The continuation of a memoir reflecting on the literature that shaped the life of a writer in Calcutta
By Chitralekha Basu
One of my favourite childhood reads was an abridged version of Bankimchandra Chatterji’s novel, Anandamath (The Abbey of Bliss). It was a prize my mother had won in school, one of a stash I had recently discovered in my grandparents’ home. The book’s opening image, of a couple and their infant daughter arriving at a deserted village struck by famine, was so utterly cinematic, I could visualise the entire panorama as if it were projected on a 70 mm screen – two tiny dark silhouettes and an even smaller one, slowly emerging against a fuschia-red-streaked horizon, in the middle of a necropolis.
In my daily battles with this army of creepy crawlies I would sometimes apply the guerrilla tactic I had picked up from Anandamath. I would lure the ants by leaving a residue of syrup in empty earthen cups after eating the sweets from them and douse it in big splashes of water once the unsuspecting battalion had climbed in, much the same way as the ragtag army comprising rebel monks rushed in to occupy the bridge after the British army staged a strategic retreat and were slaughtered, en masse.
I particularly liked the hoydenish character Shanti, who dressed like a man and bashed up the predatory Muslim soldiers. I was totally taken by her turban, which conveniently camouflaged her cascading hair and proficiency in martial art. To me Shanti was a homegrown version of Modesty Blaise, the Colt .32 revolver-wielding comic strip character who could rebuff several men with a single strike of her absurdly high-heeled shoes. Her adventures, serialized in three-frame installments in a local newspaper, were pretty much the first thing I would read every morning.
I obviously had no idea that the brotherhood of monks to which Shanti belonged was one of zealots on an ethnic cleansing mission. I was quite taken by the rousing song Vande Mataram, a paean to Mother India sung by the rebel monks in Anandamath, which we learnt at school. I could not have figured that the demand for autonomy by the ascetics in Anandamath had an essentially exclusivist, Hindu nationalist character.
It was only in recent years, when I began reading up about the life of C19 reformist Kaliprasanna Sinha (1840-70), and looked up a few of his contemporary writers of the Bengal Renaissance – members of high-caste, affluent, Hindu elite, almost without exception – that I realised the condescension and skepticism towards Muslims in Anandamath was perhaps symptomatic of a general sentiment at the time. The xenophobic antagonism displayed towards the Muslim soldiers by the ascetics waging a ‘just war’ in the novel, if taken as the author’s personal view — which is open to conjecture — could have been inspired by a moral concern for the preservation of Hindu culture. Following the initial success of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, a lot of Hindu homes were exposed to rampant plunder and vandalism. Those memories were still fresh and hurting, in 1882, when Chatterji serialised his novel in Bangadarshan.
Hindu hermits, a cult of Muslim nomadic and marginalised folk performers and sufi saints banded together to mobilise the monks’ rebellion of 1770-71 against East India Company. Chatterji appropriated the rebellion, turning it into a Hindu-nationalist crusade to end Turko-Afghan rule in Bengal. Towards the end of the novel, the white sahib is prophesied to take charge until Bengal is ready for self-rule, as if by a divine decree.
Whether Chatterji — who had a day job as a deputy magistrate during the Queen’s rule — was a closet colonial with an agenda of turning India into a Hindu Rightist state was debated in the public domain in 2006, in the 125th year of Vande Mataram. The song — chanted by the rebel monk Jibananda as part of the orientation rituals of a civilian into the cult of the rebel monks in Anandamath — was being used as a rabble-rousing ditty by revolutionaries fighting for freedom from British rule ever since Rabindranath Tagore set it to tune and sung it for the first time at the Calcutta convention of the Indian National Congress in 1886. Chatterji’s paean to the motherland, imagined in the form of the demon-slaying, ten-handed Hindu Goddess Durga who would deliver the distressed from evil, supposedly helped work up a patriotic zeal. Tagore himself was uncomfortable with the religious, slightly militant, overtones though. He wrote to the charismatic young Congress president Subhas Chandra Bose, questioning the premise of asking Indians of different faiths to sing in praise of a Hindu goddess in the name of patriotism.
When I first read Anandamath, I was particularly intrigued by the term ‘nedey’, as the rebel sanyasis would mockingly call the Muslim soldiers. ‘Nedey’ or ‘neda’, as I understood it, translated as ‘shaven-headed’ or ‘baldy’ in Bengali. In fact, it was a term older girls in school had started calling me by. My mother had my head shaved during the summer vacation. Running a blade against a tender skull was supposed to have the same effect as hoeing a virgin plot of land – facilitate better circulation of blood and oxygen at the base. It happened the way my mother wanted it, except that my hair, now less than a centimeter long, stood on end, like millions of dark pins stuck to a dark velvety pin cushion. Football legend Pele came to play Mohun Bagan Club in Calcutta that year. My seniors told me Pele and I could well pass off as long-lost brothers.
