An Uneven Song: Mistress of Melodies Has Its Moments and Flaws

Sometimes, we come across creations that make an impact primarily because of their subject’s natural allure. As a standalone piece, they falter because of loopholes in structure, presentation or language. For example, films like Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet or adaptations like Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. By themselves, they come with a fair share of faults and areas of improvement. However, they flourish because the foundation is so exciting that the audience cannot help but be drawn to the vision. Written by the legendary screenwriter and author Nabendu Ghosh and edited by his daughter, curator and film journalist Ratnottama Sengupta, Mistress of Melodies is a book I believe resides in this category. It has its structural and linguistic flaws but offers an enticing narrative about a subject that has always been of interest to people; the lives of women employed in one of the world’s oldest professions.

Nabendu Ghosh was a man whose talent and philosophy percolated several creative industries. From working extensively with Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to writing evocative stories on almost every social upheaval, he donned many hats with a characteristic humanism. The legendary Soumitro Chatterjee has praised his inclination towards creating raw characters. The actor was a great admirer of Ghosh’s Daak Diye Jaai, a powerful piece of writing set against the Quit India Movement for which he lost his job with the IG Police. At that time, his 18-year-old wife Kanaklata encouraged him to pursue writing as a full-time profession. Compassion for those who struggle, who live their lives gasping for security and identity, is a fine thread connecting his multi-medium work. He is the screenwriter of masterpieces like Parineeta, Devdas, Lal Pathhaar, Sujata, and Abhimaan. They are celebrated films, remembered for their music, performances, and female characters internalising and fighting many forms of injustice. His keen eye for the varied manifestations of suffering and every person’s eternal struggle to overcome suppression finds its way into Mistress of Melodies, an anthology of courtesans and prostituted women in Calcutta.

The book begins with two notes; one by filmmaker Muzzaffar Ali and the other by Ratnottama Sengupta. Both speak of the enormous cultural influence asserted by courtesans and prostitutes and how their lives are a never-ending source of inspiration for writers, poets, dancers, musicians, photographers, and artists. Sengupta calls them “the custodians and conveyors of India’s classical arts” and thinks of the book as a salutation to their talents and ability to survive in a man’s world. However, she vehemently rejects the notion that such professions could be “innocuous or even wholesome work.” They result from desperation for stable livelihoods, deception of loved ones, and obliviousness to the inherent abuse.

Mistress of Melodies has six stories; Market Price, Dregs, Songs of a Sarangi, It Happened One Night, Anchor, and Mistress of Melodies. Five of them are translations; the load is shared among Ratnottama Sengupta, Padmaja Punde, and Mitali Chakravarty. Mistress of Melodies was a screenplay written by Nabendu Ghosh. He wrote all his scripts in English.

The stories revolve around women engaged in sex work or work as courtesans, spread across a protracted timeline. Some are prostitutes just before Independence, in the Calcutta of tram strikes. Others are famed courtesans flourishing in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny. Each inhabits a fascinating world which is one of the best parts of the collection. The geographical spaces are beautifully set up and help gauge the visual quality of Ghosh’s writing. Whether it’s a widow’s rundown hut by the river or an elaborate two-storeyed makaan owned by Chitpore’s Hasina Baiji, each area has been intricately designed. From the sparsely decorated rooms of brothels with Ma Kali’s image on the wall to the wealthy rooms of courtesans adorned with photographs of Radha, Krishna, and the Kaba, one can feel the influence of cinema in Ghosh’s writings. He writes extravagant word pictures like an art director designs a set, detailing every corner. This is one of the most vital aspects of his storytelling and something you will genuinely enjoy.

Customs are crucial to Ghosh. In Songs of a Sarangi (my favourite story of the lot), he describes rituals like the Nath-utarna and a three-month nikah prevalent in the world of courtesans. The former is an elaborate celebration in which a young baiji is made to wear a beautiful Nath (nose ring) by her mother or madame. An auction is organised where her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. The man is treated like the affectionate jamai (son-in-law) of the courtesan’s household. He is permitted to deflower the girl and spend three months with her. This ritual marks her entry into the world of performing arts. Once her Nath has been removed, she is ready to entertain an audience and perform mujras (dance recitals). While it may sound vile to the evolved reader, Nath-utarna used to be a huge celebration where courtesans from across the city would participate in the festivities.

