The conclusion of a writer’s memories of the literature that shaped her life in West Bengal
By Chitralekha Basu
A FEW years back, as I was compiling the index of my translation of Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Hootum Pyanchar Naksha – a series of sketches lampooning social life in Calcutta in the 1860s – I was struck by the many references to Krishnanagar, in connection with the Indigo revolt of 1859. I was born there and went back again as a five year old when mother resumed her teaching job.
Beyond a radius of 2.5 kilometres from the chaotic hub of downtown Krishnanagar there was a different world – of unpeopled eucalyptus tree-lined avenues and British colonial-era architecture. My maternal grandfather and I would walk past the clock tower of the Protestant Church, the ripe melon paint on it punctuated by dark, mouldy stripes, half-hidden behind the trees – a subdued cousin of its more flamboyant Roman Catholic counterpart, across the canal. There were quite a few European-style mansions along the roads we walked – high-ceilinged structures with Doric columns, holding up triangular pediments, or punctuating a series of slatted green wooden dividers. They had since been turned into public offices and academic institutes – including the one I would go to, after two years of attending a primary school run by Jesuit missionaries. As we walked past the district collectorate Grandfather pointed out the exposed lintels across the ceiling.
“This used to be a planter’s bungalow,” he said. “It’s haunted. Or so people say.”
Grandfather was a raconteur. His ancestors were, supposedly, professional bandits – the sort who would wear walrus moustaches and a red hibiscus perched on one ear and wait down by the riverside for unsuspecting travellers after nightfall. Each re-telling of those extraordinary tales of derring-do was invested with a sense of immediacy and cinematic detailing. In this case, his story about how a particularly stubborn indigo peasant was hanged from the ceiling in that bungalow and would return every night to haunt the trigger-happy planter – didn’t seem totally fabricated. The planter could have been the one I read about in a story by Satyajit Ray – the very same whose spirit possessed the mind of a writer on a stormy night. The bungalow had a sense of déjà vu about it.
Now several years later, as I went over the proofs of What the Owl Saw – my translation of Hootum Pyanchar Naksha, a hugely-raunchy and often delightfully confounding text, written by the multi-faceted Kaliprasanna Sinha, mostly in mid-19th century Calcutta cockney, a series of sketches that, in effect, is also a compressed history of how Bengal/India came to be absorbed into the British Empire and how, even as it came under the Queen’s sceptre, was forever looking for, negotiating and evolving ways of coming into its own, often using the very tools and skill sets that colonization had made accessible to Indians, even if it were by default – I was struck by the number of references to Krishnanagar and the indigo rebellion. Krishnanagar and its hinterlands had been a prime indigo-growing area in the 1850s and consequently the seat of some of the most macabre instances of human rights violation.
We bought indigo in flimsy little paper containers, carrying the image of a tweeting robin. There was nothing remotely ghoulish or rebellious about them. The cartons would, invariably, get soaked and fall apart after a longish exposure to the moisture in the bathroom, leaving blotchy blue trails on the floor. Repeated soaking in indigo solution left faint traces of blue on my white school uniform which would, eventually, take on a blue tint. As a classmate pointed out, it made economic sense, for if you bought something that was white and got it turned into blue, wasn’t that like getting two for the price of one?
Her motive, of course, was to persuade me to use the powder in more generous quantities, to a degree that my costume would no longer be wearable – not to school at any rate. She had, on an earlier instance, tried selling me the idea of dismantling a kaleidoscope my father bought me at the Marina beach in Madras, insisting that by tearing the thing apart I would have access to the little animal shapes inside that I could, so far, only see and not touch.
On a normal day I would let curiosity prevail over common sense. But by that time I had begun reading ‘The Adventures of Tom Swayer’ and knew a thing or two about conning people into doing something stupid and have them believe it was fun. So I borrowed a metaphor from one of the animal fables from the Sanskrit classic Panchatantra, telling my mischievous colleague, with a smug, self-righteousness somewhat typical of eight year olds who would take the printed word as gospel truth that I didn’t want to look like a fox dyed in blue.
