The Assassination of Indira Gandhi (2019) is a collection of short stories on different themes and motifs by acclaimed writer Upamanyu Chatterjee. Winner of the prestigious Indian Sahitya Akademi Award and the French Officier des Arts et des Lettres, his debut novel, English August: An Indian Story, was made into a highly successful film.
The title of his new book, The Assassination of Indira Gandhi, is at once striking, for it echoes a dark chapter in 20th century history, the assassination of one of India’s most iconic prime ministers and the social tensions that followed within the country. The title aptly sets the tone for the stories that are a tour de force of the trials and tribulations of modern India’s journey. This assortment of twelve short stories covers diverse themes and settings, each one of them, delving into the issues that strike at the heart of the emerging idea of India.
The skyscrapers along the nameless street grew four times bigger that afternoon, like a dozen of Hulks coming to life all at once. I picked up pace, but tripped over something and fell down on the sidewalk. The result was a palpable twinge on my left arm. There was a clothesline tied across what seemed to my eight-year-old self as two gigantic green skyscrapers and on it hung my mother’s petticoats and a pair of her old red ribbons. “Slow down, it’s going to pour,” she called out to me from faraway. But I was so close to where I wanted to be; I couldn’t wait.
“Fresh catches for only 50 taka (rupees in Bengali) per kilo!” fishmongers cried from the ferry terminal down the street. I walked down gingerly through its slushy stairs. Across the mighty river, Chandannagar sparkled with lights that brought to life mythological birds and animals and vivid blooming flowers sketched on display boards. And then I saw the silvery hilsa (fish found in the Indian subcontinent) — gleaming with a touch of regal pink, stacked all around.
I was still eight, sitting at the doorstep of my mother’s old kitchen and watched her fry ring-shaped pieces of the hilsa in mustard oil. She put two heaped spoons of steamed rice on my plate and mixed it with the oil of hilsa roe and a pinch of salt with her turmeric stained peaky fingers. “Let me pick out the bones for you,” the warmth in her voice echoed from the other end of time and coiled into a globe of ache in my chest. The pain on my left arm was no longer obscure.
Title: Voice of the Runes – When Souls Connect, But Vengeance Speaks Author: Manjiri Prabhu Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2018. Voice of the Runes begins with a vision and a death. The stage is set and readers plunge into the mystery even before they have seen Lund University, Sweden, the setting for Dr Manjiri Prabhu’s Nordic noir. The thriller brings back Re Parkar, the investigative journalist with the ability to sense things and chase visions. With him in this adventure is Magdalena Lindberg, Maddy, who assists him in tracing the messages the runes offer.
The story begins with Professor Heinz delivering his annual address to the university’s students a day before the university’s 350thyear celebrations. He is a revered practitioner of runology – a controversial subject in an academic atmosphere that relies heavily on its scientific temperament; Maddy is his research assistant. As he delivers the lecture, he turns to a moment of drama, shuts his eyes and picks out a rune stone from his bag. The first kiss of stone and the professor collapses, suddenly, shockingly.
The stunned silence that follows will soon give way to chaos, suspicions, intrigue, arson, vandalism, treachery and deaths while Maddy interprets the clues in the runes for Re Parkar and they arrive closer and closer to the truth — a truth that will shock and unnerve the characters as well as the readers. Manjiri Prabhu delivers a masterstroke by bringing in this twist in the tale, firmly establishing the story’s emotional core.
So much of sci-fi uses science as a starting point and then uses fiction to fill up the gaps in our present knowledge. We use what we know today to imagine a different tomorrow –- a better tomorrow — for the world. Still, sooner rather than later, sci-fi that looks out-dated as science fiction becomes a scientific fact. Don’t we all know that Sage Valmiki wrote in Ramayana of the Pushpak Vimana ( mythical flying chariots in Hindu lore) and the giant bird Jatayu that clashed in mid-space aeons before the Wright Brothers wrote their names into aviation history or before the Central Science Laboratory in UK estimated that worldwide, the cost of bird-strikes to airlines had soared to US$ 1.2 billion annually!
But why does this possibility of fiction becoming a fact excite me? Admittedly because of my association with Me and I, which my father, well-known author and scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh, had written for his two grandsons, and was translated by my son Devottam Sengupta for his grandpa’s birth centenary. Published by Hachette India, the novel breaks the barriers of space and time. Let me quote from the synopsis to give readers a glimpse of this. “They all had the same question for Mukul: ‘Why didn’t you recognise us? And why did you look so dark?’ Mukul was perplexed. The day had started as any other Sunday morning would, with him going out to meet his aunt, his friends and his mentor Noni Kaku of the Telescope. But when everyone, including his own parents insisted that he was lying about his whereabouts, Mukul had to look around for this imposter. And he found Lukum, who had travelled light years to meet his intergalactic ‘twin.’ Little did Mukul know that he had set out on the longest Sunday of his life…”
This is the second part of the interview with Ratnottama Sengupta, national award winning journalist, writer and filmmaker, an exclusive, where she talks of not only legends like Meena Kumari and Utpal Dutta but also takes us on a journey of cinematic history and discusses the impact of social media on cinema along with more about translated books of Nabendu Ghosh.
A quick recap of the earlier interview leads us into the world of glittering Bollywood where the former Arts Editor of The Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, spent her formative years to emerge as a writer and filmmaker; her childhood amidst legendary stars; her observation as a curator of exhibitions which bring out the hidden voices of less known languages, art forms; her experiences as a biographer, author and translator.
