In Memoriam: A Daughter’s Tribute
On the 103rd Birth Anniversary of her father, well-loved writer and Bollywood persona, Nabendu Ghosh, senior journalist Ratnottama Sengupta gives a recap of last year’s celebrations where Sahitya Akademi award winner Shirshendu Mukherjee, an important Bengali writer, talked on her father and his contribution to literature.
By Ratnottama Sengupta
It was the 102nd birth anniversary of Nabendu Ghosh. The bookstore celebrated the day with actor Ramanjit Kaur’s dramatised reading of ‘Fatima’s Story’ from That Bird Called Happiness, an anthology of stories by Nabendu Ghosh translated to English. Feminist writer Sreemoyee Piu Kundu focused attention on the women protagonists who outnumber and outweigh the men at the centre of the stories in the collection by the Bengali writer.
The most significant part of the evening unfolded when renowned Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee started speaking of Nabendu Ghosh’s writing. Significant, not only for its impact on him when he was a young reader, but also because like his senior, Mukherjee too has lent weight to the Indian screen with his stories and scripts. So, when the author of watershed novels like Rashmonir Shonadana (Rashmoni’s jwellery, later screened as a highly popular movie, Goynar Baksho, meaning ‘The Jewel Casket’, by Aparna Sen), Manab Jamin ( Man and Earth) and Ghoon Poka (Woodworm) started to speak, Ratnottama Sengupta simply played the tape recorder.
Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s speech on Nabendu Ghosh at Starmark/ 27 March 2019, Starmark, Kolkata, 27th March 2019. (Translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta)
The Partition of 1947, that carved Pakistan out of India, affected many people, both directly and indirectly. Close to 2 million lives were lost in an unprecedented genocide; 14 million people were uprooted. The resultant refugee crisis affected generations that followed. Sectarian violence became endemic. Carnage and sexual violence was intense; mass abductions and forced conversions were on a scale not seen for a long time. “Some 75,000 women were raped, many of them were disfigured or dismembered,” William Dalrymple wrote in The New Yorker of June 22, 2015.
Both Nabendu Ghosh and I were affected indirectly. We — his family and ours — were not among those who had to cross over with bedding on their heads and mats under their arms. We were among the fortunate ones who were safely housed in the ‘new’ homeland. We faced no trauma while leaving our roots behind. But the loss of our birthplace created a deep wound that has refused to go away with the passage of time. It is a dull ache that has now become a part of my ribcage. I am not certain about Nabendu Da since he was only four years old when his father, a successful advocate in Patna High Court, had relocated from his family home in Dhaka. But for me the loss of my homeland — the soil my ancestors had lived in and where I had grown up on, which I knew as my own country, which was part and parcel of my identity, of my very being — had overnight become a ‘foreign’ land — is a sorrow that still weighs on my soul even at this ripe age of 77 years.
Seven decades and more have passed since, yet the wound still bleeds. I still lament the memory of that national nightmare which forced us to abandon all that was dear to my forefathers. I still mourn that it wrecked the lifestyle of our people and the value system of an entire generation.
So did Nabendu Ghosh. I realised this when I read his novel, Dweep (Island) so many decades ago. It is an allegory of love set against communal conflagration. A young man and a young woman find themselves stranded on an uninhabited island. A stream of people with diverse communal beliefs arrive there, and that brings frictions and conflicts that had led to the loss of their original abode. When I read Dweep I was still very young, and our access to books was limited by availability. I grew up shifting from one mofussil town to another as my father had a transferable job with the railways. We lived in remote areas of Assam, North Bengal and Bihar — and books were scarce in these pockets of India. Actually everyone in my family was an avid reader, and our parents did not put any bar on any matter — nothing was ‘adult’ or ‘children’s book.’ Still we had little choice in the selection of books. We simply could not afford to be choosy — we would read whatever we could lay our hands on. And their number was severely restricted: some magazines, a handful of publications, a few new titles…
So I started reading Nabendu Ghosh at a very young age. And the novel that first hypnotised me was Phears Lane. During the Calcutta Riots of 1946, a Muslim lays down his life while saving Hindu families in a Muslim locality. I can’t put in words how moved I was by this little novel which must still rank amongst the most poignant records of the riots. One can write so enticingly on a subject such as the bloodbath! So racy, fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… I can’t think of another work in Bengali literature to compare it with. Exceptional is the only word to describe it. I was floored by one reading of Phears Lane. I am certain it will have the same effect on me if I were to read it today — I will love it just as much. Unfortunately the novel is just not available. It is out of print, nor is it found in the libraries.
Nabendu Ghosh was at the peak of his literary career in the 1940s. He was a ‘star’ among those writing in1940-1950s. He lived a long life — he passed away when he was nearing 91 — and almost until he went away he was writing. My attraction for his work was formed when I was a teenager reading world literature. There were two names I admired very much. One was the Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952); the other was Austrian Stefen Zweig (1881-1942). These days you don’t see Zweig being read as much but if any of you have read him you can’t forget his style of writing. At the height of his career he was perhaps one of the most popular novelists of the world. The first Zweig I read was Amok. The word that means uncontrollable behaviour comes from a Malay or Indonesian origin but it is a love story with a painful, bitter ending.