Krishnanagar had, traditionally it seems, been associated with dissent and rebellion. It was one of the Naxalite hubs where frequent clashes between the insurgents and an increasingly-threatened police force would set off a chain of violence. To pre-empt getting killed by the Naxalites, the police themselves went on a killing and looting spree. After a point of time it was difficult to tell who was killing whom and for what reason. It was another matter that poorly-paid and inadequately-armed policemen were probably as much at the receiving end of the mendacity of the establishment as any of the university-educated Naxalites hungry for revolution might have been, but the protracted war between the two jeopardised public life. Those who could left town.
I heard these stories from Grandfather only in the late seventies, when the Naxalite movement had lost visibility except perhaps in the odd, indistinct graffiti on the wall, saluting the late leader, Comrade Charu Mazumdar. In Grandfather’s re-tellings, however, these stories would be charged with a sense of immediacy. He would point to a dust-laden cabinet at the back of a cycle repair shop and say that was precisely the spot from where a young Naxalite was hauled up, not before exchanging a round of fire with the policemen. The story was completely believable. Most of the glass panes on that antique wooden cabinet were broken or missing.
“You knew Kaustuv, didn’t you?” said Grandfather. “He was a friend of your second uncle’s.”
He would pause for a few seconds here — a tested tactic to draw his audience into the story, pushing her, for a moment, to question what she had, all along, thought was an absolute certainty. And then, apparently hastening to correct himself, he would say, “Well of course you didn’t. You must have been too young to remember when he died.”
Sometimes, stories of wasted young lives – even as some of these would be appropriated and mythologised out of proportion – were made proximate, brought within touching distance, almost.
My mother and I once visited an elderly woman in her spare flat in a particularly noisy and chaotic part of Krishnanagar – a placid little island only a floor above the mad jumble of constricted alleys in which cycle rickshaws hooted and raced, merrily ramming into each other. The lady was rather tall and wore the regulation un-bordered white sari meant for Hindu widows. There was nothing to give away that she was a Cambridge graduate, which I came to know years later.
What I remember most vividly is a series of framed black and white photographs of a man with an unflinching gaze and an assured smile under a thin, trimmed moustache, hung from the wall. In one of them he appeared against a backdrop of coniferous trees and the outline of a hill, a lone horse grazing in the background, looking away from the camera, typically forlorn. In another he was a much-decorated man in army gear, stars shining from the epaulette.
My mother clung to the older woman and wept. The lady held my mother in a loose embrace for a while, dry-eyed, and then went inside to look for sweets she would offer me. On our way back home Ma told me not to speak about this little adventure of ours to my grandparents.
Often times when I tried singing the Tagore song, ‘Jhara pata go, aami tomari doley (I am one of you, O falling leaves)’, my mother told me nobody could sing it as well as Abhijit did. He had acquired quite a following in Krishnanagar in his all-too-brief twenty-two-year-old life, in spite of having spent much of it traveling abroad with his parents. All the young women in town were in love with him. And some of the men as well, I suppose, to have counted him as one among the ‘legendary sons of the soil’ alongside Subhash Chandra Bose and put him in history books.
My last three years in Krishnanagar were spent in the expansive compound of the state-run school for girls, mostly whiling my time away, sitting around, chatting or playing hopscotch under the sprawling canopy of its mango, jujube and tamarind trees. This is where I discovered the ultimate rebel who to my mind seemed like, and still is, the last word in courage, self-sacrifice and romantic passion.
In February every year students would put up a play at the school’s annual prize distribution event. I was too young to be given a part but would still hang around the fringes of the rehearsal hall. The actors – teenage girls with an air of understated conceit about them – would often talk in code between themselves, which made my presence on the scene appear all the more transgressional. The lure of getting to watch printed lines taking a different form each time they were spoken on stage prevailed over all else.