The pressures of the economic milieu on forcing women into the flesh trade have been brought out in quite a few stories. In Market Price, Dregs, and Anchor, we are shown different points in the historical timeline of urban and rural Bengal where realities like the Bengal famine, debt trap, loss of land, and exploitative landlords severely impacted the social standing of women. Poverty, maltreatment, and malnourishment took a severe toll on their health and stability, causing unwanted pregnancies, sexual abuse, and untimely deaths. Alongside such issues was the prevalence of con artists who tricked young windows and prostitutes into selling their jewellery, taking away whatever little money they possessed and then leaving them stranded. There are insights into security concerns faced by courtesans. Disgruntled clients disturbed courtesan households and sent lathiyals when their demands weren’t met. Baijis and their musicians kept a constant lookout for dangerous men. One such vengeful babu brings the downfall of Hasina Baiji’s business in Songs of a Sarangi.

One of the most appropriate things said about Nabendu Ghosh and his storytelling is illustrious filmmaker Mrinal Sen’s praise for the author. According to Sen, “As a writer and creative individual, Nabendu Ghosh has never believed that evil is a mans natural state. Along with his characters, he has been confronting it, as always, fighting and surviving on tension and hope.” Ghosh’s belief in a fresh chance at survival is evident in several instances. Characters like Tagar, Chhaya, Hasina Baiji, and Gauhar Jaan crave compassion and normalcy. Sometimes it works out; Tagar elopes with Shashi, her souteneur yet faithful beloved, while Hasina Baiji runs away with Uday, her sarangi player, at the very end of her career. Sometimes, this chance at a new life is unsuccessful, like for Chhaya and Basana. A fascinating story is Anchor, in which Ghosh follows the journey of a man who has lost his family to the famine. After years working on a ship, he jumps off the deck, desperate to swim towards a new start.

Unfortunately, Mistress of Melodies weakens on the translation front. In multiple places, the words are so literally expressed that the reader becomes excruciatingly aware that these stories were not written in English. It disrupts the flow of the paragraphs and makes many places awkward to read. The language does not possess the fluidity of translators like Arunava Sinha and Khalid Hasan. When you read the latter’s translation of Manto’s Kingdom’s End, you do not feel that you are reading something initially written in Urdu. However, this becomes an issue for Mistress of Melodies. The verbatim dialogues have a jarring quality to them that takes away from the emotional essence of the stories. So many times, I read the sentence in English, but I knew the authentic Bengali dialogue in my mind. Overall, I would say that Mistress of Melodies has an exciting canvas but stumbles on account of its uneven colours. However, I think it deserves our time because of its humbling intention; to remind us of the rich influence of these women who otherwise are shown in unidimensional and garish ways by commercial cinema and pop culture. The book humanises courtesans and prostitutes, presenting them as flesh-and-blood characters with hopes and journeys.

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It’s a Wonderful Life: Reading Ruskin Bond’s Collection of Vignettes, Essays and Lockdown Journals

Almost a year ago, I wrote “I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.” Looking back at the days that went by, I am still grateful to be alive and sound of mind. Just like every year, a fair share of heartbreaks, griefs and sorrows were duly delivered at my doorsteps. There were a handful of blessings too. One such blessing came titled ‘It’s a wonderful life’. “How ironic !”, I thought, especially since the book was written during the pandemic lockdowns. But how can you disagree when it comes from an 86 year old young man who has seen quite a few disasters during his lifetime. So, I moved on from the title and landed at Landour for a ‘Breakfast with Ruskin’.

Every time I read Ruskin Bond, the first emotion that comes to me is envy. How can you not envy the man who has managed to live most of his adulthood with all the pleasures of childhood? He still chases around the bees, collects chestnuts for luck and negotiates food and pyjamas with the monkeys. His world looks so beautiful that sometimes I want to exchange places with the ladybird that walked across the papers on his desk.