Reader Ramashish Roy writes on our website: “Many thanks to ‘Kitaab’ for publishing this interview which portrays commendable work done by her( Ratnottama Sengupta) and most importantly it also depicts the nuances of the unforgettable golden era of Classical Hindi Cinema. Will eagerly wait for the next episode of this interview.”
Reader Antara Mondal writes: “Simply brilliant! Excellent and expansive interview…Loved the elaborate answers. Looking forward to Part 2 eagerly.”
Please enjoy the concluding part of Ratnottama Sengupta’s interview with Team Kitaab.
Team Kitaab: Your father, Nabendu Ghosh, other than being an eminent scriptwriter, was a well-known Bengali writer. Do you agree the he is a master storyteller with his pen on the pulse of the need for social, economic and political reforms? Can you tell us a little more about how relevant are the stories that you are translating to the current socio-political set up?
Ratnottama: In other words, the social, political and economic relevance of Nabendu Ghosh’s writings more than half a century after they were crafted.
Baba never let me do anything on his behalf, to ‘promote’ him. He’d say, “As long as I am there, you don’t worry about my writing. You concentrate on yours.” And by God’s grace, he lived to write till the ripe age of 90. But since he was in Bombay after 1951, and writing amid people who didn’t know Bengali, he came to be better known as a screen writer. Within a year of going to Bombay, Baba had taken a conscious decision to write screenplays on the stories and novels of other writers — if they had cinematic possibilities. For, celluloid lives only when it beams dreams and dramas of jubilation on a larger-than-life canvas. And since literature for him was ‘pointing fingers’ he continued to write about deprivations, injustices, inequities.
When I took to translating his stories, I was amazed at the wealth of social, historical, and economic documentation contained in them especially about the 1940s, which are the founding years of the nation. “Learn from those you admire but write from life around you,” his father had said to him when he started writing as a schoolboy. And he did just that and became the voice of 1940s. Quit India movement, riots before and post Partition, the Bengal Famine, these realities we more or less know about. But the rationing of clothes during WW2, the tribals’ fight for fishing rights in the wetlands of Chalan Beel now in Bangladesh, the thugees, the price paid by industrialisation in terms of family values, the corruption of morals in political life, the flights of science and the weakening of faith are some of the issues he addresses. Frankly I did not know so much wealth was lying to be tapped. And once I chanced upon it, I could guide a student of Banaras Hindu University who has just claimed a Doctorate for his work on “Contemporary Politics and the novels of Nabendu Ghosh”.
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”.
Ratnottama Sengupta is a well-known personality in the world of media and films in India.
Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam Kadam, Me and I, That Bird Called Happiness. In 2018, she debuted as a film director with And They Made Classics, a film that captures the journey of her eminent father, an award winning screenwriter cum author, Nabendu Ghosh.
Having grown up in an atmosphere surrounded by all the Bollywood greats, Ratnottama Sengupta gave Team Kitaab an exclusive with stories of growing up amidst Bollywood legends like Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Nutan, taking us with her through her unique journey to both penmanship and films. We present her journey to you in two parts…
Team Kitaab: What made you choose your calling that of a person who writes on cinema? From what stage in your life have you been writing, especially on cinema?
Ratnottama: Sometimes, life decides your choice of calling…
I was born into a household which had books on the shelves, on the table, on the bed, underneath the bed too. I grew up ‘playing’ with books, ‘reading’ books even before I knew the alphabet, looking at the illustrations and admiring the images. Since my father was an MA in Literature, he had the cream of world literature in his ‘library’. And because he was simultaneously writing screenplays (for most of the major names of Hindi screen through 1950s-60s), he would get the film magazines and cine broadsheets too. So I grew up symbiotically connected with the parallel worlds of letters and images.
Tagore’s bust at his ancestral home at Joransankho, Kolkata
Debendranath, Rabindranath’s father’s bust
On May 7 th, 1861, was born a man who left an indelible mark in the world of literature, philosophy, music, education and on the lives of many people. He wrote the national anthem for at least two countries, India and Bangladesh, and influenced the writer of the national anthem of a third country, Sri Lanka.
Rabindranath Tagore, the first non- European Nobel prize winner, was a remarkable man. Despite having his songs picked for national anthems and providing inspiration to other national anthem writers, he was critical of a system that drew borders among men and created hatred or intolerance. He withdrew from the politics of nationalism. He wrote: “…my conviction (is) that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
We all dream of a utopia, an ideal, the zenith of flawlessness and excellence. With the concept of utopia comes its inverse, dystopia, which lurks behind curtains with equal power to devastate and destroy. In recent times, dystopias have become an independent literary genre, a potent medium to envision and warn against catastrophes, a result of what could have started as an alternative futuristic ultra modern/utopian state. Rajat Chaudhuri’s “well-oiled” and polished novel, The Butterfly Effect,is a welcome addition to such tellings that aim to reiterate obliquely the oft-quoted saying: “With great power comes great responsibility” and to question whether we are ready to shoulder that liability.
The Butterfly Effect is a brilliant exploration of the local and the global, Calcutta and the world, in a post-apocalyptic state in the face of ultra-modernisation, totalitarianism and technologization.
Rajat Chaudhuri, an esteemed bilingual (Bengali and English) novelist and short story writer with a number of prestigious fellowships under his belt, has been involved with environment and development. His concerns are reflected in his earlier works (like Hotel Calcutta,Amber Dusk) as well as in his recent novel TheButterfly Effect (2018).