Dress rehearsals were even more captivating. Some of the older girls looked really attractive dressed in men’s clothing. For me the bronzed cheekbones, extended sideburns and a thin moustache, penciled in on the tender upper lips of pubescent women, created both allure and alienation.
I crushed on the girl who played King Vikramdev in Tapati, a play written by Tagore. She played a conflicted man – driven by a tremendous romantic longing for his wife and yet disagreeing with her views on governance. I still remember the dramatic build-up to the moment when Tapati, the Queen, says to King Vikram, “You have stepped down from the throne to stand here before me. Why don’t you let me have a place beside you, next to the royal seat?” I did not have any background on the geopolitical history of Kashmir, where the play is set, and therefore no clue as to what the political-ideological difference between the two characters was actually about. However, it was clear as water that the Queen, being from Kashmir, had a better understanding of local sentiment, and a smarter King would have tapped into that knowledge, using it as a resource. I secretly ached for both of them — two beautiful people, utterly and deeply in love, trying very hard to tear themselves apart from each other.
I was hooked, completely, when rehearsals for Tagore’s Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders) began. All the male characters in the play were besotted by Nandini – a force of nature who wore a sari the color of tender rice sheaves, and oleander blossoms in her hair. She was about the only person who seemed free to speak her mind and follow her dreams, in a cold, soulless, mining empire. Her many admirers included Kishore, a pubescent young laborer who picked her flowers and a loquacious Professor, a bit caught up in his own nested threading. There was also crazy Bishu, the singing miner. I suppose ‘crazy’ was a term of endearment as Bishu turned out to be the most self-assured character in the play who spoke with total clarity. And then there was the Governor, a smooth-talking villain, attractive in a macho and rugged way, despite his ‘polished crocodile teeth’. The king of the dark chamber was a bit of an unlikely suitor. He was the Big-Brother figure, watching over his colony of miners from the other side of a meshed enclosure, ready to annihilate them at the slightest hint of dissent, even as, all along, his wasted heart pined away for a little love. Nandini, however, was in love with Ranjan.
Ranjan never appeared on stage except in the last scene – his face unseen by the audience. I found this highly intriguing. There was a steady build-up about Ranjan in the play, constant talk about how he would march into the scene and liberate the miners from slavery, release the prisoners from the nether world and make them breathe the fresh harvest-scented air, all over again.
“He holds an oar in each hand and ferries me across the stormy waters, he catches wild horses by the mane and rides with me through the woods; he shoots an arrow between the eyebrows of the tiger on the spring, and scatters my fear with loud laughter. As he jumps into our Nagai River and disturbs its current with his joyous splashing, so he disturbs me with his tumultuous life. Desperately he stakes his all on the game and thus has he won me,” says Nandini of Ranjan, in Tagore’s own translation of his work.
The obvious sexual connotations in that passage – especially in the use of the Bengali word ‘tolpaad’ which might also be translated as ‘rake up’ or ‘rummage’ rather than Tagore’s own somewhat oblique ‘disturb’ – were not lost on me at the age of ten. If I ever had a boyfriend, I thought, I would want him to be like Ranjan, a long-haired man astride a wild white horse, riding against the wind, whose face the audience would never get to see.
My father had a theory that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ anticipated ‘Raktakarabi’, which, in turn, anticipated ‘1984’. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence to suggest Orwell had read Tagore (Tagore, however, had read Alice soon after it was published, he cross-referenced it in his introduction to Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s ‘Kankabati’, published in 1923, a book which acknowledged having used Lewis Carroll’s original as a template). Baba believed writers did not necessarily have to read each other’s work to show traces of others in their own. It made me wonder though. Would Ranjan have gotten co-opted by the system as Winston Smith was, if he were placed in an Orwellian dystopia?