The book is a memoir of sorts with a collection of vignettes, essays and lockdown journals. Some of them take you to the days before you while others will remind you of a parent/grandparent trying to cope up with the technoclad era. As always, there is no dearth of nature inside the book. From the blossoming mango trees to the missing flowers, parrots to the smiling crocodiles, Ruskin brings the jungle into your room. But the naughty little man child who sounds excited learning about the sexuality of earthworms, and cheek to cheek selfies make me grin.

The book is only 138 pages but it carries so much joy and warmth bundled carefully between the words. You are also taught to paddle your own canoe, make your own bed and read a poem before bedtime. But what stands out for me is the wit. There is never a dull moment in the book. Be it Gurbachan’s horn, or the monkey’s fashion show or sharpening his friend’s false incisors for a vampire role, every page was a laugh riot. I kept reading out snippets to my husband because it felt so wrong to not share something that could give one a hearty laugh.

In the introduction to the book, Ruskin writes – “Have it with your breakfast or use it as a bedside book. If nothing else, it will put you to sleep and banish all thoughts of dwindling bank balances, taxes falling due, COVID-19 concerns, and a polluted planet”. I used it as my bedside book. Not only did it put my worries to bed, but also brightened up my days. Sometimes amid chores, I would recollect the incidents from the book and laugh out loud. So if you are looking for something cheerful to get you through the rough times, do read ‘It’s is a wonderful life’.

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India’s Freedom, Partition, and the Two Birthdays of Khushwant Singh – A Tribute

The first time I was introduced to the writings of the veteran Khushwant Singh was in the secondary classes of my schooling. The short story that was taught as a chapter of the English text book was ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’ It’s a memoir about his grandmother and her last days with him. Even as a child, I was mesmerized by his nuanced portrayal of his grandmother and her eccentricities. It was indeed like a portrait coming alive in a child’s mind. Well, the association ended with writing answers about the text in the class tests but the fact that I remembered it even after the school days can be ascribed to his way of putting the words together so perfectly that they get etched forever in your mind. They generate a sense of belonging whose essence lingers around for long.

The next time I picked up his book was in my college. My roommate had issued this book whose title was the same as the story I had read in school. I recalled it immediately and seized it from her to taste more of his fascinating stories.

It was while reading these stories; I discovered that his stories remain with you for a long time because they have an element of human emotions and follies amalgamated into a lucid plot full of twists. He is funny and bold. He does not hesitate to say what is difficult to say. For instance, stories like ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Riot’ in the book left me startled and numb for a moment, so did his captivating novel Train to Pakistan. It is yet another tale of partition and its aftermath but told with such appalling episodes and gripping description of the most bloated times of Indian history that it makes a unique space for itself in the Indian literature. The story traces the fate of an otherwise silent village which erupts in the flames of hatred among different religious communities after the arrival of a train full of dead bodies in the wake of partition.  The story shivers you with fear and leaves with pity.

His love for his religion and cities he had lived has frequently seeped into his writings. He wrote two volumes on the history of Sikhs which till date remain the most comprehensive and authoritative books on the Sikhs and the evolution of Sikhism. He had been deeply attached to his birthplace, Hadali situation in Punjab of undivided India, now in Pakistan. After partition, he visited Hadali for three times and after he passed away in March 2014, a portion of his ashes was taken by train to Pakistan and buried there, as described in one of his journals collected in the book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. The book is a nostalgic journey to the anecdotes of his life relating to the state of Punjab and its people who had great influence on him. The book starts with a description of the land of Punjab and its beauty in different weathers which teleports you to the land itself. It’s like a vicarious stroll in the fields of Punjab with a light breeze scenting the surroundings with its freshness. He not only wrote about his land and its people but also stood up right as the true son of the soil. His anguish at the storming of the Golden temple by the army during Operation Blue Star was so great that he returned the Padma Bhushan awarded to him by the government.