I was a little sad that I now looked like a golliwog, a character I followed in the ‘Noddy’ series not understanding its societal context and only knowing it as a character with unascertainable sexuality, but even still I was not altogether crest-fallen. My mother had copies of the literary-cum-current affairs magazine ‘Desh’ from the late-1960s, bought with the money earned from her first job and bound together for keeps. In those capacious volumes, I would read about Martin Luther King Junior and Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. On Sundays, at noon, I would listen to Musical Band Box on the radio and try to sing along with Aretha Franklin.
There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
With eyes as black as coal that look down in my soul
And starts a fire there and then I lose control
Innocently, and with my newly-acquired quasi-Afro hair, I had already begun to fancy myself as some sort proud but marginalised entity.
Back home in Calcutta, Baba would bring home copies of the ‘Guardian Observer’ from his workplace when they were about a week old, after the termination of their shelf lives. He was an information officer with the British High Commission in Calcutta and had access to a range of British magazines. Like me, he too would often respond emotionally to real-life events taking place in a part of the world so far away that these could have been happening in the realm of fiction.
One such was the imprisonment of the Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands and his hunger strike in protest of the Representation of People Act 1981, barring prisoners from contesting British elections.
One evening Baba came home, looking rather distraught.
“I think I will quit my job,” he said.
He took out a copy of the Guardian Observer from his folio bag. They ran a feature in it on Sands — several pages of grainy black and white photos of him shot in a prison cell, a bearded man wearing his hair in long matted ringlets, wrapped in a blanket. His rather large eyes shone through the intense weave of hair and dirt on his face. Dark blobs covered the walls in the background. I read it was his shit.
Sands nearing his time felt like a close family friend inching towards an inevitable end that needn’t have been that way at all. I guess Baba was particularly perturbed because Sands was also a poet and novelist. In our home writers would be referred to by their first names. My parents would take sides and try to protect the ones they loved, get offended or pleased on their behalf. A writer not being able to follow up on the promise shown earlier in his career was seen as a major let-down, which would almost always be taken personally.
For example, Baba was increasingly unhappy with the poet Shakti Chattopadhyay’s work. He was convinced Chattopadhyay was losing it — both rhyme and reason. This was a rather radical view to take, as Chattopadhyay was the uncrowned king of poets in Bengal at the time. My mother loved his work and would have major fights with Baba, trying to make a case for Chattopadhyay’s place in history.
I would tease Baba, tell him he was just jealous. I quite liked the way Chattopadhyay’s poems would sometimes conjure up mod-psychedelic images, the sort I had seen on the album cover of Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
Brishti porey ekhaney baaro mash
Ekhaney megh gabhi’r matow chorey
Parangmukh shobuj nali ghash,
Dooar chepe dhorey
Abani baari accho?
*Over here, it rains round the year
The clouds roam around like grazing cows
Green shoots of ardent straw-like grass
Plunge in and jam the doors
Abani, are you home?
Such lines played often on the radio and would be quoted at random by my father’s friends who came to collect contributions to the little magazines they edited. Sometimes I would dance an impromptu jig, repeating the lines like a chant, as Baba watched resignedly. Finally he would smile and try to sing along with me. He couldn’t hold a tune to save his life.
Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel Shei Shomoy (Those Days), set in late-19th century Calcutta and featuring historical figures of the Bengal Renaissance, was being serialised in Desh in the early 1980s. My parents would often try to anticipate what its hero, Nabin Kumar, would do in the next episode or argue over something that did not work for them in the last. Ma, who had written fan mails to Gangopadhyay when she was a young girl, and preserved the responses she received, still reasonably enraptured by some of his earlier writing, would often have a problem with the twists and turns in the plotting of Shei Shomoy, some of which, she felt, were a cop-out. I liked the story in general but was getting a little impatient with the way the aristocratic, university-educated Gangacharan and Bindubashini, a young widow, kept going round in circles about their obvious attraction for each other. I thought Ganga was a bit of a wimp. I wished the two would run away together and leave the field to other, more action-oriented, players.
And then Ma got totally exasperated with the fights, which had become ritual, she would have with me over who got to read Desh first. I would keep a close watch on publication dates and prick my ears all morning to catch the sound of the approaching footsteps of the newspaper delivery man on days that a new edition was due. The sound of the magazine flopping down on the floor was my cue to run and grab it before anyone else could.
Bobby Sands died after sixty-six days of fasting. Baba would quit his job with the High Commission in another six years, wishing to turn into a full-time writer — a career that never quite took off.
I stopped reading ‘adult’ material and rolled back into the world of Enid Blyton.
*Part III will be published October 10th, 2016.
Chitralekha Basu is a writer of fiction, a translator, and a singer of Tagore songs. Her book, ‘Sketches by Hootum the Owl: a Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta’ – is a re-imagining of the first work of modern Bengali prose, written in 1861/62 by Kaliprasanna Sinha. She is interested in the comparative histories of Calcutta, her hometown, and Hong Kong, where she now lives.