I would not read ‘1984′ until another three years and feel utterly let down by its fatalistic protagonist. For a long time I could not forgive Winston for caving in for fear of physical torture. I had read about shining examples of courage and incredible moral strength displayed by the revolutionaries who were a part of the armed struggle to liberate India from British rule. Arrested and thrown in jail, they were made to lie naked on ice or would be caned, hung upside down from the ceiling, for refusing to give away information, help track down a fellow revolutionary. Some of them – like Masterda Surya Sen, for example, whose bust I would see on my way to school every day, bird droppings streaming down the temples and gathering in a small knot under the chin – had the last bone on their bodies crushed to powder before they were hanged.
And the indigo peasants fighting a war of resistance weren’t likely to have buckled under pressure either. The proof of this was in the vivid scenes of brutality and coercion in Dinabandhu Mitra’s play ‘Nildarpan’ (The Indigo Mirror), in which unwilling peasants and their wives and daughters are shown to be mauled and maimed mercilessly by the rapacious and tyrannical planters and their henchmen. The play made the British administration in Bengal distinctly uncomfortable, particularly when its English translation was published in 1859. Its publisher, Reverend James Long, was charged with sedition, slapped a heavy fine and the book confiscated from the market, in one of the earliest battles between the censor and free speech in British India.
I could think of yet more models of courage and fortitude in the nameless soldiers keeping a vigil at the border, trying to protect the motherland at the cost of their lives, like Lieutenant Abhijit Chatterjee did. Well, he was a bit reckless and needn’t have actually died perhaps, but the decision to step outside the bunker not knowing if he had adequate cover showed he was not afraid to put his life at stake.
The Naxalites too were, mostly, an indomitable lot, as far as I could tell. I had met one or two of them, now released from jail. The time spent in prison seemed to have sucked the lifeblood out of them. What remained simply did not add up. The ones I knew were just too exhausted, and too proud, to go back in time and pick up the pieces – use their often-privileged upbringing and university education to start all over again. Some of them had been too badly pummeled during police interrogation in jail to be able to secure gainful employment ever again anyway. Their distorted facial features and semi-vegetable state they were now in were emblems of resilience and moral integrity that I felt Winston Smith could learn from.
I was angry and upset with Winston that he had let Julia go – knowing she still loved him and he her, despite their apparent betrayal of each other. For a long time I hated Winston for not stopping Julia when she walked away from him, disappearing into the crowd on her way to the Tube station, for having given her up even before he had lost her irrevocably.
A few years later, when I listened to Shambhu and Tripti Mitra play the lovers Atin and Ela in a radio adaptation of Tagore’s novel ‘Char Adhyay’ (The Four Chapters), I seemed to have developed greater empathy for those who love not too wisely but too well. Listening to an audio recording of that play – which I heard on a now-extinct device, the cassette tape player – I was convinced no two people could possibly enact those roles with the kind of passion and emotional intensity the way the Mitras did if they were not completely in love with each other in real life, once and for all. I had heard the actor couple, married for a while, was now separated.
In the final scene Atin is sent on a mission to assassinate Ela, as the ultimate test of his loyalty to the revolutionary group to which they both belong, and she decides getting killed by her lover is one way of sealing their bond and be truthful to their political ideal. It seemed the only way they could be together was by destroying each other – like two planets lapsed from their orbits drawn to each other inscrutably and towards an inevitable fatal end, to paraphrase Tagore’s own image. In a strange way – almost clairvoyantly perhaps – the visceral energy the actor couple brought to that scene seemed to anticipate their moving apart from each other in real life, which, I could now see, was a certain way of loving after all – the kind that is, almost always, a little bit about despising each other as well.
I secretly believed Winston never quite stopped loving Julia. However, as he is shown to recognize towards the end, there was also truth in the lovers being ready to testify against each other, in having a role in the other person’s suffering, actively bringing it on, sometimes.
I read ‘1984′ in my mid-teens, at a time when I was having what I believed to be my first serious relationship – a bit too ambitiously perhaps, and laughably it now seems when I look back on my seventeen-year-old earnest and impassioned self, ready to give up anything to remain in love, including the man I loved if that’s what it took. We fought like puppies over a tennis ball all the time and kept hurting each other for no apparent reason except to create some sort of a resistance in our way to be able to renew and reconfirm that we mattered in each other’s lives. The friction and the not-too-subtle mutual hatred was probably the most obvious way of stating that we were in love, or at least wanted to be.
