirbad. Nitai clutches the cycle’s handles strong; Ramcharan’s feet get fidgety on the cycle’s paddle. Both blow their horns as if gripped by a fervent resolve.

As soon as she approaches the stand, two rickshaws leap out of the assembly of vehicles. The front wheels of the two rickshaws collide. The clash of the rickshaws blocks the road. The girl can’t move.

Not that she needs to. Either Bhagyalakshmi or Ashirbad speeds out of the stand with its horn shaking the quiet air with a victory song and then race through the roads. Empty roads flanked by small bamboo bushes and old shrines. The rickshaw runs past big  mango trees and the mirth of bird calls. Market, College Road, College. The rickshaw’s journey stops; either Bhagyalakshmi or Ashirbad.

Bhanu laughs, “Like Nitai, like Ramcharan; both are shameless”

Siddiq consumes his khaini and says with a smile, “Both have gone crazy.”

Indeed, it is as if they have gone mad. Nitai’s sad eyes suggest that whenever Ramcharan takes the girl on his rickshaw with a pride and crushes Nitai’s soul with the blow of his horn. For a long time, Nitai stands with a still look. As if he has forgotten his ability to toil and his doggedness to earn money.

The same crazed look takes over Ramcharan’s face, too. Whenever the girl climbs up Bhagyalakshmi. A long plait dangles on her back; on some days it is a wide knot, green slippers, and a colored sari. Sometimes it’s striped, sometimes dotted, sometimes, printed. Bhagyalakshmi races with a breeze; the girl’s earrings shake in a whirl.

The moment Bhagyalakshmi disappears into the shadows of the mango trees, Ramcharan blows the dust off Ashirbad’s seat with a thud and talks to the approaching passenger. “Where will you go? How many people? I won’t take more than two passengers, Moshai.”

Who knows what has happened? It has been many days, nearly a month. Winter’s chill has given way to spring’s breeze. The mango trees are laden with florets. But where’s that girl?

Part II


Image courtesy:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/jackol/838178/

Subodh Ghosh: Master of Shorts

Great storytellers often tell stories that can be adapted for big and small screens. Some write with that idea in mind, others just spin the yarns they must. While the unceasing debate on how sincere the moving picture adaptation is to the written work carries on, I have to admit, I came to know quite a few writers via the moving images. Subodh Ghosh is one of them.
As a regular follower of a televised series of short stories by different Bengali writers aired on one of the Bengali channels here, I noticed the stories that particularly drew me had one thing in common—their author. Subodh Ghosh’s stories would prick the psyche for days, even while other stories had an impression life of just a few hours. Thhagini or The Con Girl was the first of these stories. When I saw it, the story stunned me for its original approach to the oft-done theme of deception. In the story, a father-daughter duo lives off deceiving unsuspecting victims. Their trick is simple—they pose as a family facing abject penury, the father unable to wed his very marriageable daughter. They keep changing neighbourhoods, carrying along the same story. In every area, some kind man takes pity to their situation, and the girl gets married, usually to a prosperous man. Within the next couple of days, she smartly flees the place, not without the cash and jewelry she begets as the new bride. This keeps happening, and even as the police are desperate to catch the father and daughter, Sudha, the girl, actually falls prey to the love of her third “husband”. In bittersweet irony, she flees again and deceives again—only this time, she runs with her husband and cheats no one else, but her father.

Although I thought Thhagini was the first Subodh Ghosh story that moved me to read more of his work, it turns out he had made an impression on me long ago. In the form of Ijazat, Gulzar’s sensitive adaptation of Ghosh’s Jatugriha (Lac House). Later, of course I would watch the Bengali screen version of the film directed by Tapan Sinha, starring Uttam Kumar, equally sensitive and closer to the original story. And years before that, the thoughtful Bimal Roy made one of the finest films out of Sujata, a novel by Ghosh of the same name. To date, Sujata, the film, remains one of my favourites for its perceptive handling of the issue of caste prejudice and for Roy’s delicate portrayal of a woman’s emotions.

Not just Tapan Sinha, Bimal Roy, and Gulzar, but even Ritwik Ghatak turned to Subodh Ghosh’s work for one of his films—Ajantrik. As little as I have read of Bengali literature, Subodh Ghosh got my vote, thanks to the wonderful screen adaptations of his stories by these brilliant directors.

As I read through an anthology of Subodh Ghosh stories, I am impressed by the realism, the extraordinary insight into the quirks of human nature and the way they play out in relationships, and one of the best weapons of a writer–a deft touch of irony.