Book Review: That Bird Called Happiness by Nabendu Ghosh

Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane


Title: That Bird Called Happiness – Stories
Author: Nabendu Ghosh; ed. Ratnottama Sengupta
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2018

Nabendu Ghosh was born in Dhaka, raised in Patna, then a part of the Bengal Presidency, moved to Calcutta in 1945. In 1947, India woke up to its ‘tryst with destiny’, but this destiny had two heads, creating a splintered sense of national identity and geographical boundaries. On the eastern side of the country, Bengal was divided not just by a line but also, unnaturally, by language. With Urdu imposed as the national language on a Bengali speaking population, books from West Bengal could not be sold in East Pakistan. By then Nabendu Ghosh was already a prominent voice in Bengali fiction.

In 1951, when Bimal Roy asked him to script movies that would become classics of Hindi cinema – Bandini, Abhimaan, Devdas, Sujata, among others, he moved to Bombay. Though these films were based on stories by other literary greats,  Nabendu Ghosh had already found his footing and the subjects that would preoccupy him in his own stories and novels: the social and political upheavals of the time, famine, Partition, riots, socio-cultural mores, and most significantly, love.

That Bird Called Happiness is a collection of translated stories of Nabendu Ghosh, edited by his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta, a national award-winning journalist, writer and film director. The nine stories in this collection are narratives of a newly formed nation, still nascent in its certainties and assurances, mindful of the social dogmas that were briefly subsumed by the larger ‘ism’ of nationalism. The writer’s stance is bold, reformist; it searches for language in which to explore the newness of thought, of an emerging nation-hood played out in individual lives, as in “The Path” and in social groupings as in “Full Circle”.

The stories in this collection are evocative of the films Nabendu Ghosh scripted – bold, nuanced, meaningful – a writer’s films. The humanism of Sujata and Bandini, the overweening need for love despite its demands in Abhimaan, the emotional core of Parineeta– these are evident as tonal strands and thematic concerns of the collection. These stories, ranging from greed, the erasure of love and nuclear explosion (Papui Island) to swadeshi and widow remarriage (“The Path”), to exploration of the very idea of happiness (“Happiness” and “That Bird Called Happiness”), reflect the writer’s humanism and his faith in the importance of love in a world where all else is transient, ephemeral, destructive.

These are not narratives in a hurry. They are stories that explore, unravel skein by skein, aspects of love, probing hidden corners with the precision of a researcher but leaving the interpretation or its comprehension to the reader.  The narrative arc takes its time, for instance, in the first story “Lights!” like a movie reel unspooling slowly, building worlds, probing shadows.

The titular story hovers at the edges of love-as-sustenance even as it tries to plunge into its very depths, lending it strangeness, a sense of alienation that forces the reader to look inwards. The descriptive flourishes are precise and have a haunting quality. The feeling of strangeness arises perhaps from the way the narrative ends at a mistaken identity, turning the saga of one man’s life into a universal narrative.

The story begins with a journey whose destination is attainable albeit difficult and hazardous – the peaks of Badrinath – but at the end, the desire to reach this difficult destination is willfully deferred, halted, replaced with another urge, another destination, equally hazardous, but more urgent – the realization of lovelessness and the necessity to know love. This is neither expected nor ordinary.

“All four of us, middle-aged singletons with no love in our lives, looked at one another. The distant peaks visible outside the windows were silent too. The rainclouds at the foot of the mountains appeared to me like the sacred smoke of camphor aarti offered to Lord Badri Vishal.

Suddenly I felt frightened by the lovelessness I had discovered within me. Had I ever recited the mantra of true love in my heart? Had any of us? How, then, could we be worthy of offering our loves to Badrinath?”

Perhaps in an echo of my thoughts, Nimbalkar spoke out: “Friends, we will all go back… Today.”

Love alone can provide salvation. This underlying theme strings together the stories, forcing realization upon the human mind over and over again. In “Papui Island”, after the holocaust, when the island has ‘ceased to be’, after ‘the ashes of death are carried by the air to every nook and corner’,

“… a great cry reverberates through the universe. Spirits come rushing down from the suns, the moons, the stars, the galaxies and the nether world. …

We gather near the Milky Way with only one question upon our lips: What will happen now? If there are more such destructions, the very impulse of life will come to a stop. The human existence that every life form aspires to, now does not respect Life. They want Death. Hatred and violence has turned mankind into votaries of Death. So what now?

‘No, that won’t do!’ the spirits scream in unison. ‘Nothing is more important than living. So, human beings, listen to us. Love! Go on loving. Only loving each other can save you from the jaws of death…'”

Sage words for the divisive times we live in, the utterance and admonition, the reminder relevant and universal.

“The Path”, an idealistic tale, uses love, widow remarriage and satyagraha, one feeding off the other, as ideals; the dramatic undertone that was kept firmly in check in the other stories is used to question existing mores and explore the innocence of a nation in the throes of finding its identity, resonating in Gunvanti’s question to Madhavrao, “We are a free nation now. So what’s the need for politics?” The nationalistic spirit, its still insistent call, its offer as refuge, combines with rebellion in personal life, war cries on either side of the narrative arc. The personal is also the political in this story as also in “Full Circle”.

In “Possessed”, the supernatural is reduced to the banal, the shrewd, the manipulative; yet at the end, love beckons, it waits in anticipation.  Evil, or so the narrator would want us to believe, is just so – evil – black deeds of an unruly mind, not a natural human quality; love and, in this case, its expected transience, is the path to light and to love again.

The stories in this collection have been translated by Ratnottama Sengupta, Aparajita Sinha, Dipankar Ghosh, Mitali Chakravarty and Shoma Bhattacharjee. The quality of the translations waver if only a little. The foreword by Gulzar provides perspective and contextualizes the stories as also their writer.

The citation from the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Award ends with the words: ‘Love for man is your signature tune’. His is not a simplistic view of love; it is imbued, in these stories as in his screenplays, with deep empathy and understanding of human emotions and their complexities, of the upheavals in human minds and hearts, and of possibilities and the empathy that fiction holds forth. In each story, Nabendu Ghosh holds out the hope in love, its promise of a future, a way out of situations that might seem insurmountable.

“His writings reflect all of this India: the Quit India movement, the Bengal famine, communal riots, the partition that bled Independence, the industrialization of the ‘50s, the political unrest of the ‘60s, Mukti Juddha – the Bangladesh Liberation War – and the nuclear tests. His writing was also influenced by historical India, by the days when Buddha walked upon this soil. For, the Prophet of Ahimsa was as integral a part of his life as was the Vaishnav principle of love even in a blade of grass.”

– Ratnottama Sengupta, Editor’s Note.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane is the author of Cast Out and Other Stories, published by Dhauli Books, 2018. She is an independent editor from Pune.

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