Now so many years later I think I know why those who love each other most truthfully and with pure emotion hardly ever get to be together in the long run. It’s the same reason why the finest poets of the world never get round to writing up their work.
BABA died in January 2012. He had developed septicemia, following a cataract removal surgery. The infection spread through his veins, like a multi-pronged assault, switching his organs off, one by one, with unsparing certitude. It was over in less than twelve hours.
I rushed back – from Beijing, where I lived then – to Calcutta, almost a year after my last visit.
There weren’t too many visible changes though, except that the party offices (often improvised shades with rattan and bamboo walls, and corrugated tin roofs) which had mushroomed every kilometer or so now displayed banners and flags of the victorious Trinamul Congress Party, instead of the familiar hammer and sickle-crested red banderole.
Unlike Chinese cities, where tearing down and rebuilding existing structures is the most visible generic motif, Calcutta seems to be in the grip of an eternal stasis, the big freeze, as it were. The approach roads to the shiny new shopping malls are overwhelmed by filth and stench. Pavements disappear. Garbage vats overflow. Patients are made to lie on the floor in public hospitals, as beds are in short supply. In peak hours, the roads resemble the setting of a pitched battle, with every contraption on wheels eager to put its seal on the last inch of public space. Those manning the front offices in government departments are derisive or angry, ready to give it back to anybody who dares engage them in a conversation. Certain neighborhoods in north Calcutta do not seem to have moved an inch from the throes of bewildering squalor and abjectness that Kaliprasanna Sinha wrote about in 1862. In Calcutta it is possible to slide under this algae cover of delectable inertia and not be affected by the sight of urine-stained swaddling clothes drying on the fencing around the sculpture of a luminary of the Bengal Renaissance.
All of that had not changed. Unless one counted Tagore’s bearded visage, followed by a quote, appearing on billboards, at bus stops, and his songs bellowing from sound boxes at traffic intersections, round-the-clock. In his 150th birth anniversary year, the new government was determined to bring the poet closer to the people – trying to outdo their Leftist predecessors who initially rejected Tagore as a ‘bourgeois romantic’ and then reclaimed him as ‘aamader lok’ (he’s our man), in deference to public sentiment.
On this trip back home I discovered a recently-published article by my father – an essay about a deep emotional connect shared with the writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay since his pre-teen years. Baba wrote about how Bandyopadhyay’s enchanting world of un-hewn shrubbery – thorny hedges, creepers, groves of mango and jackfruit trees and intense thickets of bamboo that’s typical of a moist, dark green Bengal village scene – would often morph into his own ever-familiar Rajpur landscape. For Baba, indolent afternoons spent under the shade of close-knit trees in unkempt gardens — the still film of silence punctured occasionally by the cooing of domesticated birds – as Bandyopadhyay would describe it, was a lived reality.
In a few years Baba would find out that Bandyopadhyay once taught at the very school he was now going to, that he had been arm-twisted into leaving that job. Using recognizable figures from real life as models for fictional characters – especially if they were women – indicated a moral lacuna in a writer in 1940s Bengal and a potentially corrupting influence on the students. Bandyopadhyay had to go.
But the sights and sounds of Rajpur – the slime-coated steps descending into ponds where women came to wash the utensils acquiring a calm and a mystique under the ambient light after sunset – a landscape that Bandyopadhyay would sometimes revisit, had left an indelible imprint on his sensibilities and would often show up in his writing.
I had read ‘Pather Panchali’ (The Song of the Road) and ‘Chander Pahar’ when I was quite young – the typical plot-driven, uninformed reading that young people often do. This time I thought I would try and retrace the footsteps of the writer across Rajpur which, as my father’s article amply illustrated, resonated with Bandyopadhyay’s fiction, sometimes actually figuring in it.
