Dr.Meenakshi Malhotra talks about Witnessing Partition by Tarun K.Saint, which according to her, is a valuable addition to the corpus of Partition literature
In his book ‘’Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction’’(2020), Tarun K. Saint attempts the ambitious literary enterprise of a sweeping account of the major literary writing generated by the partition of 1947, when two separate countries, India and Pakistan were created. A moment which should have been a joyous celebration of freedom from colonial rule, turned into a tragic moment of violent and acrimonious division.
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.
In the heydays of ABBA, there was a popular song called ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, which spoke of a girl who led an ordinary life but became the ‘queen of the dancing floor’ when she stepped into the role of a ‘pretty ballerina’. Sarita Jenamani is a bit like that. She works as a marketing manager in Austria but turns into a lyrical whiplash when she picks up her pen to write poetry.
Sarita Jenamani, with a background of economics and management studies in India and Austria, is a poet, a literary translator, anthologist, editor of a bilingual magazine for migrant literature – Words & Worlds – a human rights activist, a feminist and general secretary of PEN International’s Austrian chapter in the literary world.
Perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of her personality is her poetry that has so far been published in three collections, the latest being Till the Next Wave Comes. English is the chief medium of her creative process. The other two languages she writes in are, Odia, the state language of the place of her origin Odisha (India), and German, the language of her country of residence, Austria. She uses these languages for translation projects that she undertakes from time to time. Sarita translated Rose Ausländer, a leading Austrian poet, and an anthology of contemporary Austrian Poetry from German into Hindi and Odia. She has received many literary fellowships in Germany and in Austria including those of the prestigious organisations of “Heinrich Böll Foundation” and “Künstlerdorf Schöppingen”. In this exclusive, she talks of how poetry empowers her to find her individuality and address social issues, of how being in PEN has taught her that thought stretches beyond all borders and of a past and present that shuttles between varied cultures.
What moved your muse? When and how did you start writing?
Actually, I did not want to be a poet rather poetry, as Neruda once said, arrived in search of me. All my joys, sufferings, passions, and memories that significantly leave deep impact on me, turn into ash, sink into my being and again rise like a phoenix in the lines. This provides me the pleasure of seeking an enigmatic truth in some ancient temple. Such feelings compel me to write poetry. Poetry for me is an act of introspection, self-realisation and a sanctuary.
He is a well-known figure on television. He is a prominent actor in films… a good friend to famed actor Nasseruddin Shah and actress Ratna Pathak. He is kind to young filmmakers who start their career and does short films for them as he recently did in Singapore. He starred in Kitaab and Filmwalla founder Zafar Anjum’s first short film that has been shown to the public — a fourteen-and-a-half-minute movie called The Sacrifice with a talented actress from Singapore, Renita Kapoor.
And yet this man has a secret, a small office in Mumbai where he spends time by himself and writes. Meet Shishir Sharma, the character actor who can be seen on stage in theatre, on the silver screen, both in Indian television and cinema.
And what does the actor write?
You would think… it would be something for the screen or maybe about his life. But no, he writes about his parents and his father’s past. For spoilers, the story starts as a romantic one. Picture this: 1951 — in sepia tone — A young man in his early twenties goes off to get milk as does a fifteen-year-old girl. This would be a common thing but, wait, the story does not end there. The two meet and they travel in the opposite direction from their home on train to spend time with each other unbeknown to their families and, a few years later, they are married, and they have their first child — Shishir Sharma.
Talking to Shishir Sharma was not just a privilege but like a walk through the annals of Indian theatre and film history. His parents were involved with theatre and films, including the Leftists IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association founded in 1943 to bring cultural awakening among Indians during the independence struggle). Though his father earned a living through his small business, the interest in theatre and films stayed. He was even part of the production unit of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) when the legendary film Garam Hawa was filmed in 1970s, says Sharma. Based on an unpublished story by the noted Urdu writer, Ismat Chugtai, this award-winning film gives a poignant telling on the impact of the 1947 Partition.
Living in Mumbai moving around with friends Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak, Sharma was cajoled into theatre in 1974 by a person no less than Satyadev Dubey, an Indian theatre director, actor, playwright, screen writer and director and winner of numerous national awards ultimately crowned by the fourth highest civilian honour in India, Padma Bhushan. He had trained outstanding actors like Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar and, later, Nasseruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak and Neena Kulkarni, says Sharma. He was picked together with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak. He tells a story of how Dubey came into Pathak’s house and found the three friends having a meal. He asked them to join his group. Sharma refused initially but eventually gave in.
From theatre he moved to television in 1993 with Swabhiman that came after Buniyad, both popular television serials in the early days of soaps in India. They were very well paid in those days, says Sharma.
Satyam, his first film was in Telugu. That came after some more years. Sharma started acting in a number of Telugu movies. And he actually has a Telugu tutor coming in to teach him the language. “All the characters I play are not really Telugu. They don’t want the pukka (pure) Telugu accent.”
Raazi… courtesy Democracy News Live
Then came more films, this time in Hindi; among them, the national award-winning films, Uri and Raazi, and short films, like Roganjosh, where he and Naseeruddin Shah, were back together. Roganjosh, written and directed by Sanjeev Vig, won the Best Filmfare Award in the category of short films and is an emotional telling of how the terrorist bomb blast of Bombay Taj in 2007 destroyed the lives of everyday men and women. He was picked for this movie, Sharma says, because of his forty-four-year-old friendship with Naseeruddin Shah. Their mutual camaraderie was an asset to the film.
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”.
On Thursday, 16 Oct 2014, H.E. Ambassador Feilim McLaughlin of Ireland hosted a literary soiree at his residence. It was organized to commemorate the centenary of World War I. The event consisted of an exhibition on the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”. The panelists were three Indian authors/journalists—Paro Anand, Samanth Subramanian and Amandeep Sandhu and the discussion was moderated by Ambassador McLaughlin. Ambassador of Ireland Feilim McLaughlin said the event was intended to explore the role of the writer in portraying or interpreting conflict, drawing parallels between the experience in Ireland and South Asia. The evening was curated by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.
There have been many moments in India’s history when it felt as if the country was coming undone. “It was deeply deranging, but you must also remember that India of the 1980s was an explosive place. It really felt like it was coming undone,” novelist Amitav Ghosh had said to mark the 25th year of the publication of his novel, The Shadow Lines. Dr. Nazia Hasan pays a tribute to Ghosh and his seminal work of fiction in this special essay.
This day break, pockmarked- this morning, night bitten Surely, this is not the morning we’d longed for, In whose eager quest, all comrades Had set out, hoping that somewhere In the wilderness of the sky Would emerge the ultimate destination of stars, …somewhere will anchor the boat of heart’s grief.
(Faiz Ahmad Faiz, The morning of Freedom: August 1947)
Partition of India has been one of those turning points in the history of the subcontinent, the repercussions of which have not ended yet. It lives in memories, in monuments, in songs and stories, besides popping up now and then in various symbols, occasions and rituals. It makes the Katha and Daastaan for the coming generations for centuries perhaps, because it has everything aplenty: the joys and the sorrows (more sorrows than joys, of course for the common man) associated with it can weave sagas of its own. Amitav Ghosh in most of his novels like The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988) and The Hungry Tide (2004) takes up the theme of the Partition in its differing aspects. He looks at it from the middle class quarters in The Shadow Lines, the anonymous sufferers’ side in The Circle of Reason and the low-caste section in The Hungry Tide. Perhaps, John Berger had the same idea when he wrote; “Never again a story will be told as though it is the only one…” (Ways of Seeing: 1990).