How much ever one writes about him falls short for what he has given us to chuckle and ponder upon. He was among India’s best-known and most widely read author and an acclaimed journalist. He published six novels among other works. The book, Delhi: A Novel, his magnum opus sold its first edition even before the copy was available in the stores. The novel weaves the city of Delhi and its life over 600 years into his bold and bawdy imaginary characters bound in love, lust, violence, and vendetta.

There is no dearth of his work even if one commits to read all. He has been a treasure house of stories and anecdotes. I cannot end this without sharing an interesting anecdote from his book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. His parents forgot to make a note of his birth date and years later, when his father was filling his school form in Delhi, he put his birthday as February 2nd, 1915 out of imagination. Further, he writes-“Several years later, my grandmother told me that I was born in badroo (roughly in August by Gregorian calendar). I decided to fix it in the middle of the month, to 15 August 1915, and made myself a Leo. Thirty two years later, in 1947, 15 August became the birthday of independent India.” So unknowingly, he even contributed to the diary of coincidences. He indeed deserves two birthdays!

Wishing the master storyteller and a man full of life and laughter a very Happy Birthday. Shall wish him again in August too!

Video: BookSpeak Series by Jeevanayagi – Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa (Konkani Literature)

Sahitya Akademi-awardee Damodar Mauzo is one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Konkani literature. We discuss his book Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa in this episode of BookSpeak. For more such videos on Indian literature and books, subscribe to our YouTube channel and our website.

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On Ruskin Bond’s Birthday, Revisiting His Writings and Their Impact

Ruskin Bond’s writing has always been a constant in my life since reading his stories in my English school textbooks. While the world only recently is going gaga over cherry blossoms, I still vividly remember reading in school about the quiet innocence and perseverance of Rakesh from the short story, The Cherry Tree, and how he planted the seed and despite all odds, was rewarded with the pink blossoms.

The depiction of the utmost simplicity in the characters’ actions and the vastness and joy that nature provides them has made Ruskin Bond’s writing endearing and lovable.

Most of his novels are set in the hills. The stories profess the writer’s close bond with the mountains and its people. His stories will always have characters that also, like the author, share a close bond with the nature that surrounds them. The closer they are to nature, the fuller and better their lives are. These characters will cherish the tiniest of miracles that nature offers to them like Rakesh’s delight at seeing the cherry tree blossom. These innocent delights, bereft of any greed, make Bond’s characters memorable. They enable the reader to take a break from the rat race and appreciate the simple pleasures of nature.

Ruskin Bond was born on this day in Kasauli in 1934 and after living in different cities in India and outside, he decided to make Mussoorie his home. He continues to live there in the Ivy cottage and regularly haunts the bookshops of the famous hill station.

Bond blithely intertwines his own experiences in his stories too so that on reading them, one  might feel one knows the author better and along the way, can also take a trip down memory lane of how things used to be before in the towns and hills. Several of his stories therefore are coloured with an autobiographical tint, revealing the tidbits of the author’s many journeys in life.

The other literal journey that Bond often depicts in his stories is the railway journey. Trains are an indispensable mode of transport even today, despite the boom in the airline industry. Back then, when Bond was younger, trains were perhaps the only affordable means of travelling across the country. Railway journeys with all its delights and discomforts are another portrayal of India in his stories. These portrayals will make one feel nostalgic about one’s own past journeys on the train.  The Night Train At Deoli and Time Stops at Shamli are two such short stories that feature a rail journey and the autobiographical element. Both are stories that I fondly remember. Who can forget the little girl selling baskets at the station at Deoli that mesmerized the author protagonist in the former story? The latter story is about the adventures that lay for the author when he got off at Shamli station on an impulse, instead of going to his destination, Dehradun.