Rajpur, which used to be a village traditionally peopled by high-caste Brahmin scholars and their Muslim/low-caste minions, when Bandyopadhyay was writing about it, in the early to mid-20th century, now has a Calcutta postal index number. An ill-lit cyber cafe with a grimy blue plastic-sheet-covered awning on its main arterial road – through which vehicles seem to ply with murderous intent – sells Internet connections over the counter. Early in the morning young boys dress up in white trousers and V-neck pullovers, carrying their cricketing gear in branded kit bags for a net practice.
“So Bapi-da, what’s the vibe around here? Now that change is a reality?”
Bapi, whose forefathers were Brahmin priests, officiating at Hindu ceremonies, drove an auto-rickshaw along the Sonarpur-Rajpur stretch. He has been part of the feeder service that mostly used – as indeed elsewhere in Bengal – vehicles without a valid license to carry passengers to the Sonarpur Railway Station for nearly thirty years now. Bapi was dropping by on a customary visit to a family in mourning.
He shuffled conspicuously at the question, and started examining his feet, suddenly intent and coy, like a new bride. “You really want to get into all this?”
I wasn’t going to be put off so easily. Earlier, Bapi had told us amazing stories about his daily battle with the cops (who claimed their cut), the cadres (who claimed the mandatory donation to the Party fund) and kata tel (a toxic mixture of petrol, kerosene and naphthalene that damaged the vehicle and corroded the driver’s lung and yet had to be used as a cheaper substitute for oil if the enterprise were to make any profit at the end of the day). I was curious to know if any of that had changed since the change of leadership.
“The difference now,” said Bapi, finally, almost inaudibly, as if he were speaking to himself, “is that previously the people who ran the show had a semblance of education and good breeding. Now it’s just the pariahs.”
There were reports of school principals being heckled and terrorized by Trinamul activists in the newspapers. For thirty years Left-backed teachers had prevailed at academic institutions, often treating these as their personal fief. It was payback time now. A teacher like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay – a victim of social ostracisation then – would be equally out of place in this atmosphere of prejudice and intolerance.
Following the leads in my father’s article I went looking for the locations that Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay had so cherished and apotheosised in his writing. The ruins of the derelict temple that belonged to the family of Dashani Choudhury – the local landlords in the 19th century – had not changed much from the way Bandyopadhyay had described them in ‘Chander Pahar.’ A thick mesh of weeds, climbers and aerial roots hanging from the trees growing randomly on its cornices obliterated the crumbling heap almost completely from one’s view. The moat around the manor – which has since disappeared – was now a sludgy canal, almost level with the rest of the land. The Dol Mancha had remained where it was – a raised platform adjacent to a Vaishnav temple that even now served as the venue for the ceremonial opening of the festival of colours in March. Bosepukur – a pond so huge that it could pass off as a lake – looked almost as serene under the morning sun as Bandyopadhyay had found it on a full-moon night, the coconut groves around it made lovelier still by the touch of white magic, slipping down its polished fronds in the breeze.
On a largish white board beside the pond Calcutta Wetlands Management advised the public to pre-empt any encroachment on the site, attempts to build on it or tamper with its character. It was evident from the repeated protestations in the message that this was a water-body eager realtors had been eyeing. The appeal to protect the pond and its adjoining wetlands – which, as the notice suggested, helped sustain a hundred plant species and forty odd varieties of migratory birds, rare mammals and near-extinct turtles – was written in the form of a couplet.
Sampad maney shudhu takakori noi
Jomi jol gaachpala poshupakhi hoi
Money isn’t the only asset you can claim
Land, water, trees, birds and animals make assets too
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay would probably have overlooked the moral tone in the appeal to save the lake he had sat by in quiet afternoons – watching the sunlight jump in through the intense foliage overhead and enter the still waters like an unsheathed sword. He probably wouldn’t have minded the forced rhyming in the doggerel.
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.