Book Excerpt: That Bird Called Happiness by Nabendu Ghosh


Title: That Bird Called Happiness

Author: Nabendu Ghosh

Edited by Ratnottama Sengupta

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Year of Publication: 2018

‘You are right, Banerjee, about karun too being an emotion worth dwelling upon,’ Rao said. Then he cleared his throat to go on.

‘Raso vai sah … the name of God, just like God, is filled with rasa, our shastras maintain. But to be able to view it as such we need a certain objectivity; and most of us don’t have that. Which is why tragic incidents spell only sadness in our lives, they seldom transcend to the level of a tragic observation. If we had a heightened sense of objectivity, the entire world would appear to be a vast stage where countless dramas are being incessantly played out. These dramas are not enacted as per the rules of Bharata’s Natya Shastra. The thunderbolts here do strike from the heavens…’

‘Why don’t you cut short your preface?’ Nimbalkar cut in. ‘I will do that.’ Rao nodded with a smile. ‘But allow me to add one more observation before I start. What was the reason for me to fall sick and stop in Pandukeshwar for a rest? Was there a purpose in my coming across the dead body of Shiv Shankar Pillai after twenty years?’

‘So this man was called Shiv Shankar Pillai?’ ‘Right.’ Rao smiled. ‘Where were you twenty years ago?’ ‘In my own city, Kanchipuram. That is where I got to know Shiv Shankar Pillai,’ Rao was on his way into the past.

Actually we have to start twenty-two years ago. The country was still under foreign rule. Like millions of others, I too was smarting under the enforced subservience. But being from a humble middle-class family, and not wanting to compromise on my idealism, I followed up my graduation with a job as a teacher in a private school. I truly believed that teaching was a noble profession through which I could raise a generation of compatriots to follow in the ideals of nationalism. A year later, when the founder of the school, Shree Raghavan Iyer, died, his eldest son, the middle-aged Shree Madhavan Iyer took charge. An erstwhile Congress worker, he followed the principles of his late father but differed in their execution. Shree Raghavan wanted to educate the students, Shree Madhavan wished to enlighten them. He wanted to mould them into such citizens who would never forget their responsibilities to society and to the nation. Quite naturally, he effected a lot of alteration in the mode of education. He would suggest revolutionary changes in the way teachers treated their students. And the way he went about it, we came to firmly believe that we were dealing with a crazed mind. This belief emanated from a question Shree Madhavan Iyer put to every single teacher: ‘Are you happy?’

What an absurd question! Most of the teachers said they were far from happy. And I gathered from reports that the reply did not please Shree Madhavan.

One day I was summoned by Shree Madhavan. He was all by himself in the principal’s room. A short-statured, healthy person with a shiny pate, he had firmness written all over his face. And the yellow-tinted white of his eyes shone with an ethereal light; you couldn’t look into them for any length of time.

After the initial pleasantries, Shree Madhavan put the same question to me: ‘Mr Rao, are you happy with your life?’

I was prepared for this. ‘Yes Sir,’ I instantly replied, ‘I am a happy man.’

Shree Madhavan leaned forward. ‘What makes you happy, may I ask?’ ‘Sir?’ ‘Why do you think you are a happy man?’ Another absurd question! I was breaking into beads of perspiration but I had to think of a convincing answer. ‘Well Sir, I do not want much. My parents are alive, and they are decently off…’

Those yellow-tinted white of his eyes could perhaps see through my effort. ‘Hmm…’ he said, ‘okay, you may leave now. Namaskar.’

I virtually ran out of the room. I was smarting under the pinprick of ‘fabricating a truth’. For the truth was that I was unhappy with the social construct around me. I was unhappy that there was so much want in society.

The following day onwards, Shree Madhavan’s madness climbed a pitch higher. The teachers who had confessed to being unhappy were reassigned to different jobs in his other businesses—at the same salary. Needless to say, I retained my job as a teacher, as did the others who had not disclosed the truth about their ‘happiness’. In all, just four of us were left in the school, but ninety-eight percent of us had admitted to being unhappy with our circumstances. Hence, the search for more teachers was begun.

Consequently, six months elapsed before we could muster up the minimum number of teachers required to run a school. Shiv Shankar Pillai was the last one to join this new lot.

Pillai was from Kerala but had been around the country with his father. His infancy had been spent in Quilon; when he was eight they’d moved to Uttar Pradesh and then to Bihar; once he finished school, he completed college from Madras. He was equally conversant in Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil and English. He was to teach English. If the similarities between Shiv Shankar Pillai of Kanchipuram and the man lying dead in Pandukeshwar are many, the differences are no less. Twenty-two years ago Pillai was aged about twenty-seven or twenty-eight. His dark- complexioned features would shone with good health and his eyes glowed with intellectual brightness. His visage reflected the calmness of a lamp that is never swayed by stormy thoughts.



About the book:

In this collection—ranging from stories of love found and lost to tales of the supernatural—Ghosh masterfully traces the inscrutable ways of the human heart. The reigning queen of Bombay cinema allows a younger leading man to fall in love with her to spite her husband. A schoolmaster’s ravishing wife joins him in the small town where he works, inspires him to build a garden for her, and sets about wrecking his life. An impoverished student sits across a purdah from a nawab’s begum; she dictates letters to her husband and, as the student takes down her words, he falls into forbidden love with the voice from across the screen. And an unbending priest from Noakhali finds all the principles of his life upended after Muslim rioters kidnap his daughter.

Marked by psychological insight, keen observation and vivid prose, That Bird Called Happiness brings to readers the work of one of the greats—not only of Bengali literature but of the Indian literary canon.

The stories have been translated by multiple people from Bengali to English and compiled and edited by Ratnottama Sengupta.


About the author:

Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007)was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.

 Editor: Ratnottama Sengupta has written Krishna’s Cosmos, a biography of the pioneering printmaker Krishna Reddy, and on Hindi films for the Encyclopædia Britannica. She has been a member of the Central Board of Film Certification, served on the jury of the National Film Awards, and has herself won a National Film Award. In 2017, she directed And They Made Classics, a documentary about Nabendu Ghosh.


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