Delhi Is Not Far is one of Bond’s rare novels that are not set in the mountains. Instead, it takes place in the fictional small town, Pipalnagar, in the plains. All the characters have small jobs and dream of moving to the big city, Delhi. It is only the narrator, Arun, an aspiring Urdu writer of detective novels, who takes the leap and boards a train for Delhi. What makes the novel special is the portrayal of the idea of Delhi or the big city as well as the lucidity of each character’s aspirations and the empathy the writing evokes in the reader for them. At a time when migrants have become homeless in their own country, this novel remains relevant for its moving portrait of the common man.

The Kitemaker is another short story set in a city, possibly Delhi again but that is not mentioned outright. What the story projects clearly instead is the inevitability of change and how the relentless march of time has transformed the city and the profession of the kite maker, Mehmood. He reminisces fondly the days when he was well-known for his majestic kites throughout the city, when children and men alike had time enough to fly them and how his masterpiece, Dragon Kite, had created a stir and attracted crowds. The story not only describes briefly the kite maker’s life but also allows the reader to pause and understand the ephemeral nature of time and the disappearance of the joys in the simple things, ‘like kites and daydreams.’

Thus, in an increasingly busy world, where we are caught up with our own races and demons, we must reread and revisit Ruskin Bond’s writing. His writing is an indulgence that allows us to stop, reminisce, and remember the simpler and older ways of life that gave everyone moments to rest, reflect, and appreciate the little things and people around us.

Cover Image by Jim Ankan Deka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Between Change and Stillness of Time, Mamang Dai Tells the Legends of Pensam

Stories are an intrinsic part of who we are. They define us; they have been with us since times immemorial. The book, Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai tries to recreate something similar through its story- a timeless, universal tale of human togetherness and struggle. Contrary to the title, the novel is not just a collection of folktales or legends. Rather the legends about common people and their deeds that have been passed down from one generation to the next and therefore have become folklore/legends in themselves. The stories of common people are portrayed and interwoven with folktales which make it seem as if the folktales are living and breathing through the lives of the people. 

 

The unnamed female narrator has gone back to her hometown in Arunachal Pradesh and is a participant in these stories rather than the storyteller. She also invites her friend, Mona and Jules to visit her village and to meet the people there. 

 

The Legends of Pensam is divided into four parts: Diary of the World, Songs of the Rhapsodist, Daughters of the Village, and Matter of Time

 

The first part presents an introduction to this world of forests, folklore, and its people. It sets the stage for the characters: the narrator visiting her village and staying there, her inviting Mona, Hoxo and his family. 

The second part invites the reader to be part of a dance drama that tells the tale of the white man colonizing these forests and about a violent turn of events. The dance drama is staged for a festival, but also for Mona and Jules. As a reader, you too gaze at one aspect of the culture and are one with the story. The rhapsodist also regales the reader and perhaps even Mona and Jules with other such stories – one where the wind howls and dust swirling confused the rhapsodist; one where he narrates how the Migu and Sirum clans were united by bonds of blood and kinship. 

 

The third part is my favourite as it shifts the perspective from a storyteller/rhapsodist to women and their lives; how their stories percolate generations as well. For example, Hoxo’s wife is Losi. Losi’s mother, Nenem, was rumoured to have had an affair with a British Officer, David, who was posted in her village, Pigo town. All that Losi knows about that relationship comes from stories and from a photograph she has of David and Nenem. This incident shows us family history as being a part of their collective history/understanding of place and time. The narrator also speaks in this part of her own relationship with the village, of her mother’s death, and how the village called out to her to visit and settle there once again.

 

The final part mixes a tenuous sense of timeless with the ever increasing modern sensibilities that are now inseparable to life in the towns and villages of Arunachal. One example the book uses is film-making and music and how both are used for preserving one’s culture. It captures the notions of inevitable change yet also how things remain unchanged. 

That is the hallmark of this novel: it conveys both these paradoxical elements – of relentless change and of the immutable lingering on. The novel does not lament change but marvels at it. It marvels at the persistence of human dreams and desires of joy and happiness, that co-exist under the vastness of the limitless blue sky. 

Perhaps, this is why we are always living in “Pensam” which among the Adi tribe of Arunachal means “in-between.” We are always in between a world that is fast changing and a world that is frozen in time.