It was about an extreme obsession that leads the protagonist to sacrifice his life, both professional and personal. Zweig was clearly fascinated, or influenced, by Freud’s psycho analytical elements. But what an exceptional, racy novella! It is as if the sails of the story have been clipped to make it run. The story unfolds unilaterally, unidimensionally, and hurtles towards its inevitable ending. It will put to shame many a romantic comedy by its taut narration, its tension and thrill, its momentum. It is the mark of a great writer: the freewheeling unfolding has no drivers! You have no choice but to read with bated breath a bitter-sweet story which is neither a murder mystery nor a crime thriller.
I recently experienced this magic of mesmerising storytelling once more when I had to critique Devdas. This novella by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee has many a failing, many lapses, raw oversights. Why, then, is this immature piece of writing a bestseller all over India, 100 years after its publication? Why did such a tragic tale of unfulfilled romance, which the author himself hesitated to publish for 17 years after he finished writing it in 1900, become a bestseller in the first place? This is a major literary mystery because the plot is so weak. I find it a patchwork of random situations. You cannot relate to so many things in real life. So much of it is not logical. So much of the characters are not given their due. In spite of all this, how can an underdeveloped piece of literature penned in the author’s ‘teenage’ continue to rule over the readers’ hearts? Sarat Chandra, the most popular, the most translated, the most adapted, the most plagiarised Indian author of all time?! Intellectuals will dismiss Devdas out of hand but how can you explain the fact that there are at least 20 screen versions of Devdas? What magic does Sarat Chandra work?
The magic is simply the art of storytelling. Every writer does not command this art. The writer who comes with this skill in his quiver will get away with any story, no matter how weak its plot or how immature his characters. His ‘throw’ is such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell. Just like Devdas, just like Amok, at my first reading of Dweep I had said to myself, “if nothing else, this gentleman knows how to tell a story.” This is not something you can master with practice, it is something you come armed with. So you and I cannot copy them.
In my view, Nabendu Ghosh shares this trait with Stefen Zweig. The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition. This I can say without exhausting the considerable list of his writings — 28 novels, 18 anthologies of short stories.
I would also like to talk about Nabendu Da’s remarkable use of language. One of his stories starts with a word, “Bhabchhi — (I’m) Thinking.” It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself.
Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Why, even the doyen of Bengali literature, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, whose novels were so strong in terms of characters and the narrative so imbued with social philosophy, did not accept to set out on this adventure.
Nabendu Ghosh did. He was the only person who stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This has to be done. Especially in the light of the fact that Bengali language does not have so many expressions. But if we put our minds to it, we can tinker with the structure and alter the syntax in many ways. Or the vocabulary. Words from so many languages — Arabic and Persian and English– have filtered in and become a part of the Mother Language as we speak it today.
Nabendu Da did put a lot of thought into how the characters would speak. That was not such a common thing among his contemporaries. This added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Then Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of the Buddha — uses language that is closer to Prakrit, in the sense that it is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam. He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it.
And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengali but worldwide.
As I have mentioned earlier, we had limited access to books. And why his alone, we could not get so many other books even in the libraries of the remote places where I was growing up. So, if I wanted to read a particular title, or a certain author, the only option was to procure it via post — VP as it was known. The tragedy today is that the book shelves are overflowing, the floors are stacked, yet so many books are lying in unopened packets! I still have the hunger for letters but not the time I had when I was thirsting for books but had nothing to quench my thirst!
I wish I had more Nabendu Ghosh novels back then, in 1940s, for he has written on almost every upheaval of that period: the Bengal Famine, the tram strike, the rationing of clothes, the Direct Action riots, rehabilitation of Partition victims… This was perhaps because he considered Literature to be a way of tackling all that is destructive in society, in life. He was writing out of love for humanity. But in 1951 he left for Bombay. He then starred among the literary names on the marquee, galloping ahead with each new title published: Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call), Ajab Nagarer Kahini (Tale of a Curious Land), Prantarer Gaan (From the Margins), Prithibi Sabar (A World for All)…
This migration to Bombay was not a willful choice. It was one of the fallouts of the Partition that had halved the market for Bengali books and films (Nabendu Da was at that point writing for the Bengali screen too). The need for daily bread prompted him to join Bimal Roy when he left to make films for Bombay Talkies. It is well-known that he went on to script more than 70 released films, most of them classics of Indian cinema. Screenwriting was his profession, and it demanded a lot of time. Yet he did not give up his literary pursuit although it left us, admirers of his creative writing wanting more.
So, indirectly if not directly, he did pay a price for the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent. As such the impact of the remapping is not seen as much once he moved to Bombay. But no doubt about it that he carried the pain in his heart as I do even today. Perhaps that is why, in his writings we can repeatedly trace his rejection of divisions on grounds of caste, class or creed.
Nabendu Ghosh did return to Kolkata in his sunset years but by then much water had flown down the Ganga. Indian Literature would have been far richer if he had devoted himself wholly to literary writing.
Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay was born on November 2, 1935 in Bikrampur, Dhaka, in present day Bangladesh. He is recognised as one of the finest writers of modern Bengali literature. He received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1989 for his novel Manabajamina. In 1975, his contribution to children’s literature was recognised by the West Bengal Government with the Vidyasagar Puraskar. He is a three time winner of the Ananda Puraskar and a recipient of the Bhualka Puraskar in 1988. The Library of Congress owns sixty-three titles by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay including works in translation.
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.
Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screen writer Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. The hourlong documentary has been screened in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore, Dhaka, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad, Pune, Guwahati. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. Daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, she has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).
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